Despite the stern warning, 126th Augustana continued its march towards Canorate. The small army drew looks as it passed villages, inns and other travelers but the way was peaceful, almost dreamy. Iomedae was known to be a good, just goddess, and there was no fear among the Molthuni. The warmly smiling sun helped. How could one be uneasy when spoiled by such beautiful weather and the sweet promise of summer?
Nyra’s company went where she did, that much was certain, even though many of the men and women serving under her had just been recruited. She knew there were rumors circulating among her troops, questions being raised why they had turned south instead of going north to battle the demon hordes of the Abyss that spewed from the Worldwound. But she had their unwavering loyalty. Those who knew her trusted her. Those who had only heard the legends, followed her, for the time being at least. That was the challenge of leading a crusader force – the soldiers ultimately owed their loyalty to their goddess, not the commanding officer. They were an army of professionals that was both bolstered and challenged by their uncompromising faith. And it was up to Nyra to maintain her troops’ loyalty towards her, inspire them, and lead them in a way that enabled them to further their chosen cause. If she didn’t, they’d leave her and find their own ways to fight for their goddess. Nyra’s gut tightened as she considered what kind of challenges she’d have to take her company through as she followed her vision.
The night before the company reached the outskirts of the capital city, Nyra had a new dream.
In the dream, Nyra walked through a dead garden, the flowers and plants sagged and withered, their dry leaves and twigs crumbling under the paladin’s steel boots. Rot filled her nostrils. The garden was lined by a tended park forest, and beyond loomed tall towers to every direction. She was in a city.
She advanced with caution as if she was trespassing. The night sky was cloudy and it was hard to see anything but outlines and the different shades of gray and blue. But the shadows hid a secret – a revelation – Nyra knew it. And she wanted to find it.
The wind whispered in her ear and made the dry dead leaves scatter around her armored feet. She almost heard someone speak in the air. She closed her eyes, hoping to catch the words.
The voice came from somewhere close and made her open her eyes. Two tall and broad figures had appeared from nowhere and were standing side by side before her. Their builds looked alike, but whereas one’s outline shimmered with golden light as if he was eclipsing the Sun, the other was completely dark save for two burning red eyes and a blazing rune on his forehead.
The whisper floated from the one with the burning eyes. Despite being barely audible, it was laced with urgency.
“What?” Nyra demanded in the dream. “What is within?”
The fire in his eyes erupted with force and illuminated his reaper’s face.
“The enemy, Nyra! Hell is already within the gates!”
Nyra had awoken to his scream, finding uncertainty pressing against her like a pillow. Was she already late? Within the gates had to mean the gates of Canorate, of that the god-touched was certain. Had the darkness already taken root in the capital city? She could fight evil head on in the field of battle, but what was this? She was no inquisitor or a preacher that fought in the shadows, with cloak and dagger or words of light, unrooting corruption where it grew. She was a soldier.
And what had the man meant by hell? Hell existed, literally, but was also a figure of speech. So much was unclear.
Still, when morning came, she donned her armor and put on her helmet and marched her company towards Canorate. There was nothing else she could do. And she knew it was exactly what she had to do.
In the afternoon, the sprawling metropolis of almost thirty thousand inhabitants appeared on the southern horizon. Two sets of tall walls ringed it, the fortifications bolstered to the west, north, and north-east by two rivers Nosam and Hungry Maw. At the center of the city, built on top of a hill, was the Imperial Castle, the black and gray sentinel of the capital. To its north opened a forested district which was dotted by massive mansions each more extravagant than the other. In the castle’s shadow, at the hillside, stood massive barracks, home of the Molthuni Army, and an administrative district that kept the nation in the firm grasp of its leaders. The heart of the city was surrounded by a bustling yet organized combination of housing areas, markets, places of religion, schools of the arcane and a multitude of industries ranging from forges to armories and meat packing.
“She wasn’t lying”, Jocelyn noted from her mount and nodded forward. The city gates were a little less than a mile away, and they were open and congested by traffic. But instead being open for citizens and merchants, they were vomiting an endless stream of soldiers. The first ones out were already organizing into neat square platoons on the other side of Hungry Maw river.
“What would you say was the strength of the city guard?” Nyra asked absentmindedly from her companions. They were at the front of the crusader company convoy, scanning what lied ahead.
Shevar hissed and bared her long, sharp feline’s teeth. Jocelyn flexed her neck left and right. “I’d say two thousand? Three thousand?”
Nyra nodded. “She’ll bring them all out.”
The catfolk scout was signing with her clawed fingers.
<You intend to make war, my lady?>
Nyra sighed. “No, I will not.” Throwing the lives of her warriors to harm’s way like this was not an option. Even if there seemed to be no alternatives if she wanted to obey her goddess.
<What then?> There was distinct impatience in the tigress’s body language, and Nyra could understand why.
A very good question, she replied without saying.
“Castellan Hemdor will surely move against us, my lady”, the older knight advised her commander. “Taking the Army out of the city forces her hand. It would be a disgrace to her if she doesn’t attack us.”
