Qwixalted/Sunrise of the River Kingdoms
The Sunrise Prince has just suffered a military defeat at the hands of an Outcaste Dragon-Blooded king, Johr Seftarian -- although unrivalled on the battlefield, Mithric was unable to match the Earth Aspect king's stratagems, and he has been forced to retreat to his inner keep.
The Seftarian rulers are old rivals and enemies of the kings of Aelysia. The Seftarians have generally had the ascendency in the local region, having a touch of the Dragons in their bloodline; as a result, approximately every generation or so, they produces a Dragon-Blooded, who then rises to the kingship (usually over the corpses of his or her more ambitious cousins).
The current Seftarian king, Johr, has ruled Seftaria for the last hundred years or so. He is an old man, by Dragon-Blooded standards, his Second Breath having come late in life, but he is still vital and active, cunning and intelligence, and he is all the more dangerous and ruthless for his experience. Under his rule, Seftaria has grown to swallow several minor neighboring kingdoms, and bully a number of others into vassalhood.
Aelysia was the strongest kingdom in the region to oppose him -- Mithric's predecessor established a strong alliance of other concerned kingdoms to hold Seftaria in check. This alliance survived Mithric's predessor's death, but was shattered when the young ruler took the Second Breath as a Sun-Chosen -- suddenly, Aelysia found itself alone as cultural wariness and Immaculate propaganda played their role in isolating the Anathema.
Johr is not a man who has risen to where he is by missing such opportunities.
Using Immaculate propaganda as a pre-text to form a casus belli, he declared war, framing the conflict as a "liberation" of the people of Aelysia from the oppression of the demonic Anathema. Assembling a mighty host of his personal army and his allies, he invaded.
Alone, the army of Aelysia was outnumbered by twenty to one. But still the Sunrise Prince might have triumphed, were it not for two factors.
First, let it be admitted, Johr Seftarian is a better general than the younger, less experienced Sunrise Prince is (at least, for now...): where a fool may have used his greater strength without subtlety, Johr has not wasted finesse, and has not merely outpowered Mithric, but outwitted and outflanked him.
Secondly, the Seftarian forces were reinforced by a number of Realm Dynasts. Although the Realm could not send any forces to help the Seftarians directly -- at least, not without risking war with Lookshy -- a number of "volunteers" have bolstered the Seftarian ranks, providing not only greater quantity, but also a qualitative edge that no army in the Hundred Kingdoms yet possesses.
Thus, the Sunrise Prince was overwhelmed: his army defended a bridge over one of the great tributaries that eventually lead into the Yellow River, the main gateway into his kingdom. The fighting was tough and bloody, the Sunrise Prince accounting for himself a hundredfold, but eventually he was exhausted and his army smashed, brushed aside, routed. The Sunrise Prince has been forced to retreat to his citadel as the Seftarian forces sweep into his lands, already proclaiming victory as they begin to build the siege engines that will overwhelm the citadel's walls.
The times are desperate. Defeat would spell the destruction of Aelysia and death for the Sunrise Prince, but fleeing is unthinkable.
The one, ironic, source of solace is the news that matters could have been worse: Lookshy's stance towards the conflict remains neutral, hostile to the Realm's involvement with the Seftarians. As such, their soldiers have remained at home and their warmachines in storage. Had the Seftarians been given access to those, they would have made short work of the citadel walls indeed...
(Part A): Enemy at the Gates
The defeated troops filed through the drawbridge, bloodied, heads bowed in shame: the last of the outriders, light horsemen, hooves clopping unevenly across the wooden drawbridge. Maybe a dozen horsemen left out of a proud colmun of a hundred.
Standing in his citadel's tallest observation tower, Mithric surveyed his foe's troops, determined gaze staring into the distance as he watched the Seftarian army start to establish siegeworks in heavy artillery range. The cries of foremen leading sappers and engineers mixed with the hammering of mallets on wood and other sounds of an industry aimed at one sole purpose: to overthrow the walls that defended the last of free Aelysia.
