A/N: I'm back! That said, it turns out I don't actually know how to continue this plotline with the northerners. I had notes and plans but none of it will fit into the timing. Go figure, civilizations can't actually move quickly, especially since when it takes a two week overland journey to reach the other border.

So I'm going to prematurely end this arc, accelerate the main plot and put a big timeskip after this chapter.

Delegate Draoir frowned at the report on his desk. The map table spanning the room in front of him showed the region around the great Nida river in the Lost Lands.

Frontline of the Republic of Riewind, ravaged by zombies, the last great city of the southern Bop Empire was recently depopulated a few years ago. Naming it Neverfall was a bit too on the nose, apparently. The refugees flooding north into the icy republic lands were straining the food supply in their harsher latitude.

Go too far north and the icy tundra was impossible to farm, Riewind already had too cold weather to really grow crops with, leaving only thorndown and shaggy piyos for their food. East was the shield wall of snowcapped mountains that fed the Nida river and diverted the zombies south. West was the ocean and nothing came from the northern icy wastes.

The Republic wasn't starving. Yet. One bad year and they would be having riots in the streets.

That said, the refugee crisis gave the Legions a vast number of conscripts. The zombies and monsters gave no quarter, had no negotiations, nothing but the goal of exterminating all human life. Every refugee was armed, however badly. Weapons were preserved before tools of trade or even food.

A starving man could still walk a week or two. An unarmed man in the Lost Lands would be killed and raised as a zombie.

They hadn't anyone come up north in the last few months now. No one living anyway. The last surviving refugee was a lone man and his reki, half starved and crazed from exposure. Journeyed all the way from the bottom edge of the Lost Lands, at the border of the great desert, it was beyond luck how he had survived and made the journey. He had seen no one living for months now.

After the Legions had finished their interviews of the traveler six months ago, the word was that some bards were trying to turn his experience into an epic story. The Councillors were more than happy to have another icon to raise morale.

The report, viewed from his uncomfortable fort a few days travel from the banks of Nida, detailed a sighting of a trio of winged humans that helped in one of the regular engagements. The lay soldiery all agreed that the flying humans wielded powerful magic, burning away large portions of the zombie horde trying to cross the river.

The few soldiers that actually talked to the flying people said that they talked funny with much too many unknown words. Draoir wondered if the Republic wasn't the one who had lost a few words. The Bop Empire was known to be flowery talkers, for which the hard northerners had no time for.

The army commander there did try to talk to them but the reds got to the winged men first and scared them off. Because of course they did, the reds always messed everything up. They even pretentiously named themselves the Robes of Life, no one dared to call them 'Reds' to their faces.

Their reputation of being human sacrificers was quite enough to cause others to avoid them and speak in hushed whispers.

If not for the fact that the Republic owed its battles to their practice, the Robes of Life would not dare to break protocol and override the local commander.

Still, the winged men had flown away, there was very little Draoir could do about it.

He had finished reading the report for the second time, noting the examination of the metal scraps of the weapon the winged men had used. Whatever created the flames that broke the zombies had burnt out of all recognition, but the sharp eyed watchers in the army had noted how the flyers had dived before attacking and thrown out small objects.

It wasn't magic, but a weapon. And a weapon was something more easily copied than magic.

There was a pounding of feet outside and the door to the Delegate's office slammed open. The messenger panted as he handed over a message tube.

Draoir waved the man to the carafe of fresh water while opening the message. He read it, rubbed his eyes and read it again.

The winged men were back and they had dropped a message carried on a scrap of floating cloth. Interesting.

Drawn on the paper like a stylized picture, it seemed the senders had also considered the language problem. It depicted a row of ten people in black ink then an arrow pointing to a figure drawn in blue colour. Twenty of such figures then pointed to a figure in red.

Below was a crude map of what Draoir recognized was the Lost Lands and Nida river. The lookout station at the battle that they had first met at was marked with a star. A line of dots led a winding path avoiding the known hills to a human figure drawn in red.

If Draoir understood their drawings right, there was two hundred people heading up north to meet the lookout post.

What were they here for? Who were they? There was very little Draoir could answer and being limited to crude pictograms was not going to let them answer such questions in detail.

But maybe he didn't have to just copy the weapons, they could trade for it.

Everyone had to be enemies of the monsters, right?

