Ecdysis - Chapter 81

Published at 12th of October 2023 01:17:47 PM

Chapter 81

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“Erf, what are you doing?” The voice of the First Spear sounded over my head.

I stopped washing the used bandages and glanced at her.

“We have servants for a reason. If you think your slavish acts will impress someone, especially other healers, you are a naive fool.” She shook her head and turned around. “Taqi! Get your ass over here!”

“Servants have food to cook and I need clean bandages for tomorrow.” I dumped the bloody water and refilled the pot. “Properly clean, not just looking clean. I don’t want to waste my tinctures on cleaning unnecessary rot.”

The battles of the day ended in a very anticlimactic fashion. At a certain point in time, armies simply ceased attacks, shifted into standoff positions and then dispersed. The nomads returned to their camp a fair distance away from our position, while our forces did the exact same thing we’ve been doing every night on the march — we hunkered down and built a new fort.

This wasn’t some sort of a gentlemanly — or gentlewomanly — agreement between generals and, while this was likely a tradition, it was done out of necessity and not due to some codified rules of warfare that all armies of Tana were forced to adhere to. Once again, this was a matter of ‘stamina’ among the armies. While both forces were fighting in a familiar setting, this wasn’t even the Forest anymore where scant patches of terrestrial grass could be found here and there for animals to snack on. This was a plain covered with an alien biomat. For the horse and mule-laden armies, this was akin to fighting while holding their breaths. By the time noon passed, just as nomads were eager to return their horses to cleared corrals with fodder that they either brought along from their lands or plundered from Bayan Gol’s hinterlands, our arms were quick to start digging wells and clearing animal pens from the poisonous growth under their hooves.

I still wasn’t certain about our chances of victory, but the General and Manipulars seemed to be satisfied with our current progress. We did gain ground today and our carted supplies were bolstered by the walking granaries which were the siege arusak-at. What I was sure about was there would be plenty of daily battles ahead, and I needed to make sure that my tools and gear remained in peak condition. In a battle of attrition, the best equipped and best prepared won. But a nagging feeling of disquiet never left me. I wasn’t sure if it was caused by me being stuck in a situation I could hardly grasp with my current knowledge and experience or because this entire venture felt like Sophia’s style of playing chess — bold and tolerant to high levels of risk. How much of this was a well-thought-out strategy and how much — her blatant anticipation of the opponent making a mistake in the future?

I wasn’t sure so I kept gathering as much information as I could while my hands kept washing rags. I might not be able to dictate our wilful General on what to do, if I even had a decent plan to begin with. But I could go with Albin’s route and potentially uncover something before it hit us — or just me and my sadaq — in the head.

“Tell him what needs to be done and come with me.” Hajar prodded Taqi closer. “The General is summoning a meeting.”



“Anaise Kiymetl Hilal has shown herself fit to join the chariots,” Sophia proclaimed, no — dictated, to one of her Manipulars. “I want her placed in the central wing so that the barbarians can’t expect her fire-thunder spells from one side only.”

I glanced at my wife standing in front of the General and, noticing the perked-up ears and swaying tail, hid a rueful smile. If this was some other Pillar wermage with years of military service, this would have been more of a lateral transfer than a promotion, bureaucratically speaking. While charioteers were seen as more experienced oars, they weren’t the best nor were they well-placed in society — those got quickly promoted further to cushier commanding positions — but they were above the wermage norm. A perfect spot for a third child of some lesser-known Manor to show their bravery and worth since individual chariots were a lot more noticeable in battle than squads of footed wermages grouped together. As the Lady of the Pillar Manor, Anaise needed neither of those — none of us suffered from a lack of attention to our chagrin and her noble status guaranteed her a hefty promotion by the end of the year anyway — but the rank itself wasn’t what she was pleased about.

It was the speed of her promotion and the underlying requirements for a charioteer. This wasn’t a rank that one could or would want to wrestle themselves into using only family connections, but it was a rank one could find themselves in, just as Anaise now did, if their skill with Flow made other requirements unnecessary. And, at the end of the day, Flow meant everything in Emanai society. No respectable daughter of Emanai would miss such an opportunity.

