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GriidlordS

By Tom Wrath

Copyright © 2024 by Tom Wrath

All rights reserved. No part of this book may be reproduced, distributed, or transmitted in any form or by any means, including photocopying, recording, or other electronic or mechanical methods, without the prior written permission of the author, except in the case of brief quotations embodied in critical reviews and certain other noncommercial uses permitted by copyright law.

The Griid, the characters, events, and locations portrayed and depicted within this work are the creation of the author and any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, events, or locations is entirely coincidental.

Sometimes platforms may have a lag in updating episodes as I add them, if this file contains one less episode than the title suggests, check back again in a day or two, or visit another platform, such as Smashwords, or even better, my Patreon, which updates quickly.

Foreword

Enter the realm of The Griidlords: a post-apocalyptic world set 1000+ years after the fall of civilization, where the remnants of America have fractured into 32 warring city states.  In this bleak, unforgettable universe unlike any other, you join an epic, sprawling narrative that blends the passion and excitement of professional football with the intrigue and power struggles of beloved fantasy and sci-fi epics like Game of Thrones and Fallout.

Intertwining real-life NFL history with the alternate timeline of The Griid, this serialized novel offers world-building that draws on NFL history, creating a rich history that is hard to compare. From the mighty Pittsburgh Hill Clans reigning supreme 500 years in the past, to the rise and fall of the New England Empire, crumbling in the current events of the stories like Rome, this vast world of intense, interconnected histories demonstrates the passage of time, the transition of power, and the impact of victories and defeats, on and off the field.

The Griid offers a wholly immersive experience for every reader. Imagine having the power to not only witness but participate in the events that shape the world through an interactive Patreon experience. Patrons can enjoy privileges such as voting on the importance of real-life NFL games that, in turn, decide the fates of Griidlords or the future of city-states themselves. Hold your breath as you watch your favorite teams clash on the field, knowing that the lives and fortunes of the characters you've grown to love hang in the balance.  Stay up to date with the story, by watching the Dallas Freemen march against the forces of the RedKing of Kansas, knowing that the Chiefs-Cowboys game's outcome might crumble empires, kill favorite characters, or gather the precious resources to keep a sick child alive.

Delve into the unique world mechanics underpinning The Griid, where each city-state's technology levels are influenced by the mysterious elements of Order and Entropy; some have regressed to wielding swords, while others have advanced towards automatic weapons and electric motors. The Griidlords, power-armored representatives from each city, act as guardians, gods, or demons, depending on your city's allegiance, locked in an eternal contest for the Orbs, which determine the balance of power and resources.

It's time to embark upon a journey that transcends the boundaries of traditional fiction, taking storytelling to a new level of engagement and suspense. The Griid introduces a complex, engrossing universe filled with fantastic characters, rich world-building, and an innovative blend of sports history and speculative fiction.

The fate of your favorite characters – and your city – may well hinge on the outcome of the big game.

The future of storytelling has arrived. Answer the call to join the ranks of Griidlords and unlock access to time-exclusive episodes by becoming a Patreon patron.

Will you rise to the challenge?  The next episode is already waiting on Patreon.

Welcome, dear reader, to The Griid.

Tom Wrath

Please, come join my adventure, search for “Tom Wrath” on Patreon

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I am the author of this book, every scene, every idea.  To ensure the quality of the text, my work was passed through an AI service to compensate for my own challenges for proofing.

EPISODE 1

Chapter 1

Clive had just blinked, his eyes darting quickly over his shoulder toward Bret, who was in the gleaming, shining workshop. It was the kind of place that belonged in a futuristic sci-fi novel – pristine, orderly and high-tech. But in the blink of an eye, his world came crashing down.

A sudden wave of confusion washed over him, his heart pounding in his chest like a wild animal, desperate to break free from the confines of a cage. Thoughts raced through Clive's mind, each of them vying for his conscious attention. And as quickly as the confusion set in, he realized that he was no longer in the workshop.

Instead, he was standing in a room that was a stark contrast to the modern lab he had just left. Carved stone walls enclosed the space on all sides, their uneven surfaces slightly damp from the humidity in the air. The scent of mold and decay filled the room, making it hard for Clive to breathe. Dim light emanated from the corners, where containers of burning oil seemed to be the only source of illumination.

The flickering glow from the flames danced on the walls, casting looming shadows that seemed to reach for Clive as he tried to make sense of his surroundings. Toward the far end of the room, he could barely make out a distant, rectangular sliver of daylight that seemed to tease him with the promise of an escape.

Clive closed his eyes tightly, willing himself to believe that this was all just a hallucination, maybe a side effect of a stroke - certainly not something that could be real. With his eyes shut, he tried to picture Bret's face, the texture of his beard and the telling expression of warning that seemed etched permanently on his features. Clive held onto that image, convincing himself that when his eyes opened again, he would be back in the familiar, gleaming workshop, looking at Bret.

However, when Clive dared to open his eyes, the same stone room loomed before him, its dim flickering glow confirming that he was still trapped in this unfamiliar place. Panic began to bubble up inside of him, his breaths coming in short, rapid bursts as he started to hyperventilate. The room seemed to close in on him, the damp smell overwhelming his senses, and Clive felt as if he were drowning in a sea of despair.

As the panic continued to mount within him, Clive muttered to himself, "I'm losing my mind, this can't be real. What the fuck could possibly have happened? Oh God, I'm going crazy."

The cold, lifeless walls seemed to mock him in his despair, only adding to his sense of isolation and dread.

Desperate for any semblance of an explanation, Clive took a closer look at his surroundings. His eyes locked onto the rotting food in ornate bowls scattered about the stone floor, the putrid stench assaulting his nostrils. He shifted his gaze upward to find carvings on the posts supporting the oil burners, their intricate designs hinting at some sort of religious significance.

The mysterious, seemingly sacred nature of the space only served to heighten Clive's fears and questions. Where was he? How had he gotten here? Was there any hope of escaping this nightmare? In his desperation, Clive couldn't help but feel a sense of foreboding creep across his heart, casting a dark shadow over any hope he had at finding answers.

Gathering every ounce of strength he could muster, Clive closed his eyes once more and took a deep, quivering breath. He repeated to himself, like a mantra, "This isn't real. There's something wrong with my mind. I have to calm down and ground myself."

Slowly, he looked down at his clothes, noting the lab coat and ruffled shirt he was wearing. If the room was an illusion, Clive thought, then maybe focusing on something familiar might bring him back to reality.

With his heart in his throat, Clive hesitantly raised his head, praying that he would see something - anything - different when his gaze returned to the room. Yet, despite his desperate pleas, the room remained unchanged, the carved stone walls continuing to confine him in this chilling, unfamiliar place.

The sense of despair threatened to overwhelm Clive once more, but with a steely determination, he forced himself to remain as calm as possible.

Clive stood rooted to the spot, his mind racing as he replayed the last moments he could remember back in the workshop. Bret's worried voice echoed in his head, warning him, "Be careful, Clive. The safety systems are down."

Clive had brushed off the concern easily, responding with a touch of arrogance, "Don't worry, Bret. I've done this a million times. Nothing's going to happen."

His breathing began to slow a little, still far from normal, but his racing thoughts made it difficult to concentrate on anything else. As he continued to take in the details of the stone room, his ears gradually became attuned to the muffled sounds of human bustle coming from beyond the distant door.

The realization that there were people nearby stirred a mixture of hope and anxiety within Clive. While the distant noises seemed to offer a potential escape from his bizarre prison, he couldn't help but wonder who or what he might encounter if he ventured outside the confines of the stone room.

Taking a shaky breath, Clive began to move hesitantly toward the door, each step echoing in the cavernous room. As he ventured closer, the sounds outside grew louder, reminiscent of the bustling atmosphere of a crowded shopping mall.

His senses were further bombarded by an array of new smells - the unmistakable stench of horseshit mixed with the mouth-watering aroma of cooking meat. Clive tried to make sense of the cacophony of sights, sounds, and scents, but it was simply overwhelming.

The situation felt so surreal that Clive couldn't shake the odd feeling as if he were wearing a virtual reality headset, experiencing something that couldn't possibly be real. Nevertheless, the sensations around him seemed all too tangible, leaving him with little choice but to press onward and confront the unknown waiting just beyond the door.

As Clive neared the door, the sunlight streaming through it grew more intense, practically blinding him after the dimness of the room he had just left. He squinted, trying to adjust to the brightness but also eager to catch a glimpse of what awaited him outside.

When his vision finally cleared, Clive was bombarded by the sight that unfolded before him. It was a scene seemingly plucked straight from a medieval town or a storybook like Arabian Nights. A dirt street stretched out in front of him, lined with an odd assortment of mud hovels and sturdy stone houses. Market stalls filled with colorful fabrics, exotic spices, and other unfamiliar wares were scattered about, their lively merchants calling out to passersby.

Feeling dazed and almost catatonic, Clive took another step, emerging from his stone confinement and out into the open air. The moment his foot hit the large stone step outside the doorway, he was plunged into the hustle and bustle of the strange new world that greeted him.

The people around him were dressed in a bizarre mishmash of styles, with some clad in medieval cloaks and robes, while others wore modern attire like blue jeans and t-shirts. Everything felt off-kilter, a disjointed portrait of reality that was difficult to comprehend.

Clive's eyes then landed on a piece of meat rotating slowly on a spit over a bed of glowing coals - a sight that would ordinarily seem mundane, yet felt oddly too real amidst the chaotic disarray. Further along, he noticed horses tied to nearby posts, their tails flicking impatiently as they waited for their owners to return.

His gaze finally settled on a pair of soldiers, outfitted in shining armor with navy and orange trimmings. The emblem of a white horse was emblazoned boldly on their shields, adding to the surreal tapestry that surrounded Clive. All around him, the world teetered on a precipice between the familiar and the fantastical, leaving him struggling to understand his place in it.

"How can this be?" Clive muttered to himself, feeling utterly lost in the sea of contradictions that was his new reality. He incessantly replayed the last moments he spent in the lab, Bret's warning echoing in his head and his own arrogance gnawing at him like a persistent itch.

The field generator - could it have been the cause? Clive considered the possibility, but his mind simply couldn't fathom how. The nature of the mistake he had made should have ended his existence, or so he thought. Not transported him to a world caught between the past and the present.

With no other place to go, Clive numbly stepped onto the dirt street, his legs moving almost mechanically, leading him through the strange world without really processing where he was going. He was too preoccupied with the whirlpool of chaotic thoughts and unanswered questions churning within his frenzied mind.

As Clive wandered aimlessly, he couldn't help but overhear a conversation between a meat seller and a man in dusty robes. Their voices carried over the background noise, fueled by the intensity of the exchange.

The meat seller, seeming weary, said, "Three pieces, sir. That's the final price."

The man in dusty robes was unhappy,  "Two pieces should be enough! That's what it costs everywhere else!"

The meat seller seemed unyielding, his voice firm and resolute. "Prices have gone up, sir. I'm afraid it's three pieces for the meat."

Looking outraged but ultimately defeated, the man reluctantly handed over the three pieces. The meat seller promptly wrapped the chunk of meat in a piece of flatbread, handing it to the man.

As the man in dusty robes took his purchase, he continued to grumble under his breath, "These damn 'Denver' bastards really know how to rob you."

Clive's panting grew heavy, seemingly straining to even the score between his rapidly beating heart and his chaotic surroundings. At the mention of Denver in the exchange, his confusion spiked, leaving him reeling with thoughts about how this place could bear any relation to the city he knew.

He raised his eyes to take in the full sweep of the scene - a medieval town, but with jarring inconsistencies. Here and there among the muddy streets and stone buildings, Clive noticed certain features completely out of place. Doors with modern designs, metal accents that belonged to another era, and other elements that simply didn't fit the ancient aesthetic.

In the distance, Clive's eyes locked onto a sight that defied explanation: a colossal tower, its design reminiscent of a skyscraper, yet infinitely more unique. Its architecture seemed almost alien, with glowing strips of light running along its sides like veins of energy pulsing through the structure. Whatever this place was, Clive knew it strayed far from the Denver he knew, leaving him with even more questions in his maddening search for answers.

The tower didn't just look modern; it looked like something straight out of a science fiction movie. Clive stared at it intently, his mind wandering as he tried to make sense of its existence. Had he seen sketches or blueprints of something similar at a meeting? He couldn't be sure.

Distracted by his thoughts, Clive glanced around, only to catch sight of the two guards eyeing him from a distance. Their hands rested warily on the hilts of their swords, as if prepared for any potentially dangerous move Clive might make. He then noticed a man in a flowing, ornate gown making his way toward the stone doorway Clive had just left, as if it were a place of importance.

Further cementing that notion in his mind, Clive couldn't help but think that perhaps the key to understanding his predicament lay somewhere inside that very room. With a renewed sense of urgency, Clive watched the man in the ornate gown, trying to piece together how everything he saw fit together in the perplexing puzzle that was his current reality.

Realizing the potential risk of drawing the guards' attention, Clive quickly turned away, doing his best to act casual. As he cautiously walked through the busy market, a young child passed by, shooting him a perplexed glance and exclaiming, "Funny clothes, mister."

Confused but unwilling to dwell on the comment, he continued on, coming across a stall displaying a unique array of weapons. Among the medieval swords, bows, and crossbows, he spotted what appeared to be a bulletproof vest. Clive couldn't reconcile the existence of such a modern item in a place that seemed so rooted in the past, deepening his confusion.

As he walked further, he overheard the sound of children bickering nearby. Their voices were high-pitched and excited, a familiar scene that somehow felt comforting in the midst of the bizarre environment Clive found himself in. However, their words only served as another reminder of the disconnect between this world and the Denver he knew.

Clive decided to listen more closely to the children's discussion hoping that it might offer some insight into this strange place.

The blond boy said, "Dad says we can't do worse than The Rustknight. I'm glad he's gone, and I hope we find a better warrior to be The Sword."

A dirty child countered, "Roland was a great warrior! He won the Key in the West when he was The Sword in Seattle. It's just bad luck, and battles can be about luck sometimes."

The blond boy snorted dismissively, "Well, Windrake barely won for us. Dad says because of so few flows, the main factories will be shut down. We really need to win this year."

A girl chimed in, "Windrake's squire might take The Sword."

The first boy frowned, "Stormhand would be even worse. Someone better better be found at The Choosing."

Clive listened intently, trying to make sense of their conversation. He found himself utterly confused by the words and concepts they mentioned - The Sword, The Key, flows, factories - none of them provided a clear answer as to where he was or how it related to his familiar world.

Emotions began to well up within him, threatening to spill over as tears, borne from the immense frustration and fear of what had happened to him. The only thing holding Clive back from letting his feelings consume him was the residual hope that somehow, he might find a solution by understanding the peculiar world he had been thrust into.

Suddenly, Clive's train of thought was interrupted by a disturbing commotion. The sound of a man screaming in despair and shock echoed from inside the stone room he had so recently left. His heart raced anew as he stood rooted to the spot, his mind filled with even more questions and concerns about the nature of this mysterious place.

Moments later, the ornate robed man reappeared, his face twisted in a mixture of fear and disbelief as he wailed, "The Prophet is gone!"

He continued his mournful cries, his words slicing through the air like an icy knife, "The disappearance of the Prophet means doom for us all!"

Reacting to the alarming cries, the two soldiers who had previously eyed Clive cautiously rushed past the distraught priest and hurriedly entered the stone room. Their weapons were drawn, their expressions tense and determined, leaving Clive to wonder what horrors had unfolded inside the very room he had so recently escaped.

With each passing second, Clive's situation grew more perplexing and his once-familiar world seemed more distant than ever before.

In the aftermath of the priest's chilling proclamation, the once-bustling crowd descended into a mix of anger and fear. Cries and shouts echoed throughout the market square, the people visibly distraught by the news of the missing Prophet.

Clive noticed the little boy, who had earlier commented on his clothes, trying to engage the weeping priest in conversation. The boy wore an expression of concern mixed with confusion, echoing Clive's own feelings.

Meanwhile, the soldiers who had rushed into the stone room emerged pale-faced and visibly shaken. In their eyes, Clive could see a mix of fear and disbelief, further confirming the gravity of the situation. The growing chaos only served to deepen Clive's own turmoil and his desperate desire to understand what had happened to him and how he might find his way back to the world he knew.

Suddenly, the priest seemed to pay close attention to the little boy's words. He lifted his head and scanned the crowd in an apparent search for something - or someone. As Clive looked on, the priest's eyes locked onto him, and with a bony finger, the priest pointed directly in his direction.

The soldiers, catching sight of the pointed finger, immediately turned their attention to Clive, determination flaring in their eyes as they started to rush towards him.

Seeing the approaching soldiers, Clive's instincts took over, and he turned to flee without a second thought. The terror and confusion within him surged like a tidal wave, driving him to escape the mysterious forces that seemed to threaten his very existence.

Clive weaved through the labyrinthine streets, his heart pounding in his chest as he desperately tried to put distance between himself and his pursuers. The sound of armored footsteps echoed behind him, a relentless reminder of the danger at his heels.

His surroundings passed by in a blur - the mud walls, the ancient stone and glass doors framed in steel clashed discordantly. He barely had time to register each incongruous detail as he fled from the soldiers.

Suddenly, Clive found himself on a cobbled street, narrowly avoiding a collision with an odd-looking vehicle. The strange contraption seemed to be a bizarre mixture of an early motor car and a steam-powered train – a fitting representation of the implausible world he was now a part of.

As Clive stumbled back from the bizarre vehicle, regaining his footing amidst the commotion, the driver yelled something at him, which only served to disorient him further.

Before he could recover, Clive suddenly felt the grip of leather gloves on his shoulders. He was spun around to face one of the guards he had been fleeing from, now standing in front of him, a stern expression on his face.

"You're coming with us," the guard announced, his authoritative tone allowing no room for argument or resistance. Clive's heart sank, his newfound sense of terror mingling with the ever-growing puzzle his life had become.

Chapter 2

"The fuck are we even doing here, anyway?  If those fuckers would just split up they could cover all this ground in a tenth the time it will take us.  Those three up there are an army on their own.  What the hell are we doing risking our lives out here?"  

Nicolas absently listened to the words of his Sergeant as he waited.  They were both looking at the rise in front of them.  Behind him, the murmurs and whispers of three thousand men filled the air.

Nicolas began slowly, trying to keep his voice calm and steady, as he replied to his Sergeant. "If those three ever strayed too far from one another, The Sword would be an easy target for an Axe. The enemy knows that. And we both know how crucial The Sword is to our success. He wouldn't risk exposing himself like that."

Nicolas couldn't help but let his gaze wander up to the three armored figures standing proudly on the rise before them. Their metal armor gleamed menacingly in the sunlight, and the energy that pulsed between the gaps seemed to be a physical reminder of their immense power. The tubes and wires embedded in their armor gave them an otherworldly appearance, and he couldn't shake the feeling that they were more than just mere warriors – they were a force to be reckoned with.

The murmurs and whispers of the soldiers behind him only served to strengthen his resolve, every word spoken a reminder of the human lives that depended on the actions of their small scouting party. They were the eyes and ears of the army, the first line of defense against any threat that could come their way. And they had been tasked with a mission: to scout the surrounding terrain in search of an Orb.

Nicolas studied the three figures more closely, taking in the orange and black armor that marked them as part of the elite. First, there was Jorin Brightforge, The Sword. A prodigious young warrior with a giant, energy-pulsing blade strapped to his back. Despite experiencing a string of ill luck over the past year that resulted in few Orbs being gathered, the stockpile wasn't yet depleted, thanks in large part to the victories of recent years.

Standing close to Jorin was Arcstone, The Shield. Clad in monstrously bulky armor, it was clear he took his role as protector and leader seriously. The unwavering trust between The Sword and The Shield was palpable, even from this distance.

On the opposite side of Jorin stood Jareth Hunter, The Arrow. With his lean, finely crafted armor and bladed arms glinting in the light, he was the ideal counterbalance to Arcstone's imposing bulk. Together, Hunter and Brightforge made for a formidable pair, two of the most promising Sword and Arrow talents in the land. The hopes of the city rested squarely on their shoulders, and they carried the burden with relentless determination.

The Sergeant, Bryan, gave a heavy sigh. "I don't know, Colonel. Sometimes I wonder what the point of us being here is. Each of those Suits is worth a thousand men. Meanwhile, we've all got families and work waiting for us back home."

Nicolas knew that Bryan's words were fueled by fear rather than genuine disdain. In an attempt to reassure his Sergeant, Nicolas replied, "Bryan, we all play our part in this. There are only five Suits in our city, they can't be everywhere at once. Our presence here – all three thousand of us – is enough to make an enemy Suit think twice about attacking. We can secure and hold an Orb until it's safely collected."

Pausing briefly, Nicolas continued, "I've been doing this for a long time, and speaking from experience, men like us rarely see any real action on the battlefield. The Suits usually determine the outcomes of these encounters, and there are few who can match our Sword and Arrow."

Bryan snorted in response, his lingering fears still gnawing at him, and countered, "If that's the case, then why are we rationing Flows again?"

The question hung heavy in the air, and Nicolas was forced to admit that he didn't have all the answers.

Nicolas adjusted the carbine rifle strapped to his chest, which, while a useful tool in the right circumstances, wasn't something he enjoyed carrying. It felt like unnecessary weight when he considered the odds of actually using it. It was useless this far from an orb.  However, he knew that the rifle could be crucial if an Orb should land nearby. His hand instinctively returned to the hilt of his sword, a weapon he felt much more comfortable and prepared to wield.

"Ill luck played a part, that's true," Nicolas admitted. "Brightforge sustained some damage in the battle with the Axe from the Hill Clans last year, and he struggled to make a swift recovery. The Sword's presence on the battlefield is crucial – it's around him that the other Suits' strategies revolve. This year will be better, though. The lights will shine, and the factories will be churning again soon."

Bryan nodded, his anxiety still lingering but tempered with a glimmer of hope. "I sure hope so," he muttered. "My wife's been complaining nonstop about the lack of denims, and we're struggling to find medicine for our youngest. It's easy for those bastards up in the tower – their lights are always on. It's the little people like us who suffer when the Flows run low."

As the armored figures began to descend the slope towards Nicolas and Bryan, the two soldiers instinctively straightened up, snapping to attention. "Looks like we'll get a chance to see our purpose soon enough," Nicolas whispered. "I think they've figured out where to go."

As Brightforge approached, his armor hummed with the sound of actuators, and his visor was aglow with energy. His voice, emanating from a speaker on his helmet, carried an air of authority. "Due north. We are detecting something faint. If there's an Orb there, it's far away. Start moving in that direction, we'll go on ahead. We'll signal if we need you to hurry."

"Yes, sir," Nicolas responded immediately, his voice strong and confident.

With that, Brightforge turned and rejoined Arcstone and Hunter. All at once, the trio gave a sudden pulse, and they shot forward, racing away at a speed many times faster than any horse could manage. Dirt sprayed in their wake as Nicolas and his men were left to follow, relying on their own strength and determination to guide them towards the potential of a battle – and the promise of victory.

Bryan couldn't help but voice his frustration. "If it's so important for us to be there, why not use the Glow to bring all of us there faster?"

Nicolas waved for his men to start moving as he responded, "Using the Glow to move three thousand men would be much slower, Bryan. Besides, we need to conserve that energy. Remember, if there's an Orb out there, we have to be quick about it. The Hill Clans are roaming too, and Thorn Jaxwulf has been sighted. To beat Jaxwulf, we'll need every advantage we can get."

At the mere mention of the name, Bryan shuddered involuntarily. "Damn, I can't even imagine seeing Jaxwulf in person."

Nicolas, also fearful but maintaining a brave facade, reminded his Sergeant, "Brightforge and Hunter are with us, remember? They would surely be a match for even someone like Jaxwulf." With that, the company began their march northward at a brisk pace.

"I don't know," Bryan replied hesitantly. "I've heard stories about Jaxwulf.  They say he killed the Shield from Cleveland just last fall. I've never heard of an Axe beating a Shield before – a Shield's whole purpose is to defeat an Axe."

The weight of those stories weighed heavily on the minds of Nicolas and his men, but they didn't falter. They knew it was up to them to do their part, no matter the odds.

