In which, Lukina's Lord delivers a warning.
The fog had rolled in, merged with the morning mist, and become more than a little oppressive. Later, in a few hours, the rising sun over Piyapon would burn it away, smithing the gems of late fall into the sky as it did every day. Today was warmer than the other days, however, and so the clarity of autumn got traded for the last vestige of summer.
It felt like a welcome change; usually in the morning, the heat would rise off of the river. Now it seemed as though the rest of the air had caught the idea.
Lukina might have just got lucky, but she saw the rider first.
The half elf was pressed against a tree branch as she kept watch. She was waiting for something. The bioluminescence of the treeline had faded with the coming of the dawn's light, throwing the scout into shadow. She squinted as the rider took shape from the mist, a shadow gaining substance as it advanced. Lukina leaned forward, increasing the magnification of her binoculars to get a better look at the approaching phantom.
The antlered Knight loomed forward out of the gloom, riding a beast that looked nearly as imposing as the rider. It was built like a deer, save that it was clearly built for a world in which deer were the hunters rather than the hunted. Gray as the dreary weather, it threw the black rider's armor in starker contrast.
The suit was smooth, almost alien in design, except that she recalled its general shape from a suit that she had seen once on display. Jet black, nearly form fitting, it was worked out in flares around the neck and shoulders; the breastplate was angled to deflect arrow or bullet, and the long shield the rider had slung over their back might have resembled something a Taianese Tianshi could have carried. Some modern armorer had taken a look at the elvish pattern and updated it. They had taken all of the elegant ostentation, the swirls, the winged helmet, and they had smithed it into something that could stop bullets.
The suit was unmarked, either with the heraldry of a local Lord, or the personal heraldry of the Knight who wore it.
As the image coalesced from the fog, Lukina realized that she'd mis-identified the nature of the rider's face; the antlers had superimposed over the slender elf. A black braid settled over the jet armor's shoulder, and the rider, as dark in complexion, seemed female enough. The helmet was resting on the pommel of the saddle that kept her mounted, and a strange longarm, bladed like a halberd but clearly some manner of post-modern energy weapon, she held loosely and lazily up, the butt hooked into a brace near her stirrup.
She recognized the rider and jumped down from her perch, using her hook and line to dampen and slow her fall to the ground. Lukina's feet touched the ground and she announced her presence to the Black Knight. Her form shimmered into existence as she disengaged the shroud of her suit, and pulled down her hood to reveal her youthful face. "Good morning, my Lord."
The beast that the Lord rode snorted testily at her. With a firm grip on the reins, and a firmer grip with her knees, the Lord turned the beast's horns away and regarded Lukina from aside her saddle.
The rider surveyed her, and then the bridge beyond her.
"Truly spoken. It is a good morning. I trust I am not distracting you?"
Lukina continued her approach of the rider and bowed to the knight, placing her right fist across her breast in salute. "Not at all." Her evergreen eyes appraised the beast for a moment before she looked back up at the knight. "How does the light find you?"
"Well enough." The Black Knight offered Lukina a hand up. "Shall we? There is some ground yet to cover."
Lukina took the offered hand and pulled herself up with a jump onto the back of the Kirikal. After a glance at the end of the bridge that Lukina's newfound companions had set to fortifying, the Knight turned the horned beast towards the edge of the river and set off at a leisurely pace.
Lukina's Lord was slender. She did not mind particularly that Lukina had to hold on to her armored midsection to stay mounted. The beast they rode, as beasts tended to, seemed to be able to pick its own way once they had left the paved road which left them to themselves.
"I see they have been preparing. No air units to bother with?"
"No, the Black King's army has kept to ATVs and dated armor. There has no opposition from the air, they haven't thought to go to higher ground in the trees to fire down into the company's ranks. I have only seen them fire from their towers at their base camp. They are still raiding the townships to claim women and increase their numbers, they want to claim the Viscountess as their prize for their would be king," the scout reported plainly. "They have some military training but little imagination."
"If you are expecting creativity from someone calling themselves the 'Black King'," mused the dark Lord, perhaps missing the irony or lampshading it with sarcasm, "I fear for everyone's sanity. I assume your fair blue commander is going to stop them at this bridge?"
"He wants to meet them on a battlefield or take the fight to them again, as he did when he went after the giant brute that took his bannerwoman. But he doesn't seem completely blind to strategy... he has moments of savant clarity from time to time. Between the binges and the whoring," the smaller woman added with a slight grin, despite her lord not being able to see her face.
The Lord turned her head slightly, glancing back to the smaller half-elf. The gold eyes glittered. She smiled a little. "Is that so? Gartagens are tempermental like that. Is that your impression of him?"
"Brutally effective when pointed in the right direction. He is a chronic liar, but his heart is in the right place. He's still trying to bed me," Lukina shook her head again with a chuckle.
They had reached the edge of the water. The river didn't rush by, but Lukina knew that it was too deep to be crossed by mobile armor, at least the sort that they were expecting to fight. The Kirikal, however, swiveled its narrow head back and forth, nostrils flaring. The Lord did nothing to stop this, or guide the animal.
She settled the reins on the pommel, resting her hands atop the saddle.
