Chapter 126: The Last Mission

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And when our festivities are over, we shall go onward, onward into the night and bear our lights. Evil seeks to claim us, and we shall not give ground. We are the warriors, not by choice, but by necessity. The forces of evil are massing to defile everything we hold dear, and we shall crush them beneath our heels.

***

A Few Months Ago

***

Raddas glared suspiciously at the orders. "Well, it's close, at least," he said. "You'll probably be done soon. Then you can report back here."

"There's that," Laidu said, "but that's not entirely why I'm concerned." He tossed the papers down on the table, so Raddas, Gial, and Iako could see it. "Look who issued it."

"Denan, again," Raddas said. "He seems to have taken an interest in you."

"And every time Denan is the one signing me on missions. And they all have a few themes. Rescuing women, dealing with prostitutes, or Ajandi." He sighed and massaged his temples with the tips of his fingers. "Please tell me I'm not crazy, I'm not seeing more to this than there actually is."

"Eh-ey-oh." Laidu frowned and looked up at Iako. The Tethyd paused, before swallowing the pork he had been eating. "Sorry. Temptation. That's what he's doing to you. He's putting you in spots of temptation, and my guess is, ulike holy orders who do it to strengthen resolve and will, he wants you to fail."

"Doubtless," Laidu said. "His conduct with me has always been unprofessional." Iako went back to his meal, and Laidu stared at the letter again. "Invidia kept him in check, before she left." Raddas felt a pang of guilt for that, as if he was responsible. He wasn't, she made that choice on her own. "I get why he hated me, and for all intents and purposes, if he was right with his theories, it makes a kind of sense. It's madness, but I get where he's coming from with this."

"I don't," Gial said, throwing up his hands. "Please, o scholar, enlighten me." He rolled his eyes. "You're always bloody confusing, you know that?"

"He's not," Iako said. "I understand him just fine." He gave Gial a pointed look. "It's you that's the problem."

"He believes we can't really change ourselves," Laidu said. "It is not our mind, and the thoughts and ideas we hold that define us, but our flesh. In fact, he holds that the flesh itself shapes what we can think, what thoughts we can hold in our heads."

"So... he'd believe that a water pitcher makes whatever is in it into water, and a wine goblet makes whatever is in that wine? The container determines what is contained?" Gial asked.

"It sounds dumb and ridiculous, and that it is," Raddas said. "But do you see why it makes sense?"

"Because Laidu's flesh isn't normal? He thinks Laidu is some monster because he doesn't have skin, or tan or something?" Laidu shrugged. Raddas had seen Laidu's scales lighten in the sun, an inverted farmer's tan.

"Exactly. He's convinced Laidu is a monster because Laidu looks like one, and therefore he must act like one." Raddas sighed. "He's tempting Laidu to get him to snap and do something to get himself thrown out of the Corps."

"That's not going to happen," Laidu said. He rose. "Pleasure talking with you, but I have a date with some Ajandi slave-catchers in the..." he checked the letter. "The Redleaf forest. Be back soon,"

*** 

Laidu stalked through the forest, through the one path that ran through the woods. It was a strange and bizarre place, a region that, despite the gnarled trees that tried to claw at the sky, felt unnatural. Maybe it was the lack of birdsong that should have woven its way through the twisted branches. Maybe it was the stillness of the air.

But as a shambling, empty-eyed woman, her arms knobby and emaciated, and her dress in tatters, crossed his path, completely ignoring him, Laidu decided that it was the three Day Specters he had found walking through the woods.

The medallion around his neck, the weight (now that the amulet was brought to mind) heavy against his collarbone, rendered him invisible to the things. Invisible, or ignorable. Her blank look stared at him for a moment, before moving on.

He had cut down one of them, and saw a strange, almost misty thing rise from its corpse. It looked like a strange bundle of fabric formed of gossamer or spidersilk, insubstantial and ephemeral. It had drifted away, before vanishing into the light and fading from Laidu's sight, and his mind. Maybe that was one of the actual Day Specters, and not the revenant shell like the one shambling before him. Either way, he had been on his way, and the world had one less shambling terror to deal with.

He studied the dirt path. There was only one path through this area, a solitary winding scar of parched brown earth cutting through eerily vibrant green. It was well traveled, and the numerous wagon wheels that rolled across it left a long line of parallel ditches that stretched from one bend in the road to another, before the winding band of tan vanished amid the trees.

This road was the only truly safe road, cutting through the forest directly, instead of taking a longer and more circuitous route, or the haphazard smuggling routes, connecting from hideout to hideout. The Ajandi would, out of pragmatism, shun the more crooked and erratic routes, and even bandits refused to deal with the Ajandi raiders and their unsavory practices. So, that left this road. One road. The perfect spot for an ambush.

Laidu looked around, before spotting a gnarled tree. It was an odd fact that the Redleaf Forest began to change its colors sooner than every other forest, and the trees here weren't shedding their leaves just yet, but they were already beginning to fade to the crimson color that earned the forest its name.

He climbed up a tree, and as the sun began to fall down towards the horizon, the revenant shuffled off away from the path, away from the night sky, deeper into the forest. He had watched one sleep, or whatever it actually was that they did, and they had stood, before slumping over to a hunched position, before abruptly collapsing like a marionette with its strings cut.

But night was soon to fall, and night in the Redleaf forest meant travelers. Travelers like the Ajandi, in their wagon. But Laidu could wait. He leaned back on a rather sturdy branch and waited. They would never suspect him, never find him where he was.

After all, caravan guards never expect an attack from above.

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