Chapter 3

AZ 1452 - Early Summer
Maximilion, Notos

The Stonecutter's Gate opened to permit the cart bearing Duke Cronos into Maximilion. For the past three days he had been covertly filtering in the troops of the Third Legion. The time to take back the palace drew ever closer.
The rebels' surprise attack devastated the cohort garrisoned in the capital, but the men who survived were able to maintain control of the outer ring of the city and hold on to most of the inner ring as well, but the palace remained out of their hands. They did not have the strength to dislodge the rebels and rather than risk any half-measures, the three cohorts deployed to Babophos, Girondin and Kordai were recalled to make a sufficient show of force to reassure the local populace and overwhelm any trickery the rebels might conceive.
"Now everything rests on that boy," Sir Telemachos said.
The Master of the Sword was exaggerating, but the main plan for retaking the palace relied on the free knight Sir Ionathas leading a small unit to infiltrate the palace and seizing at least one of the gates. Ionathas and his freelances had proven vital to thwarting the rebels in the south, besting them at both Maranthe and Iakobin. Surely he would rise to meet the current challenge.
"The only man I would trust more with a mission like that is you," the Duke replied.
"Then you should have sent me, milord."
At first blush, it was just another of Telemachos' boasts, but there was a bitter edge to it and Cronos could not help but feel there was an underlying criticism of his choice to entrust this mission to Sir Ionathas.
"What do you have against him, Telemachos?" the Duke asked.
"He's a Notian," Telemachos replied. "His loyalty is to his homeland, not to Zephyr. He made that clear when he declared himself a free knight."
"We are not fighting against his homeland, sir," the Duke said sharply. "We are fighting for it. For all their rhetoric, these rebels are only interested in taking power for themselves. The lives of these people will be no better if they should win the day. Besides, no loyalty to his homeland has kept Prince Carpos from betraying Zephyr and butchering his own countrymen, now did it?"
Not relenting in the slightest, Telemachos said, "Your fondness for the boy blinds you to the danger he represents, milord. It is not a long step for the Hero of Maranthe to become the Hero of all Notos. And heroes have a way of becoming kings."
"As do villains," the Duke replied. "We would only be so lucky for the people of Notos to acclaim a young man like Ionathas as their king. We would have a strong ally and we could be spared the burden of maintaining the Protectorate. Notos was never meant to be a Zephyrian colony, after all."
Telemachos crossed his arms and sniffed, "Perhaps that would've been more honest."
The Master of the Sword had gone too far with that and Duke Cronos swiftly rebuked him for it.
"Mind your words, sir. I value your frankness, but you are beginning to step down a dangerous path."
"The tongue walks while the feet are idle, milord," Telemachos replied, not sounding particularly repentant.
Ever since the fall of the palace, Telemachos had become increasingly sullen and withdrawn. Indeed such a humiliating defeat for the Legion at hands of the rebels was devastating, but perhaps more damaging than that was the revelation of Prince Carpos' betrayal and the Duke's suppression of the truth. It greatly warped his perspective. Always a wary man, Telemachos was seeing enemies everywhere. No one except perhaps for the Duke himself was above suspicion with him. It was bound to breed strife if not checked, but perhaps it would be enough simply to keep Telemachos occupied.
"Your feet will find work soon enough," the Duke said and he was thankful for it.
The sooner Sir Ionathas set things in motion, the better. Until then, all that remained was to wait.
And so they waited for some time until a legionary burst into the house the Duke was using as a temporary headquarters.
"My lord, you need to see this!" he exclaimed.
"What is it?" the Duke asked as he stepped outside.
"Look!" the legionary cried, pointing toward the palace.
The palace was surrounded by a shimmering dome awash with an eerie blue-green light.
Telemachos, who followed the Duke out, could only mutter, "What the devil...?"
"It must be some form of magical barrier," the Duke said. He then told the legionary, "Send word to Master Cytheros. Have the battlemages dispel this barrier."
The legionary bowed and replied, "It shall be done, my lord."
It took time for the battlemages to coordinate their efforts against the barrier. Few things ever went swiftly with mages. Perhaps it was due to Cronos' own Equestrian roots, but he found cavalry far more decisive an instrument of warfare than magic. However, it was times like this where the battlemages proved their worth, or they would if they were actually making any progress.
