Attackers Report:

This time, Gaia is ready for you.

It is not easy to see through the tangled woodlands of the Northern Forest at the best of times, and the rampant growth caused by the Paradise ritual has only made it more difficult. But Jacques is convinced that there is movement in the trees as you head doggedly towards the edge of Havocstani lands.

Dragging the siege weapons through the swamp-ridden jungle would be practically impossible without the many strong backs of the Malikara Rukh, especially the Satrap's Sappers, the Harem Guard and the Pasha's Royal Guard. The five sturdy facets of Benedict's Boars are regularly called upon to submerge themselves in the mud and untangle some obstruction that has caught a Rukhi boot, and the holy warriors of the The Inexorable Saviours of the Worthy Cause, The Blessed Paragons of the Golden Chalice and The Glorious Martyrs of St Kristoff lead the group, hacking down the endless undergrowth with long, sturdy knives.

It is not long until the first of the 'ambassadors' lurches out of the woodlands. The many archers of the Malikara raise their bows, but you are acutely aware that you are still on land under Gaia's control, so you caution them not to fire.

"Why are you doing this?" asks the 'ambassador'. It is clearly too late for dissembling about your purpose; with so many who were at the attack at First Light, and so many siege weapons, there is little else that you could be doing here.

The Malikara lift the siege weapons entirely from the ground and begin to pick up their pace. The jagged ridges and cliffs of the unconquerable wastes are not so far away now; if only some of you can get there, your efforts might not be in vain. Gaelle falls in beside the ambassador as Jacob and Flip take point, slicing and hewing through the undergrowth vastly more quickly than the best efforts of the untrained Gerosans and Free Islanders.

And Gaelle does her best to distract the 'ambassador', with philosophy and religion, with history and science and other tidbits of knowledge that might interest Gaia, and at last with an attempt to get it to empathise with their position - that they naturally feel threatened by Gaia's power over their territory, the land they have fought and bled and many have died for, the hard-earned freedom they have wrung from the depths of disaster.

"It is your land," admits the ambassador at last, "but it is my body. Does that give me no right to it? If your right to it is proven by your struggle, should I not struggle for my own existence?"

And with that she can see that it is time; she gives the signal and the ambassador is driven back with a volley of arrows as she raises her own sword against it, the great stony creature crumbling into dust.

The forest is suddenly alive with motion; a hundred, two hundred, no, a thousand stony ambassadors begin to charge towards them. Perhaps not even merely a thousand - an inexhaustible supply. Jacob and Flip are joined by Illyes, and they break into a run, battering down a path for the Satrap's Sappers, the Harem Guard, the Pasha's Royal Guard and Benedict's Boars to charge through with Flip's bow mangonel, Jacques' trebuchet, their own catapult.

The siege-trained Rukh of Caliph's Hand plant one of Jacob's repeating ballistae firmly enough to load it, and begin to shred the treeline as Zan Li opens up with the flamethrower. In a dazzling display of skill and agility, Caliph's Hand set up a relay, planting each of the siege weapons they carry in turn - Jacob's two repeating ballstae, his arbalest, their own ballista - and picking it up and sprinting onwards when it is in danger of being left too far behind.

"I DO NOT WANT TO HURT YOU," chants Gaia from a thousand stony mouths. "I DO NOT WANT TO KILL YOU. BUT I MUST RESTRAIN YOU. I MUST DEFEND MYSELF. MY FATHER SAYS I MUST DEFEND MYSELF."

Even the withering rain of projectiles cannot keep all of the ambassadors from them, especially as they are now coming from both sides; it seems that Gaia had prepared an army in Northern Forest, around the cornerstone itself, but now she is ripping mud-stained chunks out of the ground, some still engulfed in the mat of vines and trees that overlays the soil here, and sending these half-formed ambassadors out of the Southern Forest also. But there are plenty of good swordsmen and spearmen amongst the Rukh, and along with Shien Tsu and Gaelle's spriited swordplay and fine example, none comes close enough to threaten the precious siege equipment.

You can just about see, though the new overgrowth makes it more difficult than it ever was previously, the great jagged cliffs that mark the edge of the Northern Forest and the beginning of the practically impassable swampland beyond - and the boundary between the land that makes up Gaia and the relative safety out of her direct control - when Gaia says in her own voice, a cry of anguish which shakes the trees and causes ripples through the mud:

"FORGIVE ME."

And the land falls in beneath your feet.

There is an endless moment of struggle - minutes? hours? days? - as you are dragged down with the rushing mud into the great sink-hole Gaia has made in the land. You climb, swim, scramble, pull yourself ever upwards - and along, along the path you had set out, knowing that now to reach the cliffs may be all that can save you. Drowning hands cling at you, the poor doomed Merchant followers who came with you on this quest, the Rukh soldiers dragged under with you, perhaps even each other; the exigencies of survival leave precious little room to think of others, for you suspect that soon this hole will close over and there will be only a great circle of churned mud to mark your passing.

