Steps Saga Part 8 – Deadlock

By Thomas J. Lauser

 

“Power concedes nothing without a demand. It never did and it never will.” –Frederick Douglass

“No. Not even in the face of Armageddon. Never compromise.” –Alan Moore, Watchmen

I

Venomar and Bazra stepped off a rowboat and onto the sandy beachhead of Stiiros. Ten Arkresh Elite followed, along with two more boats filled with twelve Seragorn each. In the waters behind them floated The Spirit of Nez’Gar, Venomar’s flagship and the only juggernaut class vessel in the Seragorn navy. The Precursor ruins Alistair mentioned rose above a line of palm tree in the distance. A phantom of a bygone era haunting onlookers with the dangerous promise of technology ancient and lost.

“You know, I’ve been thinking,” Bazra began as they walked towards the tree line, her bow at the ready.

“Well that’s dangerous,” Venomar grinned. Bazra rolled her eyes.

“Oh stop! Where would you be without my ideas?”

“Nowhere at all,” the Arkresh replied.

The past few hours with Bazra had been better than anything he could’ve imagined. Venomar had long noticed her interest, but feared letting her in would make things worse – remind him of Bianca, and amplify the wrath of the Black Dog. When they returned to Avarad, he had plans for the two of them.

He prayed this meeting with Alistair would not get in the way of those intentions. As he stepped through the rows of palm trees, he held onto Liberator tightly, like a child clutching their favorite toy. If this were indeed a trap, the Claudians could strike at any moment. After what happened to Meldah, even the presence of the Arkresh Elite gave him little comfort.

But what if this was not a ruse? What if Alistair had come to push Ferdinand’s paltry offer once more? And what if accepting said offer was the only way to save the abolitionist’s life? Alistair had implied as much in his message. Venomar hoped it would not come to that. Ever the businessman, Alistair must have convinced Ferdinand to come up with a better offer, the Arkresh told himself.

“That’s right! Glad to hear you admit it,” Bazra said.

“I suppose you’ve got to win somewhere,” Venomar countered. “Quippa not being your game, and all.”

“I’m going to beat you eventually. Maybe tonight, if I’m lucky.”

“Alistair said the same thing.”

Bazra looked at the Arkresh with feigned disgust, then broke out into a fit of laughter. Venomar shook his head, regretting his response.

“You were saying?” he asked as he stepped over a ditch

“I think there’s something far deeper going on here,” she said gravely. She glanced behind her, as though concerned her words might be observed by some invisible, omnipresent force that would send agents to snatch her from her bed and erase the speculation from her mind.

“Racism is indeed a deeply rooted in the mortal condition. It’s plagued our world forever, it’s not confined to us and the Claudians,” he began. “Look at the Leonii and the Trolls. They’ve been at war for hundreds of years, with no end in sight. In the north, the Cryomancers oppress both the Dwarves and the Rusmarr. And before they retreated back to their forests, the San’Gal Dominion nearly destroyed Elven culture. All conflicts that began because two races refused to understand one another.”

“That’s not what I mean,” Bazra countered. Venomar looked at her confused. “You and Alistair have both been victims of highly coordinated, heavily funded assassination attempts.”

“Alistair’s bastard brother was behind his. He hired the Den of Whispers. Mine was the Reavers, as you know,” Venomar thought of Meldah, back in her bed at the Grand Temple. He’d hoped to speak with her, but she had been asleep when he visited. Osiren told him she did not take the news of her injury well. “I see no way they could be connected.”

“Perhaps they’re Arkkan grunts working at the whim of a Brood Father.”

“In some secret society that supports universal racism?”

“No. But a group run by someone who benefits from continued conflict in Avarad,” Bazra explained.

Before Venomar could consider Bazra’s words, the party reached a clearing beneath the shadow of the withered, broken, copper colored Precursor tower. A disembodied Claudian voice broke the silence.

“Come no further, Seragorn!”

In an instant, a full campsite guarded by a unit of Black Helm Claudian soldiers appeared in the clearing. The mage who cast the invisibility spell, a female Senator with dark skin, stood by the campfire. Right next to her, Alistair sat on a log, his hands still bound by a set of rune-infused chains. Each of the Black Helms had their bows drawn, arrows fixed on the Arkresh.

“Francesca, stop! This isn’t what the Emperor wanted!” Alistair cried, as the Senator pointed her Gladeon at the back of his head.

