Chapter One

 

Rain poured from the sky like a flood of emotion, as water washed the overhanging balcony where King Maebus stood. Reflecting upon his situation, his heart pounded as tumultuously as the thunder echoing in the distance. Several hundred feet below him, the currents of the Northwest River battered the rock ledge that supported the Realmsic Castle. The violent waters mirrored Maebus’ soul. He dreaded what was soon to come, yet he was determined to ensure that the falling rain would not mirror the tears of his people.

Sighing heavily, he surveyed the horizon of the only magical kingdom in existence. This was his land. The Realm. There was such beauty on its surface, but such tragedy within its heart. A crack of thunder again boomed from the heavens. From the corner of his eye, Maebus thought he saw a flicker of lightning. The dark clouds had gathered quickly on this day. Yet weather had nothing to do with the impending storm that now worried him.

Like the volatile atmosphere above him, the Realm’s natural condition had been an unyielding state of war for thousands of years. The discovery of magic initially divided the Realmsic people, and now it was magic that would decide its fate. Maebus’ mind flew to the seemingly simple object that held the Realm in thrall and compelled enemies to attack. The Realmsic Crystal was the source of all magic; the prize that maintained and threatened the Realm’s very existence. Secretly, he loathed it. Yet duty obliged him to protect its power at all costs.

“Magic…” came a voice behind him, as though the speaker had read his thoughts. “It’s both our blessing and our curse.”

He turned swiftly to discover a dark-hooded man standing just a few feet from him.

“Did I interrupt you, brother?” The man removed his hood, revealing a tempered smile.

“Never,” Maebus laughed, relieved to see Grand Wizard Kelm. “But I didn’t hear you come in.”

Kelm was not only Advisor to the kingdom, he was Maebus’ life-long and trusted friend. He sometimes wished they really were brothers.

The two men clasped hands.

The Wizard sauntered past him and leaned forward against the balcony. He stared through the rain. “How appropriate,” Kelm said. “A storm is actually coming.”

“Unfortunately, the storm which you’re referring to is already here.” Maebus joined him and pointed in the direction of the distant Western Nations. “War is upon us.”

Kelm chuckled. “When is it not? For two thousand years, our history has been an endless string of conflicts and conquerors.”

“True. But not like this. Not like him.”

Kelm’s silence was evidence of his anxiety. Maebus knew that he shared his unspoken fear that their defeat was inevitable. Never in history had the kingdom fallen. Yet, never had there been an enemy such as Damian.

The Wizard’s gaze intensified upon Maebus, as though he could see through his friend’s worn features into his soul. “Does he worry you?” he asked.

Maebus shook his head. “It’s not the man who worries me,” he replied. “It’s the fervor in his voice. It’s the intensity of his influence. What seems like overnight, one man spawned a Legion of Warriors. With them, he now unleashes merciless destruction. Where previous conquerors have demonstrated haste, this man is poised. His tactics, while seemingly erratic, are calculated, intricate, and unsympathetic. Our Realmsic Army is sharpened by centuries of physical combat. But it isn’t men they now fight against. It’s ideology.”

“Yes,” Kelm said sharply, “but at the basis of all ideology, there exists one fatal flaw—man’s desire to be more than he is. The Warlord’s tactics are different, I agree. But his motives are the same as those who came before him. Beyond his pretty words and promises is nothing more than common greed.”

Maebus walked from the balcony into his chamber, his brow furrowed in contemplation. He’d only recently become King and still found the royal chamber to be uncomfortable. The décor, passed down from generations, felt foreign to him. The overcast skies did little to illuminate the dim interior. Aside from a single candle flame flickering against a cold draft, the room was blanketed in shadowy darkness.

Maebus sighed yet again. “To his people, this man’s greatness is indelible. It’s with that passion that they fight.”

Kelm stood in the doorway, silhouetted by the drab grayness of the world outside.

Maebus continued, “It would be wise for us to acknowledge the unity they’ve created. Think of it, Kelm … thousands of individually focused minds, all in one harmonious agreement to kill us.”

