Gisael, Reyas, Benzhi and Anastasia sat in a circle, they were in the Glade which had become a tent city; the building activity was now in overdrive including a massive ramp up the mountainside. The glade was in the quintessential secret valley with one glaring issue. The grey elves could not tree-run, so how did they get in and out? There was tunnel being constructed, by the dwarves, at the same time the elves were building the ramp.
This was an opportunity for the Dwarves, which they jumped at, to return "value" to the elves. The dwarves kept ledgers of every skerrick of aid they had received and were determined to return in kind. It had been difficult for them when the elves just waived it away as a gift and refused any recompense.
To make matters worse, the dwarves had nothing the elves needed. With all their master crafting the dwarves struggled, the elves simply did not need metal tools or weapons of any kind. When they grey elves arrived, the opportunity for the dwarves to make good in their ledgers had arrived with them. The funny thing was, no one else cared about the dwarven ledgers except the dwarves themselves and that fact did not bother or register with the dwarves either. The dwarves did not care that no one else cared, they did!
The tunnel would exit in a secluded location which had good access to a natural trail the elves could utilise. However, it was high up in the Glade, thus needing a ramp. The alternative was the grey elves would not have built and lived inside the glade. It was unanimous, no one wanted that. It was decided they would form one community and work together, despite their differences, they Grey Elves got along with the Wood Elves, as much as any people did.
"It is time," Benzhi stated, "for you two to decide. We have trained together for three weeks, this is more than enough time and to reach an understanding." The group had just received a Guardian Bow and three Ebony swords from Paphyra. The next move for Vanguard is to harvest cores while searching for magical beast hides for the leather crafters.
"Gisael," Benzhi looked at her and in turn Reyas, "Reyas, will you accept Anastasia into Vanguard." Gisael had indicated it was not Benzhi's decision alone if Anastasia was to join Vanguard, so rather than push Anastasia on them Benzhi was forcing them to make the decision themselves. If they rejected her, well he would cross that bridge if they came to it. Benzhi saw no reason for them to reject her though, he thought by giving them the choice it would build a more cohesive team.
Reyas spoke first, "I have no doubts. Anastasia is talented and we get along, so, yes I accept her into Vanguard."
All eyes now rested on Gisael, she seemed not to notice any pressure. She looked into Benzhi's eyes, "I have known my place for a long time, it is by your side and sometimes when you make a mistake I will be there to catch you." Gisael was referring to a tree-running maxim. The wood elves placed great emphasis on the importance of the person responsible for catching a child who misstepped when tree-running for the first time.
"This is not one of those times, Anastasia is welcome to Vanguard," Gisael stated simply, Benzhi sighed a breath in relief he thought she was going to object given the way she prefaced her statement.
"Time to celebrate then," Benzhi said, "let's go kill a thousand or so gnolls."
Reyas said, "he's not joking."
"Oh," Anastasia said.
Benzhi opened a portal to the old Vaugend mine area, it was near the edge of the Alpine Forest and north of Vaugend itself, where the gnolls had been hammering its defences.
"I wonder how Vaugend has fared?" he asked no one in particular.
Anastasia asked, "what's Vaugend?"
"I'll explain on the way," Benzhi said.
The newly reformed Vanguard consisted of Benzhi, Gisael, Reyas and Anastasia. They were accompanied by four Guardians and ten Gatherers. The Guardians secondary role would be to protect the Gatherers who would be collecting cores from the fallen portal spawn.
Benzhi had invited the Gael warriors and Dwarven warband to come on the expedition as an opportunity to train as a single cohesive fighting force. Skandear of the dwarves would lead the combined force of Guardians, Gaels and Stoneskin defenders.
Skandear had a sensible and strategic head on his shoulders, the last thing Benzhi wanted was to lose someone in a fight that was not strictly necessary. And being the master Stoneskin defender, the dwarf was certainly not a risk taker.
Twenty grey elves had volunteered to carry supplies and assist setting up the temporary camp before returning, the new inhabitants of the glade went out of their way to be useful at every opportunity. They lined up with packs and carts full of tents and food provided by the Gaels. Benzhi was making the most of the ability to portal across the domain known as the Alpine Forest.
It would be possible to portal from outside of the domain back to a Land Core. However, Benzhi had not worked out how to anchor to anything that was not in the Domain, so portalling directly to Vaugend was not possible.
With a wave of his hand indicating they were moving out, Benzhi headed through the portal, it was anchored to the Land Core and was being powered from it. Benzhi preferred this method as it required much less concentration and no qi on his part, he just needed to remember to turn it off.
