Hunt - Chapter Twenty-Three
~ 23 ~
23 Arodus, 4692 AR; Defender’s Heart, Kenabres

Mordria’s mind was racing. How had this happened? She had started from such a great position! The cards had all shown her the path to victory. Yet, here she was, sweating in nervousness. There was nothing to do but to wait. The finishing blow was coming soon. At least, if her opponent realized it was there. Mordria prayed to whatever god may be out there that she could pull out of this alive.

There was a crowd around her, everyone of them either holding their breaths in anticipation, or whispering softly to themselves. “Is this it?†“Was the immortal demon about to lose?†It added to the tension that she felt inside. She tried to hold in the anxiousness, but she could see that her foe noticed it. The woman knight’s eyebrows narrowed in thought. Mordria practically heard the question in her head, “What was she so worried about?â€

The Crusader looked down at her hand, holding three blue and red backed cards. In the center of the cards’ back were the crest of Mendev, the nation that Kenabres sat inside: a checkered shield with two Swords of Valor near the left and right edges. Her eyes roamed over the cards, examining the icons and text on each closely. Then, the light of realization fell over the woman’s eyes and she placed one of her cards onto the four-by-four grid that consisted the playing field. That card set off a series of effects that pushed the playing field toward her favor.

Mordria, her stomach falling into her legs, looked at the board. Then to her cards. In her sight, everything was in various shades of red and black, but she was able to use that contrast to see the cards and their text well. It was something that took her years after the demon took her sight to finally get down, but now she barely noticed it as she poured over her options. However, no matter how much she stared at the cards and their effects, she could not figure out how to make the last turn work in her favor.

With a sigh, she glanced over at the three flat gems, two flipped over to its dark side, the last still shining strong. Mordria hesitated, not wanting this to be her first loss, but seeing the futility in making the pain last longer than it should, she flipped over the shining gem to its dark side. The game was over.
All the Crusaders around their table let out a cheer, some yelling out phrases like, “Finally taken down!†and “Pay up!â€

Both participants of the game stood up and shook each other’s hand. The Crusader tried to hide how awkward she felt about it, but Mordria could feel it in her muscles and see the creases in her face. She did not blame the woman, though. Tieflings were always considered devils in the eyes of â€~normal’ people and it took the Crusaders a couple of days to get used to her enough to let her teach them Argus. Besides, she was used to it by now.

“I am up in my office all day doing paperwork,†a gruff but playful voice called from the stairs, “and what do I come down to? My men standing around instead of guarding! What do you all have to say for yourselves?â€

All of the Crusaders stood at sharp attention. Mordria found Irabeth, still in her golden armor, walking down the stairs and toward the group. That let her see Shayliss out of the corner of her eye pouring over a thick book. At least, she was before the half-orc stepped on the stone floor.

One of the Crusaders, a rank lower than Irabeth, by the crest on his pauldrons, gave her a sharp salute and barked out, “Ma’am! We have been learning battlefield tactics by playing games of Argus!â€

Irabeth stopped in front of the Crusader, her arms crossed in front of her and her eyebrows tilted down as if she was annoyed. Yet, she could not hide the smile on her face, “Oh? And what have you learned?â€

“Ma’am! That we all are not good enough to outplay Mordria.†He turned his head toward the woman Mordria just lost to, “Except Elie here.â€

Irabeth raised her eyebrows and looked to Elie, “Oh?†Her gaze then turned toward Mordria, “Well, how about I test that?â€

The Crusaders all stiffened in surprise while Mordria widened her eyes, “Huh?â€

Irabeth gave the tiefling a tusked grin, “Or are you afraid?â€

Mordria blinked once before she shook her head and returned that grin with her own sharp teeth, “Not at all.â€

The whispers built back up as Irabeth gently pushed her way toward the table to sit down. Mordria cleaned up the last game, returning the cards to their respective decks and flipping the gems to their shiny side. Then, she unpacked the long rectangular box that the game came in. Five decks of equal size, each with a different backing, were placed in a row in front of Irabeth.

“These are the decks we will be using.†Mordria explained, “There are five factions, each deck is one faction.†She pointed to the far left, “Mendev, they focus on healing and boosting their allies with the power of their faith.†She pointed to the next in the row, “Mongrelmen, or the First Descendants. They specialize in ambushes, hiding in shadows until it is time to strike. Next is the Shackle Pirates. They are not the strongest, but they use the terrain to their advantage and are masters of both land and sea. The Varisians use magic and might to add flexibility to their plans. No matter what is thrown at them, they will have some sort of answer. The last,†she pointed to the last deck, “are the denizens of the Worldwound.†At that, the Crusaders seemed to tense up and grind their teeth. All except Irabeth, that is, “They use their numbers and strength to their advantage. They are never afraid of sacrificing their allies to win.â€

Irabeth, who had been nodding throughout Mordria’s explanation, asked, “Alright, what is the grid?â€

Mordria leaned back so the paladin could see the whole board, “The grid is the battlefield. The first round, we shuffle and draw the terrain deck.†She acted out her explanation, “It consists of fifty-four cards, but we will only be using the first nine each round. These cards have various terrain features on them. For example,†she pulled the first card from the deck, “this is a sea card.†She showed it to Irabeth, “And there are special effects and weaknesses for various cards when they are placed on a Sea Tile, as it is called on the board.†Mordria then drew and showed Irabeth the cards, placing each on the board next to the last placed.