I was obviously happy for her. Half a year ago, she put aside her preconceptions about murks in general and me in particular and her desire to improve her magic was one of the reasons for it. This was yet another proof of her growth, yet another notch on her ‘I am worthy’ scale, so I had no intention of interfering. Especially since this was indeed her growth. Yes, my lectures made it possible, but she was the one who took my knowledge about the mundane and applied it to her studies of the arcane. Not that I could complain either, considering that I already went and got myself promoted to a ‘challenger’.

But this promotion wasn’t without consequences. Our sadaq was being split even further as Anaise would be elsewhere during battles now, splitting my attention and limiting our ability to support each other if something happened. But other pieces kept moving and something was bound to happen, so I had to adjust my plans accordingly.

I went down on one knee in a silent request for the General’s attention, earning an incredulous look on Anaise’s face. I smiled at her and gently shook my head, indicating that I wasn’t trying to interfere with her promotion.

Sophia took her time listening to Manipulars regaling her about the actions and achievements of their subordinates and shooting down any other promotion proposals, but she eventually turned the tips of her horns in my direction. “Speak.”

“Allow me to assist my wife and your arms further, my General.”

She arched her eyebrow. “You know how to control a chariot?”

I shook my head. “I lack the experience for such an important task. I am the Alchemist of Kiymetl — allow me to poison their night, tonight.”

There was a time and place for everything and continuing to play the role of an average murk when all relevant parties were aware of my strength and weapons was stupid. Just as this wasn’t a time for me to dwell on moral dilemmas and try to figure out who was right and who was wrong in a struggle for a lucrative mining town. It was time to do my husbandly duties. Not by their rules, however, as it would take me years to learn the tricks of their ways of waging wars, but by mine.

All I had to do was to convince Sophia to let me try.

“Is he asking to become one of the Procurers?” some other Manipular whispered to mine, off to the side.

“He has the strength and no Spark, but lacks any proper training,” my Manipular whispered back, shaking her head. “Sending him now would be a waste.”

Sophia detached her palm from her face and looked at me in a manner similar to what Anaise and Irje were already doing. “I think there is a fly in my tent — should I burn the tent to the ground? I am assigning your wife to chariots now so that she has time to practise until the real horde arrives! Not because I am afraid of this scouting party!”

“It is not about killing the fly, my General, it is about stoking a spark of discord onto the inferno of chaos. The spark that my wife already planted with her thunderous spellwork. The nomads might be uncivilised, but they have trickery at their disposal — plotting as we speak on how to deal with Anaise Hilal so that she can’t disrupt their main horde in the future. If their thoughts are occupied by other problems — they won’t be ready to meet my wife on a chariot tomorrow. If they spend the night awake — they will start the day exhausted. If their horses are poisoned and sick — their cavalry will be too sluggish to run away from your deadly chariots.”

“And you have enough poison for all their horses?”

I spread my arms. “I don’t need to — there are fields of poison around us. Our horses and mules reside in barren corrals lest they nibble on a straw of red on accident. ”

“You plan to mix the blood grass into the enemy’s supplies?” My Manipular scratched her face scar. “They are heavily guarded and you will need more than a handful of stalks to cause something more than a single retching animal. The General is right — I wouldn’t waste even a spear for something so little.”

“Grass alone is too inefficient. Better to pulp it into a slurry and sprinkle that over the fodder so they can’t send slaves to pick out individual straws anymore. Even if their horses are smart enough to refuse to eat, their limited fodder is spoiled nevertheless, and I have other means of delivering the ‘message’ that doesn’t need me to be deep inside their camp.”

“Your messenger gnat,” Sophia mused to herself. “Denied. I have Procurers for this reason.”

