Author's note:

Big apologies to everyone for not updating this. Due to COVID-19 shutting my jobs, I ended up working on another very important project… my long overdue Master's thesis in History. Naturally, it took priority over the story since I'm not getting younger (can you believe that the new generation of History students are so young that they weren't born when 9/11 happened!?) and needed it to get it done. Luckily for me, the light at the end of the tunnel is getting closer and closer!

Without further ado… here's the next chapter!

Albion Times

So, this was Albion. Guiche wasn't sure what he had expected the other Kingdom to look like. His father and brothers had already been to Albion on diplomatic trips and they told him about how this was a land of milk and honey.

It was anything but that right now.

For starters, the weather was dreadful. It was humid and cold. Snow was thick and heavy. He never could get used to winter… even with Canadian winter training. Today, they had gotten lucky, with the sun shining warmly above them even if they were still chilled.

"I'm still wondering how Sergeant Greene could walk around bare chested in this weather," a familiar voice complained next to him, referring to the Canadian who'd seen them off at the port before they moved inland.

"There are mysteries we can't answer Malicorne," Guiche replied dryly to his second in command. His friend snorted as he stoked their camp fire.

"Fire should be big enough now," Malicorne said as both young men warmed themselves. They enjoyed the comfortable heat it provided them. Guiche looked at the sun. It was almost at its highest point, so nearly noon, he thought.

"Reynald and his patrol should be back soon if I'm not mistaken," he noted as both Tristainians began walking back to the Knights of Undine's command tent, their break over. The knights were part of the Allied Armies' vanguard, serving as scouts ahead of the main formations. So far, the campaign had been smooth. There was only scattered resistance and isolated strongholds as the Germanian and Tristanian armies advanced further Northwest into Albion. They weren't conquering land as much as they were occupying it. It was hard to tell which villages were occupied and which were deserted, and the knights were supposed to determine that, gain their cooperation, and then message the main army for a garrison. Rarely, they engaged Albion forces. Sometimes it was Tristainian troops that showed up, other times Germania. They weren't privy to how the land was being split up.

Guiche and Malicorne were looking over their maps of the region. The area in which they were had been thoroughly devastated in the wake of the civil wars that raged. Villages, fields and warehouses had been plundered many times before winter. The few standing villages they'd determined were few and far inbetween, and many others were of unknown status. The Knights had spent most of the recent times patrolling the areas between the few remaining villages and handing out supplies. With more and more open land between each new place of human habitation, the Allied Armies' supply lines got more and more difficult to maintain, and they were still weeks away from Londinium at best.

The sound of crunching snow caught the commander of the Knights' leader and his second's attention.

"Lieutenant de Lorimier reporting in, Captain de Grammond," Reynald saluted as he entered. Guiche and Malicorne saluted back before they were briefed about the patrol's latest findings.

"My patrol has confirmed that the village of Aeston is still standing," the lieutenant reported as he pointed out a location on the map. His patrol was the first scouting team to report anything today. "From what we can tell, it appears to be undefended but many buildings are ruined. There are still people living in it though. They hid when they saw us."

"What is the state of the roads leading there?" Guiche asked. Albions infrastructure was naturally prone to decay in the winter, even with people looking after it. Naturally, they had an interest in securing roads that led further and further towards the heart of the island, and this road seemed to at least lead further west instead of stopping at the village.

"Barely usable. Here to here is frozen solid, so still somewhat usable but here to here is deep snow, barely cleared."

"Then we'll have to use our Fire Mages to clear the road then," Malicorne muttered, looking over the map.

"We've also run into some of the Romalian Knights," Reynald added as he pointed to another location on the map.

"What are they doing here?" Guiche wondered as he looked at the map, "I thought they were further south." The Romalians weren't acting as a vanguard for the Allied Army; they had their own mission and they were conducting it independently. Orders were obviously to not intervene. Even the Germanians wouldn't risk such a mistake.

"They didn't want to talk much outside of something about doing the Founder's work," Reynald reported.

Guiche wasn't very surprised at their answer. Romalian knights were both members of the Clergy and warriors. He had no doubt that they were merely busy preaching Brimir's word to the people of Albion and didn't want to get involved in their affairs. To do so openly could attract unwanted attention and trouble from Romalia and the Church. Best they stick with their orders.

