Chapter 4
Standing His Ground

AZ 1455 - Early Spring
Outside the Ruins of Karas, The Darklands

The death of Duke Cronos was a bitter loss, not just for Ionathas personally but for the entire Zephyrian war effort. The Third Legion's ranks swelled with new recruits when they landed in the Darklands. Now two men in three were dead. The task fell to Ionathas to take up the Duke's mantle and continue the fight with the few who remained. It was a heavy burden for the free knight to bear, but there were no others fit for the task.
Once the men were recovered from their rout at the hands of the one they called the Knight of Chaos and retrained in small unit tactics, Ionathas was tasked to marching them right back to the site of their defeat, the ruins of Karas. Holding Karas was critical for launching an invasion of the old capital of Arkadia, but the Knight of Chaos was said to be the best of the Dominion's commanders and he would not suffer the Zephyrians to advance any further.
"Sir Ionathas, we should retreat," Euricledes said. "We cannot stand against these numbers."
Euricledes was an infantry centurion who had been promoted to tribune and acted as Ionathas' second-in-command of the Legion. As a career soldier, his way of thinking was terribly conventional, but that made him a good counterbalance to the more impetuous Dabidos. Under Ionathas, the Third Legion had to find the middle path between standard legionary tactics and the more irregular methods of the Hawks of Maranthe.
Retreat certainly looked appealing with them outnumbered at least four-to-one, but it was not an option.
"No," Ionathas said firmly, "we hold this ground. Besides, there's nowhere for us to run."
The enemy's forces were concentrated to the south and west. To proceed northward into Arkadia without the First and Second Legions would be suicide and their fate would be no better if they ventured out into the barren wastes to the east.
The was not what Euricledes wanted to hear, though.
"Then you condemn us all to die," he said grimly.
"I condemn us all to fight," Ionathas countered. "Speaking of which, I have something I need to check on. You and Dabidos keep an eye on things for me."
"Yes, sir."
The Legion was deployed in a crescent formation to meet the enemy should they move in to attack from both sides. In the center of the crescent's arc was their camp. Most of the men were out front at the ready, so there were few to disturb Corona at her work. Scores of swords, spears and javelins were all laid out on the ground. She knelt down by the weapons one after the next, resting her hand upon them and chanting a brief incantation before moving on. They unfortunately had many more weapons than men to wield them, but at least that meant Corona could work her magic without leaving the legionaries unarmed.
"How goes it, Corona?" Ionathas asked.
"I will be finished soon," Corona replied wearily.
"You look tired."
"Of course I look tired," Corona said with no small sign of irritation in her voice. "Just being in this accursed land is exhausting, to say nothing of the task of enchanting hundreds of weapons."
The foul air, the ever-overcast sky and the blasted earth all ate away at the soundness of mind and body, but there was more to it than that. Ionathas only had the vaguest sense of it, but there was great evil permeating the elements and while a creature like Corona had greater defense against it, she was also more vulnerable as well. Her very nature clashed with the land and so taxed her powers without ceasing ever since the sea first turned to blood. It was a testament to her great strength that she had not yet been overwhelmed.
Ionathas knew he relied on her too heavily, but with so few men left in the Legion, what choice did he have? It did not assuage his guilt, though.
"I'm sorry for putting all this on you," he said.
Corona did not stop her work, pausing only briefly to reply, "It is the only way these men stand a chance and I am the only one who can do it."
"Thank you."
"You do not need to thank me."
Ionathas just stood there and watched her finish enchanting the last several javelins. She then stood up and looked out on her work briefly before turning to Ionathas.
"Because I have had to enchant so many, it will not last long," she said. "An hour at best. You will have to strike quickly and lay waste to as many of the enemy as you can."
"That's what we intend to do."
"I will not have the strength to join you when the fighting starts."
"I'd rather not have you out on the front anyway."
The Knight of Chaos nearly killed her on their first encounter. Even a full-sized Dragon was hard-pressed to stand toe-to-toe with him. She still bore the scar on her neck where he nearly took her head in a single stroke. Even in her true form, that single stroke nearly killed her and even her arts were not enough to erase the memento of that encounter carved into her flesh.
She was too important to the Legion--and to Ionathas--to hazard in open battle. Ionathas' concern, however, was not well-received by Corona.
She narrowed her eyes at him and said, "Do not try to coddle me. I am not so fragile as your human women."
Ionathas rested his hand on her neck and replied, "But you're more delicate than you'd like to admit."
Corona reached up to hold the hand touching her neck.
"Do not challenge my pride either," she said. "We Dragons can be very foolish when it comes to our pride, almost as foolish as your kind."
Ionathas grinned.
"Perhaps we're not so different after all."
"The more time I spend with you humans, the more I believe that is so. What a loathsome thought..."
Corona chuckled to herself. Her contempt for humans, once so sincere, was now a mere jest to her.
Ionathas called up a nearby legionary and told him, "Distribute these weapons to the men."
"Yes, sir," the legionary replied with a bow.
"Be careful out there," Corona said.
Ionathas clasped her hands and replied, "I will. You take it easy."
There was much they could say to each other, but no words were necessary. Ionathas let go of Corona's hands and returned to the front line.
The enchanted weapons were quickly distributed to the men and Ionathas did not intended to waste the precious little time Corona's enchantment would hold.
Riding up to the head of their formation, Ionathas drew his sword and held it aloft, shouting, "Men of the Third Legion! Our Goddess of Victory given us a great blessing! We now have weapons with which to defeat our foes! You all know the dread power of the Knight of Chaos, but we will deliver his invincible army their first defeat! This blessing will not last long, so strike hard, strike fast! The Knight of Chaos may be formidable, but he thinks according to the old ways. With our new tactics, we can thwart him!"
His voice became grave as he continued, "Beware, all of you. You may find your fallen comrades among the ranks of the enemy. They are not your comrades any longer. They are but empty shells puppeteered by the the Lich's dark power. Do not hesitate or you will join them."
Ionathas pointed his sword out toward the enemy and made his horse rear up for dramatic effect.
"Forward! For Zephyr! VICTORY!"
"VICTORY!" the Legion roared.
And so they charged forward to avenge their fallen comrades and deliver a sting the Knight of Chaos would not soon forget.