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As the big human suspected, the land between the Ven Sethadon and the spot where he had finally called a halt was literally crawling with red haloed shadows, attesting to the density of enemy forces in the area. The location of the suddenly missing Ka'thesck soldiers had now been discovered with sa'anish magic used to uncloak the hidden dark soldiers.

Equipped with the new visors, the ranger company carefully mapped its way across the southern Shield, making detailed notes on enemy locations and strengths. As they did so, they were sure to remain cloaked themselves lest they alert the enemy to their scouting activities. Thus protected, they were able to infiltrate a number of heavily guarded enemy camps that housed literally thousands of dark soldiers, with more pouring every day from underground passages.

General Aideku reacted the strongest when Shawn made his report to his command staff nearly a tenday later after carefully exploring a number of sites in the Evanor'ef Sylva'Beledin.

"Dark soldiers pouring from the ground, my lord?" she tautly asked, eyes narrowing to angry slits.

"Indeed, in great numbers," he confirmed with a frown, consulting a scrap of parchment where he had jotted down his original estimates on Tjor'riin numbers from a scan with the Star Sword before he set out. He compared it to one he had done just before returning to Aquila via portal.

"In fact, it would appear the Ka'thesck has some how managed to increase their Tjor'riin numbers by nearly an order of magnitude."

"How's that possible?" Tenne wanted to know. The human general stood on the other side of the dark elf general, his arms crossed over his chest and a confused frown on his handsome face. With several days' rest, he had recovered from their earlier effort to find the missing Tjor'riin soldiers and once again was his neatly pressed and tidy self.

"The Empire's breeding pits," Aideku supplied, her eyes flashing with grim fire. "Long have the dark elves hunted for them in the forests of what the humans call the Hammer Peninsula. It would appear the Return has somehow awakened them and now they vomit out dark soldiers without relent, which the enemy now brings to bear against us."

"We can't fight against that," Thom bluntly stated, his tanned face going pale as he looked at the numbers Shawn had scrawled on his scrap of parchment. "Even with the Hydran and Uepoluan reinforcements in place. They now outnumber us nearly 1000 to 1!"

"This changes little." Shawn crumpled the two pieces of parchment in his hand with a convulsive squeeze. "The Ka'thesck still needs to be destroyed and the elven lands cleansed before we can face the Return with our full force."

"Pardon my question, your Highness, but I'm not sure I'm following here," Tenne interjected, the confusion on his face deepening. "What empire are we talking about?"

"The sorcerous Crimson Empire, which held humanity in thrall for nearly a thousand cycles." Again it was Aideku that answered. "They used foul black magic and necromancy to create an army of shadow soldiers to do their bidding, fashioning great breeding pits where they grew those soldiers, from holes in the ground. My people attempted to destroy all of them once the Empire fell and we were freed but we apparently failed." She looked down at the ground, struggling to master her emotions.

"It would appear some of these hidden pits have once again become active," she said after a moment's pause to compose herself.

"Bones and bloody shards," Tenne said with a grimace, "that is bad news!"

"But not the worst news that could've come out of Shawn's scouting trip into the Beledin," Feladorn countered. The slender Lusinoran prince had a thoughtful expression on his face, obviously putting a great deal of consideration into the situation.

"As Shawn said, this hasn't changed the situation at all, only the magnitude of our task. With that in mind, I propose moving a significant number of troops through the portal into the Beledin where we establish a forward base. From there, we bend all efforts to find the highway connecting the pits of the Hammer Peninsula with the elvish lands west of the Giant's Teeth."

"Why a highway?" That from Banik, who had unrolled a handful of maps of the lands north of the Yatual onto the table top to examine them yet again.

"No pit survived west of the Giant's Teeth," Aideku said with a nod, hope lighting a different kind of fire in her eyes as she realized what Feladorn was proposing. "All we need to do is find the highway and its exit into elven territory, destroy it and we shut off the Ka'thesck's supply of dark soldiers!"

"Exactly," Feladorn confirmed with a nod.

"Then we have a plan," Shawn said firmly. "Establish Fel's forward base, find the Tjor'riin supply route and shut it down." He quickly looked at the faces surrounding the table. "Any questions?"

"None here." Feladorn grinned. "I'll go and assemble the task force needed to establish the forward base."

"I'll go with you, Fel, and give you a hand with that," Thom said and, after saluting to Shawn, the two Sylvasin generals were on their way.

"I'll handle logistics, if you want to take supply, General Tenne," Aideku said.

"Done and done," Tenne replied with a nod and they too departed after saluting.

That left Banik, who straightened from the table with a nod of satisfaction.

<<That means I've got redistribution,>> he said, switching to Vanje with Tenne gone. <<By your leave, Shawn?>>

<<Of course, Banik, and good luck; hopefully we'll get those reinforcements shortly that Gebridax and Ciradaan promised from the Aeshin'laur nations and this tactical shifting will become a Ka'thesck rout.>>

<<Wouldn't that be nice,>> Banik said with a grin and a salute. Then he too was on his way, intent on making sure the Redeemed were properly distributed to handle any issue after the task force troops were drawn from their numbers.

That left Shawn alone in the command tent. He stood for a long moment, lost in thought as he considered their options. Then, with a sigh, he stepped out of the tent himself, intent on finding his tent for a bath, a change of clothes and a hot meal.

Almost immediately he ran into Dezi, who had been waiting anxiously just outside. Again barely restraining the impulse to throw herself into his arms, the young dark elf woman instead fell into step with him.

<<What were your generals' reaction to your scouting report, Shawn?>> she quietly asked as she paced him, trying to ignore the heady aroma of his nearness.

<<Alarmed and disturbed, methinks,>>  the young human observed in reply, a frown on his lips. <<But undeterred; Fel proposed we establish a forward operating base in the Beledin and strike at the Ka'thesck's hidden bases from there.>>

<<Was his proposal accepted?>> she pressed.

<<Indeed; Fel and Thom even now are preparing the advance force.>>

<<A wise decision,>> Dezi said with a nod. <<Every moment we hesitate, the breeding pits in the Hammer Peninsula will pour more tjor'riin soldiers into elven territory.>>

<<Aye; our numbers are finite, even with the Hydran and Uepoluan reinforcements. We need to strike now, and strike hard. Or we could be found facing the Kaal Eran and the Return with nothing.>>

<<By the Flame, the Maker won't allow that to happen.>> She looked up at Shawn, suddenly uncertain. <<Will He?>>

<<No, He won't,>> the big human replied, grim. <<That's why He sent me and my brothers here.>>

Before she could stop it, Dezi's hand had slipped into his.

<<Do you have a plan, my Shawn, once we establish the forward base?>> she asked in a soft voice.

<<Aye.>> Shawn smiled tightly. <<We kill them, Dezi. We kill them all!>>

**** 

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