FIC: Chosen Champions (3/?)
Solon Dike forced his face to be its usual expressionless mask as he strode into the old Nobles Council Room, now serving as The Imperial Government. The room was long and wide, seating a maximum of thirty around a long oaken table with a Seer Globe sat at its centre, to communicate with those who might be unable to attend. Most of its wooden seats weren’t taken at the moment, but all those he’d hurriedly summonsed to this emergency were present, each wearing an expression somewhere between bewilderment and disgruntlement.
“I hope you’ve got a damn good reason for calling us here!” grumbled a thick-set man with a thick, greying beard, bushy eyebrows, and matching hair hanging down to the wide shoulders of his leather hauberk. “I’m bloody sure it could have waited ‘til morn!”
Solon Dike stared evenly at Warlord Megalkes Bellum, the military mastermind behind the Howling Hordes. “Perhaps you’d think it wise to ask the emperor?”
The man snorted but sank back in his seat with a shake in his head. “So what is so urgent?” Bellum queried, his tone far more civil than before.
“Aye,” Dike pulled a seat out and sank down, “the emperor had I what you’d call a vision of some people being magically teleported here who he believes might be a threat.”
Argus Oxy, the rat-faced commander of the Purge, the Imperial secret police tasked with the hunting down of rebels, dissidents, followers of outlawed religions, and deserters, as well as being the Imperial spymaster, took the drawings. His brow creased as he examined the drawings. “Twenty-two people? The empire stretches over three continents and over twenty-five nations. It has a military numbering in the hundreds of thousands, and my own enforcement arm numbers in the tens of thousands. Shouldn’t we be more worried about the Free Trade Alliance or the rebels already within our borders, or the nations we haven’t yet conquered?”
Dike shrugged. “It is the Imperial Will, it is not our duty to query it, merely to follow its dictates.”
Zolta Carcer, a portly, bluff-faced Grom filled with her own self-importance, let out a sniff. “I can see why Annora Aurum isn’t here, the Royal Treasurer would not be happy to see the bounties on these people’s heads! Ten thousand gold each!”
Bolus Smeric, a tall yet gaunt Urad who served as the commander of the Shadow Fang, the Imperial Assassins, shook his head, violet eyes gleaming. “There’s only twenty-five thousand being offered for Ju-Long Huang, and the rest of the highest ranked rebels.”
“And all that money, and your men still haven’t managed to kill them after all these years,” Solon Dike shot right back, secure in his position as the Imperial Adjunct to risk angering even a man as dangerous as the white-haired Urad.
“So,” lisped Dotos Mayia, the power in the wispy-haired, watery-eyed woman belying her inoffensive appearance, “why am I as leader of the Imperial Shield here?”
“If you look at the notes, one of the twenty-two is a very powerful witch, and as such comes under the remit of the Imperial Shield,” Solon paused, a smile twisting on his lips, “unless you’re no longer responsible for controlling the empire’s magic users?”
“And what of the rest of us?” Warlord Megalkes Bellum demanded, his beard resting on his barrel chest.
“Warlord Bellum I want the Howling Hordes alerted, every commanding officer at every outpost, every garrison, to have a copy of these drawings. Argus Oxy, I want you to do the same with the Purge. Bolus, I want your assassins searching every shadow looking for these people. Zolta, you’re charged with the licensing of legitmate bounty hunters, I want all licensed hunters out there hunting for these newcomers.”
“And what of Thascalos Ikon?” Megalkes Bellum demanded with all of his usual bad-tempered rancour.
Solon hid a grimace. Grand Cardinal Thascalos Ikon was arguably the third more powerful man in the empire, but Solon thought of the leader of the Truth-Givers, the religious order charged with the extinction of other religions and enforcing the worship of the Emperor as a god, as a fanatical fool without the skills and attributes that he’d ideally want in a leader or someone in charge of any organisation. “I’ll see that he has that enforcement wing of his, The Bringers of The Light, looking for them too.” Solon paused. “You have your orders, now get to it.”
Basil Tiamo crouched over Simaino Moran’s twisted, lifeless body, his hands grasping to the well-thumbed, leather-backed journal he’d found upon the magician’s desk.
“I came as soon as they found me.”
Eyebrows raising at the deep, sonorous voice behind him, Basil rose and turned to the doorway behind him. The speaker was a tall, thin man with an age-creased face and sharp grey eyes matching his immaculately combed hair. The man was just clad in a linen tunic and woollen breeches, his feet enclosed in a workman’s dirt-caked boots, but for all of that he carried an air of dignity and command.
