Trinity Continent. A vast mass of land, ranging from kilometers of beaches in the south to the equally widespread mountain-ranges in the north. In between these extremes were seemingly endless grasslands, stretching out as far as the eye could see.
Throughout these green plains, thousands of minor settlements existed, scattered out; far enough from each other to give enough room for cattle and crops, yet close enough to allow commerce. Area-wise, these grasslands represented the largest part of the Trinity continent’s surface area, and all of it was Earth Empire’s territory.
Due to the changing seasons and the strong dependability on live-stock, the Earth Empire’s population was almost constantly moving. Because of this nomadic lifestyle, there were few larger cities in the empire. In fact, apart from the nation’s capital, which was located at it’s very core, there weren’t any permanent cities at all in Earth Empire.
It was high summer, and weeks of scorching sunlight and little rain had practically turned the entire empire into a box of tinder, waiting to be lit by the tiniest spark. Everyday, the officials in the capital were kept busy, tracking all fire-outbreaks and managing resources to minimize the damage done by the raging flames.
This was, by far, the busiest time of the year for the Earth Empire officials, leaving little room for idleness. Yet, at this moment, one of the highest officials in the nation was taking the time to visit his son. The room was dark and the usually bare stone walls had been covered by layers upon layers of fabric. Seated in a corner, the son rocked back and forth, mumbling gibberish to himself. No matter how the father tried, the son wouldn’t look at him.
“There have been no changes?” the father asked an elderly woman who had followed him into the room.
“He has stopped banging his head against the walls,” the woman answered after some hesitation. “That is something, at least.”
The father clenched his fists and, giving his son a last look, left the padded room. Outside waited an anxious attendant.
“Councilor,” he greeted with a bow, but the father stormed by without giving him a glance. The attendant had to run to catch up. “Councilor, what is your plan of action? Both the Emperor and Headmaster Redwolf . . .”
“Shut up!” the father and Councilor barked back, “I don’t care what those two say. I will find out exactly what happened to my son!”
As he spoke, a powerful surge of spirit essence welled out from him, causing nearby windows to shatter and the attendant’s face to pale – even as a the low Spirit Champion he was, had a hard time handling the pressure.
“Yes, Councilor Tanuki,” the attendant said hurriedly, bowing even deeper this time.
Meanwhile, not that far away, a medium-sized caravan was making its way south across the dry steppe, the horses kicking up dirt as they trotted at a moderate pace.
There were four covered wagons, each pulled by two horses, surrounded by eight mounted guards. At a first glance, there was nothing remarkable about this caravan at all; both the wagons themselves and the guards’ clothes were of low quality and frayed from years of use, and although they were clearly there to protect, none of the guards were equipped with swords. All in all, an easy but equally uninteresting target for highway robbers.
However, to the trained eye, this caravan gave a very different impression.
“It’s another dud, Tails,” grumbled a wiry-looking man to his partner – both men hiding behind one of the few bushes in the area. The rare cluster of bushes was located on an even rarer hill, and the two men were using the cover and slight height advantage to scout the miles of open grasslands around them.
“What do you know!?” the man referred to as Tails reprimanded his friend, smacking the latter on his shoulder. “Don’t you see how they are moving?” When the only response he got was a confused glare, Tails elaborated, “Look, ever since they came into view two hours ago, the formation of those guards and wagon’s hasn’t changed at all.”
“What do you mean ‘so’? Do you think it’s easy to ride so precisely for over two hours, without making a single mistake? That kind of riding is some real high-level shit!” Tails rolled his eyes. “I’m telling you, this is why the chief’s never gonna give you a raise, Mezu – you think too simply. Come on, we better report this.”
Silently, the two men scurried off without sparing the caravan a second glance. In the distance, a pale hand lifted a small flap on the second wagon from the front. Within its obscure darkness, a faint smile spread on peach-red lips before the hand withdrew, letting the fabric fall back into place.
“Something wrong?” a soft yet majestic female voice asked within the wagon. From her tone it was hard to say if the woman was concerned or annoyed.
“Not at all, madam,” the owner of those peach-red lips replied, her voice colder and less majestic, but nonetheless compelling. “I was just thinking it would be nice with some change of pace.”
Later that evening, the caravan approached a small grove of trees, clustered around an even smaller lake, or pond. It was one of the many waterholes on the Earth Empire plains and, during the colder seasons, they would all be linked up by a network of rivers that crisscrossed their way from the mountains out into the sea.