"Very well," Guiche said, "Prepare to ride for Aeston at midday. We'll clear the road and make contact with the population. I'll prepare a message to the forces behind us."

"Yes sir!"

In the skies above Albion, droning sounds could be heard mixed with the howl of winter's wind. Observation drones were a regular occurrence since the invasion began with flights happening regularly. They had been an invaluable help to the Tristanian and Germanian armies marching through Albion.

The drones identified strong points, critical roads, and what usable roads still remained. Their advanced cameras spotted any ambush brigands or rebels set up, allowing the Allied Forces to avoid them entirely or even ambush the ambushers.

That was, of course, the publicly disclosed part of their mission.

Certain flights were allocated to a far more interesting task: Observing the Romalian Knights.

They were an unknown force thrown into the equation, one that Earth was far suspicious of unlike the Tristanians whom they had been working for quite some time or the Germanians who had no lost love for the Brimiric Church.

No expense was spared in tracking the Romalians… especially since Hiraga's little findings in Romalia's underground. They weren't just watching from the air either.

Mathilda had undertaken a lot of shady and dangerous jobs under her alias of Fouquet. She'd stolen from thieves and murderers. She'd eluded the guards and spies of rulers. She'd had a working relationship with Cromwell, the most notorious of Halkegenia's recent tyrants. And she'd kept her nerve through all of those jobs.

But this job? It pierced right through to her heart and made her feel fear.

For the average commoners, a Romalian Knightly Order was a bastion of faith, courage and righteousness, one that stood against the wicked that sought to destroy Brimir's legacy. For any well educated noble, such as Mathilda, they were a force to be feared. Their zeal in enacting the Church's will was peerless and the tales of 'heretical' lords and peasants being crushed by their holy fury was unmatched. It was obvious why they were here in Albion, and it was obvious what they would do to anyone they found who'd been working with Cromwell, including her.

And her new masters expected her to keep an eye on them for her. She didn't know what they were looking for specifically, but they expected her to report everything she observed them doing. It was nerve racking, but she'd persisted for close to a week now, following them all over the Eastern half of the continent. They moved fast, but so did she, with some aid from her masters.

Luckily, the villagers were terrified enough of the Romalians that they complied with their demands to gather outside the village where she'd have a better view. Mathilda was hiding in the nearby treeline. She could slide into the group, but she didn't see a reason to take that risk. She could tell perfectly fine from here that the Romalians were doing what she'd seen them do before.

So far, they were preaching about how Brimir's will would always return and shield those who were pure and faithful to his Word. It was what Mathilda expected from a religious ceremony.

But soon, she saw it. They were walking along the crowd, casting a spell: A Magic Detection spell.

That wasn't really surprising. Any noble with a high enough respect for their own behind would swallow a bitter pill and assume life as a commoner to escape detection. But with that spell, it would be all for naught.

Yet, something gave the impression to the spy that they were not just hunting down Cromwell supporters that had abandoned ship once the invasion started. The Church was supposed to be here to re-establish faith in the country, but these knights did not seem to be doing much. They did not rebuild any holy buildings, they did not force villages to verbally affirm their faith. They would ride in, espout about the Brimiric Faith, check for mages, and be on their way to the next village. Day after day, she'd watched them do the same thing.

She'd relayed this suspicion back to her handlers, and they had asked her an interesting question: Did it look like they were looking for someone specifically? And the more she reflected, the more she realized that it did. But whom? And for what reason? They didn't ask for names from the villagers. She asked her handlers for more information, but they refused and told her to keep observing them, and so she did.

None of the villagers turned out to be a latent mage; none of them had reacted to the magic detection spell.

If the knights were disappointed, they did not show it. After another sermon, the Romalians mounted their horses and left the hamlet. Mathilda pulled out her map of the continent to be sure of where she was, and realized that the last couple of days had taken the knights and her close to somewhere familiar: It was Saxe-Gotha, her old home before her family fell into disgrace. She looked at the direction they took. They were headed westwards, and would cross the border before the day was over.