“To Octavarius with what he wants! How am I supposed to know this greenskin will honor the Rose?” said Francesca, the Senator.

“Because we have the same custom! Half the world does!” Venomar shouted. ‘

Instinctively, he had already raised Liberator and begun thinking up a plan of attack in the event shots were fired. Behind him, Bazra had ordered his Elites into a defensive position. They, too, drew bows and prepared to loose arrows.

Still, Venomar had no intentions of attacking unless the Claudians did so first. His disinterested in worshipping the Gods had not diminished his respect for their power. He knew that all too well, for the Arkresh had seen firsthand that there were few things more dangerous than a pissed off peace goddess. If this encounter violated Selerian’s Rose, then it would be the Claudians who bore the consequences, he swore.

“By drawing your weapons, you’ve already disgraced the Rose as far as I’m concerned!” barked Bazra. “Ven, let’s off these Claudians and leave with Alistair. He’s the reason we really came here!”

“Bazra, stop!”

“You heard the savage! They want blood, let’s—”

With the situation spiraling out of control, Alistair knew he had to act. Someone needed to break the tension, get the focus off their mutual distrust and back onto the matter at hand. But how? At what seemed to be the last possible moment, a desperate, insane bluff entered his mind. He doubted it would work, but it was all he could muster.

“I know the Emperor’s secret! I know what’s behind the sealed door!” Alistair blurted out louder than a cannon shot. Everyone turned their attention to him.

This was, of course, a lie. Alistair had his suspicions about what lay behind the Emperor’s mysterious door, but none of them made much sense. An infant dragon? Unlikely. Some other bizarre pet? Not scandalous enough. A Seragorn love child? Impossible.

“Sealed door, what nonsense is this?” Bazra asked. Her eyes focused on the abolitionist, but her arrow remained aimed at Francesca.

“Lies! He’d never tell you what’s behind that door!” Francesca stammered.

“So there is something behind that door!” said a Black Helm.

“He didn’t need to tell me. I figured it out for myself. Think I haven’t heard screams like that before?”

“Got to be to be a secret torture cabal,” whispered another Black Helms.

“What difference does it make!?”

“It makes all the difference. Because I told Olivia,” Alistair grinned.

“You wouldn’t dare! We read the letter you sent to her, you mentioned nothing of the sort!”

“You think a man and his only daughter never developed a code? One look at that letter, and she’ll know the truth. And if this negotiation goes awry, you can bet she’ll go straight to the Magazetts. I’m sure the Emperor would appreciate the biggest scandal since Melisandre coming to light all because his own cousin couldn’t follow his orders!”

Francesca lowered her Gladeon and groaned.

“Get to work, then.”

“Come. Have a seat,” Alistair said, pointing at the log across the fire from him.

“Claudian politics sounds quite interesting,” Venomar returned Liberator to his back and sat down.

“At times, yes. But I can say no more,” Alistair chuckled. “It’s good to see you.”

“You as well, my friend. Though I wish it were under better circumstances.”

The Arkresh Elites and Black Helms had formed a circle around Venomar and Alistair, the Seragorn behind their Arkresh and the Claudians behind the abolitionist. Among them, tensions were high, as nearly every soldier remained at the ready, prepared to take up arms the moment something went awry.

“Before we begin,” Alistair said gravely, “I must inform you that if I leave here without a deal, I will be put on trial back in Calanar. But if you agree to the Emperor’s proposal, then I will be pardoned.”

Venomar starred into the fire, Elohan’s words echoing in his mind. “Duty to your people and your country above all else,” he’d heard his mentor say countless times. “Your people and country over all else.”

“So I surmised. Speak, then. What’s Ferdinand’s offer?”

The Arkresh reached into the pouch on his belt, withdrew a Troll cigar, and lit it with a quick snap of his fingers. He then popped it into his mouth and blew a ring of smoke into the sky.

“He has agreed to abolish slavery in the Claudian Empire in exchange for a military alliance,” Alistair’s words were slow and solemn, like those of a man who was about to drink poison.

At first, Alistair’s words brought Venomar great joy. There was a time when he believed any deal that involving freeing the slaves was worth taking. But that was before he became Arkresh. Before he understood the intricacies of the Seragorn cause as he did now. And so he gazed into the fire, pain evident in his violet eyes.

