War by committee
The board with black and white squares stood in front of Spires. The pieces upon it stood in a complex configuration with no discernable pattern to them. In one corner a tall white model stood besieged by black ones. On the rest of the board, clumps of black and white figures vied for dominance. A precarious balance was held between the two colors.
A long while Spires sat staring at the configuration. Finally, he picked up a pen and wrote down a single line on a scroll. b4.
“Send this one, express mail.” Spires said to the aid waiting near the door, handing him the note. “Wait for the answer.”
Afterwards, he picked up a single piece on the board and moved it to a new square.
Spires got up and walked towards the desk in the center of the room. Though not as lavish or efficient as his offices in the City, this apartment in Erinis, capital of the Ever Empire, was acceptable for the few times he visited. The carpet was perhaps not as deep as it could have been. But decorum was everything here in Erinis. And he had to be careful of not offending some of the princes of less wealth but more lineage.
A polite knock. “Enter.”
A broad-shouldered elf stuck his head around the door. Unruly dark blond hair hid a pair of deep-set white eyes. The elf, dressed in the white and red uniform of the City of Spires, marched in when he saw that Spires was alone. “They’ve finished their conclave,” he said. “They’re now going about scheduling meetings with different Legion commanders, handing out orders. Yours is scheduled in half an hour.”
“Typical. Who knew you could run a war by committee. Thank you, Bob,” Spires replied. “At least they gave us the honor of putting us at the front of the list. Time to inform them of our plans then. Best not be late. You know how committees react to tardiness”
Two liveried servants opened the large double doors to the war room. Erect, Spires marched through them. He wore full military regalia and his magical sword, Leifur, hung at his side.
“C’al-Vyn, Sovereign Prince of Spires!” One of the two announced.
In front of Spires the room spread out. The walls were covered in maps. Some of them dated back to the time of the founding of the Ever Empire. Those were missing the demon Prison which Nandarion had erected in the center of the Ever Empire to drain the magic that sustained those demons from the world. The demons had become trapped in the Prison, which had effectively ended the last demon war.
Other, more recent maps had lines and arrows drawn on them, depicting troops and movements of famous and usually long dead generals during their great victories.
In the center of the room, a large map had been built on the floor. Landmasses and oceans were faithfully built up. Nations drawn in lines and cities marked. Playing pieces laid out the armies of the Ever Empire and its enemies. Troop numbers, supplies and movements were all mapped out. It looked like one big game.
Off to one side of the room, a large table was set on a raised platform which offered an overview of the landscape below. Behind the table a group of nine elven generals sat, one for each province of the empire and Aglaron, high general of the Ever Empire. They were studying the large map before them. Their insignia marked each of them as a Prince of the Empire.
Spires came to a halt in front of the table, facing the princes. Legs spread slightly apart and hands clasped behind his back, he stood looking straight at the wall on the other side of the table. It wouldn’t do to speak to a prince before being spoken to.
“Ahh, Spires. Still using that silly title. Nice of you to join us,” Aglaron said. “I don’t suppose introductions are needed?”
“No indeed, prince Aglaron. I think we’ve all met.” Spires let the silence drag on.
“Right then”, said Aglaron. “Go on, report. We haven’t got all day.”
“I have with me here in Erinis about one quarter of the forces of the colonies.”
“The orders were clear! Full mobilisation!”
Similar cries came from around the table. Each prince trying to outdo his neighbour in cries of dismay. Only Aglaron sat silent, a knowing smile playing on his lips. Spires gave them a moment to vent their outrage and then held up his hand, commanding silence and a chance to speak. One by one the princes fell silent.
“As I was about to say, I’ve brought one quarter of the army of the colonies to Erinis. I was already underway when the orders found me, past the fortress of Hope. Hence, I had to draw from my own plans.”
“The force here in Erinis amounts to one full legion. I left another to reinforce the fortress of Hope when I passed through. Before I left the City of Spires, I ordered a third legion to do the same at the Gates of Night, which should leave the southern oceans, and thus most of our colonies, secure. The last legion remains in the City, defending it against forces coming in from the north. I felt at the time, and I still do, that unless there is no other choice, we should not abandon our trade routes or give up on the colonies.”