A shorter but far more muscular man stood behind the speaker, the man’s swollen torso straining to pop out of his leather hauberk. Perhaps once this man had been the very image of a balladeer’s handsome hero, but now a black patch covered his left eye, a vertical scar running from the man’s forehead through his eye and ending mid-way down his cheek, his remaining emerald orb glaring with pugnacious belligerence.
“Earl Semnos,” Basil bowed at the waist at the first man, the former leader of the Noble’s Council and Imperial Adjunct before the revolution, and current leader of their rebellion before looking towards the scarred warrior. “Ser Julius,” he greeted the noble’s bodyguard and former leader of the Vowed Knights.
“Captain Tiamo,” the noble nodded before stepping around him and crouching beside the body, the creases on the noble’s face deepening as he stared down at the corpse, his own face paling to match the dead body’s waxy complexion. “It’s true then,” the noble shook his head, “the fool, I told him not to do this, not to give up.” The Earl’s shoulders squared as he stood and turned to him. “And we’re absolutely confirmed this wasn’t an assassin making his murder look like something else?”
“No mi’lord,” Basil passed the journal over to his superior, “the notes in there are quite detailed. It seems the mage cast the Dimension-Summonsing spell despite your wishes.”
“The abyss-damned fool!” the earl snapped.
“Yes mi’lord,” Basil nodded. The rebellion had other mages in their ranks, but Moran had stood heads and shoulders above them, until Andronicus he’d been the greatest mage in ten generations. His loss could be a potential hammer blow to their efforts. “However you should have a read of his journal, detailing the people brought here by the spell. If even half of what Moran recorded is true, they are mighty heroes that could be a great boon to our quest.”
“Huh.” His attempt at calming words was greeted with a demoralised grunt. The noble’s long fingers wrapped around the journal. “The pair of you,” the earl glanced from him to Ser Julius and back again, “wait outside.”
“Mi’lord,” Basil inclined his head before following the knight outside to lurk silently by the door.
The Northern Reaches
“Woden’s balls! Is she awake?” Hans Bern rasped as he ducked his head into the low-ceilinged cavern, relieved to be under cover from the unceasing downpour, his drenched fur cloak sticking to the chainmail surcoat stretched across his vast shoulders.
“Yes Jarl Bern,” whispered the jowly nurse who served as nurse to the woman who’d once been the Northern Reaches’ most powerful bonecaster.
“Praise be,” his rumble echoed back at him through the narrow passageway. Snatching a torch out of a wall-hanging, he trudged the now-familiar route leading to his destination, shoulders bent and head dipped forward to prevent cracking it against the rough ceiling.
Eventually he came to a small cavern, the chamber itself barely illuminated by what little sunlight managed to steal in through a crack in its low roof. But then the person who called the cavern home could no longer cope with the light. Bern glanced and nodded at the two wide-shouldered warriors lurking in the shadows to the chamber’s rear, noting their callused hands resting on their axes’ shafts before turning his attention to the twitching figure lying huddled under several layers on the ground. The person was female but hardly recognisable as either gender thanks to a skeletal figure, mass of matted-hair obscuring her features, and a body and clothing neither of which had been cleaned in years.
Bern’s breath caught. The world had changed so much and so cruelly for so many of them, he himself had been one of Uralt’s highest-ranked Jarls, complete with his own grand stately home, but his fall was slight next to what this once regally proud woman had degenerated into. “Greetings Hadvig.”
“Greetings warrior.” A chill ran through him at the broken woman’s tortured rasp, but the woman didn’t look up from her inspection of her quivering, twisted talons.
Bern bit back a sigh. Once this woman had been his people’s most powerful bonecaster, their strongest witch in several decades. As leader of The Watching Circle she’d called the other noble houses’ witches from Urlat, Boden, and Volk together to stand against the invading Howling Hordes only for the emperor and his cadre of magic-users to somehow shred through them. Dozens of witches driven insane, others instantly killed, and a few, just the strongest of them, twisted into wrecks that were unable to consistently control or summons magic.
Such was the Imperium’s wrath.
Bern swallowed, forcing his nerves under control. He could not, would not, be turned from his mission no matter the risk or consequences of failure. “You sent word you wanted to speak to me?”