After he arrived at the abandoned Vaugend mine, well evicted to be precise, Benzhi opened portals to the Staggan Clan and Stoneskin Clan were the other groups had gathered. These two portals he did have to focus, he closed them as soon as the warriors were through.
Benzhi gripped Skandear's wrist, in the manner of the dwarven greeting, and shook hands. "I will leave this mob in your hands Skandear, the Vanguard will scout ahead, the Gatherer camp can be set up within the Alpine Forest, at the edge, where I will leave up to you," Benzhi discussed with Skandear.
"It wull be dun," Skandear replied in his thick dwarven accent, "we will be finding a secure camp. No doubts."
The shared experience of bringing the entire dwarven clan from the southern mountains through the plains infested with portal spawn, finding camping spots daily had built an understanding and trust between the two.
"You be looking the part now," Skandear addressed the Vanguard perusing their equipment, "all ye be needun now is the leather armours. And don't be using that sword Master Benzhi, ye be using that spear like a good lad," he joked.
"You have no idea how much I am looking forward to it," Benzhi replied, "we cannot even spar with it, it is too dangerous."
"That tree you tried it out on will never be the same," Anastasia piped in.
"You are not forgiven," Gisael repeated for the fourteenth time.
Reyas just laughed. She had suggested it and Benzhi copped all the ire.
The Vanguard left the main contingent behind after all had arrived and Benzhi had closed the portals. The main contingent now consisted of six Stoneskin Defenders, five Gael warriors and four Guardians as the fighting force. With ten gatherers and twenty grey elves as support. Benzhi would open another portal at the camp later in the day for the grey elves to return to the glade.
As they ran excitement began to envelop the Vanguard. They had trained hard the last few weeks and they now possessed delicious new toys to play with.
"This is going to be peachy," Anastasia said.
"Your age is showing," Benzhi laughed at her. Anastasia would phrase things in such a way, now and then, it would give away her earth background which included living for seventy-eight years thereabouts. "What you should be saying is this is going to be epic."
"You should be saying nothing when we are in enemy territory," Gisael scolded them lightly.
"What do you mean?" Reyas asked rhetorically, "Benzhi will be shouting calling all the spawn to us."
The Vanguard stopped, they had been running for almost thirty minutes outside of the Alpine Forest boundary when they spied the first group of gnolls. It was a roving band consisting of six of the bipedal doggies. The gnolls were organised and equipped. They were not feral like the yetis or troglodytes. Their groups consisted of a structure and they behaved more like an invading force than mindless wandering portal spawn.
"Two spears, two long handle axe types and two crude bows, it is a well-balanced group," Gisael reported. She had the best eyesight which was enhanced by her qi sense abilities.
"Anastasia, practice with your bow and bring them towards us. Gisael please hold off killing them all before they get here I want to test out this spear," Benzhi asked.
Anastasia moved forward before firing upon the gnolls, they were at four hundred paces, she could not shoot that distance let alone hit one. Gisael held her bow loosely, ready to provide support.
When Anastasia arrived at two hundred paces she loosed an arrow, it went wide but succeeded in alerting the gnolls to their presence. The gnolls began to lope towards her while she retreated back to her companions.
Gisael raised her bow at two hundred paces and took down their two archers before they fired a shot, Benzhi looked at her in askance.
"I don't want you punctured by an arrow, they may miss so badly that you blunder into it," she chirped.
"One each," Benzhi suggested.
"Yippee," Anastasia said.
Anastasia despite her talent and training with the Vanguard had never been in an actual fight that Benzhi knew of, he would take one down and then ensure she was not in danger.
Benzhi stood with spear and shield, Reyas with her bladed staff, Gisael with two ebony long swords and Anastasia had her two-handed sword.
Fur and blood flew. It was over so fast if you blinked you would have missed it.
"Well, that was hardly satisfying," Reyas voiced what was on all their minds.
"Let's find something meatier," Benzhi stated and then ordered, "plant their spears in the ground to help the support team find the bodies."
The Vanguard began to clean up all the trash between the Alpine Forest and Vaugend. Benzhi and Reyas explained to Anastasia what Vaugend was and their brief history as well as what Benzhi had seen when he was transformed as a Kite scouting the plains.
"Do you not worry that they are all dead?" Anastasia asked.
"It is possible," Benzhi answered.
"Does that not concern you, you could have helped," Anastasia pointed out.
"No. I am not their leader, I have no responsibility to them. Perhaps we could have come to their aid, but we had more pressing matters," Benzhi said.
"We have been training for three weeks though," Anastasia said.
"And from our last experience, we lacked the weapons to take on the second let alone the third wave spawn properly. Trust me, second wave spawn would decimate the city far worse than first," Benzhi explained.