The company of three thousand men marched steadily through the landscape, a mix of rugged hills and lush forests defining their surroundings. The air was damp with the scent of dew-drenched foliage, and a symphony of birdsong accompanied their journey. Even as they navigated the challenges of the undulating terrain, the soldiers couldn't help but appreciate the natural beauty that surrounded them.

In the valleys, they passed rivers that meandered gracefully, their waters teeming with fish and reflecting the vivid blues and greens of the sky and trees. Along the way, they encountered small, tight-knit communities with quaint wooden houses that blended seamlessly into the landscape, their inhabitants watching the soldiers with a mix of awe and trepidation.

As the company climbed the sturdier slopes, they were afforded sweeping panoramic views of the countryside. Verdant rolling hills stretched into the distance, punctuated occasionally by stark outcroppings of ancient rock. It was breathtaking, to say the least, and the soldiers couldn't help but feel a deep connection to the land they were fighting to protect.

Through it all, the men moved forward as one, their resolve unwavering. The serene beauty of their surroundings belied the darkness shadowing the world, but it also served to remind them of what truly mattered. It was not just a fight for the present, but for the future of their families and the very soul of the land they called home.

Suddenly, in the distance, a plume of energy shot into the sky, illuminating the area with a burst of bright light. Nicolas recognized the signal immediately and barked, "Brightforge is calling us – the Orb must be there!"

He turned to face the troops and roared, "Double time!" The soldiers picked up their pace, adrenaline fueling their tired legs as they pushed forward.

Bryan, panting beside Nicolas, shared his thoughts, "I've never actually seen an Orb."

Nicolas took a moment to reflect on the fact that it was rare to have a Sergeant as inexperienced as Bryan, given he had never seen an Orb before. However, he reminded himself of Bryan's exemplary performance in the skirmishes with the Cleveland forces the year prior, allowing him to climb quickly through the ranks. Despite his greenness, Nicolas had no regrets having Bryan by his side in battle.

"If you're involved in a battle for an Orb," Nicolas explained, "it's usually against other soldiers – it's rare to fight the Suits."

Bryan hesitated, then asked, "Have you ever fought a Suit?"

Nicolas' eyes grew distant, his mind flickering back to that harrowing day. The titanic fight against the armored warrior who tore through their ranks, leaving a brutal trail of bloodshed, severed limbs, and fear in his wake. The soldiers had fought desperately, some fleeing in terror from the unstoppable force that seemed more like a demon than a man.

His voice filled with somber reverence, Nicolas admitted, "Yes, once. We lost 600 men and had 300 wounded, but we managed to beat him back. It seems like such a terrible price to pay, but just think of your child needing medicine and the thousands like him back in Cincy. The Orb we secured that day kept the ebbs flowing and made a difference in their lives."

The soldiers pressed on, climbing a steep rise that overlooked the surrounding landscape. As they ascended, the panorama unfolded before them; vast, rolling hills carpeted in vibrant green, interspersed with dense patches of woodland. The atmosphere was alive with the chatter of birds and the collective footsteps of 3,000 men marching with purpose and determination.

At last, reaching the summit of the rise, they were afforded a view of something truly awe-inspiring: a glowing sphere, almost glassy in its appearance and the size of a horse-drawn wagon. Its ethereal beauty went beyond anything the men had ever seen before, and it seemed almost out of place in the natural world that surrounded it.

Nicolas, trying to keep his focus, repeatedly thumbed the safety of his rifle on and off, attempting to gauge by sound alone if the Orb was close enough for his weapon to have any effect.

Bryan's voice held a note of wonder as he said, "My God, that's beautiful."

Nicolas nodded in agreement but quickly returned to the task at hand. "That Orb holds a hundred Flows. It could sustain the first sector for quite some time – it would make a big difference."

"Let's go get it, then," Bryan said with renewed determination.

The scene below them suddenly erupted into a whirlwind of action, as the orange and black armored warriors clashed with their brown and black opposites. Each fighter in their powered armor moved with superhuman speed, a blur of force and fury, as gods clashed with gods in a furious ballet of metal and power. The soldiers above looked on in fascination as they realized that the stakes had been raised – now, it wasn't just an Orb they were fighting for, but their very survival.

Nicolas remained frozen, his eyes darting around the scene below as he tried to identify the combatants. He could make out Brightforge clashing with another figure that appeared to be another Sword. If they were facing Cleveland forces, then it had to be Dahlia Wraitheshade – a fearsome warrior in her own right and a possible match for Brightforge.

His gaze shifted to Arcstone, The Shield, who was engaged in a fierce battle with an Axe. The Axe, nearly as massive and armored as Arcstone himself, radiated energy as their powerful forms collided. Cleveland's Axe was known as Galeheart – a figure whose reputation was only slightly less terrifying than that of Jaxwulf.

Although Shield suits typically held an advantage over Axe suits, Galeheart was a force to be reckoned with. Hulkingly enormous and seemingly composed of pure destructive energy, he was one of the rare exceptions who could defy the usual hierarchy of combatants. The soldiers watched in awe and dread as the battle of titans unfolded before them, each combatant pushing themselves to their limits in a struggle that would determine the fate of the precious Orb – and the lives of those fighting for it.

Nicolas' attention then turned to Hunter, who was locked in fierce combat with Alura Copperleaf, the Cleveland Arrow. In this matchup, Cincinnati seemed to have a clear advantage – Hunter was potentially one of the most powerful Arrows in the land. The two opponents danced around each other, and despite Hunter's undeniable edge in both power and skill, Nicolas knew that a single misstep could quickly turn the tide of the battle.

"We need to get into position," Nicolas declared with determination. "Our presence could make a difference. We can help secure our Suits' backs and make the Cleveland bastards think twice about pressing their attack – maybe even force them to back off."

Bryan looked doubtful as he questioned, "But they're like gods – what can we do against them?"

"I've seen it before," Nicolas insisted. "They can't afford to risk themselves too much. The mere presence of three thousand soldiers can make a difference – the threat we pose might be enough to make them think twice. We don't see a Cleveland army backing them up; these three are isolated. Let's move."

With a nod, Bryan relayed the command to his troops, roaring, "Move out!"

The soldiers sprang into action, adjusting their formation to provide their Suits with the advantage Nicolas had devised. Their hearts pounded in their chests, the adrenaline and tension of the unfolding battle steeling their resolve as they prepared to face the challenge of gods.

The army surged forward, streaming down the valley toward the Orb and the intense battle that raged between Brightforge and Wraitheshade. As they grew closer, the soldiers could feel the waves of heat emanating from the clashing, glowing blades of the two Swords, the radiant energy intense enough to ignite the grass around them.

"Get the 2nd and 3rd Order troops to the front as we get closer to the Orb," Nicolas instructed Bryan, his voice filled with purpose.

Bryan, though nervous, nodded and replied, "2nd Order troops, I understand – do you think the Orb is close enough for the 3rd Order?"

Nicolas clicked the safety of his rifle, confidence ringing in his voice as he confirmed, "It's close enough. She's ready to fire."

No more hesitation, Bryan decided, his voice booming as he shouted, "Twos and threes to the front!"

The 2nd Order soldiers, their muskets primed and ready, rushed forward without delay. Meanwhile, the 3rd Order troops, armed with automatic rifles and sheathed swords, quickly assumed their new positions. The entire formation seemed to come alive with renewed energy and focus, each soldier fully aware that every move they made from this point on could mean the difference between life and death, victory and defeat.

With the Orb less than a hundred yards away, Nicolas shouldered his rifle and prepared to open fire. Bryan echoed the command, ordering the 2nd and 3rd Order troops to follow suit. In unison, they aimed and began firing their weapons, sending a torrent of musket balls and bullets streaming toward Wraitheshade as Brightforge nimbly danced backward to avoid friendly fire.

The hail of projectiles pummeled Wraitheshade, causing her to stagger before she redirected her focus toward the oncoming army. Nicolas couldn't help but flinch as he witnessed the god-like figure, now consumed with wrath, making a beeline for them.

But just as swiftly as the turn of events transpired, Brightforge's sword struck a phenomenal blow, halting Wraitheshade's advance. The force of the strike sent the enemy Sword flying through the air, and the resulting shockwave of energy rippling outward from the impact staggered the front line of the army.

For a moment, time seemed to slow, and the battlefield fell silent as the soldiers took in the sight of a fallen god. Though her fate was not yet sealed, this small victory sparked a glimmer of hope in the hearts of the Cincinnati troops.

In the blink of an eye, the atmosphere on the battlefield shifted. The other two Cleveland Suits disengaged their opponents, moving to stand protectively alongside the wounded Wraitheshade. It was clear that the mood had changed – the battle seemed to be over, as the opposing forces recognized that pressing on would make little sense; the presence of the 3,000 soldiers had proven to be the pivotal factor.

Wraitheshade's voice, booming through her helmet's speaker, taunted Brightforge. "Are you sure you don't want to see if you can finish me off?"

Brightforge's response was swift and confident, "Some day when I don't have an army by my side, we might get the chance to find out."

Wraitheshade laughed, though her voice conveyed a hint of sincerity. "I'm looking forward to it."

Nearby, Galeheart seemed almost restless with anticipation, urging her, "There are only a few thousand men. Just take down one of their Suits, and it will balance the playing field for us."

Wraitheshade shook her head, her voice staunch and resolute, "It's not worth the risk. There are more battles to be fought, and we can't afford to lose one of us here. We need to know when to cut our losses."

The standoff between the two groups of warriors, the orange and black painted gods and the Cleveland Suits, was palpable. Each bearing the marks and scars from the brief but intense battle, they stared each other down, the air thick with tension and anticipation.

After a long moment, Wraithshield turned away from her opponents and, with a pulse of energy, vanished like a demon – a torpedo streaking across the landscape. Copperleaf, not one to be left behind, quickly followed suit.

All eyes were now on Galeheart, who stood alone, staring down the trio of Cincinnati Suits and the 3,000 soldiers behind them. His towering form bristled with power, seeming to loom even larger in the face of the challenge before him. Despite the odds favoring Cincinnati, Nicolas couldn't help but feel a chilling fear take hold as he imagined the carnage the legendary Galeheart could cause if he decided to stay and fight.

Then, seemingly reluctant to withdraw but recognizing the necessity of preservation, Galeheart turned away from the gathered forces. In an instant, he too propelled himself away across the valley, leaving the victorious Cincinnati soldiers to take possession of the battlefield – and the precious Orb that had been the cause of it all.

The battlefield, once filled with the cacophony of clashing metal and anguished cries, now fell eerily silent. It was a silence that stretched thin as anticipation mounted – until, finally, it was Brightforge who broke the tension. "Victory!" he proclaimed, his voice ringing out clear and strong.

The effect was immediate. In an instant, the energy of the whole army seemed to shift as the soldiers erupted into whooping cheers, celebrating their hard-won victory. The precious Orb, and the undeniable power it held in the form of Flows, was now in their hands, secured for their people and their city.

Chapter 3

In a state of disbelief, Clive sat on the laminate floor, chained to the wall. He couldn't understand the strange paradox that had enveloped his life. Outside the small room was a medieval town, filled with men wielding swords and riding horses, yet here he was in a room with plastic floors and other modern elements. He questioned his reality - was this some sort of mad dream? Or perhaps he was trapped in a coma, with everything around him nothing more than an elaborate, mind-generated fantasy.

As time trickled endlessly, Clive's mind raced, trying to discern the logic hidden within this bizarre world. The saturation of the modern and archaic, the incoherent elements that had woven themselves together into this ambiguous reality - it filled him with an unrelenting, gnawing confusion.

Opposite Clive sat an old man with a long beard, also chained to the wall. They had spoken briefly before, but Clive had been too catatonic to make sense of anything. Now, gathering his emotions and deciding to suspend his disbelief at the world around him, he initiated a conversation with the old man.

Clive, blurted, "What's a Sword?"

The old man, looking at Clive as though he was a crazy person, replied, "Sharp metal with a handle for chopping folks."

Clive, realizing the misunderstanding, repeated and emphasized the word "Sword" in a way that indicated he was talking about a specific use of the word in the context of their strange world.

The old man, still looking bemused, responded, "Ah, you mean the Suit? What the hell are you talking about? How could you not know what a Sword is?"

It was apparent that "Sword" held a unique meaning within this world, referring to a specific role or person of importance. Clive knew that understanding this could be the key to unraveling the truth of his bizarre circumstances.

Clive, feeling out of place, admitted, "I'm not from around here."

The old man commented on his clothes, noticing the peculiar aspects of Clive's appearance. "Your clothes are odd, even your accent. Makes sense if you’re a traveler, but where could you be from to not know about the Suits?"

Clive hesitated before responding.  "A long way away." Internally, he reflected on the possibility of being in a different dimension, or time, or planet. But most likely, he thought, he was hallucinating or dead.

The old man, now suspicious, questioned Clive further, "Whereabouts exactly?"

Clive, lying, said, "New York."

The old man's incredulity was evident, "There are 10 Suits in New York! It's the City With Two Kings! What's wrong with you? Are you hopped up or just plain crazy?"

Clive, deflated and barely holding onto his sanity in this strange world, replied, "Maybe I am. But why not humor me? Tell me what a Sword is."

The old man pondered for a moment, considering his situation. He was chained and had time to spare, so he decided to share the information with Clive.

Old man, "You don't know what a Suit is? Fair strange…  Some folks call them Griidlords, that's the proper term. Each city has five of them, except for Angel City and New York. Those hell holes are split between two states, each."

Clive, "But what is a Suit?"

The Old man, sighed, somewhat suspicious, somewhat annoyed, "A Suit is like a god. Only a precious few are chosen to wear them, and it takes a long time for them to learn how to use them after being chosen."

This explanation sparked Clive's curiosity: What kind of powers did these Suits possess, and why were they of such importance within this world? Despite the pressing dangers of his situation, he was drawn to learn more about the Griidlords and the reason behind their mysterious existence.

Clive, despite feeling overwhelmed, pressed on, "So what's a Sword, exactly?"

The old man, continuing, but eying him like a dangerous spider, said, "Each city has five Suits, each one different: the Sword, the Axe, the Shield, the Arrow, and the Scepter. Each Suit has different powers and different weaknesses. The Axe beats the Sword, the Shield beats the Axe, and so on. It's like rock-paper-scissors, or how water beats fire, and so on."

He paused, shaking his head in disbelief, before continuing.

"The Swords and the Scepters have the power to tear down walls, making towns fear them. The Sword is special, always the leader of the Griidlords within a city. They can channel energy through others. It's hard to believe you don't know about this. Where the hell are you from?"

Clive, trying to wrap his head around the information, asked, "How are the Suits chosen?"

 "Different cities have different rules. Some people have a natural affinity that make them better Griidlords. When an old one is killed or burns out, there's a long process of choosing a replacement. In some cities, politics are involved, so noble sons or politicians get the Suit, but those cities struggle. They always need the best person in the Suit, whether it's a commoner or a king - it doesn't matter."

Clive, remembering the children talking in the square, asked,  "So is a new Sword needed here? Is that the choosing?"

"Our Sword, Roland Windrake, was a hero in Seattle. He won many battles in the west and earned many orbs for the city. But politics forced him to leave, and he became the Sword in Denver. Things didn't go so well here. Maybe the Rustknight is over the hill, or maybe it's just bad luck. Roland left Denver and went East. There are rumors he's taken up with the Hill Clans. They're looking for a new Sword after Chief Thoddeus burned out. No one is quite sure if Roland is traveling between cities for glory or if there's some other purpose."

Clive asked the old man cautiously, "What other purpose could Roland have?"

The old man replied, thoughtful himself, briefly forgetting his suspicions of the madman he was talking with, "I'm not sure. Griidlords gain esoteric knowledge when they take up the mantle, knowledge of The Griid, and they often seek artifacts and higher purposes. The Rustknight was a curious character, and there are many stories about him."

Trying to process the information, Clive asked another question, "What's an orb?"

"I don't truly know," the old man admitted. "But orbs make things work. You see, without orbs, a city just has horses, swords, and muscle power. Except for the tower – that always has electricity and such. But a city without an orb can't use tech. With an orb, they can power up factories, cars, trucks, and even guns.  Priests will tell ya that it’s a gift from the oracle, and mayhaps it is, but I’ve got mixed feelings about the priests."

Clive froze, struck by shock as the old man's words resonated deeply within him. He reflected back on his real life, his work, and found a startling connection. "So, without an orb, there are no guns, nothing digital, and no electric lights?"

The old man repeated himself, slightly annoyed, "That's what I said! Orbs are the power source that sets the level of tech in a city. Some places might have muskets, others just swords, while those better supplied have automatic rifles. If there are enough orbs, a city might even have energy weapons.  Most importantly, though, is orbs mean factories, jobs, comforts, and hospitals.  A city with enough orbs has all the things that make us little folks happy and healthy and safe."

This revelation rattled Clive to his core. The mysterious orbs and their connection to technology seemed to echo the very experiments he had been working on in his own life. Was it possible that this strange world and his work back home were connected somehow, or was it just another layer of falsehood in an already bewildering illusion?

Clive, partly talking to himself, mumbled, "Order and entropy fields?"

Thoughts raced through his mind as he tried to make sense of the connection between this bizarre world and his experiments back home. "We were just experimenting. It's too immature. How can it affect so much space? Jesus, are the orbs supplying Order fields? Why is everything covered in Entropy field? Where, or when, am I?"

Desperate for answers, Clive turned to the old man, "Do you know what the USA is?"

The old man nodded solemnly, "Do you mean before the Fall?"

Clive froze in place, "Yes... what was the Fall?"

The old man's voice grew somber as he explained, "The Fall was when the Oracle brought mankind low. People were sinners, greedy, destroying the planet, causing the oceans to swell and cities to sink. The Oracle came and took man's power away, leaving him with nothing but sticks and stones. But the Oracle also offered redemption, giving humanity Ebbs and Flows, the chance to experience the time before the Fall."

The room fell silent as Clive processed the information, shaking and barely able to believe the coincidences. He and Bret had been working on understanding these fields for their company, merely trying to grasp how they worked. Surely, it couldn't have led to all of this.

Clive, eager for more information, asked the old man, "What happens if someone tries to fire a gun without orbs around?"

The old man explained, "Mostly, nothing happens. There's a slow burn, but no bang. Sometimes, though, a gun might work – or it might explode and kill ya."

Clive's thoughts raced back to his work. He remembered performing experiments just like that, intensifying entropy fields to reduce the complexity of the technology surrounding him. The connection between his research on Order and Entropy fields and the orbs that defined the capabilities of this strange world seemed undeniable. As the pieces fell into place, Clive could feel the weight of responsibility and disbelief settling deep within him.

Visibly shaking and struggling to accept what he was learning, Clive asked, "When was the Fall?"

The old man replied pensively, "Nobody knows exactly. Some priests claim it was 700 years ago, others say a million, but most people settle around the 700-year mark."

Trying to find some sliver of logic, Clive asked, "How can I be here?"

The old man, growing more uneasy and slightly fearful of the seemingly crazed stranger, asked, "Where did you come from? Your accent is strange, and you're wearing that white coat. Are you a priest?"

Clive hesitated before answering, "I think..."

He couldn't fully process it all. Memories of testing an Order field flooded his mind. The shielding had dropped, and Bret had tried to warn him. But Clive had been overconfident, cocky even, and suddenly, he found himself in this strange world. Had he traveled through time? And could he travel back? He didn't think so – Order fields didn't operate like that. The implications of his newfound knowledge were both overwhelming and impossible to comprehend.

Chapter 4

As Nicolas marched at the head of the triumphant army, he couldn't help but notice the world around them seemed to blur, almost as if they were moving through time itself. The Footfield, an ethereal creation of the enigmatic Griidlords, allowed those within its grasp to move at remarkable speeds. The landscape melted around him, and the familiar walls of Cincinnati grew slowly on the horizon.

Yet, amidst the triumphant return, Nicolas couldn't shake a nagging feeling of shame. The further they marched, the more signs of a struggling civilization came into view. Lush wilderness gave way to ploughed fields dotted with weary farmhouses, quaint reminders of the world that had been lost.

He watched as a pair of horses strained against the weight of their plough, and the sight filled him with dismay. If only they had secured more victories in the previous year, perhaps this fondly remembered world would still be within their grasp. The promise of the past, a time where machines took on the burden of the work, so humans could turn their eyes to the stars, seemed to grow dimmer with each passing day.

Steeling himself, Nicolas silently vowed to work harder and achieve greater success in the year to come. He was determined to rebuild the world he remembered and fight for a future where tractors would once again render the horses' efforts unnecessary – a world where humanity could flourish and overcome the shadows that threatened to consume them all.

As he approached the gates of Cincinnati, those towering bulwarks of hope and defiance, Nicolas let the determination kindle within him a spark of renewed purpose. This victory would not be their last, and he would do everything in his power to ensure their continued success in the battles to come.

"We'll be given a hero's welcome for sure," Bryan said, his eyes gleaming with an excitement that was infectiously contagious. "A wild orb is such a prize – they’ll throw us feasts, the factories will roar with life again, there’ll be work and trade and medicine for my lad at home." He shifted in his stride, but still held on to the lyrical roll of words. "We'll be going to the Sanctum, they say – I've heard so much about it. Its luxuries and wonders, and yet, I’ve never experienced it."

Nicolas sighed, his previous resolve subjected to Bryan's starry-eyed dreams. "Aye, I've been feasted there a few times," he reluctantly admitted. "It’s true, the Sanctum does hold wonders – the lights that never dim, the ice cream as cold as winter, and the screens with endless entertainment! But, at the same time, it never truly felt like my place. I couldn't shake the feeling I was amongst my betters," he added bitterly, "always looked down upon. I was treated less like a soldier being celebrated and more like a dumb pet being rewarded with a treat."

Bryan's face took on an edge, his voice scornful as he replied, "Don't be so dark, Nicolas. You should learn to enjoy a treat when you can get it. Life doesn't offer many luxuries to the likes of us."

Nicolas merely nodded, offering no other words to fuel the conversation. With the same silence that had enveloped them before, the two men continued their march towards the city. They walked within the Footfield as it blurred past farmhouses and stretched landscapes, distorting the world in subtle ways. To those outside the field, the army would seem to move at the steady pace of a galloping horse – perhaps even faster – all thanks to the Griidlords' mysterious gift.

As the city walls grew closer and closer, Nicolas knew deep within him that their forthcoming celebrations would not overshadow the ongoing struggle of the world.

Bryan's gaze shifted to Brightforge, who marched proudly ahead of them, his body radiating the soft shimmer of absorbed Flows from the orb. "It's truly a sight to behold, how they glow like that – full of power and promise," he said, his voice laced with admiration.

Nicolas nodded in agreement. "Each of them now holds a lifetime's fortune in Flows. It's incredible."

Bryan's expression softened as he considered the implications. "I understand better now the importance of simple soldiers like us. The Suits, powerful as they are, become so vulnerable while absorbing the Flows. They desperately need support during that time."

"That's why they slow themselves down with an army to back them up," Nicolas added thoughtfully. "The Griidlords can move many times faster when the Footfield covers them alone. But they're willing to sacrifice some of their speed to keep us close, knowing that a few thousand men are critical for their defense."

As they marched within the Footfield, the pair felt a deeper appreciation for their role in the grand scheme of things – a unique bond formed not only between themselves, but also with the Suits they supported. Together, they were an unstoppable force fighting for the future of their city, their world, and the generations yet to come.

Nicolas couldn't help but shudder as he remembered a harrowing event from the past. The memory of a rogue Suit cutting through their ranks was still vivid in his mind. "When they're attacking, they're like demons – so strong and fast, and nearly invincible," he said, his voice barely more than a whisper.

As the memory played out in his mind, he recalled the devastating effects the Suit's shield had inflicted on them that day. After a moment's pause, Nicolas continued, "They know their own value. A single spear or bullet, aimed precisely or fired at just the right moment, can kill or incapacitate them. And even a minor injury to one Griidlord could weaken their city immeasurably. They simply can't afford to take risks like that or endanger their fellow Suits and people."

He took a breath, the dark memories slowly receding as he shifted his thoughts to the present. "We were fortunate this time to get close enough to the orb to benefit from the field, enabling us to fire higher-level weapons. That alone was much more intimidating to them than anything we could do otherwise."

