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Tales of Arkain

Discussion in 'The Legends of Arkain Series' started by Shar Dundred, Dec 15, 2017.

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  1. Shar Dundred

    Shar Dundred

    Map Moderator

    May 6, 2009
    Here you have a collection of stories written for the Legends of Arkain.

    Rebirth by Shar Dundred

    It was a clear night. The wind was picking up, making the leaves rustle while the light of the moon revealed everything on the ground. Everything, especially the remains of those who were fighting at this place days ago. Betrayed by their own king, these brave soldiers of humanity were sent to their deaths because their king became paranoid.
    King Uras the Fifth of Rengar, the richest realm of the Seven Kingdoms, called "Defender of Mankind". He sent two thousand soldiers to their deaths because he thought that their leader was plotting against him, because his advisors told him to get rid of him, because this one leader, who was more loyal than the whole council of the king, was more popular than he himself. The moonlight showed who this "Defender of Mankind" really was: A murderer, a madman. A traitor.
    The troops had hold their position for several days before they were overwhelmed by the Demons who inhabited this place. Demons, the most wicked and vile creatures that ever existed. There has been no month without a battle against these creatures, no week without waiting for them to attack, no day without being reminded of their trickery and their evil sorcery. They say, a single Demon might be capable of destroying a whole village if not opposed by true warriors. But what are the Demons compared to the schemes of humanity? The intrigues of mankind are already destroying the whole race from the inside, even without the Demons attacking the Kingdoms. The next real invasion of any other race would destroy humanity easily at its current state. Luckily, for the survivors of the clashes that take place before that happens, it might still take centuries before the next real invasion occurs. The Demons have a strange way of acting and the other races have other problems to deal with. Humanity is lucky. That's the only reason why it still exists.
    A heavy breath. One of the fighters has survived the battle, heavily wounded. He can feel as life forsakes his body and as he slowly leaves this plane of existence. Only thanks to him and the healers, the soldiers managed to survive that long in this god-forsaken place. He looks around at his fallen comrades, feeling both endless shame and rage at the same time. When that big Demon's strike hit him, he realized that he had been a fool.
    The king whose orders he obeyed, let him run into death. The man knew that the king became obsessed with the thought that he was to be replaced, but he didn’t think that it would make him even consider such actions. He was too blind to see what his king had become. That's at least what he wished to be the reason. Actually, he knew the truth: He didn't WANT TO see it! He didn't want to believe that the fear of the king would get the better of him. This was the punishment. Death. Ironic that it wasn't too long ago that he saved the life of the king himself. Now, so many had to die because of the madness of this king. The man had known these soldiers for years, he fought at their side countless times. Now, thanks to the king, they were dead. The man wouldn't have been surprised if some evil god with a twisted sense of humor was laughing right now, while watching him, suffering the pain and waiting for the end.
    No, it wouldn't end like this! The man wouldn't ALLOW himself to die just like that! He would return to his king, spit in his face and kill him the most slow and painful way he could think of! This "Defender of Mankind" would suffer for the betrayal of his own kind! His family and advisors would be annihilated, just like the king annihilated all the soldiers here for his mere envy! No one would be able to escape revenge!
    The man gathered the tiny bit of magic that still remained in his body and tried to give himself the power to stand up. He didn't care about the consequences, he just wanted to stand up and take revenge! He screamed in pure rage and bitterness. The magic exploded. The man could feel the life abandon his life, leaving him for good, but he was still there. He could feel new strength, his might returning to him, making him even more powerful than he was before. The man stood up, slowly walking away from this place of death. The king shall regret the day, he decided to betray his own kind. For from now on, his time would be over.

    For days, the man walked through the forests and mountains that separated him from his target. He knew every route in the Seven Kingdoms, but no one was supposed to see him. Most likely, they already heard that his men were slain and thought him being dead. The king might even have celebrated this day with one of his concubines. He was everything but faithful. His wife was either too ignorant to see it or just looked the other way, not wanting to feel the agony of being cheated. It didn’t matter. Soon, she'd be dead along with her husband and the bastards who dare calling themselves advisors while they're actually just trying to gain more power. Sadly, this was how politics work. It would never change, but the man didn’t care anymore. He wanted to take care of those who wanted his death. Everything else didn't matter at all.
    It was a dark, windy night when the man reached side entrance of the capital city. Three men were guarding it. The king, in all his wisdom, had decided that everyone who tried to enter the capital after midnight, was to be granted no entrance. If they still tried to enter, though, the soldiers were allowed to execute them. According to their banners, the guards were part of the king's personal army. That meant that they were more than ready to just kill anyone trying to enter. They were cruel bastards, but effective in battle. Making them guards instead of sending them to fight in the first line was just another proof of the king's stupidity and another reason why the people hated their king.
    After the man left the forest and entered the street to continue his way, it didn't take the guards too long to notice them and prepare for a fight. They could be heard laughing, most likely already looking forward killing someone. The hood of the man hid his face, disabling them to see who he actually was. Just a few more steps and the man would've passed the gate, but the men surrounded him.
    "See what we got here, boys. Some old fella trying to get through the gate." laughed the guy in front of the man, who also blocked the path to the gate.
    "Never heard of the rules of the king, old man? No one is allowed to enter the cities after midnight. Midnight passed one hour ago, we are allowed to kill you right now. If I were you, I'd be begging for mercy!" another one said. The third man grinned and grabbed the hood of the man.
    "Let us see your face before we kill you. Just so we know whose ugly face will never be seen again." he claimed. Then he removed the hood and fell to the ground, screaming both shocked and scared of what he just saw. It must've been the most terrifying thing he has ever seen in his whole life, a living nightmare.
    "By the gods, what-" One move with the hand and both he and the first guard turned into ice. Another move. The ice melted in mere seconds. The second guard was about to beg for mercy – the man wondered if that simple minded moron was even capable of understanding the irony of this – but the man just moved his hand again and the guard exploded from the inside. Then he placed his hood back and entered the city. The few in the city, who were still not asleep, didn’t care about the sounds. They got used to the screams of those who were slain by the guards. The man continued his journey, unaffected by the gruesome deaths of these guards, and entered the dirty streets of the city.
    No one minded the hooded man who was wandering through the streets, the few people who were still up were either had something illegal in mind, were too busy with their own business or just left the brothels and taverns and were on their way home. No one cared about one more hooded figure in the night.
    It didn't take him long to arrive at the royal palace of the king. The man knew the palace like no one else – not even the king knew about all the secret passages that lead inside. The man only had to touch the stone walls. They still reacted to his touch, they opened and revealed the secret way. Only the man could open this secret door. He entered and the walls closed behind him again, as if the secret gate never had been there.

    It took the man mere minutes to reach the king’s quarters. He knew this place all too well. He used to wander through these passages almost every week for years. He knew every candle, every guardian, every door, everyone and everything inside this palace. Another move with his arm and the door opened silently, allowing the man to enter. The room was filled with gold, almost everything was made out of it. Even the bed. The man could see that someone lied in the bed, but it was only one person – the queen. The first target. One move would be enough to make her suffer the same fate as the guards, but the man wanted to take revenge and suffer like he did. Some movements and magic surrounded her. She woke up, most likely feeling how her feet started to ache. She looked at the man with horror. He didn't wear his hood anymore and she looked into his dead eyes. She tried to say something, but she couldn't talk anymore. The man had used his magic to silence her. She wouldn't be able to scream as the ache became real pain. She wasn't able to scream when the pain became even worse. Little, summoned insects fed upon her body, eating it from the feet up to her stomach. She still tried to scream when the insects reached her head. The magic also didn’t allow her to die and made her feel through every second of her torment. This was nothing but a tiny bit of the pain the man had to go through. He watched every second of her torment and felt nothing. No happiness, no pleasure, just nothing. It took hours until it ended and the man was quite sure that, very close to the end, the queen realized who he was. In the end, the summoned insects disappeared after they had eaten all flesh, all bones, nothing was left, no trace that she had ever even existed. The man left, unmoved by the cruelty he just commited. He felt no guilt. She was among those who were responsible for his betrayal, there could've been no doubt about it.
    The advisors shared a similar fate as the queen, they died, one after another. In the end, only the king himself remained. The man knew exactly where to find the "Defender of Mankind". The quest rooms, one particular guest room. The man could hear laugher, the king had more pleasure in bedding his most exotic guest than his wife. Soon, all three would be united again - in death. He entered the room the same way he entered the others. Nine people had died tonight, soon it’d be eleven. The man closed the door behind him and then broke the king and his lover apart with his magic. They looked at him, both confused and shocked. The king of Rengar and his "company" – the elven queen. It was rumoured that, soon, she'd allow her daughter to take over so she could enjoy her immortal life without ruling the Elven Kingdom. That day would come sooner than she thought. She was a vile woman who only used the Humans to fight her battles for her. The man had many good friends among the Elves, her daughter was said to be more popular than her mother but not to be trusted. The man had met her once. He didn't like her back then. Only time would show, but tonight, the Elves would lose her queen and the people of Rengar would lose their king. The man rose his hand to gather his magic and then pointed at her. A loud crushing. An ice meteor had fell from the sky – it landed directly on the elf and crushed her body completely. The king stared at her, not believing what he just saw. He tried to call the guards, but he was silenced by the same spell the man used on his wife.
    This king would die a slow, gruesome death, he would suffer the same pain as the man did. First, the man entangled the king in this bed. Then, he froze the arms of the king while also burning them at the same, creating a magical symbiosis that was both effective and really painful. The king tried to scream but the spell prevented him from doing so. The man removed the insects once they were done eating the feet and used dark magic to make the king feel pain from both the inside and the outside. Feeling endless waves of pain, the king didn’t realize how his blood became corrupted by the dark magic – he was too busy fighting the pain. He had no chance. The man opened his mouth and an unnatural, strange sound, that made the king look at him filled with even more fear than pain, was the last thing, the king would ever hear. His blood began to burn in black flames, slowly killing the king in agony. The deed had been done.
    The king and everyone else responsible for the betrayal of the soldiers were dead. Still, the man felt nothing. He left the palace the same way he entered it and also left the city. In a few hours, the people would realize that their king is dead and since he didn't have any heirs, chaos would reign for the next few years. It didn't matter. Nothing mattered anymore. The man disappeared in the forest and, for the first time since days without rest, he stayed at one place. His journey was over, but the man somehow knew that his story wasn't over. This thought was confirmed sooner than he had expected.
    "I've been watching your progress with great interest. We should meet, in person." A voice said inside his mind.
    "Who are you?" asked the man, his voice sounded strange, not human at all.
    "My name is Aridon, I am the guardian of this world. Come to me, Rahandir Drakeskull, and hear me out. You won't regret it."

    Diary of a Soldier by Shar Dundred
    Diary of a Soldier

    Elrin told me to start writing a diary to gather my thoughts. I guess it's worth a try.

    3rd December, 531 E. F.
    Thanok looked at me, his face grim. He was General Bloodclaw's right hand in all Ironfist matters. He ensured that everyone stood in line and that our enemies were being confronted with all the cruelty and trickery we could come up with. The officer's whole existance and past was a secret, he had been with General Bloodclaw from the very beginning. Not even the Imperials knew anything about him. The spellcasters say they feel uncomfortable when talking with him. Perhaps those wannabe-great wizards don't like his aura or something. They're useful in battle, I give them that, but they're just insane. Guess there's a reason for them to prefer sticking together. A simple soldier can't even have a nice conversation with one of them. They're behaving pretty weird. Lately, it has become even worse.
    Perhaps that's just me, though. As daughter of a farmer in Lor, I never got to know any mage before the Demons came. I will always remember father shouting at us, ordering us to run away. I wonder, sometimes, if there's anything I could have done to save him, my brother or my mother. In my dreams, I can still hear them scream as the Demons catch them, one by one. I joined the army to avenge my family. Only a few weeks later, the Ironfist recruited me. I didn't mind too much, my troop was unable to accept a woman in their little man-group. I heard that they died when the accursed Orcs broke through General Selior's defenses. While they were no friends of mine, they and I were fighting for the same cause. I pity them and hope they took some of the green-skinned bastards with them before they went down.
    A scout had returned, I had just brought him to talk with Thanok. The scout reported that the rest of his group had been slain by the rebels. The scum had blocked the whole pass ahead of us with countless defenses and barricades. The villages in this area had joined them and supported the rebels with both men and food. Thanok grinned when the scout told him details about the enemies' gear. It was a dark, evil and cruel grin. It was the third time I've seen it and I still have trouble getting this... thing out of my head. His grin... This horrible, horrible grin... It made Thanok look more like a Demon than a Human. No, not even a Demon, something far more scary. I never talked with anyone about it, but I KNOW that the others feel the same whenever they see it.
    Thanok enjoyed hearing that the rebels, while outnumbering us twenty to one, were no real enemies. They were farmers using scyths and throwing stones to fight well-trained soldiers with swords and heavy armor. Not to mention the spellcasters and golems we were using. Thanok said that the Golden Guard should have no problem butchering the villagers and farmers. According to our spies, we'd even be able to make the rebels fight themselves, he told us. Then, he ordered us to leave.
    Tomorrow we'll be fighting the rebels along with the Golden Guard. I hope those arrogant bootlickers can fight.

