Updated: Feb 16
Chapter 1: The Hope of the Hopeless
Branek, the king of Nonov, stood atop the earthen wall of the fort that looked out over the Shesevian river where Magnai had fallen days before. There had been several attacks along the river by the enemy forces, but so far their fortifications have held up well. He had been forced to send out several search parties looking for his lost friend, but as of this point, no one had heard or seen any sign of the lost emperor. The next morning he had awakened to find Nessus gone and had yet to return.
To make the situation worse the reports from Atzmon had stopped coming in from Sewitt and Trocall who had been sent to look for signs of Magnai had yet to give any indications of success or failure, leaving him unsure of what could be approaching from the West and North. Within days, the momentum of the war had turned and now he found himself fighting for his life instead of pushing the enemy around like a scared sheep. Now his new reality stood on the other side of the river watching him from the thick woods. The strange foe kept trying to find a way to take the fort that now stood on the only safe crossing along the entire length of the river.
A sharp hiss in the misty morning air caused him to drop flat to the ground as an elven archer launched a heavy steel arrow at a silhouette on the earth wall that was visible against the early morning light, not knowing who or what they were shooting at. Crawling back out of the line of sight he checked with the other guards to make sure that they were okay as well, before turning to try and locate where the arrow had come from. A shadow disappeared back into the woods from the lip of a small cliff below them, giving away his position as he did so.
Signaling the archers huddled behind him, he pointed out the general area where the failed assassin had fled to. Within seconds twenty burning arrows flew into the air and ignited the already partially burned forest near the last known location of the enemy archer. As had happened hundreds of times before, no response came and they had no way of knowing if their attack had damaged anything at all.
After thanking the men on duty and finishing his rounds he moved back to his tent, to continue his morning ritual. Walking through the camp, he spoke with as many waking soldiers as possible as he moved to the kitchen fires for each of their units. Despite the stalemate outside their walls, the morale of his men hadn’t dropped much, but he knew that as soon as he announced Magnai’s disappearance he would have to rethink his plan to remain here. Many of the more impatient lords had already begun the chorus of retreat requests, but to this point, he had insisted on remaining to ensure that Atzmon had a safe path to return, but soon this chorus would rise and desertion would begin.
Reaching his small cabin in the center of the battlements, he quickly accepted his breakfast and moved back to sit at his writing table in the far corner. Taking a bite out of the hard biscuit, he turned his attention to the half-finished letter that he had been working on for the last few days. Letting out a sigh of frustration, he picked up his quill and reread what he had already written.
It is with a humble heart that I regret to inform you of the death of your husband. He did everything he could to return safely to you but was lost while covering the retreat. Those that survived the battle, tell tales of his immense valor and courage as he stood against things that this world has never seen before, save in our nightmares.
I also regret to inform you that up to this point, we have been unable to recover his body despite many efforts to locate him.
Shaking his head, he thought for a moment before putting the quill to paper to continue.
We have also lost contact with our expedition to Sewitt and we have begun to fear the worst. I deeply regret filling your heart with such sorrow, but now we await your instructions. I have pulled all of your forces back to the earth fort on the lone crossing of the four rivers and we are currently able to hold this position, but we will shortly need reinforcements and supplies or we will be forced to withdraw to the cliff wall.
I would recommend that we form an organized retreat back behind the wall where we will be able to reform and wait for assistance from the south, but since this is not my army in any sense, I await your orders and your command on who should take charge.
Your Beloved Servant
King of Nonov, Branek Mato
Servant of Sclizar
Another groan of exhaustion escaped his lips as he grabbed his seal and poured his warm light blue wax over the edge of the folded letter, stamping his seal down to give the letter provenance. Letting the wax dry, he moved over to his war chest and picked out a change of clothes. Finally, he moved over to the water basin that had been heating up and stripped off his shirt to try and clean himself up as much as possible.
Pulling the now dirty rag from his face, he was forced to abandon it back into the warm water as the blast of the warning horn came from somewhere near the crossing he had just left. Swearing under his breath, he yanked on a shirt and quickly threw on his weapons belt before charging back out into the camp, only pausing long enough to hand off his letter to a currier. It wasn’t hard to find out what the problem was as the sound of thousands of steel arrows filled the air, flying over the walls and into the training yard and surrounding buildings.
At the base of the stairs, he was handed his shield and helmet by his middle son that had arrived to serve as his squire. Strapping them on as he climbed the stairs two at a time until he was able to look out over the river valley below. He couldn’t help but grumble as he watched the gleaming golden armor of the dwarves and the shimmering crimson of the Zantians in the burned-out open area directly in front of the wide ford.
Glancing around the edge of the treeline, he spotted the black forms of the Dark Elf archers, raining arrows down on the defenders from the edge of their range. Moving with his shield held high, he moved through the groups of soldiers until he stood with Akehyia who had been left in charge of the morning watch. Growling down at the sight below them, he spoke softly so as to not worry his men.
