The mist thinned as they descended, until they rode out of the clouds and could survey the landscape ahead of them. A gentle slope ran down into a wooded valley in the distance. Wavy grass, coming up to the horse’s flanks in places, covered the ground in between. A couple of wild horses ran across the field on the opposite side of the valley.
“I think it’s a pretty safe bet to say we’re in Elmira,” Bob remarked.
“Yes, so it would seem,” Spires said. He pointed down the valley. “Often, Elmiran lords have streams running through their houses. The horses like having a bit of wilderness at hand. Let’s follow that stream and see if we can find someone who can give us a bit more information.”
Before long, an elf emerged from the dense undergrowth near the stream. His shaven head and long cloak announced him as one of Spires’ scouts.
“Well met!” the elf said. “You’re certainly heading in the right direction. Another hour or two should get you to a fairly large mansion. Judging from the smoke rising from its chimneys, I’d say that it’s occupied.”
“Thank you,” Spires replied.
Turning to Bob, he said “Let’s continue on ahead with a small delegation. Without knowing what’s going on, we don’t want to scare whoever is occupying that mansion.”
“I’ll have the army set up camp here,” Bob replied. “But I’d be happier if we also bring along an advanced company. Just in case. We won’t know who we’ll run into.”
The landscape got friendlier and flatter as they got closer to the mansion. The wild fields gave way to fenced and cultivated fields. The trees and undergrowth got thinner. Here and there trees had been felled along the riverbank.
And then the mansion appeared around a bend in the river. The structure was all arches and towers. Pale yellow sandstone bridges connected outlying buildings with the main house.
The river they had been following split and split again into a multitude of small streams, which wound their way around the different buildings. Several statues, mainly depicting horses in different positions, were located on small islands scattered around the garden.
Spires, accompanied by Bob, Anlar’Sel and a handful of other officers approached the mansion following the winding main road. They dismounted in the small courtyard in front of the main building and approached the front door.
There was slight movement to the curtains of the window on the floor above the front door. Someone was watching them approach.
They reached the steps leading up to the door. Spires made to ascend when the door burst open and a tall elf burst out.
“Cal’vyn?” he asked, incredulously.
Spires raised an eyebrow in surprise. “Aithlin. What are the odds. Well met”
“Well met indeed,” Aithlin said. “It’s been a long time since we served together on Ardreth’s ship. Fancy seeing you on my doorstep. They said you were dead, or rather, missing, presumed dead.” Aithlin continued in a torrent of words. “What on earth are you doing here?”
“I walked here. My army is camped up the valley.”
“But? There’s no road leading out of the valley. I hear there’s a story in there.”
“Yes, there is,” Spires said. “Do you have some place we can talk? We can probably use an update on what’s going on in The Ever Empire.”
“Yes, of course. Where are my manners? Come in, come in,” Aithlin said.
Before long, the party was sitting in a large reception room. High backed, cushioned chairs stood around a low burning fireplace. A painting of a stampeding herd of the famous Elmiran horses covered most of the ceiling.
“You know, it didn’t take long after you disappeared for the different factions in the conclave to try and claim pieces of your little empire,”Aithlin was saying as he led Spires into the reception room.
“What?” Spires replied. “They couldn’t do that. I can’t have been gone long enough to be declared dead. They wouldn’t dare.”
“Yours is a big price Cal’vyn. And with the war going on, they figured they could just claim you as a victim of war. Speed up the procedure and get ahead of the competing claims. It’s hard to say who started it. But it’s safe to say a lot of princes have had their eye on your colonies for a while. Pretty much the only reason you still have your lands was because the whole conclave was in disarray. Or rather, still is.”
“Disarray? You mean with the betrayal of the Coradrians?” Spires asked.
“That started it, yes. But then the conclave split between supporting either Thalyon or Aglador for Ever Emperor,”Aithlin said. “And now, no legitimate majority can be found to pass internal affairs bills. Though, if you ask me, the reason they haven’t passed any bills on your colonies is because with all the infighting, the princes have forgotten about you for the moment.”
“Supporting Thalyon?” Spires asked, surprised. “How can that be a discussion point? How long exactly have we been gone?”
“You disappeared well over half a year ago my dear Cal’vyn.”
“What? Tell me everything,” Spires said. “What’s been happening in The Ever Empire?”
