Chapter 4
The Slough of Despair

AZ 1455 - Spring
Outside the Ruins of Delphos, The Darklands

It was almost a year to the day since the Zephyrian invasion force arrived in the Darklands and what a terrible year it had been. Half of their forces were dead or wounded. Duke Cronos had fallen in battle along with most of the Third Legion. Brave Sir Ionathas took up his patron the Duke's banner and with his Dragon companion, he and his band of freelances took charge of the remnants of the Third Legion and stretched the front line as far eastward as the ruins of Karas. Unfortunately, the enemy had far superior numbers to spread across a long front line.
While Ionathas and the Third Legion drew off the undead army of the dreaded Knight of Chaos Sir Caligo, Xanthe and the First and Second Legions contended with swarms of giant insects the old Eureans dubbed the Herakles. These were not like the Herakles of old that nearly devastated the continent over a thousand years ago. The dark energies of the corrupted land made them even stronger and fiercer than before. Their foul queen tirelessly spawned more and more and the worst part was that there appeared to be more than one hive.
Xanthe sat in her carriage with the disguised Master Gulmengoel, pondering the prospect of sending Lord Xenomachos and the Second Legion westward to Saras, where one of the Herakles colonies was located. Would the First Legion alone be enough to hold the line in the meantime? It was times like these that she wished for the counsel of Duke Cronos, but with his death at the hands of the Knight of Chaos, Xanthe bitterly wondered if all his talents were spent on the stone-brained Nanoi. She regretted thinking that, but these were times that strained her charity.
She did not get to dwell on this long because the buccinae were sounding the alarm. Another attack was coming.
"To arms! To arms!" a voice shouted. "Fliers from the north!"
Xanthe did not imagine the Herakles were so clever as to take the long way around to create the illusion of a second hive, so this was evidence enough that there was at least a second hive up north. Most Herakles were too large and heavy for their vestigial wings to carry them, but there was one breed that was smaller and lighter. The common soldier simply called them 'fliers' but 'harvester drone' was the name given to them in the old texts. Swarms of harvester drones were once known to strip small villages bare in a matter of minutes. Fortunately, they did not have as easy a time against an armed host, but their attacks were effective at weakening the lines prior to the main force's attack by land. The Queen braced herself for another hard-fought battle.
"Ready, men!"
The maddening buzz of hundreds of furious wings was enough to make a common man lose heart, but the men of the legions did not forget their courage.
"Archers, hold! Do not loose until they are in range!"
"They aren't coming down!"
"Come and fight, you cowards!"
Xanthe parted the curtain over the carriage window to peer out. The fliers were hovering up high in the air, blotting what little light pierced the ever-present canopy of clouds. The fires and torches of the camp were the sole illumination, casting long shadows into the darkness around them.
"Perhaps the battlemages should strike first and break up the swarm before these insects can do whatever it is they are plotting, if they are even capable of such forethought."
It was Master Gulmengoel, speaking in Solon's voice, maintaining his facade even between the two of them, as Xanthe had commanded. Though he was an illusionist and not a battlemage, perhaps he was right, Xanthe thought, but she could not help worrying they would only spring the trap being set for them.
She reached out to swarm, from mind to mind, to divine the answer. The fliers' minds were exceedingly simple, being only mere insects, but there were distinct thoughts she could perceive with enough effort. It was less their own minds as an imprint, the mark of some intelligence driving their wills.
Stay... in sky... Wait... for shadow....
"Wait for shadow," Xanthe whispered unconsciously.
"Your Majesty?" Master Gulmengoel asked, momentarily forgetting his role.
From the shadow cast by Master Gulmengoel, a thin, dark figure emerged. Her mind stretched out to the swarm above, Xanthe would not have perceived the figure's presence were it not for the creature's blinding flash of murderous will. She returned to herself the very moment the figure thrust two black, needlelike blades into Master Gulmengoel's neck and temple.
The Queen did not have time to think, only to react. She uttered a word of power and the carriage burst to splinters in an explosion of pure light. Xanthe was thrown three or four fathoms by the blast. Her senses in disarray, it took her a moment to understand the young Xotika warrior kneeling beside her.
"Your Majesty, are you hurt?"
The warrior extended his hand to help Xanthe up. Normally it was forbidden for a commoner to touch royalty, but under the circumstances, the warrior's lapse in protocol was welcome. She rose to her feet, but she could not stand steadily, still dizzy from the blast.
"Allow me, Your Majesty," the warrior said, leaning in to support her.
This was even more inappropriate, but she did not care at the moment.
"We must hasten to the King," she said.
The young warrior helped her along to the wreckage of the carriage. Master Gulmengoel had been thrown in the opposite direction. There was no sign of the shadow child who attacked them. Xanthe was not sure if he was dead or not, but she was more concerned about getting to Master Gulmengoel before any of the soldiers--especially any of the human soldiers.
It was too late.
"What devilry is this!?" a man of the Royal Guard exclaimed.
"His Majesty... Where is His Majesty!?" another demanded.
"Stand aside!" the young Xotika warrior shouted. "Make way for Her Majesty!"
Lying on the ground was Master Gulmengoel wearing the King's armor. Death had broken his illusion and exposed the Queen's lie.