“A military alliance, you say?” Venomar replied after a pause. He continued to gaze into the fire. “Who does Ferdinand want me to kill? Czar Icebane? Sultan Baris?”

“We’re not at war with the Cryomancers or the Oyrosi,” Francesca chimed in.

“Not yet,” Venomar countered.

“From what the Emperor said, I doubt he has plans to do so,” Alistair stuttered. It seemed this might go as he feared.

“While he’s still at war with me, anyway,” the Arkresh took two long drags from his cigar as the abolitionist watched him in scared silence.

Venomar now understood the true reason Ferdinand had invoked the Rose. He did not fear that the Seragorn would attempt to free Alistair, as Francesca did. He worried about how the Arkresh would respond to his offer. And with good reason.

“Even if he does not, it makes no difference!” Venomar shouted before tossing his cigar into the fire. Alistair recoiled, his chained hands held up to his face. “Someday, under this agreement, an Emperor will call the Seragorn to war and we will have no choice but to accept. We are not a dishonest, cunning people. We honor our promises. And for that, we’ll be sent to the front lines, forced to fight in a war that is not ours and can bring us no benefit. Your Emperor is not offering us freedom! He is exchanging the cuffs around our wrists for a ball and a chain. Slavery by another name!”

Venomar stood up, his hands balled into fists at his side. Francesca grabbed the hilt of her Gladeon. Bazra raised her bow slightly, but was far more concerned about what Venomar might do next. She’d not seen Venomar like this in some time, not since the Suulmar blocked his weapons deal with the Trolls. It seemed that any moment, he might explode into a chaotic burst of elemental fury.

“Ven, come now! Think about what’s most important!” Alistair pleaded. He’d suspected the Arkresh had the potential to go into a rage like this. “The most calm men know anger like no other,” his father had once warned him. But this was beyond anything the abolitionist had anticipated.

Venomar stomped his foot and came around the fire, looking like a man going off to defend the honor of an insulted family member.

“What’s important!?” the Arkresh screamed down at Alistair. “What’s important is keeping my people out of a deal that would damn them for generations to come!”

Alistair stood up and backed away from Venomar.

“Fighting a few wars on Claudian soil is a small price to pay for making sure your people never suffer under the yoke of slavery ever again!”

Venomar closed in, towering above Alistair like a grim specter of doom, reminding the abolitionist of their first encounter months earlier. In days gone by, the abolitionist would’ve backed down, fled from this conflict. But he refused to go quietly. He would make Venomar see the bigger picture, he swore. If he failed to sway the Arkresh, not only would he end up on a chopping block—the cause of abolition in the Claudian Empire might cease as well.

“Don’t tell me what’s best for my people, Alistair! You may have joined our cause, you may be one of us, but do not presume to understand our struggle!”

The Arkresh pointed down at his counterpart as he spoke. The Elites and Black Helms had closed in, but both men were too engaged in their debate to notice.

“You’re right,” Alistair admitted. “It pains me to ask you to do this. Truly, it does. Slavery is wrong; you shouldn’t need to make a concession for your people to be free. But that’s not how the world works, my friend! You can’t expect politicians to do things simply because it’s right! And the Emperor is no different! He has the Senate to answer to! He’s on our side, but he can’t set the slaves free without a return or he’ll be the next man under threat of assassination! And then we’ll have lost valuable ally!”

Venomar stepped back, his rage at a lull for the moment.

“Then tell Ferdinand to give me North Avarad.” he said. “Give me North Avarad and this bitter pill will be far easier to swallow.”

“The Emperor and I discussed this in our meeting,” Alistair said, shaking his head. “Under no circumstances is he willing to give up North Avarad.”

“North Avarad is part of our ancestral homeland!”

“I understand that, but it’s too valuable to the Empire! It’s the largest source of grain in all Theranos!”

“Grain that belongs to us!” Venomar shouted, his rage resurfacing. “There are holy sites all over the land! Serrac is where Nez’Gar made his final stand! There’s a still temple there – the Theraan stopped your people from tearing it down!”

“And do you know what’s right next to it?” Alistair countered. “A Church of The Faith! The Ascendant blessed the Nine Companions for the final time in that city!”

“After he conquered it!”

“Your people tried to invade mainland Calanar! You cannot blame The Ascendant for retaliating!”

“I’ll do as I wish, Alistair! This is the legacy of my people we’re discussing here – a legacy the Claudians destroyed!”