“Well, it’s a long story. But this is the short version.”
With that Aithlin started giving an account of the civil war that had been raging across The Ever Empire. He tried to stick to the minimum of information. But even so, the tale lasted well into the evening.
Aithlin told of the Coradrian betrayal and of emperor Orhanon’s murder at Thalyon’s hand. He told how the Coradrians had secured Erimis. Aglaron in response had raced across the empire to Armis, ralying forces along the way and securing the support of the Empress. In Armis he had unleashed the ancient power of Targoth, the god of war. Through this, he had gained god-like powers for himself. This had helped him hold off the better equipped and better prepared Coradrians. But in turn it had also removed all self-restraint from him and his forces. He now ruled a dark court full of debauchery the likes of which hadn’t been seen since before the days of Nandarion, when the Demon Prison had been created and the elven passions had been brought in line with their analytical mind.
As a counter balance, the Coradrians had forsaken all emotions and now ruled over a cold and analytical kingdom. The empire was split down the middle, with only a few independent princes like Aithlin remaining.
“The only reason I think they are letting me be,” Aithlin concluded, “is that I have no strategic position, few resources and even fewer men under arms. I’m too much trouble for little gain.”
As Aithlin finished, silence fell on the group as each of them tried to process what they had just been told.
Bob looked up at Spires. “All right then. Where do we go from here?”
Spires considered for a moment. “Our first priority is the mission. We need to get to the Prison. The Ever Empire is more important the any power struggle. After that, we shall see.”
Spires paused for a moment. “Though I doubt I could support Orhanon’s murderer. But we’ll cross that bridge when we get there.”
“Mission? What’s your mission?” Aithlin asked curiously.
“I can’t go into too many details,” Spires answered. “It is a sensitive matter. I am sure you understand.”
Spires dropped a pause, letting his audience wait for a moment.
In a low voice, forcing Aithlin to lean forward to hear what Spires said, he continued. “In short, the Prison is failing. In past raids, the barbarians have managed to destabilise it enough to start a chain reaction. Slowly but surely, the Prison is unravelling and more and more magic is seeping back into the world. I believe this will trigger the Apocalypse.”
Silence descended on the reception room. Aithlin looked aghast. “But. That can’t be possible!” he cried out. The Prison has held since forever. It can’t just collapse!”
“The Prison is collapsing,” Bob said. “Listen to the winds singing. You can hear the magic. Once you know it’s there, there is no denying.”
“Bob is correct,” Spires added in. “We learned of this decades ago. And we have been looking since then for different ways to stabilise and restore the Prison. We think we have found a way. We have managed to recover one of the creation artefacts from Nandarion himself. With that, we should be able to stabilise the Prison.”
“It all just sounds impossible.” Aithlin had dropped his head in his hands. “But, somehow, it would explain much. And I can indeed hear the winds stronger than any time before. I wish I didn’t have to live through these times.”
After a moment, Aithlin nodded to himself. “Very well. I suppose we have no say over the times we’re born too. Is there anything I could help you with? If you don’t mind, I’ll stick to the safety of my hills. But other than that, I can see what I can do for you.”
“We need to get to Demon Isle,” Spires held Aithlin’s gaze. “For the ritual, we need to be at the heart of the Prison. If you have some way of getting there that would be a great help. Also, we need information on what lies between here and the Isle. Army movements, balance of power, that sort of thing.”
“I’ve got some trade relations in Alaris who might be able to help,” Aithlin said. “Though it’s possible they’ve been caught up in the wars one way or another. I’ll write a letter of recommendation you can take with you. They may help you, though I can’t make any promises.”
“As for information, I don’t have much. I stay in the valley as much as possible, lest someone remembers I’m here. But I’ll ask my Outriders what they know.”
Two days later what was left of the colonial army marched out of the foothills of the Barrier Mountains and onto the plains of Elmira.
The journey to Alaris was a risky one. The Elmiran plains had magic woven into their bedrock, making travelling them difficult for the unwary traveller. You could spend days magically going in circles without even noticing.
Even more dangerous was the fact that the road from Dragon pass to Alaris ran straight past their route. Any army occupying this part of Elmira was bound to patrol this region. There was every chance they would run into either Coradrian or Agladorian patrols. Judging by Aithlin’s accounts, Spires wasn’t sure which would be worse.