    10th December, 531 E. F.
    It took us an entire week to get through that damn pass. Considering the huge amount of rebels fighting us, it's hard to believe, but we lost only twenty soldiers. The Golden Guard did better than I expected.
    It appears that they're getting closer to us. Without that High Lord Inquisitor asshole watching them, their arrogance and bootlicking has become way better. They not only greet us, no, they see us as equals. I guess fighting through the same hell creates bonds, even between Golden Guards and Royal Soldiers. They've proven something very importen: They are, just like us, soldiers who lost friends and familie, and fight for their cause. Most of them didn't agree with leaving this continent, that's most likely the reason why they were to join forces with us in the first place. I feel like there was a huge misunderstanding in the beginning, when we disliked each other. We're all the same. That's why we're here.
    That damnable pass.... The rebels there were countless, attacking us at every opportunity. Most of them were no enemies, easily to be defeated. Only a few of them were true warriors and they were outnumbered by us as soon as their weaker companions were slain. We've shown no mercy when we encountered the first village. All of them were attacking us, even women and children. We killed every single one of them. Only the babies and very young children were spared, General Bloodclaw ordered some of the scouts to return them to loyal villages. It was bloody work, but it had to be done. We burned the whole village to the ground after Thanok had personally executed the treacherous mayor.
    Afterwards, the attacks had become worse. One of Lord Retka's armies had arrived and set up camp on the other side of the pass. Retka's army was as strong as the army of a king, their equipment was only slightly inferior to ours. Before they arrived, we had lost not a single soldier. Then, they attacked us when we were close to the next village. We were prepared for them, but they knew how to hit us hard. Lady Redfist, that noble mage accompanying us, was able to slow them down and summoned huge waves to drown them. Then she called for lightnings and threw them at the soldiers. That, combined with the water the wave had left behind, caused many of our foes to die instantly. However, it was not enough. Some of Lord Retka's elite soldiers were part of that army. They were still able to attack us swiftly and with their full might. We outnumbered them, but they were more powerful than most warriors I had encountered before. I was part of a group of five, fighting one of them. Three of us died quickly. The only reason why I survived was the member of the Golden Guard, who sacrificed himself by defending me when the elite was about to finish me off. He threw himself before me and impaled the elite while getting stabbed himself. I will never forget what he did for me. I know that he had a wife and children. As soon as I get an opportunity to do so, I shall send them a letter about her husband and their father to have died a hero's death. It won't change it, but perhaps it will ease their pain...
    Dealing with the second village wasn't too difficult. Unlike the other villagers, the ones living here were forced by the infamous Kajon Marauders, some group of criminals working for Retka, to join the rebels. As soon as General Bloodclaw killed the leader of the Kajon Marauders in this area, the villagers switched sides and joined us in our battle. Despite them fighting us mere minutes ago, General Bloodclaw ordered Thanok to give the villagers better weapons and armor. While the villagers were busy getting equipped, General Bloodclaw whispered to Thanok that he should "deal with them" as soon as this was over. As far as I know, none of the villagers survived the battle against Retka's army on the other side of the pass. I don't think it'd be wise to think about this anymore. Thanok is watching every single one of us and I can't get rid of the feeling that my mind is like an open book to him when he looks at me. If I didn't know better, I'd think that he's a damn mind-reading sorcerer!
    After the second village was taken care of, we encountered almost no resistance in the pass. They all had run away like cowards. The camp of Retka's soldiers was the only obstacle left in our way and, since they had lost most of their units when they attacked us, the remaining soldiers hardly brought up a real fight. General Bloodclaw slew their leader in single-combat. We finally did it.

    11th December, 531 E. F.
    I learned that, after the camp of Retka's forces had been burned to the ground, General Bloodclaw, Thanok and Lady Redfist "had a talk". As far as I can tell, Lady Redfist was running off suddenly, leaving General Bloodclaw and Thanok behind. I don't know what the talk was about, but I had seen how Thanok gazed after Lady Redfist. His face.... So much hate and violence. I bet that he'd have loved to run after Lady Refist and... I don't even want to write down what I think he might've been doing with her.
    I start wondering... Is he really just Bloodclaw's right hand or is he.... something more?
    I should hide my diary. If the wrong person ever gets his or her hands on it... I don't think I'd want that to happe

    *the sentence suddenly ends and a few strange lines, as if the writer was interrupted, appear before the normal writing continues without picking up the old entry*
    I should stop writing such things, they're just funny nonsense. I'm part of the best army in the Empire, it's my honor to serve Thanok and General Bloodclaw. Doubting them is a mistake, standing in their way is betrayal.
    I will fight to death for my great general. I have been appointed to one of Thanok's personal guards, so I will no longer have the time to write any diary entries. I, Claire Greendale, will burn it to prevent it from poisoning anyone's thoughts.
    For the glory of General Bloodclaw!

    Birth of a World by Shar Dundred
    Birth of a World

    It all began, with the creation of our world. The world later to be called Arkain.
    It was an... experiment. A game, played by foolish and unexperienced creatures, later to be called gods. They were young back then, didn't have any idea what consequences their doings could have. Immortality can be both a blessing and a curse, it appears, it makes one become... uncautious.
    The gods had no names, they were separated by the element they had power over. Only a few of them survived their deeds, the others.... are no more.
    The gods, not knowing the true meaning of their own power, created Arkain as a playground. They wanted to test their abilities. They created mountains, plains, forests, seas, rivers, vulcanic areas, arctic areas... They created every landscape one could imagine – along with those no one could imagine. But it wasn't enough. They wanted to create more and more. At some point, they became bored of their work and wanted to do more: Create intelligent life. And today they know, no matter if they'd be willing to admit it or nor, that from this point on, things started getting worse.
    They started a project to create the first race together. All of them combined their powers to create one single race, a race they wanted to be perfect. It took them one year to complete their work: They created a powerful race which they named after the world they had created: The Arkainians.
    The Arkainians started settling on the main continent of Arkain. They prospered and created a beautiful realm. They were religious and devout people – until the day came, which announced their downfall. After two hundred years of wealth, the Arkainians started to become extinct. They didn't get enough children anymore and a strange illness killed them, one by one. All their prayers didn't help them, the gods themselves were unable to figure out, how this was possible. Little did they know that it was the doing of their very own creation. They had made a mistake when they created the Arkainians. It was a miracle that their creation had been able to live for such a long time in the first place. When they discovered the reason for this, it was far too late.

    The gods started blaming each other for the failure, as more and more Arkainians died and the civilization fell to chaos. They started with insults, insults became threats, threats became attacks and attacks became war. A war amongst the gods themselves had begun. They had no armies, they needed none, they fought each other. The remaining Arkainians presumed that they had to follow their gods and started fighting each other as well. Their extinction made them desperate, some just wanted to die, others thought they could end this whole mess if one faction won. Only a handful of them stayed peaceful – in turn, they were the first to be killed by their mad brothers and sisters.
    Day after day, week after week, for almost two thousand years the different forces had fought each other. The Arkainians were all dead, either killed by their own kind or the doing of their gods. The day the last of them died from a wound, the gods stopped their battle and finally realized what they had done. Tired and full of grief, they wanted to undo the damage they had inflicted. They had destroyed their playground world and killed the race they had created. They had even killed most of themselves, only half of them had survived their battles. They tried to restore their world and to re-create their creation with their united power. But their attempt to do so was sabotaged by four beings so powerful that they were capable of killing a god.
    The gods were so focused on their war that they hadn't understood what happened to the gods that had been slain. The dead gods themselves vanished, yes, but their powers surely didn't. The powers of several gods combined and created new beings, each with the power of several gods. They were later known as the Demon God, the Avatar of Death, the Dark One and the Master of Shadows. They understood that what the gods were trying to do would, in fact, destroy everything that was left. While the gods focused all their power in their ritual, the Four attacked them. After all the war and battle, the gods were no match for the four empowered beings and were either killed or banned from the world of Arkain. This left the Four as the most powerful beings on Arkain. A time of peace had begun.

    The Four started their own games on several continents, even creating new races. The Demon God created a demonic race whose real name was lost, the Avatar of Death created a race later known as Dark Elves or True Elves, the Master of Shadows created beings of deepest shadows. Only the Dark One created no new race, instead he was watching the primitive beings of the world and the races created by the others. For several centuries, all was going well, but as always, peace wouldn't endure long.
    The Dark One started taking members of the different races from his brethren. His plans are still unknown, but it was quite clear that it had something to do with getting rid of his three counterparts. However, it didn't take the others as long to figure that out as he had hoped. They allied up against him and ordered their armies to attack him. The Dark One had summoned both creatures of his own, monsters created out of magic, and members of different races, perverted to his dark will, but even with all his servants and tricks he stood no chance against the others.
    It was the Demon God who utterly crushed the Dark One with his bare hands. He tore the traitor apart and the pieces were thrown into all directions of the world. This part of the story could be over here, but it isn't. The Avatar of Death, who had forseen these events and had figured out a plan himself, used this opportunity. He had seen the world's end and understood that the only way to prevent it, was to destroy everything that endangered its balance. Like the Four. He stabbed the Demon God and literally tore all life out of his body. The Demon God, not expecting another betrayal like this, died in an explosion, that destroyed the realm of the Dark One completely, making it drown underwater. The Master of Shadows was, too, destroyed by the explosion and his remnants faded away. Only the Avatar of Death, heavily wounded, managed to survive. But his wounds wouldn't heal. He had forseen all of this, he knew he would die and did, what he had to do: He sealed away his creation, the Dark Elves, and disappeared.

    Without their leader, the Demons fell into chaos and fought each other for power, the Shadows disappeared, one by one, making room for the young races.

    Fate's Hand by Kasrkin
    Fate's Hand

    Once upon a time in those yester years before the invasion renewed, a young noble perhaps you could call him a prince was walking through the woods. Of course the young blueblood was with guards but fate was not on his side today as the woods were hiding many a bandit.
    But as that fickle bitch called fate has done she will do so again, there was another in the woods that day a young woman returning from a hunting trip.

    The princeling's group continued onwards through the wood, banter and boasts galore as they thought about the beasts they would bring home to feast on. There was barely a rustle in the bushes and trees as the assassins prepared themselves with both hand signals and bird whistles.
    The woman continued on her journey towards the nearest town to sell her kills both large and small. The deer was sitting uncomfortabley on her shoulders and rabbits hanging from many bags and knots. Another sacrafice for her family an unjust existance was hers.

    One of the escorts couldn't ignore the urge in his throat anymore, he lifted his helmet's mask up and brought the water skin close only to choke. A crossbow bolt struck true right into his mouth and becoming lodged in his throat. In those blissful seconds the group continued before they heard the gurgling and choking of their comrade.
    The group seemed to all shout at once the men on horseback drew their swords and the men walking gripped their halberds tighter as they searched franticly for the threat. The princeling pulled his blade free of the scabbard and steadied himself, this will get ugly.

    Then the assassins struck in full as more bolts and arrows were launched from the hiding places of the assassins. After the first volley if one could call it such a thing they joined melee with the noble's group.
    Ah fate such a horrible mistress, men don't believe in her but still curse her name and praise her undauntingly when the day is won.

    The woman was continuing her long and boring journey when she saw the first birds leave the trees. Then she heard the shouting, the teeth numbing, and ear bleeding sound of blades crashing together in melee.
    She made a decision, a decision that would change the world but not for many many years but of course she wouldn't know that. Not for a long time. Her decision made she dropped the deer and removed any of her kills that could impair movement.
    She began to run.... fate it seems was on the prince's side this day.

    The princeling spat blood as the battle finally ended he wasn't wounded fatally it was nothing but an annoyance, an injury to his pride. His group was several men short many horses without riders and many more widows made.
    The woman, ah yes the woman she came from behind the assassins a variable they didn't count on, but of course they had no way of knowing as she brought the battle to them and turned a slow death into a possible victory.

    She made it possible to bring the battle to them on both sides of the ambush. He and his men owed their lives to her.
    The young noble approached her and asked, "What is your name my lady?"

    Some of the men laughed but it sounded like a wheeze, no woman fought like that and gets called a lady.
    For a moment she thinks of spitting in his face, her family's fate and upbringing brought up firmly in her mind. But she banishes it from the forefront and then she sighs.

    "Vail, my name is Vail and you're lucky to be alive." And the rest they say... is history.

    Aftermath by Kasrkin

    The men were tired.... such a word is inadequate to describe the armies under General Gardon Bloodclaw. Screams were now a common thing to hear as the battle finally ended.
    The rebellion was over, the Ironfist were traitors, and the rumor mill has it the General will be declaring himself king soon! The soldier can hardly believe everything that has happened the past few days.
    Reality came crashing down again on the man, screams and the shouting for medics and healers. He turns and there is a burning destructor, men are franticly trying to open the former fortress turned prison.

    Somehow his legs begin moving and he makes the short journey back to camp on the other side of the city. The distance seemed so long when the men were fighting street to street, house to house. He is back and the stink of death is overpowering. Corpses are everywhere.
    The next few hours pass by in a blur, he is conscripted into carrying the wounded to the medic tents. The screaming becomes a familiar companion as the day goes on. Somehow he eventually gets out of this new hell, if he was no longer needed or he ran he did not know.
    The soldier begins walking, to find his unit, assauge his mind? He did not know, his fellow soldiers seemed to be doing the same, lost and angry. Damn the traitors and damn the Empire, they had given so much and now they were thrown out

    An explosion suddenly rings out interrupting the still ongoing screams, it seems the destructor's ammo stocks had finally caught fire.
    New men, the general's elites have started walking amongst the groups of soldiers. They say the general has an announcement and everyone should get some sense back into their heads and head back to camp.
    As the soldiers returned back to the main camp of the Ironfist, they felt fatigue beyond measure and a spark of anger. They were going to move out soon all of them knew it. Barely a few hours after getting through hell and they were moving out again. Fools.

    But when the General appeared they still straightened their backs and stood like proper soldiers. The General appropriately found a podium or something to stand on, and whether through the effects of magic or just his old commanding self he spoke and they all heard.
    "I have something to say and don't start your damn grumblings yet because it's not what you idiots think. We are alone: battered, betrayed, and outnumbered. Our great Empire has turned its back on all of us, but there is no time to dwell on this we need to act. The Kingdoms will fall, the Empire is leaving this continent to its fate, and we're stuck in the middle of all of this."
    We are not leaving! We shall not leave this land to its eventual fate. But that does not mean we are serving the kingdoms or anyone else. I speak of something new, a new bulwark against the dark.
    What I am speaking of is a new kingdom, maybe one day a new nation. We shall make our own fate in this hell, we shall beat back the empire, the demons, and those fucking undead!... No more running, no more hiding, no more waiting until reinforcements come, no more."
    I, General Gardon Bloodclaw formerly of the Empire's Imperial Army now declare myself as king of this United Kingdom."
    The man sighs, he is used to action not speechcrafting.
    "All of you we're moving out in two days, that means get some rest. Bury your friends, and help those that can make it.... Dismissed.“

    Thanok steps onto the podium, "There's something else." The men have only taken a few steps.
    "Scarlett Retka, one of enemy commanders has been spared. Time will tell if she's usful or not but that doesn't matter. I don't expect you to be ok with this, that's fucking fine but don't kill her. At least not yet. We'll need every advantage we can get in the coming days."