Mathilda glanced at the now-distant Romalians before she slid back deeper into the woods. A horse awaited her, her new employers having made sure that she had the proper tools. As she saddled her horse, the Albion spy heard the sound of hooves. Her hand drifted for her wand, but she relaxed when she made out the two figures. They were dressed like any other commoner might in the winter, but their faces were covered from the cold by a checkered cloth; that was how the outworlders signaled their presence to each other. They didn't approach her very often.

"They didn't find anyone this time either." She told them. "All these villages, and not one noble in hiding. It's surprising."

"We saw." One of the men told her. "They're heading for your family's old holdings, aren't they?"

"Yes." Was the spy's guarded reply. "There is nothing for me there now, of course." Did they expect her to do something? Everything her family had was gone and taken in their fall from grace. She doubted she would even be able to find a hiding place. Tiffania and the kids weren't there anymore. She tried to convince herself it was just another war torn piece of land.

"We'll have someone else trail the Romalians for a while." He told her. "Our bosses want to speak to you again."

"In person?" She asked, surprised. The man shook his head.

"Indirectly." The man clarified. "Just come with us." Mathilda went along without any vocal qualms. It presented her a chance to get out of this damned cold and as far away from those zealots as she could. But she couldn't deny feeling a small twinge of regret for not following them to her family's old glory.

Guiche and his riders rode towards the small village of Aeston, their eyes scanning the woods for ambushes. Another group of horsemen appeared on the horizon: the fire mages they'd sent ahead to clear the road. A cold wind howled in the air around them.

"Captain de Gramont, we're making much better progress than we expected," Reynald reported as he rode up to him, "The Romalians cleared the road for us before we got here."


"Yes sir. Turns out they were heading for Aeston as well. They coaxed the villagers outside to talk to them before letting them return to their homes."

"In this cold?" Malicorne asked incredulously as he shivered.

"Yes, that's what we saw. We didn't interfere but I've detached some of our riders to speak with the villagers and reassure them before they hid again." Reynald continued his report.

"Very well, let's move!" Guiche ordered before his riders picked up the pace. As his officer had said, the road was clear. Snow had melted into mud and that mud had dried into hard cracked dirt by fire magic clear skill levels above the dot and line mages that made up their order.

As they arrived in the village, the Knights could see that most of the people had returned inside their homes with very few still outside on the streets. But they weren't hiding, and they spotted many faces peering out at them from windows.

"Take me to the village leader's home," Guiche said to a returning rider.

"Yes sir!"

"What's the situation then?" He asked as he watched his riders secure the village.

"We've told the people we would not harm them and that they have nothing to fear."

"Is there anything of note in this village?" Guiche asked next.

"Only a tavern, and it's seen better days. Much better days" So, no grain or food stores.

Guiche nodded as they rode through the village to the village leader's home.

After a short ride, Guiche and his closest officers ended up in front of a large but dilapidated house that was guarded by some of his men. The riders dismounted before the door opened, revealing an old, balding man. He seemed to have seen better days, his face emaciated from long days of hunger while his legs barely kept him up as he braced himself on a worn cane.

Guiche was amazed at how this pale old man was still able to stand at this point.

"May we enter, kind sir?" he asked respectfully instead of proclaiming himself an invader.

"Of course," the old man wheezed, slightly fearfully before leading Guiche inside.

The inside of the house had clearly seen the ravages of constant wars. The furniture and walls were well worn while the fireplace was barely lit. Wind seeped through the cracks of the wall.

"I'm afraid that there is not much that my village can offer you," said the elderly man, "The crops have not been good this year and much has already been taken away by others who came before you."

Guiche shook his head.

"That will not be necessary," he replied, "Tell me, what is your name? I am Captain Guiche de Gramont of the Undine Knights of Tristain."

"I am Henley of Aeston," the man introduced himself.

"I am pleased to meet you. How do the people of your village fare, Henley?" The Tristainian wanted to get to business quickly after what he had witnessed.

Sadness appeared across the old man's face.

"Many have already perished due to lack of food while others are gravely ill," he replied mournfully, "Many others wish to leave for better places once the spring arrives and the snow melts away."

Guiche crossed his arms in deep thought.

"I see," he replied calmly. The village elder looked at him, wondering what Guiche would say next.

"How many still live in Aeston?"

"About 300 people but we used to be 400," the man answered, sorrow in his eyes.