The lookout tower had a lot more sentries than Ka last saw it. As the expedition drew closer to the battle's site, the few times Ka had flown over it revealed more and more people appearing at the tower. Eventually, there were over five hundred waiting near the tower.

While all the northern landbound were armed, they didn't seem to be taking a hostile stance against the two hundred of this expedition. They had defences left over from the battle, mostly short stretches of walls raised against the light beams, but they had not added to the defences despite having time and none of the red people were around. Hopefully things would go better than last time.

The expedition cresting the last low hill into sight of the tower drew shouts and alerts. The northerners milled around, getting ready with their armour and weapons but they remained on their side of the river.

A large group of the soldiers stood in front of the defences, brightly dressed with coloured bands of cloth over their fur and armour. Judging from the way the others deferred to him, the big man in the middle with the red and blue scarf was the leader of the northerners present.

It seemed to Ka that the message had been understood at some level. They were turning out for a meeting with someone who had authority.

Circling above the approaching expedition, Ka watched as the Ektal delegation stopped opposite the river. The scars of Ka's bombing during the battle were still visible, but the light riverside forest was far less damaged than the war torn northern bank.

The northerners watched closely as the Ektal delegation quickly set up a defensible camp, paying special interest to the many and varied weapons they carried. Despite being hours before the delegation managed to build a river boat, the leader of the group stayed at the river the whole time.

The first proper meeting between two separated peoples was about to happen.

"Greetings and welcome, new people of south," the military leader that was his counterpart said.

Curren frowned at the greeting.

That was going to be an obstacle to getting the agreement Curren wanted. A basic trade agreement, on what goods to prioritize, would be a real boost to his reputation as the representative of Minmay.

The meaning of the greeting was obvious but imprecision was going to make agreements difficult. Even Curren's knowledge of Tsarian wasn't helping.

"I am Curren, representative of Minmay from the country of Ektal. The Inath Federation greets you in peace," Curren said formally, giving them a respectful bow.

The man sitting across the table in the meeting tent looked like he was having the same difficulty parsing Curren's words. He sighed.

"Many words. Too hard for agreement. Need understanding first. "

Yes, probably a good idea. At least the meeting was peaceful and no one was being sacrificed or shot at yet. That was good enough, right?

Curren nodded and began to work out a schedule for the one scholar of Tsarian language in the expedition.

Right after they agreed to meet every two days, his counterpart spoke up, pointing to Curren's guard's gun. "Much interest in weapons. All men have enemies. Maybe show?"

Well, he never expected to reach a trade agreement in a single meeting but perhaps there was hope for later.

Draoir met the four men in tent on the outskirts of his army. The evening was brisk with mild wind to conceal any voices. Not that eavesdroppers were likely in an unremarkable tent.

"How goes the plan?" he asked.

The leader of the group shrugged, "orders swap was easy enough. Pretending to be soldiers when given uniforms and passwords, no challenge. "

"They are delayed then?"

The leader looked back at the other three men who shook their heads. "Not sure. Reds going northeast, they think big battle coming there. Like you wrote. Can always turn back. "

Draoir sighed and paid the men their coins. Spying against his own army was a strange position to be in, Draoir decided. But he didn't want the Robes of Life to derail the first meeting with the southerners. Sending them haring off into the wilderness with half his army was quite the con. Draoir didn't want to have wasted all that effort.

It was still a risk though. If the zombies came attacking again, Draoir wouldn't have any heavy magic to turn the tide. He'd be putting his primary defense in the hands of these strangers.

Tomorrow they had agreed to give a demonstration. Whether he wrote counter-orders or let the reds stumble around blindly would be decided then.

The next morning, Draoir was very much glad he had spent all that effort.

The crack of gunfire sounded wimpy when Draoir first heard it but the effects of the bullets belied their first impressions. The four soldiers demonstrating the southerners' weapons fired at one target after another. The finger sized iron bullets smashed holes through animals, shattered rock and blasted through plate armour with ease.

And that was at a great range. At hundreds of paces, the weapons still retained their destructive power far more than arrows would. The southerners had explained that the guns were inaccurate at long ranges but Draoir couldn't figure out why they were lying to him. At the furthest ranges of a normal non-magical bow, the guns were still far more accurate.