    Arrival by Kasrkin

    "So, your "great" empire has defeated the demons before? I find that hard to believe we've been fighting them for centuries."
    There was a rustle from the armored troops in their fancy armors, how dare some peasant from across the sea belittle their empire.
    "King Dorten, I assure you we have beaten them, they couldn't run back home to their dimension fast enough when we began our attack. I must congratulate you and yours for holding out so long against such an undaunting foe."
    The various representatives of the kingdoms gripped their weapons tighter and bore masks of anger at such an upfront insult. They had endured for ages, no upstarts from the across the sea can even imagine the sacrafices they've made!
    "How will you be any different than the inhuman conquerors at our door? How do we know we haven't made the greatest mistake of the millenium in trusting you? How will it be any d--"
    The assembled parties all turn surprised to the representative of Lor.
    "We have gone in circles for ages but the negotiations are long since over! Their armies are coming across the ocean, we agreed to this and so did our kings! I don't give a flying shit if your nation is the devil itself, you are human and still have your minds. The only question I have for you is can you save my home?"
    The silence that came afterwards wasn't an awkward one it was as if all those assembled felt ashamed. Those that still lived, years later would never admit it either.
    Finally the sharp tounged negotiator from across the sea spoke once more without bite and bile.
    "Yes, Commander Trualm we can save your people. We will do all that we can, we want revenge for the death and insult to our people. If we can save more lives from these beasts then we shall do so with all that we are."
    When he was asked years later if he shed any tears, the then Commander vehemently denied it.
    "Thank you, from my people and from me, I thank you with everything I am."
    The air of hostility had finally begun to fade, these representatives had not assembled here to negotiate treaties or make deals. They were here to witness the arrival of the Empire. Days, days it was no surprise someone finally snapped after all the verbal sparring, tension, and feeling of impending doom. It would still take more days for the might of the Empire to show itself, but when it finally did it would burn itself into the memories of the men of the kingdoms for the rest of their lives.
    "So, they should be here today?"
    "Yes, King Dorten just watch the horizon and you'll see. It should be only a few more hours now."
    Men now stood shoulder to shoulder watching the horizon, unbelieving but hopeful... no the feeling most of them felt was not hope such an insignificant and small feeling couldn't be called hope, not yet at least.
    "How's the situation in Lor?"
    The Commander and his party looked shaken.
    "Not good, not good at all. Sometimes I wish we didn't have magical means of near instant communication it only fills me with more dread."
    The reprsentative from Pyrru remained steely as ever.
    "Don't worry they'll make it... we all will."
    "I don't know if I believe that anymore I doubt I can.. cancancan... holy shit."
    The ships were now coming into visible view and by the gods above and the devils below it was impressive, awe inspiring, terrifying. Filling almost the entire horizon thousands upon thousands upon thousands of ships were coming to the rescue of the kingdoms, now territory of the Empire of Humanity.
    King Dorten of Kerrel knew he should be relieved, happy, and full of hope but all he felt was fear and dread. They had just made the greatest mistake of their lives and he feared for the future. He walked away from the assembled men cheering and making their plans for a war that could now be won. He walked back to the empire camp and found the negotiator, who was seated and staring into a dead fire sending out its last waves of smoke. The negotiator looked up to the king and found the accusation in his eyes... the old man couldn't keep contact he knew what he had done.
    Dorten had his answer, new conquerors were coming.
    The first wave had arrived.
    An old man awoke in his study, grumbling at the feeling in his bones and at the damn goblet he knocked over in his sleep. He hadn't thought of those days in a long time and he wished he could take it all away. Falling asleep in this dainty old chair what was wrong with him, he'd be feeling it the whole rest of the day. He rose slowly and groaned, he had much to do he couldn't be falling asleep when he was needed. But his eyes were drawn "the" painting, he walked towards it and stared. The Arrival of the Empire or Arrival of our Saviours, bah the second name stopped being used years ago when others became aware of their saviours true nature.
    He saw himself so young and strong, and all the faces that are now gone. So many men killed by the demons, by the empire, natural causes, accidents, pah..... Who to trust now, the monsters were at the door again and he did not know what to do what could he do somanypeoplerelyonhimtobetheirsav--
    "My liege?"
    One of his personal guards opened the door to his study and entered.
    "I'm sorry my king for interrupting your rest but Larine has sent word."
    The time for doubts is past once again he is needed, King Dorten is needed once again.
    "I'm on my way."

    Return by Shar Dundred

    Many decades ago, our parents died to save this continent from oblivion. We accepted their people and welcomed them in our Empire as brothers, broke our bread with them and enabled them a future they otherwise wouldn't have been able to even dream of.
    We gave them all they needed and made sure they could rebuild their destroyed realms, find some rest after the endless wars and live in peace rather than die in battle.
    We gave them our hand in friendship and they took it with enthusiasm, swearing allegiance, eternal loyalty and friendship. We trusted them with our lives and so did they.
    Or so we thought. We were betrayed by those we called brothers, knives were put in our backs. They had grown fat and greedy, spoilt by our gifts. They demanded more, ever more. Money, resources, soldiers. And yet we kept going, we gave them what they asked for - not for selfish reasons but we thought we were doing what allies were supposed to do. However, at some point, enough was enough. Even our patience had its limits and the greedy barbarians did not hesitate to test our goodwill.
    They call this event the Second Voidwar now. We call it the Great Betrayal instead. The war during which our brothers-in-arms broke years of friendship. Our finest soldiers and heroes, the Golden Guard, were butchered while trying to protect our former friends. All Imperials were slaughtered in their beds by the traitors.
    The half-brother of our beloved Emperor himself has changed sides and used dark incarnations to summon black dragons, shadows and undead monstrosities. His betrayal was of greed and egoism, the kings had similar reasons so they started to work together. Yes, they managed to temporarily defeat the enemies of mankind, but at what cost? The traitors thought they could defeat us and their other enemies at the same time. They wanted too much, so they achieved neither of their goals, regardless of the fact that they had been united in their misguided course.
    Yet, like all tyrants, they soon began antagonizing each other and now a war is inevitable. It will tear the continent apart. But the Emperor will not allow that. We were sent by his majesty to retake the realms. We will slay the black dragons, banish the shadows, grind the bones of the undead to dust and put the kings on a leash. They betrayed our friendship so we will force them into servitude instead. Then, the traitor Gardon will be next to fall before our heels, but his pleas for mercy will remain unheard. We will not repeat the mistakes of the Golden Guard and not try to protect the people on this continent, we will take what is ours.
    The continent of Arkain belongs to the Empire by right and we will make sure it returns to its rightful owner.
    I am Argastus Corlon and I will have the honor to put an end to the snakes of Arkain. I will lead my legions to victory... or death!

    Argastus Corlon, General of the Imperial Army, 31st March, 552 E. F./20 Z. R.

    Report by Shar Dundred

    I just had dinner with the grand marshal. Despite his obvious mistrust, it was a very interesting and enlightening experience. He stands like a rock in the tides, ignores all the effects of the tides and seems untouchable. Most of his time is spent in his cabin, studying papers. I imagine they could be orders, letters or tactics, but I have not been able to take a closer look at them yet. They seem to be encrypted.
    The grand marshal was unwilling to talk much, I can hardly blame him. Men and women of my profession tend to be... dangerous at times, sometimes even uncontrollable. I consider myself rather harmless, but just saying that would not have convinced him even if I tried.
    From what I have been able to find out, he is not one of the rather... passionate leaders of this expedition. He is the only one who knows the exact orders and keeps them to himself, I don't know yet why he does that but there must be a reason. Maybe the rather aggressive members of the armies would not like them?
    Regardless, most generals and soldiers seem to expect an invasion of the kingdoms and Bloodclaw's realm. General Argastus Corlon, with whom I had the honor to share a few words with earlier today, seems to be one of those who want to conquer the Kingdoms and Zyainor for the Emperor, he seems to be on a blind crusade against the continent, filled with rage, as are those who serve in his forces. I cannot really blame him for his feelings. Almost all members of the legions sent here have been trained and indoctrinated to be both skilled and fierce in the upcoming war.
    The grand marshal and his personal forces and maybe a few other officers seem to be the only ones who have not been indoctrinated like this. This is good, it will allow me to have at least some conversations that go beyond "punishing the traitors who dared to defy the will of their Emperor!".
    Most of the Imperial Court just nod to everything the Emperor says, including the entire Arkain incident. Neither my employer nor I believe that we have been told the entire truth. The Emperor does not seem to concerned with finding out what actually happened, despite the fact that his uncle, Renald van Durce, died. On that note, I think that the presence of his daughter, Catherine van Durce, only further increases the hostility towards the Kingdoms and Zyainor.
    Back to the grand marshal. I cannot read him as I'd like to. He remains emotionless and I am quite convinced he would remain calm even if his cabin or even the world itself would fall apart around him. I will keep an eye on him. He will tell us sooner or later what the orders are – at least I THINK he will do so BEFORE we reach Arkain – but maybe I can find something before that.
    I have to be careful, though. My mission is top secret. I am no traitor, but it would be unwise if those who are absolutely, blindly loyal towards the Emperor would find out about it. They would misunderstand the intentions.

    Unknown, 5th April, 552 E. F./20 Z.R.

    Survival by Shar Dundred

    A group of riders left the fortress and slowly rode through the area before it. Mud and blood, death and destruction, stench and flame. Only a few hours ago, this had been the field of a massive battle. Many dead on both sides, yet the ones who lost the battle had lost much more than their enemies.
    The Golden Guard, once powerful, proud and arrogant, now laying in the mud, dirty, broken and dead. The carrion was everywhere. Scavengers looking for food, necromancers and undead collecting dead bodies, soldiers giving the badly hurt a coup de grace and burning corpses while arguing about it with necromancers. There would be no funeral for the dead, they were doomed to be the victim of the carrion and there was nothing that the riders could have done about it.
    A heavy sigh. Lord Marin looked over his shoulder on the few soldiers who had survived the battle. The few remaining members of the once powerful Golden Guard. Then he gazed upon the dead. He had failed his friend Renald. The war machines should have prevented this, yet their power had not been enough. Hell, even Marin's most powerful airships had not been able to defeat Bloodclaw and his accursed allies. It had been a mistake to follow the orders of the Emperor, but Marin had to focus on the cannon, there was nothing he could have done even if he had wanted to. He looked at the worse right next to him. Renald's lifeless body lay on it, showing no sign of life. The body of a dead man, a few soldiers and his own life, that was all he had been able to save. Most of his machines were now either destroyed or used by the Ironfist.
    They were alone now, on a continent where everyone hated them, where they would find no shelter. He closed his eyes as the horses left the battlefield. Past mistakes would not be repeated. From now on, he would be in charge of the Golden Guard, even if only a tiny bit of them remained, and he would not bow to anyone again. He never had served the Emperor out of loyalty, he had served because he had considered it the only logical thing to do if he wanted to ensure the survival of the Empire - and later, he only stayed in active service because of his friendship with Renald. Was it Renald's fault that he followed his orders thoroughly, as he had done for decades? Was it Gardon's fault that he retaliated when he was under attack? Could the conflict between Renald and Gardon have been settled peacefully? Maybe, but that was no longer relevant. At the moment, nothing was relevant. The person who had truly started this conflict that served only to weaken all who were involved, Emperor Theodor the Second, was beyond anyone's reach. Marin rode over a bridge to leave the entire scenery behind. His time was not over yet. The Master Engineer had no idea that several miles away, another member of the Golden Guard had survived and lay unconscious on the ground.

