Chapter 1
Call to Arms

AZ 1449 - Early Autumn
Castle Zephyr, Hesperia, Zephyr

If the unanimous agreement among the diviners and soothsayers in the kingdom were not enough to convince King Solon of the threat posed by the Chaos Dominion, then both the reports of small scouting parties attempting to land in Notos and the loathsome thing before him dispelled any doubts. On a parchment made from human skin, the ruler of the Dominion clearly stated his intentions in bloody script.
A chill ran down the King's spine just looking at it. He wondered how the victim was acquired only briefly, for there were more pressing matters at hand.
He had gathered the ranking nobles, the chief magistrates of the cities, the legates and tribunes of the army, influential merchants, and other dignitaries together for this emergency council. He took a moment to gauge the mood of his audience. They all showed signs of worry, concern and apprehension, but it was only natural.
"The Chaos Dominion has returned," he said. "It has returned and the Darklanders have challenged us. If we do not go to them, they will surely come to us. The abominable letter you see before me says it is from the one known as the Monarch Lich. The court mages have confirmed that it bears the black stain of the Darklands.
"We cannot allow them to set foot on our land. We must strike first, we must strike soon, and we must strike at their very heart."
"Your Majesty, you cannot be serious!" a nobleman exclaimed. "The matters of raising, supporting and mobilizing an invasion force are difficult enough. How do you expect to keep them alive in the accursed Darklands, where the air is poison, the water tainted, the plants diseased, and the animals all unholy monsters? It is impossible!"
"Your concerns are well-founded," the King conceded, "but it changes nothing. The enemy sustained itself during the invasion of Notos through the magical arts. We must do the same."
"But the invasion of Notos was thwarted because their mages were overpowered," an old sage countered. "What makes Your Majesty think the same will not happen to us?"
"The support of the Dominion's army rested on the shoulders of a few Black Xotika," Solon explained. "Not only do we boast far more mages in our ranks, but we also have a new advantage that was not at our disposal three hundred years ago."
He gestured to the Queen, saying, "Through my wife, Queen Xanthe, we have an alliance with the Xotika of Goldleaf, our betters as far as magic is concerned." He looked to his wife and asked her, "How many of your people would you be able to lend to the cause?"
"Our numbers are few," the Queen replied, "but I believe I can supply two thousand archers and one hundred mages."
Solon then looked to Lord Aristides, the legate of the Zephyrian First Legion.
"What is the current strength of our standing army?" he asked.
Aristides replied, "All told, we have five thousand light infantry, one thousand heavy infantry, one thousand archers, five hundred light cavalry, two hundred heavy cavalry, two hundred battlemages, and one thousand support troops."
"Is that counting the local garrisons?"
"No, Your Majesty. Each of the local garrisons number one hundred men for a total of one thousand and one hundred."
"I see..." the King said, pondering at the figures for a moment. He then asked, "What about our troops in Notos?"
"As you know, Your Majesty, Duke Cronos' Third Legion is smaller than legions here in Zephyr. He has some three thousand men stationed in Maximilion and another eight hundred garrisoning the towns."
"Do we have the ships to move this many people and all the supplies they will require?"
"Not at all, Your Majesty," Polynikes the fleet prefect replied. "We have four transports that would do well to carry two centuries apiece."
"What if we requisition civilian ships?"
"Sire," a shipping magnate from Hesperia said, "you could requisition all the cargo and passenger vessels from Zephyr and Notos both and move no more than five thousand men with limited supplies, not including mounts or pack animals. Of course, doing so would paralyze commerce and ruin both countries."
"I will not let that happen," the King said. "We will have to construct a fleet to move our forces. I will leave it to Lord Polynikes to select the choicest half of all the vessels in our domain. There are five ports in Zephyr and four in Notos. I want every shipwright in these nine cities building enough ships for us to move fifty thousand men, eight thousand horses, four thousand carts, two hundred ballistae, fifty catapults, and six months' worth of provisions for man and beast alike."
The assembly erupted in astonished gasps and mutterings. A portly baron was the first to speak to the King directly about the questions and concerns on everyone's minds.
"Where do these numbers come from, Your Majesty?"
"In order to defeat the Dominion, we must gather together everything we have and more," the King replied. "We will deploy all three legions, the local garrisons, our Xotikan allies, and as many volunteers as we can muster and train."
"Your Majesty asks the impossible," the Grand Logothete said. "To triple the size of the military, even if they stayed on our own soil, it would bankrupt the nation. And on top of that, you would build a fleet large enough to carry all those men, beasts and equipment and supply them for a six-month campaign. Even if we could gather the resources to accomplish such a feat, it would take years to complete."
"We do not know our limits until we try," Solon said. "Let us strive for the lofty goal then, and deal with our limits when we meet them."
His words seemed to convince no one, but rather than dwelling on that single issue, other problems were brought to the fore.
"What of the safety of the towns?" the chief magistrate of Pentos asked nervously. "Without the garrisons, how will order be maintained? Who will protect the citizenry?"
While the magistrate's questions were perfectly valid, his tone betrayed an overwhelming distrust of the King and his plan. Solon was not known for making rash decisions, so why did they act as if he had given not the slightest thought to the consequences of such an ambitious undertaking? Perhaps it was the magnitude of the threat and the drastic measures he called for that had shaken their trust. He only hoped his answers would allay their fears, at least in part.
"While the fleet is being constructed, the garrisons will train volunteers who wish to join the invasion force. In addition, they will be training local militias to defend the towns in their absence. Also, the urban cohorts and the Watchmen will remain behind to maintain order. The homefront will be quite safe, I assure you."