Being able to fire just as fast as a bow, be far more accurate and carry a far greater punch, Draoir wouldn't have wanted to face these southerners in battle. After all, according to them, just about every soldier except the supporters had one of these weapons, even if not the latest models. The sheer weight of attacks at long range made it impossible to close to attacking range.

They still had bigger ones, the magic big gun according to his translator, quite an apt name. Mounted on a wheeled carriage and pushed around, these ones fired bullets the size of half a forearm. The steel bullets could smash stone walls, the fire bullets could wipe out entire squads in a single blow. They could shoot spells as destructive as any one caster in his army, and do it for as long as their ammunition held out.

The southerners had an entire row of these big guns.

No, fighting them was not an option. Draoir might be able to win if he brought his army and the Second army to attach them at the same time, mostly because he would then have more men than the southerners had bullets. The resulting casualties would surely doom the Republic to death by the monsters. And this was only one small squad of two hundred.

That only tactic he could think of also highlighted the weakness of their weapons. Everything they wielded required ammunition crafted with great expertise, even the smiths in Draoir's supporters could not measure any difference between any two bullets. And the southerners were very far away from their homeland, far from any resupply.

The southerners might be stronger than his army but they would not be eager to incite hostilities either. Draoir really was lucky he decided to exclude the volatile Robes of Life from this negotiation.

Additionally, even if the southerners and Draoir cooperated in defence, at the normal rate of monster attacks, the southerners would have to retreat after only a few battles. They could not be here long without extensive military caravans over monster infested territory.

So when the entire week went by without a single monster sighting, Draoir was forced to throw out all his calculations.

Minmay examined the counters on the map table again. It was a wonderfully made table, with clay mountains and carved lines for rivers, meticulously painted to match the latest surveyor maps. It even came in separable blocks so updates could be made to individual pieces. A truly magnificent gift from the University.

Currently plotted on the map of Ektal and what was known of the Greater Sands was a series of strings denoting the supply lines of the Northern Expedition. The name used to refer to the army that marched for the abandoned city but now it meant the small delegation in contact with the northerners.

The distance was daunting. The Greater Sands were about the size of Ektal, the Northern Fort was positioned roughly midway through the desert. The abandoned or depopulated plains after that was another gap a third the size of Ektal. Not to mention the distance from Minmay to Fort Yang too, which was not trivial to cover for large caravans despite being in friendly territory.

The route of supplies was stretched to the absolute limit. Communication was only feasible through Elka couriers.

"We're stretched too far," Minmay spoke, the two engineers from the University standing behind him looking at the map. "Supplies move too slowly, messages are barely any better. I have heard of the achievements of the Flight Project. Minmay needs you to solve this problem. "

Brad and Ini were the two lead engineers for each half of the Flight Project. Chasing after heavier than air and lighter than air flight respectively, the two teams shared a lot of personnel and were supposed to be nominally equal. Since he wanted to know the feasibility, Minmay had called them here, rather than their industrial sponsors.

"Respectfully sir," Brad said, "the Flight Project has only had their first trial flight recently. While the prototype did fly, it is still unstable and requires more refinement. The engine certainly isn't strong enough to make such a lengthy journey either. The Project simply isn't mature enough yet. "

"You don't speak for the entire Project," Ini interrupted, her scowl plain to see, "heavier than air flight might need to develop better engines but balloons are already working. We just need more funding and we can build transport balloons. "

The dream of heavier than air flight was of course the more glitzy and popular side, based on Cato and Morey's tales of aeroplanes from their world. So to many, investment in balloon flight was viewed as something of a dead end.

Ini clearly disagreed.

"It is a waste. Any money invested into improving the balloons can be used to get our airplanes in the air faster. "

"And yet, how much faster can that be done?" Ini argued, "the Flight project's budget is already large. I'm only asking for three hundred rimes, enough to make a few balloons and a carriage. We can have a proper transport balloon able to carry two tons of cargo ready to make a flight in under a month. "

Minmay spoke up at that, "when the balloon transports were first explained to me by Cato, the main problem they face was that they either use hydrogen or helium as the balloon gas. Hydrogen can be made from water with a steam driven generator but is very flammable. And we don't have a good source of helium. "

"We already have a potential solution," Ini replied. "I wouldn't be bringing this up otherwise. Elemental Air-Water foam is about as dense as hydrogen and doesn't have the explosive properties of pure elemental Air. In the proposed airship transports, this Stabilized Air is intended to be the lift material. "

Brad interjected, "we don't have a way to efficiently produce it. Simply bubbling Air through Water wastes over four times the magic stored in the foam. And trying to contain the Air to re-use it makes it explosive. "

"Even at four times less efficiency, that just means that refueling stops take a little longer. Our preliminary designs use the steam engines that drive the propellers to power an engine to generate magic energy. If the steam engines are made to also work with wood, the airship should be able to refuel itself along any river. "

Minmay asked, "how fast can it travel?"

