Prologue: Glanduil Balaston
The night was the darkest it had been in what felt like millennia and heavy rain pelted down on Glanduil's white armor from way up in the stratosphere. The proud knight looked down across the courtyard where his fellow knights stood, prepared to fight valiantly. Enemy troops bagan to trickle into the fortification and the sounds of steel clashing filled the air. Glanduil steeled his resolve and leapt from the tower, allowing his exo-armor to absorb the shockwave as he hit the ground. Two Sangréalan foot soldiers witness the incredible feat and stood gawking. "For the empire!" They ran at the knight, swords held high, as he activated his energy longsword and parried both swings.
Without speaking, Glanduil fell the soldiers and continued towards the other Firebrand Knights, who were already in the midst of battle.
A speaker inside Glanduil's helmet buzzed to life. "Captain!" yelled the familiar voice of Behr Wulfgard, second in command and one of Glanduil's closest friends. "We need to fall back!" He shouted from a top the wall, pointing towards the enemy ranks. "They have ion cannons! They can demolish these walls in seconds!"
Glanduil shook his head and chuckled. "No need to shout!" His friend had always been an over-worrier and his doubt often left him feeling more confident than before, knowing Behr's uncertainty was many a time unfounded. It was sort of like his funny, good luck charm.
"Behr, my old friend," he shouted back over the coms. "As long as we have breath in our lungs and strength in our hearts, we shall not falter!" He dodged a blaster shot and activated his large energy shield. "This may be our last battle! But if it should be, then we shall fall together!" Just then, Glanduil noticed the whirring of an energy blade hurtling toward him. He parried the blade just in time to fell his foe.
"Aye, Captain!" He heard in unison from all around him. Inside his helmet, the visor of which allowed him to see a three-dimensional projection of the terrain around him, he felt his eyes swell. I will not fail you, Kelph. I made a promise. He thought about his wife's long, flowing hair and he felt strength flowing through him with renewed vigor.
Suddenly, a loud whistling filled the air and deafened everything, followed by a bright flash. Glanduil held up his shield just in time to protect himself and two other knights from the ion blast that destroyed the section of the border wall in front of them, along with several knights and even some of the Sangréalan soldiers.
Glanduil heaved a large piece of the wall off of himself and helped another knight to his feet. "Any casualties?" He asked over the comms. Each of the knights grunted a negative, including the ones on top of the wall when it exploded.
"Luckily we have this armor, or we'd all be goners." Behr spoke bluntly, as he walked up to Glanduil. "These poor saps weren't so fortunate." He motioned to the Sangréalan soldiers that littered the ground. "What kind of monster fires on his own troops?"
"The kind of monster we can't allow into Aélia." Glanduil said. "Let's rest up for the next wave of soldiers."
The knights found reprieve behind some debris from a fallen portion of the wall that had been blown away by the ion cannon blast. The knights removed their helmets and sat to enjoy the sudden quiet. They spoke of how the Aelian Armed Forces had suffered major casualties trying to hold back the enemy and been ordered to retreat, leaving the knights to fend off the imperial interloper. One of the knights, Jero, looked around and asked, "Has anyone seen Hakai? He was with me just before the ion blast."
Glanduil stood and frantically counted his knights to make sure they were all accounted for. "Hakai? Hakai, are you there?" He spoke over the comms as he pointed for the knights to search the rubble. After a few minutes, the the comma buzzed to life again and a voice came on. "Captain, I'm sorry."
"Hakai,why are you sorry? Where are you?"
"I can't. I'm so tired of fighting." The speaker went silent.
"Sir Neffiet, please come back. We can't give up!" The faces of the knights looked solemn as Glanduil waited for an answer.
"My family. I have a son. I need to get them away-"
"I understand completely, Hakai. I have four children of my-"
"Coward! There won't be anyone to protect if we don't fight!" Behr yelled passionately. Glanduil held up his hand to quiet boisterous friend and held his finger to his lips.
"Now listen, Hakai-"
"I'm sorry, captain," the deserter interrupted, "Thank you for everything." Static.
"Hakai? Hakai! Dammit!" Glanduil threw off his helmet and cursed the sky. He knelt down and punched the dirt. "What do we do now?"
After checking in with his knights, Glanduil stopped to scan the battlefield and saw the camp of the enemy in the distance. The most recent wave of their troops was held and several were still fleeing the walls, knowing they stood no chance.
During the empire's previous advance, Glanduil noticed a thinning in the enemy ranks. A pincer maneuver might work, he thought. He turned back to the makeshift camp and relayed his plan to the troops. "It looks like they have a consistent opening in their west flank." He looked around at the knights who were winded and resting. "They've spread themselves too thin. We should split and push in from both sides."