    It was a massive figure that laid on the ground, next to a waterfall. It was of enormous size and wore an armor so heavy that only the strongest would be able to walk or run with it. The man who forged it was also the one who now wore it. He opened his eyes, the light of the sun blinded him, so he quickly closed his eyes again, opening them slowly to get used to it. His helmet was lying next to his head. Had he lost it during the battle? No, that was not possible. It must have been removed after someone had carefully opened the mechanism that kept it in its place.
    The massive man tried to stand up, but he felt too weak. Whatever had occurred, it had weakened his strong body, maybe wounds? He could not feel any pain. He tried to look around and find out, where he was. This was nowhere close to the fortress, that much was for certain. His horse was gone too. He tried to remember. He had been surrounded by the soldiers of the Ironfist who had managed to defeat the paladins under heavy losses. Praxeus remembered his horse suddenly behaving strangely and running away after the magic of the foul Undead had almost torn him apart alive... The battle! How long had it been? He had to return to the fortress and find out-
    He stopped thinking. Something came closer, he could hear it. A noise. A... bark? He looked to his right and saw a black direwolf coming closer! It looked familiar to... an old.... acquaintance.
    "...Zed? Is that you?" Praxeus whispered, feeling too weak to speak louder. He had never felt like this before. In this weakened state, he would not be able to defend himself or even move anything but his head. The direwolf just looked at him, its face was now almost touching Praxeus' face. It crooked its head and sniffed.
    No, this wasn't Gardon's direwolf Zed, though Praxeus was sure the animal looked very similar to him. Younger, but still adult for a direwolf Maybe a.... whelp of Zed? Praxeus had heard that some Bloodfangs trained by Gardon were direct descendants of Zed, after all. If this was a Bloodfang, then it would be only a matter of time until it tore Praxeus apart. His thoughts were going fast. What should he do? Try to fight his weakness and fight the animal before it decided to try to eat him?
    Then suddenly, the direwolf licked over his face. Praxeus gazed at it in surprise, but he found the creature looking at him with a familiarity he had not seen since... The nose of the direwolf touched Praxeus' forehead.
    "She feels that you are not her enemy. She knows that you wouldn't harm her even if your body wasn't in its current state." he heard a gentle, female voice on the other side. He turned around, finding nothing but emptiness.
    "You want to return to the battle, Sir Praxeus, but you are too late. It is already over. The Golden Guard has lost. Your high lord is dead, his armies scattered." the voice continued. Praxeus tried to stand up again, now he felt pain and sighed, but he finally succeded and managed to stand up, even if on shaky legs. The direwolf looked at him, concerned.
    "Show yourself, whoever you are! What have you done with me?!" Praxeus demanded to know. He looked around. Suddenly, there stood a woman and he paused. She was beautiful and appeared young, she had similarity with the Angelics, yet Praxeus had never seen one like her. Her hair was completely white and he was not sure if she had actual wings or if there was a ray of light behind her. She opened her arms welcoming.
    "I mean you no harm, Sir Praxeus Braelon. I have healed your wounds. You have been unconscious for weeks. The war is over. Much has happened in your absence." she explained. The direwolf pressed its head against Praxeus' leg. Praxeus looked on the animal.
    "He... is dead? The High Lord Inquisitor has been killed?" he asked toneless.
    "I am sorry, but yes. Gardon has slain his uncle and forced Lord Marin to surrender so that the Demons would not be able to destroy humanity." she explained, her voice still sounded friendly. Praxeus' right hand formed a fist.
    "Then... I have failed. My liege is dead, my comrades fallen, now the powers of evil and darkness rule the land." he said bitterly. His left hand petted the head of the direwolf.
    "How could this have happened.... How could he let this happen..." he mumbled.
    "You are refering to Gardon, are you not? You not only knew his direwolf, you also knew himself. Did you not?" the woman asked, though she already seemed to know the answer. Praxeus closed his eyes. He remembered his childhood and his teenage years. He and Gardon had known each other, they had been close friends once. That was before...
    Praxeus opened his eyes.
    "The past doesn't matter anymore. What matters is that I have to purge the evil from this land and-"
    "Your paladins and templars don't exist anymore, Praxeus. You have a new mission, one that goes beyond simple purging and killing. By trying to fight the evil that you think to see everywhere, you will get yourself killed- You want to make up for past mistakes, do you not? You wish to restore what has been lost?" she interrupted him friendly. Praxeus looked at her, she still smiled at him.
    "What do you mean? What do you suggest I do?" he asked puzzled by her words.
    "When your high lord died, the relic he carried with him, disappeared. It was brought into safety by the divine powers that had once allowed him to find it. Now it is up to you to find it again. You have to find it again. It will play a great role in the future of this continent - and it may give you the redemption you seek. You are the only one who can find it. You have made mistakes and I can feel doubt clouding your judgement, but you are pure of heart. This is your task to fulfil, I see that. The search will help you finding the answers that you seek. That many seek." she explained and gave Praxeus a soft, warm smile.
    "The grail..." Praxeus muttered. This artifact lost... It was a noble mission, indeed, and maybe... Just maybe... There was a chance he could find the answers he was looking for. Slowly, he nodded.
    "A wise choice, Praxeus." the woman said. The direwolf barked and the woman laughed.
    "Tanara will accompany you. I don't think I could stop her if I wanted to - and I would not want to. She might be a child of the direwolf you remember from your childhood, but she has not been trained by the Ironfist like others of her kind, she has grown up in the forest. Yet I am sure she will help you survive on your journey." she explained. She whistled and a horse carrying several bags came out of the forest. It was Praxeus' horse!
    "In the bags you can find everything you need, your equipment, some food and money. It is all I can give you. Apart from this..." she said and gave Praxeus a map.
    "This map is magical, it will direct your way towards the relic you are looking for. It will help you in your mission. You should also use an alias on your travels and try to stay out of trouble. It will take a while until your body fully recovers its wounds, even when combined with your holy magic."
    "I thank you for your generous support, angelic. Before I go, may I ask your name?" Praxeus asked as he mounted his horse.
    "Call me Nysara. And there is no need to thank me, I have seen in the holy light that you are more than a warrior of light. Your destiny has yet to unfold itself. Now go, Sir Praxeus Braelon, and find the relic of your high lord."

    As Praxeus rode away with Tanara besides him, Nysara stood there, waving and smiling for a long time, until he was not visible anymore. Then she stopped waving and her face changed - literally. Two horns came out of it and the entire angelic appearance changed into that of a demoness. She didn't smile anymore, she looked mournful instead. She would have prefered not to have fooled the knight with her appearance, but he would never have listened to a demoness and have attacked her instead, even in his weakened form.
    Her mistress, Ebira, had ordered her to watch the battle between the Humans from afar several weeks ago. Nysara had not cared much for most of the battle but this particular knight had somehow managed to gain her interest. Nysara never had have much contact with mortals who had not been slaves, she had not participated in any of the battles. She was no warrior, she was an agent. Yet, what she was doing now, was no part of any mission of hers. It was her actively trying to keep the knight alive. The horse suddenly riding off was her doing, she made sure that Praxeus would survive the battle - he would have thrown himself into death without her intervention. Her attempts to heal him had been... not very successful, on the contrary, it had harmed him and prolonged his regeneration process instead - his holy magic seemed to fight her attempts to heal him with her demonic magic. Therefore she had been forced to rely on nature and some other means of healing magic, taking more time. In the meantime, the war had ended.
    She did not know what had sparkled her interest, maybe it was because something deep inside told her that he really would have a role to play in events to come or maybe it was her instinct, she was not sure about that herself. She only felt that this was the right thing to do. That is, if there was such a thing as the "right thing". She turned around and left the waterfall. It was time to return home. She would monitor the progress of the templar from afar. She felt herself hoping that he would succeed - and not kill himself.

    Cold War by Shar Dundred
    Cold War

    I still remember the day when I first met the Ca'laer and the Ca'lea of Zyainor in person. Well, I think I might have met the Ca'lea during her old life when she was still the bodyguard of our prince, but back then she appeared as nothing more than a savage, not one of the most powerful politicans on the continent.
    It was four years ago, the 7th October, 542 E.F. or as many would now say 10 Z.R. The tenth anniversary of the Second Void War. A banquet was being held in the recently finished Bloodclaw Fortress to celebrate the event. Up until today I am not sure whose idea that was. Was it the rulers of Zyainor or one of their advisors? The years before that, no one seemed to bother about it, it was considered nothing but a day like any other. Then, this year, suddenly a letter with the royal seal of Zyainor (or whatever word the dragon worshippers use for to describe "royalism", I am still not sure how their Zyaise works, it is a confusing language to begin with) with an invitation to a banquet. As far as I know, all nobles in all human and elven realms were invited and despite the conflicts between Kerrel and Zyainor, a cold war some would even call it, most nobles of Rengar and about at least half of the nobles of Kerrel attended to this unexpected event, myself included. King Dorten himself did not appear, but that was to no one's surprise. What DID surprise us, however, was that Princess Felicia, Dorten's daughter and heir after the disappearance of Prince Toraes, was not only there, she was among the first to arrive. I suspect that she was curious, just like the rest of us, why we would receive such an invitation rather than an invasion - we were expecting the latter ever since the foundation of the "new" Zyainor, especially after the failed assassination attempt on King Dorten. Of course, it could still be an attempt to first gather and then slaughter us, but even the Ca'laer would not be so bold. He wouldn't make the mistake of underestimating what such a shocking betrayal would cause. Of course, we still had no doubts that he would sooner or later try to take direct control of Kerrel. The question was only who would make the first move.
    Bloodclaw Fortress was an impressive, if sinister, sight to behold. However, the rumors about the heads of Gardon's enemies being impaled on the way to it were exaggerated. I actively looked for any, but couldn't see a single head of skull, not in the forest, not on the way to the entrance, not inside and not even on the walls. Maybe they had been removed for this event, but I quite frankly think that people tend to exaggerate when they are talking about the rulers of this realm. Surely, the Ca'laer had certain rumors surrounding him ever since his days as General Gardon Bloodclaw, but if I would compare the Zyainor of today with what is written about the "old" Zyainor, the realm had been improved hundredfold. Then again, how much truth is in those stories anway? History IS written by the victors, after all, is it not?
    We were led through a hallway directly into the banquet room, guards were on both sides, making sure that no one would get any idea to go any other way as directed. This did not surprise me, it was not uncommon. The fortress was a dark place on the inside, same as from outside. Statues of heroic humans and of dragons, side by side and on their own, were all over the place. Yet, I failed to see anything made of gold, it was either stone, iron or, seldomly, marble. I found myself wondering if this was simply because the owners of this place didn't care about gold, didn't have any interest in impressing their guests or in boasting or if it was still somehow related to the conflict with the Golden Guard. I think that this was something that impressed me the most about the aesthetics of the fortress.

    In the banquet room, we were greeted by the servants. We were served the finest wines and food, some apparently were Zyaise specialties as I had never seen anything like them, yet I still remember that they had a very good taste. Whatever the old Zyaise were, they knew how to make a nice meal, that is for sure.
    After a while, the door right to the two empty thrones opened and three figures entered the room. It was Ca'laer Gardon Bloodclaw, followed by his right hand High Lord Thanok, who, according to rumors, was a black dragon in human disguise, though one had yet to see him in his dragon form. The other man was not as famous as Thanok, but widely-known regardless. He had followed into the footsteps of Grand Admiral Seabright after his death, not by title, but by the status of being among the most trusted and highest-ranking servants of the throne of Zyainor.
    Lord Commander Varan the Soulkeeper, a tall man wearing black armor. He had once served his current liege as a soldier, he had been a lowborn son of a farmhand or a smith, I honestly cannot remember, I only know that he does not have noble blood. Yet, in his service he had risen through the ranks of the Ironfist and had become a high-ranking lieutenant of his superior Thanok. When the Bloodclaw had taken the crowns of Toran and Pyrru, Varan was among those who would be given title and lands. He had always shown great interest in the art of necromancy that had been practiced by some magicians of the Ironfist and had convinced them to teach him - and apparently he did actually have some untapped magic potential in him which allowed him to master their craft. He would later gather all necromancers and supporters of their art in the Human Kingdoms around him and, with the permission of his Ca'laer and Ca'lea, found the Guardians of the Grave, a necromantic order that served the interests of Zyainor while also improving the art. Varan would be the first Grave Warden, some would call him a "dark paladin" or even "anti paladin". Personally, I had high respect for the man. It is not an easy feat to have survived the low ranks, being promoted and then ending up as the grandmaster of such an order. After all, the Guardians of the Grave were a large organisation within Zyainor. Despite past events regarding Undead, the rulers of Zyainor seemed to continue supporting the use of necromancy.

    At the same time as the right door had opened, the door to the left of the thrones was opened. This time, there were four figures and no guards. I was not surprised about the lack of guards, I was pretty sure that anyone who would have tried to attack Ca'lea Vail Bloodclaw, who was the first of that group, would lose against her in single combat, even if she was outnumbered. She hadn't been the personal guard of Prince Toraes for nothing. What DID surprise me, however, was how she and her husband did not enter the room together, side by side, but even through different doors. This was uncommon in the Kingdoms and would have caused countless gossip regarding their personal relationship, yet it was only us, the guests from the kingdoms, who seemed to be irritated by this. I assumed that this was another Zyaise custom we were not used to.
    Like her husband, Ca'lea Vail was accompanied by powerful and high-ranking servants of Zyainor. First and foremost among them was High Lord Birram, ruler of the Duchy of Isalmur and patron of the new academy in Isalmur which had been named after him. A mysterious man, hardly anything was known about him - unlike the other two companions of the Ca'lea!
    Lord Daskor the Dragonheart was a sight to behold, the armor he wore must have been made from the very skin of a red dragon. He was a high-ranking Ca'Rach - that's what the Zyaise call their "Dragon Knights" that dedicated their lives to Zyainor and the dragons. The Ca'rach were the most numerous order of Zyainor, I had been told. Apparently, every larger army of "regular" Zyaise troops was led by at least one of them, as many officers, both low and high-ranking, were Ca'rachs - or "rakes" as some prefered to call them.
    There were some rumors, of course, that Lord Daskor was a black dragon in disguise, just like High Lord Thanok, yet there were many rumors about many things, I am sure if I'd be wasting enough of my time like that, I could find someone telling rumors about ME being a dragon in disguise. As much as I'd like to spit fire as easily as they do, the truth would be rather disappointing.
    The last companion of the Ca'lea caused quite some murmurs in the ranks of the nobles of Kerrel, let me tell you! It was Duke Taron of Angas! The Dukedom of Angas around Castle Angas used to be part of Kerrel, a rich and proud province which had the misfortune of being turned into a massive battlefield during the Second Void War. When the duke died several months after the end of war and his three children separated the lands amongst themselves, they declared themselves independent from Kerrel and instead joined the reborn nation of Zyainor. They had considered King Dorten incompetent and wanted to follow strong leaders instead. Along with them, many knights of Kerrel had joined them. As a reward for their decision, Ca'lea Vail not only granted them help in rebuilding their lands, she also gave each of the three siblings a sword which had been forged by both humans and dragons. Along with the knights who had followed them, the three founded the Order of the Three Swords, with the three being its grandmasters. Duke Taron, the eldest of the thre, was mostly the one who would represent the order in public and leading its forces into battle. It always puzzled me that, despite the fact he could have taken over both the order and the lands, being the eldest of the three, he had instead shared it with them.