Alistair glanced at the fire, where the remains of Venomar’s cigar were smoldering.

“So is this is how it ends, then?” he asked.

“When I was named Arkresh, I promised my people two things,” Venomar said sorrowfully. “To free every Seragorn slave, and restore our Republic. That includes retaking North Avarad. I will agree to no alliance unless those terms are met. Much like your Emperor, I too have constituents to answer to.”

Alistair’s business mind seized on Venomar’s statement, and immediately came up with an idea. He had his doubts it would work, but at this point, it was time to throwing everything at the wall.

“Then agree to this deal and have faith you’ll get North Avarad in time,” Alistair suggested. “Ask for it a boon when you do defeat Icebane or Baris or whoever the Emperor sends you at.”

“And until then, what?” Venomar threw up both his arms in bewilderment. “If I agree to these terms, the alliance between our people will be a half-peace. A weak détente that will be abandoned at the first sign of conflict.”

“Then do it for me, Ven,” Al begged. “If they take me back to Calanar, you know what will happen to me. Don’t let everything we’ve worked for end this way. Free the slaves. History will remember you kindly for that, no matter what your people might say! This is the culmination of what you asked me to do, what we’ve been working towards! Accept this deal, and it’s over! It’s all over!”

As Venomar stared into the fire once more, trying to spot the charred remnants of his cigar, he thought of everyone he’d lost to slavery. His brother, Korgoth. Wrinkly Kutz, the storyteller from Caecilius’ farm. Haedra, who taught him how to fight during his time in the limestone quarry. What would they have done in his position, he wondered? But more importantly, did their thoughts matter at all? Was Elohan right? Did he have a duty that rose above all other matters?

“When I found you,” Venomar finally said. “I believed you had the potential to change everything. To redeem your own sins, and help mend the perpetual pendulum of conflict between our people. You’ve done that and more. From the moment I learned you were in danger, I did everything in my power to save you. And I wish – by the Gods – I wish I still could. But I’m sorry, Alistair. This is not a deal I can accept,” the Arkresh turned, his sullen eyes turned down to the sand. “My people and their future must come first.”

As he walked around the fire, Venomar felt nothing but regret with each step he took. Somewhere in the trees, he heard the distant echo of the Black Dog howling at him. The execution of the abolitionist—his friend, the lone Claudian who began the fight for justice in the Empire—would be his fault. Another blackened memory would enter the maw of infernal canine, to be used torment him until the end of his days.

He’d need the rum tonight. Even Bazra’s presence would not be able to save him from the sadness now enveloping his soul. And so as he approached his Elites, as the Black Dog’s barks grew louder.

II

The cloaked man stood behind the ruined Precursor tower and smiled. It’d been too long since he last laid eyes on such a structure. He was glad the abolitionist had chosen this forgotten, uninhabited backwater as the location site for this meeting. It made what he needed to do significantly easier.

With a mere clap of his hands, the cloaked man floated into the air and up to the top of the Precursor tower, where an ancient defense system lay dormant. In the time before mortals, it had guarded Stiiros from the enemies of the Precursors. In their absence, the eons had rendered it inactive. But the cloaked man believed it could be repurposed. He thought he remembered how.

Minutes later, the azure crystal at the center of the tower’s defense mechanism was glowing brightly. The cloaked man turned, floated down from the tower, and vanished off into the trees.

Soon, both Venomar and Alistair would be no more. And his work would not be undone.

III

“Then what will you do instead?” Alistair shouted.

“What?” Venomar spun around

“What will you do instead of taking this deal? To free the slaves, and retake North Avarad?”

“I’ll keep fighting, Alistair!” Venomar shouted. “I’ll keep fighting until my people get the justice they deserve! I’ll take nothing less!”

“Then—”

But the rest of Alistair’s words were left unspoken. From the Precursor ruins came a strange, almost mechanical voice speaking in a bizarre, ancient language. The ground rumbled. And from ato the Precursor tower, an azure beam of magic descended on the Claudians and Seragorn.

Both sides looked up in horror. Venomar pushed forward and raised his hand, producing a bulwark of flame in the sky above the Claudians.

“Into the trees! Now!” he cried as the beam collided with the fire shield. Both sides did as the Arkresh ordered. Venomar himself wheeled around and made a dash for the trees, but before he could reach cover, a second beam landed behind him, immolating a few stragglers and sending him flying into the woods, where he rolled in the sand and crashed against the back of a tree.