Iomedae damn it, I’m here to help you, Nyra cursed in her mind. Fighting the Imperial Army was out of the question, as was a retreat. What do you do when you can’t fight or fall back?
She decided to go with her gut and have faith.
“We go talk”, she stated and urged her horse, a brown stallion named Thaddeus, forward. “Us three”, she added.
“Shevar doesn’t talk that much”, the First Lance-Commander raised her voice after Nyra, and she could hear the grin in it. The tigress sniffed in agreement.
“I want her nose with me”, Nyra replied. The scoutmaster could smell a trap or an ambush a mile away, but she was a fine judge of character as well.
Jocelyn held her fist up, signaling the company to stay where it was and followed her commander with Shevar.
The opposing army had deployed fully when they reached the outskirts of Canorate. Nyra saw rows and rows of uniformed pikemen, flanked by small platoons of heavy knights, two companies of archers at the rear. A formidable force. She would not have expected less. The northern gates of the city stood open like a yawning mouth, the bridge over the river its long tongue, but all traffic had seized. The merchants of the city would blame me for disrupting their day, too, Nyra frowned.
The god-touched paladin halted with her companions a good hundred strides from the first row of pikemen. They too waited in near silence – shouted orders could be heard every now and then from the platoon commanders, demanding lines to be straightened, heads kept up, mouths closed. Even the birds and wind had gone as if waiting for the worst to pass.
A troop rode from the flank closest to the gate.
“It’s the Castellan herself”, Jocelyn observed. “Gorum’s bitch”, she added, curling her lip.
“Careful now – we want to remain civil”, Nyra told her under her breath as she watched the group of riders gallop closer. They came with the same self-assured intent when they had ridden to her camp. But this time, Imperial Castellan Pia Hemdor took the stand herself right away.
“I didn’t take you for a fool, Commander Sunn, yet here you are.” Her dark eyes were judgemental, and she tried her best at intimidation. Nyra replied with a genuine, if worn smile, a shield if any against such attempts.
“I am pious, my lord. Some call me determined. Its foolishness is a matter of perspective.”
To her right, Jocelyn looked down, trying to hide a smile of her own. Thankfully the Castellan disregarded the older knight.
“I see”, Hemdor continued and even Nyra could hear the lie in her words, “but from my perspective, you are very much disrespecting the authority of the Molthuni General Council. That cannot be allowed.”
“My lord, with all due respect, that is not the case. We are here to help you with any means necessary.”
Hemdor crossed her arms. “Then get the hell out of my nation, Commander.”
“Your enemy is already within the gates, my lord, I’ve seen it.” Her young voice began to tremble as the paladin was trying her best but talking her way in began to see impossible.
This made the Castellan roll her eyes and spit her irritation like venom. “Seen it? Not with this godly providence again!”
Nyra pursed her lips, frantically trying to come up with something smart to say. Something that would help her.
Hemdor wasn’t letting her.
“I have three thousand men and horse against your unsupported cavalry force. We will escort you back to the village of Kypris, and send you off to Eranmas. If you turn back or dawdle, I will personally lead the attack and scour you from the face of Golarion. This is my final offer and warning, Sunn-”
A faint rumble of galloping hooves against dirt interrupted the Castellan. She and the warriors of Iomedae turned to see who approached with such haste.
Four men, officers of the Army, rode hard past the rows of soldiers and towards Nyra and Hemdor. One of them stood out a like sore thumb, wearing an adorned uniform of a general, similar what Hemdor was dressed in if somewhat more decorated. Now what is this, Nyra wondered.
The dark-skinned Castellan murmured something under her breath. She didn’t look happy.
“Who is this, my lord?” Nyra couldn’t help herself as a tingling of confidence, of hope, filled her chest. Hemdor didn’t deign to answer but just squinted her eyes at the newcomer general.
The newcomer was a handsome, broad-jawed man with a tanned skin and smartly cropped gray-blond hair. He carried an air of authority, and Nyra felt his and Hemdor’s egos rubbing against each other even from a distance.
“Imperial Castellan Hemdor!” He shouted as he pulled his mount’s reins to bring it to a halt. “What is the meaning of this?”
“General Lord, I am exercising my authority to maintain the safety and stability of the capital area”, Hemdor replied, her low voice trying to remain deferential, but Nyra could easily hear the venom that each word was laced with. The man seemed not to notice it, nor care.
Instead, the man was looking at Nyra, examining her. He allowed her a quick nod and smile before regarding Hemdor again.
“Castellan.. is this small group of the Iomedan faith going to invade Canorate or sack its neighboring villages? Have they been threatening our people?”
A faint red rose to her dark cheeks. “No, my lord, but their presence is unwelcome here-”
“Hemdor, I have just returned from the frontlines with his Excellence the Imperial Governor, and I can assure you followers of Iomedae are always welcome in Molthune. This is my and the Imperial Governor’s position.” He pointed the last words directly to Nyra.