He contemplated the reverse he had just suffered gloomily. He barely had enough of an army to hold his walls now, and he faced a horde the size of which hadn't been seen in the River Kingdoms since the last war against the Realm. His citadel had been well-built, in an oxbow that made the rushing river a natural moat on three sides of the castle; a canal had been dug in front of the fourth side, and the wall was thickest here. When the time came to storm the walls, if that time came, the main attack would surely fall here...
Turning to his council, the young Solar knew they needed options. They needed time. They needed troops. They needed supplies. They would need luck. They would need everything...
"Well, my friends..." said Mithric, opening the discussion. "What now?"
Posted by Chronicler
The Sunrise Prince sighed in near-resignation as he surveyed the vast Seftarian forces arrayed against him. The sheer number of troops preparing to lay siege against his last stronghold was a disheartening sight to behold. But he steadfastly held onto his courage. The Unconquered Sun had seen fit to grant him the gift of Exaltation, and he was ready to defend his kingdom with every ounce of power that he now had. I will make Johr pay dearly for every inch of ground that he dares to take, he vowed grimly.
The resolute Aelysian prince straightened up from where he had been leaning against the rough-hewn granite of a reinforced battlement. Resting a gloved hand atop the jeweled pommel of his orichalcum warblade, he turned to meet the hard-eyed stares of his advisors. "Our enemies are beginning to assemble their siege engines. Once their construction is complete, it will only be a matter of time before our walls fall to their onslaught." He glanced up at the sky's waning light. "I'm guessing that we will have at least one last night of respite before they strike. Make your peace and prepare yourselves. Come morning I shall lead our remaining soldiers in one final direct assault."
The fierce intensity of his determination was matched only by the incandescent brilliance of the sun-burst symbol on his forehead. "It is only fitting that I, the Sunrise Prince, make my defiant stand at dawn's first light," he announced fervently.
Posted by Aprogressivist
The Chatelain, Umber Resot, keeper of the Citadel, overcame the fear and pain in his heart at his liege's words; the Dawn Solar's leadership uplifting even in the face of certain death. He clapped his hand on his chest, gauntlet clanging against the breastplate. "I will gladly follow you, my liege, as will the remaining soldiers and guards. We will give them something to write about in the scrolls of history!"
He sighed gently; an old man, his beard flecked with grey, he suffered from a limp in his right leg, from a battle wound earned during previous skirmishes with the Seftarians. He had earned his title through decades of loyal servitude to the Prince's predecessors; and where a Chatelain may normally look forward to enjoying quiet years of peace and gentle semi-retirement away from the front lines, Resot instead faced death, the failure of his charge and the overthrow of his liege. No quiet years for he. "I only wish I were thirty years younger, my Lord, that my sword-arm would not tire quickly."
Posted by Tywyll
Swordsinger watched the advisers to sense their reaction. He had pledged his sword and skills to the man called Sunrise Prince, both because it was right and because of the revenge it might bring him. Many soldiers lay dead from his hand, but none were those who he'd personally sworn vengeance upon. Inside he seethed at the injustice that they lived and laughed outside these walls, secure in the knowledge of their victory.
The army outside waited, a bloated and hungry thing. The Sunrise Prince spoke truthfully; short of a reprieve from the Unconquered Sun himself, this castle would fall on the morrow.
But sometimes, you make your own miracles.
"Sunrise Prince," he said with a nod, his voice quiet, "I would speak with you about a tactic for the battle to come." He eyed the advisers wearily. "In private, if you please?"
Posted by Chronicler
Prince Mithric smiled and laid a reassuring hand on the Chatelain's armored shoulder. "Have faith, loyal Umber. The Unconquered Sun is with us. Now gather the others and have them convene in the dining hall in an hour's time." Raising his voice for all to hear, he declared, "Tonight we shall feast!" In a lower-pitched tone intended for Umber's ears only, he added, "Double the guards along the walls. I would not put it past Johr to attempt some foul treachery under the cover of darkness." With that said, he dismissed the old man with a curt nod.