"We owe them nothing and if the roles were reversed I doubt they would come to our aid. It would be more likely they would wait to see what they could gain out of the conflict. And we are coming now. If it is too late. So be it." Benzhi stated harshly.
"I do not think they deserve any help," Reyas said. The Vaugends had killed Gaels with no provocation and had a hostile roaming band of one thousand soldiers in their territory for a month.
"If they are strong they will survive," Gisael stated simply, "it is not good to coddle the weak, they will die as soon as you leave them." And Anastasia had thought Benzhi was harsh.
The Vanguard arrived at the perimeter of Vaugend.
The walls were ruined. What stood in their place was piles of rubble. The towers were no more, they were merely larger piles of stone. The gnolls had decimated the defences over time. The outer buildings looked like they had been burned to the ground, only blackened walls remained.
A breeze wafted past the group, the city smelt worse than before if it were possible.
As the Vanguard stood, surveying the city a band of one hundred gnoll warriors approached from the west.
"That's more like it," Benzhi said gleefully. Up until now, the largest band had been ten and most were six.
"That's not too many?" Anastasia asked.
"If you get in trouble run, otherwise stay in the rear and in formation," Benzhi stated.
They had not gained an understanding as a fighting unit of four, the connection enhanced Benzhi's combat awareness beyond measure and assisted Reyas and Gisael. However, this was all new to Anastasia, she was a confident capable woman, but an inexperienced warrior compared to the other three.
"We should use the rubble," Benzhi said. The treacherous footing would not hamper his team comparatively to the gnolls where it would break up their cohesiveness and mobility drastically.
The Vanguard speed through the remanents of the gate and headed to the northwest corner, from the inside of the ruined wall.
"Stay together, Gisael take out their archers," Benzhi said. He did not need to tell Gisael to do this, she understood through experience and the connection. It was more for Anastasia's benefit. Gisael would not miss and Anastasia was still learning. He had effectively ordered her to hold fire by ommission. Why? The only had so many arrows and the enemy could come in endless numbers for all he knew.
Gisael began to fire, skewering one gnoll archer after another, the small army was in a confused disarray at first, but within a minute, more than fifty gnoll warriors charged the Vanguard.
Benzhi stood behind the rubble with his shield in front. Gisael was just to his left, taking out any archer that dared to pull a bowstring. Benzhi would intercept any arrow that made its way toward himself or Gisael. Reyas kept a close watch, assisting Benzhi through the link, four eyes were better than two.
An arrow hit Benzhi's ebony shield, it did not penetrate the wood, it cracked and fell to the ground. The qi strengthening did not allow a normal arrow to scratch the shield, let alone penetrate it.
The front gnoll warriors had closed and were climbing the rubble, snarling and salivating.
They wore studded leather amours, not two the same, some with vicious spikes on the shoulders, others with plates of wood bolted down into the leather. They wielded swords, shields, spears, axes all types of the common weapons. Some even had viscous looking clubs with large metal spikes embedded. Half of them had shields, which consisted of hide wrapped over wood. The hides all had a similar depiction which represented their tribe, it was a large red open jaw with pointy teeth.
Benzhi waited for them to cross the rubble onto the flat ground, they came in waves at least ten at once. He stabbed his spear into snarly gnoll face after face. One was quick enough to bring its shield to bear but the spear went straight through shield and skull. Benzhi reversed the qi flow to the spearhead and pulled it back. The shield splintered and fell apart then Benzhi flicked it behind.
Reyas spun her bladed staff on Benzhi's right, slicing with one end, stabbing with the other. The reach was much better than her picks, and the quality of the weapon carved through the gnolls like butter.
Gisael retreated, keeping her bow ready, picking off any who tried to flank the Vanguard and any archers.
Anastasia moved to Benzhi's left, her demeanour changed, she smouldered with intensity, which the Vanguard could sense through the link.
Anastasia strikes with her sword were devastating in strength while lacking one important facet. One gnoll flew twenty paces as it was battered.
Benzhi laughed, "I used to do that."
It wasn't that the runes on her sword did not slice, it was the sheer weight of the impact and the fact she did not activate the runes. She had used her novice level qi strength and batted the gnoll aside.
"Use the blade," Benzhi instructed.
Anatasia went red and nodded activating her runes with qi.
One hundred gnolls were dead in less than ten minutes. The Vanguard would have to face the second wave at least before they were challenged.
"Let's explore the town and see if anyone remains," Benzhi said. The Vanguard began to search for survivors of Vaugend.
A NOTE FROM SKULLY
Wood Elf Crafted Ebony Sword