    The Ca'laer and the Ca'lea sat upon their thrones and greeted the guests. They declared that this would be a day to celebrate not only the defeat of the Demons but also of the rebirth of Zyainor. During his speech, one of my noble colleagues approched me.
    "Have you seen the guards in this room?" he asked me, whispering. I took a look around. The guards looked different from the ones that had led us to the banquet room. Their armors were dark, their horned helmets hid their face and their entire bodies were embodied in their armor.
    "Those are no regular guards, that much is for sure. But who are they?" I wondered, whispering just like my colleague was. He looked at me, his face deadly serious.
    "Do you see the fist they have on their banners? They must have come here from the Black Keep. They must be the Blackguards." he explained. I took another look at the grim guards and slowly nodded. The Blackguards of the Order of the Black Fist. We had first heard about them five years ago, when some nobles had tried to rebel against the rulers of Zyainor. While it was said that the rebellious nobles had been caught and executed without any bloodshed by the Blackguards, there were hints that they instead had destroyed the entire mansions with the use of dark magic, darker than even necromancy. They would have done so in order to completely wipe out the "treacherous weed". Surely not the kind of people whom you would want to guard a festivity like this.
    Then, as I was turning around, looking at the guards, I came to realize it. I realized why we had been invited to this place, why so many high-ranking personalities of Zyainor really were here. We were surrounded by the best of the best of Zyainor - and probably not even all of them - and they weren't here to kill us. They were showcased. We were shown that, while we had struggled to replace the paladins with new knight orders, Zyainor had already succeeded long before we had even begun. The invitation, this banquet, it all was part of the cold war. Without openly boasting about it, Gardon and Vail showed us the power of their elite that we would have to face in a war. This would intimidate the nobles of Rengar to stay neutral in a possible conflict while also showing us, the nobles of Kerrel, what we would have to face in a possible conflict. It was a subtle, yet unequivocally message: Mess with us and you will pay for it.
    I am sure that Princess Felicia too understood the true meaning of this invitation. She was one of the first who left when she had a chance too. I didn't stay much longer than her and only a few of our nobles actually stayed to the end. I am not sure if my eyes were tricking me but I could have sworn that, in the moment when the princess left, a short smile had scurried over the faces of our hosts.

    Espionage by Shar Dundred

    I write these lines in year 62 of the reign of our beloved Empress, may her bloodline, the one and only royal one, rule our glorious homelands until all ice melts, all water dries out and all fire loses its light.
    For the last twenty years I have been living in these lands, here they would call the year "19 Z. R." keeping my eyes open, gathering as much information as possible, travelling from place to place, infiltrating the ranks of the different factions and races. Only thanks to my magic I have been able to spend time among them. Yet, I have been successful on my mission. I have gathered the requested information in service of the Empress.

    The Kingdom of Kerrel has suffered through a lot of drawbacks during the last two decades: The heir to the throne, the prince, was lost on the other side of the Void, the Dwarves have turned their backs on all humans during the civil war taking place during the Second Void War, the Elves have chosen Zyainor as exclusive ally, ships of the Tribal Dominion and other pirates attack its shores, their only remaining ally, the Kingdom of Rengar, lives in crisis and will not be of any use in a war.
    King Dorten is getting old, very old. It seems that his daughter will take his place soon, though there are voices whispering behind closed doors talking about joining Zyainor instead of staying independent. Only very few doubt that they will have to choose sooner or later: War with Zyainor or joining its ranks. The latter would result in the Kingdom of Kerrel being ruled by the Order of Three Swords, most likely. Neither Dorten nor his daughter would allow their lands to be annexed like that, so the few whispers have to be careful to stay quiet because such talk would be considered high treason as it would involve "removing" both the king and the princess. The recently founded Royal Inquisition would gladly hunt and torture all who would be involved in such talk.
    It is fair to say that the political situation in Kerrel is critical. Both inside and outside it has many enemies, it is far from being stable despite its attempts to hide it.
    Regardless, without outside interference, it is unlikely that Kerrel will collapse anytime soon. Even if King Dorten dies, his daughter is already taking care of most of his duties in his name and she is considered a worthy successor by many. The number of people with treacherous thoughts is low - either that or the inquisition is doing a fantastic job making it look like that, though I personally actually believe that any attempt to usurp the crown at this point would end in a disaster unless Zyainor would invest troops and resources into such a coup.
    The military of Kerrel consists of the Royal Army with its sub divisions which do not differ much from each other. They are supported by the Order of the Flame and the few knight orders of Kerrel. Kerrel's military is now more powerful than they had been during the Second Void War, but if it came to a war, no matter against whom, it would stand alone.

    The Kingdom of Rengar has suffered even more than Kerrel. Most of its lands are surrounded by a wall and put under quarantine, including its capital and king. Duke Oshan the Stern, father-in-law of King Hussan of Rengar, is a harsh but fair ruler who is attempting to keep the kingdom from falling apart. The economy of the land has mostly been ruined by the plague that made most of the rich parts of Rengar uninhabitable. The duke and the Order of the Flame are trying to find a way to remove the plague from the lost lands, but they haven't had any success in the past sixteen years, I doubt that this will change.
    The relations between Rengar and Kerrel have suffered greatly since Rengar refused to support Kerrel's trade blockade against Zyainor due to Rengar relying on outside support to survive. Apparently, Duke Oshan had repeatedly attempted to convince the Dwarves giving his realm another chance, inviting emissaries and nobles to his lands, but the Dwarves are not even replying to his messages. Neither the High King nor any other dwarf seems to be willing to even talk with any human anymore.
    When it comes to its military capabilities, Rengar is divided into two allied factions: Its royal armies and the Order of the Flame. While the former is rather weak in comparison to all other major powers, the Order of the Flame is a force to be reckoned with. Powerful masters of fire, summoned creatures and a regular army. Make no mistake, the royal forces are weak and rely on mercenary support but the Order of the Flame is overpowering them severely. The Order is also very popular within Rengar. If they were political enemies or had any ambition to rule, the order could easily take over Rengar. Luckily for Duke Oshan, most firemages seem to have no such interest - yet there are people outside the order who would like to see that happen.

    Salria, formerly the Kingdom of Salria and now home of the Tribal Dominion, is a place of beasts and monsters. Only very few humans remain here under this new leadership. There are of course tensions between groups of the different races, conflicts between rivals and some clans, but nothing major. Most conflicts are settled peaceful. It is amazing how the "empress" of these people, the orc Amari, manages to keep everyone in line. I have seen her only once during my time in the Dominion, but I can tell you that she is surrounded by an impressive magic aura. Her power must be most impressive to behold. I wonder how a former exile like herself had been able to obtain it, maybe she had a teacher or always had a natural talent for magic. But it is not power alone, her behaviour, deeds and personality have made her extremely popular within the ranks of the Dominion. That and the fact that under her leadership, the Dominion has launched more raids on its "neighbours" than the Orcs ever had during their prime. Out of all lands on the entire continent, maybe even the entire world, the Dominion is politically the most stable region of all, despite consisting of so many races. Even the Humans, who tend to be oppressed by the other races, seem to be fine with their situation. I was sure that they had a plan to get their payback, but no matter how much I used my skills, I was unable to find any so that I am starting to believe that they are being either kept in line or sued by their leader Vanessa who is a loyal servant of Amari.
    The military of the Dominion is about as versatile as its races. Strong groups of brutish Ogres, legions of disciplined Gnoll soldiers, regiments of centaur cavalry, strong bearmen with their nature magic, innovative goblins and their constructs, swarms of hungry harpy hunters, intimidating numbers of red dragons, dark troll elite hunters and orcish enforcers, leaders and overseers. They look like an army of barbarians, but make no mistake, they use this appearance to their advantage. The Orcs may still be savage warriors but, to my surprise, they have evolved into skilled tacticians over the past two decades. I mean,the Dominion has founded an university where its officers are studying military history and military strategy! Whatever their leader Amari has done to accomplish such a thing, it is beyond my comprehension. Not to mention that they now even have some sort of "academy" to learn magic. It is most intriguing to see the Orcs evolve in such a way.
    Anyway, the Tribal Dominion is a force to be reckoned with. They gain resources and combat experience with their raids while they seem to prepare their forces for a full scale war and build countless constructs. I do not know if they prepare to attack or to defend, however. It seems as if most of them do not know that either.

    The Dwarven Realms consist of the mountains north of Salria and the great underground kingdom that lies below them. Since the Second Void War, no member of any race but their own has been able to enter the lands of the Dwarves. Even I have been unable to enter myself, so I had to rely on my abilities of foresight to gather information. From what I can tell, the dwarven society is divided into a huge number of clans with an interesting political system. In theory, the noble families of a clan vote the king of their clan. Those kings then choose one of them as the high king for life time. The current high king, Zarin of the Hammerfall Dwarves, has been in charge of his race for several decades by now. Yet, from what I have been able to gather, even the sacred underground halls of the Dwarves are not completely free of intrigue and conspiracy. The truth is that the noble families of a clan often fight each other secretly to increase their own standing. Yet, if you would compare them to the doings of nobles in the human realms, they are being peaceful and there is usually no violence involved nor anything that would completely ruin a family. And those kinds of games seem to affect only the lowest ranks of the dwarven nobles. Outsiders are not present in their realm and therefore wouldn't have an effect on the political balance even if they tried. I regret to report that I have been unable to find out the truth about the role of dwarven women.
    As I have already been struggling to gather any form of information about the Dwarven Realms, information of their military situation is only vague. I can say for certain that the different dwarven clans all are both wealthy and powerful even after cutting all ties to the human kingdoms. They are under attack by the Tribal Dominion every now and then, but the Bloodstone Dwarves have unleashed their fiery weapons to defend their people. The Dominion stays a constant threat, but even they seem to respect the powerful defensive structures of the Bloodstone Dwarves that have been constructed in every border fortress. I have seen them in action with my own eyes and the fiery destruction they are capable of is most impressive, but not unbeatable.

    The Elven Kingdom has been militarized and strengthened ever since Larine the Exile took the bloodwashed crown from the head of her dead predecessor Renova. The Elves can already be considered being part of Zyainor. Even if they themselves would call Zyainor an "ally" instead, I would call the Elves and their queen vassals of the Zyaise rulers. Critics and enemies of the queen tend to "disappear" if they show their point of view too open or if they are unlucky enough to be caught by agents of Zyainor. The number of noble families within the ranks of the elves has been halved over the past decade and only those who are loyal servants of the queen and Zyainor remain. In fact, the Elves who have served in the Ironfist during the Second Void War are replacing the nobles. The head of the elven society consists mostly of puppets of Zyainor now. There are still those who are not happy with the part they have to play in the politics of their queen or Zyainor, but they are few and do not dare to act or even talk about their concerns.
    The military of the Elves may be stronger than in the past, but it remains a rather small threat when compared with most others especially since most of its forces are not within the Elven Kingdom but instead are stationed in Zyainor to serve as support for the Zyaise legions. However, the Elves may lack power in an open field battle, but they are trained to be skilled and dangerous guerilla fighters - and no one knows their forest better than they do. An invasion of their forest will require a careful strategy - or enough fire to burn down the entire forest.

    Now it is time to address the nation that our beloved empress has most interest in: Zyainor. I have spent very much time analysing the structure of this realm and watching how it had evolved during its time. I have also studied the history of the old Zyainor to compare the two nations with each other - taking into account of course that records can be misleading. It was a difficult infiltration, I had to hide from the Shadows of Zyainor about fourteen times during my stay, but I have been able to gather very interesting facts, much more than I can write down in this report.
    The society of Zyainor is a very fascinating construct. Power is not granted by blood or riches, it is given by deeds, loyalty and skill. Since most of the noble bloodlines who used to rule these lands no longer exist, the current nobility of Zyainor consists mostly of military officers who served Ca'laer Gardon during the Second Void War. Skilled soldiers or other loyal supporters of the realm can be given positions of power if they are considered worthy. Heritage does not matter, skill does. A noble who proves to be incompetent is quickly removed and replaced by a more capable underling. And the nobles are only one of the three political powers in Zyainor who serve the Ca'laer and the Ca'lea. In fact, most of the nobles are part of one of the other two political powers. Most, but not all.
    The second one is the Dragon Cult, the only major religion tolerated in both the old and the new Zyainor. Other religions are not actively hunted by anyone but the most fanatical members of the Dragon Cult - which is most of them, really - but they hardly exist anyway. Most people of Zyainor have accepted the Dragon Cult as their one and only religion. The cultists are a dangerous and fanatical group who worship black dragons as godlike beings - it is important to point out that this is for black dragons only. The red dragons of the Tribal Dominion are not considered anything more than wild beasts. The cultists are fanatics, their loyalty towards their rulers is without question.
    The last political power of Zyainor are the different orders that have beetn founded within Zyainor. The most numerous is said to be the Ca'Rach, also called "Dragon Knights" by the other human nations. They obviously have close ties with the Dragon Cult and tend to be in charge of the regular forces of Zyainor. They are said to have mastered some form of dragon magic - personally I think that several high ranking members, including the grandmaster Lord Daskor the Dragonheart, simply ARE black dragons in human form. Interestingly, I think that the rumors about the Ca'Rach being the most numerous order are simply wrong. I think that most of those who are considered to be part of this elite order are actually fanatics of the Dragon Cult while only the leaders of such armies are actual Ca'Rach. The main bases of the Ca'Rach, and probably also the Dragon Cult, lie in Ker'Dramos next to the Bloodclaw Fortress and in Ker'Dossar in the Duchy of Isalmur. I have, by the way, found out that "Ker" means something like "Red Castle" in Zyaise.
    The second order, the one I personally believe to be the most numerous, is called the Guardians of the Grave of Ker'Annoch, an order that has specialized on necromancy. The so-called "Grave Wardens" are former knights who have also learned to use necromancy in addition to their martial skills. They are the military commanders of the numerous forces of the order while most high-ranking necromancers focus on research. Both the living and the dead march for the order. I must say that I am amazed that this order still exists. As far as I know, necromancers of Arkain used to "disappear" if they became too powerful, yet this particular order has been able to make breakthroughs in their research that have never been touched by any mortal before. Whatever used to hunt down mortal necromancers in the past either ceased to exist, is allowing them to proceed or is occupied otherwise? I do not know, but I find the fact that this order is still existing very intriguing. I have not been able to see the grandmaster of the order, Lord Commander Varan the Soulkeeper, in person, but from what I have been able to find out, he dominates his order with an iron fist and tolerates no insubordination.
    Then there is the Order of the Three Swords, founded by the Three Dukes of Angas. Former nobles of Kerrel who have joined Zyainor voluntarily because they wanted a competent ruler, taking many knights of Kerrel with them. They are a noble order and while they are considered absolutely loyal towards their Ca'laer they are reluctant to take Zyaise customs as their own, including its language or religion. That is also why their home, Castle Angas, is still called like that instead of adapting a Zyaise name. It is said that the eldest of the three dukes, Duke Taron, is urging his siblings to change their attitude about adapting to Zyainor as it was now their nation but his siblings, Duke Daran and Duchess Eliran, insist on giving it time.
    Unlike the Order of the Three Swords, the Order of the Black Fist do not care much for glory, they are the grim defenders of Zyainor against all enemies, whether they are inside or outside. I have seen the grim Blackguards of the Black Keep myself, they are a sight to behold. They are said to use magic darker than necromancy, darker than any other form of magic practised in Zyainor. I cannot report that I have seen them use any magic, but from their appearance alone I would say that those rumors could be true. The Black Keep is located in such a place that the armies inside could be moved both to the border to the lands of the Demons and to the border to the Tribal Dominion and the Dwarven Realms equally quickly. I have not been able to find out who was leading the order - or if the order even has a leader, maybe it is led directly by Ca'laer Gardon, Ca'lea Vail, Duke Thanok or Duke Birram.
    The fifth and final major order of Zyainor is called the Shadows of Zyainor. Like with the Order of the Black Fist, it is not known who it is led by. Its main base Ker'Maran, a dark fortress on the border between Lor and Isalmur, is located close to the Academy of Birram. Apparently the most talented apprentices of shadow magic are invited into the ranks of the order. The Shadows of Zyainor are known mostly for their efforts as agents, infiltrating other countries and catching infiltrators of other nations within Zyainor. I do not know if they possess an army, I could not risk trying to get into Ker'Maran, but considering that they have this gigantic fortress, it is a likely assumption. I would have tried to gather more information about the shadow magic they are using, but as I mentioned earlier, I had been hunted by the Shadows of Zyainor fourteen times already, I did not want to risk anything. If I had been caught, I would have been of no use for the empress.
    While the nation of Zyainor is united in its loyalty towards its rulers, there are still conflicts, of course. The Order of the Three Swords and the Order of the Black Fist are considered to be rivals. Both are orders focusing on martial skills, but the some within the Order of the Three Swords consider the dark magic of the Black Fist dishonorable while some the Blackguards consider the Order of the Three Swords ineffective and untrustworthy. Lord Commander Varan of the Guardians of the Grave has a few political enemies within the ranks of his own order and some of the lesser Ca'Rach tend to look down on the Shadows of Zyainor, dismissing them as nothing but servants. However, none of these conflicts seem to have a great impact, the factions remain powerful. Apparently, even within the royal chambers, there may be conflict. At least it is rumored that Ca'lea Vail and Queen Larine of the Elves despise each other and the Ca'lea is said to have spent much time in the Tower of Vail for the past year.
    In addition to the powers mentioned before, Zyainor of course also has an extremely large regular army and is said to have recruited former bandits, thugs and thieves into its service. It is rumored that elven assassins, formerly agents of their queen, are now in the service of Zyainor as well.
    In summary, I can safely say that Zyainor is as powerful and dangerous as expected.