As his war council solemnly filed down the stairs, Mithric gestured to Swordsinger to follow him as he too descended below. With sure steps long familiar with the citadel's layout, he quickly led his fellow exalt to a private study. It was a spartan window-less chamber containing a desk, two chairs, and a bookcase, all crafted from imported high-quality Marukan mahogany. The workmanship was simple but sturdy, the epitome of practicality.
The blue-eyed prince waved to Swordsinger to take a seat while he shut the room's iron-bound door behind them. Moving to the map-covered desk, he absently tidied up the scrawled parchments into a neat pile before occupying a chair himself. He studied his ally momentarily, silently grateful that the Twilight was on his side. Clearing his throat, he prodded, "So, what is it that you wish to speak to me about? We will not be disturbed here."
Posted by Tywyll
Swordsinger watched the door shut with a feeling of finality. This would not be an easy sell, he knew. It was dangerous both for himself, and for this adopted land he had now found.
Taking a seat, Swordsinger laid his hand upon the table. It's simplicity and craft reminded him of another, in the study of another figure he had regarded with affection and respect. That table was gone now; burned by zealots and fools. Swordsinger fought down the anger inside him. It would only distract him from what he had to do now.
"Prince Mithric, I will not belabor the point or dawdle on uselessly, but instead strike to the heart of the matter." His green eyes met the prince's blue ones, holding their gaze with a fervent intensity. "We both know that the castle and, with it, your dream will fall tomorrow. Might of arms will accomplish a valiant and glorious end for us both, but in the end, Johr will succeed. He cannot help but do so at this point."
Swordsinger watched the prince, looking for any sign of disagreement.
"As you know, I am not simply a warrior, but am also trained in the art of Sorcery. I have held back from using my powers too much, as I know it terrifies those untrained and unfamiliar with the powers I can wield. I would not have your army turn against you out of fear and ignorance of myself."
He sighed. It was obvious that this was a familiar burden.
"But the time for subtlety is at an end. I can use my powers to aid you. I can call down terrible vengeance upon the army outside. I will not mince words; I can boil the blood of the common soldiers, or send a deadly plague among them. When I am finished, Johr's army will be gravely diminished by my efforts and the others may well break when they see the ruin I have called down upon family and kin. The most effective weapon I possess is to call up the forces of Hell itself and send them amongst our enemies. They may destroy the army before we lose another man."
"This is, of course, not without danger. If I unleash this power upon them, those that survive, and even those of your own men, will
call you an Anathema lover claim that you consort with demons, that you are truly Anathema. We may survive now, only to draw greater enemies to us tomorrow. It is your name and glory at stake Prince Mithric; I care little for what they say of me. The choice is yours to make."
He watch the prince, looking for his reaction.
Posted by Chronicler
The Sunrise Prince sat back and steepled his fingers while he considered the grave implications of Swordsinger's dangerous proposal. While he wasn't thoroughly familiar with arcane matters, what the Twilight claimed he was capable of doing, could possibly save what was left of Aelysia. And although the risk involved was great, it was an option that he felt he had to explore. There was just no other choice. Because it was either that, or go down fighting.
The young Solar slowly stood to pace back and forth while he deliberated for a few moments longer. Finally he turned to face Swordsinger with a heavy heart. "Make whatever preparations you need to make. And whatever personel and resources that I have left will be made available to you. Your power may be what saves us all." Even if his own subjects ended up reviling him for condoning the use of sorcery, at least they would survive past tomorrow's conflict. And that was all that really mattered right now.
We do what we must, he thought grimly.
Posted by Tywyll
Swordsinger rose from the chair then bowed to the prince. "I will do as you command. When the battle commences tomorrow, our enemies will be on an entirely different footing. We may be able to take the fight to them. I will observe the current situation, and decide which spell would serve us best."