Kelm laughed uneasily. “I would usually consider the union of minds a beautiful notion, if it didn’t mean our own demise.”

The King smiled half-heartedly before lapsing into silence.

“Maebus…” Kelm began; his dark eyes filled with concern. “An attack upon the kingdom is imminent. Swords and magic will not be enough to face the sheer numbers that Damian will bring with him. How are we to defend our home when this man comes?”

“I have a plan, but I need to speak with the Council.”

Kelm pointed to the door. “They’re already waiting for you.”

 

 

Chapter Two

 

The storm raged outside the castle as Maebus carefully double-bolted the doors of his chamber. He then moved along the main corridor with Kelm. He heard the rain lash the castle walls like whips upon flesh. But he was unbothered by the gale. This domain had withstood far greater assaults.

The castle’s very presence was a bittersweet epitaph that seemed as familiar as misery in the Realm. Each brick of its foundation, walls, and corridors was a headstone memorializing those fallen in the pursuit of elusive peace. Its ashen exterior had perhaps never been white.

Maebus thought briefly of its history. Like magic within the Realm, the castle was a cursed blessing. Erected during a time of fierce conflict, it remained as much a beacon of hope as it did a symbol of despair. Just as its towering pillars stood magnificent and beautiful, a closer look revealed their true dilapidation.

Maebus then thought of his own personal history and wondered if he and the castle shared similar characteristics.

“What are you thinking about?” Kelm asked as they rounded a corner. Maebus briefly glanced at the corridor ceiling, noticing smudges that had been there since his childhood.

“There’s so much I want to say to the Council,” he said, trying to control the emotional tone of his voice. “I remember growing up within this castle and being afraid of them. I never thought I’d one day be King and lead them. None of this would’ve happened had Grand Wizard Kyora not taken me in; hadn’t made me study as her Disciple of Magic.”

Kelm nodded his head, walking alongside him. “I think things unfolded as they should have. My mother saw great potential in you at such a young age, although you couldn’t perform a lick of magic.”

“What did you expect?” Maebus chuckled. “My family and I were Laymen. We lived without magic. Perhaps my parents even feared it. That’s probably why I failed as your mother’s apprentice.”

“Well, I doubt you ever really wanted to be a Wizard,” Kelm replied.

Maebus leaned closer to his ear. “I didn’t want to be King either,” he whispered.

The Wizard laughed. “You think I wanted to replace my mother as Realmsic Advisor? But someone had to protect you from you.”

“Indeed, brother. We do what we must,” Maebus said as they arrived at a set of double doors that led to the public area of the main structure. He stood aside as Kelm opened them.

Once through, the castle bustled with activity as the two made their way towards the Great Hall to visit the Council. Despite congestion on the walkway, each person moved aside as the King and his Advisor walked by.

This subservience still unsettled Maebus. He’d been King less than a week. Many of the castle staff were the same people he’d known for years and had even grown up with. Now, they looked to him for guidance and protection.

Maebus had no issue with giving orders to people he so recently took orders from. However, what bothered him was the reality of what was soon to come.

“Do you realize this will be your first crisis Council meeting?” Kelm suddenly asked, breaking through his reverie.

“You don’t say!” Maebus glared at his Advisor. He didn’t need to be reminded of the importance of the proceedings.

The Grand Wizard continued to speak of their upcoming meeting, but Maebus’ head echoed the word crisis. He swallowed hard while trying to think of something else … anything other than that dreadful word. His attention was brought back by the sudden snap of Kelm’s fingers.

“Really? Did you just drift off during the middle of my talking points for the meeting?”

Maebus squeezed his eyes, attempting to force out the remnants of his malcontent. “I’ve been losing focus a lot lately. It’s frustrating. Not long ago, I could concentrate on an issue with pinpoint accuracy. But now I can barely hold on to a single thought for longer than a few moments. To think of all the years of mental strengthening exercises I endured as a Disciple, now wasted.”