"Very well," Guiche replied, "I shall arrange for assistance to be brought to your people in exchange for their cooperation. We'll ensure that Aeston will not starve but your people must not take up arms against us."

The village elder's jaw dropped in surprise, and Guiche almost worried that the man would die of shock at that moment.

"But sir, this is far too generous!" he finally stammered out. Guiche cleared his throat, however.

"We are generous in those that keep their word but do not expect mercy from us should you take up arms against the armies of Tristain or Germania. The Queen has proclaimed we are here to save Albion, not conquer it. As long as you understand that, we will ensure your safety."

The elder bowed his head.

"You have my word that the people of Aeston will not take up arms against you," he pledged. "We ran out of love for Cromwell long ago." Both men shook hands. "Are we to swear loyalty to the Tristain crown now?" Guiche shook his head.

"That will not be necessary. I don't know our Queen's full plan, but we will not see you as vassals." After all that had transpired in Tristain, Guiche was surprised he could show such civility to Albion's people. But he was loyal to his Crown, and she had her will that he wasn't privy to. These people weren't a threat anyway.

In time, they might even be friends to Tristain, much like Saito's people were friends to America.

The Allied Army gained a little more ground that day, but there was still a lot to take before they were finished.

It was called FOB Ladgorian, named after the lake which it sat upon the Northern edge of. An installation the size of a small town, it was the North American militaries' most Southern, technically permanent, position in Halkegenia. Most actively, it was an air base for their helicopters now flying border patrols. But it was also the base of a mechanized infantry battalion from the US Army's 1st Cavalry Division.

The 1st Cav hadn't gotten here in time for the battle against Albion's forces, but they'd gotten here just in time to prevent another invasion, possibly. No one really knew what Gallia had been planning at the time, but America had made it clear it wasn't going to tolerate any bullshit. Two Combined Arms Battalions had been doing maneuvers on the land portions of the Tristain-Gallia border while the rest of the Brigade sat ready back in various Canadian barracks and facilities in the Greater Montreal Area to group up and make an incursion into Gallia itself if necessary. They'd been the shield for all those in Tristain itself.

And after that invasion was surely dealt with, the brigade started returning to Texas. They hadn't seen action, and it was impossible to tell if there'd been any real threat from the South. But better to be there and not be needed than the opposite. The exception was the brigade's single mechanized infantry battalion who'd been ordered to establish a temporary camp that had eventually grown into the FOB.

It was set up on a stretch of plain at the lake's edge, between two small villages that had had the same idea. Long lines of sandbags walls and concertina wires served as the FOB's wall, the Southern one which ended roughly 150 yards from the water's edge. There were only three entrances total on the North, East, and West sides.

Just on the other side of those walls were lines of tents set up precisely and symmetrically along well worn dirt paths. Four iron watch towers stood tall in each corner of the base. Closer to the center of the base were actual structures. Prefabricated buildings. Radio towers. Basic hangers made out of iron sheets that had been built on long stretches of concrete that had been laid.

Most prominently, you had another fence within the base, now rooted in the concrete and topped with razor wire. Behind that steel deterrent were the Battalion's main vehicles, Abrams tanks and Bradley IFVs. There were other vehicles in and around the base, like gas tankers and regular Humvees, including four M6 Linebackers-Bradley anti-air variants that patrolled outside the base for threats like dragons-, but the combat vehicles were deliberately locked away and guarded.

The concrete swaths were in fact helipads, and the hangar storage for helicopters in the event of weather. It was usually only Lakotas or Griffons-but there was no reason any other helicopter couldn't land there.

Officially, they were simply stationed there as a deterrent and border aid. The same exact thing units like theirs had been doing in Eastern Europe and the Baltics for years now. They were also intended as a reaction force if the Osprey air station in the Grand Duchy of Guldenhorf, which was still technically Tristainian territory, needed it.

Unofficially-and this briefing came from a senior CIA Agent, so it was as 'unofficial' as it could be-they were also supposed to be guarding a Water Spirit that resided on this side of the Lake. A neutral and intelligent but non-human entity that they didn't want to deal with, but didn't want anyone else dealing with it either. So they had to keep an eye out and, just in case, the Army had shipped a bunch of Zodiac boats. They'd take care of that, but their main concern was still border security.