With that, he withdrew from the chamber to return to the castle wall and have another look at the enemy. He must know what kind of resistance he would likely face and who would try and stop him before his spell was finished. It would be a delicate procedure, to say the least.
(Part B): Riders on the Hill
Word had reached the riders of the Aelysian army's defeat earlier that morning, after they had come ashore from the ferry across the Yellow River. They could only hope it wasn't too late and that the Sunrise Prince hadn't yet been slain: contradicting rumours flew like a disturbed hornet's nest on the subject, flying in the wake of gossip and hearsay, all the more enflamed by frightened refugees.
But the wise heads amongst them had decided that only one course of action was reasonably open: to ride to the Sunrise Prince's citadel and see for themselves. If Mithric was dead, well, at least they would know so for themselves. If he lived, he would have retreated there to be besieged; he would be all the more in dire need of their aid.
Thus they crested the summit of a hill that oversaw the Sunrise Prince's Citadel, and saw for themselves the massive army stretched out across the plain, crawling like colourful ants across the once-green and fertile plain, facing off the citadel's walls. It seemed they were perhaps too late. Then again, perhaps not... surely the citadel would have surrendered had Mithric been slain. He must still be alive...
Posted by Daiklave
Swinging down from his mount, Copper Jaguar gazed upon at the assembled forces of Lord Johr Seftarian.
Momentarily, the Zenith’s view was superseded by a fleeting recollection of another war, a war against the architects of Creation themselves. Furtive, staccato images played themselves across his field of vision – legions of loyal Terrestrial Exalted clad in jade arrayed in battle formation against the coming onslaught by the warriors of the Primordials and their daevas. His memory-self glanced at his truest companion, Arundel, whose moonsilver armor flowed and reshaped itself with mercurial grace as he adopted his war form. A feral grin stretched across the Lunar’s lupine face…
Copper Jaguar shook himself free of these memories, mindful of how they contrasted sharply with the present situation. This was no grand conflict. There was no noble cause for which these assembled men would shed their blood. They would fight and die for a lie, deceived by the Immaculate Faith and by an old man fearing the loss of his power.
The Seftarian king had united many in the Hundred Kingdoms under his banner, many lords who feared above all other things the might of the Anathema. For the Lord Mithric had proved himself to be one of the Forsaken, and many had heard tales of the devastation wrought by the Bull of the North.
For months, Copper Jaguar had travelled South in search of those whom he had once called brothers. Perhaps he had finally found one…
A furtive movement caught his attention, a subtle swaying of branch and limb which Copper Jaguar knew to be unnatural. Arclight blazed red and gold in the dying light as he unsheathed its ancient orichalcum blade. His caste mark glimmered as the Exalt ascended into the canopy with a balance and sureness of foot that well bespoke of an lifetime spent among the forests of Ardeleth.
‘A scout, perhaps? Or a sentry?’ he wondered to himself.
Experience told him otherwise. This person wanted to be found.
Posted by Mercurial
Copper Jaguar landed lightly on a branch just below the arboreal watcher. The young man who gazed down at him was indeed neither sentry nor scout. His clothing was too haphazard--patchwork black leathers and a long, violet scarf--his armament too unorthodox. Even in the dying light, a quick glance of the exalt's keen eyes revealed more knives than he could count secreted on the young man's person.
For a moment, neither man spoke. The younger one's eyes moved from the blade gripped in Copper Jaguar's hand to the faint castemark on the zenith's forehead and back again, and then slowly, he smiled and nodded. It was almost as though he'd expected this chance meeting.
"You're looking for the Sunrise Prince," he said quietly. It wasn't a question. "I am too. My name is Little Ghost Wing."
Posted by Daiklave, Revised by Mercurial
Copper Jaguar’s eyes narrowed as he gazed upon Little Ghost Wing – a stranger, yet despite the situation, he found himself inexplicably warming to the younger man’s presence. His eclectic style of dress notwithstanding, the cut of his clothing and accent identified him as a native of Nexus.