“Ven!” Bazra shouted as she rushed to his side. “Are you alright? What in Nez’Gar’s name is that thing?”

“No idea, but it’s clearly magical in nature. So we’re going to need magic to take it down,” Venomar picked himself up off the ground. “Al! We’re going to need your help with that!”

“Unlikely!” Alistair replied. He held up his hands, showing off the rune-infused chains.

“They’re Dwarven runes. Prevent the use of magic,” Francesca replied. A third blast came from the tower, landing a few feet in front of the group. Sand flew into the air, and several trees were uprooted from the blast.

“Damn, you Claudians are convenient!”

“Damn you, Arkresh! I’m doing what is necessary to make sense to Ferdinand’s ridiculous decision!” she countered.

Off in the distance, the top of the tower a bright blue light began to glow. The tower was preparing to fire off another shot.

“We’ve no time to argue! You Claudians can make magical shields, right? Use it in the clearing and draw its fire! I’ll advance on the tower and take this thing out!” Venomar pointed to the tower. He thought he could make out what looked like a giant azure crystal inside a mechanism at the top.

“Not a chance!” Francesca countered. “You draw the shots. I’ll take it down!”

Venomar glanced at the tower once more. Another blast would be coming in seconds.

“Then go! But Bazra’s going with you!”

“Gladly!”

Venomar charged into the clearing, a combination of Seragorn and Claudian forces behind him. He fell to his knees, clapped his hands together, and conjured a large wall of cackling lightning. He then pointed his palms forward, focusing intently on keeping the shield running. When the tower’s next shot came, the elemental bulwark buckled, but did not break.

“Nice work,” Alistair applauded. “And here I hoped we’d get to fight together on this trip!”

“We would if I could get those damn chains off you!”

Meanwhile, Francesca and Bazra flanked the tower, the latter with the Elites and the former with her Black Helms. They came together in front of the main entrance. It was guarded by a bronze, crystal covered double door, one side of which had been knocked over. Bazra, Francesca, and their allies slide through the opening and entered a circular room that resembled a council chamber. To the left, a broken spiral staircase led up to the top of the tower, where a large blue crystal spun inside a rusted contraption.

The moment they entered the tower, the floor tiles along the exterior wall opened up. From the space beneath them rose a collection of silver constructs, desperate to defend their ancient home. In a great, lumbering mechanical mass, they stumbled at the intruders, swinging with their ancient claws. Bazra drew a pair of curved swords and waded into them, while Francesca cut down constructs one at a time with blasts from her Gladeon.

But for each construct that fell, another rose from beneath the floor to take its place. It seemed these Precursor protectors had no end to them.

The tower shook, sending pieces of the already shattered spiral staircase crashing down to the council chamber.

“We need to get up there!” Francesca shouted as she tore through the head of a construct with an arcane bullet.

“Then follow me!” Bazra replied. She sliced a path through the constructs to the staircase, ran up the first section of it, and then cleared the gap to the next with a lunge.

“You can’t expect me to make that jump!” Francesca stood right in front of the gap. Beneath her, their combine forces were holding their own against the unending horde of Precursor servitors.

“Just try!” Bazra said through gritted teeth. How had she allowed Venomar to let her get into this situation?

Francesca jumped and missed, but Bazra was ready. The second the Senator attempted her leap of faith, Bazra leaned over the gap and grabbed her by the hand. She then dangled over the battle below as the Arkresh’s bodyguard hoisted her up onto the second piece of the broken staircase.

The two women looked at each other, unsure of what to say.

“Always knew you Claudians couldn’t jump.”

“I’m a mage. Don’t think you can expect much else.”

The pair then darted up to the next gap, but as they reached it, the tower fired another blast. The building shook again – more violently this time. Both women struggled to maintain their balance, teetering on the edge of the stairs like a sailor about to be thrown overboard during a hurricane. As the tower shook, the third and final section of the shattered staircase broke apart into several pieces, cascading down into the battle below.

“Now that I can handle!” Francesca said once the rumbling stopped. Her fingers came alight with a blue glow. Slowly, the pieces rose into the air and reformed the section. Bazra performed a running jump to clear the gap, and once more assisted her counterpart in getting across.

