Empire at War

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Chapter Two: Era of Heroes - Break in the North

Mid 355, while the stalemate between Abila and Naxos seemed to have no end in sight, the lord of Olynthus, Paramonos Aquila, set his eyes on the fiefdom of Dorylaion. His casus belli was that during the Anti-Hesper Alliance, Count Phytos Ancaris of Dorylaion not only did not join their forces to punish the traitor, but also sat idly by while reinforcements from Naxos passed through their territories and attacked the alliance at Edessa. In reality, Phytos had only recently ascended to the seat of count and was exceedingly incompetent. For the same reason that Hypatios had crossed through Dorylaion without fearing any retribution, Paramonos attacked with only a fraction of his grand army.

However, he still personally led the army, as he needed to spread his name throughout the lands as the most powerful warlord. He commanded two hundred generals of martial and strategic prowess, and had a standing army of over a hundred thousand, at this point the largest on the entire continent. The Aquila and Raimis family had been on good terms for several generations, so the borders between Olynthus and Abila did were not even staffed with garrisons. Paramonos had no need to inform Straton of his intentions to travel through the latter’s lands to reach the target of his campaign. Using the well-kept roads, he quickly made his way through the neighbor’s territories, aiming for a swift victory in Dorylaion.

On the eighth day of the army’s march, and the second day into the territories of Abila, Olynthus’ forces camped outside the city of Chalcis, which had a population of twenty thousand. The mayor invited Paramonos and his close followers in for a feast, while the soldiers were granted time off, so they could rest, gamble or amuse themselves in the city’s red light district. Security was lax and many outsiders entered the camps, peddling goods or just curious to see another fiefdom’s equipment and military discipline - of which little could be seen that night.

Under the cover of the darkness, a certain individual, clad in even deeper blackness than the night itself, slipped into the inner circle of the camps, where some of the high-ranking officials, whom Paramonos had not taken along for the feast, were staying. Even if security was not up to its usual standards, his presence in that strictly off-limits area should have warranted an alarm, but the night was not his only cover. An unearthly magic veiled his approach, as he walked by guards in close proximity without them noticing.

It was a man like a walking patch of space devoid of light, a dokkalf known by the name Brynjarr the Shadow. His aim was General Melanthis Lucia of Rhegion, who had opted to drink alone in his tent, to drown out the fact that he had been left behind by his lord. Drifting through the entrance, past the inattentive guards, he entered without a sound like a cool breeze in a sweltering summer night.

“Bring me more wine!” The general shouted as he downed the contents of his cup. An attendant quickly did as commanded and motioned to pour him more. However, the general yanked the pitcher out of the squire’s hand and sent him away. Without even noticing the presence of Brynjarr, the boy quickly left the tent. “Why did the lord not take me along? This is so irritating!” Melanthis emptied another cup and threw it on the floor. Taking the pitcher directly to his lips, he proceeded to gulp down even more, at a faster pace.

This was the perfect situation for the dokkalf, as his sweet voice whispered words of wickedness. “Is that how a lord treats his important men?” It was a rhetorical question, meant to plant the seed of treason in the general’s mind. In his drunken stupor, he did not notice that it came from a demon’s mouth rather than his own thoughts. “You deserve better. Go and take it for yourself. You have the power - the right - to do so.” A curved smile shaped like the sickle moon cracked across Brynjarr’s black face. It was done; the poison had been applied - now it only needed to brew. With a breath to the general’s ear, he fell asleep on the spot, to anyone who found him looking like the alcohol had taken his consciousness.

The shadow slipped out of the tent again, unnoticed by anyone, disappearing into the night.

Morning arrived and the army prepared to move out again. When Paramonos had learned of the dismal conditions of the army’s discipline, he summoned the one directly responsible for it - which happened to be Melanthis. In fact, when the general appeared before the duke, the intoxication of the previous night was still lingering in his features. Enraged, Paramonos punished him by making him stay behind and break camp with his contingent, while the army set out. Normally, Melanthis would have been among the vanguard, and it was practically a demotion. Clenching his fist at this humiliation, the poison from the shadow’s influence grew in intensity.

It spread like a contagion to the troops under the general’s command, who had been damned to cleanup duty instead of having the opportunity to gain fame and glory by being the first to engage the enemy. Thus, treachery took hold of their minds during their mindless job of taking down the camp’s palisades and clearing the trash left behind. The lieutenant under Melanthis brought some of the complaints before him, harboring the same thoughts but not daring to show them openly.