“It’s actually quite understandable,” Kelm said. “Your own consciousness is protecting itself by strategically evading a fear it doesn’t want to comprehend.”

Maebus’ temples began throbbing as forcefully as his beating heart. “Kelm … is it right for a King to be afraid? Or is it cowardice to pretend I’m not afraid?” He felt the tension grow in his own voice as he spoke. “Every gesture, every slight motion is interpreted by a thousand people.”

Kelm held Maebus’ elbow, drawing him to halt. He gazed hard into his friend’s face. “The Realm has fought many battles, has known many conquerors and, above all, it has survived. You’re a new King. You’re not afraid for yourself, but for your people. You don’t want to be the first King to lose it all. And that’s bravery. Just remember that Damian is merely a man.” Kelm’s voice was harsh.

Maebus resumed walking and Kelm followed at his shoulder. “I don’t fear men,” he said. “Yet, this Warlord’s charisma is uncanny. It’s common knowledge that Laymen and Magicals have fought one another since the discovery of magic. Yet despite centuries of compromises, many Laymen still deeply despised magic. They view the kingdom as the source of their oppression, and they’d fight to defeat us as fiercely as we’d fight to protect the Realmsic Crystal.”

As they finally approached the entrance to the Great Hall, Maebus squared his shoulders, preparing himself.

Kelm patted his friend on the shoulder. There was the whisper of a wry smile on his lips. “By staying consistent with our message, I think we can minimize the anxiety of the Council, if not our own.”

Maebus nodded. “I don’t think our defensive strategy will be a hard sell.”

“True. But just be mindful that the Council is scared. The knowledge of certain annihilation affects people in unpredictable ways.”

With a magical wave of Kelm’s hand, the massive double-bolted doors swung open. Together, they entered the chamber as the Realmsic Council rose to its feet.

 

 

Chapter Three

 

The Great Hall, although massive, was used only for Council meetings. Its décor, like many aspects of the Realm, had arguably seen better days. The abraded concrete walls and blotched flooring seemed the perfect setting for the battles that were discussed within its enclosure. And evidenced by the decolorized blood in many areas, the Great Hall had been host not only to battle “discussions.”

As King Maebus entered with Grand Wizard Kelm, the Council stood both out of tradition and out of respect for a person who, not six days earlier, had accepted the certainty of facing the Warlord Damian. The abandonment of former King Theodo was made even starker by Maebus’ dutiful acceptance of the crown. For surely with the impending conquest, there was nothing to gain by becoming King. None of those in attendance had been willing to do so.

Maebus scanned the faces of those before him as he moved towards the Council table. The Council itself was composed of a relatively small number of dignitaries: three administrators of policy, three administrators of military, and three Wizards who were administrators of magic—all of whom had equal standing on the Council.

They watched in rapt silence as Maebus approached the elongated, semi-circular table in the middle of the chamber. By their stony expressions, he could only imagine that none of them envied him. Easing into the center throne for the first time, its back ramrod straight, Maebus’ stomach wrenched as if absorbing the pressures of all who commanded the kingdom before him. He then rested his hands upon the table’s stone surface.

Maebus’ gaze quickly found the hawkish stare of Councilman Jawn, an administrator of policy. He whispered something to Councilwoman Landi who stood beside him. Maebus caught the smug twisting of Jawn’s lips, reading the word, “fool.”

A hissed “Ssssh!” flew from Landi’s mouth, silencing him. For that, Maebus was grateful. He had always been fond of her.

From both sides of the chamber, the doors thundered closed as Grand Wizard Kelm sealed the Great Hall. “Please be seated,” he ordered. As he stepped swiftly towards the Council table, the only sound in the room was the rustling of his robes.

Maebus silently observed the Council as Kelm stood slightly to his right-hand side. Kelm’s mother Kyora, now retired, held the position of Realmsic Advisor for thirty-two years. Only recently did she step down so her son could assume the role. Her single piece of advice to him: Wear comfortable shoes. Maebus quickly glanced down at Kelm’s firm leather boots that wrapped his ankles and calves in buffed cowhide. His mother would be proud.