"Two days to Fort Yang, two days from there to the Northern Fort, two days from the Northern Fort to the contact point with the northern kingdom. The weather permitting of course. "

"Fuel? And what's the material needed to make it that is the bottleneck?"

"We will use high density magic crystals and coal for the fuel when travelling in the air. The frame is the most important portion and the biggest expenditure would be the high strength steel for the frame. Aluminum would be better but I doubt we can produce enough of it. "

There was a pause as they considered using aluminum as a structural material. The thought was ridiculous, but Cato had spoken of it being common.

"Very well, you'll have your airship. "

Preparations to recapture the Algami Plains advanced quickly, but even with all the backing of major countries and prior preparation, a force of thirty thousand did not move quickly. It had taken a month since the initial agreement was reached before the first parties entered the monster infested area to scout in force.

The first scouting cavalry group ventured much further than they initially expected to. Wild reki packs, the occasional tremor and even a lone nightcryer were spotted and driven off. But no zombies. They were a week away from Ranra's secure border and halfway across the Algami Plains and they still had not found a single zombie.

By the time they returned, the smaller and shorter ranging scouting forces had already reported in. All of them said the same thing. Wildlife, dangerous but living, was in abundance. Zombies were completely missing.

No one could believe it. Right as all of Ranra was ready to start the struggle, the monsters had run away!

King Ebernet, leading the attacking forces himself, ordered more and longer ranged scouting expeditions to bide more time when the main forces were prepared.

They had yet to return but wild theories were already beginning to spawn. From the monsters about to spring a trap or all of the zombies having suddenly returned to death, the uncertainty was eating away at the confidence of the army. With one of the greatest mobilizations since the Federation was formed, Ranra was strained with the sheer effort of providing for so many warriors and their rekis.

The country needed food imports due to the lack of farmers, the treasury was in debt from procuring weapons and materials, morale was high but dependent on the success of the recapture.

The prospect of having all that preparation be wasted was troubling.

Erin growled at the reports on her desk. The refurbished office in the city-turned-fort was hard and uncomfortable, but it was the centre of her administration. The Northern Fort's reports all came here.

These reports were all of the same thing. No zombies in sight. No attacks. All tracks were old and heading northeast.

This new development was worrying. The zombies were not attacking. One week ago, they were hovering around the Fort and routinely culled, the next the zombies had all wandered off. So where were they going?

A huge swarm was always something that everyone was worried about, those were the real threats not piecemeal groups. Zombie groups were known to merge on contact if near a superior human force, and recently had gained the intelligence to not blindly attack without chance of victory. This sort of long range coordination on top of all that was something out a planner's worst nightmare.

Surprise weaponry like the light beams and the bone worms were nasty, but humans always held the intelligence and coordination advantage to the zombies. Anything that eroded that threatened to make the monsters' superiority in numbers even more dangerous than it currently was.

Erin did not want to have to repeat her Fire Rain trick.

"I know they are around. There were groups further away which we knew about and haven't destroyed. They can't have gone far," Erin said to the messenger waiting for her orders, "we must keep track of the zombies. Ask the second flight of the elkas to find them. Follow the tracks northeast and report anything they find!"

The runner took her written orders and left with a Minmay salute.

Erin watched the man leave and let her head rest on her desk. Surprises like this was not doing her nerves any favours.

She resolved to demand a long time off when she got back to civilization.

Amarante held up the crystal decanter, seeing the medicine pooling inside. Such a deceptively simple thing, yet an invention that could save uncountable lives.

If only one could make enough of it. The idea of small living creatures making people sick was from the Morey's world, apparently also applicable to Inath. And when thinking of deadly creatures, big or small, the response was the same, kill them. The trick with the invading parasites was to not kill the patient also.

That simple line of thinking, the germ theory Cato had called it, had led to true hope for the Order of Pastora. Taking the opportunity, what ruler would not sponsor a grand academy for the healing arts.