“So everyone thinks the same? He goes to party in the city and leaves us behind, then punishes us for trying to enjoy ourselves just like he did. The hypocrisy is not befitting of a lord!” The general’s voice was loud enough for people outside his tent to hear, but he did not care. In fact, he wanted his men to hear, so that he could inspire them to follow him in what his now deranged mind conjured up as a solution. “Let us pillage this city and take what we deserve!”

Brynjarr’s influence had taken hold of Melanthis completely, and empowered by the general’s words, his men were infected one after another. Previously sane men turned into beasts, as they dropped their work and took up arms. The unprepared population of Chalcis could not hope to offer any resistance to the two thousand elite soldiers that stormed through their open gates and began to steal, kill and rape all that came into their hands. Twenty thousand inhabitants were, within a few hours, reduced to only a few hundred survivors who were barely able to escape, and the city was pillaged and razed as if it belonged to a hated enemy. In the heat of the madness that drove those men to such mindless cruelty a dark cloud appeared above the burning city, seemingly taking in the fear, sorrow and insanity emanating from it. A sinister laughter was carried by the wind, like a whisper, its tone belonging to none other than the mastermind behind this atrocity.

By the time Melanthis and his men came to their senses, the deed had already been done, and nothing would ever justify their actions. The dark cloud had taken away the poison from the men, so all that remained was disbelief and immense regret at their actions. Only the general’s treason was rooted deeply in his consciousness, and he commanded his troops to follow him; they would throw away their banners and become an army of brigands, disappearing into the mountainous regions between Abila and Olynthus.

When Paramonos learned of his general’s actions, his army had already marched for the better half of the day. Ordering a complete retreat, he cancelled his campaign and prepared to send his best diplomats to ride for Straton’s camps in Naxos. He wanted to bring the news of the situation to his friend before any distorted rumors turned into official reports. However, he called for a meeting with his staff, to discuss how to explain the ill tidings.

“How could I be so shortsighted to trust a man like Melanthis?” Paramonos lamented and paced back and forth within the command tent, while the attending generals looked on with complicated expressions. “What should I do? I cannot see how this can be explained at all...” He was at his wit’s end, knowing that the straight-laced Straton would not look upon this violation of his people with anything but enraged eyes. Losing an ally his family had fostered for generations would hurt greatly.

“Do not worry, my lord. Count Straton would not dare to take military actions against you. You will, however, have to pay reparations and it would be in our best interest to catch Melanthis alive and deliver him to Count Straton as a show of our goodwill.” The man who spoke up was Linos Warin of Rhegion, one of Paramonos’ most trusted advisors. Hearing his words, the duke’s face lit up with hope as he turned around to face him.

“So you say that Straton would forgive me?” He was eager to hear the answer, his inner thoughts clearly visible on his face. At that sight Linos was slightly taken aback; in no way had he said that the count would forgive him so easily, but he could not simply dash his lord’s hopes.

“I believe that my lord will be able to keep his friendly relations with Count Straton intact, as long as he follows my advice. I will draft up the numbers for the reparation costs, and I believe it would be wise to to also offer to rebuild the city of Chalcis on our costs.” Linos did not deny his lord’s words, but neither did he commit to them fully. Yet, this was enough assurance for Paramonos, who was exceedingly simpleminded at times of great distress and overly relied on his advisors.

“Do so right away, Linos. I leave it to you.”

“Thank you, my lord.” With a bow, the advisor stepped out of the tent to begin his work. The assembly was disbanded and Paramonos already filed the matter as solved inside his mind.

“What?!” Straton Raimis of Abila’s voice thundered through the command tent. Before him kneeled an express messenger who had brought the news of Chalcis’ razing at the hands of a general under Paramonos. Due to the fact that the duke had only learned of the fact several hours after the city had fallen, and Linos had taken several more hours to draft up the intent to pay reparations, survivors from Chalcis had escaped to nearby cities and had spread the information among the people of Abila already. A scout had confirmed the situation from afar, and the mayor of a neighboring city immediately sent out the messenger to report to Straton in Naxos. “How dare Paramonos stab me in the back like this!” He was enraged, as expected. “We shall retreat from Naxos and return to Abila immediately, to bring down justice on that cur for this transgression!”

