Chapter 3
The Fallen Banner

AZ 1454 - Late Autumn
Outside the Ruins of Delphos, The Darklands

It was an ill omen when the white ships bearing the Army of Light broke away from the fleet. Xenomachos was certain that the Archbishop had received an oracle to separate the sheep from the goats as his confessor Father Auguston put it. Part of him wished the King had released him from his service so that he could have joined the Army of Light, but perhaps it was part of God's plan that he would help lead whatever remnant might be spared judgment. Then again, perhaps by agreeing to the Queen's deception, he had damned himself beyond redemption and was simply waiting for the day he reaped what he had sown.
It had been five months since they arrived in the Darklands and so far their greatest enemy was the land itself. There were dozens of hazards all around them that had already claimed the lives of hundreds of men. At least the packs of fell beasts could be killed with spear and sword. Strength of arms could not avail them against venomous plants, burning rain or blistering winds to name but a few of the Darklands' many perils.
The longer they tarried, the slimmer their chances of victory became. And yet the Queen was timid in her advance. For as little resistance as they had faced, they should have already swept through half the kingdom. Taking the van, Duke Cronos was moving into position to approach the old capital from the southeast and then the First and Second Legions would march in from the west and southwest. However, it had been some time since the last messenger came to report.
"When was the last time we received word from the Third Legion?" Xenomachos asked one of his tribunes, Sir Nicephoros.
Sir Nicephoros was the son of Xenomachos' old comrade Sir Diogenes. He had all the skill of his father and quickly rose through the ranks. Perhaps he would take Xenomachos' place as legate one day.
"It has been nearly three weeks, milord," Sir Nicephoros replied. "Perhaps the last messenger came to grief. These are dangerous lands, after all."
It was indeed likely. It was a hard ride of three or four days between Delphos and Karas. It would take even longer with a larger party capable of defending itself better. Instead they relied on the fleetness of their horses, but these were ill-favored lands and much mischief could befall a lone messenger covering such distances.
Xenomachos was considering sending a messenger of his own when a legionary entered his tent.
"My lord! Movement to the east!"
Was the enemy finally on the march? Had they been waiting until now to marshal all their forces? There was no time to lose.
"Tell the men to form ranks!" Xenomachos shouted. "Be ready for them!"
While the order cascaded through the camp, Xenomachos quickly donned the rest of his gear, mounted his horse and made his way to the front line to oversee the Legion's formation and to get the first glimpse of what exactly was approaching them.
Someone with keener eyes than Xenomachos exclaimed, "Wait! It's the Third Legion!"
Though their formation was far too disorganized to be the Third Legion Xenomachos knew, they flew the Third's green banners. Xenomachos did not think the enemy was clever enough to masquerade as friendly forces, but he was still cautious.
"Form ranks all the same," he said. "If the Third is retreating, they may well have the enemy at their heels."
The Second Legion was formed up and ready by the time the tattered remnants of the Third came close. From a quick estimate, they did not seem to number even two thousand.
Xenomachos called out to the first officer he could see, "You there, Centurion, what has happened here? Where is Duke Cronos?"
"It was a rout, milord," the centurion replied, "a sore rout. I do not know what has become of the Duke."
Xenomachos did not think the Legion would be in such disarray if Duke Cronos still lived, but perhaps he was simply wounded and being carried in the rear. Whatever the case might be, there was little to gain by detaining the centurion any longer.
"Get behind us," he said. "See that the wounded are tended to."
"Yes, milord," the centurion replied with a feeble salute.
Xenomachos parted his formation to allow the men of the Third Legion through. They were a disheartening sight to behold, thoroughly broken, limping their way into camp. There was little that remained of the baggage train and no sign of the Duke being carried on one of the carts. Pulling up the rear was the free knight Sir Ionathas, who Duke Cronos had named prefect of the Notian irregulars attached to the Third Legion. Sir Ionathas was known to be a favorite of the Duke and if anyone knew what became of him, it would be Ionathas.
Xenomachos rode up to the free knight and hailed him.
"Sir Ionathas, where is the Duke?"
"Fallen, milord," Sir Ionathas said grimly. "I would have recovered his body at least, but... there were too many..."
"What manner of foe could do this?"
"The dead that walked," Ionathas replied. "Thousands of them. They were led by one who called himself the Knight of Chaos."
Ionathas' companion, the Dragon woman called Corona, then said, "His is a power ancient and fearsome. Not living and not dead. Similar to the Lord of Shadow but different."
Xenomachos did not trust a creature like the Dragon woman, but he did not doubt her words either. He was not surprised that this land held powers darker and more grave than mere fell beasts. More and more, he wished the Army of Light was with them. Only the Light could banish the Darkness.
"Are they pursuing you?" Xenomachos asked.
"No, milord," Ionathas replied, nodding to his companion, "thanks to Corona."
The Queen needed to know. It was folly to rely on her and her kind, but perhaps they knew something that could help prevent another rout. He knew it was a vain hope, but nevertheless, she was Queen and he had his duty to inform her.
"Report to Her Majesty... His Majesty, I mean. They will need to know this."
In a moment of carelessness, he nearly let slip his secret. Fortunately, the young free knight was in no state to pick apart his words. Instead, he simply saluted and said, "It will be done, milord."
Ionathas rode off and the last stragglers of the Third Legion filtered into the rear of the formation. Xenomachos continued to look out on the horizon, expecting the enemy to come marching in spite of what Ionathas had said.
"What do we do, milord?" Sir Nicephoros asked.
"Stand ready and be on guard for the enemy," Xenomachos replied. "They may yet come this way to press their advantage."
Perhaps Duke Cronos' defeat was God's judgment against him, but this only served to strengthen Xenomachos' resolve. He had repented his sins and surely God would not forsake him. God would grant him victory. He had to believe that or else all hope was lost.