"The success of Your Majesty's strategy hinges on heavy magical support," said the chief magistrate of Ephenes, a retired archmage. "Even with the forest folk Queen Xanthe has promised, there are not enough mages to protect the forces we have now, much less fifty thousand men."
"I am sending representatives from the Mages' Circle to each of the towns in both Zephyr and Notos to recruit anyone exhibiting magical potential. The people are free to choose whether or not they wish to become common soldiers, but as a matter of necessity, anyone with magical ability will be conscripted into service."
"It will be a difficult order to enforce, Your Majesty," Lord Aristides said, "especially in Notos. Our situation there is delicate to say the least. One wrong move and we could be facing open rebellion."
"We have to make the people of Notos understand the threat we face, Lord Aristides. Surely the Notian people have not forgotten the enemy that ruined their nation. I would think the men of talent would leap at the chance to save their land from another catastrophe."
"I think Your Majesty gives those ingrates far too much credit," said Count Memnos of Primos, the former governor-general of Notos.
"And I think you give them far too little," Solon replied.
Count Memnos scowled but said nothing more. Attitudes like his did nothing to improve the tense situation in Notos.
There was a brief moment of silence before anyone spoke up again.
"Sire, how do you intend to acquire the materials needed to build this fleet?" the shipping magnate asked. "And how will fishing boats and trade ships get repairs if all the shipwrights are preoccupied building these new ships?"
"We will, of course, respect the borders of the Goldleaf Forest," the King said with a nod to his wife. "That leaves us with the Woods of Hyacinthos to the south and the Thermodas Forest in Notos. They should provide all the lumber we need.
"And as far as repairs for private vessels are concerned, the shipowners must apply for a warrant granting the repairs to be made. It is not my wish to impede the livelihoods of the people, but the war effort is our first priority."
One of the tribunes from the Second Legion raised his hand to speak. After receiving a nod of acknowledgment from the King, he went ahead with his question.
"Your Majesty, would it not be wiser to lure the Dominion's forces into Notos and defeat them there? We would not have to struggle to survive in such a hostile environment and provisions would be readily available. Is that not why we have been occupying the land at such great expense for all these years?"
"Out of the question," the King said bluntly. "You make the rebels' case for them, thinking like that. We are in Notos to protect them while they rebuild. We are not there to exploit them. I refuse to put the people of Notos at risk for our own benefit.
"Besides, this will never end unless we destroy the Dominion at its source, from within the Darklands. A lizard can grow back its tail, not its head."
Archbishop Gamaliel, the current Pontifex of the Church of Holy Light, who had been silent up until now, took the opportunity to speak.
"Well said. You cannot vanquish the evils of this world unless you strike at the source. This is a day that has been a long time coming.
"Since we are facing the unholy powers of the Darkness, the Church will lend its aid in full. I shall rally legions of the faithful for this most holy war. Leave them to me. I will raise an army and build the fleet to carry it. What is impossible for you faithless men, God will make possible with me as His agent."
It was a struggle for Solon to not bristle at the Archbishop's haughty tone, his condescending words, his very presence in the room. Gamaliel was cast from the same mold as his mentor Mikaelos, an unfortunate regression after the years of reconciliation with the Church under the late Archbishop Ieremias.
Gamaliel was among the most vocal opponents of Solon's marriage to Xanthe and the alliance with the Xotika of Goldleaf. In fact, in those days his rhetoric bordered on treason, which led to his imprisonment, an experience he surely had not forgotten. After his release as part of a deal with Archbishop Ieremias, he continued to voice his disapproval but in more measured tones. As the years wore on and he eventually succeeded Ieremias, he grew bolder and bolder, but he was still careful enough not to go too far, lest he spark a clash that would cost the King and the Church more than either could afford.
Solon hated that he had to put up with such a man, but his support would be critical for the war's success and he could easily turn public sentiment against the Crown if he felt slighted. As King, Solon knew to put his own feelings aside for the good of the nation. If someone like Gamaliel could rein in his emotions, so must he.
"I am glad to hear that the Church is on our side," Solon said. "There is little more to discuss for now. We must prepare with as much haste as possible. If we tarry too long, the Chaos Dominion will take the first step. Today's meeting is over. You are dismissed."
The assembly rose from their seats and bowed to the King in unison. They filed out of the room, leaving only the King and the Queen behind. Solon looked at her without speaking for some time. Though he was an old man, she maintained her youthful beauty in spite of having lived over four hundred years. She looked at him with a gentleness that seemed to transcend the human capacity for such feeling.
"The road ahead will not be easy," she said, "but I think you have proven to them that you hold both the wisdom and the resolve to make this a success."
Solon massaged one of his temples while staring at the letter of challenge.
"What do you think are the odds of victory?" he asked. "Tell me the truth."
"None of my people have set foot in the Darklands," the Queen replied, "and only a few ventured there when it was still known as Euros. If the ruler of the Dominion is truly a Lich, we must be on our guard, for they are the most powerful users of black magic in the world. However, if the legends can be trusted, only one appears in a hundred years.
"I expect their army to consist of Kobaloi and other uzshu--how do say it?--fell races, common monsters and the dead that walk. They will have the advantage on their own soil, but capable tacticians like Duke Cronos should be able to compensate for this. It will be difficult to keep up the morale of our troops, though. If they are allowed to succumb to their fear, there will be no hope of victory.
"We must be strong, for their sake as well as our own. This will be a challenge unlike anything your people have ever faced, unlike anything my people have ever faced. If ever our two people must stand together as one, now is the time."
Husband and wife clasped hands. For forty years they had worked to bring unity to the Continent. Their work was far from over, but perhaps this great cause would help them overcome the bitter divisions at long last. Even in the darkness, a glimmer of hope shined.