    The Undead seem to have been acting strange for the past years. From what I have been able to gather, they seem to no longer act as organized as before and in lesser numbers. The last time anyone has witnessed a large number of Undead was twelve years ago when an army of Undead attacked the Tribal Dominion and lost. After that, it seemed as if the driving force behind the armies of the dead has either gone silent or disappeared. I remember hearing about a group of Undead having attacked a dragon lair in Zyainor and another group claiming some ruins in Kerrel for themselves. The people of Zyainor seem to believe that the heart of the Undead is the "cursed" Dead Mountain and have surrounded that mountain with several garrisons. I believe that there exist several independent groups of Undead now, or at the very least it is the only explanation I can find for this behaviour. Key figures such as the apparent leaders of the Undead who had been seen in the Second Void War have not been seen ever since the end of the war.
    I have not been able to locate any Undead myself - and even if I had, I do not know if I would have been able to infiltrate them without joining them as an undead myself - so I can only speculate about their power and motives. I think it is possible that there is a pattern behind their action, one that we are unable to see, but I do not really believe that to be the case. Instead I am still convinced that there are now several different groups of Undead, even if there have been no rumors about them fighting each other yet. Due to this, I am unable to say how powerful they are, but considering the stories I have heard about them, I would advise against ignoring the threat they pose.

    Last but not least, the Demons and their legions. It had been a long and dangerous journey but I have been able to infiltrate the ranks of their slaves. I had been curious about their activity as they had not been seen on the other side of the Void since the Second Void War. I have been able to gain some insights into the politic of demonkind and it is filled with intrigue, betrayal, conspiracies and plans that take centuries to be completed. The legions appear to have spent the past two decades discussing the events of the Second Void War. Rather than planning a new invasion, there seems to be something else on their mind - maybe even a war between the different legions. The high ranking dreadlords seem to be blaming each other - but, and this is the interesting part, they do not blame each other for the failure of their invasion, they blame each other for beginning of that invasion! Apparently they didn't want this invasion to happen at all from what I could gather, which is interesting. As I infiltrate only the slaves, I was unable to gather details, but it seems that they consider this invasion a huge mistake that has put some other plan into disarray. A demoness called Ebira seems to try convincing the dreadlords to work together, but her success seems to be limited from what I could gather. Some side with her, some call her a traitor, others call her untrustworthy, and the rest seems to ignore her completely. I have also spent some time in the so-called "Seat of the Demon God", a gigantic ruin that is being rebuilt by the Demons and heavily guarded.
    The military of the Demons remains powerful, despite the losses of the Second Void War. Many legions have not even been involved in that conflict and therefore remain powerful. The fires in the Forge of Kôstragoth are burning day and night, the Demons have been creating massive amounts of weapons for the past years. The garrison of Ûldrazan has been doubled, so the Demons most likely expect an attack. Considering the political tension I expect that those preparations are being made for a possible civil war - or maybe they are just part of a cold war, to keep other factions in line. I am unsure, the political games and intrigues of the Demons seem to be endless.

    Now that I have finished writing these lines and read them, I once again find myself agreeing with the empress that we cannot tolerate this situation to continue unhindered. I send this missive to her court and travel back home on the next day. My mission is done, I have gathered all the information I could. Now it is up to the empress to decide our next move.

    For I am just an agent of our great empress, an eye in her service.

    The Heirs of Zyainor Vol. I by Shar Dundred
    The Heirs of Zyainor Vol. I

    The Strategist
    February, 18 Z. R.
    "What is the boy doing here?" This question had been asked so many times that Commander Haraz had declared that anyone who would ask again would be cleaning the latrines for the next two months. After this announcement, the soldiers didn't dare to ask again.
    Captain Tornet couldn't blame her soldiers for asking that question. She hadn't known herself that the firstborn son of the Ca'laer and Ca'lea would accompany them until a few hours ago. You wouldn't expect the young prince to be in a place like this. You would expect him to be inside the palace, then again, considering who his parents were, it shouldn't be that surprising.
    They were in a problematic situation. A host of undead warriors had taken control of a ruined casle in Toran and had ravaged the countryside. The soldiers had been sent to deal with them, but their attack on the castle had failed. The Undead had rebuilt it and had cast their deadly magic from its walls. the Zyaise were forced to retreat. The Undead followed them and now the camp was under siege. A group of Ca'rach, the dragon knights, had broken through the siege - with them came the young prince who was now going to take command. Captain Tornet wondered how the boy was supposed to be of any help, he had no military experience and even if he turned out to be a good fighter, one soldier wouldn't make a big difference. A larger number of knights would have been prefered. Yet, Commander Haraz had quickly bowed to the young prince and accepted that he'd take his orders without any protest. This was unusual, normally Haraz hated giving up command, no matter the situation. Maybe it was the Ca'rach who had forced him to do so? It mattered little. Tornet was on her way to a meeting. The Undead would attack soon. A plan would have to be made. Little did she know that the young prince had already finished the plan when he first entered the camp.
    "The morale is low and the Undead outnumber us severly. They have us completely surrounded, all three entrances to the camp are in danger. When they attack, they will break through and flood the outer areas. The palisades will not hold for long. Then, we will be encircled behind the second palisade while they add the fallen to their ranks. We need a good strategy to prevent this from happening. We must prevent the outer defenses from falling." Captain Tornet finished her report. Commander Haraz and the other senior officers had listened to her attentively, the Ca'rach seemed uninterested and the boy prince's glance was locked on the map of the camp.
    "I suggest dividing our army into three groups, each of them defending one of the gates. We need to prevent them from coming inside our camp lest we all be doomed. We will completely focus on the gates and retreat only into the inner defense if the Undead managed to break through. There is also a small chance that they may break through the palisades on a place away from the gates, so a few riders should patrol along the outer palisade." Commander Haraz said. The other officers nodded and mumbling their approval. The young prince raised his head.
    "No." he merely said. The officers looked at him, both surprised and irritated.
    "Excuse me, Ca'ler Garan, but Commander Haraz' tactic sounds good enough to me. Would you like to explain what is wrong with it?" one of the officers dared to ask. The prince raised his head in his direction.
    "In 531 E. F., the Demons attacked the Derryn outpost by having their slaves open a portal behind the lines of the Imperial defense. The outpost had only one entrance. The Demons stormed it with all their might and all defenders rushed to defend it. Meanwhile, agents of the Demons inside the outpost opened more portals inside, behind the walls. The Demons used them to enter, attacking the defenders from behind. The defenders stood no chance. Have you not wondered why the Undead haven't attacked you right away? They expect you to act just like you suggested. Then, when all of your defenses focus on the gates, they will use the tunnels they have been digging for the past few hours to attack us from the inside." the young Garan explained. Commander Haraz looked at him, fascinated. He had heard that the boy was studying military strategy, tactics and military history. The rumors seemed to be true.
    "Then what do you suggest, my Ca'ler?" Captain Tornet asked, still baffled just like the rest of the officers. The young prince looked at her directly.
    "We will mostly forsake the outer defenses, only a few soldiers will stay to defend them. We will allow the Undead storm in. The second defense lies on solid ground, they will not have been able to make them all lead up here in this short time without causing too much noise. They will enter the outer part of the camp both from the underground and from outside. We will allow them to meet only little resistance, but enough to make them storm further. Apart from the few soldiers whom we leave in the outer defenses, our entire force will stay behind the second palisade." Ca'ler Garan said.
    "The soldiers who are unlucky enough to be defending the outer camp will be slaughtered." Captain Tornet's comment was short and bitter. Garan nodded and looked back on the map.
    "Yes, they will. But their sacrifice will allow us to defeat the Undead. The only alternative is that we all die. They will be the only ones who will have to fight today." he claimed. Commander Haraz raised one eyebrow.
    "What do you mean by that, Ca'ler?" he asked. He received no response.
    When the Undead attacked, they also attacked from the inside. It was just as the Ca'ler had said, they had dug tunnels inside the camp. The few defenders of the outer camp inside were quickly surrounded, but they fought on bravely. The camp filled with more and more Undead. Then, it happened. A big, black dragon rose from the ground and flew towards the outer camp. The undead prepared for its attack. Then, when the dragon spit fire, it caused huge explosions and fire. The entire outer camp was suddenly set ablaze. It had been filled with barrels of oil and explosives by the Ca'rach at the behest of the young prince. The Undead, but also the few soldiers still left standing, were burned alive. The remaining soldiers watched as the fire devoured all. A few hours later, under the command of Ca'ler Garan, they conquered the ruined castle and completely destroyed it.

    The Magician
    July, 10 Z. R.
    They were surrounded. There was no escape. The bandits had a few good months, but it was bound to end eventually. Zyainor had no tolerance for them. For their kind, there were only two ways to go in Zyainor: Being conscripted into the "irregulars" or be hunted until death. Serving Zyainor, however, would have meant to betray the legacy of their forefathers. These lands belonged to them, not to that Imperial bastard who claimed it in the name of the ancient and fallen nation of Zyainor. They had found weapons and armor in the old garrisons of Pyrru and armed themselves. They would give those Zyaise bastards a hell of a fight before their death. They had no regrets. For years they had suffered the presence of those upstarts who had taken their lands for themselves, now they had finally had enough and had started a revolt. They had lived as bandits, attacking the Zyaise nobles and using the gold to take care of their families. Now, their time had come. Apparently, the self-proclaimed ruler of Zyainor himself was on his way. They had the small hope that they would be able to kill the bastard, or at the very least wound him, so that their revolt would have at least some merit. Dawn was drawing near. And in the dawn, they came.
    The girl watched with big eyes as the soldiers around her were putting on their armor and weapons. In the entire camp, people were running around, some were shouting orders and everything went so smoothly and organized, it was fascinating. She was but a child accompanying them. Her father had told her that they'd go for a trip and that it'd be a surprise. This was a surprise for sure! Zurae grinned. Her father had promised her that they'd spend the whole day together when this was over. He was always so busy, she rarely saw him. At least mother always had time for her, but Zurae wanted to spend time with both - sadly it seemed as if they'd never be able to do something together, the entire family, since either mother or father or even both were busy everytime. A heavy hand was laid on her shoulder from behind. She quickly turned around, smiling at the man. She was not afraid of him or his terrifying armor at all. Why should she be? It was her father after all.
    "Are you ready, Zurae?" Gardon asked her with a smile. She nodded hastily and followed him.
    A few minutes later, they were standing at the front of an army wearing the banners of Zyainor. The camp of the bandits was completely surrounded. Even with their stolen weapons, they would not withstand the power of this army. The Zyaise beat the bandits not only in numbers but in weapons and tactics as well. However, the army was not here to kill the bandits - a far less numerous force could have done so. They were here to protect their Ca'laer and his daughter. The bandits would be taken care of, yes, but they were far from being dangerous enough to require such a force.
    Gardon turned to his daughter and put his hands on her shoulders. His face was serious.
    "Okay, Zurae, this is your great moment. It is okay if you do not succeed, nothing will happen. Are you ready for this test?" he asked her.
    "Yes, dad. I am ready!" she said with no hesitation, looking directly into his eyes. He smiled, gave her a pat on the shoulder and took a step backwards. Zurae took a deep breath and closed her eyes. She stretched her right hand towards the enemy and began concentrating.
    The bandits had been completely surrounded, the army was massive. It was beyond them why the Zyaise bastards had sent so many to deal with them, they were severly outnumbered. Yet, their besiegers didn't make an attempt to attack them. They seemed to be waiting for something instead. Did they want to starve them to death, the cowards? The bandits would rather charge out and die on the open field than starve in this camp! But they still had resources, they would easily survive a week or two. Then, suddenly, a girl appeared right in the center of the camp. Out of nowhere! She must have been brought there using magic. A few of the bandits quickly surrounded her, weapons drawn. She just stood there and looked at them with her big eyes.
    "Who are you?! What are you doing here?!" the leader of the bandits demanded to know.
    "Calm down, she is just a child. Probably can't use her abilities properly yet." someone said.
    "Shut up! The Zyaise must have sent her!" a third person shouted. The girl closed her eyes and raised her hands. It took mere seconds until the chaos unfolded, the leader of the bandits tried to charge at her, but too late. Within seconds, the entire camp was on fire. No, it wasn't just on fire, an inferno was ravaging through it, setting everything and everyone inside ablaze. Smoke and screams filled the air, only the girl was left untouched by the fire and any attempts to put it out failed - horribly. Anyone who tried to put water on it was set on fire afterwards. Anyone who tried to put out the fire on his own skin or clothes by jumping into water would scream horrified as the water would turn into acid upon contact.
    Hours passed. The entire camp was burned to the very ground, everyone inside was dead, the burned corpses lying on the ground. No one moved. Only the girl was still standing there, her eyes closed, her arms raised. Then, when someone put his hand on her shoulder, she opened her eyes and relaxed. She looked at the destruction around her before she looked at the man whose hand was still on her shoulder.
    "Have I done well, dad?" Zurae asked. Gardon smiled.
    "Yes. Yes you have, my daughter."