“Four legions? You command four legions?” Ciryatan, third from the left, asked, surprised. “Only a Prince is allowed more than two. And even amongst princes, not many have two whole standing legions. Let alone four. How come the war commission was never informed of this?”
“It is in the founding charter of the City of Spires, drafted by Emperor Rathal and accorded by the conclave. At the time of the cities founding, the colonies were deemed a dangerous place. Emperor Rathal reasoned it needed protecting. Therefore, the City and its ruler are awarded the same military privileges as a prince.”
“My legion is at your disposal,” Spires concluded. “How can we serve?”
Flustered, the princes around the table glanced at each other, seeing who would find a correct response first. In the end, Prince Aglaron as chairman of the committee spoke up.
“Well Spires, I think you surprised our colleagues us a bit. We hadn’t expected you to show up with a whole legion. This changes plans a bit. Where do you think your forces would be best suited?”
“That of course depends on the overall situation in The Ever Empire. Give me a moment to consider.”
With that, Spires turned around and walked over to the balustrade to look down on the map laid out on the floor below.
“Coradis has the south. The western approach is defended by Armis in the south and the Narathi in the North. Armis is well defended by the old magics. And as for the north, well, I doubt the Narathi will appreciate my presence or need my help. The North Eastern approach, through Itrica, on the other hand, that seems most open to attack.”
More surprised faces at the table. Given the choice, none of them would have picked Itrica as a base. Not when they could have picked the courts of Erinis, the glamour of Lazuly or the safety of Elmira behind the barrier mountains.
“Right, Itrica it is then” said Aglaron. “We’ll pass your orders down and have all the necessary paperwork drawn up. You’ll be able to ship out after that. I think that will be all. Unless you have something else to add?”
“I would like to request an audience with Emperor Orhanon. I have personal intelligence for him that he’ll want to hear.”
“The Ever Emperor is busy” the right most elf, Bel’Ath Eleithnir, secretary to the Phoenix court said. “He doesn’t have room in his schedule to meet each noble that visit Erinis. Pressing matters of state. If you have any relevant information, then you should share it with this council, so that we may consider it and use it as we deem fit.”
“In that case, I will make an appointment through his office. As said, the information I have is of a private nature. It does not belong in this room. If there is nothing else, then don’t let me keep you occupied. I’m sure you have more work this afternoon.”
With that, Spires turned on his heels and walked out the room.
Bob trudged on through the muck. God, how he hated Itrica. A whole month of rain had made him remember why he had moved to the colonies.
And then the marshes. His feet had been soaked from the moment he got off the ship. Dry land they dared call it. How did they manage to keep those chariots moving? The baggage train had been stuck all the way from Ilmaris. At least this patrol had been to the Horned Peak. Uphill there had been a semblance of dry land.
Up ahead he could see the lights of the main camp reflecting off the light drizzle. Not much further now. And then for a hot bath and some wine.
“Sir!” a yell came from behind. “Demon activity to the right!”
“Company on alert!” Bob shouted the orders. “Prepare for assault!” Soldiers were already in motion as the second command was issued. “Wheel right! Spears at a ready, this is no weather for bows. Cavalry take the far flank!” Time to find out if these new Coradis Cavalry were any good, he thought.
“What did you see Halarfan? And where?” Bob asked the soldier who had given the initial warning cry.
“Up there, amongst the peaks.” Halarfan pointed. “Magical flash. A lightning ball, I think. The same as with the Asmodean Nightmares last week.”
Great, Bob thought. I hate those mad things. I’ll take a sane opponent any day of the week. Better get this over with. “Outriders! divisionary tactics. Move up and investigate. Draw them out if you can.”
Several horses shot up the mountain in flashes of brown. Another magical discharge rolled off the mountain slope. It exploded as the bolt crashed into a tree halfway up the slope. And out of the explosion a mass of writhing limbs appeared, thundering down the mountain side.