Hemdor’s fists tightened and loosened around the reins.
“This comes directly from Teldas?” She finally murmured the question. The newcomer, General Lord, replied with an unblinking, stern gaze. “It doesn’t matter, does it, Hemdor? Do as you’re told and stand down, Castellan. That is an order.”
Hemdor opened her mouth to speak but chose otherwise. But she spared a thunderous gaze for Nyra and couldn’t keep her thoughts to herself.
“Sunn, if there’s even a hint you’ve associated with any mischief..” Then to the General. “My lord”. She nodded and rode off towards her officers at the flank of the deployed army, her guards and adjutants following at her heels like a pack of well-trained dogs.
“My apologies for Castellan Hemdor’s lack of courtesy”, the newcomer told Nyra, Jocelyn, and Shevar. “I am General Lord Lucius Davonnii, First of the General Lords, and right hand to his Excellence Imperial Governor Markwin Teldas. I bid you welcome to Molthune.”
Nyra nodded deeply to Davonnii, holding her right gauntlet over her heart.
“My lord, I am Nyra Sunn, Commander of the Crusader Company 126th Augustana, sworn to her Brightness, our lady Iomedae. And these are First Lance-Commander Jocelyn Rhediax and company scout-master Shevar.”
Jocelyn offered Davonnii a similar deep bow as her superior had, but Shevar only gave the slightest of nods. She had her furry ears downward, something Nyra had learned signaled defensiveness and wariness.
“Ah yes, Nyra Sunn. The Blight of the Abyss”, Davonnii remembered one of her nicknames. This surprised the paladin but she remained neutral.
“I’ve been called that too.”
“It is an honor to have you here, Commander Sunn.”
“My lord, if I may be blunt, you are the first Molthuni to say that.”
Davonnii looked over his shoulder. Behind, Hemdor was already organizing the return of the Imperial Army back to the shelter of the city walls.
“The Castellan takes her job very seriously, and it is a virtue. Most of the times. But, I am curious. Why are you here with your company?”
Nyra drew a long breath. Here we go again. At least she had had practice and some time to think how she would’ve presented herself if she had the chance.
“My lord, I share a close bond with my goddess, one that has allowed me to achieve victories others would not have.” There was no reason for Nyra to be coy. Deities affected the world through their chosen followers, that was well-known. She had to make Davonnii and the leaders of Canorate understand that what she told them – what Iomedae had told her – was true and urgent. “Her Brightness talks to me in my dreams.” She paused, letting the first truth sink in, trying to see how the General Lord reacted.
He nodded her to continue, with no sign of disbelief. Nyra wanted to sigh but stopped herself. She had to control her voice lest it trembled like a leaf in the wind.
“Most recently, she has given me a warning, and a task. To come to Canorate and fight to protect it from an evil presence, one that is already within the gates of the city.”
Davonnii frowned. “That is a serious claim.”
“Yes, my lord. It is. One that I present with the utmost severity.”
“Can you share insights on what is the nature of this evil presence? As you know, our enemies are countless. I’d even call some of our friends our foes.”
Nyra drew another long lungful of air through her nose. This was where Davonnii had to make a leap of faith. This was where she had to sound credible, and not a girl younger than her years.
“I am afraid my goddess has not shared me that knowledge, my lord. But rest assured, a deity like her Brightness does not make empty claims and send her devout followers to fools’ errands.”
“Hmm, I can see why Castellan Hemdor was suspicious..” Davonnii began, but Nyra went on. Steady now. Look him into his eyes.
“I might be young but I have too many victories under my belt to be considered a fool. With all due respect, we only got off on our wrong foot with the Castellan.”
Again, Davonnii merely nodded and pursed his lips. “I understand, Commander. And what I have heard of you and your accomplishments, you are a warrior whose words should be heeded.”
Nyra’s stiff neck loosened and she allowed herself a smile of satisfaction. A small victory, but a crucial one, perhaps.
“I am happy to hear you take my warning with the gravity it requires, my lord.”
“I will. Of course, we must present you to the Imperial Governor. He has returned to the capital and I assume he will want to hear this himself and handle the matter personally.”
Another battlefield, then, Nyra mused. But I won’t be without allies this time. Davonnii seemed like a good man.
“But first, we must get your company into the city. We have free space in the city barracks as part of the guard has been dispatched to the Nirmathi border to bolster our forces there.”
Nyra glanced quickly to her left and right, seeing if there were any comments her companions wanted to share. Jocelyn was happy enough, but Shevar remained wary. She was staring at the army of three thousand marching back into the city. The clawed fingers of her left hand moved almost imperceptibly as if she was flexing them or playing with the reins. Nyra realized she was signaling as discreetly as she could.
<Sleeping with the enemy? Dangerous.>
Nyra knew she had a point, but didn’t want to risk the goodwill they had been offered. “Thank you for your hospitality, my lord. We will gladly stay in your barracks.”
The enemy is within the gates. Despite the danger, she wanted to be close to her enemies. Preferably a sword’s length away.