The full committee took its seats around the circular side of the table. Commander Khroy, who represented the Realmsic Army’s Joint Officers Corps, nodded his greeting at Maebus when their eyes finally met. The two had first become acquainted many years ago while they both studied military strategem. Over the years they’d become good friends. Although not yet a Council member, Maebus had specifically invited Khroy. The Commander was a decorated military officer who so far had been an integral part of his plan. Khroy was a muscular-bodied soldier with olive-colored skin that was clean-shaven, like most officers.

As the Great Hall settled again into silence, King Maebus took one last precious moment to collect his thoughts.

“Realmsic Council,” he projected, “my brothers and sisters in crisis. For two thousand years, the Realm—our home—has fought an endless war to defend against countless conquerors and those hostile towards our magical culture.

“Because we’re the only kingdom where magic exists, I daresay war is to be expected. Some would even argue that it’s the price we must continually pay for the gift of our precious Realmsic Crystal.

“Given to us by the primordial First Wizards, the crystal is the source of all magic within our Realm. In the wrong hands, its limitless power would be disastrous not only to us, but to the entire known world. Therefore, defending the crystal means preserving our culture. From what our kingdom has endured, we are strong. I have no doubt that we will shine through the darkness now looming before us.”

A man suddenly rose to his feet. “King, Advisor. Has there been any additional intelligence regarding this Warlord Damian?”

Kelm nodded. “Yes, Councilman Sheld. From information we’ve obtained through the efforts of Commander Khroy, we’ve learned that Damian is the son of a defeated conqueror, Ramsus Bane. Many of you are unfamiliar with this name, as so few remain from the time he challenged our kingdom. Although he perished during his conquest, Ramsus Bane came closest to capturing the Realm than anyone ever has. The remnants of his message have seeded teams of new supporters in the generation that followed his demise.”

“So the Warlord is simply looking to avenge his father?” asked Councilman Sheld.

“Or perhaps looking to finish the job his father started,” laughed a voice from the far end of the table.

“Do not speak lightly, Councilman Jawn!” Kelm snapped.

Maebus raised his hands to reclaim order. “Men such as Damian aren’t usually motivated by vengeance alone,” he explained. “He possesses an obsessive and charismatic mind. By first uniting with those sympathetic to his father’s cause, he inspired a following. Then, using the wealth obtained from his father’s conquests, he visited the most ravaged lands of the region and provided support to those battered by constant war. In return for their continued support, he promised them riches beyond imagination.”

“Those who despise the Realm are immersed in longstanding, deep-seated hatred,” Kelm added. “Who among them would turn down such an offer from the son of Ramsus Bane?”

A torrent of murmurings surged through the Great Hall. Maebus sighed, wishing Kelm hadn’t said that.

Another Council member stood from his seat to be recognized. “Advisor, what do we know of the Warlord’s military campaign?”

Commander Khroy rose to his feet. “Councilman Ferst, I can answer that. Damian began his military conquest by attacking the nation of Feesa, located on our northwestern border. Prior to his attack, he studied their history. He knew their tactics as if they were his own. At each moment of the battle, the Warlord remained two steps ahead of their military. With his Legion, he outflanked the nation’s army. With his magic, he crushed them. After his dominating victory, Damian then attacked the nation’s civilians.”

An older woman stood from her seat. “He’s ruthless and merciless!” Councilwoman Elva proclaimed. Maebus could hear the pain in her voice. “I’ve traveled to what remains of Feesa. Once a neutral safe haven from the wars, it now lies in ruin by the hands of that monster. Not one soul was spared!”

“This is true,” Khroy continued. “Damian is a master of both military and magic. He’s learned from the mistakes of his father, and even of those who challenged the kingdom before Ramsus Bane. Using history as a weapon, he has defeated many of the mighty cities in the eastern, southern, and western lands, proving to his followers that he can do what so many others have not. He can win.”