“Aye,” Hadvig looked up, intelligence burning from within her thatch of dirty hair. “Last night there was a disturbance in the magic stream. A mighty force has been drawn into our dimension, a force capable of standing against the Emperor.”
Bern’s blood raced but was careful not to allow himself get carried away. The last few years had been too full of setbacks to easily allow him to believe that the battle might turn. “An army capable of standing against the emperor?”
A hacking cough engulfed the bonecaster before she could reply, twisting and contorting her wiry frame. Finally though, she shook her head. “Not an army, I doubt even the emperor himself could manage to drag an army across the dimension. No, I sensed around two dozen warriors being brought here before the enchantment collapsed.”
“Two dozen warriors?” Bern shook his head and snorted. “The emperor will barely notice when he squashes them underfoot like the insignificant gnats they are.”
“Foolishness,” Hadvig scolded. “Judge these warriors not by their numbers, but by the crushed enemies they leave in their wake.”
* * *
Bone-weary after a day in the saddle, Franz Soldat nevertheless managed to look up as his second, a Lutte, strode across their camp, and saluted him. Andre Couer had a long, gaunt face with sunken eyes that burnt with a pitiless fury. His skin was drawn tight, making his head look like a skull. The tall, grey-haired Lutte looked so frail that a strong wind could snap him, but despite that Franz knew his second to be a fearsome swordsman with unguessed reservoirs of stamina. “Report.”
“Sir,” Couer’s tone was as emotionless as ever, “we have supplies enough for another Ten-Day at the most.”
“Have foraging parties sent into near-by forests, we pressed enough poachers into service, make use of them!” Soldat snapped, his weariness making him more irritable than normal. Being the leader of the world’s most renowned mercenary band was a job that came with its own unique pressures at the best of times, and the Keenest Blade had been fighting a losing battle against the expanding Grom Imperium for over a decade now. “Sorry,” he shook his head, “send them into the farms too, but make sure they pay for whatever they take.” He paused, hating the next question, yet duty compelling him to ask it every night. “And the injured?”
“Two more died today.”
Soldat closed his eyes. “May the Eternal Peace take them.”
Ju-Long Huang bit back a moan as he laid still in the false bottom of the wagon his two bodyguards used to smuggle him from city to city, ever conscious of the Howling Hordesmen and Purge members relentlessly searching for him, the last remaining member of the Auron royal family. Ever on the move, ever fleeing his enemy, ever dreaming of sitting upon the throne that had been his family’s for centuries.
Khalil Akil’s heart raced as he hurried through the Imperial palace, his elaborately-embroidered robe rustling around him. As the Imperial Mage, he was unaccustomed to exercise, but this was important news, and the King would be most unhappy if its delivery was delayed for even a second.
It was tense times for the Arzawan empire, ever since the Askumites to their east had fallen, giving the Grom Imperialists a vital foothold on Kanika. The Groms hadn’t attacked yet, but most in the royal family believed it was only a matter of time, and once the Groms had consolidated their holdings they would strike either west into the Arzawan empire or perhaps south into the lush jungles of Kush.
But now, perhaps not.
The king, a short, wizened man with thick, unruly hair and striking eyes, was already sat upon his throne when Khalil entered, the regent’s eyes looking typically impatient as he leaned forward in his seat. “Akil!” the king’s rasp echoed around the great throne room. “Why have you summonsed me awake at such a late hour?”
“Pardon me, sire.” Despite his age, Akil quickly dropped to one knee before the throne’s raised pedestal. “But I thought you would want to know that the Grom Empire has been invaded.”
“Invaded?” The king let out a bellicose roar. “Who would dare?”
“Close to two dozen people were teleported here by great magical feat,” Akil replied. “These are not ordinary people, warriors and heroes each, with power to make even one such as the emperor quake.”
“Huh,” the king looked less than convinced. “The emperor has tens of thousands of soldiers, dozens of mages, and monsters too terrible to mention at his beck and call, what can a mere two dozen warriors do?”
The Free Trade Isles
Roi Sennett rubbed wearily at her eyes. It was the middle of the night and she was dressed only in her robe, however the role of Chief Mayor, leader of the Council of Five, was a full-time one. It was an honour, but one she wished had fallen to her in a less fraught time. “You’re sure?”
