Irikshan and company pass through the Zintai mountains, arriving at the small village of Saitai.
The landscape was quite unlike any other Irikshan had encountered. From an ocean of green, stone spires burst forth. Pieces of the land that sought to touch the sky, yet fell so short. Regardless of their futile attempts to reach the unreachable, these monoliths inspired great awe as they towered above the surrounding landscape.
Irikshan’s wings led him as he wove between the pillars of stone, guided by the gentle winds that created ripples on the green below. The Zintai mountains were fascinating natural formations, far more novel to Irikshan than the escarpment, plateau and surrounding mountains he had grown used to back home.
He spiraled around a particularly large pillar, rising. Finding an extended section near the top to be suitably flat, he landed upon it and surveyed the surroundings. Although he could also do so from memory later, he was so eager to record this vista that he pulled out his journal and began an initial sketch then and there. He took his time. He was content to let the humans continue along the road at their plodding pace, while he took his time to explore. Lucile was the one to extend this detour from visiting the mountains to also saving some little village in the middle of nowhere from bandits.
Once he’d finished his sketch, he turned towards the interior of the stone island above the green sea. Just like the other pillars, several hardy trees had set root here, providing ample shade from the sun. Rounding an outcropping of rock, he discovered the remains of some sort of nest sheltered by the stone and trees. Soft dirt, gently indented. Tiny flecks of opalescent material, half buried in the dirt. With no signs of recent activity, it was large enough that he briefly entertained the notion that it might have belonged to some dragons. Although doubtful of that, he didn’t dismiss the idea entirely. The humans and dragons had long lived at peace with one another in the lands of Meihian, meaning that attempting to return to a lifestyle resembling the Old Ways would not necessarily lead to death by human hands. Yet, Irikshan still failed to understand the reasoning anyone would have for abandoning the progress that a structured civilisation had enabled. He thought it more likely that this might be a nest of one of the types of flying draconids that Kamon had told him about. He sketched the pillar top before returning to the skies.
When he had finally explored this pillar to his fill, Irikshan found another pillar that had fewer trees, and settled upon it. Rough stone grated against his belly plates as he stretched out on the ground, spreading his wings wide to bathe in the sunlight. He had already been warm, but still soaked in the life-giving rays and drifted into a state of content semi-consciousness where he remained only aware of the gentle flow of energy within himself and the environment. Breathing in a slow gentle rhythm, he soaked in light and drew it to his core.
Occasionally the gentle wind tickled his scales and tugged at the membranes of his outstretched wings, calling for his return to the skies. After enough time that the sun had progressed significantly on its endless cycle, he eventually acquiesced to the wind’s request. He rose to his feet and stretched, then made certain that he had properly secured the bag containing his journal. Using the enchantment he’d set up weeks ago, he located Lucile’s crystal. He took to the air, intending to join them for the remainder of the journey to Saitai.
The road wound through the forests, keeping a respectful distance from the pillars as it wove around and between them. The dirt beneath Irikshan’s feet was littered with leaves, some briefly catching on his claws as they punctured the decaying membranes.
The distant song of birds drifted on the overhead winds. The air at ground level was heavy and silent. The dense forest and imposing mountains could almost feel oppressive, were one to let the baser feelings rule instead of admiring the beauty of the world.
Lucile and Jared were ahead, riding near one another and talking. They spoke with hushed tones, as if afraid the forest would hear them. Irikshan could not make out what they were saying, but the humans’ body language suggested it was of an instructional nature – Lucile gesturing with her free hand and occasionally pausing for a brief response from Jared who otherwise nodded along.
Kamon rode alongside Irikshan. He’d tried striking up idle conversation after Irikshan returned, but soon realised the dragon was not interested when only the briefest responses or acknowledgments were given.
Once he had been granted silence, Irikshan mentally tugged his journal from its bag and brought it to hover before his face at a comfortable reading distance. He’d also willed his pencil to its place, and it sketched scenes that he had seen while on the wing. He could feel the disgraced noble’s eyes upon the work, but didn’t have reason to care.
Irikshan continued to draw as they journeyed, passing away from the unusual mountains and into a somewhat flatter region of the landscape, until they rounded a bend that brought them into sight of an abrupt end to the forest. A wide dirt bank punctuated the abrupt transition from dense trees to terraced rice paddies, creeping up and down the foothills.
Beyond the paddies lay a village. With no sort of defensive barrier at its perimeter, the houses and the beings that moved through the wide spaces between them could be seen as the travellers approached. Many identical tents had been pitched in the open areas of the town. Their owners scurried about, hastily gathering from around the village into a neat formation. There were at least four dozen human soldiers there, arrayed around two scrivens clad in light chain armour. One man stood apart, both from the formation and in dress.