As Commander Khroy retook his seat, Councilman Greeve, an administrator of military, stood to address the Hall. “King, Council. I’ve fought many battles, and can attest that these conquerors are all the same. They simply want our crystal. So I say fine. If they want it, then let them have it, and get blasted by it!”

Several people applauded and cheered. Maebus, however, shook his head, resisting the urge to sigh. Greeve, being a former infantry soldier, had climbed the ranks to Council. Thin, gray, and somewhat elderly, he still possessed a fire within his belly, which oftentimes made him gregarious and rather reckless.

“No, no, no. I’ve told you all before. The Warlord is different,” Maebus exclaimed.

“Also, what you suggest isn’t advisable,” Kelm added. “Throughout Realmsic history, weaponizing the crystal has repeatedly proven to be unstable. It’s over two thousand years old, and we know nothing of its full power. So let us not be ignorant! Utilizing the crystal as a weapon to destroy our enemies may ultimately destroy us.”

Maebus watched as Councilwoman Landi rose to her feet. He tried to suppress his smile. Landi was the youngest female on the Council but had already excelled as an administrator of magic. He lost himself in her dark, curly, shoulder-length hair and soft facial features. Her slender frame was as strong as her mind, which rarely conformed to the formalities of the Council. Her outfit was a long, lavender sundress instead of the standard olive-green uniforms and burgundy capes the other Council members wore.

Maebus had always admired her ambition and beauty. She too had once seemed receptive to his subtle advances. But now being King eliminated any chance of a romance they could have had. Often, he thought about their dynamic. She was a Magical, and he was a Layman. If the emotions they felt for one another were real, could not the two Realmsic cultures one day learn to love each other also?

Focus Maebus! He mentally scolded himself for drifting again.

“King, Advisor,” Landi began, “What are we to do? What can we do to protect ourselves from the Warlord and his Legion of Warriors?”

Maebus understood her concern, though he could only imagine the feeling he, too, would have sitting as a Council member, listening to what appeared to be certain death. Therefore, he carefully chose his words before speaking.

“Even as we’re gathered here, word from the Western Nations has confirmed that the Legion marches towards us, destroying everything in their path. They’re coming here to destroy us. To me, the answer to your question is simple. We must fight.”

“But this is a battle we will not win!” Councilman Jawn interrupted. “Why do we fight? Why do you commit us to suicide?”

Maebus resisted the urge to yell; resisted the urge to grab Jawn by his scrawny neck until his weasel face turned blue. Instead, he abruptly rose to his feet.

“Are we to run like King Theodo? Are we to abandon our kingdom during its greatest conflict to date? Look!” Maebus demanded, pointing to a massive map that draped the wall of the Great Hall.

“This is our home. We’re all that stands between it, the Warlord, and absolute domination. So why do we fight? Because we don’t have the luxury of a choice!”

Maebus heard his last word reverberate through the chamber. Councilman Jawn sat heavily, obviously deflated.

“Now,” Maebus continued, retaking his seat. “What I’m about to disclose to you may seem extremely unorthodox. But time is against us. Therefore, this new strategy Kelm and I are proposing may provide our best chance for surviving what’s to come.

“The words spoken in this room today have set in motion a series of events from which there’s no turning back. Upon retiring to your personal chambers, each of you will find a sealed message addressed only to you. This message will contain written instructions. You are to follow these instructions to the letter. Under no circumstances are you to share the contents of your personal message with others.”

Maebus fell silent while assessing the reaction of each Council member. After a split second of stunned silence, the chamber erupted into a tumult of raised voices. Maebus and Kelm exchanged frustrated glances, which conveyed comprehension that they must not back down.

For the next hour, Maebus fielded the Council’s barrage of questions, addressing their concerns. Without compromising his agenda, he answered as thoroughly as he could until the room had settled into some semblance of order.

“This is a most troublesome time,” Maebus stated, “perhaps the most dangerous in all of our history. I know what I’m asking of you is unusual. But I sincerely thank you for your understanding, and your trust. Know that what I will share with each of you individually is all that I can share with you. The rest will eventually come. We each have a role in an unfortunate play, and now we must perform. May we trust in each other for guidance, and may the First Wizards bless our souls.”