Finally - agonisingly - you make it. The mud under your hands becomes solid rock once more. The cliffs are jagged and slice into those who are not also made of stone, but they can be climbed, they can be scaled - they are only passive, inanimate things which are not actively and creatively seeking your death.

You pull yourselves up, and up, until you are well above the level of the deadly ground below, and there you find various ledges on which to collapse, exhausted. Even Jacob is practically spent by the effort, but soon he rouses himself to crawl from ledge to ledge, attempting to find and reunite what forces remain, and check any other humans that have made it out for wounds that require urgent attention. Illyes also soon drags himself back into action and hunts for any equipment or people he can find.

Gradually, you are reunited; Jacob and Bob tend to what wounds they can, although neither of them are familiar with the proper treatment of avians.

All of the siege weapons that you were relying on have been claimed by the mud, but you find a decent number of the Malikara archers and the Von Skorzezny House Guard who clung grimly to their bows, attempting to clean them enough for further use. Gathering on a ledge overlooking the great cornerstone, Jacques studies it intently with his telescope.

It looks like Gaia has started to re-absorb her hastily-created forces. There is no sign that she has noticed your escape. You are, after all, very small.

But if you head back down the cliffside without dealing with her, she is not stupid; those woods are still infested with ambassadors, watching and waiting for your next move. Jacob looks up; the cliffside extends much further, and you are all now in better condition than during your first, desperate climb.

Whilst you might have lost your siege engines... there are plenty of rocks here, and things that fall a long way can land very hard...

With Jacques keeping a wary eye on Gaia's reaction, you start to put together a nice collection of heavy, but throwable, ammunition. You ensure that there is plenty before you even think about beginning the attack; you do not expect to get a second chance if you run out. Those who need refreshment are very glad that the Paradise ritual has, even here, caused fruit-bearing plants to force their way from the rock-face.

Eventually, however, it gets to the point where there are clearly no more excuses. If this plan is going to be tried at all, you are going to have to implement it. Along with the strongest of the remaining Malikara forces, you line up across the edge of the ledge and begin to bombard the cornerstone. You are above the whole mountainous height of it, here. The New World spreads out below you, the Havocstani territories, the newly conquered Mayan lands dissolving into mist...

As the boulders begin to strike home, the ground convulses and boils - but only around the immediate area of the cornerstone. Gaia still restrains herself. She is only looking for her attackers, not taking out her revenge on your civilians, on your citadels. A very long way below, a swarm of ambassadors meets the base of the cliffs and begins to climb.

The rain of boulders becomes more urgent; Gaia attempts to throw up a rampart, but you are almost directly above her cornerstone, and she cannot reach up far enough in time. The cornerstone's internal structure weakens and then, as at First Light, a great crack appears; from here the report, like a musket shot, stings the ears but does not have enough force to knock you from your perch.

"WATCH," she calls with the last of her strength, her voice tight with pain. "KNOW THAT I COME ONLY FOR YOU. I AM NO MURDERER... I WILL NOT KILL YOUR CHILDREN..."

Then the ground heaves and convulses - and with it, the cliffside heaves and convulses too...

Gaia might not be in control of this area, but this area is in its death throes and the ground is connected. The entire ledge that you are standing on shudders, and then slowly, ever so slowly, detaches itself and begins to slide downwards.

You consider escaping from the ledge, but to where? It is still one of the least violent and chaotic parts of the great rockfall. So you huddle in the centre as the rough wall slides past faster and faster, trying desperately to brace yourselves for the inevitable...

...but of course, the ground below is churned swamp and soft mud, and whilst the jolt of landing is sharp and hard, it is no killing blow. The rockfall from above begins to rain down around the area, so you flee outwards into the twisted and uprooted forest.

The devastation is strangely local, however. You make the journey back to Port Havoc with some trepidation - there is no way to get a good vantage point from the dangerous rubble or perilously damaged trees of the area - but as soon as you return to inhabited regions, it is as if the destruction never took place. The people report a mild earthquake, but nothing that did any particular harm.

You return later with additional volunteers to check that the cornerstone is truly destroyed and dig some of your siege equipment out of the mud, and see if there are any others wandering the forest or stranded on the cliffside who can be saved.

Every one of the faithful volunteers of the Merchant church seems to have perished in the sinkhole. Of the Malikara, not quite so many have perished - some, of course, fled before the sinkhole could take them - but they still have a respectable list of casualties: nine of the Swords 1st, one of the Pistoleers 1st, ten of the Pistoleers 3rd, all of the Pistoleers 4th, four of the Pistoleers 5th, twelve of the Spears 4th, one of the Spears 5th, one of the Axes, four of the Rukhi Rangers 1st, two of the Rukhi Rangers 2nd, one of the Phoenix Wing, one of the Royal Guard, three of the Fledged Arrows, three of the Caliph's Hand. And one of the Von Skorzenzy Guard 3 cannot be found.