As they marched on, the realization of the delicate balance between Suits and soldiers settled within them, each understanding how vital the other was to their mutual survival and success.

Bryan shivered at the thought. "Watching Wraitheshield take a barrage of bullets while barely flinching, it's hard to imagine how they could even care about our little army at all."

Nicolas nodded, appreciating Bryan's sentiment, but choosing to provide a different perspective. "You'd be surprised. Each individual bullet might be nothing but a gnat to a Suit, but enough gnats can become an annoyance – even cause pain or death. An army of 3,000 men might actually be enough to bring down a Suit in most cases, depending on the Griidlord inside, of course."

His voice grew solemn as he added, "That is, if you can somehow keep the men from fleeing in terror as they watch their comrades on the front lines turned into red mist."

Bryan's voice wavered as he gulped. "Well, the campaign season is still a long way off. Until then, I can only hope that I'll only cross swords with other men on the battlefield or, even better, not have to cross swords at all." He managed a weak smile as he tried to focus on the immediate future. "And in the meantime, I can't wait for that feast and the chance to finally taste real ice cream!"

Nicolas shared in Bryan's growing anticipation, his own eyes lighting up at the prospect of the upcoming festivities. A sumptuous feast, luxurious amenities, and delicious ice cream to celebrate their hard-earned victory – it was a well-deserved reward for the countless sacrifices they had made, and the challenges yet to come.

Chapter 5

Elder Jarway stood tall in the throne room of the tower, his trusted adviser Sephilous by his side. They both gazed out at the sprawling landscape of their kingdom, their minds occupied by recent developments.

Sephilous spoke up cautiously, "It seems a force from Cincinnati has found a wild orb. There was an altercation with the suits from Cleveland, but Cincinnati's suits had 3,000 soldiers with them – enough to make the Clevelanders back off. Brightforge has scored another feather in his cap."

Jarway let out a low, thoughtful hum, "It's a rare coup to find a wild orb, especially so long after the Campaign Season. It could have made a significant difference here."

Sephilous nodded in agreement, and then, with a hint of concern coloring his voice, added, "We should keep a close eye on this situation, my lord. The balance of power between our cities is delicate, and such a discovery could shift it drastically."

Jarway pondered Sephilous' words and knew they held truth. The wild orb's existence could change everything, and it was vital to stay informed and prepared for any eventuality

Sephilous tried to sound reassuring, "We have an adequate supply, my lord. The RustKnight may have disappointed, but our campaigns were still a substantial success. We gathered eight orbs in the last season, and our first sector is in splendor, while the lower levels are sufficient."

Jarway, however, remained skeptical, "Our fields are plowed by animals, and production is barely enough to meet demand. One bad season could leave our people hungry."

Sephilous acknowledged his lord's concerns, "We can only do what we can, my lord. Our priority now should be to successfully choose a new Sword. With the RustKnight back to wandering, we're fortunate to have an experienced old Sword like you to lead us and guide the choosing."

Jarway listened intently and realized that Sephilous was right. Amidst the uncertainty, it was more important than ever to choose a strong and capable Sword to protect their city and people against any unforeseen challenges.

As Elder Jarway plunged deep into his thoughts, he recalled how wearing the Suit had extended his life. For decades, he had led the charge in battle, and now, after more than a century, he barely seemed beyond middle age. Most Suit wearers either died on the battlefield or experienced burnout. Jarway had felt the signs of burnout and the neurodegeneration creeping in, so he had wisely yielded the Suit to a new Choosing before it became too late.

Jarway then voiced a concern, "The Choosing will be soured if the Prophet has truly faded."

Sephilous agreed, "It is a tricky business indeed. The Prophet has been a presence since the new founding of our city, present even before The Before. If it has indeed vanished, this is a harrowing development, leaving the people unsettled."

Jarway somberly added, "All the more reason a wild orb would have raised our spirits."

Sephilous was about to speak when the large doors at the end of the room suddenly opened, and guards entered, interrupting their conversation.

The tower guards, armed with auto rifles, were a testament to the higher Order level within the tower. Behind them, flanked by more guards, a skinny man in a strange white coat entered the room. Jarway observed the stranger and mused how his coat resembled, albeit distantly, the robes of a priest. The resemblance raised Jarway's curiosity, making him wonder if the man's arrival was in any way connected to the recent developments.

Jarway watched the guards approaching, and he couldn't help but notice the man's furtive, crazed, and confused eyes. He considered the information from the reports – this man was seen leaving the temple shortly before the Prophet's disappearance was discovered. Jarway wanted to uncover any possible connection between the stranger and the unsettling events. Yet, he couldn't shake the feeling that the man seemed either like a zealous fanatic or a madman, which only served to make Jarway more cautious and wary.

The guards came to a halt before Jarway and Sephilous, their duty now solely to guard and watch over this new, mysterious man. Under normal circumstances, they would have knelt in reverence, but today was far from normal. When Clive failed to appropriately kneel, one of the guards shoved him, prompting him to quickly understand his current situation. Clive attempted to show respect, remaining still and keeping his head down.

Jarway scrutinized him and began talking, "Reports say that you were the last person seen before our Prophet disappeared. It is a grave day for Denver. Today was supposed to be a feast day in honor of the Prophet, a market day for the people. Instead, they are gripped by panic and fear."

Clive raised his head and eventually found the courage to stand, struggling for words, mumbling in response. Jarway, adopting a firmer tone, insisted the man explain himself.

"Who are you? And what are you doing here? You have a strange accent, and your clothes are unusual. Are you some kind of priest or a missionary?"

Clive started to find his footing, though fear and confusion still weighed down his voice.

Clive, still nervous and confused, hesitantly began to speak, "I... I don't know when or where I am exactly. I'm just a lab tech, working on a project, and suddenly, I found myself here. I don't know anything about this Prophet you speak of."

Jarway responded firmly, his curiosity piqued, "What do you mean by 'lab tech'?"

Clive tried to explain, "A lab tech, short for laboratory technician, is someone who works in a scientific laboratory, conducting experiments and research."

Jarway didn't fully understand, but he had a vague sense that this man might be associated with arcane knowledge or advanced technology. Growing more interested in Clive, Jarway inquired, "What is your name, stranger?"

Clive continued, his expression and eyes still giving the impression of a madman, "My name is Clive. I... I don't know what's happening or who any of these people are. I'm so confused. I just want to go home... if I'm not just hallucinating all of this."

Jarway, although not following much of Clive's explanation, asked, "And where exactly are you from?"

Clive replied, "Denver, but not a Denver like this... My Denver has cars and skyscrapers, no swords, no prophets."

Overwhelmed, Clive started to sob and hyperventilate.

Jarway, unimpressed with Clive's display of distress but intrigued by his words, considered the possibility that this man might be describing the world before the Fall. As he pondered this, a guard approached Jarway, handing him a small sack. The guard explained, "M'lord, these are the items we confiscated from the prisoner."

Jarway inspected the items in the sack, finding them quite peculiar. In time, he recognized one as a flashlight, although its craftsmanship was unlike anything he had seen. Curious, he asked Clive, "Where did you acquire such a fine item?"

Clive replied, still dazed, "BestBuy."

Jarway furrowed his brow, "What is BestBuy?"

Clive tried to explain, "BestBuy is... It's a store where you can buy all sorts of electronic items and gadgets. It's a place in my world where these kinds of things are common."

Jarway began to understand some of what Clive said, intrigued by the notion of acquiring treasures like these. "And where might I find this BestBuy?" he asked.

Clive, breaking down further, sobbed, "It's... It's supposed to be right here, just a few blocks from the temple."

Jarway continued to examine the items in the sack, producing a black, shiny slate about the size of his hand with buttons on the side. He pressed one of the buttons, and the screen lit up. While he had seen screens before, a handheld one like this was extremely rare. He looked back at Clive, "What is this?"

Clive attempted to explain, "This is my phone – it's called a smartphone."

Seeing Jarway's confused expression, Clive tried to clarify further, "You see, a smartphone is a device in my world that serves multiple purposes. It's primarily a communication tool, allowing us to call or send messages to people no matter their location. But it's so much more than that."

He continued passionately, "A smartphone has a little computer inside that can perform many tasks. We can access something called the internet, which gives us information about almost everything we can imagine. It helps us navigate our way through cities, find places to eat, shop, and even entertain ourselves. We use it to take photos and videos, listen to music, and even play games. A smartphone is a small, powerful device that connects us to everything around us."

Jarway could barely grasp the concept of a smartphone as Clive explained its many functions. He continued to poke at the screen, marveling at how it responded to his touch. Setting the phone aside, he picked up a multitool and figured out its functions, admiring the craftsmanship. After setting it aside, he was struck with awe upon seeing car keys.

Jarway had seen car keys before in a museum – a relic from The Before, but these were new-looking, not the crumbling relics he was familiar with. Shaking slightly, he asked Clive, "What are these?"

Clive named them and went on to explain, "These are car keys. In my world, they are used to unlock and start a car, it's a vehicle for transportation. Cars have engines that run on fuel, and they can travel great distances at high speeds. They're a common means of transportation, allowing people to move around their cities and even travel across the country."

Jarway was aware of the concept of cars – they did have some functioning in areas of high Order, but these areas were limited at the moment. His suspicion grew, as the man seemed to be from The Before, yet that was impossible. Jarway wondered whether Clive might be genuine or just a trickster.

Determined to uncover the truth, Jarway probed Clive, "Where are you really from?"

Clive, breaking down further, recounted his experiences, "I was working in my lab, testing a field. I ignored the safety precautions like a cocky idiot. Bret warned me, but I didn't listen... Then suddenly, in a blink, I found myself standing in a strange stone room. When I ventured outside, it was madness – no cars, no blacktop, just dust, mud houses, swords, and horses. I couldn't understand what happened."

His voice grew more desperate, "And then I was brought here to this tower, where there are electric lights and air conditioning... I fear I'm losing my mind."

The details in Clive's story and his undeniable distress gave Elder Jarway reason to consider the possibility that he was, in fact, telling the truth.

Jarway understood that the idea was incredibly unlikely, but if this man truly was from The Before, he might possess knowledge that could change the course of battles, help them gain control of the orbs, and possibly even secure the empire they so desperately sought.

Jarway cautiously approached Clive, "I am intrigued by you, but you are in no state to continue this conversation, in tears and babbling like a child. I suggest you rest now. I'll have my attendants help you relax and settle in, and we can talk further tomorrow."

EPISODE 2

Chapter 6

The emperor walked slowly, methodically through the courtyard of the tower, observing the lines of soldiers as they practiced their drills. They wielded various weapons, including swords, muskets, and rifles, in perfect unison. Each movement was precise, designed to prepare them for the different levels of command and the complexities that came with using each weapon.

A hood covered the emperor's head as a brisk, cold wind blew in from the lake. The air carried a scent of the ocean with it, reminding the emperor of the sea beyond the harbor of the Boston. He silently judged the soldiers, taking note of their failures more than their successes. There was always room for improvement, and it was his job to ensure that his troops were the best they could be.

In another corner of the courtyard, a group of young men practiced under the watchful eye of a priest dressed in flowing white robes. These men were training for the choosing, a ceremony where the empire selected a new Sword – a champion to serve as a symbol of strength and unity. It had been far too long since the empire had a good Sword, and the emperor was growing impatient.

The group moved with a fluidity that was almost unnatural – as if they were extensions of the priest himself. Their poses and actions seemed strange to the untrained eye, more akin to a dance than a martial exercise. It was this unique style of combat that made the selection of a new Sword so vital to the continued prosperity of the empire.

As he watched the training unfold before him, the emperor couldn't help but feel a sense of anticipation. Soon, a new Sword would rise, and with them, the empire would find a renewed sense of purpose and hope.

The emperor continued walking, the cold Boston air brushing against his cheeks as he made his way back to the tower's entrance. He had much to consider before the choosing – and little time to do so.

The emperor knew that in order to maintain the strength and prestige of his empire, he needed to find a new Sword from within his own state – a proud Bostonian. The barbarians were at the gates, and for too long, the empire had struggled to defend its borders and acquire the orbs it needed to thrive. In the past, especially during the reign of the Blood Prince, the empire had been unstoppable, its vast army amassing orbs and Griid-Crowns at a staggering rate.

Under the Blood Prince's rule, the Bostonian Empire had expanded far and wide. The surrounding states had either succumbed to its military might or bowed to its intimidating presence. Through war and diplomacy, the empire had spread its influence, trading Flows and Ebbs – the lifeblood of their civilization – to desperate neighbors. At its zenith, the empire had stretched all the way to Carolina in the south and Chicago in the west, amassing dozens of Griidlords from conquered cities to serve the Emperor's every whim.

Yet, since the mysterious disappearance of the BloodKnight, the empire had begun to fray at the edges. Its once-formidable grip on the surrounding territories had weakened, and threats began to seep in from all sides. The time had come to select a new Sword, a beacon of hope who would rally the people and defend their way of life.

As the emperor stood at the entrance of the tower, deep in thought, he knew that he couldn't afford to make a mistake in his choice. The fate of the empire rested on his shoulders – and its very survival hinged on the strength and resolve of the Sword he would select.

The emperor sighed, speaking softly to himself, "Ah, Tiberius, I didn't know what I had when you were here. Things are floundering now." As he rubbed his brow, the weight of his concerns pressed heavily on his mind. The once-expansive empire was contracting, the once-loyal cities were growing bolder, more brazen, and the precious orbs they could gather were needed more than ever at home. The vast stores of orbs that had been amassed over the years were dwindling at an alarming rate, consumed by the luxury and wealth to which everyone had grown so accustomed.

"They all grew soft," he muttered to himself, feeling the truth of his words as a bitter realization. "Nearly two centuries of prosperity, of victory... Boston has a first sector as large as some entire cities. But we all grew too comfortable, and now we're paying the price for our complacency."

The emperor knew that even the tributary states had grown soft in their dependency on his empire's generosity, making it all the more challenging for him to find new Griidlords worthy of the prestigious title. It was as if they'd forgotten the hard work and grit that had built the empire in the first place and given way to a sense of entitlement and indolence.

The emperor found his thoughts wandering to an old proverb that he had heard long ago: "Wooden shoes go up the stairs; silken slippers go down." He reflected on the profound wisdom of this phrase, recognizing that those who rise to greatness do so through struggle and perseverance, whereas those who rest on their laurels inevitably decline.

As he stood there, taking in the sight of the soldiers training before him, the emperor felt a renewed determination to find a Sword who would embody the resilience and tenacity that had once been the hallmark of the Bostonian Empire. It would not be an easy task, but it was one that he could not afford to fail.

As the emperor turned his head, he noticed the stout form of Baron Ironveil approaching him. He sighed inwardly, knowing that he could no longer just dismiss the nobles like he used to. These days, he needed their support, particularly with the growing unrest throughout the empire.

Upon reaching the emperor, Ironveil offered a polite greeting. "Emperor, I find you well, I hope?"

The emperor responded with subtle disdain, "Silas, how can I be well, with these fops as our best hope? One of these is to be our Sword? We need to do better. We need someone who can compete with Brightforge and the Redking. These fools are soft, probably spoiled with too much ice cream growing up."

Ironveil replied, "I keep saying we need to look beyond our borders. The RustKnight's alliance with the Hill Clans is an example. He would have made a fine addition, and there are others who are changing sides in these times of change."

The emperor scowled, noticing a lack of respect in Ironveil's voice that wouldn't have been tolerated in the past. He argued, "I've told you before, Silas, Boston is the heart of our empire. The Sword must come from here to demonstrate our strength and birthright."

In the emperor's eyes, Ironveil was a mere pup – a mortal like the others, a child barely in his fifties. How could he understand the true meaning of the Sword and the history behind it?

Yet, even as the emperor dismissed Ironveil's suggestion, a seed of doubt had been planted in his mind. Was it worth considering the possibility of looking beyond their own borders to find the perfect Sword, the champion who could restore the empire to its former glory? Only time would tell if his steadfast belief in a homegrown hero would prove wise or foolish.

Ironveil continued to press his point, "We could send out feelers, dispatch agents to find dissatisfied Griidlords who may be willing to join us. If not a Sword, perhaps another – the Shield in Cleveland has changed sides before, and the Axe in Pittsburgh is ambitious and wasted on their feeble forces."

The emperor raised an eyebrow, the idea of Thorn Jaxwulf or Myrddin Galeheart becoming a Griidlord in Boston intriguing him for a moment. However, he quickly dismissed the notion, "We don't have the resources to woo them, and it's a risky idea at best. They don't possess the loyalty we need. Our empire is being challenged both inside and out, and the last thing we need is heroes without loyalty. We need to show that we can still produce the greatest warriors, like Tiberius Bloodsword, that ungrateful bastard. We gave him everything; we made him a legend of legends."

Ironveil muttered under his breath, "And he gave us everything in return."

The emperor's sharp gaze sent Ironveil staggering back a few steps, the tension palpable between them. Despite the baron's willingness to explore other options, the emperor remained resolute in his belief that the empire's salvation must come from within. The people needed to witness the rise of a new hero – born and bred in the heart of the empire – to restore their faith and loyalty.

To the emperor, the very existence of the Bostonian Empire hinged on finding the perfect Sword, a champion who would not only defend its borders but also inspire its citizens. The search would be arduous, and compromise seemed increasingly appealing. Yet, as time grew short and the pressure mounted, the emperor held steadfast to his conviction that the answer to their problems lay right in front of them – and he was determined to find it.

Ironveil spoke up again, "The reason I came to speak with you is the situation in New York. I understand that the Northking and Southking have been meeting, and I suspect they may be considering a truce."

The emperor was taken aback, an uncharacteristic chill running down his spine. New York was home to ten suits – five loyal to each king – and their Griidlords were vital to maintaining a significant portion of his remaining vassals. If New York were to unite against him, they could potentially break free from the empire's control, an outcome that was previously unthinkable.

Anger flashed in the emperor's eyes as he snapped, "What are you doing about it, Silas? This is your field of expertise. Why are you only telling me now?"

Ironveil responded calmly, "I have pieces in place, but I have a drastic idea that I need to clear with you first, lest I incur your wrath."

Both concerned and curious, the emperor asked, "What is it?"

Ironveil explained, "The people of New York, both north and south, are growing more and more restless due to scarce resources and too many years of poor performance on the field. They have been relying on the orbs we provide. Our agents there have been sowing unrest, planting the idea in their minds that they could reject their kings in favor of direct rule."

The emperor considered this bold plan and asked, "Wouldn't the people of New York be upset about Boston's own lack of success finding orbs?"

Ironveil responded, "Orbs heal all – they get the factories running, the lights back on, and the people's lives comfortable again."

Deep in contemplation, the emperor recognized that such a move would deplete the treasury of the empire's precious remaining orbs, leaving everything hanging in the balance for the upcoming campaign season. The stakes were high, and the price to pay could be immense. Yet, as he weighed his options, the emperor couldn't help but feel that this risky gambit might just be the key to maintaining the empire's tenuous hold on power.

Chapter 7

Nicolas took his seat at the long, wooden feast table, a sense of wonder washing over him as he marveled at the incredible spread that lay before him. Row upon row of delicious, battered meats glistened with flavorful juices, and the scent wafted through the air, tempting him. The crispy potatoes were spiced to perfection, their golden skin producing an almost glass-like crunch when they were broken in half. To wash it all down, beers and spirits of every type imaginable lay in gleaming tankards and polished goblets, just waiting to be consumed.

As Nicolas sat eagerly filling his plate, he reminded himself to savor every moment of this luxurious feast. He would try not to get drunk tonight, despite the tempting abundance of drinks surrounding him. After all, his fellow soldiers deserved a responsible leader who could still maintain some degree of control amid the revelry.

The massive hall was full of celebration, with nobles and soldiers alike singing and toasting to their marvelous victory. They had captured the wild Orb, a remarkable boon that would benefit their lands and people greatly. The nobles and their nation had not long since thrown off the oppressive yoke of the Empire, and with this latest addition to their treasury, their future was brighter than ever.

Nicolas's attention was drawn from his plate as he noticed Jorin Brightforge approaching the feast table. The Griidlord still wore his glowing power armor, though his helmet had been removed to enjoy the festivities with the others. It was a rare sight to see gridlords remove any part of their suits, even to sleep. Order fields generally didn't seem to effect organic matter except in the most extreme cases.  Intense wells of entropy were said to be the source of fiends, but such places were death to men in any case.  Some effect of the order field in a Griidlord's suit inhibited aging, keeping their bodies young and in their prime for decades at a time – or even centuries, in the case of the legendary Bloodknight of Boston.

Brightforge flashed a handsome smile as he asked, "May I sit with you, Nicolas?"

Nicolas, startled, replied with enthusiastic yet fuddled words, "Yes, of course! Please, join me."

As the Griidlord sat down, the gentle warmth of his suit pulsing nearby, he signaled to a server to bring him some ale. Nicolas drank slowly from his own tankard, trying to think of something meaningful to say. Before he could speak, however, Brightforge started the conversation.

"I wanted to thank you for your vital maneuvers in the battle," he said, his tone warm and appreciative. "You and your men were gutsy and brazen. It was dangerous to be so close to the enemy, but you utilized the orb field well and managed to get your guns into action. Your bold choices changed the whole course of the fight, especially when Wraitheshade was forced to reevaluate once you opened fire."

Nicolas, humbled, looked down at his drink. "I was only doing my job, sir. It was the only course of action I could see."

Brightforge nodded, sincerity shining in his eyes. "Others would have chosen courses that keep themselves further from danger. You and your men put yourselves in harm's way, and in doing so, you won us the orb. I have you to thank, and the people of the city have you to thank as well. I'll be sure to mention your efforts in my speech later. You truly deserve the credit for our victory today."

Nicolas felt flustered, unsure of what to say. He had always been uncomfortable with fame or praise, but he knew that his men needed recognition for their achievements. He spoke up, his voice filled with a mix of pride and humility, "Mention the 3rd Division, my lord, not me. It was all of us who did our small part, small when compared to the presence of the three Griidlords. We were barely a finger on the scales."

But Brightforge disagreed and replied, "The men followed you, Nicolas. Your strategy, your leadership, and their loyalty to you made all the difference. You were as valuable to the battle as Thedric, Jareth, and myself."

Nicolas continued to deflect the praise, making self-deprecating remarks in an attempt to divert the attention from himself. But Brightforge laughed heartily, slinging his arm around Nicolas's shoulders. He raised his glass high and announced, "I hope to have you and the 3rd Division close by during the coming campaign season."

Nicolas felt a swell of dread—constant danger would accompany their constant glory. He quickly voiced his concerns, "We're not equipped for that level of combat, my lord. We're a general-purpose division, and many of our men are green recruits. For some of my sergeants, this was their first battle."

However, Brightforge continued to disagree and offered assurances, "The 3rd Division is an impressive unit, and you're an impressive leader. I'm thinking of converting your division, equipping and training them to fight specifically for orbs as specialists. We'd get you new men, new gear — special gear."

"Special gear?" Nicolas inquired, intrigued by Brightforge's words.

Brightforge nodded, explaining his vision. "Squads with power weapons. The Empire is struggling to purchase the same volume that they have in the past, and so the market is more agreeable. Prices are down and we've just gained another orb. We have the resources to make such a move during this time of change. With the Empire waning, it's a game of 'he who dares.'"

Nicolas looked awed and said, "An entire squad with power weapons? I thought the expense would be impossible and such weapons so rare."

Brightforge's voice grew more passionate, as he said, "I'm thinking we break the bank and equip one or even two divisions with power weapons and energy weapons. It would be almost like adding a new suit to our arsenal. The impact of having so many more men wielding weapons like that could be akin to adding a Griidlord or two to the field . .  . Just imagine how the battle would have played out with that kind of gear."

Nicolas hesitated, still remembering the terror he felt when he watched a Griidlord tear through his men on a distant day gone by. He thought aloud, "We could take on Griidlords with enough of these weapons . . ."

Brightforge's eyes turned pensive as he watched Nicolas. "But we'll need to put such tools in the right hands. It is an immense power to have so many men armed with weapons like that. That requires absolute loyalty to the city and loyalty to me."