Xanthe knelt down by the body and pulled the black needles out of Master Gulmengoel's head and neck. Brimming with dark energy, the needles burned through her gloves and seared the flesh of her hands, but she paid no heed to the pain. Their purpose complete, the needles evaporated into black mist when they were drawn out of Master Gulmengoel's body. Free of the needles' dark power, the slain illusionist's body was taken by El-Naia's Gift, leaving only the armor and empty clothes behind.
The humans, of course, had never seen El-Naia's Gift before and this only stirred the hornets' nest more.
"Witch!" an Equestrian spat, drawing his sword. "What have you done with our King!?"
The young Xotika warrior forced himself between Xanthe and the Equestrian, holding his spear at the ready.
"Get back, human!"
"You saw it, didn't you?" the Equestrian called to men around him. "It was one of them!"
"Tricksters!"
"Devils!"
The anger and the hostility of the humans swept over Xanthe like a wave of fire. They would not listen to reason and anything she might say would only inflame them further. Other Xotikan warriors were taking notice of their Queen's peril and coming to her aid, but even more humans were coming. If it came to blows, it would be a slaughter and the Dominion's victory would be assured.
Everything stood to be lost in an instant, but help came from an unexpected corner.
"The fliers!" a voice shouted. "They're coming!"
The anger directed and Xanthe and her people quickly gave way to resignation in some, fear in many, but for Xanthe, she found resolve. Stretching out her hand, Xanthe began to whisper the words of power. A small orb of light took shape, hovering over her palm. She drew power from the land and the air. Corrupted as they were, the elements did not lend power to the Light easily, but Xanthe did not ask for their aid. She commanded it.
Her voice rising, the orb grew and grew. The humans who had encircled her began to back away slowly. She paid them no heed, her concentration focused wholly on channeling energy into the orb. The orb continued to grow and when it could hold no more power, Xanthe thrust her arm into the air. The orb flew upward and when it met the Herakles fliers, she shouted another word of power. A beam shot from the orb and spun two complete circles before its power was spent. Of the hundred of fliers that had blotted out the sky, mere dozens remained. Charred fragments of the scores of slain insects rained down upon the host below. The few surviving fliers quickly withdrew.
In the fullness of her power, Xanthe's skin shone with the radiance of the sun. The humans, even her fellow Xotika, were overcome with bewilderment. Reaching out, she took hold of the Equestrian who threatened her earlier. He who would have cut her down for hatred of her kind and zeal for his King was filled with crippling terror. Through him, she stretched out with her mind to speak to the hearts of all the humans there.
Men of Zephyr, hearken to my voice! Hearken to the voice of your Queen! Your King is gone, but his task for you remains! We must finish this fight. If fail here, this shadow will spread. Our land--yes, our land--will not be safe. You have left home and kin to come to this accursed place, but if you falter now, the sacrifice of you and your brothers will be in vain.
Their fear was overwhelming, but the lingering embers of anger and hatred still burned. Could she reach such a people? She had to try.
Your King and I have striven against the old hatreds to bring Man and Xotika together as one. Twoscore and five years is not time enough to change your hearts, nor the hearts of my people. I know this, but we must stand together. Our enemy is not here in this camp but out there.
With her other hand, Xanthe held the wrist of the young Xotika warrior who had stood by her all this time and through him reached out to the Xotika as well. She then showed them all the struggles she and Solon bore together over the years, withholding from them nothing. The good and ill, her strength and her weakness, all she shared with them. Even with Solon she scarcely allowed herself to be so vulnerable, but they needed to see it if they were to understand.
You see my struggles and here in this land they find fulfillment. I fight with you. Join me but a little longer and we will cast back the shadow and cut a path to a new dawn.
Her power spent, the light from her skin dimmed and the strength left her body. She fell back into the arms of the Xotika warrior and he held her until she regained strength enough to stand with his assistance.
The Equestrian stood there, sword still drawn, his face inscrutable, his mind a tempest of conflict. She could not read him, but his actions soon told her everything. Gripping the hilt of his sword with both hands, he held up the blade, then pointed it to the earth and knelt. The men closest to him did the same, followed by the ranks behind him. As far as the eye could see, human and Xotika alike knelt before her, silently pledging their blades and their lives to her service.
Smiling weakly, her only reply was a whispered, "Thank you."
Now that the bond had been forged, it was easier for her to reach them with her mind.
Rise up, my people, and make ready. The enemy will soon return.
The men did so and it was not long before Lord Aristides rode up to her.
"Your Majesty," he said, "what has happened?"
"The enemy has exposed our ruse," she replied. "We must strike back. Send word to Lord Xenomachos. The Second Legion will march on Saras. Find the hive. Burn it out. The First Legion will march to Karas to reinforce Sir Ionathas."
"Your Majesty, if no one remains here in Delphos, will not the road to Talis be exposed?"
While the safety of the fleet moored at Talis was a concern, it was not the Queen's first concern.
"We cannot worry about the ships," she said. "We left behind men enough to defend them."
Lord Aristides did not question her orders.
"It shall be done, Your Majesty. Shall I summon a fresh carriage?"
Xanthe shook her head and said, "No. I am done hiding in carriages. Fetch me a horse to ride."
"But, Your Majesty, the danger--"
"Is no less in a carriage," Xanthe replied. "That much has been proven this day. The men will see their Queen ride out with them and the enemy will see that I am not afraid."