Empire at War

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Chapter One: The Anti-Hesper Alliance - Baltsar's Wrath

The defeat at Lato Triada showed that the alliance was not just a loosely organized group of warlords, but a force to be reckoned with. Baltsar’s loss against its three champions, whom he later learned the names of, served to prove that in an age of strife heroes would appear one after another. Complacency had killed Hypatios, and it would surely bring the downfall of many more people of renown in the near future.

Incidentally, the person who interested Baltsar the most was not the strongest of the three fighters he faced, but the weakest; Lahya Eventyr, a direct progeny of the Ljosalfar royal family which was believed to have been wiped out during the Mad Emperor’s genocidal war, had piqued the great general’s interest. Despite her lack in combat skills she had thrown herself at him, the warrior hailed as the strongest in the whole empire, wielding determination and a strength of spirit he had never seen before. For now, she only commanded a small group of soldiers, but the two warriors by her side were worth an army of thousands. If given the chance, she would rise up in this world and become a formidable leader.

Entering the Fields of Akur, the plains surrounding the capital, Baltsar finally moved to the front of the marching army, leaving rear-guard duty to Argyros of Naxos, a great warrior in his own right and his trusted right-hand man. They would reach Zenter within the day, while scouts reported that the alliance army had been left behind them at a distance of two days. Naxos’ troop mobility was at the apex of the entire empire, and even simple foot soldiers possessed great marching capabilities, achieved through training in the harsh frozen steppes of the north. They would have ample time to prepare a defense against the impending siege of the city.

Only when he was approaching the walls of the city that harbored his beloved Calantha did Baltsar remember her features, which had been filled with sorrow at the news that he had to leave for war the last time he saw her. He was also reminded of the fact that he had dismissed her worries all too readily, confident of his invincibility. Understanding that a lack of fear of death was a trait of the foolhardy, Baltsar chastised himself quietly, vowing to change his youthful hubris so that he would not worry his wife each time he had to set out and fulfill his military duties. Thinking about it, the reason he had retreated, rather than attempted to make a stand against the surging alliance army may have been the result of a subconscious longing to see Calantha and the baby she carried again. It had helped him make the decision of running to fight another day, something he would not have done before marrying her.

The army under Loukios turned eastwards, to return the fortress town of Zenteroest, while Miltiades moved his troops westwards, to Zentervest. Zenter had been constructed with four satellite settlements in mind, which were each located the exact same distance from the four main gates of the city walls. They served as the final stations of a chain of outposts that would inform the capital of invading forces, while at the same time acted as bait. In case either of these satellite fortresses were besieged, Zenter would be given time to mobilize its armies. If the enemy decided to ignore them to attack the capital directly, the troops stationed in those fortresses could come to the aid of the capital and strike the invader’s backs. Built solely for the purpose of housing armies and transformed into training academies over the centuries of peace, they were now once again about to perform their intended function.

If they had been with Baltsar, when he returned to the capital, history may have run a different course.

The beautiful city of Zenter, a magnificently planned work of pure architectural art, glimmered in the red of the setting sun. The white walls were built by Dvergr stonemasons, using building materials transported from the central mountains, which lay nearly four hundred liges to the west. As with all Dvergr craftsmanship, humans were unable to fully comprehend the magic-like techniques employed, and were unable to reproduce them. The imperial palace, a city within the city, housing the imperial family and over ten thousand servants, was the greatest attempt at replicating the incredible work of the Dvergr. Although it remains a failure in comparison to the lavish architecture of Myrkrheimr, the capital of the kingdom under the mountain, its peerless beauty is unparalleled among human works.

Baltsar drove his horse forward, in childlike anticipation to meet his wife again, his defeat all but forgotten at the prospect of holding her again. When he approached the gates, his eyes were drawn upwards, to the magnificent fortified gatehouse, where the figures of several people could be seen. In surprise, he glanced upon Calantha, standing among them and seemingly struggling against the grasp of two people - servants of his house, he realized. Stopping his horse, his gaze was fixed on the spectacle as he attempted to discern the situation.