Understanding dawned on Nicolas. He recognized that divisions like these could potentially threaten the sovereignty of Griidlords. He replied, "It's a bold idea, but I see the potential. If we could even win an extra orb or two for the city, it'd be worth it. You can trust me, my lord. Cincinnati is all I care about, and I'm honored to be considered for this responsibility."

Brightforge's expression grew serious as he continued, "You'll need to make some cuts, Nicolas. Only the best should be trusted with such weapons. I'll see to it that you're given the best from other divisions to bolster your ranks. There will be no more greens among the 3rd. I'll also get you a new sergeant."

Nicolas, panicking at the thought of losing Bryan, quickly interjected, "But, my lord, Bryan is vital to our division. He may be green when it comes to battling with Griidlords, but he is a veteran of many other fights against regular men. Our division loves him, and I trust him. You said yourself that you need people you can trust."

Brightforge considered Nicolas's words, his demeanor making it clear that he would overrule him in a heartbeat if he felt it necessary. "Very well, let's see how it goes. You can hold onto Bryan for now, but be prepared to cut him loose if needed. You have much to gain, Nicolas. Nobility, honors, even a fiefdom of your own. Loyalty to a friend is admirable, but you must also be sensible."

Nicolas held his ground and replied with conviction, "My lord, I swear to you that Bryan is the best man for the job, and he is loyal."

Brightforge conceded, but Nicolas couldn't help but feel unsure of the depth of the Griidlord's sincerity.

Changing the tone, Brightforge said, "Enough of this solemn talk. We should be celebrating our victory!"

Brightforge stood up, his voice booming as he gathered the attention of everyone in the hall. Raising his glass high, he declared, "To Nicolas and the 3rd Division! Their bravery and tactical brilliance brought us victory and another Orb!"

The hall erupted in cheers and toasts, the air filled with jubilation and camaraderie as they celebrated their hard-won triumph.

Chapter 8

Thorn Jaxwulf, the famed Pittsburgh axe, sat atop a hill, his piercing gaze focused on the distant lights of Cincinnati. The flickering flames seemed to taunt him, for he knew that they were celebrating. A feast was to be held that night – a reward the Cincy army would relish for capturing the wild orb. He couldn't help but feel a pang of frustration, cursing the fact that the orb had lain unclaimed for so long, within reach during the last campaign season.

His fists clenched as he thought of the missed opportunity to duel his Cleveland rivals – to cross axes with Galeheart and crush Brightforge. Thorn's heart raced as he imagined the thrill of battle, a sensation he had not experienced for months. The lust for glory and the desire to test his might consumed him, leaving him hungry and restless.

Thorn's face contorted into a snarl as he begrudgingly acknowledged the fact that in there, they were celebrating their victory while he himself burned with impatience, unfulfilled energy coursing through him.

"If only I had known the orb had lain dormant so close," he muttered to himself, the fiery spark in his eyes reflecting his insatiable desire for action. "I could have flexed my might, brought my axe down on the enemy!"

The still night air did nothing to soothe Thorn's agitation. Instead, it only reminded him of his own solitude and isolation on the hilltop. As he watched the distant lights of Cincinnati grow dimmer, his longing for action intensified.

With a determined huff, Thorn stood up and surveyed the horizon. "Rest assured, Cincinnati," he whispered, his voice laced with equal parts ambition and menace. "This may be your night to celebrate, but you've reignited a fire within me that won't be easily quenched. I'll be ready for the next battle and you'll dearly regret your mistake of allowing the wild orb to escape my grasp – for I am Thorn Jaxwulf, and I will not be denied."

Thorn's ears pricked at the distant hum of an approaching Suit, the distinct sound of a Gridlord using their footfield to speed across the landscape. A mixture of calm and eagerness washed over him; he hoped for an enemy to confront, his hand instinctively unhooking his glowing axe. But even as he prepared himself, he recognized the hum coming from the northeast – from home.

As the pulse of energy revealed the monstrous form of Caius Hammerfist's power armor, Thorn couldn't help but feel disappointed to see a friend instead of a foe. He turned back, his hungry gaze settling once more on Cincinnati.

"What the fuck are you doing?" Hammerfist asked gruffly. "Glowering like a sick puppy serves no purpose. Why waste your time and put yourself at risk? If the Scepter in the tower sees you, we'd lose our greatest asset. Think of our city and our friends."

Thorn's frustrations poured out in a lengthy explanation. "I watched three Gridlords and an army march into that city. The Gridlords were glowing with the absorbed Flows from the wild orb. I could have smashed them and taken those Flows for myself."

Hammerfist scoffed, his voice dripping with scorn. "So, what? You think you could take on three Suits and 3,000 men and still have time to absorb their Flows? You're special, Thorn, but not even you could do that. Pittsburgh would be so much less without you."

Thorn clenched his fists, the hunger in his eyes not subsiding. "I could have done it. With the element of surprise, I'd take down Brightforge first, then Hunter. Arcstone would be a problem, sure, but I could do it. And 3,000 men? That's easy."

For a moment, Hammerfist seemed to contemplate the idea, but then he shook his head dismissively. "Don't be fucking stupid. Even if you could take them all on, the Scepter would just beam you down. It's not worth it."

Thorn knew Hammerfist was right, but that didn't soothe his aching hunger for battle. The desire for glory and the opportunity to once again flex his might would not fade away so easily.

Thorn growled under his breath, the sound rumbling through the air like a clap of thunder. He began to express the torment he felt in his soul when he had to deny his battle hunger for so long between campaign seasons.

"It's like a fire within me," he said, his voice heavy with frustration. "It burns, demanding to be fed. When the campaign season ends, I'm left with this insatiable hunger. It gnaws at me, day and night, and I feel like I'm going mad."

He turned to face Hammerfist, his eyes full of raw emotion. "There's just something about the heat of battle, the adrenaline that courses through my body when I swing my axe. It's like a drug, a siren's call I can't turn away from. And being without it feels like I'm being slowly suffocated."

Thorn looked out towards the flickering lights of Cincinnati, their feasting almost mocking him from the distance. "So they celebrate their little victories, ignorant of the storm that brews within me. If only they knew the true fury that lies dormant, waiting for the next opportunity to be unleashed."

He clenched his fists, glaring at the distant city. "This waiting, this constant hunger for battle, it's unbearable. And yet, I know I must endure it for the sake of our city and our friends. It just never gets any easier, Hammerfist. Never."

As he spoke, Hammerfist could see the pain etched across Thorn's face, the torment of a warrior denied the very thing that fed his soul. It was clear that between campaigns, the greatest challenge Thorn faced was not the enemy, but his own insatiable hunger for battle that threatened to consume him.

Hammerfist listened intently, his helmeted head tilting as he recognized the familiar struggles that Thorn described. After a moment, he responded with a depth of wisdom and understanding that only years of experience could bring:

"In my younger days, Thorn, I was much the same. That all-consuming desire for battle – it was an itch that I couldn't help but scratch. I was relentless, seeking every opportunity to prove myself in combat and to bask in the glory of each conquest."

He paused, taking a deep breath as memories of battles past flickered behind his eyes. "But as the years went by, I began to understand the weight of responsibility that comes with being a Griidlord. Our strength and our abilities are not just for our own satisfaction and gratification, but for the protection and well-being of our city and our people."

Hammerfist glanced at Thorn, his voice filled with sincerity. "You have such incredible potential, my friend. Time and time again, you've proven yourself as a formidable warrior on the battlefield. But you must learn to temper that hunger within you; to find the balance between your own desires and the needs of those who depend on you."

He placed a heavy hand on Thorn's shoulder, the gesture one of genuine camaraderie and concern. "I've had many years to come to terms with who I am as both a warrior and a man. It's been a journey of self-discovery and growth – one that I have no doubt you will also embrace."

Thorn winced at Hammerfist's impassioned words. He wasn't accustomed to displaying such vulnerability and exposing his emotions – it felt like a weakness to him. Despite his discomfort, Thorn responded at length, the words tumbling out with an intensity that matched the fire within him.

"I am the greatest axe this world has ever seen, but I cannot help but feel that I am wallowing in complacency while our beloved Pittsburgh struggles. Our people deserve nothing less than the best, but we can't succeed like the Pittsburgh of old, we should hold the GriidCrown."

Hammerfist took in Thorn's admission thoughtfully, recognizing the genuine concern behind his friend's words. After a moment of contemplation, he spoke up with a lengthy response, offering a perspective grounded in the reality of their city's situation.

"Pittsburgh is one of the most prosperous cities in this land, Thorn. Under our watch, we've always managed to gather enough orbs to keep our society thriving. Our factories continue to pump out arms and armor; tractors pull our harvests to feed our people, and our citizens can sleep safely in their homes."

His gaze grew more intense as he continued. "The Empire has never been able to take us. For a long time, we've been an island of independence in a sea of conquered lands and cowering vassals. Our resilience and strength are the very reasons we have been able to hold them off."

Hammerfist looked Thorn in the eye, the conviction in his voice unwavering. "There are cities far worse off than Pittsburgh, my friend. While we face our trials and tribulations, let us not forget that we are a beacon of hope for others. Our good fortune should not be a cause for shame, but a testament to the indomitable spirit of our people."

Thorn's frustration simmered beneath the surface, although he felt somewhat placated by Hammerfist's words. Turning his visor back toward Cincinnati, he couldn't shake the gnawing feeling brought on by the missed opportunity for battle. He sighed heavily and spoke with a tinge of melancholy.

"I can't help but feel that my legend could spread even further if Pittsburgh was stronger. If our city thrived as it once did, I could do so much more, and there would be songs celebrating my victories."

Hammerfist allowed a knowing smile to appear beneath his visor. "Thorn, songs are already sung in your honor at home. And there's a whole new year ahead of us, filled with fresh battles and new glories waiting to be seized."

The seasoned warrior reached out with an inviting gesture, attempting to lift his friend's spirits. "Why not come home and leave this behind for now? There are flagons of ale and beautiful women waiting to put your troubles to rest. The next battle is never too far away, and we will be ready when it comes."

Thorn considered Hammerfist's words, knowing that the promise of camaraderie and the comfort of home would likely ease the ache of his unfulfilled battle lust – at least for a short while. Just as Hammerfist had once learned to find balance between his desire for action and the responsibility he held, perhaps it was time for Thorn to do the same.

Thorn's frustration boiled over as he thought of their current situation as a Griidforce. "You, me, even Pikestorm – we possess some of the greatest potential as warriors," he lamented. "Pikestorm may be young and relatively new, but his potential is terrifying. We should dominate in battles. But our Sword… Every Choosing produces a weakling, someone who either burns out or gets killed. The Sword is the heart of a Griidforce, channeling the Flows through us. We can't truly succeed without a worthy Sword."

Hammerfist nodded in agreement but offered a different perspective. "True, the Swords we've had have left much to be desired, but don't forget that the Rustknight is now among us. He's a legend in his own right and, for a time, even held the GriidCrown."

Jaxwulf couldn't hide his skepticism. "During his time in Denver, the Rustknight accomplished little. He might be burning out, or perhaps he's just grown old and mad. He's been wandering from city to city, taking up the mantle of Sword, but what is his true purpose? I don't trust him, Hammerfist. I don't believe in him."

Hammerfist contemplated Jaxwulf's concerns with a solemn posture. The uncertainty surrounding Roland Windrake's intentions weighed heavily on both warriors, adding another layer of unease to their already troubled hearts.

Hammerfist placed a reassuring hand on Thorn's shoulder, his tone earnest and persuasive. "Roland, even old and mad, didn't have us by his side in Denver. Whatever strength he has left, combined with our own might, will be more than enough to crush anyone who stands in our way. There are many cities that would give anything to have even one Gridlord with the power you, I, or Pikestorm possess."

His grip on Thorn's shoulder tightened, his voice filled with conviction. "With Roland at his worst, no one can stop us. And on his best day, we could conquer the world."

Thorn couldn't help but feel eager and somewhat mollified by Hammerfist's words. The heaviness in his chest began to dissipate as he pictured the great feats yet to come.

Now, Hammerfist's tone turned more jovial, his armored hand giving Thorn's shoulder a friendly pat. "For the love of fuck, let's go home. There's drink, food, and women waiting for us. We can enjoy ourselves and pass the time until the new campaign season begins."

Thorn finally relented, accepting Hammerfist's proposal to return home. The two Gridlords, standing side by side, summoned their Footfields – powerful currents of energy that would allow them to race across the landscape at startling speeds.

With a shared, determined nod, they burst into motion, their armored forms streaking through the night like celestial warriors come to life. The small hamlets and houses they passed were completely unaware of the proximity of these godlike beings, soaring just beyond their reach, leaving only a fleeting whisper in their wake.

Chapter 9

Clive slept deeply, seemingly undisturbed. The room he woke up in resembled a well-appointed hotel or perhaps a cabin aboard the starship Enterprise – a stark contrast to the dirty, medieval streets he saw outside the previous day, teeming with animals and the hustle and bustle of people.

Lying in bed and staring at his surroundings, Clive noticed a console on one side of the room and felt the hum of the air conditioner above. He was intrigued by the technology, wondering how it could exist within this medieval setting.

As he pondered these mysteries, the door to his room opened, and a young serving girl entered with a tray of food. "I'm Aerilyn," she said hesitantly, looking around the room. "I hope I'm not disturbing you. You're an honored guest of Elder Jarway, and he hopes to see you soon. The cook told me to bring you some food so you'll have time to eat."

Clive, feeling slightly less disoriented than the day before, thanked her. Eager to learn more about the world he found himself in, he said, "Thank you, Aerilyn.  Can I ask...  where are you from?"

Aerilyn, smiling shyly, replied, "Here, of course.  Well, not from here. I mean, not from the tower. I'm from the outer sector of the city. I was very happy to get this job – working in the tower is great. Today is my first day, and I'm still learning my way around the place."

As Clive sat down to eat the meal Aerilyn had brought, he decided his first task should be to gather as much information as possible about this strange world.

Clive stared down at his plate, expecting some form of medieval fare. Instead, before him lay a platter filled with a classic American breakfast: crispy bacon, fluffy scrambled eggs, golden-brown hash browns, buttered toast, and a glass of freshly-squeezed orange juice on the side. He couldn't believe the sight and smell of the familiar food, presented so deliciously.

Looking to Aerilyn, Clive asked, "Is this a normal meal here?"

Aerilyn replied, "For those who can afford it, yes. In the place where I'm from, though, it's a rare treat. It's easier to cook this sort of food in the higher sectors since their technology is better."

Taking a bite from the delectable spread, Clive probed further, "What are these 'sectors' you mentioned? And how is their technology different?"

Confused by Clive's seeming ignorance but eager to please, Aerilyn explained, "The sectors revolve around the tower. Different sectors have different levels of technological advancements. The tower, at the center, always has the best and most advanced technology. Thanks to the Flows, as you make your way outwards, technology becomes more scarce, saved predominantly for the rich, nobles, merchants, and priests."

"So, technology just doesn't work in the lower sectors?" Clive inquired.

Nodding her agreement, Aerilyn elaborated, "We have some things that work, like battery-powered lamps and toys. Our houses aren't wired for electricity, so we rely on batteries for power. Sometimes, the tower deems a sector deserving enough to have a higher 'Order,' allowing those technologies to work. But that's a rare and special treat."

Clive, while deep in thought about the inequalities surrounding him, noticed Aerilyn looking longingly at his meal. With a kind smile, he said, "Hey, why don't you have some of this? There's more than enough for me. Please, join me."

Aerilyn hesitated, her politeness holding her back. "Oh, I couldn't, sir. It's not my place."

Clive insisted, "Nonsense. There's too much food here for me alone. Besides," he patted his pot belly, "I can't afford the extra calories."

Seeing his sincerity, Aerilyn finally relented and moved closer. She perched on the edge of the bed and tentatively sampled the food. As she tasted it, her expression shifted to one of pure ecstasy.

As they shared the meal, Clive's curiosity grew. "Can you explain more about these Flows you mentioned earlier? What are they exactly?"

Aerilyn, savoring each bite, responded, "Flows are gathered from Orbs, which are usually found in the wilds. The Flows create the Order fields, enabling technology to function."

Clive raised an eyebrow, "That's fascinating. So, if the Order in a particular area is low, then even a simple battery-powered lamp wouldn't work?"

While chewing, Aerilyn nodded enthusiastically and said, "Exactly! It would be completely useless, like it's dead. But if the Order is raised, we can do things like play games, read, and even indulge in shadow puppetry. All of this is so much nicer with proper light than relying on oil lamps or firelight."

Clive's mind raced, connecting Flows and Orders with the research he had been conducting before he found himself in this strange new world.

Just as Clive was about to ask what an Orb actually was, there was a knock on the door. Aerilyn quickly bolted up from her seat, not wanting to be seen in an inappropriate situation. The door opened, and a guard entered – a far cry from the medieval soldiers Clive had seen on the streets. This man wore modern armor, carried an automatic rifle, and had an intriguingly futuristic sword strapped to his belt.

Aerilyn nervously addressed the guard, "Sir Hearthguard, I hope I find you well. I'll be on my way now. There's much to do."

Hearthguard dismissed her with a wave and turned his gaze towards Clive. It seemed as though he was entertaining the thought that something more intimate had been going on between them. But his tone was sly and somewhat playful, not unkind.

"Elder Jarway is waiting," Hearthguard said. "It's time for you to come along. I'll escort you to the gardens."

As Clive put on his shoes – he had slept in his clothes – he asked, "Is Elder Jarway the leader of Denver?"

Hearthguard replied, "He is one of the most senior elders. Denver is governed by a council. Where do you hail from, stranger? Out in the wilds, perhaps?"

Clive, somewhat evasive, responded, "Something like that."

Together, they ventured through a sci-fi maze of hallways and eventually arrived at an elevator, which would take them to their destination.

Throughout the elevator ride, Clive and Hearthguard shared no conversation. Clive observed the elevator's mechanisms, noting how touchscreens were used to operate it. All around him, everything looked remarkably sleek and modern – more advanced than anything in his own world – a mix of metal, glass, and plastics.

The elevator descended and came to a stop in a vast foyer chamber that Clive barely remembered from the night before. Everything had been such a blur, leaving him in a daze.

As they walked, Knight gestured towards a doorway. "The gardens are through here," he said. "Elder Jarway enjoys the gardens. It's a quieter place to talk, more private, with fewer ears. He seems to think you're important. You're probably not from the wilds, then?"

Clive responded noncommittally, "Let's just say, it's complicated."

Feeling equally intrigued and guarded, Clive followed Hearthguard through the doorway and into the gardens, curious to see what Elder Jarway had in store.

As Clive stepped through the doorway, he was greeted by the sight of lush gardens that seemed to stretch out in every direction. It was evident that a great deal of thought and care had been put into the landscape's design. The air smelled clean, refreshing, and invigorating, a stark contrast to the scents he had encountered in the medieval city.

Manicured lawn areas were punctuated with elegant flower beds, filled with vibrant colors from a variety of blossoming plants. The meticulously trimmed hedges and topiaries were woven throughout the gardens, creating a tapestry of greenery that appeared to dance under the sunlight.

As Clive ventured further, he noticed that the gardens were not solely limited to flora. Carefully constructed water features added a soothing soundtrack to the peaceful environment. Streams of crystal-clear water meandered between flower beds, and small bridges were constructed from wood and stone, providing a pathway for visitors to meander through the gardens without disturbing the verdant carpet.

In quiet, shaded alcoves, Clive glimpsed benches nestled among the foliage, where it seemed that one could indulge in private thoughts or intimate conversations. Dotting the landscape were statues of intricate craftsmanship, displaying the prowess of the artists in this realm.

The gardens housed a variety of plant life that Clive did not recognize, hailing from both the world he knew and from the one he found himself in now. Trees reached for the sky, their branches outstretched like arms offering solace and comfort to those who sought a brief respite from the world outside.

Each area seemed to be deliberately organized to evoke particular emotions. Some spaces instilled a sense of peace and tranquility, with soft, flowing grasses swaying gently in the breeze. Others evoked a sense of energy and vibrancy, featuring vivid bursts of color from blossoming flowers and elaborately shaped topiaries.

The harmony of man-made order and natural beauty created a sanctuary that felt removed from the world beyond the garden walls. As Clive continued to follow Hearthguard in search of Elder Jarway, he couldn't help but feel grateful for this moment of serenity in a world that had so far been marked by confusion and chaos.

They soon found Elder Jarway sitting by a pond, where he seemed to be engrossed in watching the fish swimming lazily below the surface. Even in this idyllic setting, Clive couldn't help but notice that the fish bore a slight oddness. They appeared similar to carp but with bizarre features that reminded him just how far from his own world he was.

Jarway stood up as they approached and began speaking with Hearhtstone. "Thank you for bringing our guest, Hearthguard. Have you heard whether your brother has returned?"

"With all respect, my lord, I believe you'd be the first to know if my brother had arrived," Hearthguard replied.

Jarway chuckled at Hearthguard's response. "You're right. I would be."

"How is your wife doing, Hearthguard?" Jarway inquired with genuine warmth.

"She's doing well, thank you for asking, my lord," Hearthguard answered proudly. "She's been busy taking care of our newborn daughter."

Jarway smiled, "Congratulations on your newest addition. I look forward to meeting her someday soon. Your children bring life and joy to our community."

With a nod of gratitude, Hearthguard replied, "Thank you, Elder. I'll make sure to let my wife know you were asking."

After they exchanged a few more pleasantries, Hearthguard took his leave, and Clive found himself alone with Elder Jarway in the peaceful garden.

Jarway, appearing less stern than during their previous encounter, inquired about Clive's well-being. "How did you sleep? Did you find the room comfortable? How was your breakfast?"

Clive, aware of Jarway's leadership position and power, answered docilely, "I slept well, thank you. The room was very comfortable, and the breakfast was delicious."

There was a brief silence between them. Clive felt as though Jarway was deliberately using the quiet to provoke him into speaking. He tried to resist the discomfort, but it soon got the better of him.

Eventually, Clive asked, "What do you intend to do with me? What use do you expect to make of my... situation?"

Jarway regarded him thoughtfully before responding. "If what you claimed yesterday is true, that you're from The Before, then you have the potential to be of great importance here. Your arrival is an amazing phenomenon, a miracle, even. The extent of your knowledge could prove invaluable, and your unique traits could make you a valuable asset to our community."

Clive explained his confusion, "I don't know what 'The Before' or even 'The Now' really means. One moment, I was working in my lab on a project, and the next, I found myself standing in that strange stone room."

Jarway leaned in, his curiosity piqued. "Tell me about the nature of your project."

Clive hesitated for a moment before explaining, "I was working on what we called 'function fields.' It was a new technology that seemed to control entropy, affecting the fineness of tech that could operate."

Jarway nodded thoughtfully. "Ah, we call them 'Order Fields' here. So, this technology was relatively new in your time?"

"Yes," Clive replied. "It was cutting-edge technology, and the potential applications were vast, ranging from military to civilian purposes."

Clive continued, his voice becoming more animated as he expounded on the implications of the technology. "In the military, imagine entire battlefields where advanced technology abruptly ceases to function. Rifles would be reduced to clubs, and tanks would become useless hunks of metal. The side that could control the effect of these fields would have a major advantage."

He paused, his eyes wide with enthusiasm. "Now picture the civilian applications. Urban centers could be designed to enhance the functioning of technology within their limits, leading to more efficient energy production, communication, and travel. On the other hand, wilderness areas could be designated as low-tech zones, preserving their natural state."

Clive glanced at Jarway, whose eyebrow was raised in interest. "The possibilities are nearly endless. Had we been able to refine and master this technology, it could have revolutionized our society in countless ways, opening up new avenues of development that we could have never before imagined."

Jarway stared back at Clive, his eyes filled with a knowing wisdom. Clive faltered as he realized that the technology he spoke so passionately about had, in fact, been mastered, and his own world was left far behind.

Becoming emotional, Clive stuttered, "W-when am I?"

Jarway countered with his own question. "When were you?"

Clive responded, his voice barely above a whisper, "2024."

Still unsure of the specifics, Jarway asked, "Does this mean you were before or after the 2100s?"

"Before... way before," Clive said, feeling increasingly uneasy.