The citizens might call her the healer queen now, but Amarante knew that disease was a scourge whose curing would improve all walks of life. Even that of the struggle against the monsters.

The worst diseases of war, the curse of heat and wound rot, both these killers were tamed with the same potion. Concentrated and modified with all the ingenuity and craft of the Pastora working with the industrialists of Minmay and the original Fuka inheritor of the curse-breaker. Finally, the output was so effective that it was quite poisonous if overdosed on.

The queen sighed with satisfaction as she looked back at the three proud men and women. They had cause to be proud for their achievement.

"Well done," she said, "the Pastora have observed a great improvement in the treatment outcomes. Concentrated curse breaker has led to halving of all deaths from the applicable diseases. Rise, your work has saved the lives of thousands and will save millions more into the future. Titles and a place in the Halls of Healing are yours. "

The alchemist, the healer and the industrialist gave the queen a deep bow and backed away to the applause of the nobles witnessing the court event. It was rare that any titling would be unanimously supported by the current nobility, but curse breaker was different. After all, everyone would need healing services at some point in their life. Hopefully the original Fuka inheritor was justly awarded by Ektal too.

As for the political hackles raised by any truly international effort?

Well, that was what her job as queen was all about. And Amarante was quite willing to exert herself for a cause like this.

Ini watched as the lift cells were filled with the magical foam. The tightly woven thorndown cloth served admirably to contain the mix. Which was about the only thing that worked as designed.

It turned out that laboratory tests didn't reveal all the problems when scaling up to actual production. Luckily, solving these problems was the purpose of the University and they were good at it.

The properties of the Water-Air foam made the construction far simpler than Cato's stories of hydrogen balloons. It had a tendency to stick to things, similar to how Elemental Water adhered to surfaces, including itself, forming sticky clumps of semi-corrosive fog. It was only slightly denser than hydrogen, perhaps as light as helium although the University didn't have enough helium to say for sure.

Which made it a great filler for balloons since containing Water-Air foam was far simpler than hydrogen and producing it was easier than helium. In theory anyway.

In practice, Water-Air mix had a number of unforeseen problems. She would have liked to just make a single big balloon but the foam had a tendency to separate back out into its components. Elemental Water wasn't too much of a problem despite its corrosive properties, but Elemental Air had a nasty tendency to explode once the pockets grew too big.

Still better than working with hydrogen though.

Ini peered closer at the new design of lift cell as it was being filled. The many glass windows set into the fabric showed the glistening rainbow of the mixture pooling at the top of the container, displacing the air downwards.

"We hope the smaller lift cells will allow active mixing to keep the foam from separating. Along with the purging ports for Air bubbles at the top and drains for the Water at the bottom, this should control the instability. "

Ini sighed at the summary from the engineer. "The additional weight on the lift cell will cut into our useful lift, and the need for active mixing means it will consume magic constantly. I was really hoping I could deliver more than I expected to. "

"The next one will be better. "

And wasn't that always the case? That was part of the expectations at the University. Once the concept was proven, big and better balloons would follow.

Tiki glanced back at the rest of the flight following his lead. The thermal they rode earlier had petered out and the weaker flyers were having trouble.

Yes, they were still there. Their formation was looking a little ragged but they were still able to benefit from his upwash.

He looked down at the land, noting the mountains to the east. The tracks they were following were too small to see individually, individual zombie bands rarely were. But a mass migration had slowly become obvious over the previous day's scouting.

Normally sending a full flight, almost all the Elkas remaining at the Northern Fort, would be quite overkill but Tiki was now glad they had followed him. No one wanted to have to fight zombie nightcryers without as much force as they could bring together.

After days of flight, the map had become clear. All the tracks were converging somewhere in the east.

And that was where Tiki was leading the Flight towards.

A true leader of the Elka had to be skilled on the wind and fearless, willing to chart unknown currents. Tiki was determined to prove he was suitable as the next chieftain. Even though he was going a bit further afield and towards danger, he still had supplies and would push on.

A convenient ridge below determined their next campsite, while the setting sun behind him and the increasingly haggard flight dictated they stop. The area was clear, with only a few scattered trees around an open plain of long grass. No threats visible. Tiki could almost hear the groans of relief as he dipped downwards.