When they finally reached the grove, all horses stopped as one unit. Immediately, the eight guards swung down from their mounts and, with short staffs in hand and still in a tight formation, searched the grove to make sure it was safe.
A few kilometers away, the two men had returned, standing on either side of a third, significantly taller man. The taller man held a pair of binoculars to his eyes as he observed the eight guards checked the grove of trees for dangers.
“What do you think, chief?” asked Mezu eagerly. “They’re good, right? I knew they were good.”
“You little. . . !” There was the crisp sound of hand hitting flesh as Tails leaned over to smack his friend on the back of his head.
The chief, however, ignored their squabbling. “They are clearly trying to hide their importance. . . . It makes one wonder what they are protecting,” he said, a hungry smile growing on his face. “Prepare the Burrowers, I want to take a closer look at their cargo.”
The two men were quick to act on their instructions, leaving the still observing chief behind. As he watched, the wagon’s drivers disembarked and were starting to put up tents for the night when suddenly a flap was pulled back on one of the carriages and a nymph stepped out. There was no other way to describe the young woman who gracefully landed on the dry grass; her long midnight-purple hair cascading down her back like a waterfall; her jade-white skin a stark contrast to her peach-red lips. Even in the simple clothes she was wearing, no one would doubt her beauty.
As soon as the men realized that the girl had stepped out, they all hurried to usher her back into the wagon, but the damage had already been done. The chief had seen her, and how could he let such a fine pearl go?
Not lingering any longer, the chief turned and left, jumping down in a man-sized hole not far from his location. Once underground, the chief made his way through dark tunnels until finally reaching a larger cave, nearly thirty meters below the surface. There, over a hundred men were gathered. They had divided themselves into three smaller groups and at the center of each cluster lay a huge, slime-covered slug. Their bodies heaved up and down slowly, as if breathing heavily and, with every intake of air, a small line of spikes along their backs was revealed.
The men kept a respectable distance from these creatures, careful not to miss any sudden movements.
As he entered, everyone turned their attention to the chief, ready for instructions.
“The target is two kilometers south of here, by the waterhole. You know the drill – move out!”
At once, every man in the cave activated their spirit essence, which ranged in quality from low to peak Spirit Adepts – there was even a low Spirit Champion among them. The powerful surge of spirit essence caused the enormous slugs to stir; they opened their gigantic maws, filled with rows upon rows of saber-sharp teeth and chomped down on the ground beneath them. Immediately, the earth gave way and the slugs dug further into the ground, moving surprisingly fast for their size.
Behind them, they left a nearly two meter wide tunnel. Without hesitating, the men in the cave jumped in after the slugs, following them through the tunnels as they were made.
By the waterhole, the wagon drivers and guards had just finished putting up their tents when the ground underneath them started shaking. There was a moment of confusion before one of the guards, who was clearly the oldest one, paled slightly and shouted, “It’s Backridge Earthworms – get in formation!”
Instantly the men gathered around two of the wagons, preparing for a hard fight. Backridge Earthworms were fearsome spirit beasts who lived deep under the Earth Empire plains. As individuals their strength was perhaps not so terrifying, but they tended to move in large flocks, sometimes consisting of over a thousand beasts. If they were faced with such an army of spirit beasts, even this group of skilled guards would find it hard to escape.
Seconds later, the ground around them burst apart. In three separate locations, surrounding the caravan, the massive bodies of three giant slugs propelled themselves out of the ground. Their huge teeth kept vibrating, as if still underground.
The guards swallowed, steeling themselves for what was to come, but what followed was not a swarm of Earthworms. Instead tens of dirt-covered men jumped out of the holes in the ground. In seconds, the entire caravan had been surrounded by over a hundred people, all of them spiritualists, all of them armed to the teeth.
“Bandits?” one of the guards mumbled, his stance relaxing undetectably.
“So it would seem,” the older guard replied with a similar reaction.
Unfortunately for the bandits, they didn’t seem to catch the change in the guards’ posture; they were too busy gloating over their successful ambush.
“Lay down your weapons and hand over your cargo – all your cargo – and we shall spare your lives!” shouted one of the bandits; a tall man who was clearly their leader.
“No,” answered the seasoned guard, leaving no room for debate.
“Then you shall die!” the bandit chief shouted and pointed forward with his entire arm. “Attack! Leave none of the men alive!”