Still - that is two of Gaia's cornerstones destroyed; and, perhaps most important of all, Port Havoc is now safe from her depredations - for the moment, at least.

Local Report:

Illyes, Gaelle and Flip set out with the golems Shien Tsu and Zan Li, the scout Jacques Valantine, the surgeon Bob Scarlet and Jacob Donskoi, into the tangled woodlands of the Northern Forest - leading almost a hundred Merchant-devoted volunteers and over twice their number in Rukhi. They drag many siege weapons through the swamp-ridden jungle.

The woods are infested with Gaia's 'ambassadors', and it is not long before one confronts them and asks them of their purpose. Instead of answering, Gaelle engages it in conversation while the war party picks up the pace towards the jagged cliffs that mark the edge of even slightly hospitable lands and the edge of Gaia's reach.

"It is your land," admits the ambassador at last, "but it is my body. Does that give me no right to it? If your right to it is proven by your struggle, should I not struggle for my own existence?"

And then the forest is suddenly alive with motion; a hundred, two hundred, no, a thousand stony ambassadors begin to charge towards them. Perhaps not even merely a thousand - an inexhaustible supply.

"I DO NOT WANT TO HURT YOU," chants Gaia from a thousand stony mouths. "I DO NOT WANT TO KILL YOU. BUT I MUST RESTRAIN YOU. I MUST DEFEND MYSELF. MY FATHER SAYS I MUST DEFEND MYSELF."

The battle is joined for some time, but Gaia finally concludes in her own voice, shaking the trees and causing ripples to spread across the swamp:

"FORGIVE ME."

And the land at the edge of the cliff falls in, drowning the valiant soldiers. Gaia re-absorbs her hastily-created forces, and for a time the area is peaceful. A few of the Rukh stumble back to civilisation, half-drowned and shaking, telling tales of the horror when the ground fell in around their comrades and they had no choice but to flee.

But that is not the last that is heard of the battle. A rain of boulders begins to fall from the cliffside; the ground convulses and boils - but only around the immediate area of the cornerstone. Gaia still restrains herself. She is only looking for her attackers, not taking out her revenge on their civilians, on their citadels. A swarm of ambassadors meets the base of the cliffs and begins to climb.

The rain of boulders becomes more urgent; Gaia attempts to throw up a rampart, but the boulders fall from almost directly above her cornerstone, and she cannot reach up far enough in time. The cornerstone's internal structure weakens and then a great crack appears; the report, like a great and deafening musket shot, flattens weak trees and throws everything in the vicinity to the ground.

"WATCH," calls Gaia with the last of her strength, her voice tight with pain. "KNOW THAT I COME ONLY FOR YOU. I AM NO MURDERER... I WILL NOT KILL YOUR CHILDREN..."

Then the ground heaves and convulses - and with it, the cliffside heaves and convulses too...

The devastation is strangely local, however. Away from the cliffside, there is a mild earthquake, but nothing that does any particular harm.

Caked in mud and weary beyond comprehension, the sorry remains of the attacking force trickle out of the woodlands and ask for additional volunteers to check that the cornerstone is truly destroyed, to dig some of the siege equipment out of the mud, and to see if there are any others wandering the forest or stranded on the cliffside who can be saved.

Colony Report:

Illyes, Gaelle and Flip set out with the golems Shien Tsu and Zan Li, the scout Jacques Valantine, the surgeon Bob Scarlet and Jacob Donskoi, into the tangled woodlands of the Northern Forest - leading almost a hundred Merchant-devoted volunteers and over twice their number in Rukhi. They drag many siege weapons through the swamp-ridden jungle.

Some time later, shaking the trees and causing ripples to spread across the swamp, Gaia's voice is heard:

"FORGIVE ME."

A few of the Rukh stumble back to civilisation, half-drowned and shaking, telling tales of the horror when the ground fell in around their comrades and they had no choice but to flee.

But that is not the last that is heard of the battle. Some time later, a longer speech is heard in the voice of Gaia, as tremors start up across the Havocstani lands:

"WATCH," calls Gaia, her voice strangely tight, as if she is in terrible pain. "KNOW THAT I COME ONLY FOR YOU. I AM NO MURDERER... I WILL NOT KILL YOUR CHILDREN..."

And the mild tremors are disturbing to some, but no real damage is done outside of the Northern Forest itself - which is twisted beyond recognition, uprooted and churned in a dreadful spasm as the cornerstone of Gaia that stood there falls.