Veer Felidae's baritone broke Steven's bout of self-pity. "Soldiers of the Empire, Warriors of the Wolf, all of us may have much blood of the other on our hands but this time, we have come together, for a different kind of war. One not against each other, but against the Calamity that looms over our homeland, threatening our borders."
His golden eyes flashed in the sunlight as he slowly raked his gaze over the audience. Even the unruliest of the wolves remained silent, subdued by his aura of command.
He addressed the Firang contingent, "What is more, this tribulation wasn't wrought by Nature but by the hands of a woman, a Traitor to our Empire and a conspirer against your sovereignty. While our brothers bleed against the endless hordes of the ant legion, she takes advantage of our absence and inserts the knife of treason in our backs."
Arms locked behind him, back straight, he paced the divide between the two armies, turning to the wolves, he said, "Regiis and the Heavenly Wolf Mercenaries might have engaged in skirmishes over the years. Which neighbouring nation hasn't? But do you remember the identity of the people at whose hands you have lost the most of your brothers-at-arms?"
A ripple ran through the amassed mercenaries as a name appeared in all of their minds. Clenched jaws and tightened fists spoke of their memories of loved ones lost at the hands of their sworn enemy. General Felidae put their thoughts to words. "The Crimson Coyotes."
His voice grew in power, the air thrumming with his voice. "Those dastardly fellows have joined up with Hotaru Vulpine in a league of deceit. They have violated the one and only code of Mercenaries such as yourself. They have turned their knives towards their employers after taking their gold.
"They have sacrificed their final smidgen of honour to their greed. They are no longer mercenaries. They are bandits. Nothing more. Nothing less."
Pausing slightly to let the words sink in, he continued, "As we speak, these bandits, protected from the Calamity by the Traitor's sorcery, are sharpening their blades, resting and building up their strength. They wait for you to weaken so they can strike a fatal blow when you are exhausted by constant war."
His voice grew solemn, "If you fall, who will save your women from insult? Who will save your children from their evil clutches?"
The entire camp burst into a commotion as the last echoes of his words faded. Discussions sprang up among the soldiers as they struggled to come to terms with this explosive news. For many of them, the very thought that reinforcements were on the way had supported their fighting spirit. Now that this hope was disillusioned, their courage avalanched.
Those made of sterner stuff, drew courage from adversity instead, erupting with anger and a greater tenacity in the face of such stacked odds. The entire camp seethed. The sounds of muffled weeping mixed with spirited calls for revenge.
Steven didn't know how to appraise this move of the General. Revealing the actual situation to the soldiers outright had a huge impact on the morale. Seeing the reactions, it had probably done more harm than good. He couldn't help but question the decision. Would it not have been better if the warriors had been kept in the dark and the status quo maintained?
His ear twitched as he picked up Hei Lian's muttered comment. "Better hear it from the Leader now, than later through rumours."
It dawned on him then… paper couldn't cover a fire. The information would find its way into the ears of the soldiers and mercenaries sooner or later through the rumour mill. Rather than have the soldiers lose their morale and their trust in the chain of command due to withheld information, it would be a better move to be open about the circumstances and let them deal with their negativity.
It wasn't in the realm of impossibility for them to burst out with great strength, their potential squeezed by adversity.
General Felidae raised his hand for silence and the hubbub slowly died down to a muted murmur that soon faded into a hopeful silence as everyone listened with rapt attention, waiting for him to present some sort of solution to their predicament.
"What are we to do, you ask?" he began. "Simple. Something no man has dared to do before. Delve into the heart of the calamity."
Steven's eyes widened with shock. The heart of the Calamity!?
"A contingent of our elite will head into the depths of the Forbidden Zone, find what witchcraft protects the Coyotes from the wrath of the legion and try to adapt it for our use instead. If that is not possible, destroy it.
"Meanwhile, your Revered Ancestor and I shall collaborate to stave off the assault of the insect tide, winning more time for the squad to act and attracting the attention of the ants. As for the composition of the squad – we shall wait a day for volunteers. In my capacity as the General, I promise you that if anyone loses their life during the mission, I shall ensure that their family wants for nothing.