To that effect, the Battalion Commander frequently met with Lord Montmorency and Grand Duke Guldenhorf. There were other lords and nobles with smaller holdings and security forces around the border region, but those two controlled the largest swaths of territory to the Battalion's West and East respectively, and the former owned the land they had this FOB on.

They were actually the two largest Noble Armies still in the Kingdom; they'd still been force-marching to the Capital when the North American relief force arrived. 7000 men put together. More than half of them belonged to the Grand Duchy; it was sort of an autonomous state, with its own government and military. Very rich too. Tally in all the smaller holdings and town militias, you had about 9,000 local forces on the border region near the Lake. Further West than either was the Gramont family's well fortified holdings, out of their operational range but still noted.

And on the opposite side of the border, at least as far as binoculars and gun sights could see, you had a few forts some miles away from the international line at irregular intervals. Again, the spooks had been doing their job. They had exact unit counts and even pictures of noble officers with the battalion's planning and operations people. There were 53 little villages and farms to the West and a full grown town South of the Grand Duchy in the East. Total Gallian troop numbers? About 10,000 that could be mobilized immediately, and another 25,000 within a day of the border.

In all probability, an attack-something they were to treat as a very real possibility after the classified briefing that'd made its way to them only 10 days ago-would come from both sides of the Lake. If that happened, the battalion wouldn't split up and instead head where things were heavier. But that was fine; they knew they didn't have the weight of the whole border on their shoulder. They were ready and able to defend both their allies and the portal's southern flank long enough for additional support to come.

They weren't alone either as the Tristainian nobles maintained many border forts and posts. Garrisons were slowly being replenished with young men being called up to replace the losses from the invasion. Regular ground patrols were only made by the Tristainian troops. Canada and America's ground forces would only stay in the FOB, out of respect for their allies' sovereignty but helicopter patrols were still allowed, the speed advantage being far too interesting to give up.

Officially, this FOB was a legal base for an ally in a time of peace. So the soldiers were allowed liberty to go off base. It'd been all cleared with Lord Montmorency. There wasn't much around these parts except for fishing and the nearby inns and pubs, but that was plenty for soldiers who spent the bulk of their time inside the wire. It was a stable agreement, and one that hadn't produced any trouble. Or at least any trouble that had been reported. The locals appreciated American money and the troops could breath a bit and enjoy some good company. The Gallians were baring their fangs every now and then, keeping everyone on their toes however.

A group of horsemen arrived at one of the FOB's gates, their pennants fluttering in the wind. A group of American soldiers were waiting for them there, including one with the insignia of a lieutenant colonel on his cap-the battalion commander. He stepped out to meet them.

"Lord Montmorency, good afternoon." He nodded respectfully.

"As to you, Colonel Santiago." He bid back. One of the Tristainian Lord's retinue jumped off his horse and politely handed the reins over. That was how they conducted some of these meetings: while on a casual ride. The Lord's guards would follow on their horses and the lieutenant-colonel's in a pair of flatbed Humvees.

"How's the family?" Santiago asked, exchanging pleasantries.

"We are well." Lord Montmorency nodded. "My daughter spends her every waking moment reading the letters her lover sends her from Albion. I may have to post a guard outside her window soon, lest she escape out of it to join him in Albion." The American smiled.

"My son wants to follow his girlfriend on a trip to another continent in our world. I understand your sentiment."


"Yes, she is currently on a cultural trip across Europe."

"Ah, Europe." The Lord had heard of the continent that was similar to Halkegenia, "How is it this time of year?"

"From what she's told me, the weather is very rainy in the part she's currently staying but it's quite warmer than the United States right now."


"How are your lands doing? The winter isn't too harsh?"

The Tristainian shook his head.

"Quite the contrary. It seems that our Founder is blessing us with a mild winter this year." he answered, "It is what we needed after the recent events."

The lord's face suddenly looked more serious.

"Not all is well, however."

"Oh? What's going on?"

"Excuse me for wanting to skip pleasantries," Lord Montmorency cut things short, "But I'd rather we be direct about this conversation."

"Of course." The colonel could respect that. "I was told you were coming to brief me on something important?" The word had come down from the North American HQ yesterday that something was going on and the Tristainians would brief them on it directly.

