Chapter 3
Into the Dragon's Maw

AZ 1454 - Spring
Near the Ruins of Talis, The Darklands

Passing the autumn and winter in Notos was a trial. The rebels known as the Promethean Alliance launched one major offensive and several minor attacks during that time. Thankfully, the rebels sorely misjudged the Zephyrians and their attacks were thwarted with minimal losses.
The citizens of western Notos petitioned the Zephyrians to stay and quell the Alliance. The 'Westers' as they were called knew that with the withdrawal of the Third Legion, the meager local militias would be unable to hold off the rebels for long. There were few ships available to convey refugees to Zephyr and few people who could afford the journey. Scores of able-bodied men and many others less fit volunteered for the invasion force out of desperation. A great number of those turned away by the legates were accepted into Archbishop Gamaliel's Army of Light. That did little for the women, the children and the aged, though.
It pained Xanthe to abandon the people of Notos, but the threat of the Darklands was far greater than that of the Promethean Alliance. There was nothing to be done about it. As soon as wind and sea were favorable, the Zephyrian fleet slipped out of the western ports of Notos like thieves in the night.
They had been at sea for nearly three moons, and weeks had passed since the deep blue waters turned blood-red. It was a warning to interlopers that only death could be found in the cursed lands.
Man and beast alike were given some protection against the corrupted elements. They were issued thick veils to wear over the nose and mouth to filter out the foul air and sturdy cloaks to ward off the whipping winds and burning rains. As it would be impossible for the invasion force to live off the land, enchanted waterskins were constantly kept filled from the waters of several wells back in Zephyr and chests with a similar enchantment transported fresh food.
Simple survival would be all but impossible without the aid of magic. Even with the extensive recruiting imposed by Solon, mages were outnumbered nearly fifty to one. It would be difficult for them to sustain the troops alone, much less attack and defend against the magic of the enemy.
The Notian free knight Ionathas had befriended a White Dragon whose power alone could protect nearly a hundred men. Such a powerful ally was greatly appreciated, but Xanthe was certain that the enemy would have Dragons of its own. They would pose a sore challenge for the White Dragon, no matter how powerful she might be.
As the fleet was pulling into one of the ruined ports of what was once the Kingdom of Euros, a call of alarm was raised.
"The fleet is breaking up!"
Xanthe watched as nearly half the fleet broke away from the formation. It was the white ships bearing Archbishop Gamaliel's zealot army.
"Raise up the signal flags," Lord Polynikes ordered.
"Belay that order," Xanthe said quietly.
"Your Majesty?"
"They will not answer. Let them go."
Xanthe was not surprised by this turn of events, but it was disheartening all the same. The power of the enemy was great. The Zephyrians needed all of their forces together if they wanted to stand any real chance of victory, but a man like the Archbishop would never suffer to stand alongside Xanthe and her kind. There was nothing to be done about it. The Queen only hoped that the Archbishop had not just doomed them all.
Though the departure of the Army of Light unnerved many, they were not given time to dwell on it. There was work to be done. Once the ships of the Royal Navy dropped anchor in shallows of the bay, the men worked quickly and managed to disembark and unload in a matter of hours.
While the units were forming up, Duke Cronos rode up to her position, his gilded armor shining brilliantly even in the dim sunlight that broke through the thick cloud cover.
"Your Majesty," he said with a salute, "I request that my Third Legion take the vanguard position. I would be honored if Your Majesty would grant me the honor to draw the enemy's first blood."
Although Duke Cronos faced setback after setback in his struggle against the Promethean Alliance, Xanthe knew that the legendary Genius of the Nanoi Campaigns had earned his reputation and she could think of no better person to lead the advance. It would give him the much-needed chance to restore his honor and surely Lords Aristides and Xenomachos would not begrudge him that.
"Your request is granted," she said. "I expect great things from the famous Duke Cronos."
The Duke bowed to her.
"My gratitude extends from the bottom of my heart. I will strive to prove myself worthy of Your Majesty's expectations."
As Cronos rode off to his unit, Xanthe was thankful that they had not been immediately beset by the enemy. Since the whole land was saturated with dark energy, it masked the malign presence of the enemy. However, there was a particularly strong power to the far northeast that overpowered the evil that seeped from the very earth itself. That was surely their destination, the place where all would be decided.