Still, Spires though, it was better than trying to travel the whole of the Bitter Coast to the next port large enough to have ships that could get them to Demon Isle. And perhaps at the end of the road Aithlin’s contacts would prove valuable.
The plains unfolded towards the horizon. The tall grass spread out as far as the eye could see. Only here and there did a tree break the monotony. There were no roads in this part of Elmira. The lords of the land went where they pleased and often just followed the roaming herds around.
The sea of green around them shifted and turned. Some places that looked far away were reached in mere minutes. At other times it could take hours to reach a nearby tree. Finally, after several days of marching, the endless plains started giving way to more cultivated regions, signalling their approach to Alaris.
Signs of the war that raged across The Ever Empire were everywhere. The farms they passed where burnt down or ransacked. No dwelling was inhabited and the fields went untended. Whole towns were abandoned.
By contrast, death was everywhere. They found numerous burned or unburied corpses. In several places a pack of wolves needed to be chased of before they could provide a decent funeral for the unfortunate Elves. It was difficult to tell who was to blame for the destruction. Some places showed clear signs of violence from one side or the other. But in other places all sides seemed to have participated equally.
After about a week of travelling they halted early one afternoon. The highest towers of Alaris showed on the horizon. They were about a day’s march away.
“Send out scouts,” Spires said to Bob. “I want to know what’s waiting for us and who is in charge of Alaris. We don’t want to run into any patrols before we know what we are dealing with.”
Before long, Outriders set out all different directions. The rest of the army started making camp, digging the fortification ditch and setting up a secure perimeter.
“I never thought I would have to do this in an inner kingdom,” Bob said as he looked out over the defensive measures being taken.
“No indeed.” Alar’Sel replied. “These are dark times, when the inner kingdoms resemble the human lands. So much we’ve striven for all come to naught and the world turned upside down. I’m not even sure who the enemy is anymore.”
“What’s this? A Nagarathy having doubts?” Bob asked. “I never thought I’d see the day.”
“It is no jest,” Sel replied defensively. “I can’t help but wonder if we can still consider us better than humans. You’ve seen the corpses. Tell me, can we still call ourselves noble and just if that is what we have lowered ourselves to?”
Before Bob got a chance to answer, a dusk cloud rose up over the horizon. Beneath it, growing closer with each heartbeat, an army rode with a multitude of banners. The magic of the plains delivered the army right in front of them in moments.
“Get Spires!” Bob shouted at Sel.
As Sel sprinted off, Bob strode out onto the low wall that now surrounded the camp. In front of him, a pair of mounted elves detached from the battleline that was setting up and rode up to the camp.
“Well met,” Bob said. He clasped his right arm against his chest in salute. “We’re heading to Alaris and would love to hear news from the lands. With whom do I have the honour of talking?”
“Who are you and what are you doing here?” the elf on the left said as the pair rode up to Bob. He wore a full suit of armour, ready for battle.
“I’m Bob, herald of Spires. Behind me, you find the first colonial army. And as I mentioned we’re on our way to Alaris.”
“Why are you here?” the elf on the left asked again. “Whom do you serve?”
“Me? I serve the Prince of Spires, and through him, the Ever Emperor.” Bob said proudly.
At this the elf on the right started laughing, a harsh, unpleasant sound. “You should be more precise these days,” he said in a mocking tone. “Which one? The imposter in Erinis or the one true ruler of the Ever Empire, the messenger of the gods, lord of Armis?”
Bob hesitated in answering.
“I told you so,” the elf on the right said to his companion. “They’re followers of Thalyon. He’s even now thinking of what lie to tell us to save his hide. They’re cowards and turncoats. All of them. I say we teach this one a lesson. My sword has been dry too long already.”
With that he started unsheathing the large sword at his waist.
The command came from behind Bob. Spires had arrived.
“By what right do you draw arms against an envoy in a parlay?”
“I am Malchath! I don’t need no right. I am the law,” the right elf replied. “Bow down to us or we will teach you the might of the Agladorian!”
“So you forgo the conventions of settlement?” Spires raised an eyebrow at the pair.
The two elves looked at each other, surprised by the calm reaction. “I’ve had enough of this,” the right elf said, drawing his sword again.
