Empire at War

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Chapter One: The Anti-Hesper Alliance - The End of the Alliance

It was a testament to the Naxos forces’ discipline that they did not break apart after Hesper’s death and Baltsar’s betrayal, and continued to follow the next generals in the line of command. Loukios and Miltiades had left contingents at the fortresses of Zenteroest and Zentervest to maintain the defenses against the siege, while using the hidden underground passageways to enter the capital. At their orders, the Naxos army plundered and then abandoned the city of Zenter, taking the court and the child emperor with them. Their destination was the port city of Hierapolis, a hundred and twenty liges to the southwest of the capital. Aiding in the evacuation was the Aganon, the longest river on the continent, stretching across half of Yggdra at a length of nearly one thousand liges. Hierapolis was the second largest city in Zenter, the winter residence of the imperial family, when the cold winds from the north would reach as far as the capital, and was located downstream.

Miltiades proceeded with Hesper’s initial plan, one that the chancellor would have personally overseen if he had been alive, to set the capital ablaze, in case the alliance was able to come so far. Due to the size of Zenter, as well as the composition of the Naxos army being more suited for mobile battles on plains and steppes, he had discerned that they would not be able to hold the walls on all sides against the troops of the Southerners, which were more used to siege battles. Thus, as the capital was emptied of its riches, while the civilians were left behind, fires were set in key locations that would spread the flames throughout the entire city in no time.

By the time the alliance army arrived at the gates of Zenter, the majority of the city had been reduced to smoldering cinders, and the imperial palace, the greatest architectural achievement of the humans in Yggdra, was in the process of burning down. The leaders of the alliance could only watch in impotence as centuries of history was crumbling to ashes before their eyes. Some of them, including Lahya, entered the city, coming to the aid of many civilians who had not been able to flee in time.

From captured stragglers the alliance soon learned that Hesper was dead, and that Baltsar was the one who killed him, for reasons unknown. Paramonos immediately called for a meeting of leaders, but it was already too late; many, discouraged by the loss of the capital, were already packing up to return to their own fiefdoms. Their supplies and soldiers were exhausted, compounded by the fact that their morale dropped the moment news about the traitor’s death were released to the common rank and file. The raison d’être for the alliance had disappeared along with the city some secretly dreamed of ruling from the shadows after their success.

To the surprise of many, the first to withdraw was Galeno of Rhamnus, the one who had been most fervent in wishing to restore the authority of the emperor. He had the longest distance to travel to his fiefdom, so some could understand that if the alliance was going to break apart eventually, he wanted to be on his way sooner. It proved to be the trigger that led to other key figures leaving as well, marking the end of the Anti-Hesper Alliance on the First Day of the Dragon, in the Month of the Ljosalfar, little more than a month and a half after its formation.

Marquis Galeno of Rhamnus had been the first to enter the city, hours before any of the other alliance leaders. He was leading the vanguard because his troops were veterans of many battles, fought in his rebellion against the Mad Emperor’s reign. His motive had been to rush his troops into the imperial palace, kill the traitor Hesper and rescue the emperor and take him under his protection. The marquis genuinely wished to restore the power of the emperor into the hands of a righteous heir, but due to past mistakes he also wanted to become a guide for the young emperor, so that further bloodshed may be avoided.

When he came upon the city, still burning in many places, his first concern was the safety of that emperor. Even if he was just a puppet, he was of imperial blood and at this point, the only rightful heir to the throne. Galeno dismissed Lahya Eventyr, on grounds of the uncertainty of her birth and the fact that, even if she was genuine, she was not in the direct line of succession.

However, the palace was burning and from servants who had been left behind, Galeno learned that the capital had been relocated to Hierapolis, and Loukios and Miltiades had taken the emperor away half a day ago. His morale suffered a heavy hit from these news and the marquis ordered his troops to help the civilians while he consulted his aides about how to proceed. The veteran general Nikandros suggested pursuit, stating that traveling with enough ships to transport the entire court would slow their advance. Going by land with cavalry should allow them to cut off the escapees at two points before they reached Hierapolis. However, Galeno’s youngest son, Agathon, advised against this, arguing that the troops were exhausted after their march on the capital and the subsequent battle. Even if they caught up, Loukios and Miltiades were powerful military leaders in their own rights and had the numerical advantage.