"A pincer, Captain?" Behr asked. "A fine plan. I'll come in from the rear when you push through." They gave each other an affirmative nod and clasped hands. "Good luck, my friend. See you on the other side." The burly man turned to the men that would be accompanying him and started the trek around the eastern side of the wall.
The Firebrand Knights were outmatched a thousand to one, but for every one knight, there was the strength of ten men. This was made possible by the armor they were outfitted with. They were state of the art, with the most advanced nanite technology gifted by King Grigory. Each one gave the knights a set of unique abilities based on their own, individual psyches. There was no way on Ael that they could lose, so they held fast to hope. The knights continued their push through the enemy ranks until they noticed the enemy troops creating a clearing.
"Behr, it looks to have been a trap." Glanduil chuckled, but the coms had gone silent. The captain began to notice the enemy slowly enclosing around them. The forces of the empire had his knights surrounded on all sides. "Hold!" Glanduil held up his hand and each knight steadied their weapons. An earsplitting horn blew in the distance and the royal banner of the Empire waved solemnly. "The emperor." There was muttering through the ranks of knights and some began to panic. The Sangrealan leader was an enigma. No Aelian had ever seen him and lived to tell the tale. That was enough to make any Aelian afraid for their life.
The knights were forced to wait in suspense as a large, black shape emerged from the darkness in the distance. The contraption ground to a halt a few meters in front of them and Emperor Runivan Sangrey emerged out of the black, metal carriage, held up on four large, intimidating wheels.
"The Firebrand Knights, at last." He said with clasped hands. The twisted man clapped sarcastically as he walked towards them. "A pity Grigory couldn't have joined your lovely welcoming party." The emperor spoke in a broken dialect of the Aelian language and his accent was almost as terrifying as his dark, sunken eyes.
"Whatever it is you expect to gain, Runivan, you stand no chance against-" Glanduil started, proudly.
"Oh-ho-ho," The evil man laughed, interrupting. "I'm well aware of that, sir knight. But this is, what you might call, a show of force. A test, if you will." He glowered at Glanduil. "If the eastern border of Aelia should fall in the process, well, wouldn't that just be peachy?" He snickered. "It will demoralize your precious, little kingdom and then I will show you ingrates just how mighty the everlasting Sangrey Dynasty truly is!"
A deafening cheer sounded throughout the ranks of the empire. Runivan turned to his loyal subjects and bowed sardonically. The very idea of letting this man have his way made Glanduil's skin crawl. The captain stepped forward as if to interrupt the extravagant cacophony. "It is quite obvious you are a very proud man, emperor." Glanduil turned and caught Behr's eye as his squad was escorted into the clearing. He nodded at him as if to say, Whatever happens, follow my lead. Behr knew full well that his captain was planning something reckless and he shook his head in protest. "But are you too proud to accept a wager from this lowly knight?" He asked as he turned back towards the shadow-clad ruler.
Runivan grinned and his eyes narrowed. "Oh, please. Do continue."
"I challenge you, here. Now. In the presence of all our men. Fight to the death. No quarter." He paused, taking in the man's reaction, "Do you accept?" He chuckled, "Or are you afraid to fight me?" Each of his knights gasped in disbelief. They couldn't believe the hubris of the man they followed.
A deep, guttural laugh bellowed from within the black soul of the Sangrealan emperor. Runivan held up his hand and spun his finger in the air, a signal to his troops to ensure his fun was not interrupted. He continued to laugh as he walked back to his carriage and climbed back inside. The knights allowed themselves to believe that their captain might just have intimidated the fearsome emperor. "I was so hoping to have the opportunity to test this new design today," Runivan announced gleefully from inside his vessel.
Suddenly there was a loud screeching of metal on metal just as the top of the carriage folded back and the vehicle shrank around Runivan to become a hideous set of black armor. The Aelian knights stared, dumbfounded. They did not expect outdated Aelian technology to be used by their greatest enemy. "You really think you are the only ones that have access to nanite technology, worms?" His laugh resounded even louder as he pulled a large scythe from thin air. The helm of his new armor disappeared and his expression was horrific. "I accept!" The arena of troops around them whooped and yelled as the helm re-materialized around their ruler's head. "What are your terms, lowly knight?"
Glanduil answered promptly, unwavering . "My terms are these, Runivan. If I succeed, your armies turn and leave Aelia's borders. And if-"
"WHEN I succeed!?" Runivan sounded wild and devious underneath his black head protection.