“I would not do that if I were you,” Spires said. “At this moment, a full battery of balista’s is aimed straight at you, as well as a pair of Narathi sharp shooters. By foregoing the conventions of settlement, they are now free to shoot you. And they will do so the moment your sword leaves your scabbard.”
With that, Spires turned around and strode back.
The pair of elves only now seemed to notice the army camped behind the fortification. As one, they turned their horses and fled back to their army.
“What? No negotiations?” Bob asked Spires as they reached the encampment.
“I don’t negotiate with envoys that have no qualms about killing unarmed envoys,” Spires answered. “Besides, it would not have made a difference as to the outcome. They were looking for a fight. There was no other possible outcome. Such is the way of Targoth.”
“Most of the defences are in place,” Spires continued. “We’ll refuse the western flank. You take the eastern cavalry contingent and swing round.”
Horns sounded. The Agladorian battleline surged forward. Without order soldiers sprinted across the open field. Each elf trying to outdo his neighbour and be the first to shed blood in the name of Targoth. They flowed closer in an unstoppable line. Five hundred yards. Four hundred. The fastest troops reached the three hundred yard line.
Then, the bows of the army of Spires sang, darkening the sky with arrows. They fell where the troops where thickest. Each warrior who went down tripped one or two soldiers behind him. Balista’s added to the mayhem, their huge missiles impaled several warriors with a single shot. Each arrow slowed the advance down. From the initial mad dash to a run. Then down to a fast march. And finally a brisk walk.
With less than a hundred yards separating the two armies, the colonial troops came into motion. On the western flank, Rangers locked their shields, forming an impenetrable wall, spears bristling out. On the far eastern flank, ranks of disciplined Sword dancers strode out to meet the onrushing horde head on. Next to them walked a unit of Armian Axemen. Grim determination shone from their eyes.
The lines crashed into each other. First on the eastern flank, but soon after, the whole line was in combat. Slowly, the eastern flank started pushing the Agladorian troops back. The battle fury of the Agladorians was no match for the cold, methodical skill of the Sword dancers.
Slowly, Spires’ battleline stretched and pivoted, forcing the Agladorian troops into a smaller space. Then, Bob and the eastern cavalry contingent crashed home. They had ridden out behind the army until they could charge into the eastern flank and rear of the Agladorian army. What was a slow grind forward turned into a rout.
The flanks of Spires’ army pushed forward, slowly encircling the Agladorian army. Finally, a small pocket of Agladorian elves remained, surrounded by Spires’s elves.
The colonial elves took a step back, weapons drawn and facing inward. Spires strode to the fore and addressed the Agladorian elves.
“Drop your weapons and surrender. You will not be harmed.”
One of the two messengers, Malchath, had survived the battle. He again acted as spokesperson. “Bow down to the might of Targoth! You don’t stand a chance.” With that he drew his sword, raising it high.
Spires lowered his head and waited for the charge that would come.
With a scream of rage Malchath and the elves around him charged forward. When they had taken two paces the bows of the colonial army sang. At this short range the elven bows knocked the warriors several paces back.
In moments, the battle of the Elmiran plains was over. Silence descended on the battle site.
Spires shook his head. “Fools,” he muttered. He walked over to where Bob had dismounted. “Bury the bodies with full military honours. They were great elves once. Let’s show them the respect they deserve as elves.”
“After that, we move out,” Spires continued.
“What? But? The troops are tired. We need a rest. A good night’s sleep.”
“We just wiped out a large patrol,” Spires said. “They will be missed. And I plan on being as far away from here as I can be when they are missed. We move at sunset.”
It was deep into the night when Spires’s army neared Alaris. The city was visible as a dark outline against the blanked of stars in the sky. A few lights were sprinkled in the blackness of the otherwise sleeping city.
“Bob, take the army down the coast,” Spires said. “Find a bay where you can be picked up and wait there.”
“Why?” Bob asked. “What will you do?”
“I’m heading into Alaris. I will take Anlar’Sel and a company of his scouts with me. It is easier for a handful of people to sneak in then for a whole army.”
“We will look for Aithlin’s contacts. See if we can arrange for transportation to Demon Isle. We will pick you up as we move down the coast. Give us two days to reach you. Otherwise, you will have to make your own way.”