“You are far from home, Nexian,” Copper Jaguar rumbled. “And while I doubt not that we meet here regarding a mutual interest, I fear we may not share a common purpose.” A grim smile touched his lips as he continued. “This would…disturb me. Declare yourself – Do you stand with Mithric or Johr in the coming strife?”
A lesser man would have quailed under the Ardelethian’s stern gaze and the veiled threat that lay beneath it.
But Little Ghost Wing had been raised to adulthood in the mean streets of Nexus and feared no man, neither lord nor villain. But Little Ghost Wing, raised to adulthood in the harsh underworld of Nexus, was all too used to threats. His smile twisted into a smirk as he replied to the Zenith’s query.
“Rest assured, my sympathies lay towards the Lord Mithric. Were it not so, there would be little need for the army arrayed below. Mithric would simply be discovered in his bed one morning with his throat slit.” His smile faded as he continued, his eyes gone cold and hard as paired moonsilver knives appeared in his hands as if by magic. “But worry not, we share common cause – the succor of the good Lord Mithric.” Upon the Nexian’s brow appeared the glyph of the Night Caste, glowing softly with a white and purple radiance. “For as you can see, we three are brothers.”
"Rest assured, my friend, my sympathies lie with Lord Mithric. If they didn't, I wouldn't be here talking to you. Nor would Seftarian's army still be arrayed below, preparing to continue their siege. And the Sunrise Prince..." Copper Jaguar never saw the young man draw the curved, moonsilver knife that he now held up between them. Ghost Wing's smile remained, but his eyes had turned cold and hard. He knew a thing or two about threats himself. "Well, let's just say the Sunrise Prince wouldn't be here anymore either."
"But worry not," he said brightly and sheathed his knife, "we share a common cause. And more than that, I think." With that, the mark of the Night caste glimmered to life on Ghost Wing's brow, glowing softly with a white and purple radiance.
Copper Jaguar’s smile broadened into one of genuine pleasure as he clasped the younger man’s forearm in friendship. The Nexian had impressed him with his courage, for fear was the mark of prey, not the predator. “Welcome, brother, and well met!” The Zenith threw back his head as laughter shook his frame. “I am Copper Jaguar, former brigand of Ardeleth and chosen priest of the Unconquered Sun. It was he who bade me travel south to these Hundred Kingdoms in search of my brethren - blessed be his name!”
“Indeed... brother,” replied Little Ghost Wing, his smile
returning widening in light of the Ardelethian’s obvious pleasure. “Now, we only need find a way to deal with this army which complicates our visit with the Lord Mithric.” He turned to face Copper Jaguar. “Would you like the thousand on the left or the thousand on the right?”
"To be honest, neither. These fools are being lead by the nose by the Lord Seftarian, who plays upon their fears as a bard would upon a lyre." Copper Jaguar shook his head in regret. "Yet I see little hope for peaceful resolution. A blackheart like Johr would never consent to parlay, nor even to honorable combat between champions. Were Mithric to surrender himself, Johr would yet find cause to raze Aelysia to the ground and put its people to the sword, or worse." A shadow passed over his visage as the Zenith recalled the destruction of Ardeleth, its people enslaved by the Guild and victimized by the Fair Folk in the aftermath.
The former brigand gazed down upon the armies spread out upon the plain below. "Whatever faults Johr possesses, stupidity is not one of them. Mithric's keep is surrounded. While the prince's position is defensible, it is not a conflict which he can sustain, judging by the losses he has suffered thus far. Then, there are the warriors of the Realm. I have counted four thus far, minus Johr himself." He gestured to each in turn, their forms clad in jade.
"One," Copper Jaguar stated, pointing to the earthen ramparts which had been erected, "is a sorcerer. It was she who raised these fortifications. Without sorcery of our own, I fear that open battle can end only one way. But," he continued, gesturing towards a troop of soldiers with axes heading towards the woods line, "there are alternatives to open battle." He grinned. "Alternatives which I am more than familiar with..."