The front outrider fell in surprise as the demon spawn washed over him at close range. The others wheeled aside like a wave splitting on a rock. Veering left and right, they drew on the nightmares, splitting the unit in two. Each demon was a flailing mass of tentacles and limbs in garish colours. Each nightmare had a round mouth filled with spikey fangs in the middle of the mass of tentacles.
The left knights managed to keep ahead of the flailing tentacles storming down the mountain side. They made for the impossibly small gap between the Rangers and Sword dancers. The Elven horses squeezed through and fled to the relative safety beyond the two units. The Asmodean nightmares crashed into the shield wall, dying on spears as they struck at the elves.
It seemed impossible that the Rangers would hold the monstrosities at bay. The elves had managed to halt the first wave of nightmares. But the later ranks simply barrelled over their fallen brothers and struck deep into the Rangers unit. Slowly the line began to give way under the pressure.
And then the sword dancers struck the demon horde’s flank. They swung their long blades with lightning speed and impossible grace. Each stroke cut of limbs or felled a nightmare. The sword dancers went through the demons like a knife through butter.
On the other flank, the Coradis Cavalry had kicked their steeds in motion as soon as they had seen the Asmodean nightmares appear. The fleeing outriders had passed through their ranks. Moments later the elven cavalry unit crashed into the demons. Their momentum carried them through the unit and out the other side. They wheeled their steeds around for another pass.
The battle was over almost as fast as it began. The demons lay dead or dying and slowly the magic that had taken them into this realm dissipated and retreated into the Barrier Mountains.
“You could have taken a bath first you know.” Spires said. “You’re dripping on the carpet now”.
“I know” Bob replied. “But I also know you like getting the reports in as soon as possible. And it keeps me from having to point out it is still raining.”
Bob stood, arms clasped behind his back, inside Spires’ command tent. A thick, dark red carpet covered most of the floor, except around the stove which sat to one side. The table in front of him held several maps, held in place by a few cups and an assortment of rocks, which was another thing Itrica seemed to have more than enough off. Most of the maps detailed parts of Itrica, but there were also a few detailing the other provinces.
“Besides, I’ve never liked this carpet.”
“You’re still upset about the Ind campaign?” Spires arched an eyebrow. “You don’t take losing well.”
“I still hold that you cheated.”
“A Narathi hurt. Report then, if you must keep dripping on my carpet.”
“We had several demon incursions this patrol. They were mainly centred in the higher Barrier mountain passes. Here, here and there” Bob marked three places on one of the maps in front of him. “The other patrols report much the same. We’re managing, but so far the incursions have been small. It does feels like the rate at which the incursions appear is increasing.”
Spires moved several pieces around on the maps. “Did you check on the shard network?”
“Yes, the ones I saw are still standing and fully functioning. You’re still afraid the Prison is destabilizing?”
Spires let out a sigh. “The Prison failing, you can feel it in the air. And you’ve also read the prophecies. These demon incursions are already proof that magic is leaking back into the world. When the Prison collapses it will be a catalyst for the apocalypse.”
“So, what are we doing in Itrica again? Wouldn’t a beach on the White Sea in Lazuly have been better? A warm, sunny beach.”
“Nobody else is here. Someone has to defend my ancestral home. The other princes are all lying on their sunny Lazuly beach. But, I have good news for you” Spires said. “I’ve received news from our contact in the north. We’re leaving in the morning.”
“What’s our destination?” Bob asked.
“A barbarian fleet is aiming straight for the Dragon pass.” Spires replied. “And if our contact is right, then they are coming on a scale not seen before.”
“Rider approaching!” One of the scouts announced as he came running back to the head of the column. “One of the outriders is returning.”
The army was crossing a long mountain plateau. The scout rounded a small copse in the in the bright green field ahead. A brook crossed their path, coming out of a lake surrounded by reeds and yellow irises. It dropped away over the edge to their left, where the land fell away steeply towards the Itrician fens and marshes. To the right, the Barrier Mountains disappeared into angry grey clouds. For the moment, the rain had let up and a weak afternoon sun was peering through the clouds as it sunk towards the great ocean far in the distance.
“Thank you, Hal’Darvan” Spires said. Turning to Bob, he said “We’ll make camp here and wait for the outrider. Set up a perimeter.”