"Take your time, think about it. Maybe even sleep over the decision. Then, when you have made up your mind, come to my office to register. The gates will remain open till noon on the morrow. I firmly believe that among us there is an abundance of heroes. Tomorrow night, we shall see a squad of them off with prayers for their success."
With a clap of his hands, he ordered the gathering to disperse.
Steven followed Hei Lian absentmindedly, trying to figure out who would volunteer for the mission.
Strength wasn't really that important for the mission. No matter how strong you were, once you were caught within the ant legion, they would overwhelm you with numerical superiority. No. The main factor would be stealth. If one was able to hide their presence and avoid the ants, they had a much better chance of succeeding.
Shadow mages were perfect for the job.
"I'm going." Said Hei Lian.
Shocked out of his reverie, Steven exclaimed, "What! No. Why?"
She turned to him, transfixing his yellow eyes with her obsidian gaze. "They don't accept me as their Alpha yet. They defer to grandma because of her strength. They rebel against the concept of letting a woman stand above them. Millennia of tradition wars with my authority over them. The women of the clan accept me but the males still balk. Unless I do something worthy of their respect they will not bow their heads. Returning alive from the heart of a Forbidden Zone seems like a worthy enough feat."
"It's clearly a suicidal mission. A last ditch effort born of desperation. You worked so hard to get to the point you are now, why not take slow, steady steps to consolidate your authority? Why must you throw your life away on this fool's errand?" Steven clutched his hair, trying to dissuade her.
Hei Lian frowned at him. "Why must you be so spiritless. Can't you study that Tamer clansman of yours. I'm sure that you'll see him tomorrow night among the squad. If a Tamer merely four-and-a-half cycles old can join in, why can't I?"
Steven felt his heart sinking into the pit of his stomach as he looked into her eyes and found the disappointment written there.
Unable to hold her gaze, he looked down at his feet, tightening his jaws. Him again? Why? Would he always be covered by Mars' shadow? His fingers bunched up the fabric of his pants. He knew that Hei Lian's feelings for him were a lot more nebulous than his for her. She had abducted him on a whim. She had thought he was a fun 'toy' and later, a convenient way to stave off Vita's Divine will. But now, she was starting to get bored of this bland, boring, scuffed, old toy. A shiny new one had presented itself in her vision. It was no wonder that her attention had strayed.
Steven ridiculed himself in his mind. She was superior to him in every way. She was way out of his league. He should have known it wouldn't last.
He heard her sigh. He shrank into himself further, waiting for the inevitable words of rejection.
"Oh well… I forgot that unless you go along with me, I'll turn Feral when the time runs out. Ahhh… what a pain. I guess I can't go after all. Can't put your white little ass in danger after all."
Steven's head shot up at her words, taking in the sight of her rubbing her forehead with a troubled look on her face.
She glared at him, "And what have you been moping about since yesterday? That Deimos girl accepted your apology, didn't she? And it's not like anyone wanted your head for your thoughtless prank either. They've probably forgiven you. So, what's the problem? Isn't that what you were worried about?"
"I-" Steven opened his mouth, then paused awkwardly. He had no idea how to continue. He couldn't say that he was jealous of her paying attention to Mars, now, could he?
She sighed again. "You know what? I don't care. You can keep your secrets." Stepping forward, she grabbed his chin and kissed him full on the mouth. Steven stiffened at the suddenness of the movement. Before he could recover, grinning, she disengaged and withdrew one step. Patting his cheek lightly, she said, "There, that should cheer you up. Deal with your problems on your own. I have to go talk to grandma."
Steven stood in situ, watching her swagger away. It was only after she had rounded a bend and disappeared from his sight that he recovered his composure. Bringing his fingers to his lips, he lightly touched them. He could still feel the soft warmth of her lips on his, smell her fragrance on his skin. Right then, the sun peeked out from behind a cloud and illuminated the alley that he was in. He couldn't help but laugh foolishly.
The world suddenly seemed a brighter place.
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