Despite knowing he would be safe, Irikshan could not help but feel intimidated by the formation and the dozens of muskets they carried. Their ranks appeared disciplined, and he wondered how much proper combat they had seen before. It couldn’t be less than him, who’d dedicated his life mostly to enchanting, study and research, with some drawing and exploring on the side. If the number of tents Irikshan could see from this side of the village were any indication, this was the majority of the force – but not the whole.
Kamon must have made a similar observation. While still out of earshot of the soldiers, he posed a question loudly enough for Lucile ahead to hear. “Who needs an entire company to stop some bandits?”
“I don’t know,” she responded defensively, “I was expecting a squad or perhaps a platoon, which is why I thought we could help. Just bear with me. I’ll talk to their commanding officer and figure out whether they even need us. You three can explore the village and find us a place to stay, if they’ll let you.”
As the group of travellers neared the last stretch of road, the officer stepped forward several paces before stopping. Lucile raised her hand and reigned in her horse. She fluidly dismounted and approached the officer alone.
“I am Major Hai Kuang of the 27th interior company. What business do you have in Saitai?”
Lucile was too distant for her response to be audible from behind.
“We didn’t request any sort of support.”
As Lucile replied, the officer’s eyes drifted to meet Irikshan’s. The two maintained eye contact for several seconds, though Irikshan dared not mentally reach towards the man.
“I see. Very well, mage, let us speak in private. Your charge may explore the town and speak to the locals, so long as your apprentice and my captain accompany him.” The man beckoned, and the travellers followed. The soldiers parted ranks, save for one dragon. “Captain Zhu, the orange one is an explorer from Tumenzar, here to learn about our empire and its peoples. The guardians can give him a tour, but I want you to stay with him. I will speak to the imperial mage from Shormton.”
“Yes, sir.” The dragon surveyed the travellers once more, his head towering above even the mounted humans. About a century and a half old, what Irikshan could see of his body suggested he had the gold core and white scales with ultraviolet bands typical of his kind. The major and Lucile had already departed, so Zhu issued commands. “Tu. Bai. Yan. Take their horses to the inn. The rest of you resume your duties.” Three soldiers broke formation and approached the group. Briefly bowing, one took the bridle from Lucile, while the other two waited for Kamon and Jared to dismount before the soldiers led the horses away. As Lucile followed Major Hai away and the rest of the group followed Captain Zhu into the town, the company behind them dispersed.
Irikshan took the moment to look at the muskets carried by the soldiers. He was not greatly familiar with firearms, but had seen some prototypes that had been manufactured in Tumensuid and sent to the Raifal mage college in Tumennoord where Irikshan studied. He’d witnessed them firing, along with some students attempting to stop the lead balls that were fired. Fortunately, they had purposeful not been standing in the firing line. Irikshan didn’t ever want to find himself on the wrong side of one of those when they fired. Especially if the shooters had crystals with anti-interference enchantments like the ones he’d been asked to make.
The muskets that the soldiers had were simpler than the prototypes, produced with the cost of outfitting an entire army in mind. Most soldiers also carried swords. He’d heard that superior weapons technology was how Imaadudin was able to conquer so many kingdoms, but these were oddly amongst the first muskets Irikshan had seen in his time travelling within the empire.
“Master Irikshan,” Jared perked up, “we finally found a town that has guardians!”
The wide path through the centre of the village allowed ample room for the movement of dragons, but many soldiers filed off down the narrower paths between villagers’ homes. There were few villagers out, a handful of humans and one dragon, but Irikshan sensed many more presences peeking from behind cracked-open doors and windows. This far into his journey, he was no stranger to the attention he received in towns he arrived in.
Zhu hummed, then said, “Yes, the villagers here have a rather… dated mindset. I’m sure you won’t mistakenly take their folk stories to be true, scholar?”
Up ahead, massive dwellings loomed over the rest of the village. “You need not be concerned. If I wanted to document tall tales, I could have stayed home and spoken to the many travellers that visit Tumenzar. I am here to document facts of the past and present.”
“Good,” Zhu said before stepping up to the threshold of the largest of the dwellings in the village. There was no door, but a pair of thick green sail-sized curtains decorated with red, yellow and white symbols and patterns that he could not decipher. A bell hung beside the curtains, with a long fraying rope hanging low enough for human hands to reach. Instead, Zhu rang the bell with a lazy flick of his mind.
There were rumbling movements from inside the building before the curtains drifted open, then bundled behind a hook to the side of the doorway. “Welcome, travellers,” reverberated the voice of an ancient dragon, “Enter.”