“Please wait, my lord! If Duke Paramonos had really intended to take Abila in your absence, he would not have chosen to first attack Chalcis, which is only a small city in the south. It has low walls, no garrison to speak of and holds no strategic value. Instead, with his armies, he could have directly attacked our capital, Abila Lysaniou, and claimed it before we could return.” The advisor who spoke up to keep Straton from committing to a hasty judgment was Xenokras Jodocis of Abila. “We should send a messenger to Duke Paramonos and ask for the reason behind this unreasonable act, before we declare war on him.”

Lahya Eventyr, sitting among the generals under Straton, exchanged a look with Leontis beside her. Over the past few months it had become apparent that the campaign in Naxos was not progressing at all, and only served to weaken and eventually bleed out the Abila resources. Naxos, on the other hand, was more bountiful in the north, which could only be conquered once the capital was taken. Therefore, Abila’s army was still using the provisions that had to make the arduous journey from its home fief. This was the perfect excuse for Straton to end this fruitless campaign without having to admit that he had been bested by what he and his senior staff described as a snot-nosed brat who had no experience and solely relied on luck - speaking of the commander on the enemy’s side, Pantas Museo of Naxos.

“I see... let us pull back to Mylasa, where we can return to Abila at a moment’s notice. Send an express messenger.” Straton was adamant about abandoning the campaign, and pulling all the way back to Mylasa, which was a city close to the border between Naxos and Abila, meant that he was effectively returning all the land he had conquered without resistance. In reality, he did not have the means to hold the territories taken from Naxos, if Paramonos was really aiming to attack his rear. The only reason he had attempted a campaign in the north was because he had thought that Olynthus was an ally he could trust.

“Understood.” The assembly dispersed, beginning to prepare for the upcoming march.

A few days later Linos arrived at Mylasa as an ambassador of goodwill, carrying with him a carefully written declaration of intent under Paramonos’ name, explaining the circumstances surrounding the razing of Chalcis.

“My lord, Duke Paramonos Aquila of Olynthus, marched at the head of a punitive force against Count Phytos Ancaris of Dorylaion, who sat idly by as an army of the tyrant Hesper Polus of Naxos threatened our alliance’s back in Edessa. My lord’s army travelled through the lands of your lordship’s, knowing that your families’ friendly relations had kept the borders open between our two fiefdoms for generations. We camped at the city of Chalcis to rest for the night, so my lord was invited into the city to attend a banquet. During his absence, discipline in our camp was unacceptable, so the then-commander-in-charge, the traitorous Melanthis Lucia of Rhegion, was punished for his crime the next morning. When my lord marched on, he ordered Melanthis to stay behind and clean up the remains of the camp, so that the outside of the city would return to the pristine state it had been before our army’s approach. However, Melanthis ordered his men to pillage and raze the city of Chalcis, most likely to spite my lord, before fleeing into the mountains like a petty band of brigands.” Linos read the declaration out loud, so that all in the audience hall could hear. “My lord has ordered his entire army to search for Melanthis now, and once he is found, he will be captured alive and delivered before your lordship, so that you may bring down the hammer of justice yourself. Furthermore, he is willing to rebuild the city from his own coffers and pay you the sum of two hundred thousand zentera, ten zentera per citizen of Chalcis, as reparation. My lord hopes that our two fiefdoms may uphold their friendly relations after this unfortunate incident with this payment.”

“Paramonos is unable to keep his general in check as he parties and indulges in alcohol himself, his general attacks my city, kills its entire population and burns it to the ground... and then he has the gall to crunch numbers with me? Does he think the population of Abila is just a number in a book?” Straton was enraged, surprising his staff, including Lahya and Thais, but most of all, the ambassador from Olynthus, Linos. Ten zentera amounted to the average yearly income of city dwellers in Zenter, although this figure did not include the aristocracy and officials appointed by the court. It was double the amount a marquis had to send to the imperial court as yearly tribute, so the amount was already considerable. Still, Lahya could understand Straton’s outrage at the fact that the offer seemed more calculated to cover losses rather than a sign of goodwill. If the Emperor of Zenter had told her that he would pay a certain amount per alf killed in the extermination war, she would most likely have reacted the same way. This was assigning a cost to people’s lives, ignoring their individual and emotional value in the eyes of those left behind. Then again, maybe it was the perfect reflection of the times they lived in.