The two women then reached the top of the tower, where an azure crystal spun inside an ancient Precursor contraption. The crystal itself was encased in glass, and connected to rusted metal beams that stretched across the room in a cross formation. As it spun, an orb of energy gathered above it, releasing to fire only when fully charged. Bazra and Francesca rushed to it, but before they could reach the crystal, it fired, rumbling the tower again.

Back in the clearing, the fourth blast crashed against Venomar’s shield, sending a web of splinters through the lightning wall. The Arkresh leaned over, breathing heavily, as the lightning shield dissipated entirely, leaving Venomar, Alistair, and their comrades exposed.

“Damn it!” Venomar gasped. “Keeping up that shield is costing me too much energy. There’s got to be another way!”

Venomar lifted his head up and punched the sand.

“Let me help you!” Alistair said, rushing to Venomar’s side. “Get me out of these chains and I’ll take a go at it!”

Venomar nodded slowly, and then looked up at the tower, where another shot was about to be fired. They were coming faster now.

“There’s a knife on my belt. Belonged to my mentor, Elohan,” Venomar stumbled up, his eyes fixed on the tower, waiting for the next attack.

Alistair pulled the knife off of Venomar’s belt and looked it over.

“By Beatrice, how’s this going to help me? It’s a damn dagger! How’s this going to cut through Dwarven steel?”

Venomar glanced back at Alistair, his eyes glowing. Flames appeared above the hilt and spread over the blade. The suddenness of the spell so shocked Alistair that he dropped the dagger in the sand.

“That should do it!” Venomar cried as the next shot came flying them. He cupped his hands together and chucked a fireball at it, cancelling out both attacks. Then he fell to his knees, spent. A Kathann keeper who’d just played a full game, blocking every shot, and now needed to make it through sudden death overtime.

At the top of the tower, Francesca held a swirling orb of Red Magic next to the crystal. She’d hit it with a series of magic bullets to no avail, and now hoped the strongest spell in her arsenal would fair better.

“Hurry, Claudian! It’s about to fire again, and Ven’s shield is down!”

“I’m charging it as fast as I can! It’s going to take a lot of magic to stop this thing!”

The tower shook again, and one more blast came flying down into the clearing.

Alistair picked up the flame drenched dagger and fumbled with it, trying to cut through the chains. Venomar picked himself up, cupped his hands again, and tried to unleash another fireball. But all he could produce was a small stream of embers. The attack would hit them any second. And then, it would all be over.

“Run!” Venomar shouted.

Alistair ran in front of the Arkresh, his chains broken. His fist came alight with Yellow Magic, and he slammed it into the earth. An amber shield formed around them, nullifying the blast.

“Excellent timing!” Venomar said through heavy breaths. “Well done, Alistair! Well done!”

“Now!” Francesca cried as she tossed the crackling Red Magic orb into the crystal. It exploded upon impact, shattering the crystal and tossing both women into the air. They crashed to the floor just a few feet apart from each other. Bazra rolled on her side and looked over at her counterpart.

“Sorry for suggesting we kill you.”

IV

Venomar, Alistair, Bazra, and Francesca sat at a newly made campfire in the center of the clearing. On the orders of the Arkresh and Francesca, both the Elites and Black Helms had taken their dead and wounded back to their ships. Now finished, they sat in separate groups on opposite sides of their leaders. Alistair, Bazra, and Francesca passed around a bottle of Kholdros Spiced Rum, while Venomar chomped on a second cigar—of Dwarven make, this time.

“What do you think that was?” Alistair asked.

“Some type of Phatan’Era defense mechanism,” Venomar guessed. “I suspect the sound of our conflict triggered it.”

“Phatan’Era?” Francesca inquired.

“It’s what the rest of Theranos call the Precursors,” Alistair explained before taking a long swig of rum. “Damn, this stuff is good.”

“What do you Claudians think of the Phatan’Era, anyway?” Bazra inquired.

“That they abandoned this world like the Gods before them. Paving the way for The Ascendant,” Bazra glared at him. “Hey, don’t shoot the messenger! The Ballad says it, not me!”

Venomar chuckled and let out a large puff of smoke. He’d agreed to refrain from drinking tonight at Bazra’s suggestion. But he prayed her protests about his drinking would cease when they returned to Arkera, lest his plans for the two of them fall to ruin.

“We believe the Gods left this world to them. They ruled it in peace, until the rise of the Gol’Kar wiped them out. Our ancient enemies.”