“Please reconsider, milady,” The female servant pleaded, as she was clinging to Calantha’s waist with both her arms, desperately holding her back.

“Look, your husband is back! Please do not act rashly,” The male servant did not dare to touch his mistress and was begging her to stop her actions. When Calantha heard that Baltsar was back, fresh strength entered her arms and she freed herself from the servant’s grasp, quickly climbing onto the battlements and standing at the edge to a deadly drop.

“My dear Baltsar! I cannot live with this shame and grief!” She wailed, tears streaking down her face. Her appearance was disheveled, completely unlike how he remembered her when he left, her beauty overshadowed by her woes.

“Calantha, please get down from there! It’s dangerous! Tell me what happened, I can help you!” Baltsar implored his wife, understanding that she was about to take her own life. Her next words caused a cold shiver to run down his spine.

“No, not even you can lift your hand against this monster!” The once beautiful girl cried out, closed her eyes and jumped to her certain death.

At this, Baltsar threw down his weapon, leapt from his horse and rushed forward faster than the eye could see. He caught the falling frail figure of his beloved wife, frantically checking for signs of injuries when she remained limp in his arms. Breathing a sigh of relief when he noticed that she had lost consciousness during the descent, Baltsar looked up at the gate, from which the two servants stared down in fear.

“Tell me what happened.” His voice was barely a whisper, but to the two servants, it sounded like a commanding roar. They flinched in their deep prostration, while the master of the house sat beside the bed of his sleeping wife. He felt mentally exhausted, but his countenance showed no signs of it; to everyone else, he would remain the inviolable paragon of strength, his very presence the image of power.

The servants exchanged a look of anxiety with each other, but did not dare to respond, as if fearing that the truth would cost them their heads. They were shivering, like mice being stared down by a snake, their heads lowered to avoid looking their master in the eyes. This behavior suggested that whatever the situation was, it was one common servants were too scared to speak about.

“I promise that you will not be punished for anything, so tell me,” Baltsar finally said, understanding that whatever the reason, they were not part of it. Even then, the two remained reluctant to speak, flapping their mouths open and closed like fish gasping for air. Neither seemed to know how to start, but eventually, the female’s voice leaked out shakily.

“The mistress had a miscarriage.” Her trembling body was pitiful to watch, but at her words Baltsar’s mind went blank. Unable to comprehend it, he turned to look at Calantha, whose face, even though emaciated, was still the visage of an angel. Her relaxed features showed just how exhausted she must have been before losing consciousness. Just by looking at her body, he could not discern if the servant was telling the truth.

“How?” Was all he could press out from between his clenched teeth.

“A week ago she... she was invited by the chancellor to partake in a banquet. That night she returned late and-” The female servant responded, but stopped herself, too afraid to continue. Baltsar slowly stood up from his seat, looking down on her with a menacing air. Upon seeing it, she very nearly forgot herself and slammed her forehead on the ground in prostration.

“Her hair and clothes were disheveled, and... she was bleeding from her-” The male servant continued, feeling that if they remained silent now, the general would kill them on the spot. However, even he could not speak the whole ugly truth, fearing that it would only serve to cause Baltsar to fall into a mad rage and let it out on those before him. “She has refused to eat since that day and has stayed at the gate, waiting for your return.”

“The imperial doctor has confirmed that the child in her womb is...” Without lifting her head, the female servant, practically kissing the floor, added in a shaking voice. “It is possible that she will never-”

“Who did this?” Baltsar interrupted the servant. At this question, they winced in fear, unable to respond; it was proof that whoever did it was a powerful person who could silence even the servants of his own household. The answer was very obvious, but he did not want to believe it. “Enough... leave.”

The terrified pair was only eager to comply and hastily beat a retreat, closing the doors behind themselves. As their hurried steps echoed down the hallway and disappeared, the general sat down on the bed, by his wife’s side. Stroking her cheek, he swept a strand of loose hair aside to take a good look at her sleeping face once again, imagining the suffering she had to endure that night.