Later that night, after pitching their small encampment at the top of the ridge, Tiki went around the flight, talking to each member individually. Most complained of his pace and their lack of power but Tiki knew that the flight had not nearly reached their limit today.

"Gather round," Tiki called once he was done. The other eight members of the flight sat in a circle in between their two tents, ready for their daily chat. It was a practice Tiki saw from the landbound squad commanders and he was trying it out the practice. He still wasn't sure it made any difference.

"We made it quite far today, judging from the age of the tracks, I believe we'll find the zombies tomorrow. From the tracks heading northeast, they might be undergoing some migration or large scale change. Tomorrow we'll be going slow and safely, keep your lift and don't exhaust yourself, we might need it to fight if there are any nightcryers. Any questions?"

"Why do we have to go this far? We must be out of the range we were told to map by now," Salu, a scout asked.

In fact, they were right at the edge of the furthest expected range, though they had extra food for a few day's flight, just in case. "We're close enough that the zombies will be found tomorrow," Tiki was glad to see the three hunters present nodding in agreement, he didn't read the tracks wrong then. "We just need to push our wings a bit further. "

That night, when they were relaxing or sleeping under the stars, Tiki perched under a tree at the perimeter of their camp. Another thing he learned from the landbound was to stay slightly apart from the others, to provide some measure of privacy for the group members to bring up their concerns to him.

Indeed, there were many, three of the hunters had each come to talk to him, though most of them just wanted reassurance that Tiki knew what he was doing. Salu was a scout in training however.

"Why are you going after the zombies so hard?" she asked, after joining him in the tree.

"The zombies are a danger, we need to know what they're doing in order to hunt them. "

His reply was mostly what he had been telling everyone. The Elkas were divided between those who wished to viewed that helping the landbound was necessary for the Clan and those who wanted nothing to do with them. But Salu was after something entirely different.

"Aren't you pushing yourself too hard? I think this risk isn't something you need to take," Salu said, "if any of us are injured, you won't be looked on kindly by the clan. Why risk your leadership over this?"

Tiki considered her for a moment.

"As a future leader, I must do what I feel is best for the clan. If it means that I'm risking my future as the potential next clan chief, that's something I'll have to weigh against what I might receive from taking this risk. " He said eventually. "In this case, knowing what the zombies will do is so important to the planning and our future security that I believe scouting their movements is worth the risk. "

"Worth the risk that one of us will be injured?" Salu asked, shuffling slightly closer.

Tiki glanced at her wings then politely looked away. He might have that she was inviting him, leaving her wings hanging loosely like that, but at the time he wasn't thinking much at all. He wasn't even twenty, being approached so forwardly was unfamiliar territory.

"I think that it is important that the landbound be informed. This scouting run could be one of the last actions against the zombies, the landbound think that the zombies are gathering from everywhere into a big army. If they can smash these zombies, nightcryers included, then the skies will be ours forever. I believe it is important enough for the Clan's future. "

Salu stepped into his personal space and shyly put her arms around his waist. Tiki was glad he memorized his main points, this was very distracting. What did the landbound call it? A hug? Elka really did not get so close if they weren't couples! It was improper!

He kept his hands from wandering towards her wings and just patted her head shyly. "Um. " His memorized points seemed very unhelpful right now.

"I hope you stay safe," she muttered, then just as suddenly broke away. Blushing heavily, Salu ran off back to the camp.

Feeling the heat on his face, Tiki sighed as the next person to approach, an older hunter, had a grin on her face that told him she just gained delicious gossip material.

Tiki soared over the land, squinting at the horizon. They had been seeing what might have been clumps of zombies that they had been tracking for days, but the distance and height was just too much to make out the dots clearly.

They flew for another hour, the dots on the horizon creeping closer and growing more numerous. Tiki could almost feel his feathers itch as the dots coalesed into a fuzzy black line.

"That's a lot of monsters," came a comment from behind him.

Tiki glanced over his shoulder, "Salu, get back in position, you're disturbing the upwash. "

She waved at him with a wing and drifted back out of hearing range.

Still, she was right, that was a lot of monsters. The individual dots that he could now see passing below them were small groups of zombies. There was no mistaking the behaviour of rekis and pakas running together, they were predator and prey after all.

Tiki looked around the area and gulped. That was really a lot of monsters.