I sighed to myself and stood up from my knee, as she turned back to another Manipular and demanded to see the ‘Procurement officer’ of sorts. I wasn’t angry that she took my idea and was planning on using it herself but this plan was just the tip of my plot iceberg. I wanted to get closer to the enemy camp so that I could learn more. A lot more and in a very intimate way. About sheydayan, wermages, Sparks. Things I couldn’t research as easily in this camp even if I claimed for myself a personal prisoner or a corpse of an enemy. There were some internal movements within our camp, which I wished to exploit as well.

I spent the rest of the meeting in silence, planning and plotting possible routes of egress that I could take without anyone noticing. There was a chance that I could ask Albin, but the poor guy was in a very dark mood right now as my most recent and most egregious ‘blatant cheating’ caused him to finally lose a chess match. Probably composing a eulogy song to his chastity, if he even had one to begin with.

After spending some time with my wives, where I reassured them that my plans were in no way reckless, I was eventually dragged off to our side of the camp by my First Spear. Only to be accosted by a familiar figure.

“Azhar Mesud,” the First Spear saluted to Albin, “I assume you wish to talk with my spear?”

The Manipular of Ulastai nodded, “I do. One of my spears woke up in good health, despite getting his belly gored, and my warriors wish to celebrate his healer.”

Hajar whistled.

I frowned; none of Albin’s soldiers had come to me with such grievous wounds so far. “That fool Ulan? I told him to stay in bed or he would spill his guts again.”

“That is why he isn’t here,” Albin immediately agreed and turned to my commander. “Will you allow me to take this spear? You have my word that he will be back at his tent by the morning horn.”

Hajar paused for a few seconds, clearly considering his words, but eventually gave us a nod. “Every warrior should have their honour to thank their saviour. Especially for a wound this severe. Go, Erf, but make sure I see you at your tent by sunrise, in full gear and of clear mind! I will not have the wounds of my spears being left untreated because the healer is falling asleep on his post.”

“Rest assured, if I have to stay away through the entire night, I have potions to stave off exhaustion.”

“Ah yes, your southern kava,” the First Spear mumbled. “Don’t come back with a morning fog either!”

I blinked. “I don’t get hangovers.”

“Your medicine dulls the pain but the fog remains.”

“Well, it is not a hangover medicine. For that, you need plain water.”

She looked at me like I was five. “Have you ever drank more than a mug of ale, kid?”

“The trick is to drink the water in advance. Neither wine nor ale causes the morning fog directly — they cause you to have too many nightly visits to the outhouse.”

“Uh-huh, tell me more about how the lack of piss in your head causes the morning fog. What do you get if you shit too much, then?”

“Not piss — water that your body needs so much. Your body also hates poison and tries to get rid of it. Especially the poison in ale and wine that clouds the thoughts and loosens the body. But it can’t just spit it out like a cursed frog, so it uses-”

Hajar groaned and pushed me into Albin’s hands, “Enough of your explanations! My stomach churns just listening to all this talk.”

She turned and waved us good-bye. “You have him for the night, let the kid have more than three mugs of ale.”

We watched her leave in silence.

“Why do you wish to attack tonight?” Albin asked once she was far enough.

“The pawns are moving; I need to stay ahead. If I were to act at all — I better do it now while the enemy is not as numerous.”

“You are unsure of your skills?”

I scoffed. “What skills, Al? I am not a warrior, I am a Navigator. I am a smith who knows how to swing a hammer but never smashed it against someone’s head. My skills and my tools are all makeshift for the tasks at hand so I can’t be absolutely sure until I actually try.”

“You will draw attention to yourself. The wrong kind of attention — not the ‘keep him alive for a hefty bounty’ but ‘we better claim him for ourselves and ignore any offers of the Kiymetl Domina’.”

“I have drawn attention to myself already while my adversaries aren’t sitting idle and waiting for my next move. As such, my current task is to curate the spread of information. And gain some for myself. I am not arrogant, Albin. If the situation turns out to be hopeless, I will turn around and head back into the camp, pick up my spear, and let more experienced people work.”