When he thought about it, he had never considered the position of people weaker than him before. Being at the apex of strength had dulled his compassion for those who could not overcome every obstacle with sheer power, and he had forgotten that there were frail beings who had to struggle through everyday life. Because Calantha was his wife, he had thought her impervious to such matters, as he would protect her. He neglected the fact that as a general and leader of the armies, he could not be by her side at all times. Even then, she should have been safe in the palace, especially since everybody knew whose wife she was.

Feeling a stir next to him, Baltsar’s ruminations came to an end and he turned around to face Calantha. The love of his life opened her eyes and looked upon him with a smile, before shock ran through her features, tears formed in her eyes and she turned her gaze aside. Worried, he leaned over her, but she tried to push him away.

“Why am I still alive? Why do you make me live with this shame... this sorrow?” She sobbed and covered her face.

“Death is the end, my love. No matter what befalls you, there is no honor to be had in dying by your own hands. Tell me who did this, and I shall reclaim your honor through justice and retribution,” Baltsar breathed to her. Finally turning to look at him, Calantha’s reddened eyes seemed to be a mirror of her broken spirit.

“You cannot stand against him,” She finally answered.

“Who do you think I am? I am Baltsar of Naxos. There is nobody who can withstand my might!” The general announced in a tone of confidence, speaking words others would be ridiculed for. But not him, for it was the truth. “Tell me, who do you think is more powerful than I, your dear husband?”

At these words, Calantha was unable to suppress the urge to break out in tears, as she buried her face in her hands. Through the muffled cries, he finally beheld the name of her tormentor; as he heard it, his expression was not one of doubt, but that of reluctance - albeit only for a moment. Then he stood up wordlessly and walked out the room with resolute steps.

“Father, your son has returned,” Baltsar stood outside the door to Hesper’s private chambers, which was framed by a guard on each side, and announced. From inside he could hear a grunted recognition, followed shortly by a slightly slurred order to enter. Opening the door, the general could smell the stench of human bodily fluids wafting out, causing a twitch of his eyebrows. However, he did not let it affect him and walked in, flanked by the two guards, whose expressive reactions in regards of the chancellor’s lifestyle were more readily readable. The large curtained canopy bed hid Hesper’s carnal misdeeds, and it was clear that the soldiers were thankful for it. Baltsar stepped right up to the curtain and spoke through it.

“I am here to report on the rebel army’s progress,” He began, his voice firm and without a hint of hesitation. “Lato Triada was lost and the rebels are two days away from the capital.”

“You mean, you lost Lato Triada,” The chancellor’s voice resounded from the other side of the curtain. “And I made you my son because I believed that you were invincible.” At these words, the young general lifted an eyebrow briefly, before returning to his previous expression of somber indifference. “Was that a mistake? What did I take you in for, Baltsar?”

“You are drunk, father.” Answering with a statement that seemed to explain the harsh words, Baltsar looked at the shadowy figures through the thin fabric. There were more than three curved bodies on the other side, aside from Hesper’s more voluminous frame. “Please call for me when you have sobered. I will make my report then.” With these words, he motioned to leave.

“Even when I am drunk, I can clearly discern the words of a failure. You have failed me, and you require the appropriate punishment. Losing such an important position cannot be repaid with just a demotion.” Hesper’s voice grew firmer, as if the alcohol left his system with every word. “Guards, arrest him.” The last words were almost a bellow. Shocked, the two guards looked at the curtains before turning to the unarmed Baltsar, whose expression revealed no emotional response to his adoptive father’s sudden order.

The guards extended their hands to grab Baltsar’s arms to carry him off, but in the next instant, the swords on their belts were pulled from their sheaths and cut a red arc through the air. For a moment the two soldiers looked at the general’s posture, a bloodied and chipped sword in each hand, with an utter lack of understanding, before they could feel the liquid of life gushing out from a large diagonal gash running across each of their torsos. In the same motion as he had drawn their swords, Baltsar had cut through their armor and almost deep enough to cleave them in half. Dropping the useless blades at the same time as the bodies hit the floor, he stepped up to the curtain once again.