Jarway explained, "The Before ended sometime around the 2100s. The exact date is unsure, but 2169 seems the likeliest."

Clive felt as if his head was about to explode. "When is now?"

Jarway's brow furrowed, "It's hard to tell. After The Before, there were years, decades, even centuries of chaos. Humanity was reduced to little more than animals, struggling to survive. We were more prey than predator."

As Jarway spoke, Clive tried to process the enormity of the situation he found himself in – an epoch far removed from everything he had ever known.

Jarway continued, enthusiastically expanding on the history of their time. "This is the year 1025. We began our dating system with the day the Oracle gave the first worthy people a Tower, in Chicago, to Padraig Dragonheart. That marked the beginning of the modern era when Towers emerged from the ground, and the Oracle began to show us the way to defeat Entropy."

Clive's mind raced, overwhelmed with thoughts and questions. He picked one out of the fray and asked, "Towers rose from the ground?"

"Yes," Jarway affirmed. "The Oracle found Padraig to be pure of heart and gifted him with a Tower that grew from the soil itself. It was the first of many. The next was in Green Bay, bestowed upon Padraig's sister, Lady Bridget – The First Sword."

Listening to Jarway's tale, Clive tried to absorb and reconcile the incredible history of this new world he found himself in.

"So, this Tower event happened over a thousand years ago?" Clive questioned.

"Yes," Jarway confirmed, "Our dating system has been accurate since the appearance of the Towers."

Clive pondered, "And the time before that is unknown, all the way back to 2169?"

Jarway nodded, "Yes, it's believed to have been centuries, but our sources from that era are scattered and often contradictory."

Trying to wrap his head around it all, Clive concluded, "So if I really have traveled through time, it's been at least 1169 years."

Jarway corrected him, "Not time-traveled exactly. The priests believe you were brought here by the Prophet."

Intrigued, Clive asked, "What is the Prophet?"

Jarway recounted, "It was a glowing aura and was discovered just before the Oracle granted the Denver Tower."

Curiosity piqued, fearing he knew suddenly, Clive inquired, "Was it something like a tear in reality? A blinding, diffuse light suspended in the air?"

Jarway, a touch of sadness in his voice as he thought of the Prophet's disappearance, replied, "Yes, it was something like that."

Jarway continued to describe the Prophet, his voice soft and nostalgic. "The Prophet was an enigmatic presence, with no clear form or defined edges. It was an ever-shifting array of colors and shapes – like a living aurora, dancing in the air. The phenomenon radiated a quiet power, an almost otherworldly energy, that seemed to both inspire and humble those who stood in its presence."

He paused, recalling his experiences with the ethereal entity. "Being near the Prophet, one couldn't help but feel drawn to it and overwhelmed with a sense of awe, yet also compelled to look away so as not to be entirely overtaken by its beauty and majesty. Truly, it was unlike anything we'd ever seen before."

As Jarway spoke, Clive's heart grew cold. Deep down, he realized that the Prophet may very well be the function field he had been working on when Bret warned him about safety concerns – a time he now knew was over a thousand years ago.

EPISODE 3

Chapter 10

Nicolas stood at the gates of the town, his chest swelling with pride as he looked upon the 3rd Division lined up in their finest splendor. The swords and spears of the infantry glistened in the sun, while the musket troopers held their polished weapons . The auto rifle men stood a little further back, their guns oiled and gleaming, anticipation written clearly on their faces.

Beside Nicolas stood Bryan, his eyes also bright with pride. He too admired their well-prepared soldiers, with a particular fondness for the small but elite group positioned at the front of the ranks, directly behind himself and Nicolas. These were the highly skilled Commandos, a handful of soldiers trained and equipped for all conditions. They bore swords, flint pistols, and submachineguns – weapons that embodied the deadly blend of power and agility required for their unique fighting style. The Commandos stood tall and proud, their faces displaying a quiet confidence and determination that spoke volumes.

As the entire Division stood in attention, they awaited the arrival of the emissary from the Boston Empire. Their faces displayed a mix of trepidation and curiosity mixed with excitement, for it was not common for these great overlords to visit.

The soldiers squinted into the distance, trying to discern any signs of the shrouded company from the Empire approaching. Suddenly, they saw it – a group of figures speeding across the land, faster than any galloping horse, propelled by the unseen power of the Footfield beneath them. Most likely dispatched from the Boston Empire's vassal state of Chicago, the traveling group was an imposing sight. The soldiers could see the glint of armor and the fluttering of banners, but the full details remained obscured. Nonetheless, they stood firm and prepared to welcome these enigmatic travelers to their town.

As the company drew nearer and nearer, the hum of the Footfield grew louder, creating a palpable sense of anticipation among the onlookers. The soldiers, eager to know more about the newcomers, traded whispered theories and guesses about the Griidlord who was likely driving the field. They knew that it wouldn't be long until the emissaries arrived and the shroud was lifted, revealing not only the colors and sigils of the company, but also the identity of the powerful figure controlling the Footfield that drove them forward. With each passing moment, the energy of the waiting soldiers grew, manifesting in tightly gripped weapons and wary, expectant expressions.

Standing between the 3rd Division and the approaching contingent were the resplendent figures of Brightforge and Arcstone, two mighty warriors clad in their awe-inspiring power armor painted in vibrant shades of orange and black. The shimmering energy of their armor seemed to emit a powerful aura, a testament to their status as pillars of Cincinatti's power and prowess.

Brightforge cut an imposing figure. His tall frame was covered in the ornate power armor, and on his back rested the menacing grip of his glowing sword. Anyone who gazed upon him would immediately recognize a champion, a seasoned warrior whose strength and courage had earned him the deep respect and admiration of his people.

Beside him, Arcstone was gargantuan, the unwavering guardian of the city. With a monstrous blazing shield in hand, his presence alone was enough to instill confidence in those under his protection. Apart from this magnificent shield, Arcstone also carried a short hand-axe at his waist.  Together, these two formidable warriors were a perfect embodiment of Cincinatti's force and determination.

Within the varied cities of the land, each held its own unique system of governance. In Cincinatti, the Sword – represented by the imposing figure of Brightforge – was always considered the leader of the city. Upon his selection as Sword, Brightforge was also elected as the premier of Cincinatti, elevating him to a position of great prominence and responsibility. As they waited for the arrival of the emissaries, Brightforge and Arcstone emanated an air of strength and confidence that reverberated through the waiting ranks of the 3rd Division.

The Empire party suddenly slowed down about 500 yards away, and as the Footfield dissipated, they continued their approach at a more normal pace. Nicolas watched them intently, observing the details of their delegation. At the forefront, he could see the Empire Diplomat, adorned in blue, red, and white robes - the unmistakable colors of the Empire. Assisting the Diplomat were several aides, dressed in similar garb.

Behind them marched an impressive array of elite Empire commandos and knights, each one wielding a rare and awe-inspiring glowing power weapon. Their assortment of axes, swords, and spears spoke to their versatile and potent fighting skills, to the wealth the Empire has amassed over decades of dominance uder the Emperor and the Bloodknight.

A short distance away from the main party and standing apart, the figure of a Griidlord became clear. The navy armor with orange trims was a telltale sign of their origin from Chicago. Holding a huge glowing axe, the imposing Griidlord was none other than Taranis Edgecutter. Nicolas was immediately impressed – Edgecutter had an impressive reputation despite the waning talent of the Empire. It was clear that the presence of one of their best Griidlords, alongside the finely-tuned skills and display of weaponry by the Empire Knights and Commandos, was designed to demonstrate a show of force and determination by the Empire. As the party continued its approach, it was a powerful reminder of the might that backed these envoys from the Boston Empire.

Delegations between cities traditionally avoided meeting in the Tower, as it was deemed too risky due to the potential for subterfuge, especially among less friendly city-states. However, cities under the Empire were expected to receive Empire delegations within their Tower as a mark of submission and trust.

When the two parties finally met, Nicolas spotted the Empire Diplomat approaching Brightforge; it was none other than the Governor of Chicago, Cassian Ashford. Ashford was known for his haughty and disrespectful demeanor, and it was clear that he expected to gain entry to the Tower without hesitation.

Cassian Ashford began to speak, addressing the gathered assembly with elaborate greetings on behalf of the Empire. "On this auspicious day, I bring felicitations and warm regards from His Imperial Majesty, the Emperor, the glorious Crown of the North East, and the protector of our realm, may his reign be ever prosperous and enduring," Ashford said, listing off the many honorifics and titles associated with the emperor.

Brightforge, however, responded with a curt greeting: "Thank you, Governor Ashford. Welcome to Cincinatti."

Arcstone couldn't resist adding, in a humorous tone, "Howdy to you all, too!"

Ashford, visibly perturbed but maintaining his composure, continued. "Certainly, it is kind of you to greet us at the gates. However, it is time we proceed into the Tower to discuss our business."

Brightforge stood firm, replying, "We appreciate your enthusiasm, but we shall stay here to discuss matters."

Trying his best to hide his annoyance, Ashford conceded. "Very well. It is, indeed, a fine day. One spends so much time cooped up in towers; it might be nice to enjoy some time in the fresh air. We shall have our meeting here."

With a snap of his fingers, Ashford gave a signal, and a table, chairs, and a light lunch emerged from the crowd of warriors behind him. They were carried by attentive assistants, who efficiently arranged the items for the meeting. Nicolas took note of the fact that in times past, refusing entry to the Tower like this would have resulted in war or severe punishments. He reasoned that Ashford must be aware of the Empire's waning hold on Cincinnati and was likely apprehensive about their ability to suppress the city's growing martial forces, backed by their powerful Griidlords.

Brightforge accepted a chair and gracefully seated himself, removing his helmet to reveal a handsome, cocky face that reflected his formidable reputation. He casually picked at the grapes provided to him. Arcstone, however, chose to remain standing, his vigilant eyes never leaving the visitors from the Empire.

Silence settled over the gathering, and the atmosphere grew tense as Brightforge and Arcstone allowed the silence to continue, giving the Empire envoys the opportunity to introduce the purpose of their meeting.

Eventually, Ashford broke the silence, saying, "We have come to understand that Cincinnati has recently captured a wild orb. Strangely enough, the Empire was not informed of this achievement, nor have we received the 50 Flows in tithe that is owed to us as per the agreement of vassalage."

Brightforge responded firmly, "As we have told the Empire before, we no longer accept its dominion."

Arcstone couldn't help but chuckle at the exchange. Ashford, seeming unfazed, leaned in. "It is not uncommon for vassal cities to make such bold declarations," he said, "often without truly considering the consequences. This may be the first actual act of defiance we have seen from Cincinnati, withholding Flows that are the Emperor's by law, by your city's own commitments, but I am confident that you do not genuinely mean to challenge the supremacy of the Empire."

Brightforge spoke calmly in response, "We stand by our words. The orb is ours, the Flows are ours, and more importantly, this city is for the people of Cincinnati, not the Empire."

Arcstone concurred, though with a gleeful mix of humor and profanity. "That's right. The people of Cincinnati ain't bowing to the Empire's whims anymore."

Throughout the discussion, Taranis Edgecutter eyed the duo with an air of aloof disinterest. Nicolas could clearly jugde that Edgecutter would be outmatched by both Brightforge and Arcstone, not to mention the watchful presence of the Scepter, who was undoubtedly observing the proceedings from the nearby Tower.

Ashford, leaning in even closer, spoke in a low, urgent voice. "This is madness. Consider the facts: you have fine Griidlords here in Cincinnati, and your army is impressive. Yet both are dwarfed by the Emperor's forces, which command dozens of Griidlords. Cincinnati would be devoured in a conflict. You must not let pride blind you. Think of your people and the long history your city has as part of the Empire."

Brightforge responded in a hushed tone, "There are whispers that the New York Kingdoms are ready to break away from the Empire. Their departure would mean ten fewer Suits for the Empire and the opening of a second front. The Empire has been preoccupied with keeping those inner territories in check."

Ashford retorted, "Should Cincinnati set such a precedent, you would face the full might of the Empire. We would make an example of this rebellion to discourage others. As for New York, the people there are utterly loyal. They love the Emperor, whereas the Two Kings of New York are loathed by the population. Don't be misled by idle whispers."

Brightforge couldn't help but interject with an eloquent and humorous diversion. "Well, if loyalty in New York is unshakeable, perhaps the Empire can focus its efforts on improving its own cities, no?"

Arcstone followed up, adding a cruder repetition of the sentiment. "Yeah. Y'all should remember that charity begins at home, don't ya think?"

Ashford's face paled slightly, realizing the difficulty in convincing the defiant leaders to give in. He shifted tactics and offered a revised vassal agreement. "Considering that Cincinnati captured a Wild Orb and did all the work, perhaps the Empire could accept a lesser tribute for the time being. Let us say, 40 Flows?"

But Brightforge didn't budge; instead, he responded with a veiled barb. "Or, perhaps, the Emperor could use a single Flow to help the needy and hungry in the crumbling cities of the Empire.  I think the people of Cincinnati would understand if we made a donation like that, considering the plight of the poor in the glorious Empire"

Arcstone chimed in, "Ain't no shortage of needy folks there, Governor."

Ashford's anger grew with each retort. "The Empire has raised countless people out of poverty. By managing the Griid, providing law and order, and creating an era of unprecedented peace, we have achieved a stable and prosperous society!"

Arcstone shot back, "By robbing people of their freedom, you mean."

Brightforge added, "Please, Governor. Peace at the edge of a sword is not real peace."

At this, Ashford stood up, his face red with rage. "If you refuse to accept peace at the edge of a sword, then prepare to feel the edge itself! Your failure to pay the Flows means war, Brightforge! We will not tolerate such insubordination!"

Chapter 11

Over the next few days, Clive found himself slowly adjusting to his new reality. The conversations with Jarway were long and filled with information about the world he now inhabited. As unbelievable as it all was, the impossibility of his situation was starting to lose its initial shock.

During his time in this new world, Clive had grown quite fond of Aerilyn. She was an attractive young woman, with an enchanting presence that made it hard to resist spending time with her. It wasn't just her beauty that drew Clive to her; she had an incredible warmth and genuine kindness that made it easy to imagine feeling at home in this strange time.

Clive was still consumed, thinking of his life back in the 21st century and the people he had left behind. His heart ached at the thought of his friends and family who would now be long dead. In some ways, he was grateful that he had been a single man with no wife or children to mourn their loss. The heartache would have been almost unbearable.

As the days burned up and time sped forward, Clive began to accept his new life more fully. He still had moments of disbelief and sadness, but they were growing fewer and farther between. The people of this strange, technological and seemingly magical world were warm and welcoming, and Clive found solace in their company.

Clive sat in the garden, waiting. The plants and flowers around him seemed both familiar and alien, much like everything else in this strange world. He couldn't help but feel a mixture of excitement and nerves at the prospect of meeting a Griidlord. Jarway believed that Clive's past knowledge might shed some light on the mysteries of the Griid, and perhaps even be of benefit to the city.

Of course, Jarway had also warned Clive that the power dynamics between the city leaders and the priests could be delicate. The priests protected their knowledge fiercely, and any perceived interference from an outsider could lead to dangerous tensions. It was essential that Clive tread carefully.

That was why he was waiting to meet Caelin Hearthguard, Denver's Arrow, and younger brother of the captain of the Tower guard.  Caelin was sheathed in the armor of a Griidlord, and this meeting could provide a discrete opportunity for Clive to test his understanding of the technology.   It was also hoped that by aligning himself with someone well-respected and established within the city hierarchy, Clive could gain acceptance and build trust.

Finally, Caelin arrived, striding down the garden path with an air of confidence and disconnection, helmeted head lingering on the beautiful topiaries. He was an impressive figure, tall and well-built.

As Caelin approached, Clive couldn't help but marvel at the impressive sight before him. The armored figure wore a suit of orange with navy trim, and glowing lights adorned various points on the armor, creating an awe-inspiring aura. There was no hiss of actuators, only a gentle hum that suggested great power contained within. The armor was sleek and form-fitting in some places, while in others it fanned out into larger shoulder guards and plates.

Caelin's voice came through the visor, lighthearted and apologetic. "I'm so sorry for my tardiness. I hope I haven't kept you waiting too long."

Caught off guard by the humble tone, Clive replied, "Oh, it's no problem at all. I didn't have anything pressing to do."

As he spoke, Caelin reached for his helmet, which seemed to deform slightly as he removed it. With a sincere expression on his face, he insisted once more, "I truly apologize. You are someone very special, sent by the Prophet, and everyone has been talking about it. With all the time Jarway has been spending with you, I should have been more punctual."

Clive assured him, "Please, think no more of it."

Caelin smiled, almost shyly, "Elder Jarway told me to come to you, that you might have an opportunity to inspect my armor, to see if your arcane wisdom might be applied to its understanding.  Please understand, that while I am willing, I might be a little uncomfortable.  It is strange and unusual to let another interact with a Griidlord's armor, save for priests and pods.  You might say this is a little intimate for my liking, but, I don't grudge you the opportunity."

Curious, Clive asked, "Pods?"

Caelin seemed surprised, "Yes, the structures in the tower where we go to heal our suits when they're damaged or we're tired. Jarway said you knew very little, but I didn't realize how little, given your supposed wisdom."

Clive confessed, "My knowledge is based on progenitor tech – I'm not familiar with what exists today. Jarway wants to see if I can apply that knowledge to what is used now."

Caelin, awestruck, replied, "Progenitor tech? You mean what came before the suits, before the Oracle?"

Clive felt the urge to ask about the Oracle, but he decided not to derail the current conversation. The opportunity to get up close with the armor was too compelling.

As Clive began to carefully examine Caelin's armor, he couldn't help but be amazed by the intricacies and advanced technology that allowed for such a seamless integration of form and function. He glanced back and forth between Caelin and the armor, searching for any connections to the progenitor tech he was familiar with.

"Can I take a closer look at some of the connections and panels?" Clive asked hesitantly, knowing how personal the armor was to the Griidlord.

Caelin nodded, clearly putting great trust in Clive. "Of course."

As Clive moved in closer, studying the various connections and wiring, he began to realize that some elements did feel familiar – the energy sources, the materials used in the armor's construction, and even some of the systems that functioned to make it a cohesive unit. It was clear that the technology had advanced considerably since his time but, at its core, there were aspects that stemmed from the progenitor tech he had known.

While inspecting a section of the armor's back, Clive noticed an unfamiliar component. It appeared to be a small, glowing crystal embedded within the suit. He asked Caelin, "Can you tell me about this crystal? Its function is unknown to me."

Caelin looked down at his armor, his face betraying a hint of unease. "That's the Oracle's Eye," he explained, "It's what allows the Griidlords to communicate directly with the Oracle, and it's the source of each suit's unique abilities. It's considered sacred, and to be completely honest, even we Griidlords don't fully understand its workings."

Clive couldn't help but express his amazement as he continued to inspect the armor. "The technology used here is truly impressive. It reminds me of liquid metal in some areas, seamlessly shifting and adapting."

Caelin replied, "Thank you. It's an honor to wear it, but it also carries a great responsibility."

As Clive continued his examination, he politely asked, "May I see your helmet, perhaps hold it for a moment?"

Caelin hesitated, clearly uncomfortable, but handed the helmet over to Clive nonetheless. As Clive held the helmet in his hands, he noticed that it was a single, unbroken piece, save for the speaker, visor gaps, and other sensory apparatus.

"I couldn't help but notice when you took the helmet off," Clive remarked, "it seemed to deform and unfold itself, fitting your face like a second skin. How is that possible, considering there are no visible joints or seams?"

Caelin responded with a light-hearted chuckle, "Well, I'm a warrior, not a priest. My understanding of the armor's inner workings is limited."

Clive tentatively reached out to touch Caelin's arm, looking for permission from the Griidlord with his questioning eyes. Caelin nodded, allowing Clive to examine further. The armor felt like metal, but it wasn't cold to the touch. Armored plates were thick and solid, while the joints were thin and more like skin.

Curious, Clive asked, "How do you put the whole suit on? I don't see any seams or joints that would open."

Caelin focused for a moment, and a seam suddenly appeared in the chest, parting slightly to reveal his bare flesh underneath. Clive stared, astounded.

He whispered, to himself more than Caelin, "More than a hundred years of technology advanced after I disappeared, even before this Fall... Could this suit be made of nanobots, working together to form a cohesive unit?"

Caelin, not understanding Clive's musings, concentrated again and willed the suit to close seamlessly.

As the time passed, the two continued their conversation - Clive, the confused and baffled technician, and Caelin, the surprisingly pleasant and self-deprecating super soldier. However, unbeknownst to them, eyes watched from the shadows, analyzing their every move, and dark plans began to take shape.

Chapter 12

Caius Hammerfist treaded silently to the edge of the dense treeline, the thick foliage soon giving way to a small rise overlooking a massive factory below. From this vantage point, the structure seemed to sprawl endlessly in every direction, its rugged architecture marked by futuristic but functional design. The low hum of the factory's machinery droned in the air, a constant reminder that this place was focused on efficiency, power, and dominance.

To one side, close enough to offer Hammerfist support but far enough to savor the experience of the forest, Thorn Jaxwulf stood enchanted by his surroundings. Though their armored suits remained battle-ready, the advanced technology within them amplified every touch, sound, and scent, allowing Thorn to indulge in the soothing, untamed embrace of the wilderness.

Thorn closed his eyes for a few moments to lose himself to the sensations completely – the crisp scents of foliage and dew, the earthy aroma of damp soil, and the distant murmurs of wildlife busily awaiting the night. The whispering breeze rustled the leaves overhead, creating an almost otherworldly symphony.

Meanwhile, Hammerfist studied the factory with keen eyes, his experienced gaze taking in every detail. Logistical routes snaked across the complex, workers scurrying like ants among the shifting shadows. The machinery itself hummed to life with virtually inaudible whirs and hissing steam, a testament to the fine art of the artificers who had designed and built them.

"Beautiful," Thorn murmured, his own attention briefly torn away from the forest to join Hammerfist in studying the factory. His tone was one of reluctant admiration, as though he couldn't help but respect the strength and innovation the factory represented, despite its harsh disruption to the natural world.

"Indeed," Hammerfist agreed, his voice as gritty and metallic as ever, yet inflected with a quiet sense of awe. "This is a monument to human ingenuity, Thorn. With such might and potential, we can shape our destiny in ways never before imagined."

Thorn tugged at a handful of leaves, rolling them in his armored fingers and marveling at the contrast between the factory's raw power and the forest's delicate vitality. "The world would be a poorer place without such wonders."

Hammerfist turned to Thorn, his wise eyes set beneath the familiar visage of his gladiator helm, and there was a hard edge to his words.  He couldn't tell if Thorn was referencing their factory below, or the nature around them.

A few paces away from Hammerfist and Thorn, the imposing figures of Brightforge and Arcstone stood, clad in their signature orange and black armor — a stark contrast to the black and gold that adorned Thorn and Hammerfist. They had all been standing together, transfixed by the factory below, silent for some time.

Eventually, Hammerfist broke the lull in the conversation. "So, you take a stand against the Empire. A bold move, to be sure. The winner will enjoy the spoils, but the consequences of losing would be far more devastating than any potential gains."

Ever confident, Brightforge met Hammerfist's words with a steady tone. "We won't lose."

Hammerfist couldn't help but smile behind his visor, acknowledging the determination in Brightforge's voice. He was well aware of the long-standing rivalry between their cities, Pittsburgh and Cincinnati. They were so close together that their forces often clashed during the campaign season, creating a fierce enmity.

For years, Cincinnati had remained a player on the field only through the support of the Empire. However, in recent decades, as the Empire's influence waned, Cincinnati managed to rebuild. The arrival of prominent Griidlords like Brightforge had undoubtedly played a major role in shifting the balance.

Hammerfist and Brightforge's paths had crossed many times on the battlefield, their shield and sword trading blows and sparks as they sought victory over one another. In recent years, Hammerfist had found himself retreating more often than vanquishing, but that did nothing to diminish the respect that had grown between them through countless confrontations.

As the four Griidlords stood there, the history of their battles hung heavily in the air, a mixture of both enmity and admiration.