“These commanders are heartless and ignorant. Instead of trying another plan, they just throw more men at us.”
Nodding in agreement, she kept her eyes on the field of men, clearly bothered by something. Quickly realizing that something was wrong he surveyed the arrayed army again, trying to find what was out of place. After a few seconds, he spun on his heels and pushed through the crowd of defenders, and moved towards the northwestern corner of the fort where the river slowed for a wide stretch that could be swum.
Looking out over the river, he let a string of curses fly before drawing his bow and letting an arrow fly into the mass of swimming Adlets that were about a third of the way across the river. Turning to yell to his men, he heard a chorus of bowstrings and felt the rush of a flight of arrows as they launched over his head. Without checking on the men behind him, he spun back to watch as the arrows ripped into their targets, dying the river red once again.
Sure that the men behind him could handle the Adlet forces, he moved back to check the length of the river to make sure that there wasn’t another surprise trying to sneak up on them from another direction. Sliding through the two ranks of archers, he first ran to find Akehyia, wanting a report on the main body of the enemy army. Coming to stand beside her, he found that nothing had changed on the far bank of the river, so he leaned in closer and spoke quietly, using a mock pleading tone so that only she could hear.
“Oh all-knowing one, what else have I missed?”
Clearly caught off guard by his sarcasm, she let out a little snort of a laugh before recovering her serious demeanor. After glancing around for less than a second, she pointed at the far bank about two hundred yards downriver. Cursing again, he looked at where she was pointing, not sure he wanted to know what was down there.
Still on the banks were hundreds of men clad in various colors of robes clustered in groups, or working on creating a veil of mist to cover their advance. Glancing back at his second in command, he let a wicked grin sneak across his face, knowing that she was thinking the same thing he was. Without a word, she gave him a wink and spun on her heels, and moved off towards the stables to ready the light cavalry.
After giving orders to the Sclizar royal guard to hold the wall Branek sent Vojtik to prepare his horse while he changed into the lighter cavalry armor. Within minutes Branek was in his saddle leading his men out to sneak attack the strangely dressed soldiers. Reaching the best place to ambush from, he signaled for a halt and began to organize the strike groups into a series of small wedges that would strike just below the landing site and then sweep upstream.
As the first of the boats ground to a stop on the shingle beach, Branek signaled the charge. In a burst of sound and fury, six hundred cavalrymen poured out of the trees, slamming into the unprepared mages as they climbed from the boats and tried to unload equipment. Within seconds, the first wave of mages were cut down or captured and the boats they had used to cross were cut loose and sent spinning down the wild river.
Before the enemy on the far bank even realized what had happened the Sclizar side of the river was clear of invaders once again. In order to make a statement to his enemy, he called forward some of the warriors from the Empty Eyes tribe and pointed at the fallen corpses of the Zanditans. Not wanting to watch what he just ordered, he turned his horse and disappeared back into the woods, leaving his men to their disturbing work.
Reaching his men, he found Akehyia sitting in front of the loose formation of horsemen. Seeing the look on his face, she rode close and spoke quietly.
“You ordered it didn’t you?”
Nodding, he answered her with the same tone she used.
“I hate everything about those heads mounted on spears, with their eyes and tongues replaced with those black moonstones. I know they say that it won’t hurt friendly people nearby, but it feels like it is hard to control. We have to take a cha…”
His thoughts were interrupted by some of the strangest sounds he had ever heard coming from the banks of the river. First, the sound of flames and explosions launched into the air, to be sucked into some kind of void, causing a sound that resembled the scream of a damned soul. As the attack from the far bank began to escalate, the screaming void continued, drawing many of the horsemen back out to the beach to see what the sound was.
Emerging from the trees Branek froze in stunned silence as he watched a storm of elemental magic pour over from the far side of the river, with ice darts and fireballs mixed with lightning bolts jumping between shards of metal and stone. As it reached the near bank, all of that power was being sucked into the eyes and open mouths of two dozen mounted heads, leaving behind small pea-sized pellets that plopped down onto the beach below. Behind the heads, six of the warriors from the Eyeless Ones stood in a rooted stance, their hands flicking as they launched the void debris back at the enemy.
Swinging down from his horse, he handed his reins to his son, then moved out towards the chief of the Eyeless Ones who stood behind his men, barking orders to them and stepping in to aid if attacks began to focus on one of the heads. As he drew close to the wall of heads, the moonstones on his weapons all began to glow sending out a bluish-green light from somewhere deep in the black stones. Without thinking about it, he reached out with his mind and his hands, opening a large void on the far bank of the river.
Silents fell violently on the river valley, causing the air to feel heavy as a single small stone thumped into the shingle on the far bank. Not wanting to think about what he had done, he turned back to face his men and signaled for them to take up the spears and bring them back to the walls of the fortress for extra protection. Without another word, Branek swung up onto his saddle and rode back to the fortress, leaving his men dumbfounded in his wake.