“You laid your hands on my wife...” Just saying the words drove a painful anger through his heart. “Why...?” Even after Hesper’s order for his detainment could he not believe that the man who had adopted him, and whom he had called father for years, would commit such an atrocity. Of course, Baltsar knew that the chancellor was not a man of virtue, but he thought that even a man like that would not perpetrate such a grave sin as to violate his adoptive son’s young wife.

“Have you never heard of the saying? A father’s possessions are his son’s possessions, a son’s possessions are also his father’s possessions,” The chancellor responded through the curtains with a chuckle. The young general’s eyes widened at these ridiculous words.

“She lost the child she was carrying. Our child... my child.”

“You can always make a new one. And if she cannot, just throw her away. There are so many good women in this world.” Hesper’s response sounded like the ramblings of a lunatic to Baltsar.

“I have certainty now. You have lost your mind,” He whispered and drew the curtain aside, revealing Hesper and several sleeping naked women, half-covered by thin silken blankets. The chancellor looked up to his adoptive son, realization slowly dawning on him when he beheld the blood covering his armor.

“What... what are you-” Scrambling away from Baltsar, he pushed aside the women and fell off the other side of the bed, ripping and pulling down the curtains. Entangled in the beautifully ornamented tatters, he struggled to stand up and pull away, while the young general rounded the bed menacingly. “Guards! Help! Guards, come and protect your-”

The screams were interrupted by Baltsar’s hand, which grabbed the chancellor’s throat and crushed it as if in passing. Choking and gasping for air, his eyes filled with pure terror began to tear up. Lifting the corpulent man up into the air with a single arm, the general’s expression finally changed into one of righteous fury.

“You were like a father to me. How could you repay my loyalty and love with-” He suddenly stopped himself in surprise, recalling Lahya Eventyr’s words to him after their duel.

“A villain may, at any time, repay kindness with atrocity.“The half-Alf had warned him accordingly.

“I see now...” Baltsar whispered, looking up to the flailing figure of the man he once respected like his own father. The rumbling of many footsteps could be heard approaching, the guards coming in response to the chancellor’s cry for help. “I was a fool.”

With a scream filled with rage and agony, the general slammed Hesper into the wall and with a mighty punch, shattered his face like a ripe melon. Dropping the twitching carcass, Baltsar looked at it with pure hatred, his fists clenched so tightly that his fingernails broke the skin of his palms. Shaking in uncontrollable anger, he felt no relief at having avenged his wife’s sorrow and their unborn child’s death. Killing this monster did not bring back what was lost. How could it?

“Chancellor, what...?” The first guard that entered through the door beheld the two corpses on the floor and breathed in heavily. Then he noticed Baltsar’s bloodied fist and the unmistakably dead Hesper, all color draining from his face. “The... the general has gone mad and killed the chancellor!” He shouted, just as more guards poured into the room behind him. With their weapons drawn, they approached their unarmed general, who turned around to face them with unabated wrath.

The imperial palace was in an uproar, when the word spread that Baltsar had killed the chancellor in a frenzy and was now on a rampage. Like a storm, the invincible general raged through the corridors, killing all that dared to try and stop him, as he made his way back to his wife’s side. When the guards saw the death and destruction Baltsar left behind, they ceased all resistance and just left him alone, hoping he would not come their way. Once hailed as a god of war, he was now reduced to no more than a raging demon, whose only reason for existence appeared to be trying to fill the void of his anger with blood.

Finally, he returned to his residence and to Calantha’s side, who gazed upon her beloved husband’s bloody frame without a hint of fear. She understood what he had just done and her heart was beating out of her chest knowing that it had all been for her. Vasilis’ orders had been fulfilled and the tyrant was dead, but she had fallen for Baltsar soon after being with him. Her feelings had been genuine, and were now stronger than ever, after seeing the lengths he would go to for her sake. All loyalty to her master had been forgotten in the face of her husband’s presence; he was the man she would be with for the rest of her life.