Hammerfist's voice rang strong and clear as he continued the conversation. "For too long, we have been an isolated island of freedom in a sea of the Empire's control. It's encouraging to witness their grip weaken, and I relish the idea of your success."

Beside him, Thorn stared at the Cincy Sword with a palpable hunger, his warrior instincts longing for the thrill of battle. He couldn't deny the prospect of a strong ally, however, and voiced his agreement with Hammerfist, "You know I want a cut at you, Brightforge, it's been too long since I last had a chance.  But the idea of the Empire weakening, of having a real chance to bring some hurt to them, that...  That would be something."

Brightforge, gestured toward the sprawling factory below. "Perhaps it's time for us to establish a direct trade agreement, then. We have a need to equip a large force with power weapons, but they are so scarce. Pittsburgh, with its foundries dating back to The Before, is fortunate to possess the resources we seek. We are prepared to pay a handsome price."

Thorn and Hammerfist exchanged a glance, recognizing the potential advantages that such an alliance could offer. With the Empire's power dwindling, the time was ripe for forging new bonds and bolstering their strength in numbers.

Though the prospect of fewer battles against their long-standing rivals left both men feeling a pang of something akin to loss, they knew that the changing landscape of their world demanded new strategies. Joining forces with Cincinnati would undoubtedly create a formidable challenge for the Empire's aspirations, and perhaps even turn the tide in favor of those yearning to break free from their oppressive rule.

Hammerfist put up a cautionary hand as he replied, "First of all, let's be clear. I have no authority to commit to anything. I am here to speak, but the final decision must wait for the Choosing to appoint the RustKnight as our Sword. Only then can any agreement be entered into." He paused, gathering his thoughts before continuing. "Secondly, I am reluctant to put weapons in the hands of your soldiers, knowing full well that our own people may be on the receiving end of their blows during the campaign season."

Brightforge was candid in his response. "I can't promise that won't happen. Campaigning is what it is, and our forces must be ready. However, the Flows we give in return could bolster your own troops in countless different ways. Keep in mind that every weapon we receive would also be raised against the Empire."

Hammerfist narrowed his eyes, considering the possible outcomes. "Aye, a nice thought, but the Empire is retreating on its own. There's discord in New York, and even Detroit has been talking of revolt. So many variables at play."

This revelation surprised Brightforge, who admitted, "I hadn't heard about Detroit. Rumors perhaps?"

Hammerfist shared the intel he possessed. "The Griidlords in Detroit have been gaining renown, and the might of the city is growing. They still have a long way to go, but with the Empire keeping a wary eye on New York and now actively warring with Cincinnati, Detroit might see an opportunity. Many of their vassals may seek freedom or renegotiate agreements, and client cities further afield from the Empire's reach could do the same. The whole world is watching Cincinnati right now."

Brightforge, always searching for an angle, probed further. "And what of Pittsburgh? You've maintained an uneasy truce with the Empire. Is it time to push back?"

Hammerfist sighed, the weight of the truth burdening his voice. "I would like to, but our successes in recent decades have been middling at best. Our city is not destitute, but our economic and martial prowess pales in comparison to the halcyon days of our past."

Before Brightforge could respond, a sudden onslaught of sensory input bombarded all four Griidlords through their hypersensitive armor. The distant yet unmistakable sound of screams echoed from the factory below, as workers shouted in panic and terror, their voices united in a single, chilling cry of fear.

The four Griidlords, each highly attuned to their armor's specialized senses, stood up straight, their previous conversation forgotten as their instincts took over. They could smell the acrid stench of fear that swept through the factory as chaos reigned.

Thorn, his warrior instincts flaring to life, eagerly voiced the word that echoed in their ears, even as horror-filled screams from below repeated the same chilling word with increasing alarm: "Fiends!"

.

Chapter 13

The garden offered Clive a stark contrast to the life he once knew. It was set away from the city's hustle and bustle, allowing the symphony of natural sounds to reach his ears clearly. The gentle rustle of leaves as a soft breeze wafted through the trees brought a melody of serenity, harmony, and peace. The soothing chirp of birdsong, the faint buzzing of bees busy with their daily tasks, and the sporadic, cheerful splashes of the fish seemed to weave together an orchestra dedicated to the celebration of life. These simple and tranquil sounds had been lost to him in his old life, but now they enveloped him with a sense of calm and groundedness he had rarely experienced before.

As for the smells that graced his nostrils, the garden was an exquisite tapestry of fragrances. The lush scents of the soil, earthy and rich, mingled with the tantalizing aroma of various flowering plants and blossoms. Sweet, floral tones, some delicately subtle and others more heady, drifted through the air on the wings of the breeze. Every breath Clive took was layered with a complexity that his old life had seldom appreciated or even known.

Clive's thoughts wandered to the future, pondering how he could secure his place and prove his usefulness in Denver. He desperately needed to demonstrate his worth to Jarway, and show that he had valuable skills or knowledge that could earn his keep. There were expectations on him to provide insight into technology from The Before - a daunting task, considering that he predated much of that technology by 100 years.

Yet, hope still flickered within him. Clive believed his fundamental understanding of Order Fields and computing might just prove beneficial to those around him. He hoped that despite the time difference, the principles and groundwork for the technology of The Before would still endure.

In the meantime, while he waited for Caelin, Clive decided he would soak up every detail of this unique and captivating world. He paid close attention to the people, customs, culture, and even the flora and fauna. All of these newly encountered and carefully observed aspects of life would eventually become just as important as his pre-existing skills, and ultimately, would be the tools he'd use to build a stable, secure life in this strange yet beautiful new home.

Suddenly, Clive noticed a strange man standing alongside him. The man was dressed in a cloak, with an odd combination of armor visible beneath it. Chainmail intermingled with Kevlar, and armor plates similar to those of a Griidlord protected his body. The man was armed with an array of weapons; a steel katana sword, a glowing high-tech axe, and an assortment of three pistols that seemed to span from the 18th to the 22nd century.

The first pistol appeared to be a classic flintlock, its wooden grip and brass fittings giving off an air of history and elegance. The second pistol seemed to be from the 20th century, a semi-automatic with smooth curves and a matte black finish. The final pistol was unlike anything Clive had ever seen before, with a sleek, ultramodern design and a surface that seemed to shimmer and change colors as it caught the light.

The man's cool, serene expression hinted at confidence and authority. His handsome face bore a faint smile, as if he knew something Clive didn't. Intrigued by this enigmatic figure, Clive couldn't help but wonder who he was and what his intentions might be.

"Err, hello," Clive stammered, caught off guard by the man's sudden appearance. "I didn't see you there."

The man's voice was calm and tinged with dry humor. "I wasn't here; I just stopped by."

Clive glanced up and down the empty pathway, puzzled by the fact that he hadn't noticed anyone approaching. "My mind must have been elsewhere," he admitted. "I didn't notice your approach."

The stranger offered a reassuring smile. "Don't worry, Clive. I prefer not to be noticed."

Clive furrowed his brow, questioning how the man knew his name, but quickly trailed off as a thought struck him. "How do you know my..." He realized that many people in this world must know the name of the man who had come from The Before.

The man seemed to read Clive's thoughts and replied, "Your reputation precedes you. The whole town speaks of the man who came from The Before, the very day the prophet disappeared. Your legend is already spreading to villages, hamlets, and soon, all the cities will know your story. Many will come to see you, just as I have."

Taken aback, Clive stammered, "You came to see me? I'm not worth the effort, really. I'm just a humble man, lost in time, with nothing to offer. It's not worth the trouble."

The man's smile never faded as he responded, just as dryly, "I'm not so sure about that. Time will tell, but I have a feeling you may prove to be tremendously worth it."

Curious, Clive inquired, "Where do you come from?"

The enigmatic man merely replied, "Nowhere in particular. I'm a traveler, a messenger."

"Like a postman?" Clive ventured, attempting to understand the man's position.

The stranger shook his head. "Not quite. I'm a messenger with a single master. I speak for the Bloodknight."

Clive's eyes widened slightly, some vague awareness of the Bloodknight flickering in his mind. He hesitated, unsure whether to place the figure among the many others that had crossed his path. Finally, he asked, "The Sword of the Boston Empire? The one who disappeared and left the empire to fend for itself?"

The man nodded knowingly. "Yes, 'disappeared' is the right word. But the Bloodknight hasn't truly left; he's simply working towards his own purposes."

"And you're his messenger, bringing word to the tower on his behalf?" Clive probed further.

The man leaned in and extended a hand. Clive shook it, noticing that while the stranger's grip wasn't overly forceful, there was undeniable power in the man's hands. "My name is Trident," the man said, "and the message I bring is for you, not the others in the tower.  I don't believe I'm welcome in the Tower."

Clive's eyes darted around, searching for guards and feeling a small twinge of apprehension. "You're here illicitly?" he asked hesitantly.

Trident gave a slight, almost dismissive bobble of his head. "Not explicitly disallowed," he replied, his tone carefree. "Don't worry. There's no danger to you or to me."

"But the guards..." Clive began, concerned for their safety.

Trident waved off his worry. "I'm not concerned about the guards."

Clive shifted uncomfortably. "I'm supposed to be meeting a Griidlord, the Arrow – Caelin Heathguard. He could be here any time."

The enigmatic messenger merely smiled. "Don't worry about Caelin either, I certainly won't."

Clive's unease was palpable, his breaths coming a little faster and his muscles unconsciously tensing. He looked around uneasily, worrying about who might be watching this potentially dangerous interaction.

Trident seemed to sense his apprehension and asked, "You've been here a few days. Are you growing more comfortable with your surroundings, accepting this reality?"

Clive was taken aback by the question, as no one had directly addressed his adjustment to this world so far. He hesitated for a moment before answering honestly, "I'm still not certain. It feels like I can't quite believe it. The first couple of days felt like I was hallucinating, and in a way, it still does. But I'm gradually growing more used to the idea. It's just hard to fathom a whole different reality."

His apprehension bubbled beneath the surface, the knowledge that he was interacting with Trident, someone who was potentially breaking rules and stirring up trouble, left Clive feeling tenuous and uncertain of his own position.

Trident nodded thoughtfully before saying, "So, you think this situation is related to the Order field you were working on. Do you have any ideas on how it might have propelled you here?"

Clive explained, growing more animated as he delved into his research, "In my time, while working on these fields, I observed that at high intensities, they distorted time in a non-linear fashion. Slowing it down, perhaps even stopping it in certain cases. But beyond a specific threshold, we weren't able to observe any noticeable effects on time."

Clive was hit for a moment by the realization that the man knew he had been working on an Order field before he blinked into this strange world.  How could he know such a thing, who had he told apart from Jarway?

Trident, appearing knowledgeable and deeply interested, added, "Footfields operate on a similar principle. The Prophet they speak of was composed of a stable Order field of great intensity that, we believe, suspended you in time. It wasn't so much time travel as it was a near-perfect stasis. What remains a mystery is what caused the field to collapse."

He paused, adjusting his cloak slightly before continuing, "The interesting part is that the field's collapse seemed to be instantaneous. A partial collapse could've had disastrous consequences - parts of you suddenly aging, biological functions suddenly resuming without oxygen, and many other possible ill effects. You're very fortunate to be here now, seemingly unharmed."

Clive, startled by the man's technical knowledge - the majority of the people here treated Before tech like magic - hesitated and then stammered, "We? Who are 'we'? How do you know all this?"

Trident simply replied, "We are a group of people who, like the Bloodknight, have a deeper understanding of the Griid and its associated properties. We want to expand our knowledge and connect with others who share our goals."

Before Clive could respond, he noticed that Trident seemed to pause suddenly, his expression shifting as if he were listening intently to something unheard. Trident then stood up in a calm, unhurried manner and announced, "Your friend is coming. I should make my exit."

"What about the message?  You said you were here to bring me a message" Clive managed to ask before Trident slipped away.

Trident paused and said, "Not much for now, but we will talk again soon. The Bloodknight wants to send you a warning – you are unique and special. You may be able to extract usage from the towers and other devices in ways that the priests can't, or perhaps match their prowess without their difficult alignments and pressures from political forces. People like Jarway and those in Denver will seek to use you to upset the balance of power. In a world where each city is almost indestructible and insurmountable due to the tower fortress at its heart, it's difficult for power to be exerted beyond the borders of each domain. Jarway may pretend to be your friend, just like others who will come to you with words similar to mine. But know this: all of them seek to use you. The Bloodknight is no different, a determined man, famed for cold calculation and callous action, but you may find his goals and treatment align better with yours."

Clive, overwhelmed by the weight of Trident's words, couldn't muster a response. Trident glanced into the distance, and Clive followed his gaze to see Caelin emerging from a hedge-lined path. He looked back, only to find that Trident had simply vanished.

As Caelin approached, Clive tried to process what had just transpired, feeling burdened by this foreboding warning.

A chill ran through Clive's stomach as the prospect of terrible intrigue settled in, just as he was beginning to become accustomed to the idea of being in this strange new land. He looked at Caelin as he approached with a forced smile, trying to hide his disquiet. As his gaze flicked to where Trident had once stood, he found that the man had vanished.

Trying to regain his composure, Clive observed Caelin at a distance. He had his helmet tucked under his arm, and his other hand was being held in an intimate manner by a strapping, muscular man. The two were speaking in hushed tones, their expressions suggesting intimacy and familiarity. They seemed jovial, happy, and were occasionally sharing bursts of laughter as they conversed.

Caelin’s eyes met Clive’s, and he flashed him a bright smile as he bid his companion farewell. The intimate goodbye and deep smile exchanged between the two only further affirmed their close bond. Then, Caelin approached Clive with a hint of sheepishness in his grin.

"Apologies once again for my tardiness," Caelin said with a light-hearted chuckle. "I got waylaid."

Clive, still feeling uneasy from his encounter with Trident, tried to focus on the present moment. He found this apparent openness regarding homosexuality rather peculiar in this medieval-styled world he occupied, where he would have thought such things would have been a taboo.

"Is that a special friend of yours?" Clive asked cautiously.

Caelin answered unabashedly, "Yes, that's my lover, Sterling. I just lost track of time with our conversation." Caelin's expression softened, taking on a dreamy quality as if lost in thought.

Feeling a sense of trust and comfort with Caelin, Clive decided to explore the subject further, hoping it wouldn't come across as overstepping. "I hope you don't mind me asking, but is it...accepted here? Two men being together like that?"

Caelin looked genuinely confused by Clive's question. "What do you mean 'accepted'? Of course, Sterling and I are both men, but I don't understand your concern."

Clive elaborated, "Where I come from, or at least in the past from my time, two men together was somewhat taboo. It wasn't something that was appreciated by everyone, and in history, it was often kept secretive or even forbidden."

Caelin's expression of utter perplexity was evident. "That's madness! Why would two men being attracted to each other, or even being in love, be forbidden? I can't believe such a thing. You must be joking, right? What possible reason could there be for such a prohibition? Love is love, what reason under the sky would there be for two men to be prohibited from being together?"

Clive, growing nervous, tried to explain further. "In my time, various religious institutions and churches frowned upon it. It was even illegal in some places and punishable by law."

Caelin looked both amused and confused by Clive's response. "Why would a church concern itself with that? They should focus on their business of understanding the Griid and guiding people in their faith. I still can't believe it - such a silly idea, banning specific kinds of love. Love transcends everything, doesn't it? It shouldn't matter who it's between.  And what an odd idea to draw lines around love based on gender.  You are a curious fellow, Clive, you truly amuse me."

Clive, amused by Caelin's genuine lack of understanding, decided to change the subject. "Never mind, forget I brought it up. It just defied my expectations to see the two of you enjoying each other's company so freely. But it's good to see love isn't restricted here."

Caelin chuckled, still a bit confused by Clive's preoccupation, but he let it pass. "I can't imagine what that would be like, the strange specifics of those times you speak of. The very notion that some felt the need to restrict love seems humorous, indeed."

As Caelin settled down, Clive found his mind returning to his conversation with Trident. He felt the need to know more about the powerful figure that had cautioned him. "Caelin," Clive asked, "Tiberius, the Sword from the Boston Empire, I've heard him being referred to as the Blood Prince or Bloodknight. Can you tell me the distinction or what lies behind those titles?"

Settling into greater comfort, Caelin placed his helmet on the table and explained, "When Tiberius was the Sword of the Empire, he was known as the Blood Prince. The honorific was earned through his numerous victories and the slaying of many enemies. However, when he left that position, put down The Sword, stopped belonging to the tower, and the Empire, he was no longer a prince and instead became a knight.  Royal honorifics are granted only to the rarest and greatest Swords through the eras.  The Sword in Kansas, Peregrin Stormblade, has been a revelation since he was chosen.  He may well be on the verge of founding a new empire, one that might compete with, or even overcome, the Bostonian Empire.  Peregrine has started to be known as the Redking in recent years, and will probably retain that title as long as he serves the Tower in Kansas."

Clive nodded thoughtfully, piecing together this strange new world's traditions. "I see, so when a Griidlord steps down from their position, they gain the title of knight?"

Caelin clarified, "Not exactly. Most Griidlords amass considerable wealth during their tenure, as they gain a portion of the Flows they earn for their tower. Over time, individuals like Tiberius accumulate so many Flows that they become vastly wealthy. With this wealth, they can afford to purchase very rare and powerful artifacts – artifacts that can function in a manner similar to a Suit, affecting Order and Entropy, as well as channeling other, more enigmatic magics that are difficult to understand or master fully. While a man equipped with such artifacts may pale in comparison to a Griidlord, they undoubtedly represent a superhuman entity in the eyes of ordinary people. Capable of remarkable feats which far transcend the norm, a person wielding such powerful artifacts is known as a Knight."

Clive, intrigued, asked, "Are there any such artifacts in Denver?"

Caelin replied, "There are precious few, but some do exist. They are well-guarded in the treasury and, on the rarest of occasions, granted to soldiers for special circumstances or missions."

The idea sparked Clive's curiosity. "I wonder if I could see one, maybe even interact with one. I might learn something valuable."

Caelin laughed, "If anyone else said such a thing, I would tell them it's impossible. But knowing how eager Jarway is to explore your knowledge and capabilities, he might just indulge you and allow it. You never know, stranger things have happened since you arrived here."

Chapter 14

Nicolas strolled through the streets of Denver at dusk, the fading sunlight casting shadows on the familiar architecture of steel, concrete, and plastic buildings. The mixture of old and new, on both the structures and the people, was evident in the way they dressed. A woman walked by wearing a medieval-style bodice with a modern denim skirt, while down the street, a businessman rushed past in what might be recognized as a bastardization of a modern suit, yet sporting a pair of knee-high riding boots.

The smells of hot oil frying battered foods filled the air as the sounds of electronic music spilled from shops lining the street. Nicolas couldn't help but admire the sights and sounds, the bustle and life, as he continued his walk. A horse and cart could be seen dragging a wagon of barrels of ale from a further sector, sharing the road with couriers on electric scooters, zipping past each other. Electric lights illuminated the taverns, their glowing screens a constant reminder of the ever-present technology the first sector enjoyed.

As Nicolas walked, he mulled over the events of the past few days. It seemed unthinkable, an army of 3,000 un-suited men having a lasting impact on battles between mighty Gridlords. Yet, there they had been, their sheer numbers and bravery a deciding factor in the clash between the Cincinnati and Cleveland Suits. The victory was theirs, and soon, Ebbs as reward.

As Nicolas passed through the gates into the next sector, he noted the change in scenery. Guards armed with autorifles offered him respectful salutes, while the streets turned from blacktop to cobbled stones. The bright electric lamps were replaced with flickering oil lamps, casting a warm, inviting glow. The smells shifted too, from fried foods to the comforting scent of baking bread and the slight tang of burning oil.

The people in this sector were still relatively comfortable but visibly poorer compared to those in the first sector. Their clothes were older, simpler, and clearly made with less industry-dependent materials. Despite the difference in wealth, the atmosphere was no less lively. Electric music from the first sector was replaced by the melodic tunes of bands playing in taverns, their notes and laughter spilling out into the night air.

Through the paved streets and warm lamplight, Nicolas continued his walk, taking in the sights and sounds that surrounded him, and perhaps, finding a sense of camaraderie in the shared experience of life in a city of contrasts.

Nicolas continued walking, finding the rhythmic sound of his footsteps to be a perfect accompaniment for deep thought. His mind drifted back to the offer Brightforge had made – converting the 3rd into a specialist division, outfitting them with rare power weapons and the talents to face Griidlords in combat. Their mission would be to win Flows, and even with only a small portion of each victory allotted to him, it would be enough to make Nicolas a wealthy man in short order.

The prospect of such wealth and prestige was certainly alluring. Beyond the riches, there would be many honors to be had, perhaps even a noble title, lands to call his own, and a legacy to leave behind. It was a daring, almost unimaginable idea, yet the thought of it sent a thrill of excitement through him.

However, Nicolas couldn't help but feel a sense of trepidation deep within. The weight of the responsibility and the ultimate implications of such a division created solely for the purpose of facing Gridlords were not to be taken lightly. To commit to this path would irrevocably change not only his life but the lives of those who would serve beside him in the 3rd. And with great power comes great risks, enemies, and challenges.

As he strolled through the dimly lit streets, Nicolas wrestled with the decision before him – weighing the potential rewards against the cost and grappling with the question haunting every potential leader: could he, and should he, accept such a momentous task?

As dusk deepened into night, Nicolas reached the next gate leading to the third sector. This area represented the sprawling majority of the city, where power lines were nearly nonexistent and oil lamps were a rare sight. Much of the sector lay unlit, and what light could be found emanated from doorways and the occasional tavern. This was a residential area, where people could not afford many luxuries, and some would save their earnings to experience a night in the second sector or even the first, if a well-paying job allowed it.

Nicolas wound his way down narrow side streets, many of which were unpaved, their surfaces merely packed dirt. He navigated the dimly lit paths with practiced ease, his eyes adjusting to the darkness. Eventually, he arrived at the door he sought, its windows warmly illuminated by the flickering glow of firelight, candles, and a small oil lamp.

Pausing for a moment, Nicolas took a deep breath, steadying himself before raising his hand and knocking firmly on the door. As he stood, waiting for a response, the muffled sounds of laughter and conversation from within trickled out to meet him, a reminder of the life, hopes, and dreams that existed behind even the most unassuming of doors in this sprawling city.

The delighted face of an older woman, a testament to a hard life, greeted Nicolas at the opened door – his mother. "My son, it's so good to see you!" she exclaimed, her eyes brimming with concern. "It's been far too long since you've visited. How are you holding up out there in the army?"

Nicolas reassured her, saying, "I'm doing well, Mother. There's no need to worry. I've been working closely with Brightforge, and we've accomplished a lot."

As he entered, his younger brother, Kris, a strapping lad in his late teens, nearly a man, rushed up to him. "The stories have been spreading all through the neighborhood! They say you captured a wild orb and fought alongside Brightforge himself! They even say you saved his life and battled the Cleveland suits!"

Nicolas laughed and shook his head, trying to downplay the rumors. "There are always legs on such tales, Kris. While I did play a part in capturing the orb, and Brightforge certainly appreciated my help, there was no life-saving involved. We fought together, and that's enough."

Kris's eyes widened. "But how many Flows did you get for capturing the wild orb? I heard there's a huge bounty on it!"

Nicolas replied, "I don't know exactly yet, but it's not Flows we'll be getting, it's Ebbs. Most of it goes to the city, Griidlords get a very small share, and the Troop gets even less. But when I get paid, I'll treat you to a night in the first sector."

Kris's face lit up, ecstatic. "Really? A night in the first sector? Can we see a movie? It's been years! And maybe play some electric games? And try that better beer they serve?"

Nicolas chuckled, "Yes, we can see a movie and play some games, but don't get too carried away. Remember, it's only Ebbs, not Flows. There are other places to spend what little we'll get, like right here at home."

Kris guffawed, "No matter where we spend it, it's still a treat!"

Kris returned to his bowl of stew at the table. Nicolas, meanwhile, continued to the fireplace, where his father sat, an old man with a long beard, both of his legs ending at the knees. Nicolas's father was known as Old Nicolas by most, as Nicolas had become so well known and highly regarded.

Nicolas sat down alongside his father, hands clasped in front of him, warmth emanating from the fire. Old Nicolas looked at him with sincerity in his eyes, saying, "Heard about your success, son! Well done! The city needs the likes of you, and I'm very proud of what you're doing."