Posted by Daiklave
The earth shook as trees fell amid the snapping of limbs. Men shed their armor with the heat of hard labor as they removed branches with practiced swings of their axes, throwing them into the large bonfire at the center of the clearing. Others with mauls and wedges set to work splitting the logs into planks for use in the construction of scaling ladders for use in tomorrow's assault. Laughter was heard among those sitting off to the side sharing a simple meal of bread and cheese, a small flask of spirits handed surreptitiously from one to the next. Only those standing sentry abstained – hard eyed men who knew that the time for celebration was only after the fall of Mithric’s Keep. These men kept roughly circled the perimeter, just outside the firelight which threatened to compromise their night-adapted eyes.
It was one of these who first noticed the man who strode forth from the darkening forest – a powerfully built man who walked with the confidence of one born to rule. As he strode into the firelight, many noticed the elaborate golden blade which he bore in his hand, a blade which matched the brand of the Anathema blazing bright upon his brow.
The Zenith’s deep voice rang out across the clearing. “I am Copper Jaguar, son of fallen Ardeleth and Chosen of the Unconquered Sun. Many decry both myself and my kind as demons, among them the Lord Johr. Were this so, your bodies would lie before me now, so defiled that your souls would never know peace.” He passed a stern gaze around at those within the firelight. “But let me assure you – should you attack me, I shall be your end. Deliver this message to your Lord - tell him to abandon this war. For otherwise, I swear to you, death comes with the rising of the sun!”
Posted by Aprogressivist
The soldiers and wood detail drew their weapons; closing ranks to face off with the Zenith. One, presumably their officer, a woman with short brown hair and pale blue eyes, barely into adulthood, stepped forward. Her good mail, sword and the thickness of her blue cloak suggested a minor noble's daughter, perhaps a young woman seeking to make her mark and fortune in this war.
"Anathema, this land is claimed by King Seftarian by Right of Warfare! You trespass on the King's domain! Begone, or... or we shall remove you!" The young officer's voice betrayed a slight quaver of fear. It was one thing for man to march against man; quite another to face a demon. The soldiers
felt their leader's fear but they were also resolute shared their leader's unease, yet found strength in her determination. The Immaculate doctrine taught them that the Anathema were contrary to all that was good and proper. This knowledge bred fear and terror, but could also steel their resolve in the face of the inevitable. As misguided as their bravery was, it was nonetheless admirable. The soldiers gripped their weapons, held in check by their officer as they awaited the Anathema's reaction...
Posted by Daiklave
Copper Jaguar continued his steady march forward, his stride unbroken, his head unbowed. His gaze fell upon the young officer. “I urge you to reconsider your choice. You death will serve no grand purpose. Noble or common, your blood will be trammeled into the earth and forgotten.”
The officer replied shakily, her gaze meeting the Zenith’s furtively. “I have my duty t-to the Lord Johr. Stand down and surrender, on the authority of King Seftarian!” Her hand dropped to the hilt of her sword, before falling away weakly as the young warrior staggered forward into the arms of her guards, a blade protruding from her back.
“Lady Arcadia!” Two soldiers moved to support their stricken commander, while a third drew his blade to defend his captain from the unseen threat. In this defensive posture, they retreated behind the wall of guardsmen now advancing on Copper Jaguar.
Shrouded by darkness and Essence, Little Ghost Wing had crept along outside the nimbus of the firelight, unseen and unheard by soldiers focused on the spectacle being provided by the Ardelethian. Yet, when the time came for him to make his throw, the young Nexian thief could not bring himself to slay such a lovely young woman, seemingly so full of promise. Rather, he altered his aim to incapacitate, and his aim was true. The young officer, though gravely wounded, would yet possibly survive this encounter. Not so the guardsmen charging towards his Solar brother.