While Galeno contemplated the options, his older son, Drakon, returned to the camp from helping civilians combat the flames, carrying something unexpected. From a servant who worked in the palace, disguised as a peasant, he had received the Imperial Seal. The seal comprised of a Mithril statue of a winged dragon, its four legs grabbing onto a cube of an unknown shimmering blue mineral the size of a grown man’s fist, created by the Dvergr as a present to the very first emperor. Its nearly indestructible nature had made sure it survived the many centuries of being passed down, even during civil wars. Whether handing it over had been a mistake on the servant’s part or they had explicit orders from a minister sympathizing with the rebellion, nobody knew. However, this turn of events meant that the marquis could now write imperial decrees with full legitimacy.

With this in hand, Galeno had gained a powerful chess piece that ignited hidden ambitions he did not know he possessed. The thoughts of restoring the imperial authority were pushed aside at the prospect of beginning his own dynasty of Rhamnus. The marquis’ followers congratulated him for this heaven-sent present, and some urged him to immediately announce his ascension. Once again, Agathon was the voice of reason, when he warned his father that if he were to make his ambitions known, the other warlords within the alliance, who more openly harbored the wish to attain power and authority, would not hesitate to turn on him. Praising his son’s insight, Galeno ordered a retreat from the capital and sent a messenger to Paramonos, informing him of his withdrawal from the alliance to return home.

Walking through the smoldering ruins of Zenter, Lahya’s troops extended a helping hand wherever they could, rescuing many from within collapsed buildings and tending to the wounded. The half-Alf personally dismounted from her horse to help, her compassion earning the gratitude and appreciation of the common people. With Leontis and Alexander by her side, she worked tirelessly to save as many as she could, ignoring Paramonos call for a meeting. She knew that the loss of the capital and Galeno’s sudden withdrawal marked the end of the alliance, even while the emperor was still in the hands of traitors.

It was during her charitable work that Lahya ran into a young woman in silver armor, one she had seen in the allied camps. She was Thais of Abila, a young general under Straton of Abila, who had left a positive impression on the half-Alf the first time she laid eyes upon her. Only slightly taller than Lahya, her presence was nonetheless on the level of Leontis’, her graceful trained gait proof of her martial prowess. Her ice blue eyes, light complexion and silver-blonde hair, typical traits of those from the northern parts of the continent, gave her an ephemeral air, much like an Alf’s, but her resolute expression was clearly that of a transient human’s.

“Lady Lahya!” Upon spotting the half-Alf, Thais quickly called out and walked over to greet her. “A meeting for the leaders has been called. Why are you not attending?”

“The alliance will be breaking apart, so there is no reason for me to go to what has just become a formality. I would rather dedicate this time to help the poor souls in need,” Lahya responded without hesitation. “Why are you here, Lady Thais?”

“Lord Straton is attending the meeting, but he ordered his troops to search the city and save as many as possible.” Only now did the half-Alf notice that Thais’ armor and especially her gauntlets were covered in soot, the precious white cape had turned gray in the ash-laden air and there were black streaks on her cheeks that spoke volumes of her personal involvement in working to rescue people from the rubble. “You seem sure that the alliance will scatter. Why is that?”

“The traitor Hesper is no more, the capital has been destroyed, Galeno of Rhamnus, the vanguard and most fervent supporter of the alliance, left, and the army is too low on supplies to both march another one hundred liges and to besiege a city at the end of it,” Lahya explained, sighing.

“But the emperor is still being held hostage by traitors. If it had not been for Pelagio of Naxos’ surprise attack on our supply base, and Count Iason’s inability to defend it, we would have enough provisions to last another two months.” Thais was disgruntled and openly spoke her disapproval of Iason’s ineptitude as a field commander. Lahya smiled at her counterpart, thinking that she, too, was a righteous individual with an outspoken character. “Where are you going after this, Lady Lahya?”