"Do you like him?" It seemed an innocent enough question, but Lukina knew, just like she knew the water was too deep for a vehicle to cross, that her Lord never asked idle questions.
"As a companion at arms. I have been tainted by my mother, I have not decided to share my bed with a man yet," she replied thoughtfully. Her hands resting loosely around her Lord's waist as they sat atop the beast. "Aleksasha Bloodtree was not one for being a lover."
"Wise. Put it off as long as you may, and choose well when you do." The Lord didn't seem in a particular hurry, but let the animal pace a little more away from the bridge. If anything, she seemed to be watching what it did, and the conversation served as useful distraction. "My advice would be to find a man with a normal anatomy. Gartagens lay eggs through theirs. I imagine that could be somewhat uncomfortable for you."
"The tiny Hou girl seems to be pleased with him but I am not convinced I want to be another notch on any man's belt, let alone that one."
"Hou are particularly durable, and have several duplicate organs that..."
The beast let out a strange keening sound, a little like a woman in pain, and reigned its head back.
"Ah." The Lord took up the reins again, and clenched her knees. "Hold on. He's found the way across."
Lukina leaned more firmly into the black armor and tightened her grip. "Hai." Lukina felt the animal's flanks tense; this was something that you couldn't get on a motorcycle. They dipped a brief second, and then they went flying forward, launched by the beast's powerful hindquarters.
Pressed against the Lord's armored back, she didn't get a good view of exactly what they were leaping to and from, but it felt like riding a grasshopper, or a mountain goat. Ahead of her, the Lord rode the difficult course out with inhuman grace, and Lukina was left with just clinging on for dear life. She got a glimpse of the rocks of the riverbed, a jagged series of leaps and jumps that would have been impossible for a horse, or at least extremely unlikely.
At the last, they plunged into the river water close to the other bank. The kirikal had run out of rocks, but by the time it had found the riverbed. Water rushed over Lukina's legs to the thigh, and the Lord turned the beast into the current, spurring it hard. It gave out its strange, woman like scream again, and ploughed, surging, towards the far shore.
They made the land after a few harrowing moments, and sat dripping on the opposite bank. Looking back, the far bank seemed a long ways away; the shadow of the bridge over them, to their right, hid them from the sentries posted on this side of it. Just like that, the Lord had slipped their notice. It made Lukina wonder if she hadn't been pledged to a ghost of the old world.
"Quite alright?" the Lord asked.
The Lord turned the beast's antlers towards the far road, urging it to an easier path.
"If I recall correctly, they fortified the city?"
It dawned on her that there were only a few reasons to cross that bridge, and going directly into the most dangerous part of this warzone was one of those reasons.
"They have." Lukina kept her questions to herself, waiting for her Lord to enlighten her when she was ready to finish demonstrating her point, whatever it was. Her eyes scanned the landscape as the fog spilled enveloped them and concealed them. When they made the road, the creature's hooves were the only sound, and though they echoed, it seemed particularly muffled.
It pleased the Lord to stay silent for a while. Perhaps she enjoyed riding. After a while, it became sort of soothing, swaying back and forth. It was, after all, very early morning. Sooner or later, pre-dawn would turn to full dawn, and then this strange seeming would be over. Wet, the animal smelled a bit sour, and definitely a little dirty, but the Lord's hair had a fragrance to it that Lukina found she could use to somewhat ease the olfactory discomfort.
It must have been ten minutes between her answer and the Lord's next question.
"The Vekimen has been raping the other species, I assume. Have any of them given birth?"
"No, there have been no children."
The Lord nodded, acknowledging the answer. "I have been considering making law to the effect of barring the issue entirely. Has anyone told you of the species? Have you encountered one, before?"
"There was one tied up and mutilated in the Black Army's camp. They had gouged out its eyes but I have not encountered them further, m'Lord."
She did not confirm why she had asked. Lukina knew, of course, that she wouldn't, if it didn't suit her to do so. But she waited, and in time she had enough of an answer.
"I am telling you this only because you are one of my retainers, but mark me closely. The Vekimen have a secret that they keep darkly to themselves; their leader, Khelena, has kept it from them. And yet, because they are here, it becomes our own secret to keep as well. It is why you are here, in truth. So if you do encounter this issue, it is important for you and for I, and for our Country, that you inform me immediately of it."
"Yes, my Lord. I still have a way to reach you to keep you abreast of the situation if it arises. What should I do about the... children if I see them?" The warning was clear as was the information she had been unaware of previously, they had not gone deeper to the enemy's main encampment.
And yet it loomed in front of them, now, through the fog, just as the bridge had loomed. How far had they traveled along this road? Had time, too, been obscured by the morning fog? Likely, the Lord had chosen the time and the weather specifically. This meeting, just like the Lord's presence, was certainly meant to be secret - from Creature, as well as from their enemies.
Stopping the kirikal in sight of the walls, the Lord waited for Lukina to get down. The implication was clear; the Lord would be going further, and Lukina would not be. She accepted the help down, the Lord's gauntlet just as solid and sure as it had been when she had pulled Lukina up.
Lukina nodded as she pulled the hood of her suit back on over her face, re-engaging the shroud and disappearing into the fog once again like a ghost. The Lord's voice was as chilly as the fog as she straightened in the saddle.
"I fear, none of them can live at all."