Her report was directed towards a tall, gaunt man with dull grey eyes, a mop of untidy blond hair, and unprepossessing features including a dopily gap-toothed smile. The man, despite all appearances to the contrary served as the Free Trades’ spymaster and was one of the smartest most ruthless political operators and manipulators she knew. “I’ve no physical evidence,” Himilco Adoni finally admitted. “However several of our seers have reported these teleportations. Apparently so many teleportations of so many exceptional subjects created quite a disturbance in the mana and caused more than a few restless nights.”
Sennett looked towards the room’s other occupant, a short peacock of a man with a pointed greying goatee, slicked-back matching hair, and stern black eyes. “What do you think of this Grand Protector?”
“I say it sounds like trouble.” Hanno Barca’s voice sounded like the gruff growl of the two bulldogs that followed him everywhere. “We need to increase the numbers in The Sacred Corps.”
Sennett hesitated, her lips pressing together in a thoughtful pout. The Sacred Crops were the small permanent army the ruling merchant class employed to keep them safe. At this moment in time, The Sacred Crops was larger than it had been in recorded memory, but still Braca pressed for more.
And with the Grom Empire leering greedily at them, plotting to steal their trade routes away, who was to say he wasn’t right? Finally Sennett nodded. “How many men do you currently have?”
“I have a standing force of six thousand Cropsmen on each isle,” Hanno quickly replied.
“I’ll okay funding to increase numbers to seven thousand an isle,“ Sennett finally replied.
“I assume you don’t want Earl Silvano to be informed about these new arrivals?” Himilco replied.
Sennett bit back a groan at the mention of another throbbing pain in her rear. The Earl was the leader of a small group of Grom nobles who’d fled here just as the troubles began. Because of their wealth and influence they were welcome guests, but also extremely demanding. “He’s the last person you inform,” she quickly replied.
Hansuke Swift Sword waited until the six-men enemy patrol had marched obliviously past him before stalking out of the shadows and heading in the opposite direction. His eyes moved constantly missing nothing as he searched every nook and cranny for any lurking cutpurse or robber foolish enough to attempt an ambush on the foremost Blade-Lord of his generation. His nose wrinkled at the stench of the refuse littering the once scrupulously cleaned streets. How far his people had fallen in so short a time.
Finally he reached his destination, a nondescript house in what had once been one of the city’s merchant districts. He was careful to knock on the house door in a precise rhythm, three fast, two slow, and one fast, knowing full well that any deviation from the coded knock would result in him being riddled with arrows.
He’d barely finished knocking when a peephole swung open. “The orange sun descends in the west,” snapped a glaring pair of green eyes.
“The crescent moon rises in the east,” he finished the code.
The peephole slammed shut, a half-second later and Hansuke heard the sound of bolts being pulled back and chains being rattled loose. The door creaked half-open. “Come in.”
Hansuke slid through the slight gap afforded him and into the comfortable-looking hall beyond, its walls an inoffensive orange. “I’m here for the seer.”
“Upstairs,” the short man finished locking the door before nodding towards the threadbare carpeted stairs.
Hansuke sprinted upstairs, his tread so light that the steps waived their usual protesting creak. Hansuke nodded at the two Blade-Men stationed at the top of the narrow landing, their ranking obvious to anyone who noted the solitary golden sword sigil stamped on their scabbarded weapons’ hilts. For his part, Hansuke’s skill level and rank ensured he had no less than four sigils on his sword’s handle.
Hansuke ducked through the door at the corridor’s end, into a sparsely-furnished with only a bed, chair, and desk of the most basic quality. Still, it was a lot more than many Ishanti had these days.
“Seer,” Hansuke nodded curtly at the man sat in the chair. The seer was a short, scrawny man with only a few wisps of hair clinging stubbornly to his head. The mage’s green eyes were rheumy and he lacked any force of personality whatsoever. And yet the fates had ensured that he was the most powerful surviving Ishanti mage, any stronger having already been culled or press-ganged into the Imperial Shield. “You have news?”
“Ahhh, the great Blade-Lord visits humble me,” the seer’s voice matched his muted personality. Hansuke had to strain to hear him. “Last night a great force for good arrived in this dimension.”
“Yes?” Hansuke crouched before the elderly man. Talk of dimensions meant nothing to him, but any potential allies would be a boon to him. “And where did this force arrive?”
The seer hesitated. “In Coltura.”
Hansuke winced, eyes screwing together as bitterness cut deep into him, twisting his belly. Not one of the recently conquered nations but part of the Grom Empire itself. “Dead before they know it.”