“Not arrogant he says,” Albin snickered and pulled me along somewhere. “You are plotting to barge into the camp of six thousand-”

I grimaced. “Sneak, Albin. I am not planning on just walking in and dropping all of them. It is not even about the skill — I won’t have enough time for that. A little bit of sneaking and a little bit of sabotage. In this case, their large numbers are working in my favour once I blend in. Where are we going?”

“I want you to meet your new crew for the night. You aren’t the only one who is going to keep an eye on our neighbours.”

“Procurers? Albin, I would prefer to work by myself. I neither have the time to adapt to their methods nor can I teach them to execute mine. Besides, you saw my last fight against Lita’af — your Procurers might be full of tricks but can they move equally fast?”

“That is my sister’s way to get assurances on your competence in such a task.” Albin pushed a piece of parchment into my hands.

“Wait, you’re saying that Sophia is behind all this too? Why did she deny my proposal back then?”

He gave me a wide grin, full of unnaturally sharp teeth for the werrabit Azhar Mesud. “Why, because the pawns are moving, Erf!”



He suppressed a groan in his chest as he heard the greenhorn rustle in the blood grass.

“Cease,” he whispered back without looking.

The rustle stopped.

“Are we being spied upon?” The incessant questioning immediately followed.

Choben heard his teeth grinding. The new kid was worse than a stubborn mule. Stomping or yapping like he was some pedlar in the middle of a bazaar and not in front of the horde of barbarians that would skin him alive and hang his flesh on a spear for others to see. If he was one of his initiates, Choben would whip his ass bloody so that he would remember next time to be silent, but this one had a high favour.

At least the idiot had enough wisdom between his ears not to shout his questions.

He grabbed his hair and yanked his face up. “You see that?”

“The night is full of stars. Very pretty.”

If only he could grip the hair tighter. Fucking Companion. “See the stars blink? That is a hawk flying up above. A barbarian’s familiar. If it sees you — a wermaje in the enemy camp knows we are here. If they know — a hundred horse riders are galloping our way with ropes to tie you up and drag you into their camp. Do you know what they do with pretty boys like you, kid?”

More like ten and they were nowhere close to that hawk, but Choben was tasked to keep the kid safe. And safe meant following orders from the beginning till the end.

The kid paled. “What?”

“They drag the pretties to their leaders, of course.” He savoured the visible fear on the kid’s face. Perhaps this night wouldn’t be too difficult. He would keep him shaking and quiet through the night, pass him back to his mistress in the morning, and forget about his existence by noon. “To the sheydayan for their enjoyment. You look like you know a thing or two about night skills — have you ever been fucked by a giant lion? What about a lion full of magick vigour? They say it takes two murk lives to satisfy one sheyda completely and that is back in their homeland. Here, your flesh would be used to satisfy all of them. And their warriors too, if there is anything left of you by then. I am sure that many of them are quite frustrated by now and eager for some release.”

The greenhorn wiped the sweat from his face. “Perhaps I should turn back.”

Other Procurers turned around and Choben felt his eyebrows rise. The kid was more cowardly than he assumed! Why did he bother coming here in the first place? Was he that naive or was this a task by his mistress?

“Companions,” another Procurer scoffed, “warn them of consequences and their knees buckle.”

“His mistress won’t take the spoiled goods. A wrong type of dick down his gullet and he can forget about the cosy life back at the Manor.”

Choben shook his head in disgust, he should’ve said something like this sooner and they wouldn’t need to bother with this millstone on their necks right now. “Just do exactly what I say, when I say it, and not a single peep back.”

The kid glanced back at the walls of their camp. “How about I just head back now? We are still close.”

Before Choben could say anything, the swift pale fingers that never held a sword let alone a kattar pushed a tiny cut of gold into his palm. “I will hide near the gates until you come back and no one will know.”

One of his companions coughed nearby, and the kid smartly added another cut. That was two sheep’s worth of gold in his hand or half of his yearly salary. He glanced around, they were close enough to their arm’s camp for the kid to stay safe but far enough for the Emanai guards to see anything suspicious. The enemy was even further.