“I see.†Irabeth whispered, “And I assume we fight each other until one side gives in?â€

“Pretty much.†Mordria nodded, “You can always give up the round of your own volition. You also lose the round by having no more cards to play. When a new round starts, you can choose to keep what’s in your hand or discard them. However, you will always return to your hand size of seven. The first one to lose all three Control Gems,†She points to the flat gems, “loses the game.â€

Irabeth nods, “I see. Then, I will choose the Shackles Deck.â€

Her choice seemed to shock the Crusaders around the table. Yet, Mordria expected the captain to choose the Shackles or Varisia. Every other Crusader she faced in Argus chose Mendev, most likely because it most aligned with their training and it was their home. Irabeth, though, seemed to value using the environment to her advantage. It could be seen in how she sent out her scouts and placed her guards. They used the urban environment of the ruined Kenabres to the best of their ability.

“I’ll go with Varisia, then.†Mordria answered, pulling the deck toward her.

She never used the Varisian deck, but she figured she would need the flexibility that Varisia provided. She shuffled the deck and drew the seven cards required. Looking up, Mordria saw that Irabeth was already strategizing. But, Mordria could not tell exactly what the woman was thinking. The half-orc hid her facial ticks well. Mordria could only see what cards she was looking at.

This was going to be a hell of a match. Seeing the challenge in front of her, Mordria grinned.

An hour and a half, five rounds, and a headache later, Mordria stood up. She had lost again. Irabeth proved to be a great tactician, using rather unorthodox strategies to get around Mordria’s units and counters against her Spell Cards. Mordria’s two winds were rather lucky, finding a weakpoint in Irabeth’s strategy at the last moment. Sweat of nervousness was pouring down her head, and she could see beads of sweat forming on Irabeth’s green skin.

Irabeth stood up, stretched stiff muscles, and reached out a hand, “That was wonderful!â€

Mordria grinned and gripped her hand, “I don’t think I’ve had to concentrate that much in a while.â€

Irabeth returned Mordria’s grin, “You would make a good captain.â€

A bark of laughter escaped Mordria’s mouth, “I may have the brains, but I don’t have the will or patience.â€

“Maybe one day.†Irabeth let go and bowed, “I have work I need to finish. If you will excuse me.â€

With that, Irabeth turned on a heel and walked back to the stairs. Before climbing up, though, she turned to look at the grouped Crusaders, “Watch rotation is in five minutes. I expect to see fresh faces in here!â€

The Crusaders all gave her a textbook salute as they moved toward the stairs as well. Whispered conversations about the match could be heard moving with the group. In a few seconds, the only ones in the tavern area were Mordria, Shayliss, still reading her book, and the inn’s owner, preparing for the relieved shift’s meal.

Mordria sighed in exhaustion and started putting away the game. Sliding the lid of the box shut, she left it on the table for anyone who wanted to play. She then walked over to Shayliss and sat down. In her red and black vision, Shayliss’s eyes were pouring over the text of the book, apparently a theory book about some kind of magic. It was easy to tell that the woman was forcing herself to stay awake.
“Hey.†Mordria said, not so awake herself.

Shayliss jumped in surprise and starting breathing heavily. When she realized that it was just Mordria, she let out a long breath, “Sorry. Sorry, I wasn’t paying attention.â€

“That is obvious.†The corner of Mordria’s mouth ticked up, “Why don’t you rest? It is getting close to midnight.â€

There was a flash of something in Shayliss’s eyes. It was something that Mordria had seen many times before: the look of rage. Not the happy-go-lucky â€~I need to punch a wall’ kind of angry. It was the â€~I am an inch away from murdering you’ kind of anger. Something Mordria did or said triggered it, and she flinched back, about to ready her claws to attack. However, the woman in front of her shook her head and all traces of rage vanished.

“It is?†Shayliss tried to look outside, only to realize that the first floor windows were too boarded up, “I guess I was so engrossed in the book.†Rubbing her eyes, she stood up, “I should head up to my room. Good night.â€

Mordria nodded and watched with caution as the woman closed her book with a bookmark marking her place and climbed the stairs to her room. Waiting a few minutes, Mordria followed her, stopping at the second room to the left of the stairs. She knocked lightly on the door. Seconds later, a groggy Strune rubbed her eyes, in a creepily similar way to Shayliss, and asked, “What is it?â€

Mordria gave the strix a serious gaze, “We need to talk.â€
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