According to Senhion’s knowledge, the Sunset Mountains, that run along the far western edge of the Baris Continent, form the longest cordillera on the planet. That’s why they stand in popular knowledge as the ‘other great mountain range’. But they more resemble the Appalachians or the Urals, despite stretching thousands upon thousands of miles from north to south. They are truly ancient, over a half-billion years old, while the Great Wall, the latest and mightiest ridge of the Dragonsbacks, is only tens of millions of years old.
That’s why I see the Arbolian mountains that divide Doria from the rest of Orestania as a bit pitiful sometimes. They are ‘just’ the Arbolians, even though they rise as high as the Alps. I suppose if the Alps and the Himalayas were direct neighbors, folks on Earth might dismiss the Alps in the same fashion.
The continents on Huade are currently on their way toward a grand collision that will form a supercontinent in about a hundred million years. The Baris Continent is the first step in that, with the other continents all squeezing toward it. A little over a hundred million years ago, the Dorian lands were a separate mass that drove itself into the rest of Orestania, also still a separate mass, and created a mighty range, the Arbolians. But that process ground to a halt and erosion mostly wore them away, while the two masses drove westward into the rest of Baris, creating the Dragonsbacks as they collided.
But the dormant Arbolians suddenly reawakened, as grand massifs raised the worn hills skyward again, because the Southern Continent was now squeezing northward into Doria from the south. Thus, they have turned into a blend of youthful mountains like the Dragonsbacks and ancient ones like the Sunset Wall.
They divide into two truly titanic massifs, each broad north-to-south and built of many ridges, and one not-so-titanic massif at the western end, the county of Suldor, that probably represents what the entire range would have looked without the new uplift. The region in the middle, the Oserian Highlands, features taller peaks and stretches farther north-to-south, but the eastern part, the Kasarene Highlands, stretch the farthest East to West, not ending until they fall into the sea at Gabet. A narrow stretch separates the two, but it’s no good as a crossing point, because the highest peaks of the range happen to also occur there.
The one safe place to pass through either of those great massifs rather than going around them is the Kasar Pass, cutting through the Kasarene like a bizarre divot blasted out by a primordial titan. It’s a high climb, but it’s feasible, and the routes around the two Highlands are detours of several hundreds of miles. Naturally, that made it highly strategic, and the battle to take this place hard and bloody.
As much as possible, I had to stay in the back seat, just coaching Lhan and casting magic through her if needed. I had to avoid that as much as possible until Tiana-in-the-Castle grew better at managing her blood core. All Lydia could do was teach her what Grandmother had taught me, and that was going to take some time.
But Lhan did alright. Despite her nerves, she pushed her way through. I was pretty proud of the kid. In Earth terms, she was basically thirteen or fourteen years old, so it was no small feat when she met first with the expedition people.
The man frowned at me after reading the orders I had handed over, but he seemed more confused than angry, so I don’t think I shrank too much.
Finally, he griped, “This is why I didn’t want adventurers along in the first place. This is a military expedition.”
He said this is a military expedition in a way that implied I should understand other things from it, but I don’t know what they were. I guess he could see that I didn’t understand, because his face screwed up tighter and he waved the paper in his hand.
“Hiléa, is it? No rank, not enlisted in the adventurer’s corp, no information at all. This just says, bring you along. What exactly are you here for?”
My head might have backed up slightly during his bluster, but I managed to keep my shoulders square.
Sen had already given me the answer for this one, so I didn’t have to think about it. “I’m here to help your people get through the Highlands, General. This is my home country.”
Yeah. I was going to pretend that I come from the Kaserene Highlands.
“Your country!?” he echoed, almost a bark, then frowned toward the two aides who brought me to him. “A little thing like this claims to come from this hellish place?”
One of them cleared his throat, then nodded. “She says she grew up in a halfling village deep in the wilderness, sir.”
The general scowled at me. “You may be on the short side, but you’re no halfling.”
“I’m fairborn, General,” I answered. “My mother was a Naiad. My father was a halfling.”
Actually, I really hate lying, but I’m not the one who said that. Just as I was about to answer, Sen took over my face and voice. While I stood there, staring the man in the eye, I wanted so desperately to look away, and couldn’t.
<Will you not do that?> I protested.
<You wouldn’t have pulled it off, Lhan,> she answered, then grew contrite. <I’m sorry, though.>
The man twisted his mouth, glanced at his aides again, and wondered, “You carry a sword, so you’re a fighter?”
It had only been yesterday on Huade when I met Falerè and first wore this outfit, but Sen had put me through weeks of sword training in the Spirit Core thanks to time compression. I wasn’t ready to actually call myself a fighter though, and she had already taught me a good answer. She let go of me and let me reply on my own.
“I’m a wilderness guide, General,” I said. “The sword is for self-defense. The military would call someone like me a scout.”