“Stay here in this dike. If we don’t see you here when we come back — I will be reporting to my Manipular that you deserted in fear as soon as I step into the camp. Got it!?”

He shared a meaningful glance with the other warriors, putting the two cuts aside while making sure that his cut would go straight into his pouch, and they took off toward the enemy in perfect silence of Procurers. No more rustling interrupted their task and he could buy himself a set of new shoes tomorrow.

It looked like the night wouldn’t be too bad after all.




The wind whistled in my ears as I flew close to the ground, occasionally correcting my trajectory with my lashes. The detachment of Procurers was still nearby but I had no time to waste. By now, my target was already halfway between the camps, a few more minutes and she would reach the scouting area of the birds in the sky and things would get a lot more tricky to pull off.

Bereft of my clothing that I left behind in the ditch, my body barely made a sound in the air up until I smashed into the cloaked figure. Unconcerned about the tumbling, my lashes launched forward, grabbed the now airborne body, and quickly pulled her back to me just as I braked myself into a standstill position.

The so-called inertial meet-and-greet. Unfortunately for the murk body in my arms — an extremely deadly event for a non-augmented human body. But I had no time to waste.

I put her down on the ground and immediately started to pump her chest to maintain the blood flow and keep her brain at least partially alive. In the meantime, my lash pierced through her skull and connected me to her memory centres. I had to work quickly; communication with a non-augmented brain was somewhat tedious since there were no pre-established handshakes for Harald to connect with and I had limited time before memories started to get scrambled due to the failing nerve cells.

Harald established points of reference and started mapping the memories, filtering away the obvious and mundane. An urchin, slave, spy. Taken from the streets and forged with devotion to her master and saviour. And the master of her master.

Bragge Archomilea the Third.

The Daimon Lord of the steppe. The lion that roars at the sky. The enemy general that she was on her way to meet in person. Not immediately — he wasn’t at this camp, but she was heading there to spend the night, pick up a horse in the morning, and walk into his tent by the sunset. With a stack of sealed parchments in her hand.

“This is why I had to act now, Al,” I grumbled to myself as I glanced at the satchel.

Chirp landed nearby and I passed him the sealed scroll, wrapped around a bronze arrow, to peer into while I methodically undressed the body. I paused for a moment to inspect her face and forced my own to morph into the new shape as quickly as possible. My body underwent similar changes too, gaining a few curves in the process to mimic her lithe form, but I cut corners as much as I could and those changes were superficial at best and hidden under my new clothes at worst. She wasn’t on her way to meet her parents and no one in the camp knew how tall she was down to a millimetre.

I made a large slice through the biomat and stuffed the body under the layer, leaving a customary silver cut in her hand. I didn’t want to risk someone stumbling over her too soon and a pyre was out of the question.

Chirp trilled its report.

“There is stuff written about me and Albin? How nice — we are getting popular,” I mumbled in a new, throaty voice and pulled the kaftan tighter. “Let’s go meet the hundred riders.”

I had other tasks for the night and then there was the cryptic message from Sophia about returning the ‘lost honour’. I needed to figure that one too.

The first one to notice me was one of the hawks. Compared to Chirp, it was some form of limited mind control. While the creature did use very natural movements to stay in the air, its flight pattern and general behaviour were more than suspect. Especially when it took a sharp turn only to start making circles right over my head.

Soon, some sort of shaman emerged from her yurt, dressed in an impressive array of feathers sticking in all directions, and headed toward one of the bigger yurts in the middle of the camp. A minute or so later, three nomads jumped on their horses and headed my way.

I kept walking until an arrow struck the ground in front of me.

“Name yourself!”

I pulled a heavily engraved bronze arrow and lifted it over my head. “I am on a task for the Lord. Take me to your commander.”

The riders lowered their bows but kept the arrows nocked. Cat ears, feline eyes, and a few whiskers — not murks. Heavy, powerful bows but an obvious lack of any runework — more likely wer than wermages. The oldest among the three wercats approached me closer and inspected the carved seals.

He squinted at it then turned his horse around and waved me on. “Follow us.”