Irikshan was the first to step into the crystal-lit interior. An enormous dragon lay down on the wood floor, positioned sideways such that she exposed her left flank to the visitors. Irikshan quickly looked around the room, noting dark tapestries that hung from almost every wall. He then raised his head and met eyes with the owner of the voice. The great golden orbs twitched slightly as others entered behind Irikshan, but returned to rest on the orange dragon. Those eyes had seen and experienced more than he could imagine.
The imposing mental presence before him reached out and encircled his own, prodding inquisitively. The nature of the presence had an alien and unusual quality. It was broken, in a way. Yet he sensed no malevolence and thus lowered his outermost barriers and offered bits of information about himself. He also tore his eyes from hers and physically lowered his head in respect for the venerable being.
“In our many centuries,” she finally spoke, “we have never seen one such as you, Irikshan Kennissoeker of the Tumenzarians.” Despite having concluded her mental investigation, her mental presence continued to surround Irikshan. “Long have our peoples been held apart, but the great empire now grants you safe passage through lands once hostile to dragon kind. This day is one for the tapestries.” Her voice was deep and booming, as came with that age, but she spoke Imaadudish with a more practiced tone than Irikshan had expected. Her pronunciation was better than Irikshan’s, who’d been furthering his own skill at the human language with the tutelage of Kamon as they travelled.
“I am honoured to meet you, great history-keeper. I wish to learn from you, as the seeking of knowledge and history is what brought me to these lands.”
“This pleases us. We can teach you of the histories stored in our tapestries. But first, let us greet your companions.” She paused, looking to the humans. Kamon bowed low and introduced himself.
“Kamon Cordwainer, wandering bard from the imperial homelands. I hope to gather material for my tales by travelling with the Tumenzarian.”
“Welcome, blender of fact and fiction.”
Jared followed suit. “Jared Patamarrut, apprentice to Lucile Mangkha, an imperial mage from the coastal city Shormton in the province of Namhni. We are assigned to escort Irikshan on his journey.”
“Welcome, hatchling. We hope the journey has been and shall remain fruitful, but without incident. We are Fen and Lan, the Guardians of Saitai.”
While the introductions happened, Irikshan looked at the tapestries lining the walls. The base fabric was a deep black, but complex multicoloured embroidery decorated most of the tapestry. Although Irikshan struggled to make out much of anything, it seemed that together they told a very long history.
Fen/Lan turned towards the other Scriven. “And welcome back, Captain. We had not expected for you to visit our humble abode again.”
He did not bow. “I go where I need to be. Currently, I must monitor the newcomers while the mage talks to the Major.”
“We are curious, what business does the mage have with the Major?”
“She has offered her skills, and those of the Tumenzarian and her apprentice, to aid in capturing the bandits with minimal bloodshed.”
“An admirable goal. But what fate awaits the bandits, should they be captured alive? The great empire is rarely lenient with criminals.” She spoke to Zhu, but she privately mentally conveyed a confusing mixture of disappointment and gratitude towards Irikshan.
“It is not my place to decide nor question their punishment. Why do you care? Do you have some sympathy for these bandits that have been raiding your village for food? The village left vulnerable by your inaction.” While Zhu responded, Irikshan mentally made his confusion apparent to the ancient presence which remained dominant in the room. It did not respond to this.
“We care for the fate of all, not simply those we know. Everyone deserves a chance at redemption.” Anger crept into her voice as she rose to her feet. Everyone but Zhu stepped back in fear. “And you know well that our days of fighting are long gone.” She turned, hopping on her left hand, and displayed her right side to the visitors’ eyes. Her arm and wing were absent. Scars – that seemed centuries old, but too deep to have fully healed – covered the surrounding portion of her abdomen. Some vestigial membrane grew along her back, but that was neatly trimmed.
“You could still have done something-” Zhu began to retort, but was interrupted by a soldier rushing to the door.
“Captain Zhu, the Major urgently requests your, the apprentice, and the Tumenzarian’s presence.”
“I don’t think I’m needed, so I shall remain here,” Kamon said.
“No, you are not desired, storyteller,” the Zhu declared.
“We sense that members of the expeditionary party have returned,” Fen/Lan spoke before the group left. “Go, knowledge seeker, and seek to preserve lives.”
“I shall endeavour to do so, Keeper.” Irikshan bowed again, then departed with Zhu.
The town was now bustling with activity. At least, more so than before. Soldiers hurried about, congregating around the central square. Although a few more villagers had come out, they did their best to stay out of the way.
Irikshan was led to what seemed to be an inn temporarily requisitioned by the army. The upper floor seemed human sized from the outside, but Irikshan was able to fit into the hall below. Zhu was, however, too big. He instead observed through one of several purposefully placed windows. The furniture within the hall had been rearranged, with most tables and chairs pushed to the periphery in favour of a central table around which humans clustered.