“A scout?” he scowled. “Like the natives they hire for expeditions on the Eastern Continent?”
I didn’t really have to answer, so I didn’t.
He frowned and shrugged, finally conceding, “I suppose if you’re actually a native, that would make sense.”
He handed the paper back to the aide who gave it to him and grumbled, “Fine. The most fitting place for her is with the adventurers attached to the fairy group. Send her to them.”
That was the end of my audience with the military. I wasn’t at all sorry it was over. The younger of the two aides led me out and began apologizing as soon as he was out of the general’s hearing.
“I’m very sorry about that, Ma’am. He shouldn’t have been so rude to a civilian.”
I just shook my head. “He’s right to be upset, though? I don’t mind.”
For some reason, the man looked a little surprised. Maybe he was thinking of me as a fairy and expected my pride had been bruised? But I thought most people don’t view half-fairies with the same fear as actual fairies…
<No, it’s because that was really rude. Especially to a civilian whom Headquarters sent out.>
As Sen was saying that, the aide called out, “Lady Dilorè!”
I looked where he was calling and saw Sen’s cousin… or I guess Tiana’s cousin? This is confusing.
In Sen’s memories of her while they traveled and fought together, she was dressed like a fairy knight, but now she was wearing mage’s robes. She was carrying the spear she acquired in Ilim Below, though.
<She’s probably able to use it as both a magic focus and a weapon,> Sen noted. <Perhaps she put her fairy knight dream on hold until the war is over. The army has her on the rolls as a mage in the adventurer corps, after all.>
“Ah. Good,” she said while trotting over to us. “You’re here.”
In short order, the aide handed me off to her and fled. Dilorè simply stood looking at me with a mild, bemused smile.
“What?” I finally demanded.
“It’s Your Highness Tiana, right?” she asked. “Even like this?”
I shook my head. “I’m Hiléa, My Lady. Don’t think of me as Her Highness. We’re… different incarnations, I think it’s called?”
She nodded. “That’s what Her Highness said. You’re another one like Sirth and Fan Li.”
I grew confused, but I followed as Dilorè led me through the little camp.
Secretly, I asked Sen, <Right now Tiana shouldn’t know what we are, so how could she have told her?>
<It was me. I called Dilorè through Lucy,> Sen answered. <She more-or-less has the whole story. She’s one of the few people who has seen enough to follow it. She also understands that there are two of me right now.>
<You… called her through Lucy?> I echoed. <How?>
<Spiritual voice, linking directly through the spiritual vessel to Lucy’s stone. I did it while you were chatting with the military.>
I marveled a little that Lucy just accepted that. But she’s a spirit, so maybe she just wouldn’t notice anything unusual in it.
We entered a log cabin bunkhouse and found Ceria curled up on one of the bunks. She was the only one present.
“Wait here a moment,” Dilorè told me, waving toward the table in the center of the room. “I’ll go get the other two.”
Ceria was looking at me with mild curiosity as Dilorè exited.
I gave her a little bow. “I’m Hilèa.”
“Ceria. You’re kinda small for an adventurer, aincha?” she commented.
I heard Sen sigh in my head. <She’s still not properly introducing herself as a noblewoman.>
Trying not to giggle at Sen’s complaint, I replied while I took a seat on the bench. “I’m small for any kind of person, right?”
Ceria grinned, then uncurled and stretched before moving from the bunk to the bench opposite. She gave me a speculative look, then said, “I get a feeling you’re not a normal adventurer though.”
I wasn’t sure how to reply to that. I just shrugged.
The cat girl drummed her fingers on the table, then shook her head. “Don’t know what it is. I just have a funny feeling about you. If we’re gonna go into the wilderness together, I’m not sure I like not knowing what it is.”
It was weird, but I could almost hear a cat’s warning voice in her words, a threat from a beast declaring her territorial claim. This was not the playful side Ceria had always shown Tiana after she bonded with her.
<For an adventurer, an unknown is a threat to their safety, Lhan.>
“I think you will learn all about me once Dilorè returns,” I answered.
“She said, ‘the other two’. Who’s that?”
“I think she meant Melione and Lady Chiara,” I answered.
That startled her for just a split second, but she controlled it and gave a nonchalant reply.
“That’s an odd combo. Why them?”
I just looked her in the eye and stated, “They’re the other two Servants present, right?”
Her eyes grew wide, then her nose wrinkled and her brow bunched up. “That’s… why would you say something like that? Who’s a servant?”
I listed, “You, Melione and Lady Chiara.”
Her nose wrinkled up more, and she stared at me, then tipped her head…
“Lady?” she asked, confused. Then shook her head. “No, you’re not her. But, why do you seem like her?”
I couldn’t help but giggle. “I’m not, but I’m… like a close relative. Don’t worry, I’ll explain when everyone is here.”