Chapter 1
A Familiar Battle

AZ 1450 - Late Summer
Outside Maranthe, Notos

Ionathas had spent nearly five years training in the Hesperian Order of Royal Equestrians before he was awarded his knighthood. After fulfilling a yearlong term in Zephyr, he was allowed to return to his homeland as a free knight.
Once he was back in Maranthe, he began to look for skilled men who would help him form a band of freelances. This sparked the ire of the prefect of the garrison as Ionathas unwittingly drew away the bulk of the volunteers for the local militia. In the end, though, Ionathas made the compromise of having his men pull double-duty as militiamen and perform joint training. Ionathas had his freelances, the town kept a strong militia and the soldiers of garrison gained the opportunity to train with a full-fledged knight.
A couple weeks had passed and things were going well. Occasionally Ionathas would have trouble sleeping and walked around on the outskirts of the town to calm his nerves. There was usually nothing to see, but this night was different.
Coming out of the woodline were small flames, possibly torches. However, something was not quite right. Instead of the usual red-orange, the flames were an eerie green. It could not possibly be the craft of ordinary humans. A few stifled grunts in the distance reinforced his fears. He wasted no time, immediately running back to the village.
As he ran, he shouted at the top of his lungs, "To arms! To arms! Spread the alarm! Women, children and old men, get to the barracks! Hawks, to me! Men of the militia, form up on the north side of town!"
The watchmen began sounding the alarm and Ionathas' call was echoed by his freelances, the Hawks of Maranthe, and by the militiamen he roused. It did not take long for the Hawks to flock to him. His second-in-command Dabidos came bearing his horse and gear.
"This is no drill, I take it?" Dabidos asked.
"No, it's not," Ionathas replied, quickly donning his armor. "Creatures coming from the forest. It would seem the rumors are true."
While the vast Thermodas Forest was never a place to be taken lightly, in recent months, an unusual number of villagers who ventured into the forest had not returned. Some of the little farms close to the forest had been razed as well. There were those who suspected the rebels. Others thought it was the work of more sinister forces. It would seem the latter were right. Was the attack six years ago nothing more than a scouting expedition, a prelude to a full-scale invasion?
Ionathas did not have time to worry about it. The town's defense was his first priority.
"Raddai, Asom, take twenty men each and go to the east and west and stand ready in case they move to flank us. Samaos, take another twenty and make sure the women and the children and the old men take refuge in the barracks. Once that's done, break up into teams of four and patrol the town to make sure nothing gets through. The rest of you, with me. We'll join the militia and the garrison to take on the enemy's main force."
"Understood," Samaos said, who spoke for the other two brothers as the eldest.
Samaos, Raddai and Asom took their groups of twenty and set to their assigned tasks. That only left about two dozen to follow Ionathas. It would have to do. Mounting his horse, Ionathas drew his sword and pointed it northward. It was all the command he needed for the other Hawks to follow him.
About forty militiamen had already gathered by the time Ionathas returned to the north side of town with more on the way. The Hawks split up to get on either side of the formation. Ionathas rode in front of them to quickly survey their forces.
"Courage, men!" he said. "Whatever may come from the forest, remember that you are here defending your homes, your wives, your children. You are all that stands in the way. Remember you training. May your thrusts be true. Ready, men! For Maranthe!"
"MARANTHE!" the Hawks and the militiamen roared.
As the defenders of Maranthe steeled themselves for the coming onslaught, the inhuman shapes were beginning to come into view. The common Kobaloi Ionathas knew well from the attack six years ago, but as for the others, he had only seen them in paintings and books during his training in Hesperia: Hairy Kobaloi, Great Kobaloi, Anthropophagoi, Medan Sphinxes, Orthoi, and more. It would not be an easy battle by any stretch of the imagination.
Ionathas was so preoccupied with the approaching enemy, that he scarcely acknowledged the prefect of the garrison riding up to him.
"What the devil do you think you're doing!?" the prefect shouted. "The defense of this town is my responsibility! You have no right giving orders to the militia!"
"We don't have time for this!" Ionathas snapped back. "The enemy is close. Look out there! Do they look like native creatures to you? There is only one place they could have come from: the Darklands."
"Impossible!"
"Where else could Kobaloi and the other fell races come from? I don't want to argue with you. I'd like you to send twenty of your men to protect the townspeople taking refuge in the barracks. Will you do that?"
"As you wish, Sir Knight," the prefect replied, showing no small measure of reluctance.
"I have twenty men at the east and west and another twenty on roving patrol in the town," Ionathas continued. "That should be enough to cover our flanks. You and your men take the right. I will take the left with the Hawks and the militia."
"...So be it."
The prefect obviously did not like Ionathas taking the reins and dictating strategy, but Ionathas was not going to coddle the prefect's ego at the cost of Maranthe's safety. As a knight, he was technically within his rights to take control of the situation, but he did not want to foment ill will between the locals and the garrison.
The time for arguments passed once the enemy broke into a full charge. Their monstrous shrieks and howls caused many men to shrink back in fear and a few to even wail out loud. Ionathas turned back to face the men, brandishing his sword in one hand and a torch in the other.
"Find your courage!" he shouted. "Fear is as much their weapon as blade, tooth or claw, but it can only cut you if you let it! Turn their weapon against them! Shout back! Strike your spears against your shields! They're no better than beasts! We can beat them! We will overcome!"
A number of them roared in agreement, giving heart to the more fearful among them. Ionathas could not expect to raise their spirits any more than he had. He now had to keep up their morale throughout the battle. The only way he could do so was to lead by example.
Spurring his horse, he charged ahead of the formation into the enemy ranks, slicing one of the heads off an Orthos and driving his torch into the face of its Kobalos tamer. In the thick of things, he could focus only on fighting. He had to trust in the rest of the men to fend for themselves.
While Ionathas fought an axe-wielding Hairy Kobalos, he heard something encouraging: the clamor of the militiamen as they charged forward after him. According to the ancient texts, the fell races were largely unskilled at direct combat and disinclined to fight a determined foe, preferring raids on the defenseless and sneak attacks on the unaware. Ionathas hoped the texts would be proven correct.
Seeing a man set upon by a giant black dog, Ionathas rushed to his aid. He killed the monster with a stab to the heart, but the man was too far gone to be saved. The sight of a fellow son of Maranthe dead before him only served to fuel the warrior's fire burning in his breast. Focusing the new energy, he attacked with even more force and fury than before, wounding the leg of one of the Great Kobaloi and cutting an Anthropophagos in half down to the belly.
The tide was quickly turning in the humans' favor. The fell horde was quickly losing its nerve and breaking into a retreat. If they had the numbers, Ionathas would have led the militia to pursue the enemy and finish them off. However, too many of the horde remained and things could only go badly once they found refuge in the forest.
"Stand fast!" Ionathas shouted. "Hold the line here! Tend to the wounded!"
"What about the rest of them!?" the prefect yelled, riding in from the distant rear. "We have to follow them!"
"We don't have the men," Ionathas argued. "We would not be able to catch them in the fields and it would be suicide to pursue them into forest. We have to use this time to regroup and prepare our defenses in case they come back."
The prefect was not happy, but he was forced to accept Ionathas' course of action. It did not take long for Ionathas and the prefect to receive the report on their losses. The garrison had eight dead and eleven wounded while the militia had lost twenty-three with fourteen wounded. As for the enemy, Ionathas counted twenty-seven dead, including several wounded that were quickly dispatched. Their losses were grim indeed, but it could have been far worse.
They had stood up to a significant threat and survived, but they had to remain vigilant. Ionathas immediately started to think about ways to fortify the town. If the horde returned, they would be ready.