The smile she greeted Baltsar with served to calm him down and return his senses from the blood rage he had given himself into. In the presence of her angelic countenance it seemed as if the general was absolved of all his sins, his spirit cleansed of the haze of anger that had clouded his mind since the moment he killed his adoptive father. He was back to his old self, a peerless warrior and the symbol of valor.

Thus, Baltsar and Calantha fled the capital that night. Following him were several generals, such as Argyros and Meriton of Naxos, as well as over four thousand elite soldiers who were loyal to him, rather than to the now deceased chancellor. They had heard of the occurrences in the palace and already learned of the rumors regarding Hesper and Calantha. All of them would consider Baltsar’s actions just.

When Loukios and Miltiades heard of the news, they were already far too late to chase after them, as the alliance army was approaching their fortresses and they had to take defensive measures. This aided in the disappearance of Baltsar’s forces from the forefront of history for the years to come.

A week earlier, while Baltsar was still on his way back to the capital from his defeat at Lato Triada, Chancellor Hesper was holding a banquet for his loyal ministers. With the young emperor in his grasp as a hostage, the chancellor and the corrupt politicians were enjoying their lives, free of worries about the alliance army. News had not yet reached the capital, after all.

Also invited was Vasilis of Histria, who took the opportunity to visit Calantha in her and Baltsar’s private residence within the imperial palace before the commencement of the festivities. Since the marriage, she had not left the palace and time to speak with her adoptive father had been limited. She had been able to inform him of her plan to alienate Hesper and Baltsar from each other before, and he was there to tell him that tonight was the most opportune moment to carry out the next step in it.

Hesper had proven to be an upstanding father, who cared dearly for Calantha and her unborn child. Clearly, he was looking forward to seeing his grandchildren, even if he and Baltsar were not related by blood. Luckily for her, her husband did not know of that coddling side of the chancellor’s, and she made sure nobody learned of it during his visits. It was all in preparation for when she would make him show his true colors to his adoptive son.

Calantha had declined every offer to banquets in the past months, excusing herself on grounds of her pregnancy. In reality, she was not with child, and the imperial doctor was privy to the plans to assassinate Hesper; he had played along and as the doctor who also saw to the well-being of the chancellor himself, nobody doubted him. However, with Vasilis’ order to commence the most important step in their plan, she concocted an excuse to attend the state dinner that night, bringing no servants from her household with the argument that it was only a short stride away from their residence and that her father was with her.

Thus, when Calantha appeared at the banquet, a beautiful dress that drew all the gazes, Hesper was positively surprised. Tonight, she would let him show his pampering side to everyone, so that a misconception could be born from it. Indeed, without a worry for appearances, the chancellor was as familiar with her as he was when visiting her residence. Some would think he was disregarding her marital status and the fact that her husband was his own adoptive son, and was too intimate with her. Vasilis was among the crowd, instigating the rumors that began to circulate among the ministers that night.

At an advanced hour, when the embers of the party slowly faded away into the cold of the night, and only few attendees remained, Calantha finally took the step. Slipping a drug into the chancellor’s drink, she spoke a toast to his person and as a sign to end the banquet on a high note. Unsuspecting, Hesper downed the contents of the offered cup and saw off the guests, before making his way to his personal chambers. At that time, the drug began to take effect and he fell heavily into his bed, his character about to be forever altered by the feverish dreams that haunted him that night.

He was completely unaware of the fact that the one steadying his pace was none other than Calantha, but it was witnessed by servants along the way. She entered the chambers with him, made sure he was fast asleep, and began to forge the evidence for what could only be described as a violation of her honor as a woman. Undressing the chancellor and throwing his bed sheets into disarray was the coffin, inflicting wounds upon herself and ripping her clothes was the lid, and her screams for help and tear-stained flight from Hesper’s room, for all to see, was the nail.

The hammer to drive it in came in the form of Baltsar’s wrath a week later.

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