A storm of blades rained down on the Seftarian warriors, their preternaturally sharp blades flickering in the firelight as they pierced mail, bone, and flesh. Amid the confusion, several of the remaining score of soldiers, noting the direction from which the blades had originated, turned to face this new threat, momentarily forgetting the one already before them.
Copper Jaguar surged forward with a feline grace, Arclight leaving contrails of Essence as it struck with celerity impossible to follow with mortal eyes. A coruscant aura shone around him, manifesting in the form of a great cat slashing and tearing with claws of solar flame. Within the span of an instant, half a score of men lay dead at his feet. He turned to the few that remained.
“Now go, and tell the Seftarian King of the fate of those who oppose the return of the Solar Exalted, of those who dare draw blade against them!” The survivors, their visages displaying combinations of fear, pain, and awe, did as he commanded them. Each bore an injury and a story to be told. All part of the plan…
Little Ghost Wing stepped forward from the shadows and into the light provided by the flaring of the Zenith’s white-gold anima. “They’ll be coming soon,” the Night Caste reminded him.
“Yes, they will,” responded the Ardelethian, striking out for the hilltop where his horse was tethered, the fallen Seftarian warriors burning to ash behind him. “My anima will draw the attention of both the Seftarians and the Aelysians. Johr will pull back into a more defensible posture out of fear of further attack, while Mithric will draw courage from the fact that another of his kind has come to his aid. Perhaps he will be able to take some sort of advantage from the disruption we have caused.”
Copper Jaguar swung up into his saddle, and then reached down to pull the Nexian up behind him. “Now, if I am correct, Johr will be very particular of whom he sends in pursuit. Infantry will not be able to overcome a horseman with a lead start. Cavalry will be slow going due to the darkness, a problem we do not share!”
He smiled a mirthless grin. “I would wager that it will be the Dynasts that pursue us. Only they would be able to effectively do so in these conditions. Yet Johr will not countenance the complete absence of his Terrestrial allies, in fear of an outright attack on the camp. In particular, he would be loathe to allow the sorceress to do so, for she has already expended much Essence this day and her magics will surely be desired in tomorrow’s assault on Mithric’s Keep.”
‘It is a good plan,’ the Zenith said to himself, spurring his horse forward into the night.
Posted by Daiklave
“Set me…down…” the Lady Arcadia commanded in a weak voice. She felt lightheaded, the pain receding. Her legs were dead weight. The young officer feared what this signified, yet made the decision before her easier to bear.
Arcadia’s lieutenant, a grim and loyal man named Bors, complied with her order, gently easing her to the ground. Without turning, he barked, “Remove your cloaks and fashion a litter for the Lady. Hurry, you dogs!” His hard eyes softened. “Rest easy, my lady. This will take but a moment.” The remnants of her guard moved to flank the pair as axmen set about their appointed task.
“Bors, take…the men and…go” Arcadia husked, her breathing growing more labored.
“No, my lady!” the warrior replied. “We…”
Arcadia cut off his protest with a stern glance, eyes smoldering with determination. “Johr and my father…must…be warned… We move too slowly! The…use of my legs…is lost to me and I…would likely not survive the…leech craft of our surgeons. Go!”
Bors saw the wisdom of the noblewoman’s words. “I shall leave one of my men to attend you, for your comfort.” His tone brooked no argument. “It has been an honor to serve you.” The warrior’s hand struck his chest sharply in salute. Then, without further word or gesture he gathered his men and vanished into the night.
“Drink, my lady,” said the remaining guardsman. The cool water cleared the fog from Arcadia’s head. She found herself thinking of her mother, a native Sijian. ‘My funeral will be grand,’ she thought to herself, remembering the pomp of her grandfather’s interment, the elaborate rites designed by the Sijanese morticians to speed his soul on to its next incarnation, as accorded by the Immaculate faith. ‘Perhaps,’ she thought to herself as her vision faded, ‘the Dragons will see fit to anoint me one of their Chosen in the next life…’ Her eyes closed as consciousness faded.