“I am sorry if I have offended you, your lordship. However, my lord believes that this is an adequate reparation for a small city like Chalcis,” Linos explained and Lahya could practically see him digging deeper into his own grave. “The traitor responsible for it will be delivered to your lordship as soon as he is caught, so please do not hold a grudge against my lord.”

“Your lord... Paramonos believes that this is adequate... for a small city like Chalcis?!” As expected, Straton was not happy. “Guards, take this man out and have him executed!” Blank surprise played over Linos’ face at this order, and none of the count’s staff seemed to realize what had happened to move and stop this hasty decision. Then, Lahya noticed that none wanted to; many looked at the ambassador from Olynthus with anger and contempt, while others shook their heads, not daring to oppose their lord’s verdict.

“Your lordship, spare me! I am but the messenger!” Just when two soldiers grabbed him did Linos finally understand that it had not been an empty threat and pleaded for his life. “I only brought you the words of my lord, do not punish me for it!”

“You came before me with an attitude of superiority, arbitrarily judged the worth of my people and took me for a fool that would accept such a half-hearted apology!” Straton thundered. “You spoke those words as if they were your own, without a shred of doubt in them. I will send your head to Paramonos to show him what he has done!” With these words, he waved at the guards to take Linos away.

Under any other circumstances, Lahya would have spoken up for the messenger to be spared, but she had clearly witnessed his attitude when delivering the message. In fact, she believed that the numbers and wording were entirely drafted by Linos himself, which explained the complacency in his demeanor and tone. She almost felt sorry for Paramonos for having sent someone who presented his case in such a bad light, but she knew that if one party wanted an excuse for war, there was nothing one person could do to stop it.

Duke Paramonos had been eagerly awaiting the good news from Linos, and when the city watch spotted the latter’s carriage, he could not help but feel excited. However, when the news of the advisor’s death reached his ears, only minutes before his severed preserved head did, his mood reached an all-time low. The message attached to the gruesome display of Straton’s anger and rejection of the apology stated what was already visible in the dead eyes of the murdered Linos: Abila and Olynthus were now at war.

“How could Straton do this after all the years of our friendship? The loss of a small border city to a rogue general under my army breaks apart the relationship our forefathers built over generations... what has this world come to?” Paramonos was sad rather than enraged at the death of his trusted advisor and the declaration of war.

“My lord, this just shows how cheap friendship has become in these times. However, that this would happen was an eventuality. If my lord truly wishes to gain hegemony in the north, Count Straton was sure to stand in your way someday. This only means that it happened sooner rather than later.” The man who spoke up was Telesoron Harela of Rhegion, a childhood friend of Paramonos’. He enjoyed by far the most trust among the duke’s advisors and his policies were almost always favored above those of others. Telesoron had anticipated that Linos’ overeager attitude would result in failure, and although his words could have avoided it, he secretly wished for it to happen. As an ardent advocate of the expansionist faction within the duke’s ranks, nothing better could have happened than Straton being the one to open hostilities by executing a member of Paramonos’ staff, especially one with a mission of peace talks.

“So you are telling me to throw away my friendship with Straton?” Paramonos did prefer Telesoron’s counsel, but he did not take everything his old friend told him without question. After all, in their childhood, Telesoron’s pranks had gotten the duke into more trouble than they had been worth the fun.

“It was not you who threw away that friendship, my lord. Count Straton executed your advisor, ignoring the unwritten law of never harming a messenger travelling to parlay for peace. It was Count Straton who declared war on you, despite your best efforts to rectify the wrongs committed by a former general turned traitor.” With this, all guilt over going to war against Straton had been argued away; now, Telesoron only needed to push his lord into the direction of fully committing to the war. Aided by his knowledge about the states of the surrounding fiefdoms, he could quickly formulate the pros of opening the battle as quickly as possible. “The only other fiefdom we share a border with has a weak army and no talented generals to speak of. Marquis Philon Oratio of Pandosia’s advanced age and frequent illnesses prevent him from taking action, so there is nothing to fear from the south. Count Straton just returned from a fruitless war of attrition, so now is the perfect time to strike with our entire might, and take Abila in one push. With Abila in your hands, Dorylaion and Naxos are within your immediate grasp.”