“I do not know yet, but as long as the empire remains in the hands of usurpers, I will not rest. I have to make a name for myself and then raise an army once again, to punish the traitors and return the empire to the hands of a just ruler. Only then can I attend to personal matters.” It was a firm response. Impressed, Thais bowed her head at the half-Alf.

“My lord would be delighted to have you as an honored guest, until you are ready to set out on your own path, Lady Lahya,” She said, offering to welcome Lahya and her followers under Straton of Abila’s mantle.

“Lord Straton is an upstanding and chivalrous leader. It would be my honor,” Lahya responded with a bow of her own. “I will gladly ride with you under his banner.”

“I am glad that you accept, Lady Lahya. But make no mistake, you are not entering under his vassalage. You are under no obligation to follow any orders from him or his subordinates, regardless of their ranks, and you can leave at any time you want. He welcomes you as a guest of equal standing,” Thais clarified, delighted to have the half-Alf’s assent.

“Lady Thais, I cannot do that. I am but a leader of a small band of militias. How could I consider myself of equal standing to the Count of Abila, who commands tens of thousands of soldiers?” Lahya insisted. Once again, Thais was pleasantly surprised to see the honest personality of her counterpart. “Please tell Lord Straton that I will not accept any special treatment, or I shall make use of them and leave right then.”

“Thank you, I shall convey everything you said to him word for word. Please let me express my appreciation of your gallantry!” Thais bowed deeply, her left hand as a fist on her heart. “You are an example of chivalry to all, Lady Lahya.”

“You overvalue me,” The half-Alf dismissed the praise with a genuine smile.

Thus, it was decided that Lahya, Leontis and Alexander would join Straton of Abila for the foreseeable future. Among the leaders of the alliance, she regarded him most highly for his moral and sincere leadership. With the proximity of Abila to Naxos, they would be able to keep a close eye on troop movements, in case Loukios and Miltiades requested reinforcements from their northern homeland.

When the Anti-Hesper Alliance finally dispersed two days later and the various warlords returned to their own fiefdoms, Kyron went to visit Lahya in her all but packed up camp.

“Lord Kyron, what brings you here?” She inquired upon seeing him approach, flanked by a man and a woman in full armor. The man was Euripides, and the woman was Euphemia, twins, cousins of Kyron and generals within his army. Despite their youth, they were highly regarded by many as capable leaders.

“It was inevitable that the alliance would fall apart. The official reason for its existence was to kill the usurper and save the emperor, but ultimately, everyone was secretly aiming to replace Hesper. With him gone, morale and supplies low and the capital burned to the ground, ambitions scattered in the winds of change.” Kyron did not immediately state his intentions and began to speak his mind about the end of the alliance. “We both know that this marks the beginning of troubled times. Remember the faces of the warlords here well, for the next time you see them, it may be at the front of their armies, facing your own.”

“I do not believe that these men and women, who followed the call of justice, would be willing to risk a civil war, while the emperor is still in the hands of traitors,” Lahya denied the assumptions.

“You think too highly of these petty people. Given the chance, they will abandon the path of righteousness for one of misguided glory. I am sure you heard of the rumors regarding Marquis Galeno of Rhamnus’ quick departure?” Kyron asked, exaggerating an expression of secretiveness.

“I am afraid I have not,” The half-Alf replied openly and truthfully.

“That he found the Imperial Seal that was hidden in the city by a loyal minister. He was the first to enter the city after all. This means that his return to Rhamnus may result in a declaration of a new dynasty.”

“Marquis Galeno is an upstanding man who has been fighting all these years for the restoration of a just rule. He would not suddenly decide to become a traitor by declaring himself emperor, after all he has done.” Lahya denied the possibility, fully aware of the fact that when given a glimpse of unimaginable power, many would succumb to the temptation. However, if that was not the truth, she did not want to slander Galeno’s good name. Time would tell whether the rumors proved to be true or not.

“I admire your trust in these warlords. And I admire your choice of friends.” Kyron nodded at Leontis, standing behind Lahya, and Alexander, who was with the volunteer militia and speaking with them as one of them. “I had hoped you could join me, to bring peace to this era of strife and prevent another unsuited fool to reign over the empire.” He had heard that Lahya would take her men and ride with Straton of Abila, but still attempted to bring her onto his side.