Nicolas responded, his tone somewhat dismissive, "I'm only doing my job, Father. I'm just trying to help the family."

Old Nicolas slapped his leg nubs and laughed heartily. "Well, this family could use plenty of help! I'm not much good anymore..."

Nicolas sighed, "You did your part, Father. I'm sick of reminding you. You brought honor and wealth to our family. The city should be doing far more to pension soldiers wounded while serving."

Old Nicolas nodded in agreement but then switched gears, asking, "So, what brings you here, son? I wasn't expecting to see you tonight."

Nicolas hesitated for a moment, then spoke up. "I came because I wanted your advice."

His father leaned back in his chair and raised an eyebrow, clearly intrigued. "I'm listening."

Gathering his thoughts, Nicolas began, "Brightforge has made an offer – a proposal to equip the 3rd with power weapons, inject talent, and ultimately make us an elite force capable of combating Griidlords. We'd win Flows in this process and get a tiny portion of each. It wouldn't take long before we become wealthy men, with many honors, maybe even a title and some lands."

Old Nicolas listened intently, his face a mixture of curiosity and apprehension. After a few moments of thought, he finally offered his opinion. "It's a rare opportunity, my son. But you must weigh the rewards against the risks. You've already made us proud, and we are grateful for all you've done for this family. Becoming involved in such a venture might bring great wealth and honors, but the dangers and sacrifices that come with it cannot be ignored."

Nicolas nodded, understanding the wisdom in his father's words. "I know, but it's tempting. Brightforge believes in me, and we could make a real difference in this city. Wealth and power are not guaranteed, but if there's any chance of improving our lives and supporting the city, shouldn't I take it?"

Old Nicolas sighed, placing a hand on his son's shoulder. "I always knew you were destined for great things, and your courage and dedication make me proud. We raised you with strong values, and I trust your judgment. But never forget the lessons I taught you as a boy, and remember that the path of honor and duty, though difficult, is always the right one to follow."

Nicolas looked into the somber eyes of his father and embraced him. "I won't forget your wisdom, Father. I promise."

Old Nicolas, deep in thought, responded softly, "It's a great opportunity with a promising future, no doubt. You could gain much wealth and put our family back on track. But there are terrible risks involved. You'd be spending more time near the Griidlords and facing a greater chance of actually fighting them."

His gaze dropped to his severed legs and he continued, "Griidlords are serious business. I only have my life today, even if I do not have toes to stand on." He laughed, a twisted sense of humor evident in his voice.

Nicolas leaned in close and looked his father directly in the eyes. "I've been thinking that it may be for the best. With the pressure to bring honor, wealth, and glory, I fear that Kris may decide to enter the Choosing, follow in your footsteps, and I can't bear the thought of him suffering the same fate as you."

Old Nicolas took a deep breath, considering his son's words.

Old Nicolas shook his head in disagreement. "There's a long tradition of choosing Griidlords in our family. I would be honored if Kris goes for the Choosing when his time is right. If he is chosen, he could save our family. But he's too young yet, and I understand your fear that he may be too impetuous."

Nicolas nodded slowly before saying, "But you were disappointed that I never went for the Choosing."

Old Nicolas admitted, "I never understood why you didn't. I only wore the suit for two years, but during that time, I had my glories and wealth, which kept our family going for a long time before it ran out. Don't get me wrong, I'm proud of you, but you shouldn't fear my fate. You could have been better, and one day, Kris might even become a great Griidlord. But hopefully not for some years."

He continued, "Go to Brightforge and tell him you agree to his proposal. Do as he asks. The wealth you gather, the glories you earn – they will keep us comfortable, elevate us, until the day Kris is ready to make the decision for himself."

Nicolas paused for a moment, taking in his father's advice.  He had expected no less, he wondered how his thinking might change when news of the coming war reached him.

EPISODE 4

Chapter 15

The four suits, two adorned in black and orange, the other two in black and yellow, streaked down the hillside, their metallic armor reflecting the sunlight in bright flashes. Around them, the bizarre mixture of plastic and concrete structures of the foundry surrounded them like an alien landscape.

As they rounded the corner, a cacophony of terror, the sounds of carnage, and what could only be described as monstrous emanations, filled the air. The closer they came, the darker their combined emotions grew, their hearts beating faster even within the protective embrace of their enhanced armor.

Brightforge, ever the fearless leader, now found himself plagued by doubts. Even a mighty Griidlord like him could never grow wholly accustomed to the unpredictability and destructive power of the fiends. It was this fear of the unknown, this aspect of the fiends' dark and twisted nature that sent chills down his spine and nagged at the edges of his mind.

As they approached the epicenter of the chaos, the members of the two rival suit teams felt an instant wave of despair and dread wash over them. The air was thick with the scent of spilt blood, tinged with a hint of sulfur and something even more unspeakable, all of which added to the mounting trepidation. The animalistic sounds of the fiends echoed within their minds, amplifying their shared want to unveil the origin of this horrifying disturbance.

Close together now, their fears temporarily overshadowed by the urgency of the situation, the Griidlords prepared themselves for the desperate and brutal battle to come. Steeling their resolve, they took a collective breath, unsure of what awaited them but knowing that they must protect their cities, their people, and face the darkness head-on.

The scene that met the four Griidlords was nothing short of abject horror. Bodies lay strewn across the floor, a sickening mélange of red and gore. Swordsmen dressed in Pittsburgh's black and yellow colors lay lifeless, their once fierce visages twisted into agonized grimaces. Workers lay in grotesque heaps, their bodies dismembered beyond recognition.

The four Griidlords took only a moment to absorb the carnage, for there was no time to dwell on the terror that the fiends had wrought. The sound of auto rifles firing in rapid succession near the foundry door drew their focus. Their view was obscured by the towering arches of the foundry, but more screams rang out, driving an impulse to act that they could not ignore.

Brightforge, known for his stoic calm in the heat of battle, steeled himself with the resolve to show Hammerfist and Thorn what he was truly made of. Hammerfist and Arcstone, meanwhile, maintained their resolute postures, but it was clear that the unease of the situation had touched them – their bodies tense in anticipation of the battle to come. Thorn, unlike the others, seemed to hunger for the fight, adrenaline coursing through his veins as he reveled in the chaotic scene around him.

As one, they moved forward, drawn to the epicenter of chaos and destruction that was unfolding before them. Each gripped their respective weapons tightly; their individual resolve unwavering, as they prepared to engage in what promised to be a harrowing battle against the fiends.

As the four suits rushed toward the sound of gunfire, they were met with a sight that underscored the magnitude of the disaster that had befallen the foundry. The  aura of Pittsburgh's Order Field, which had allowed the foundry to operate so seamlessly, now served as a tragic backdrop for the vicious melee that unfolded before them.

Two dozen Pittsburgh soldiers, their armor singed and dented from the violence of the battle, fought desperately to hold their ground. Some wielded auto-rifles, while others brandished spears, striking out at the creatures with ferocity and determination. Yet it was clear that the three monsters they faced were unlike anything they had ever encountered before.

Two of the creatures were massive, standing at least eight feet tall, with thick, sinewy limbs that seemed to defy the very laws of nature. Their bodies were a grotesque combination of bear and lizard, boasting features of each in a nightmarish conglomeration of muscle and scale. Their claws, seemingly carved from stone, slashed through the air as they lunged at the beleaguered soldiers. Each of the abominations bore the metallic glint of Order Field insignia, hinting at the horrors that had laid waste to the foundry.

The third monster dwarfed even its monstrous brethren, an enormous, bloated creature that sprawled across the battlefield. Spanning at least twenty feet, the beast possessed an unsettling mix of mammalian and insectoid features. Its many limbs groped and grasped at the soldiers, crushing some in their vice-like grip while impaling others in a hideous display of savagery. The creature's reflective metal plating shimmered ominously in the foundry's light, a mockery of the Order Fields that had once protected this place.

For a moment, the Griidlords hesitated, taking in the grisly scene before them, fully aware that the battle to reclaim the foundry would not be easily won.

The four Griidlords could only watch in horror as the giant fiend belched forth a torrent of flames that engulfed three nearby spearmen. The unlucky soldiers perished in an instant, their screams lost in the roaring inferno. Meanwhile, one of the bear-like creatures impaled a spearman on its stone claws, lifting him high in the air as the soldier gasped in futile pain.

Despite the violence and terror they'd just witnessed, the Griidlords shook off their hesitation and sprang into action. The Pittsburgh suits were determined to protect the foundry at all costs – it was an invaluable asset that produced the very power weapons that armed their city and that they could sell at great value. Across from them, the Cincinnati suits shared a similar goal: they desperately needed to trade for those power weapons, and they were willing to fight bitterly to secure them.

Arcstone and Brightforge formed a formidable front line, with Arcstone bearing his massive, glowing shield at the fore. The shield shimmered with power, a bastion of protection that covered both him and Brightforge as they stood shoulder to shoulder. Brightforge, with his sword raised, released a concentrated burst of energy that streaked across the battlefield, tearing through the air and slamming into one of the bear-like creatures.

The impact knocked the beast off balance, and its thundering howl caught the attention of the other bear-lizard monstrosity. Sensing the threat posed by the Cincinnati Griidlords, the creature's eyes gleamed with rage as it charged headlong toward Arcstone and Brightforge, its stone claws raised in anticipation of the brutal confrontation to come.

Hammerfist, recognizing the mortal threat to his fellow soldiers, positioned himself between them and the fiends. His shield pulsed with strength, and as the monstrous giant prepared to unleash another torrent of flames, Hammerfist raised his shield, deflecting the fire that roared in rage against his defenses.

Meanwhile, the bear-like creature collided with Arcstone's shield like a meteor, sending tremors through the ground. Even the steadfast Griidlord felt the immense power behind the creature's attack but steeled his resolve to maintain his position. With precise timing, Arcstone pulsed his shield, launching the creature back with a surge of energy. Seizing this opportunity, Arcstone unleashed an energy blast, then glided in, his sword slashing through the air as he struck at the beast.

At the other end of the battlefield, Thorn engaged the other bear-lizard monstrosity, his eyes a mixture of excitement and bloodlust. They were two monsters locked in a dance of death, each eager for the violence that was to come. The creature snarled, betrayed by its own primal urges, seemingly echoing Thorn's readiness for the brutal duel that was unfolding before them.

As soldiers and Griidlords fought side by side, they found themselves united by a shared objective: protecting the foundry and those within from the ravenous fiends that sought to destroy them. As the battle raged on, the foundry became a crucible in which their camaraderie was forged and tested, even as death loomed over them all.

Hammerfist continued to stand firm between the soldiers and the menacing giant, employing his shield with skill and precision. As the colossal beast attempted to land devastating blows on the soldiers, Hammerfist deflected each attack in a dazzling display of power and expertise. His shield seemed to be an impenetrable barrier, a source of hope for the beleaguered warriors fighting at his side. He held their lives in his hands, and he was determined not to let them down.

Overhead, fumes of smoke and the metallic tang of blood filled the air, mixing with the sounds of the monstrous growls, clanging metal, and desperate cries of soldiers. Hammerfist could feel the collective strain and fear, but he continued to push against the onslaught, meeting the giant's hellish fire and furious swipes with the full force of his defense.

Elsewhere, Arcstone and Brightforge were locked in a brutal struggle against their nightmarish opponent. Alone, either would have faced insurmountable odds, but together, they formed a resilient tandem against the formidable foe.

Brightforge danced around the creature like a predator, his sword flashing wildly as he landed blow after blow, pushing the monster back with each slicing strike. Arcstone, whose shield had been so critical in their earlier success, now provided the offensive, timing his energy blasts perfectly to exploit the beast's weaknesses. As they fought in unison, they began to gain the upper hand, their combined prowess proving too much for the monster to withstand.

Though the battle was far from over, and the screams of the dying still punctuated the air, a newfound sense of hope began to swell among the Griidlords and their allied soldiers. They had seen the raw power and malicious intent of the fiends firsthand, but beneath the unyielding resolve of the men and the unwavering determination of the Griidlords, it seemed that victory might yet be within their grasp.

Arcstone, building on the momentum of the battle, charged the monstrous beast, driving it further back with each calculated thrust of his shield. Brightstone, seizing the opportunity, circled around to the other side of the creature, his energy sword blazing with lethal intent. As Arcstone charged the beast, unleashing a tremendous pulse, the creature flew back to Brightforge's waiting blade.  He impaled the monster, his sword tearing through its flesh.

As Brightstone twisted and pulled the sword, the creature's death throes echoed throughout the foundry. With a final flourish, he slashed the energy blade outwards, rending the beast into lifeless, smoking pieces.

Taking a brief respite amidst the heat of battle, he glanced around the battlefield, swiftly assessing the ongoing carnage. Brightstone's gaze lingered on Hammerfist, who continued to provide an awe-inspiring defense for his comrades, fending off the colossal giant. While Hammerfist seemed more like an immovable force than a mere Griidlord, Brightstone knew that even with his incredible power, bringing down the enormous monster alone was a near-impossible task. He turned his attention to Thorn, hoping for a different picture.

Amidst the fray, Brightstone witnessed a sight that both astonished and unnerved him. Thorn was a whirlwind of violence, fully immersed in his brutal combat with the bear-lizard behemoth. There was a raw, unbridled ferocity to Thorn's movements, his axe cleaving through the air and crashing into the creature's form. He dominated his opponent, becoming ever more comfortable in the chaos, relishing the adrenaline and primal satisfaction of battle.

With each strike, Thorn hacked away at the creature, driving it to the brink of defeat. The beast, as fearsome as it was, seemed to cower beneath the unrelenting power of Thorn and his axe. Here was a warrior who walked the line between humanity and beast, relishing the opportunity to unleash his instincts and prowess on anything or anyone that dared to stand in his way.

As Brightforge observed Thorn's performance, he felt a sudden understanding wash over him. He had heard countless tales of Thorn Jaxwulf's legendary battles and his insatiable desire for destruction. But to see him, now, in the heat of the moment – it was as if Thorn had become a greater fiend himself, a force to be reckoned with in his own right.

Like an unstoppable juggernaut, Thorn continued to decimate his adversary, each heavy blow from his axe sending the creature reeling. The fiend seemed to be barely holding on, succumbing to its injuries as it fought to maintain some semblance of control in the face of such a terrifying onslaught.

Finally, as Thorn saw his opportunity, he raised his axe high above his head and struck one last, mighty blow. The impact was monumental, the sheer force of his axe's power causing the creature to explode in a shower of gore and debris. The death knell of the beast rang out across the foundry, a remainder that Thorn Jaxwulf was not just a legend, but a living, breathing force, capable of unspeakable acts of violence.

For the soldiers and Griidlords who bore witness that day, the image of Thorn – triumphant, brutal, and merciless – would remain seared in their memories, a testament to his raw, primal power.

As the dust settled from Thorn's brutal display, he, Brightforge, and Arcstone shifted their attention back towards the giant fiend which still wreaked havoc on the battlefield. The three Griidlords regarded their remaining adversary, preparing to join forces and bring the final beast to its knees.

However, just as they moved to assist Hammerfist, an overwhelming sense of terror gripped them. It felt as if time had slowed to a crawl, each second heavy with tension and dread, as they watched the monstrous behemoth rear up on its hind legs. The creature's malice glittered in its eyes and its power crackled in the air, concentrated and palpable. It was poised to deliver a magnificent, crushing blow towards the stalwart Hammerfist.

Despite his previous success holding the beast at bay, even Hammerfist seemed to sense the gravity of the giant's impending strike. He redoubled his grip on his pulsing shield, bracing himself for the impact of a force so much greater than he had known thus far in the battle. Yet his comrades remained several heart-stopping moments away from interceding.  It was clear to them that even Hammerfist wouldn't be able to resist the coming blow.

Chapter 16

"It's amazing," Clive breathed, astounded by the precious relic from the treasury that he held in his hands. The artifact appeared to be a conventional semi-automatic pistol from The Before, but its design had undergone some remarkable modifications. The veins of an unfamiliar, shiny metal covered the weapon like a complex network, highlighting its sleek contours and elegant curves.

Radiating from each vein, an intricate latticework of micro-veins crisscrossed the surface of the black polymer frame, overlaying it with a mesmerizing pattern. It was as if the once simple firearm had been transformed into a cybernetic entity, a symmetrical fusion of technology and artistry.

But what truly captivated Clive was the strange, tiny orb embedded just above the grip. The orb flickered with an otherworldly light, the essence of power itself contained within. It shifted in hue and intensity as it was regarded from different angles; a kaleidoscope of a thousand colors, each more scintillating than the last. The interplay between the cool iridescence of the orb and the gun's warm metalwork created an absolutely breathtaking display.

The pistol seemed alive, as though it somehow possessed a heartbeat and a consciousness of its own. It was a foreign concept to the guns Clive knew in his own time, and he couldn't help but marvel at the transformation that had been wrought upon this weapon.

Clive looked up to see Elder Jarway and his advisor, Sephilous, watching him closely. They were standing in an antechamber to the throneroom, an intimate, private space; Jarway didn't want the priests to know he was sharing such a relic and allowing Clive to inspect it. They were jealous in guarding their special knowledge of Order and Entropy, fiercely protective of their monopoly on power. They wouldn't be pleased at the thought of an outsider infringing upon and possibly diminishing their authority.

Clive, his head spinning with questions, asked, "And it works? Even outside the Order field? Where do you get bullets? Do you still have a supply? Do you manufacture them?"

Jarway, smiling at Clive's onslaught of questions, raised a hand and replied, "Yes, it works. It's an amazing power to have a gun that operates outside of Order fields. It provides a tremendous advantage when your opponents are left with only swords. The artifact is both precious and closely guarded." Clive nodded, trying to fathom the implications of such a weapon.

"But how often is it used?" he asked, still curious.

Jarway sighed, "We use the weapon only when the need is dire. We must protect and preserve such a treasure. Occasionally, our special operations forces are equipped with the relic, but only in situations of the greatest importance. It would be terrible to risk its destruction, or worse, its capture by another city or a roving gang."

Clive stared at the pistol, sensing the gravity of responsibility in wielding such a powerful artifact.

As Clive's hands traced the webs of shining metal, he spoke with a tone of realization, "I recognize this orb. It's not that different from what we were working on in my lab, in The Before. It's an Order Generator. The field that captured me...preserved me...what you call the prophet – it was a concentrated Order field generated by something similar to this."

Jarway and Sephilous exchanged puzzled glances before focusing back on Clive. Jarway, his interest piqued, asked, "Are you suggesting that the technology used to create this gun and the mechanism behind your arrival here are somehow connected, developed from the same source?"

Clive nodded slowly, deep in thought, "Yes, that's exactly what I'm suggesting. It seems that the Order Generators in my time have evolved over the centuries to become embedded within artifacts like this gun, providing a sophisticated control of Order and Entropy, while in The Before, we were only at the early stages of understanding and developing this technology."

Sephilous, skeptical but intrigued, questioned Clive further. "If they are indeed connected as you say, how exactly did your work in The Before lead to the concentration of Order that brought you here, to our time?"

Clive let out a deep sigh, struggling to think of a way to explain such advanced technology to people who had no context for it. "The technology was in its infancy during my time - newer than new. Only a few companies in the world were working on it, and development was tightly controlled by the government, or governments. I don't know what the situation was in other parts of the world. They controlled the understanding of it and didn't want any group, person or entity to have full knowledge. We didn't even know about the manufacturing process; we were given raw generators and were expected to experiment and develop means of manipulating Order fields."

Jarway, excited, eager, and hungry for more information, asked, "So, you have expertise in manipulating Order and Entropy?"

Clive, nervous, replied hesitantly, "Expertise might be a strong word. We were experimenting, investigating the effects of gravity, magnetism, and electricity on Order and Entropy – that kind of thing. We studied how these forces cause the fields to expand, contract, intensify or diminish. I'm an engineer, and I was actually hired to write software for the equipment, but I found myself on the team directly working on the generators because I displayed a knack for achieving the desired effects."

Jarway's eyes shone with eagerness as he said, "That knack of yours might make you invaluable, and it could make you rich. The priests control such arcane wisdom, and the leaders of the cities need them to speak to the oracle, control the local Griid, and transfer Flows between cities. This creates a power dynamic where both leaders and priests have their own agendas. The priests have the power to strangle the leaders if they choose to, and it's frustrating, as we are always caught in the middle of their dealings."

Clive held his hands up defensively and replied, "The technology evolved a lot before The End, a century after I entered stasis. I don't recognize all of this. I could learn, as my trick is in learning and improvising, but I need time, I need to disassemble, experiment, and understand."

Jarway's face paled in horror, "You can't disassemble this artifact, it's over a thousand years old and priceless!"

Clive nodded in agreement, "I've been thinking – I'm willing to bet there are a lot of non-functional relics around, perhaps even in the treasury. There could be trinkets that are broken, that do nothing, and are therefore less valuable. What I need is time with those items. It's a win-win: I might learn more about the technology by working on them, and I might even make the old broken relics functional again, adding new treasures to your collection."

Jarway considered Clive's proposal carefully, weighing the potential risks and rewards. After a few moments, he nodded approvingly, enthralled by the possibility that Clive's skills could provide a fresh perspective on the ancient relics and perhaps even shift the balance of power between the city's leaders and the priests.

Jarway nodded in agreement, "You will need a workshop, a secret place far from the tower and away from the prying eyes of the priests, in order to work. This is very exciting, and I'll provide you with any resources necessary."

Clive pointed out a potential problem, "But far from the tower, the Order levels will be low, and high-tech equipment won't work. I'll need electricity and specific tools – meters, measuring equipment, computers. It might be challenging to learn without these things and to find them in the first place."

Jarway, troubled, said, "It's true that allocating such equipment will be difficult, as most of it belongs to the priests. Computers, especially, will be hard to come by, but I will see what I can do."

At that moment, Sephilous chimed in, "Finding a suitable location will be difficult as well. Near the tower, the priests' eyes will inevitably discover what we're doing, resulting in a bloody conflict and putting your life, Clive, in grave danger. It would definitely cause trouble for us, but, Lord Jarway, I have an idea."

Jarway waited, clearly impatient. Clive noticed that Jarway didn't seem to respect Sephilous, and he appeared to be suspicious of the slimy man. Sephilous continued, "My lord, there is the oil field where the Griid is usually set high to facilitate extraction. Currently, production is low as we can't spare enough Flows. As a result, there are many empty, disused buildings and storage facilities. We could establish a workshop there, where nobody would be looking, as the priests wouldn't be interested in such a place. That location would also have enough Order to serve Clive's purposes."

Jarway pondered Sephilous's suggestion, seeing the potential benefits of setting up a hidden workshop in the disused oil field. He finally spoke, "Very well, we will make arrangements for the workshop and gather the necessary equipment. Clive, prepare yourself for this new endeavor; we're about to embark on a fascinating journey together."

Clive, feeling dismissed yet relieved, exited the antechamber through a side entrance and stepped out into a corridor. The tower's construction, with its metal, plastic, glowing lights, and humming air conditioning, stood in stark contrast to the medieval world outside. There, in the hallway, he found Aerilyn waiting for him with a bright smile and beautiful eyes. Clive tried his best to treat her as a mere tower servant, but she was fast becoming a friend, and he couldn't help but find himself attracted to her. She had an air of innocence and sweetness that made her all the more endearing.

"I hope I'm not intruding," she said, "but when you told me you were meeting with Jarway, I thought I'd find you here. I have some free time and thought we could share lunch together." She patted her satchel, which Clive imagined must be brimming with delicious food from the tower kitchen.

Clive, relieved and pleased, replied, "That sounds wonderful. It's been such a pressure talking to Jarway, and having a relaxing, easy conversation and a bit of easy company would be so nice right now."

Aerilyn blushed, clearly touched by his words. "I'm very happy that you find my company easy. I know you've had a hard time - arriving here, learning our ways - but I find you easy to be around as well."

Clive, now blushing as well, joined Aerilyn as she started walking. "A picnic in the gardens sounds perfect. It will be peaceful and quiet there – a welcome change. And you can ask me all about my meeting with Jarway."