The trek to the camp was a quiet one. My guards did glance at me from time to time and I was certain that they were eager to interrogate me themselves, but I was the carrier of his bronze arrow and above their rank to be questioned. So I kept walking while looking straight ahead and treating my entourage as nothing more than alien grass under my feet. Murk or not, I was a messenger to the Lord of the steppe and I acted like it.

Their camp had at least five hundred yurts, medium and large, arranged into a multitude of circles. Compared to more centralised Emanai arms, the armies of Barsashahr had a clearly defined tribal organisation. While thousands of riders were here, they were here as a part of their tribes. They camped together and they were led by their respective tribe leaders rather than appointed commanders. Tiny communities that could bring only a handful of warriors with but a single yurt to themselves joined the yurt circles of the larger tribes they owed allegiance. In turn, those circles surrounded even larger circles of bigger and fancier yurts. Those belonged to the greater tribes of Barsashahr, blessed by their gods with the strongest sheydayan to crush their enemies and the fruitful lammar to bear them children.

Or were they cubs? I wasn’t sure — sheydayan reproduction was still unknown to me nor was it common knowledge among the nomads. As far as they were concerned, a lamma would get pregnant, recuse herself with a horde of personal midwives to a special yurt in a manner fit for a princess, and emerge later with her progeny. Not that much different from other women of their tribes if one ignored the number of servants due to the higher status of the mother. It wouldn’t matter for now anyway as I wouldn’t be seeing any of them here. While women generally weren’t forbidden from taking weapons and riding into battle, the nomads expected them to take care of their herds in the green steppe and busy themselves with children first. More so if the woman was a wermage or a lamma with an entire tribe to take care of.

My path was stopped by two enormous sabres. Well, sabres were too small of a word. I was stopped by two enormous bronze bagua dao. While Emanai favoured runed weaponry, Barsashahr seemed to compensate with size. Considering the bulky tiger wer in front of me with their large clawed hands, likely distant relatives of Viter, they fit them rather well. They even had manes of hair around the dao guards to make the weapons more lion-y.

“Why did you come to the circle of Rurkha!?” one of the guards boomed at the mounted wer beside me.

The rider pointed at me with his foot. “The messenger to the Lord and had his arrow. She asks to be seen by the commander.”

The feline eyes turned to me, “Why?”

I looked at him like he was an idiot. “To ask for a horse. Are you telling me that Trymr Rurkha forgot the customs of his homeland? That he would refuse the hospitality promised by Bragge Archomilea to his arrow bearer!?”

He glared at me but pulled his dao away. “You sound like them, smell like them too.”

While they spoke the same language as Emanai — the local lingua franca, dispersed by the numerous gods of Tana across the land — there was a certain accent woven into it. Many of the plosive sounds like ‘p’ and ‘d’ were softened, while trills like ‘r’ had gained favour, giving a new flavour to the common tongue. Even with my new voice, I still sounded like an Emanai native but trying to mimic their accent in front of the native speakers would be disastrous.

“She came from the camp of land thieves.” One of the riders came to my aid. “Our shaman told us to expect her.”

I gave him a slight nod in gratitude but said nothing else.

The two guards looked at each other and opened the path into the yurt circle. “Sheyda will judge your words. You know what to do.”

I scoffed, went down on all fours, and started crawling into the courtyard as traditions dictated for me to do. Despite the lack of walls throughout the camp, yurts themselves created plenty of chokepoints or acted as barriers themselves. Each circle had either one or two ‘entrances’ and I was now crawling through one of them. It was pretty hard to observe anything from my position, but I could glimpse the enormous carpet laid within the yurt circle, heavily laden with drinks, food, and all sorts of men eating and feasting. A deluge of cat ears and tails with the most notable person lying in the most prestigious spot. The sheyda of the Rurkha tribe. One of the war chiefs of this detachment. Trymr Rurkha the Fifth.

My target.








Snusmumriken Chapter was edited by: Xeno Morph and UnknownPlunger.

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