As Maebus stood from his throne, the Realmsic Council rose as one. With a wave of his hands, Kelm unsealed the double doors of the Great Hall, which swung open with a low grinding moan. The Council formed two rows and filed out of the chamber. Maebus stole one last glance at Landi, who conveyed her affection with a subtle smile. Behind her trudged Commander Khroy.

“Commander,” Maebus said, “a word with you.”

The officer immediately pulled himself from the precession and stood off to the side. After the last Council members exited the chamber, Maebus signaled for Kelm to reseal the doors, and the three took their seats once again.

 

 

Chapter Four

 

“So many believe in the lie, instead of believing in the light,” the Warlord Damian said while trying to suppress his anger. He stared at the half-naked man bound before him. The unfortunate wretch had been beaten by his officers only moments earlier. He now sat bleeding and tied to a chair.

Damian felt no pity towards the man, observing his bruises. “I’ve always believed in the power of words,” Damian continued. “Words can be the difference between life and death. Therefore, I’ve always chosen my words carefully. For years, I’ve crafted my message to our people. But with one missing or misplaced word, the meaning of my message can be skewed. With one word out of agreement with the others—with one soldier not in agreement with the others—my message can be lost! And at this critical point in my campaign for conquest, any form of dissention from my message must be rectified.”

Sweat streamed from the prisoner’s spiked hair, running in liquid lines from his temples, along his long chiseled jaw. He blinked against the sweat intermingling with the blood beneath his cut lids.

Damian caressed the Legionarie’s face with the slightest touch of his hand, gently wiping the perspiration. The man trembled beneath Damian’s hand, yet the Warlord couldn’t determine if he shivered out of fear, or from the coldness of the field tent.

The Warlord’s tent had become a portable home away from home. Although many times larger than the standard tent issued to his infantry, it was devoid of any luxuries. There were none of the creature comforts that normally might remind soldiers of their lives beyond battle. Damian didn’t need such things.

“You’d tell me if you were chilly, wouldn’t you?” Damian asked. Despite his obvious brutality, he liked to convey cordiality to his prisoners. It played with their minds, giving them hope where none existed.

The man’s fear was apparent by his silence.

“Did you not hear the Warlord?” an officer asked as he raised an open hand to strike the bound man.

Damian stepped forward to block the blow before it could land upon the Legionarie’s face.

“No, no, General Thane. That would be unnecessary,” Damian said.

He turned back towards the prisoner. “Had only I known of your arrest earlier, I assure you the punishment you’ve endured wouldn’t have occurred,” Damian said in a conciliatory tone. “I don’t believe that answers can be coerced from men. The truth can only be recognized and spoken upon one’s own volition. Would you agree, comrade?”

“Y-Yes,” the prisoner replied.

“Would you also agree that I do all within my power to protect and provide for each of you within our Legion?”

The man nodded, his chin trembling.

“Would you also agree that our fight against the Realmsic Kingdom is justified by the continued suffering of our people? That only we have thus far proven to be their equal, and only by eliminating their threat of magic can we free the known world of endless tyranny?”

“I-I agree…”

“Then why would you tell our fellow comrades anything other than this?” Damian’s look became stern. The Legionarie submissively lowered his eyes, staring at some invisible spot on the floor.

“Comrade, I need you to answer me,” Damian demanded.

“My Lordship,” the man began, “please, I meant no offense to you or your righteous cause. I only asked that if our purpose is to eliminate magic, why do we use it in battle?”

“And who else did you ask that question of?” Damian asked.

The man hesitated slightly. “O-Only to my m-mates Tam and Reeze.”

“Are Tam and Reeze officers in my guard?”

“No, my Lord.”

“Then how would they know the answer to your question? When you carelessly speak out of turn, comrade, you cause dissention amongst our ranks!”

The man’s eyes became teary in response to the Warlord’s tone. Seeing this, Damian tempered his emotions. He disliked publicly displaying anger.