They walked in silence for a while, navigating the maze of corridors and descending the stairs meant for servants. Eventually, they exited through a side door of the tower and entered the gardens. Clive was always taken aback by the sheer beauty of the area – the expanse of lush greenery, carefully crafted topiary, and the mix of familiar and exotic plants. He delighted in the symphony of birdsong and the fresh air, a welcome reprieve from the artificial atmosphere within the tower.

As they meandered down the path in search of a quiet spot for their picnic, Aerilyn couldn't contain her curiosity any longer. "So, did you inspect a relic? Which one? That's such a great honor – those are precious treasures that ordinary people are never allowed to see, let alone touch."

Clive replied, "It was a gun – one that works regardless of Order Fields."

Aerilyn's eyes widened with excitement. "I would love to see something like that. Lord Jarway must think you're truly special to have entrusted you with it."

Clive had kept some observations to himself since handling the weapon, not wanting to share everything with Jarway. It was probably a bad idea to confide in anyone about the technical details, but he felt so isolated in this new world and longed for someone to confide in. "Aerilyn," he said cautiously, "I didn't tell Jarway about every observation I made. I think I understand more about the technology than I initially revealed."

Aerilyn leaned in, watching his face with rapt attention. "What do you mean?" she asked.

Clive continued, "The modifications that make the gear work outside the Order Fields aren't necessarily bound to one specific relic. I believe that, with time and practice, I could transfer the modifications from one relic to another, thus making other things function outside of Order Fields. I might even be able to replicate the modifications. There could be a lot of broken gear in the world that I could potentially fix."

Aerilyn, surprisingly eager and furtive, said, "It's wise not to reveal everything to Jarway; you can always keep some things back and reveal them later, making it look like a new discovery. In this world, secrets are power, and what you're talking about could make you rich beyond imagining – it could even change the world."

Clive, growing nervous, replied, "I don't want to change the world, and I'm not even concerned about the riches. I'm sad and lonely in this strange place, and my own world is dead. All I want is to find safety in this new world and be of value."

Aerilyn gently touched his arm, her eyes earnest. "I promise, Clive, you are valuable – more valuable than you can appreciate or imagine. I'll help you figure things out and make sure you find safety and comfort."

Clive looked into her eyes, hardly able to believe the sincerity he saw there. As much as he wanted to, he couldn't help but be uncertain. But deep down, he truly wished to believe her.

Chapter 17

In this slow, elongated moment, Brightforge realized that time had given him just enough space to attempt something unprecedented. His Sword suit's greatest strength was its ability to channel energy to his allies. While Hammerfist was a Pittsburgh warrior – and Brightforge had never even heard of channeling to a Griidlord of a different faction before – he felt certain that it was the only option to alter the outcome of the devastating strike the fiend was poised to deliver.

As Brightforge concentrated, he focused his own power, connecting with the very essence of Hammerfist and his suit. Drawing from a deep reservoir of strength within himself, the Cincinnati Griidlord began to send tendrils of energy towards Hammerfist's suit.

The air around them seemed to shimmer, the boundaries between two rival warring factions blurring for the first time, as Hammerfist's suit absorbed the radiant energy that pulsed with the force of two cities' weaponries. His massive shield took on a brilliant aura, its edges glowing with a newfound intensity. It was as if Brightforge's clasped hands, iron braces forged in fire, had poured molten, shimmering energy into Hammerfist's defenses.

As the monstrous fiend finally brought its earth-shattering blow down upon Hammerfist, his empowered shield rippled, thrumming with the energy that connected two great rivals. Against all odds, the shield held, deflecting the beast's crushing strike with astonishing force. The tendrils of energy that bound them served as a testament to the untapped potential of working together – at least for this single, shared purpose.

The giant fiend staggered back, momentarily taken aback by the unexpected power it had just encountered. Hammerfist, recognizing the source of the channeled energy, turned to acknowledge Brightforge with a terse nod, the unlikeliest of bonds having been formed between them, if only for a fleeting moment.

With that tacit understanding, all four Griidlords resumed their assault on the monstrous beast with newfound determination. These godlike warriors moved with a fluid grace and speed that belied their size, their Suits responding to their every thought, as the wind whispered and caressed around them.

Their foe, however, was both cunning and formidable – a multi-limbed demon with deadly steel claws that cut through the air like blades, and a maw capable of breathing scorching torrents of flame. The Griidlords held their ground well against its relentless onslaught, their skill and weapons matching the enemy's frightening ferocity.

Yet despite their impressive prowess and united front, the Griidlords were not making a significant dent. The colossal beast before them was so unimaginably massive and powerful that it seemed to casually shrug off each blow and attack, an insurmountable wall of twisted, demonic resistance. They would need to come up with a new strategy or plan, for brute force alone seemed insufficient to overcome this nightmarish adversary.

As the battle wore on, Brightforge could feel his energy draining, his limbs growing heavy with the exhaustion that comes from pushing one's body and abilities to their limits. He stole a glance at his fellow Griidlords – Arcstone and Hammerfist – wondering if they, too, were nearing the precipice of exhaustion.

Their monstrous foe was not tiring, however. If anything, the fiend only seemed to grow in strength and ferocity as the battle raged, fueled by its own seething rage. Brightforge knew that they couldn't keep this up forever. Eventually, each of them would falter, leaving valuable openings – and with such a cunning, relentless enemy, any weaknesses would surely spell the end for them all.

Desperate, Brightforge called out to Arcstone and Hammerfist. His voice, usually steady and strong, betrayed the strain he was feeling. 'Arcstone!  Hammerfist!  To me, I need your shields!'

His gaze fell upon Thorn, cackling madly as he continued to clash against their seemingly undefeatable foe. As much as Brightforge was loath to admit it, he could hardly contain the thrill of recognition that he felt deep within him. He had an idea, one that was both brilliant and terrifying in its simplicity. What if he could strengthen Thorn's power by channeling his energy into the fearsome warrior, the same as he had done earlier with Hammerfist?

Doing so would be monumental – even foolhardy. Thorn Jaxwulf was already a veritable force of nature, a figure who inspired both awe and terror in all who crossed his path. Enhancing him further seemed a gamble that could just as easily backfire. He had seen Thorn's hunger to slay him earlier.  But, Brightforge thought, it might just be the edge they needed to tip the scales in their favor.

Hammerfist, could appreciate the desperate measures his new ally was considering. Through gritted teeth, he shouted across the cacophony of battle, "Brightforge, as much as it pains me to admit, your crazy plan might just be the bravest and most ingenious thing I've ever witnessed! Let's do this!"

With a nod of agreement and determination, Brightforge focused all of his remaining energy into channeling his power into Thorn Jaxwulf. As the energy coursed into him, Thorn's powerful aura intensified, its glow enveloping him before concentrating into his already fearsome weapon. His axe blazed like the fires of a hundred suns, illuminating the battlefield with a searing light.

The onlookers watched in awe as Thorn unleashed his devastating attack on the monstrous insectoid creature. His enhanced axe now sliced through the air with near-divine speed and precision, slicing through the heavy carapace of the fiend like a hot knife through butter. Each strike carried the force of the united realms of Cincinnati and Pittsburgh, chipping away at the seemingly-impervious defenses of their mutual foe.

Meanwhile, Arcstone and Hammerfist did their best to protect Brightforge from the flurry of fire that the beast breathed upon them, their combined shielding forming an almost impenetrable barrier around the vulnerable energy channeler. The creature's dark intelligence realized that something had changed, that its destruction was all but ensured if it could not stop the surge of power boosting its formidable adversary.

The disruptive change startled the beast as it fought to repel the channeling of energy between the allied Griidlords. Furiously it tried to break their defenses, cocking its massive head back and spewing torrents of flame to disrupt the trio's newfound bond. However, its efforts were in vain, for the determination and sheer force of will of the Griidlords had united them in the most improbable and desperate of alliances.

Thorn, now bolstered with the combined energies of his allies, began to revel in the increasing tide of the battle. The surge of power coursed through him, and he roared with pleasurable ferocity, each bellow echoing across the battlefield like a thunderous call to arms.

With a newfound sense of invincibility, Thorn positioned himself to press the offensive. In quick succession, he launched a series of attacks, each more devastating than the last, as he went about dismantling the creature piece by piece. First, he severed limbs, rendering it incapable of charging the trio. Next, the Pittsburgh Griidlord expertly hacked off more of the steel claws, a grim smile playing on his lips as the creature let out a pained howl, the severed limbs falling to the ground with a resounding crash.

His fellow Griidlords looked on, amazed at the sheer might and brutality of Thorn Jaxwulf as he systematically took the creature apart. Arcstone and Hammerfist, exhausted but undeterred, remained by Brightforge's side to ensure his channeling went uninterupted. They could barely believe their eyes as the once-unstoppable fiend began to crumble under the force of Thorn's relentless assault.

Seeing an opportunity to finally end the battle, Thorn readied himself for his coup de grâce. He leapt into the air, his movements guided by determination, even as his axe blazed brightly, the energy swirling within it summoned by the newfound alliance. With one last roar, he brought the axe down upon the creature's head, the leading appendage that seemingly housed its intelligence.

In a dizzying display of force and skill, Thorn Jaxwulf decapitated the massive fiend. The severed head fell to the ground with an almost eerie silence. The Griidlords watched, breathless but triumphant, as their once-invincible adversary lay lifeless on the battlefield, the final testament to the power of their unlikely alliance.

As the lifeless, decapitated fiend collapsed onto the battlefield, its enormous body heaving and pulsing, Thorn Jaxwulf stepped away from the carnage he had wrought and moved towards the trio of Griidlords. The energy that had burned so brightly within him moments before now began to dissipate, fading like the glowing embers of a dying fire.

Even Hammerfist couldn't help but look upon his own comrade with admiration, silent awe present in his eyes as he watched Thorn's strong figure approach. The entire battlefield was now eerily quiet as the flames expired, only the distant cheers of the surviving soldiers and workers breaking the stillness.

The air was charged with the afterglow of victory, and the victory roar that rose from the exhausted onlookers seemed to crescendo like a tidal wave, filling all those gathered with a renewed sense of hope. Despite their fatigue and pain, the tremendous surge of pride and joy that coursed through their ranks was a sensation they'd never experienced before.

As Thorn approached the trio, his movements seemed almost threatening, causing Brightforge to instinctively brace himself for a possible confrontation.  The berserker’s blood was up, and he feared that madness was holding the Pittsburgh Axe. Without warning, Thorn pointed a finger directly at Brightforge, his eyes locking onto his newfound ally.

For a brief, tense moment, they all held their breath, not quite sure of the intentions behind his gesture. Then, as though an unseen mask faltered and fell away, Thorn's posture slackened. His raspy, menacing voice carried the glimmer of humor as he said, "Don't think this little favor will get you too much of a discount."

Laughter bubbled up from the Griidlords, spreading contagiously to the surrounding soldiers and workers who had witnessed their miraculous victory.

As the laughter subsided and the adrenaline in their veins began to dissipate, Brightforge found himself regarding the dead fiends strewn across the battlefield. Though he was the youngest of the four Griidlords present, he had still faced fiends before, but nothing quite like the giant that now lay in a lifeless heap.

In the wake of the battle all four removed their helmets, a sign of increased truce between them, an earned trust.

Brightforge turned to the others, a sober look on his face that mirrored the gravity of the situation, and said, "I've fought my share of fiends before, but have any of you ever encountered a giant like that?"

The other Griidlords exchanged glances, their expressions indicating that they, too, recognized the unspoken implications behind Brightforge's question.

Hammerfist, the elder and veteran of the party, said, "I've seen my fair share.  On campaign, in the wilds, you'll encounter 'em.  We steer clear when we can, but the fuckers have a way of being around an Orb when it lands, and then you've got to.  At the height of old Chief Thoddeus' powers, when the world thought we might be the ones to rend the Empire back to pieces, there were waves of the beasties.  Some of those fuckers were serious business."

Yet, after a moment's contemplation, he admitted, "This may very well be the largest and most fearsome fiend I've ever seen or fought."

Brightforge nodded, his eyes suspiciously scanning their surroundings. "It's peculiar that we'd encounter a fiend of this size so close to a city," he mused. "And it's amazing that it could approach without warning. A creature that big should leave a trail of destruction in its wake."

Hammerfist, sensing the unease in Brightforge's voice, recalled a fragment of ancient knowledge. "According to legend, great fiends appear at momentous times," he explained, his voice solemn. "They can alter the course of destiny."

Brightforge waved a dismissive hand, scoffing at the idea. "Superstition and myth," he laughed. "Give me hard facts and real tactics, not old wives' tales."

Undeterred, Hammerfist pressed on. "You should read the histories," he insisted. "There are accounts of empires that stalled because of fiends. Some even claim that the Blood Prince himself disappeared from the Empire after encountering one of these beasts."

Brightforge's laughter subsided, but whether he found truth in Hammerfist's words was impossible to decipher from the unreadable expression now set upon his face.

Thorn, his mood lightened after the victory, let out a hearty laugh, the sound booming over the battlefield. "Well, I'm glad for it," he said, still chuckling. "I've been itching for a good battle, and this was a nice taste when the campaign season seems so far away."

Brightforge's expression, however, remained somber. He gestured to the fallen Pittsburgh soldiers around them and said, "They might not share your enthusiasm for battle, Thorn. Sad households in Pittsburgh tonight. There will be widows and children crying."

Thorn's laughter ceased and his demeanor sobered somewhat. "You're right," he conceded, his voice more measured. "I can't change what happened, and it's not my fault I took pleasure from the fight. But it's a shame that good men had to die."

For a moment, silence enveloped the Griidlords as they stood side by side, the once-rivals and currently temporary allies. As they surveyed the carnage surrounding them, a deep undercurrent of respect for the lives lost hummed through each of them.

Brightforge looked over to Hammerfist, the weight of their conversation heavy on his brow. "How will this affect our bartering?" he asked. "Our cities can look after themselves, but we seem quite capable when we're together. Maybe we can remain independent but still find a way to direct our energies and forces. We could create a better age for all and push back against the Empire."

Hammerfist offered a jaded smile in response and said, "As I've told you before, I can't make such a commitment. Only the Sword can do that. When Roland Windrake is chosen, he will be the one who can speak for our city and make a real deal." But then, with a nod, he added, "It's hard to argue that Cincinnati isn't entitled to some reward. Today's battle might not have been won without your help."

Arcstone laughed heartily, joining the conversation. "That's gotta be worth a discount, eh?"

Hammerfist couldn't argue, but his smile was tinged with sadness. "No argument there. It's a strange feeling, really – knowing you both from this battlefield, forming these bonds and camaraderie, but realizing that in a few months' time, we'll be fierce enemies again."

Thorn, ever battle hungry, chimed in, "I respect you two, none more than you Brightforge.  There are few Swords, few I've ever seen, who can stack up well against you.  But, make no mistake, that won't stay my axe the day we meet out there, in the wilds.  I want my shot at you.  That's how things work."

Brightforge, his expression betraying determination, said, "Maybe it's time to find a new way."

The other three Griidlords stared at him in astonishment. Hammerfist replied, "Since recorded history, the cities have stood alone, unless conquered. Cincinnati is a great power, but you're not ready to form an empire. And Pittsburgh has never bent the knee – and we never will."

Desperate to redirect the conversation, Brightforge responded, "That's not what I meant. I have no intention of forming an empire, and I never implied that Pittsburgh would bend the knee. But why can't we direct our forces together? We'd be stronger that way."

Amused by the younger Lord's naiveté, Hammerfist said, "It's a nice idea, Brightforge, and the sentiment is appreciated. But in reality, politics, leadership, and greed will always keep cities from pairing well for long."

Thorn, part humor and part hunger for battle, added, "Besides, if we were allies, I'd never get the chance to take you down."

Chapter 18

Clive tightened the rope binding the tarp to the wagon.  Although an Order field extended from Denver to the oil fields in a narrow corridor – enabling motor vehicles to function – Sephilous felt that using them would draw unwanted attention. Instead, he argued that a horse-drawn cart was a less noticeable choice. Moreover, the palace stables were a discreet location, a good place to gather equipment.

The guards around the stables were among the most trusted by Jarway, handpicked by Captain Hearthguard, Caelin's brother and a man Jarway seemed to trust implicitly. Even the stable hands had been replaced with disguised agents, deemed necessary to ensure the security of the wagon and the priceless treasures it would carry. However, it was of utmost importance to avoid drawing the attention of the ever-watchful priests.

As Clive took in the sights and sounds of the stables, he observed the well-kept horses and the carefully disguised agents attending to their duties. A sense of excitement and insecurity filled him.

Clive glanced around the wagon, considering the relics from the treasury and the pilfered equipment hidden beneath mundane goods. He felt a mix of excitement at the prospect of being away from the tower for a while, sadness about parting from Aerilyn, and a growing sense of nervousness as he imagined priests sending assassins after him.

His thoughts were interrupted by a sudden realization: there was a man sitting on a straw bale in the corner. Clive, stunned to recognize the mysterious figure of Trident from their encounter in the garden days before, stammered, "Tr-Trident, what are you doing here? I thought you weren't welcome in the tower."

Trident, appearing as utterly relaxed and disinterested as during their previous meeting, replied, "I just wanted to see you embarking on your journey. It's very exciting, what you have planned – a secret workshop. I can only imagine the marvels you might discover."

Clive urgently hushed him, saying, "Be quiet. People will hear you. There are guards everywhere. The man forking the manure over there is one of the elite guardsmen. Don't get me in trouble."

But Trident remained cool and unconcerned. "Clive, I've been doing this for a long time. I know how not to be discovered. Just relax."

Clive, breathlessly, said, "Doing what for a long time?  You told me you were just a messenger!"

His skeptical eyes flicked down to his own attire, indicating the precious gear and armor concealed beneath his cloak. "Don't be dense," he chided. "It's clear that if I'm a messenger, I'm not one of the mundane sort."

Clive took a moment to observe the bizarre weapons Trident carried, now seeing them with a newfound appreciation after having learned more about the relics. While several pieces of equipment, such as the sword, appeared common enough, it dawned on Clive that Trident was also equipped with gear just as precious – if not more so – than the items he'd been shown from the treasury. Suddenly, he understood that the man was wearing a king's ransom in rare and deadly technology.

Clive, now more curious than ever, asked, "Who are you really? What are you doing here and how did you find out what I'm up to?"

Trident smiled, faintly amused, "I'm really just a messenger, but perhaps a special one. I could be a good friend to you, and maybe even help you."

Clive raised his head and countered, "I'm not interested in getting mixed up in intrigue. I just want an easy life. My knowledge is the key to finding a place in this world – I'll trade it to Jarway in exchange for comfort and security."

Trident calmly replied, "I told you before: you can't trust Jarway, or anyone for that matter. You're a secret weapon, and you can't even begin to imagine the potential you have to disrupt the world order and change things. Everywhere you go, leaders will want to use you, and priests will want to see you dead. Someone like me could be the key to keeping you alive."

Clive stood firm, insisting, "I'm going nowhere. Denver is just fine. I'll give Jarway no reason to have a problem with me, and I'll give the priests no reason to know I exist. I just want some time to be safe and to rest."

Trident smirked and added, "To rest with that little maid friend of yours?"

Clive, taken aback, asked, "How do you know about her? You still haven't told me how you know about all this!" He gestured toward the wagon as he spoke.

Trident, ever dry and amused, said, "We need to build trust. I'll tell you more about my ways and means, but I need more from you too. It's a two-way street, building a friendship."

Exasperated, Clive replied, "I don't want any more friendships. I have enough already. I just want to do my job and be left alone."

Trident's smile remained, but his eyes grew cold and dark. "You need friends, Clive. Terrible things can happen to someone like you, someone with the potential for so much power. There are those who would rather see you dead than in the wrong hands."

A chill ran down Clive's spine. He couldn't tell if Trident's words were a threat or a warning, but he knew the man was dangerous. His thoughts turned to his own safety – and to Aerilyn's. As much as he resisted the idea, part of him couldn't help but think that Trident might be right about needing allies in this world.

Emotions bubbling and feeling trapped, Clive desperately asked, "What do you want from me exactly? Why won't you just leave me alone?"

Trident explained, "I want your knowledge. I want to build a better world, for everyone. By working for Jarway, you'll only make a better world for Denver's nobles, including him. In a world of limited Flows, every city that grows wealthy and powerful can only do so by depriving another city of Orbs, making them poorer and weaker.  It's a zero-sum game, Clive, we can't make the world better when the only way to help one person is to hurt another. "

Feeling too small in such a big world, Clive replied, "I barely know this world. How can I choose sides, and disrupt paradigms? I just want peace."

Trident agreed, "I understand that you need time, and I'd rather have you come willingly."

The unsettling implication of his words left Clive chilled. If Clive wouldn't come willingly, would he be taken by force?

The enigmatic figure continued, "I won't rush you. There's plenty of time. Of course, the priests know you exist, but they seem to have no notion of your arcane knowledge. Their interest in you is mainly for the canon and ceremony, so you're not in immediate danger. I'm happy to allow time to pass and let you learn, but I want to build that friendship. I'd like to be kept up to date on the wonders you discover in your secret workshop."

Feeling desperate and cornered, Clive pleaded, "So, if I promise to keep you informed and tell you what I discover, you'll leave me alone and not cause trouble for me or..."

He cut off, not wanting to reveal the power that could be held over him by threats to Aerilyn. But Trident was already ahead of him and finished the sentence, saying, "Or your little maid? Of course, for now, that would be more than enough."

He continued ominously, "But you should be warned, Clive. It was nothing for me to discover this secret plot, this refuge in the oil fields. I can count to a man how many secret security agents are patrolling here. I could list you their names. I know the name of the guard who will drive your wagon, and I even know the names of the horses, Penny and Hazel if you care to know, who will pull the wagon. Do you think for a second that you could learn things in that workshop and keep them from me without me finding out?"

Clive gulped, feeling overwhelmed, and slowly shook his head.

Trident's cool smile remained, exuding an unsettling sense of danger.

"Good," he said, "Openness and honesty are the keys to building a friendship. I just want you to be aware that openness and honesty are your only options when dealing with me."

NEXT EPISODE LIVE ON PATREON RIGHT NOW, COMING HERE NEXT FRIDAY

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Afterword

Dearest Reader,

As the latest chapter of our grand adventure draws to a close, I want to take a moment to personally thank you for embarking on this incredible journey with me. Writing The Griid has been an extraordinary experience, blending my passion for storytelling with the unmistakable thrill of the NFL, and the complex, unforgettable tales of a world reborn from the ashes of civilization. This story is more than just entertainment – it's a testament to the power of imagination, resilience, and the enduring human spirit.

Throughout the creation of this world, I have poured my heart and soul into crafting something that resonates with you, the reader, in a way that transcends the boundaries of conventional storytelling. But this world, this story, this adventure – it's not just mine. It's ours. And that's where you come in.

By joining my Patreon, you don't just gain access to exclusive, time-locked episodes as well as advanced previews and bonus content – you become an instrumental part of shaping the destiny of The Griid. With your support and input, you can help determine the fate of your favorite characters or the outcome of the most pivotal events that liven the very world itself. Together, we are forging a new frontier – one that invites us to explore the vast, interconnected tapestry of triumphs, heartbreaks, and incredible moments that make up the world of The Griid.

Your support on Patreon would mean the world to me, as it not only allows me to continue dedicating my time and energy into bringing this extraordinary universe to life but also gives you the power to join in the very creative process, and influence the tale that unfolds. The Griid is a labor of love. A passion project that has captured my imagination, and I hope, yours as well. With every new Patron that joins, we breathe life into the story and world that we both cherish.

In these uncertain times, it's more important than ever to find solace and escape in the power of storytelling – to find a space where we can unite as a community and revel in the joy and wonder of a world that captures our imagination. I remain humbled and truly grateful for your support, and I cannot wait to see where our collective journey will take us.

So, dear reader, are you ready to dive deeper into The Griid with me and become a part of the ever-evolving adventure that lies ahead? If so, I invite you to join me on Patreon, where together, we can create a story for the ages.

From the bottom of my heart, thank you for being here at the beginning of this incredible journey, and for your continued support.

With unending gratitude and passion,

Tom Wrath

Together, let us write the future.

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