    The Soldier
    January, 20 Z. R.
    He parried the strike that was aimed at his head and punched his enemy in the stomach. The attacker moaned and was distracted enough to allow him move his sword so that he would cut the head off. He stopped when the blade had almost touched the neck. He removed the blade after his enemy had accepted defeat. He stuck his sword in its sheath and handed the sword to his opponent. They nodded and went different ways. Lord Thanok, who had watched the battle with crossed arms, still stood there, showing no emotion.
    "Acceptable." was all that he said as the young man passed by. Hotar hadn't expected anything else from his teacher. Thanok was hardly satisfied with, well, ANYTHING. He was a harsh teacher and in his younger years, Hotar had hated the dragon in human disguise, but as time went on, he had come to understand that Thanok was the best teacher he could've asked for. His father had told him once that Thanok had drilled his army into shape during the war - and Hotar could see that no one would want to get on the bad side of that guy, even if he wasn't capable of turning into a dragon and burning someone alive.
    On the way to his tent, Hotar met the soldier whom he had just defeated in combat along with another soldier. He smiled at the man and went to him. They shook hands.
    "Well fought, young Ca'ler! If this would have been a real fight, I would be dead now." the soldier congratulated him.
    "Thank you for not holding back. I wouldn't have wanted to win because of that." Hotar said. The soldier and his companion laughed.
    "You don't need us to hold back, Ca'ler Hotar. You are a very skilled warrior, despite your youth. Lord Thanok has trained you well." he said. After a short conversation, Hotar said goodbye and went off into his tent after telling them he'd meet them later this evening for a few drinks.
    "What do you think about him?" the companion asked.
    "A good soul and a good soldier. I'd gladly share a drink with him on any occasion. I'd also fight on his side on any day or night, no matter against whom." the other soldier replied.

    Inside his tent, Hotar put his weapons into the racks and looked on his bed. Smiling, he took off his clothes and laid down next to the woman lying there. He kissed her on the backside of her neck.
    "Mhhh, I was sleeping." was the reply with played annoyance and the woman smiled at him. They kissed. She was Laura Greendale, a recruit a few years older than Hotar, whose mother had served under the command of both Thanok and Gardon during the Second Voidwar. Hotar and Laura had grown close quickly. He liked her, she was a honest person with sharp tongue and an open heart. Thanok knew of their relationship, but never commented on it. Hotar was not sure if the dragon didn't mind or didn't care.
    "The old dragon let you fight long today, huh? Is the dragon not proof enough that you're a skilled warrior?" she asked. Hotar shrugged. It was two months since Thanok had sent him onto a mountain where a red drake had resided. He wanted Hotar to kill it. It had been a dangerous encounter, but Hotar had managed to slay the beast, however he had been severly wounded and had been injured for weeks. This had been his first battle in a while.
    "I guess he wants to make sure that I am still in shape." he replied and stood up.
    "He's a good teacher from what I can tell - even if everyone is scared of him. Hard to believe that he still finds the time to bark at us recruits when he has a duchy to rule." Laura said and stood up as well, grabbing her clothes. They were going to meet with the other soldiers later.
    "Maybe it is his dragon magic that allows him to do multiple things at the same time?" Hotar quipped. Laura gave him a playful slap.
    "Come on, let's go." she said and left the tent. Hotar stopped before the exit and looked back towards the desk. On it stood the impaled head of the red drake. One day, he would slay one of the big red dragons as well. One day...

    The Student
    May, 13 Z. R.
    Birram sat in his study room and scrolled through the pages of a book. He had already read the book a few times, it was a theoretical study of the origins of shadow magic and its impact on wildlife, plants and other geographics. He could have summed it up in one sentence: There is none unless it is intentional. He wasn't looking for something, he was waiting for someone. Someone who was late. The door finally opened and someone entered the room. Birram didn't have to look up to know who it was: Parlea, one of Queen Larine's children - and bastard child of Ca'laer Gardon, but that was not official. Only those who were close to the rulers of Zyainor knew about this - and that this has caused some... problems between the Queen of the Elves and the Ca'lea Vail of Zyainor. Birram had managed to stay out of that conflict so far, yet he had been assigned to be the tutor of Parlea in the arts of magic. It was an honor to look after the child of the most powerful human on the entire continent. Birram knew that Gardon wanted the child to be in good hands so he also knew to appreciate the fact that Gardon allowed Birram to take care of Parlea, even if it was on Larine's request. Birram had quite a few theories on why Larine wanted this, but he kept them to himself.
    Finally, after letting Parlea wait for a few minutes, he looked up and into her face, his face was emotionless.
    "You are late." he just said. She looked to the ground.
    "I am sorry, master Birram. I fell-" Birram lifted his hand to silence her.
    "It was Tojaz and his friends again, wasn't it?" he asked. He stood up and moved one of his hands to her chin, forcing her to look into his eyes. She gulped and a tear ran across her face.
    "They... they called me halfblood and filth and threw me off the stairs. Then they kicked me..." she sobbed and fell into his arms, crying. He allowed her to do so and didn't move. No one here knew who she was - for her own safety it was considered to be for the best if no one knew that she was the daughter of Queen Larine who of course was completely oblivious to what was happening here. Not even the other teachers had a clue, only Birram knew. He had told her several times to defend herself, even using her magic if neccessary, but she was the kind of child that could not hurt a fly. She was too nice for her own good, she allowed those things to happen. Birram could not allow this to continue. He had to put an end to this before something worse happens.
    When the poor child was done crying, she wiped away her tears and took a few steps backwards.
    "I am... Sorry, master Birram, I shouldn't have lost my composure. I should've controlled myself. I am ready to train now." she said determined. Birram studied her face attentively. It was moments like this, when her thirst for knowledge kicked in and she had worked over her problems, that she reminded him of her father. She was nice and the toughness she usually displayed was a charade - unlike her sister who had inherited that toughness from their mother - but she was a determined and skilled student. Her fragile body and her strong sister had caused a lack of self-assurance, but she was intelligent and honest. In time, she would be able to make up for her short-comings and gain the self-assurance she was currently lacking. Birram would make sure of that. That was another reason why Larine wanted the child to be with him.
    He nodded and began with Parlea's training.

    Several hours later, student Tojaz was called to the chambers of Duke Birram, the headmaster of the academy. With an uneasy feeling in his stomach, he entered. The Duke stood before the single window in the room and looked out, apparently not noticing Tojaz. Tojaz cleared his throat.
    "You.... wanted to talk with me, Duke Birram?" he asked hesitantly. Birram did not move an inch.
    "I remember meeting with your father over a decade ago, Tojaz. In the capital of the Duchy of Isalmur. In the name of our Ca'laer and Ca'lea I had granted him a tiny bit of land between the capital of Isalmur and the Black Keep for his loyalty during the war. He was made a noble, like many others were on that day." Birram said, his voice turned cold.
    "I know that you were raised believing that those lands were your family's birthright. They are not. I can take them away just as easily as I gave them to your father." he explained. Tojaz' face turned pale.
    "It doesn't end there, young Tojaz. Your family could be discarded as traitors - and despite your youth you should be capable of understanding what that means, especially since your family lives so close to the Black Keep. All it takes in one letter to the Black Fist." Birram continued and now his face turned to meet Tojaz' face. The boy looked as if he was about to have a breakdown. Birram's face showed no emotion.
    "You will listen to me, carefully, for I will tell you this one time and one time only: You will leave Parlea alone. Not only that, you will from now on make sure that NO ONE bothers her again, am I understood? If you or any of your friends touch the 'halfblood' as you call her again... I am sure you understood?"
    "Y-Yes sir, Duke Birram, sir, I will no longer be mean towards her and protect her! Just leave my family out of this!" the boy begged, his voice was filled with desperation.
    "Good. Make sure you do not fail me, boy. Dismissed." Birram said, signaling the young Tojaz to leave. The boy had to restrain himself to not run away. Birram looked out of the window again where he saw Parlea sit under a tree, studying a book. She would make her father proud one day.

    The Archer
    August, 14 Z. R.
    The string of the bow was tensed, a short move and the arrow flew through the air, hitting the deer right in the head. It fell to the ground. The archer smiled, stood up and slowly walked towards the dead animal. She stretched her hand towards the arrow and closed her eyes, concentrating. The arrow slowly moved out of the head and flew back into her hand, the blood was still sticking to its top. She opened her eyes and looked at the arrow, smiling. It had taken some time but now she was able to do this without having to touch the arrow.
    She could hear a noise in the woods, close to her. A quick move and her arrow was ready again, faced in the direction of the noise. Someone came closer. A giant figure in dark armor, face hidden behind the helmet, approached her on his horse. She slightly lowered her bow when she realized who he was.
    "Your mother is training you well, Princess Velina. But it is dangerous out here, so close to the Dead Forest. You shouldn't be here." he said. Someone else would have been terrified by the appearance of Lord Commander Varan the Soulkeeper and grandmaster of the Guardians of the Grave, but Velina knew that he was a close ally to her father - and she had faith in her abilities with her bow.
    "If it is so dangerous here, then why are you here? Shouldn't you be in Ker'Annoch, studying a skeleton or something?" she asked boldly, trying to provoke him. But he only laughed. It was a sinister laugh, fitting his outfit, Velina thought.
    "I am on my way to meet with your mother. There are a few matters that she and I need to discuss." he said.
    "I can lead you to her. She is currently visiting a small village not far from here." Velina suggested. She wanted to know what matters this dark man and her mother had to discuss. The First Grave Warden nodded and after Velina had loaded the dead deer onto her horse, they rode to the village.
    Larine was sitting in the tearoom of the local rulers of the area when her daughter and the guest of Ker'Annoch arrived. However, Larine sent Velina into her room because she wanted to talk with Varan in private. As soon as the reluctant princess had left the room, Varan sat down.
    "So, Lord Commander. Let's skip the pleasantries, I know you are not here for small talk. What do you want?" Larine asked, her voice wasn't unfriendly but demanding. She wanted to know why the man had asked for a meeting.
    "Your daughter has used magic to remove her arrow from the animal she shot. I didn't know that she was a magic user." he said instead of answering her question.
    "A few minor tricks, yes. Nothing too major, still. Unlike her sister, she wasn't born to be a mage." Larine replied.
    "Ah yes, her twin, what's her name, Parlea? I heard that she was secretly studying under the guidance of Duke Birram. Very skilled from what I heard." Varan pondered. He took the teacup standing on the desk before him and took a sip.
    "Have you ever considered sending her to study in Ker'Annoch?" he asked. Larine's eyebrows rose in surprise.
    "Velina? As a Grave Warden? Is that why you are here? You want her to join your order?" she asked. Varan shook his head.
    "No, that is not the reason why I am here. I did not even know that she wielded any magic. I am here to talk with you about the Dead Forest. It seems that some of your people are again trying to colonize it behind your back." he told her. Larine sighed.
    "Of course they are, I can imagine who it is. They are eager, I give them that, but I cannot tolerate it. I thank you for telling me, but you could just have sent me a message." she said.
    "I was on my way to Castle Angas anyway, so I decided to tell you personally so you could take care of it." Varan explained and stood up after emptying his teacup.
    "I will ride through this area again in two weeks, when I return from Castle Angas. I will take your daughter with me to Ker'Annoch if you allow me to do so, so I may teach her. Personally. She could turn out to be a good Grave Warden. Do not waste her potential by having her learn nature magic." Were his final words before he left. Larine looked out the window.
    "I know you are there, come out, he is gone." she said. A few moments later, Velina stood in front of her and looked to the ground, slighly embarrassed.
    "Good that the ears of our guest aren't as good as mine, Velina. How much have you heard?" Larine asked.
    "I have been there since I left you." Velina admitted and looked into her mothers' eyes.
    "Am I going to leave home?" she asked. Larine smiled at her daughter.
    "Do you want to?"
    "I don't know. It seems strange to just leave you and home like that." Velina explained. Larine put a hand on her shoulder.
    "I will let you decide this, darling. I love you, I would not want you to do something you do not want to do. And I promise you, one day, your father will acknowledge you and your sister Parlea as his children. We will make him proud of you, no matter what."