“Commanders,” Spires addressed the elves gathered around the table in his command tent. “I have received news from the west.”
Spires leaned on the desk, which was completely covered by a detailed map showing the northern provinces of the Ever Empire. A single scroll lay unrolled on top of it all. Outside he could hear the hustle and bustle of the army camp being set up, of cooking fires being lit and a defensive palisade being set up. Seated around him were elves from around the Ever Empire and the colonies, the commanders of the different divisions of the first colonial legion.
“I do not recall having ever seen any news this dire in all the long years. The Dragon pass has fallen. A large barbarian army forced its way into the inner provinces of the Ever Empire.”
Cries of dismay came from around the group.
“However,” Spires went on, silencing the group, “it gets worse. The reason the barbarians managed to overcome the defenders was treason. A thunder of Coradrian dragons aided the barbarians and overran the garrison.”
The commanders fell silent in shock. “Impossible” one of them muttered. “I don’t believe it” another said.
“I fear it’s true,” Spires continued. “Prince Thalyon himself was seen leading the charge. Coradis has seized the opportunity and has thrown us into a civil war.”
“So we have barbarians to the west of us, traitors to our south. Probably a sea full of pirates to our north” Captain Nonchalantis said. “We’re sitting ducks out here. Where do we turn to?”
“I say we go west,” Aeremhar, commander of the Coradis Cavalry, said. “In the current confusion, we push through to Narathia and join up with the host.”
“No,” came another. “We should head out to sea. With our fleet we can make it to Erinis.”
“I vote east,” came a third. “We turn around to the Horned peak and dig ourselves in. Not even a whole thunder of dragons can dig us out there.”
The discussion went on for a while. Several plans leading in all different directions were put forward and rejected. Finally, when most plans had been mentioned at least twice, Spires cut in. “Commanders, please. You’re only thinking of the safety of your troops and yourself. You are not considering the needs of our enemies or what is truly at stake here.”
“All right,” An-Ar Oleth said. “What do you suggest then?”
“Now that the barbarians crossed the Barrier Mountains together with the Coradrians, they will either head east for Armis or west for Erinis. If they turn east, we can’t catch up with them in time to aid the Armian priestesses. But I don’t think they will head that way. Thalyon may be a traitor, but he’s not going after the priestesses. Even he wouldn’t dare. No, they are going for the Ever Emperor. They want to strike at the heart of the Ever Empire’s military first. Erinis is the key.”
“And if they do, they will pass right by us. We can strike at their flank and rear. We can aid Erinis and put a big dent in the Coradrian and barbarian forces.”
“How?” asked An-Ar Oleth. “In case you failed to notice, there is a whole mountain range between us and them. And all safe passes near us are either controlled by barbarians or Coradrians. Itrica has no passes to the iner kingdoms open to us. We have no way of getting to them.”
“We cross here,” Spires said, placing a finger on the map in front of him.
“It can’t be done.”
“It can. Itricians do it sometimes. Though rarely without need. But there are some trails across the mountains. If you know what you’re doing.”
“And you do?” Asked An-Ar Oleth.
Spires stated “I do.”
“As an Elfling, I spend a lot of time high up in the mountains.” Spires explained. “The animals won’t bother a group this big. And if we stick to the shard network routes then magical discharges should be kept to a minimum. The main thing we need to worry about is the reality bubbles.”
“Reality bubbles?” Aeremhar asked.
“I don’t think anyone really knows what they are. Or if they are actually real or imagined. But in some places magic seems to build up and form dream realities. They are mostly harmless if you keep your wits about you and don’t let them get to your head.” Spires said.
“But some people have been known to disappear inside the peaks only to emerge a decade later again, while for them only a day passed. Or the reverse, where people are gone for only a day, but they return aged years.”
“And that is what you want us to go into?” Aeremhar asked.
“Yes. If we want to save the Ever Empire, we must. And I believe we can do it.” Spires looked around the circle. Some had their heads bend down. Others looked back or gave a small nod. Spires waited for a second longer. No more replies came.
“All right, it’s decided then. We leave in the morning. Tomorrow we cross the Barrier Mountains.