“Before the Claudians, anyway,” Bazra mumbled.

“Your people have fought the Gol’Kar as well? I thought they were exclusive to the north.”

“Not at all,” Venomar said. “They can be found in the Kalceran Fault at all times, and storm the surface in massive uprisings known as Scourges.”

“You Claudians are lucky there hasn’t been one in thousands of years,” added Bazra.

“Surely,” Alistair agreed. “Yet another reason there must be peace between our people.”

“With all due respect,” Francesca said, standing up. “Thank you for the rum. But if you aren’t going to accept the Emperor’s deal, then we must be going. You Seragorn fight well. It’s a shame this will be the end of our working relationship.”

The Senator pointed her Gladeon at Alistair, who held up his hands and leaned back on his seat.

“Be careful with that!” he exclaimed before rising. He then turned his attention to the Arkresh. “It’s not too late to change this, Ven. There’s still time. But once I leave here, it’s over.”

“The ancient Seragorn had a saying,” Venomar began. “Only the arrival of lions can settle the conflicts of sheep.”

“Then, you’ll take the—”

“No,” Venomar interrupted. He then took a long drag and blew out a puff of blue smoke. “But today’s battle with Phatan’Era remnants has reminded me that there are greater evils that plague Theranos than the conflict between our people. And so we must rise above our past, this perpetual pendulum of prejudice and violence. Rise above and become something more. So that when threats like this do reveal themselves—whether it be the Gol’Kar, Precursor technology, or the damn Myralians again—we are united and prepared to fight for what’s most important. A brighter future for all we mortal races.”

Venomar set his cigar down in the sand and looked around him. Both the Black Helms and the Elites were watching him intently. Francesca looked bewildered. Bazra smiled, while Alistair nodded, his grey eyes glowing with excitement.

“I’m tired of the letters, the proposals. It’s time for your Emperor and I to meet face to face and negotiate until we can come up with a solution that will end this conflict for all time. Until we can come up with a solution that benefits both the Seragorn and Claudians, and leaves no room for the troubles of the past to resurface. Alistair, do you have any property outside of the Empire?”

“I have a ranch on the Frontier and a penthouse in Patamos,” he replied.

“Patamos will do. Francesca, how quickly can you contact your Emperor?”

“I’ve a communication crystal I can use to reach him. It’s early in Calanar right now. But I can try.”

“Tell him I want to meet at Alistair’s penthouse in Patamos for a conference,” Venomar said. “That will seek to resolve the myriad issues that prevent peace between the Seragorn and Claudians.”

“The Emperor made it clear that this proposal is his final and only offer,” she replied sternly.

“Of course he did,” Alistair chimed in. “He wanted Venomar to think he had him by the stones!”

“I’m certain he meant it,” Venomar said. “But he wouldn’t have sent Alistair in good faith unless he had a personal stake in this matter. Something that makes resolution here nearly as important to him as it is to Alistair and I.”

“What makes you think that?” Francesca said, startled.

“I’ve reached the Bulwark. He has every reason to want nothing but total war. If he’s seeking peace, it’s because he needs peace.”

“He still has the Senate to answer to. They will not look kindly on this.”

“And I’ve the Sulmarr. A conference with the Emperor? No matter how this ends, they’ll be after me for the rest of my days.”

“Very well,” Francesca groaned. “But know that I’m doing this because of the effort you and your men gave in battle, not because I believe it will work. It won’t.”

Francesca walked off past the camp, into the Precursor ruins and knelt amongst the mangled, defeated constructs. She then withdrew the communication crystal—bright pink and small enough to hold between two fingers—from a pocket in her combat robes. As she closed her eyes and the crystal began to glow, she wished she wasn’t Emperor Ferdinand’s cousin. That she could choose, as other Senators, to make decisions in a matter that best supported her vision of the Claudian Empire. But she understood, as few others did, why Ferdinand needed resolution. For the infant’s sake, she prayed it was possible.

“Emperor Ferdinand?” she cried out when the crystal had activated. “Emperor Ferdinand?”

“So, how about a round of Quippa?” Alistair asked back at the campsite.

“Of course,” Venomar replied. “Brought all of my decks, including the one you used last time.”

“Then I’m going to lose for sure!” Alistair chuckled. “Some things never change.”

“Hold on,” Bazra said, sitting down beside Venomar. “I’m going first. Ven, you can play winner.”