They were only at the edge of the swarm, where individual groups could still be seen. In the distance, Tiki saw the land grow black with moving bodies, like a paka migration only thousands of times larger. The trees and grass all throughout the region were trampled under so many feet that they were reduced to mud.

How many monsters were there?! He scanned the groups below him, circling lower to get a better count. The groups ranged in size from ten to thirty, each of them a swarm of animal zombies surrounding a single human. Tiki looked more closely, yes, every group had at least one human body. He looked back up at the land teeming with zombies.

It wasn't a solid mass. Which was no comfort as he couldn't see the other end of the swarm. The sheer area of land was the size of the larger of the landbound cities. There might be millions of zombies.

Tiki was suddenly very glad he had pushed on with his scouting. The landbound needed warning.

"Watch out, incoming above!"

The shout from the back of the formation drew his attention to the sky. By Selna, he had forgotten to watch for nightcryers!

Nine black dots were diving down on his flight. Tiki scanned the sky, noting three other flights of nighcryers converging on him. But they were too far away, the immediate threat was the attacking group.

"Split into five-four formation!" Tiki yelled, waving his hand over his head. Their formation broke into two halves, the rear five wings climbing away from the attackers while Tiki led the front four into a steep climb to meet the diving nightcryers.

This new tactic relied heavily on the elka's maneuverability in the air compared to the nightcryers. Unlike the zombies on the ground, the nightcryers hadn't changed much apart from becoming an all-day threat instead of nocturnal only.

In contast, the elkas had gained much from the new training methods of lift power and the weapons of the landbound.

As the nine night cryers drew closer, opening their mouths to make their signature attacks, Tiki signaled to his half of the flight. With a practised hand, he unhooked one of the firebombs and dialed the fuse to... one second would do.

The full flight of nightcryers fired their blasts downwards right as the elkas folded their wings and jinked forwards on pure lift power before arresting their motion with their wings. The blasts sailed past harmlessly, the diving nightcryers zipping past at high speed, right into the four firebombs Tiki's group had left behind. The nightcryers were going so fast they couldn't avoid the fireball.

He clicked his tongue in irritation as only one nightcryer went down, though he could see smouldering on two of their wings. Their formation was broken however, with the nightcryers breaking off individually and in pairs. Tiki's group, now having the height advantage, winged over into an attack dive.

Right as the retreating group of five sliced into the far end of the confused mess of nightcryers. Their weapons spat magic, shredding wings and breaking backs. Then all neat formations dissovled into an aerial tangle of individual chases.

Tiki had no worries about that, in one on one duels, no one could beat an elka. They just had to keep the enemy numbers down first.

Less than two minutes after the attack, the nightcryers lay broken on the ground while Tiki led his flight away.

He just hoped that huge swarm was actually all the zombies.

Announcing a Great Challenge open to all

The College of Sciences has been presented with the complete Yuino-Raynest equations. These describe the behaviour of viscous fluids and gases under the conservation of momentum and mass.

The base form of these equations will allow the calculation of an ideal turbine blade shape for the maximization of desired qualities, for thrust or rotational energy, through mediums of air, water, steam and magic. The equations and problem statement can be obtained upon request from the College of Sciences, University of Minmay.

This is an open offer to all mathematicians in the Federation to submit optimizations of blade designs in full or in part. It is expected that an efficiency optimization of greater than 30% over the current state of the art is easily possible.

Valid submissions attract prizes of up to 1000 Rimes. Details and conditions available on request.

It is often argued in later history that the first Open Problem should have been the Yuino-Raynest equations themselves, even though that seminal work was inspired by a vague goal of the Navier-Stokes equations from the Heroes' home world. That the earliest Open Problems were instead offerings to solve engineering challenges surrounding far reaching theoretical work highlighted the dearth of advanced mathematical training in the Federation.

Individual geniuses that pioneered theoretical work could not fulfill the depth of trained theoreticians needed for optimizing engineering problems in producing commercial applications. The lack of good computational devices further limited progress in that period. Hence the early problems were sponsored by a mix of commercial interests and government subsidies, thus the problems themselves reflected the challenges of the day.

Of course, as the tradition of Open Problems continued and the institution set up to adjudicate prizes gained prestige, the challenges grew harder and the development of the Federation advanced. So the Open Problems shifted to important theoretical work in later years, as it should be.

- A History of the Mathematics of Inath