At once, the hundred plus bandits pushed their spirit essence to the max and rushed forward, but they had only moved a few feet when a deafening voice thundered out from within one of the wagons.
The sudden command caused the bandits to subconsciously freeze in their tracks. There was movement in one of the wagons and the bandits watched, wide-eyed, as the wagon’s flap was moved aside and a woman stepped out with graceful agility.
She was tall, definitely approaching the two meter mark, but by no means massive – quite the opposite, in fact. Her thick, pale-blond hair was braided into a tight braid that hung over her shoulders, and instead of a dress she wore a tight-fitting leather armor, covered selectively with aquamarine scales. She might have been a woman, but her aura screamed of war.
The woman looked out over the surrounding bandits, her clear eyes so light-blue they seemed almost white. Finally her gaze landed on the man who had given the attack order, causing the latter to shiver noticeably. The bandit chief couldn’t believe his luck – two gorgeous woman in one caravan! Even under the unlikely circumstance that there where no other treasures on these wagons, this evening’s raid would still be worth it.
“You are their leader?” the woman asked without taking her gaze of the chief.
“I am, madam,” the chief answered and smiled wolfishly. “It’s unfortunate that you ran into us on your travels. . . . I assure you we will treat you and your friend well, though – as long as you don’t resist, of course.”
“Leave, I don’t wish to see bloodshed this evening,” the woman replied without acknowledging the man’s comment.
For a moment the bandit chief was taken aback by her curt words. The woman had said them with so much nonchalant confidence that he was almost convinced to leave, but the feeling didn’t last.
“I’m afraid we can’t do that, madam. You see, my men and I have an . . . itch to scratch.” The bandits cheered when they heard their chief’s words. “And I think you, and your companion, are just the right women for the job.”
As the chief spoke, one of the wagons shook violently – a brief burst of spirit essence spilling out from within – but the commotion quickly died down. The woman glanced at the wagon, a slight smile on her lips, before she turned her attention back to her supposed captor.
“Two women for all of you? Surely we won’t be enough to scratch that itch of yours. Why not find a larger caravan to satiate you?”
The chief laughed. “Are you telling me there are no other riches hidden in those wagons of yours? Sorry, madam, hiding behind that worn and unarmed facade might have worked on normal bandits, but not on us. Your guards’ behavior blew your cover, and now you have no weapons to defend with.” A vicious glint flashed across the chief’s eyes. “So I’m afraid we won’t be going anywhere, madam.”
Seemingly unconcerned, the woman turned to her guards and only now did the bandit chief realize that something was wrong – none of them looked worried.
“You heard him, Colonel,” the woman said. “They are not leaving, understand?”
“Yes, ma’am,” the eldest guard answered with a salute. At once, awe-inspiring spirit essence welled out of the man, instantly pressing down on all the bandits.
“P-peak Ch-champion?” stuttered the bandit chief, not believing his senses. His group of bandits was one of the strongest in the empire, yet he only had one low Champion in his ranks – two, if he counted himself. Yet, even if he would have had twenty low Champions in his ranks, they would still be a far cry from matching up against a single peak high Champion.
“How . . .”
Before he could finish, the other guards all activated their spirit essence as well, and the sudden pressure of seven more high Champions made it hard for the Spirit Adept bandits to even remain standing. Stricken with fear, the bandits attempted a mass exodus, but before they could move an inch, the eight guards had already acted, efficiently cutting off their escape routes.
Now ignoring the bandits, the leather-donned woman turned around, heading back for her wagon. Just as she reached its opening, she paused, as if a thought had struck her. “Oh, yes. Colonel, we have been traveling for quite a while and I fear the children’s cultivation might be hampered by their lack of exercise. Why not let them use their muscles a bit?”
“It’s a good idea, ma’am,” the colonel replied without hesitation.
“Very well. Javelin dear, Lady Nightingale, would you join me out here? I have an assignment for you.”
“Yes, mother,” a male voice called out from within the wagon that had shaken violently before and seconds later a young man was kneeling in front of the armored woman. The family resemblance between the two was clear, as was his eagerness to punish the bandits for their statements.
Only a heartbeat later, the flap in the wagon the mother had been headed for parted yet again. Out stepped the pale skinned beauty who the bandit chief had admired from afar and, seeing her up close, he wasn’t alone in momentarily forgetting the peril they were in.
The young woman positioned herself next to the male youth, curtsying deeply. Her eyes were downcast, respectful, but a flash of excitement hid within them.
“As you wish, madam Hake.”