Listening intently, Paramonos and many of his chief staff seemed to lean in on Telesoron, as he proceeded to make proposals for the immediate future Olynthus should be striving for. The war against Abila should be concluded within a year, Naxos taken within two and Dorylaion be forced to surrender right after. Pandosia and Aegae were to be taken within the next five years, and Lord Kyron’s mobilization of an army in Thronion was mentioned off-hand as a potential threat in about the same time, if left unchecked. Paramonos, Kyron and Telesoron had been known as the “Troublesome Trio” in their childhood, and even though their past together ran deep, ambitions ran deeper.

Several hours of deliberation passed, as Telesoron responded to questions, doubts and opposition, always ready with an answer that would satisfy his opposite. Paramonos did not join the conversation as he listened to every point that was brought up by his ministers and generals, mostly to get a feeling for where people stood in their support for his expansion in the north and eventual grab for power on the whole continent. The fact that Straton had declared war on him had simply been added to a list of many battles to come in the plan for Paramonos’ hegemony.

Ultimately, the question of whether to try and find a diplomatic solution or to prepare for war had been completely swept aside in favor of the former choice, without so much as a debate. Paramonos had clearly decided to follow through with Telesoron’s advice - the question that remained was how far he would take it.

“Therefore, it would be in my lord’s best interest to finish this war as quickly as possible, before Naxos can regain its strength and one of the lords in the south consolidates his hegemony. I am most specifically speaking of Duke Heron Berneris of Cumae, who has openly displayed his expansionist tendencies.” The advisor brought forth his conclusion. Paramonos had been sad to hear about Marquis Galeno’s death, since they had shared a common goal and, despite everything involving his younger brother Iason, had parted on a positive note. However, more pressing was the fact that somebody had already taken the first step on the road of conquest, only months after the fall of the capital of Zenter. The authority of the central government had practically disappeared overnight after Hesper’s death, and the resulting power vacuum had emboldened lords everywhere to begin self-government. Those who did not do so and still clung to the emperor’s authority were bound to fall behind in the upcoming scramble for supremacy.

“I understand, my dear Telesoron. We shall accommodate Straton’s declaration of war and begin a complete mobilization!” Standing up from his seat, now more than ever resembling a throne, Paramonos announced his decision. “Hear me, Zotikos! You will lead the vanguard of twenty thousand troops and begin your march to Abila at noon of the third day.” The one who had been named was Zotikos Lecha of Sineias, a tall man of few words and deep loyalty, who had been in Paramonos service since the beginning of the latter’s tenure. He stepped forward, bowed in acknowledgement of his orders and quickly departed to fulfill them.

“Phylares, Roxana, come forth!” The duke continued, calling General Phylares Marchia of Akroinon, who had already seen service under the former’s father, and Roxana Forgia of Oenos, a young and promising general. “You will lead the right and left flanks of ten thousand each. Set forth at dawn on the fourth day.” The two each bowed and acknowledged with their individual response, before stepping out to prepare their troops.

“Aischylos, Kallias!” Paramonos called out two more names, this time to announce whom the duty of the rearguard would fall to. They were Aischylos Limesia of Rhegion and Kallias Folia of Ambrosio. “I name you general and vice general of the rear. You will ride at noon on the fourth day, and follow the footsteps of the main army of thirty thousand, which I will lead personally. Evaristos and Alcibia will ride with me.”

Evaristos Demacer of Rhegion and his wife, Alcibia Monachis of the same, were at the pinnacle of Paramonos’ army. Previously, Evaristos had been known as someone who could have doubtlessly matched Hypatios in single combat, but his absence from the alliance due to remaining in Olynthus to protect its borders had pushed him into obscurity after the emergence of talents such as Leontis and Alexander under Lahya Eventyr. During the past year, he had found himself a worthy wife in Alcibia, who had shown that she was a match to her husband’s might in battle. With these two by his side, Paramonos felt that claiming all of the north would be a simple task.

The coveted position of chief military advisor was given to Telesoron, who had been the one to propose the Five-Year Plan, as it would later be called, to conquer the north. With an army numbering eighty thousand, more than half of the reserves in Olynthus, the first major conflict since the Anti-Hesper Alliance was about to begin. Heron’s ambush of Galeno in the south and Melanthis’ betrayal in the north were the two rocks that set off the rockslide that was the turbulent times, later known as an era in which many heroes emerged - the Era of Heroes.

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