"Then the Firebrand Knights shall surrender to the Sangrealan Empire." The knights protested loudly and the captain turned to face them. He removed his helmet and his sandy brown hair waved in the wind. His deep blue eyes peered at each of them. Through their helmets, he could imagine each of their faces clearly. "It is okay, my friends. A Balaston has never lost a duel." He grinned and turned back towards the enemy. However, before he could replace his helm, the emperor shouted, "Deal!" And lunged towards the off guard captain. Glanduil dodged backwards between the knights, losing his helmet within the ranks of the empire in the process. Before he could recover it, one of the Sangrealan troops kicked it away and Runivan swung his dark weapon once again, missing him and his knights by mere inches.
Glanduil held his long sword, which was called Diligence, at the ready. His weapon housed the warm, blue glow of a small aelium crystal which he could charge to release a massive blast of energy. The air around him began to glow and he swung his sword straight ahead, directly at the Sangrealan ruler. It released a large projectile that the emperor easily dodged. Before Runivan could react, however, the captain was on the attack. With his photon-shield held forward, he ran at the emperor. Glanduil's armor allowed him to move at breakneck speeds around the evil man. The emperor's armor may have been large and menacing, but it was an outdated model and could never harness the raw power of aelium energy. "Only the metals found in the mines of Isa can resonate with aelium." Glanduil gloated, "You stand no chance!"
The barrage of attacks from the Firebrand captain left the emperor staggered to his knees, but there was barely a scratch on his gleaming armor. Runivan began to chortle and held up his free hand and beckoned another flurry of attacks. Glanduil obliged and charged the man. Runivan held out his free hand once again, palm out, and caught every jab and swing of Glanduil's blade. The emperor's left gauntlet glowed a dark shade of red as Glanduil jumped backwards. "That's impossible!"
Runivan chuckled. "Nothing is impossible if you know where to place the right people, sir knight."
Somehow, the empire had access to aelium, the mineral that powered the majority of Aelia's cities and technology and a very closely guarded secret. The implications of this stunned Glanduil. He knelt down for a moment and looked up at the emperor. "Is there a traitor in Aelia?!"
"I have eyes and ears everywhere." The emperor flicked a sly smirk. "But oh, would you look at that! We're so far away from your knights now." He motioned around himself. Glanduil looked around, wildly. "You're the only Aelian that knows about my spies. Guess that means you have to die." The dark-haired emperor ran at top speed in circles around Glanduil. The knight's internal systems couldn't keep up with just how fast he had become. How can this be? Before he could ponder the thought, his armor's systems caught sight of the emperor closing in for the kill. Glanduil jumped back and turned just in time to catch the wind of Runivan's phantom attack. Just as quickly as he came, the emperor was gone. Glanduil looked around, confused. His systems had never been wrong before. Just as he turned back to where he last saw the man, he heard a macabre voice. "Boo."
The emperor's scythe sank deep into the chest of the leader of the Firebrand Knights. Glanduil fell to his knees and spit up a mouthful of crimson. Runivan knelt down beside him and put his hand on Glanduil's face and stared for a long moment. "This is the beginning of the end, boy." He stopped and looked around the knight's crumbling body and turned back with faux concern on his face. "It seems you have misplaced your sword, sir knight."
Glanduil muttered something the emperor couldn't hear and spit up more blood. "What was that, boy?" He said, leaning closer. The knight pointed somewhere behind Runivan and smiled. "Look... behind you."
While the emperor had been distracted, Glanduil had charged his weapon and left it laying where he knelt before, just in case the situation became dire. Now he recalled the sword back to him with the trajectory system built into his right gauntlet and it was now hurtling towards the two prone men.
The emperor jumped up with a start and turned just in time to be impaled by the glowing blue blade, Diligence. He turned back toward the knight with a bewildered look on his face. He lunged towards him wildly and it took all the strength Glanduil could muster to dodge the blast that disintegrated Emperor Runivan Sangrey into particles.
Glanduil crawled slowly and sat up against the crumbling stone wall he landed near and looked up at the clear, new dawn sky. He felt at peace just as the plethora of knights surrounded him on all sides. "You did it, captain!" Behr ran up and knelt beside his captain. "The Sangrealan armies are in full retreat!"
Glanduil smiled at his friend and spoke softly. "This is your victory today, old friend. Not mine." Behr shook his head and stood up. "Help me with the captain, you three!" He motioned for three knights to come to him, but their leader held up his hand.
"It is too late for me, my brave knights." He turned his head back up to the sky. "I feel the stars calling me." Disheartened, each of his knights removed their helms and knelt down around him, tears filling their eyes.
"Behr... Take care of my... Family. For Aelia... Is in dang-." His voice trailed off.
Sir Glanduil Balaston's final thoughts were of his family. His wife Kelphine and their newborn, Twilley. Of his little princess, Elmyra. His youngest son, Brayder. And finally, of his oldest boy, Glaed.