“There you are, Kennissoeker,” Major Hai ceased his conversation as Irikshan entered. “Time is short, so I will be blunt. We have at last located the bandit’s hideout, and will move on them promptly. I have not had a satisfactory amount of time to assess your character myself, but Miss Mangkha here,” he glanced to Lucile, “has vouched for you. I also believe that your knack, which she explained to us, shall be invaluable. I, however, want to hear your own description of your abilities.”
“My knack allows me to infiltrate minds and alter their perception of their environment. Make them see, hear or feel things that aren’t really there. ‘Illusions’ is the word in your language. I have also a good deal of skill in enchanting crystals, as this has been my major area of study beside honing my knack.” Irikshan mentally lifted his crystals from his bag and displayed them.
“These enchantments, can they aid you in combat?”
“They could potentially help, but I prefer to use defensive enchantments than offensive. Most of what I have on my crystals now is utility-focused. I will require time to configure some more enchantments, but you say time is short.”
“You will have time as we travel. Since it is already late in the day, we will camp on our way and then attack in the morning. As for your knack, why would you use it in combat rather than breaking the mind of your foe and thus disabling them?”
Irikshan returned his crystals to their place in his bags. “I assume you are aware of the fact that all of your kind can defend their minds, or even mentally defend others? Even if most are blind to the flows of energy, and unable to influence them.”
“Yes, I’ve had training. You fear that some of the bandits will have had training too?”
“Training or not, you humans can still defend your own minds on an instinctive level if you sense the intrusion. If I were to try tear one of your minds apart, the defence would be so rabid and frenzied, it would be like you cornering a wild animal and trying to kill it with your bare hands.”
“But with tools and training, you can avoid injuries from the beast.”
“My tool is a subtle one, which seeks to slip barriers – not bash them down. My training is centred on that. I have had standard mental combat training, but that is not my specialty. I prefer to avoid combat entirely; whether physical or mental.”
“Miss Mangkha did mention that you are not inclined towards combat. Why do you wish to aid us?”
“Because she asked me to. And now the Guardians have also asked me to preserve lives.”
“And how effective will you be in battle?”
“If there are mages with them that I have to fight, not very effective. But if I do not have anyone directly contesting my mental presence, I can disrupt a handful of humans at a time. Cannot be effective at combat if they cannot trust their eyes or ears.”
“You can target more than one?”
“Impressive. Very well, you shall come with us on our mission, and be appropriately compensated for your time. However, any attempt to hinder us, will mean both you and Ms. Mangkha shall face repercussions. Understood?”
“Good.” He beckoned Irikshan closer, and the other men moved to give the dragon space to stand beside the table.
A detailed map of the area lay upon the table. Irikshan recognised the road he had followed to get here, along with the layout of some surrounding mountains. Hai drew attention to a mark westward of the village, but further north than the road Irikshan had taken to get to the village.
“Our scouts have finally found where the bandits are hiding. There seems to be a good portion of their force present there, but we believe this isn’t the full force. We will take their camp while they’re divided, then determine the best way to deal with the rest based on any new intel we gain.” The officer looked to Irikshan for acknowledgement.
“Sounds fine, but I’d like to return to the village after the battle. I’ve journeyed all the way here so I may learn about the history and culture of imperial citizens. I won’t be joining you for a bandit chase across the countryside.”
“I don’t expect you to.”
“How many of them are there? You’ve got quite a sizeable force.”
“We brought enough men for their full force. Reports say there are currently about two dozen there, and that they do not appear to have any firearms. You will not be in significant danger, nor will you be participating in the battle proper. I want you, Zhu, and Guiying to flank the enemies. Zhu and Guiying will mentally engage their magic-users and protect you, while you interfere with the bandits that are fighting my men. If anyone tries to flee, I want you three to stop them from escaping.
“We will engage in close combat, but if any of them have gunpowder weapons or you can’t stop escapees, I will have my men in the back fire as necessary. I don’t want them getting word to their friends. My goal is to minimise deaths on both sides, and you shall be a great boon to that if you are effective.”
“Magic users? They have trained mages?”
“Probably not, but we can’t be sure yet. My scouts did, however, report two dragons at the camp.”
“The bandits have dragons amongst them?!”
“Don’t tell me Tumenzar is without dragon criminals.”
“It is not, but not nearly as many as the humans.”
“And there are plenty more humans than dragons in this outlaw camp, this village, and any settlement you visit in Meihian. It is merely population proportions. Are you ready to go, or do you have more questions?”
“Where will Lucile and Jared be?”
“The mages will be providing support in my back lines.”
“I trust your men will keep them safe?”
“Yes. If your interference with the enemy is adequate, they stand no chance of getting past my men.”
“I’ll do my best. When do we leave?”
“We depart in a quarter of an hour.”