"Yes, very important." The noble confirmed. "I'm not sure if you've heard, but the Queen returned to Tristania recently to handle an issue within the Kingdom. I was instructed by her to inform you, since this could affect you and your men." He glanced North for a moment, towards Tristania. "Evidence has been discovered of a treasonous plot."

"Insurrection?" The colonel asked.

"Yes, it is very disturbing." The Lord admitted. "We've heard rumors that certain members of the Kingdom's lesser nobility are displeased, and discussing behind closed doors treasonous actions they might take to express it. We only know because some of the nobles they've approached have remembered where their true loyalty lies and informed us."

"How big a threat would you figure that?" The LTC asked. Lesser nobility had their title and they had magic, but the best off ruled small towns or villages for the Crown or a higher noble-not exactly enough to wage a war of independence over. But others that didn't have land made it as officers and soldiers in the Royal and feudal armies and orders. That meant arms that could be stolen and soldiers for a rebel army recruited.

"Not many." Lord Montmorency claimed. "We are sure it is just a small group with grievances."

"Do you know what those grievances are?"

"Too much change," the noble replied honestly, "They believe that her Majesty has been far too generous with your world as well as our peasantry."

"Too generous?" the colonel wondered.

"Yes, ever since her Majesty has rewarded some commoners for their efforts in defending our capital, they mistakenly believe that she is giving them too much power in the affairs of our realm."

"Is it uncommon for the Queen to reward commoners for their service?"

Lord Montmorency looked pensive for a moment.

"I do not remember ever hearing of commoners being rewarded in such a way Colonel Santiago," he replied after a moment of thought.

"Exceptional circumstances demand exceptional rewards," the colonel replied, "From what I've heard, Tristain has never been attacked in such a fashion."

"Indeed. It is… quite admirable that the commoners were able to contribute and show such bravery. But they find fault in that too; they think it speaks ill of Tristain that its nobility alone were not able to protect it from danger."

The Colonel mulled those words, wondering just how far he should compliment his host nation.

No one could call Tristain 'free' in the literal sense with a straight face. It was still officially a monarchy, and even that was broken down further by its feudal system and social classes enforced by clear and irrefutable differences. But you couldn't call it apartheid or a dictatorship either. The commoners were not slaves and they were not ruled with iron fists for the most part. It was difficult to explain, and the American and Canadian administrations had been trying really hard to explain it to their opposition and the voters.

But, for what it was worth, Henrietta was a very benevolent leader and she seemed to have a very vested interest in improving the lives of her commoner subjects. It was an interest that was even more apparent in recent times. Some were certain what she saw in the democracies of America and Canada had rubbed off on her somewhat. To some, she was towing a thin line between benevolence and naivety, but she was showing competence where it counted.

As for other Tristainian nobles, it was a mixed bag. Some were decent people, others condescending snobs and some were people that should never have had such titles. There were laws, and then there were reputations to uphold. No one was going to be outwardly cruel for fear of judgement or censorship. But there were still some abusing their power, not playing by the rules, finding loopholes, or other misdeeds. Earth made note of the problems they did see, and they passed word on, but they still kept rolling with Tristain anyway because a few issues weren't worth impeding so many potential advantages. Global (and inter-dimensional) politics were a strange and not always clean business.

"They sound delusional." Colonel Santiago responded.

"It gets worse." The Lord said solemnly before contempt appeared on his face. "They are jealous of the Crown. My House has always respected the lineage and showed her respect. Support from the most prominent houses has long been how the throne maintained its power over the realm. But now the crown has acquired much more land to directly administer, and she's raised the Royal Army to be the biggest force in the kingdom. They have the audacity to say she is becoming a tyrant."

"We've seen a lot of tyrants back on Earth. She isn't one."

"I'm so glad we're in agreement." Lord Montmorency nodded. "Their reasons are as pitiful as their numbers. We will sort them out in due time. But you should be aware, lest they target you over their misgivings." If any Tristainian would be stupid enough to try and fight even America or Canada, they would be quickly disposed of...

Authors' endnote

Long overdue update everyone. I hope you enjoyed this new chapter. The chapter was initially over 9000 words and still incomplete, but we decided to split it for both our sake and yours. This part was already done.