Calmly, he continued. “When an enemy has an advantage, we should use it against them. We’re able to face our enemy as equals by utilizing the same weapons they seek to destroy us with. That’s why I sometimes practice magic, and that’s why we use magic in battle.”

Tears rolled down the man’s cheeks, mixing with the blood and sweat that was just beginning to dry. He flinched at Damian’s fingers reaching towards him.

The Warlord laid a hand on the prisoner’s neck and smiled. “You don’t like my ring?” he asked facetiously. “It belonged to my father. He wore it always.”

Down the prisoner’s neck to his shoulder, Damian gently slid the cool surface of the ring. Its point was so razor sharp, the Legionarie didn’t realize his throat had just been sliced open. As the blood pooled into his mouth and poured down his bare chest, horror filled his eyes. He twitched and struggled. He could no longer breathe. His body shook violently as Damian applied pressure, forcing the ring’s one-inch point deeper into flesh.

Blood raced across the Warlord’s knuckles, down his forearm, and dripped from his elbow. For this reason alone, Damian often wore sleeveless armor. After several more violent jerks, the body was still.

Damian reached for a cloth from a nearby officer and wiped the blood from his hands and ring. After a kill, he never rinsed with water. He enjoyed the smear of blood across his palms and fingers. Damian looked at the man’s body now slumped in the chair.

“Remove this traitor from my tent,” he ordered. Giving the damp cloth to General Thane, he paused. “Also, Tam and Reeze … eliminate them as well.”

“Anything else, my Lord?” Thane asked.

“Yes, General. See that this never happens again.”

With a snap of Thane’s fingers, two officers grabbed the body. Without untying the deceased prisoner, one grabbed the back of the chair, the other grabbed the man’s legs. They carried him out of the tent, leaving Thane and Damian to themselves.

The Warlord walked towards his desk. A flickering lantern illuminated a large map of the Realm spread across its surface. Several handwritten notes and directional arrows outlined the progress of his campaign. Additional documents were stacked neatly on the edge of the desk, evidence of Damian’s meticulous nature.

He held his hands above the lantern, letting the warmth soothe him through to his bones. The flame felt good, as his tent was always entirely too cold. He knew additional bulk on his frame would stave off the cold. He was wiry but powerful. His true strength had always been his mind. People praised his handsome facial features and long silver hair as appearing angelic. Yet, those who feared him found those same features to be ghostly.

General Thane joined Damian at the table and stood quietly by his side. Standing a massive six-foot-three inches tall, Thane towered over most people. Unlike Damian, who was relatively thin and impeccably groomed, Thane was a grizzly bear of a man, possessing its girth, unkempt whiskers, and violent temperament.

The two men analyzed the Realmsic map, though Thane’s proximity annoyed Damian. He could feel Thane’s shoulder pressed against his own. He could feel the warmth of his massive body, and could hear his nostrils wheeze with the heaving of his oversized chest. Perhaps the ogre had never learned about personal space? Nonetheless, Damian tolerated the encroachment, as Thane was the Legion’s most ambitious General.

The Warlord had hand selected him to join his personal detail. It was an obvious choice. The man’s natural size and ability had thus far allowed him to accelerate through the Legionarie chain of command. Time and time again, Thane had proven himself worthy of his position. He possessed an uncanny sense of resourcefulness that Damian had never before encountered. Of all his military officers, Thane had never failed a task. Therefore, only the most significant missions were assigned to him.

Finally, Damian broke the silence. “Tomorrow, you and I will lead the military procession to the region known as Centre Pointe.” He pointed to a location on the map. “It’s the capital of the Realm, and what many consider to be the actual kingdom. It’s also the location of the Realmsic Castle, which is our target. After crossing into the Realm, I don’t believe we’ll encounter much resistance until we actually arrive at the castle.”

Thane grunted his agreement. “Indeed. The entire territory is covered with sentries, but the bulk of their force will likely be guarding the capital. If the Legion approaches upward from the Hellish South Plains, I believe we’ll be largely undetected. Many think the southern terrain is too rugged for a military force of our size. So no one would be expecting us from that direction. Our men could easily cut through the forest, so I think this is our best angle for assault.”