“I appreciate the offer, Lord Kyron, but I have already promised to follow Lord Straton.” Closing her eyes for a moment, a fearless smile graced her lips as she looked up to her opposite. “And it would seem that we do not see eye to eye. You hold great ambitions yourself, Lord Kyron. The way you spoke of a suitable individual to reign over the empire makes me think that you see yourself as such, more so than the current rightful emperor.”

At these words, Kyron laughed heartily. Peering up at his face, Lahya noticed that it was genuine and so contagious that she very nearly joined him in his elation.

“It would seem that you possess little insight into people’s hearts, Lady Lahya. You misunderstand magnanimity driven by ulterior motives as genuine, while what you think is ambition is in fact the wish to bring justice to this world.” When he finally stopped laughing, the former minister stated with a grin. “But I do not care when people misunderstand me, and I never will. Let them misjudge me, I will do what is right.”

“What you think is right,” Lahya corrected him, returning the grin. “And that is why I would have declined your offer, even if I had no previous arrangement with Lord Straton.”

“I see, I see. Very well, let us just hope that we will not stand against each other too soon, Lady Lahya. I would not want to see a brilliant figure such as yours falling from grace before your time.” With these closing words, Kyron strode off laughing, his two silent cousins in tow. Lahya remained, watching as he left, contemplating their exchange and changing her evaluation of the former minister.

“Are you going to leave him be just like that?” Euripides asked when they were far enough away for Lahya to be unable to hear them. With a glance back, he made sure who he was talking about. “That man is wasted under that little pointy ears.”

“Oh, it would seem that my cousin also possesses little insight. If you cannot see her greatness, I will have to rethink my decision to have you as a commander in my army,” Kyron responded jokingly, earning a flustered gasp from Euripides. Euphemia looked at her twin brother expressionlessly, but the two of them shared a strong bond that let him understand that she was silently mocking him. “The reason why I invited that little pointy ears to join me was because I want her potential in my grasp. Her future is very promising, even if she possesses no influence or power now. And I want to be the one that controls that future.”

“What did you see in her?” Euphemia asked, to the surprise of Euripides; she rarely spoke, and when she did, it was usually only in response to someone she could not just stay silent with. For her to ask a question of her own accord was an occurrence as rare as sunshine on the Tempest Islands.

“I am sure you both remember the battle of Leontis against Hypatios - if you can call that a battle.” The twins nodded in confirmation. “He was an unknown and defeated Hypatios, a distinguished and immensely powerful warrior, in a single stroke. While I admit that I want Leontis to become my vassal, his might is not what surprised me the most on that day. It was Lady Lahya’s reaction to his overwhelming victory.” Remembering it caused a shiver to run down Kyron’s spine. “What do you think she did? She did not even bat an eye at it, as if it was a foregone conclusion and the most natural outcome. Lahya Eventyr is a formidable person, more so than anyone else in the alliance. She rushed out to help Leontis and Alexander against Baltsar, despite posing no threat to him whatsoever. But she fought with the conviction that her companions would cover for her, as she would cover for them. Alexander may be in the shadow of Leontis for now, but he stood on the same battlefield as Baltsar, and came out unscathed, too. I do not believe for one second that those three will stop at remaining vassals to anyone.”

“If they pose a threat, should we ambush them on their way to Abila?” Euripides was a man of action, a general proficient in hit-and-run tactics and ambushes. The only reason the Naxos troops stationed at Zentervest had not been able to flank the alliance army in the battle for Zenteroest, which was held by Loukios, had been because Euripides had sniped the general sent by Miltiades with his longbow from inside the tall grass, and scattered the confused contingent with his own numerically inferior troops.

“No, they ride with Straton, who is good friends with Paramonos and Alexis. We cannot make enemies of them just yet,” Kyron warned his overeager cousin. “Come, we will return to Thronion. There is a lot of work to be done.”

The end of the Anti-Hesper Alliance marked the beginning of the Era of Heroes. It would go into history as the time when tales of valor and heroism cemented the positions of many an individual, rendering their names immortal and their legends beyond reach for those that came after them.

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