Darkness. Stygian and timeless. Arcadia felt no sensation, yet instinctively knew that she still numbered among the living. Out of the darkness came a voice, a deep, cultured baritone that echoed as if from deep within the earth…or from within a tomb.
“Chosen by the Dragons? What an unworthy thought, coming from one such as yourself,” the voice reprimanded. “You are strong, beautiful, in the flower of youth. Your father is a powerful lord, and you his sole heir. Do you so freely surrender these gifts which Fate has delivered unto you, and then callously reclaimed in so untimely a manner?” The voice took on a tone of hard amusement, of scorn. “And for what do you do this? The dogma of the Immaculate Order?” The unseen speaker grew shrill, manic. “What if I were to tell you that the Immaculate faith is naught but fallacy and sham, a tool of control created by murderers and usurpers?” Better still, why not simply show you the treachery of which I speak?!!”
Images of the First Age moved across her mind’s eye in disjointed images, with its crystal towers reaching to the heavens. Then came a vision of the Usurpation – the mighty Solar Exalted struck down, falling against impossible odds while their Lunar mates were harried into the Wyld and their golden children slaughtered in their beds. Images of a world devastated by war, dimmed from a glory that had threatened to make her weep from its splendor. And over the ruins, she witnessed the Dragon-Blooded claim primacy, reshaping the fractured world and obfuscating the true history of Creation with lies and superstition that cemented the Dragon-Blooded hegemony.
The visions faded and the darkness returned. Arcadia wondered how much time had passed? An instant? An eternity? The unknown speaker resumed, his deep voice tinged with regret. “Were it simply a matter of allowing the Solar Exalted to resume their stewardship of Creation, as mandated by the gods! But no, this pattern of betrayal has roots going back to the dawn of time, a pattern doomed to endless cycles of suffering and pain. Your mother’s people, the Sijanese, understand this to a degree, do they not? That the dead desire to truly rest? Yet even they have not learned that the only path to true peace lies beyond death, within the nihility of Oblivion.”
At the sound of the word, Arcadia’s very soul chilled. “For only through nonexistence can this cycle of agony be stilled. Oblivion is the end of all conflict, all strife. The fundamental truth is that existence is not a gift. It is a curse.”
The speaker’s tone became lower, seductive. “Fate has cast you aside, and Heaven has forsaken you! What I offer is discipleship to the Neverborn, the lords of the world who lie dead yet dreaming. And I offer you power. Power to enact their will upon the face of Creation. Pledge your name to the service of the Neverborn, and ensure that all of Creation knows the blessed silence of Death Eternal. I, the Walker in Darkness, swear this to you! Choose quickly, for your end draws near. Listen…listen…”
Arcadia became aware of the sound of her own heartbeat. It reverberated through her consciousness. Slowing, ever slowing…and the decision still lay before her…
The remaining guardsman, Aedric, had been a soldier for nearly a decade. Just short of thirty years, he had seen his share of death both on and off of the battlefield. He watched as the Lady Arcadia’s breaths grew shorter and shallower. He held her hand as the gasp of her final breath passed her lips. Out of respect he folded her hands across the breastplate of her armor, then prepared to shroud her body with his cloak. Looking once more upon her pallid beauty, he murmured to himself, “Such a waste.”
“No, Aedric,” the young woman replied, her anima flaring stygian as her caste mark bled upon her brow in the form of two concentric circles. Her eyes opened, and she smiled. “Not a waste at all.”
The warrior backed away in horror as the woman he had known as Arcadia, lady of Nathir and heir of Lord Gareth, arose from her deathbed. She glided forward with light steps as he stood transfixed by the unholy sight before him. Eyes of deepest onyx met his as she gently placed the palm of her hand upon is armored chest. “For your loyalty, let me show you what death has taught me…”
A lone scream rang across the plains, obscured by the furor of Bor’s arrival at the tent of the Seftarian King.