“Absolutely not!” Damian exclaimed. “We have no need for such sneaky tactics. Aside from our sheer numbers, our advantage is our ferocity; our blunt power. Even if I had the magic to cloak our entire force, I would not. I want them to see us coming from the west, and I want them to fear us.”

Thane smiled, “Yes, my Lordship.”

Damian clapped his hand on the General’s back. “Rest now, Thane. Tomorrow, we begin our march into history.”

 

• • • •

 

After weeks of conquests, Damian settled his forces within the western city of Amden, only two days from the Realmsic border. His forces needed the respite to regroup and resupply. With satisfaction, Damian listened to the reports of scouts and spies who relayed how fear of the invading Warlord stretched across the land. He witnessed the fear himself in the flight and defeat of the lands he trespassed. Those Western Nations who once doubted him were surely believers now.

The sunrise drenched his face as he stepped onto an elevated platform overlooking his men. Behind him, the dark horizon gave way to a new day. The heavens shined a spotlight upon his body. His metallic armor sparkled. Although modest in appearance, such a suit of metal sent a statement of stature and authority, as only people of wealth could afford its like.

Standing before an ocean of faces, Damian felt exhilarated. The ranks of his men stretched across the darkened landscape. They had concluded morning chow, packed up camp, and now awaited his word. Birds fluttering in the autumn-colored trees serenaded the first rays of dawn. Damian enjoyed the crisp air. Mornings in Amden usually began with a chill, but the combined body temperatures of a Legion seemed to single-handedly raise the surrounding climate.

A sense of pride overwhelmed his soul. This was his accomplishment. He had assembled a Legion of loyal followers who would fight to end Realmsic tyranny; who would fight for him. Upon their chosen field of battle, he and his men breathed as one and existed totally in one accord. Briefly, he thought of his mother, taken from him too soon. He then thought of his father, the man he never knew but competed against most of his life, and would soon surpass.

“Behold greatness!” Damian said to General Thane, who stood beside him on the platform.

With other officers also at his side, the Warlord drew in the morning air. His men, who’d been waiting for hours in anticipation, listened as if their souls would be fed by his words.

“The King has wronged us,” Damian began. “I repeat,” he proclaimed with more force, “the King has wronged us!” A roar of approval rose from the field.

“For centuries, his kingdom has subjected the non-magical Western Nations—and Laymen throughout the Realm—to lives of misery and despair. Repeatedly, they’ve claimed their laws prevent the misuse of magic against us. They’ve even claimed that their magical devices are only used for practical purposes. But Realmsic history is filled with examples contrary to their claims.

“Because we choose a life separate from magic, separate from them, we are considered villains! Therefore, we fight to defend ourselves from their magic. Their very existence threatens our non-magical way of life. But today, you and I have become a force powerful enough to liberate Laymen everywhere.

“When we first began our conquest, many within our own non-magical nations doubted us. For that, they were given a full demonstration of our might! The militaries of the disbelievers now swell our ranks. And our fellow Laymen, who chose to live within the kingdom and who would raise their arms against us, will find their arms severed by our blades and hung against the merchant stands of the capital’s avenues.

“We are now a Legion without fear! And we will march shoulder to shoulder into Centre Pointe. We will capture the source of their magic, and we will destroy it. The Realmsic Kingdom will fall. And those who support us will be safe from magic once and for all!”

With pride, Damian consumed the screams and cheers of his soldiers. The ground vibrated from their voices, which echoed into the heavens.

The Legionaries brandished their weapons high above their heads and chanted war cries like frenzied mantras.

“Officers … the time has come. Take command of your ranks!” Damian ordered above the commotion.

The officers bellowed commands into the crowd, and the assembled mass instantly fell silent. Such a display of discipline made the Warlord smile.

“Forward march!” commanded General Thane from the platform.

“To victory!” Damian shouted to his men as they stomped towards the rising sun.