"What are those mages doing?" the Duke grumbled to himself.
He could not afford any further delays. Once the rebels were alerted to the attack, the task of retaking the palace would be that much more costly. He wanted this to end as quickly and as cleanly as possible.
Finally, the barrier began to flash. The combined power of eighty battlemages should have been more than enough to bring down the barrier in short order. However, the Duke's expectations were being consistently betrayed this day. Glowing spots formed on the surface of the barrier and bolts of energy like lighting arced out. A few screams in the distance made it clear that the barrier's reaction was a lethal one.
"Look," Telemachos said. "The barrier is fighting back."
The Duke could see that well enough without it being pointed out to him. His frustration was quickly mounting. Why did they always have to be one step ahead of him? How were they contriving one means of thwarting his plans after another?
"Where did the rebels get this kind of power?" he said aloud.
No one had an answer for him and he was considering his next move when a mighty wind surged through the streets, making the Duke's cloak whip furiously about him, and a giant shadow passed over him. He looked up to the sky and saw the giant figure of a Dragon beating two pairs of huge feathered wings. It flew over to the other side of the barrier and seemed to pluck something up from the surface.
The bolts from the barrier lashed out and struck against a barrier of the Dragon's own. The Dragon did not stay to fight, however. As it flew back the way it came, it spoke with a booming voice that sounded like a multitude of women all speaking as one.
It was hard not to be awestruck by the sight before them. So Ionathas' mysterious companion was telling the truth and she was a Dragon after all. When Cronos first met her in Kordai, he knew that she was not human, but he was not entirely convinced of her claim to being a 'daughter of Tiamat' as she put it.
Now that she had revealed her true form, the Duke could not fail to notice that a mighty Dragon in all her glory fled from the barrier. If the power behind this barrier was so great that it would ward off even Dragons, what hope did mere men have?
"The barrier is advancing!" a voice cried.
Cronos saw the wall of light slowly inch past the bounds of the palace walls. There was nothing they could do to stop it.
Maintaining a level voice, the Duke said to the nearest man he could find, "Send the order. All troops, fall back. Avoid the barrier at all costs."
The order made its way through the ranks and loud voices began to cry, "Fall back! Retreat! Retreat!"
The crawl of the barrier was relentless. The barrier passed through the houses as if it were nothing but air. The Duke noticed a couple legionaries break ranks to take refuge in a nearby house. The screams could be heard from inside as the barrier passed through.
"Keep going!" the Duke shouted. "Do not stop!"
How many heeded his call and how many met the fate meted out to them by the barrier, the Duke did not know and in the heat of the moment, he did not want to know. The unstoppable barrier continued its advance past the old Atreian Wall that separated the inner city from the outer city and kept on going. It was not until the Duke passed through the very same Stonecutter's Gate he used to enter the city mere hours earlier that the barrier finally came to a halt, now encompassing the entirety of the city. What terrible power could craft such a monstrosity?
"It looks like it's stopped, milord," a nearby centurion said.
Said centurion was as good a man as any to help Cronos go about putting the shattered pieces of his army back together.
'"I want an account of our losses," the Duke said, tightly reining in his fury at this unimaginable turn of events. He had to maintain his self-control lest the men's morale suffer even more from this defeat.
"Spread the word that the men are to keep their distance from the barrier," he continued. "Summon Lords Hilarion, Aristoboulos and Democles. We must regroup our forces and plan our next move."
The centurion gave a curt bow and immediately went to shouting orders, calling up runners to pass along the Duke's orders and so on.
Eyeing the barrier, Telemachos mused, "With a barrier like that, you wouldn't need a single soldier to defend the city."
Playing along without even realizing it, the Duke said, "If they know that, they do not need any of their men to hold Maximilion..."
"If their men are not here..."
Up until that point, the Duke's thoughts were elsewhere, trying to make sense of what happened. Then everything came into focus and the terrible realization struck him.
Immediately seizing the nearest man he could find, the Duke commanded, "Send the order. As soon as the men are ready to move, we fall back to Babophos."
"Milord, Kordai is closer," Telemachos said.
"Kordai may already be lost," the Duke replied. "We must first ensure the west is secure. It is our first priority. If we lose the west, we lose all Notos."