    Burning Islands by Kasrkin
    Burning Islands

    Lord Admiral Marcus Vergen sat uneasily in the rowboat as his men rowed to the shore. The entirety of the horizon seemed to be burning and this had stopped the powder-keg that was going to blow only a week before. Remnants of the Imperial Army that refused relocation orders, the Imperial Navy wanting to bring them in, the new but old Royal Navy and Army, and even a ridiculous amount of pirates and mercenaries. Though they did all have one thing in common even though most parties wanted to kill one another, they wanted to kill the orcs first. For the first time in centuries since the first Orc Invasion the 'Orc Islands' were vulnerable. Even though it was not the most prudent course of action the greenskins had to pay.
    But different powers being what they were all involved squabbled and lost their chance. Vergen's furthest scout ships had spotted a massive tidal wave heading towards the northwest islands, right where the islands first started poking out from the sea and where many ships of the Orc Fleet lay in wait, keeping an eye out for any response from Toran or Pyrru. It was only a few hours after that when the first fires could be seen miles away and it kept getting worse as the days wore on. Some of his captains had reported in that they could see meteors and storms of fire, easily said as the work of elite mages.
    Just a few hours ago he had received word that almost all of the islands were on fire with only a few of the smaller ones not so, probably still containing some sort of Orc presence. And now it came to this, he had been invited to come to the nearest large island and he wasn't even sure what to call the landmass. The pirate baronies had been wiped out with the arrival of the Orcs, centuries ago, and the Kingdoms never had much control over the free ports and did not care much for them. But it is history that is no longer relevant as he and his men come ashore..
    The Admiral and his men walk their way up the bloody beach filled with charred bones and a smell like rotten eggs. Even the sand could be said to be desolate with some areas looking like small fields of glass. His marines began to murmur and held their weapons tightly even though all that was left of the orcs was the dead.
    Half an hour of tense walking later they met up with red armored scouts telling them they were heading in the right direction and would not say more. The atmosphere became tense among the men but they kept their discipline.
    Fifteen minutes later they had caught sight of their destination, a camp if it could be called such could be seen ahead and the destruction only lessened slightly around the gathering. The first snippets of conversation could be heard and did little to put any of the men at ease.
    "--thunder clan presence confirmed wiped out, the last of them tried fleeing to the water and swimming, Captain Andrews reports the waters ran red and no survivors."
    "The last of their shipyards has been confirmed destroyed, Lord Marthen sends his regards sir."
    At a close but still 'safe' distance the Royal Navy detachment halted and waited to be addressed. They warily eyed the figure in the center of the camp that most parties seemed to be addressing and giving reports to.
    "Crusader Kalvin reports that one of the Goblin outposts is harboring Orcs in the northern islands, he is standing by for your word sir."
    The figure in his plain but crimson plate looked up to the burning sky before responding, "Kill them all, we're burning them all out."
    The man clad in red responded with a salute and 'sir!' before walking away from the camp and pulling a crystal ball like object from a pouch meaning to communicate magically.
    "Duke, most of the hydromancers are still exhausted but the most senior among their number report they are ready for orders."
    The man stared ahead at the flames, "Grand Pyromancer Zelech, tell them to go to the areas that still need pacification. I don't care if they grumble about being ordered around by a mage with a different affinity, get it done."
    With a bow and a 'sir' the archmage walked off.
    The figure finally seemed to notice or spare them a thought.
    "Ah, the 'Royal Navy' has arrived I was wondering when you'd respond to my request. You are late."
    Vergen stepped forward with two of his marines covering his sides and spoke, "Forgive me, Duke Redfist but the past few days have been trying and your unknown messengers gave the men quite a scare."
    "I have requested your presence only to inform you of one thing, I will be taking on any of the deserters that wish to join me in my crusade against the orcs."
    Vergen clenched his fists and responded, "That is not in your power to do so, those men desert-"
    Finally turning around and closing the distance between them the Duke spoke, "No, those men decided to get revenge for every soldier every brother they lost. They could have easily taken their ships and run but they stayed in these waters and wanted to kill the orcs so don't you dare."
    The admiral's party began to feel a chill upon their spines as some of the crusaders watched them with manic eyes, waiting for the order to tear them apart.
    The Duke leaned in close, his blank dead eyes easily seen through the helmet, "You no longer have the authority to bring them in, you gave up your position in the Imperial Navy 'Fleet Admiral' when you followed the rest of the Kingdoms into this reorganization. My men are already negotiating with the Navy and what's left of Army Command to transfer these deserters to my command."
    Duke Redfist turned and walked back to his previous position in the camp, "My Crusade was authorized by High Command months prior and we only just learned that you and your fellows broke away. Don't add oath breaker to the list of your grievances. So, be glad we finally took care of a centuries old problem."
    Vergen spoke quietly, "Very well, Duke Redfist I will leave you and your men to your... work."
    The Admiral and his marines slowly began making their way back to the larger nervous party but the Duke spoke once more, "Oh and Admiral there's one thing I forgot to mention."
    Vergen rejoined his men and turned back towards the Duke and the cruel man spoke, "The Golden Guard were only a few days behind us so there's a good chance they've already landed in Kerrel. Better hurry."
    The Admiral went pale and immediately rushed his group back to the waiting rowboat on the beach.
    The Duke looked back up to the burning horizon and said, "Continue."
    "Mattson reports that all of the wyvern breeding grounds have been destroyed."
    "Gerald reports that the kodo breeding grounds have been destroyed as well."
    "Skullblade confirmed destroyed, Tiggens says their beasts couldn't save them."
    As the men continued their reports a leather clad messenger approached with more reports and gave word that none of the courier boats have been harmed. He left with more written orders and did not tarry.
    One of the men in the camp opened his new report and his surprise could be seen as his back straightened, "My lord Duke, Crusader Fields reports that he has found the Goldaxe clan's personal treasure trove."
    Duke Redfist held up his hand for the other reports to stop, "Anything else Jacobs?"
    The man nodded, "Yes sir, Fields said he would be on his way with a few items of interest in a few days... and by the report's date he should be here in a few hours."
    The cruel man nodded and gave new orders, "When we are done here I want representatives from the Kingdoms, even the fallen ones, to meet us on the mainland. We will give them back their trinkets. Keep a small portion for the crusade's treasury we may need it in time. I don't believe I need to explain to you all why we're giving the secessionists back their trophies, fighting will begin between Imperial Forces and Royal ones in a few weeks time if luck is on the common man's side it will be months."
    He grunted annoyed, "With the Golden Guard here now we will have to move quickly, their arrogance will no doubt cause things to deteriorate even quicker."
    A chorus of, 'yes sir' responds throughout the camp.
    "Commander Fox reports that a small group of Orcs have managed to escape with the help of goblin merchants, he has not pursued but has already given orders to various scout units to keep an eye on them. He says it might please you for the scurrying rats to lead you back to the hive."
    The men quieted without word from the Duke and he responded, "What clan?"
    "From the mongrels markings the Commander reports Deathbreeze sir."
    "Very well."
    Again the reports continued and the horizon burned with no end in sight. Another messenger came by, this one in an obvious hurry and not stopping at the circle of men but going straight for the Duke with a hurried pace he took a scroll from the bag strapped over his shoulder and handed it to the Duke.
    With obvious exhaustion and excitement the man spoke, "My lord, scoutmaster Ryans reports that he has found the warchief. His party will be on the move soon and Ryans will follow."
    Redfist looked through the report and replied, "Excellent, rest yourself and then continue with your tasks."
    The messenger saluted and headed off.
    "Astromancer Myers, I want you to gather intelligence, seek out the Kingdom Magi and glean information from the more secure Royal garrisons. The orcs are desperate now and will most certainly do something stupid."
    The bearded magus bowed and stepped away from the camp before disappearing in a flare of light and a sound of thunder, teleporting away.
    "Commander Thorn, I want you to search for -allies- it is likely you will have no luck with any human faction. Once we begin on the mainland I want you to take a taskforce and reach out to the dwarves. They could easily spare troops of higher calibre even if it is not directly authorized by the high king."
    The veteran commander responded, "Of course sir, they won't know what hit them."
    He gave out his orders and the reports continued, the horizon continued to burn, and the orcs continued to die but one thing echoed in the cruel man's mind the one thing that has plagued his mind for twenty years.
    With a gaze of hardened steel Duke Volarian Redfist spoke to himself the enemy's name, "Rangul....."

    The Heirs of Zyainor Vol. II by Shar Dundred
    The Heirs of Zyainor Vol. II

    The following stories are all taking place on the 3rd April 20 Z. R.
    When I was a child, my father taught me how to play chess. He explained the roles of the different figures to me and how they moved. It seemed easy enough to understand but I quickly realized that it was harder to master than it seemed. His first lesson was that in order to win a game, you would have to take risks. Playing it safe only allowed your opponent to move freely, endangering your position even more. I also learned a lesson that I haven't forgotten up to this day: If you want to win, you have to make sacrifices, sometimes even drastic ones.
    I look up from my chessboard, watching the soldiers prepare. Our operation behind the borders of Kerrel is highly classified, only my father and his closest advisors know about it - and my presence in Kerrel. The old fool Dorten has been defying Zyainor for far too long. Not anymore, I was here to make sure of that. I look back at the chessboard. My side is strong and ready to attack. The pawns are disposable and while I will not waste them, I will not hesitate to throw them into certain doom to save the more powerful figures, especially when it brings me closer to victory. My father would do the same, I am sure.
    My father. A smile crosses my lips, yet it stays extremely short as I recall a visit I had not too long ago. There was a man, a wealthy noble of Kerrel, who met with me in the capital during my stay there. I am always on the move, my father agreed that I would visit the military commanders of Zyainor to take a look at their tactical knowledge and skills. It serves both sides as I can learn from those of them who are skilled tacticians and find out if anyone is lacking in competence - then I can either have these people replaced or their skills improved, I am not going to waste a potentially skilled tactician simply for being a beginner. This noble of Kerrel who was visiting me, talked with me about the Second Voidwar. He told me that while he had not participated himself, his father and mother had bled and died for humanity. He also talked with me about my father. It didn't take me long to figure out he was actually an agent of the old fool of Kerrel - or, as he called himself, a "messenger". Personally, I call him a fat wannabe-spy with honeyed words - probably his words weren't the only thing he filled with honey. He said that I was trained to one day claim my father's place. He said that I was much like him and that I will rule just like him when my time has come. He said that my sister was too chaotic and my brother too uncaring. He said that my father had failed and that I could succeed where he failed. He said that he knew that my father hadn't taken care of his children. He failed to comprehend who he was talking about. When he told me that King Dorten would gladly support me if I took my father's place, I stopped laughing at his foolish words. That fat fool suggested that I should secretly take my father's throne for myself. After all, he said, my father would have done the same if he was in my place: He claimed that my father would also assume control when he'd find the current ruler incompetent. After all, the fate of humanity depended on it and the end justified the means.
    I had his ugly fat ass burned by the black dragons after having him impaled alive, screaming for mercy. His burned remains were fed to the direwolves of Zyainor so that his wealth at least gave them a good meal as it obviously made him grow fat and stupid - unless he was the latter before already, that is. My father's throne belongs to my father and my father alone. His enemies are foolish to believe that anyone could take his place. They are foolish enough to believe that he could be dethorned or even die. Gardon Bloodclaw, Ca'laer of Zyainor, will never die. His legacy will always remain. I wouldn't take his place, never, unless he himself would ask me to do so - and if he never does and rules forever, I'll be fine all the same. Even I, his firstborn son, could not fill his shoes. A good son knows his place. I will gladly lead my father's armies in his name against his enemies and conquer all who threaten his rule.
    As a child, I never understood why father spent so little time with us. Apart from the few times we spent time together like when he taught me how to play chess, he was always busy, either locked in his chambers or outside, dealing with matters in the realm. Mother was very busy too, but she has spent more time with us than him. For a time, I wondered if he hated or at the very least disliked his children. As I was growing up, however, I began to understand. the realm was strong, yet depended on its ruler to keep it together. In its beginnings, most of its infrastructure that makes it as strong as it is now, had still to be built from scratch after all the wars that had ruined the lands. The work of my father alone is the reason why Zyainor could become powerful. He was doing what he had to ensure that we, his children, and the entirety of humanity was safe from the eternal threat of our arch nemesis in the east. His closest advisor trained me in the arts of war, in unveiling the wonders of magic, in the martial arts, in studying the history of the known world and in learning the most efficient tactics. I quickly came to the same conclusion as father: What good is nobility and saving lives if the war is lost? What purpose does morale serve other than holding us back when we could achieve so much more? I do not fight to be remembered as a hero, I fight because I have to.
    Kerrel and Rengar are still resisting the might of Zyainor. Rengar's resistance is slowly falling apart while Kerrel still dares to defy us. It is a rathole of inefficiency and fear of change while Rengar is just pathetic. My father's patience is running low and so is mine. The old fool Dorten should have died decades ago anyway, it is time that others took his place - and my father has told me that he already knows who could take the place of the old fool - as High Lord of Kerrel in the name of Zyainor.
    My thoughts are interrupted by a female voice.
    "I apologize for interrupting your thoughts, but everyone is ready and waiting for your orders, Ca'ler Garan." the officier says, saluting respectfully. I look in her direction.
    "Very good, Commander Tornet. Tell them to get moving. It is time for us to begin." I say. She salutes again and leaves. When I first met her, she was a captain serving under Commander Haraz. He was now a general and had made her his successor. They both work directly under my command now, just like all of the other soldiers whose lives I have saved by sacrificing others. It is always better to lose a few soldiers rather than all. Because the end really does justify the means.
    I stand up and let the soldiers pack my chessboard and other things while going to my horse. I am going to take care of that old fool Dorten and his daughter. Kerrel will be part of Zyainor, for the sake of both nations. Rengar too will either join Zyainor freely or face its wrath. The realms of humanity will be united under one banner. So is the will of Garan, Ca'ler of Zyainor, son of Ca'laer Gardon and Ca'lea Vail Bloodclaw and future High Lord of Kerrel.

    A group of riders is closing in on the tower, led by a young woman in a simple robe. Most of her face is hidden under her hood, but the part that is visible would make anyone seeing it stop and stare at her, stunned by her beauty. It is dangerous for a woman of that beauty to travel alone, hence she comes in company of several riders, wearing symbols of a black fist. No one would dare attack this group of fifty riders, even if they outnumbered them. They belong to the Blackguards of Black Keep, a dangerous foe to fight for anyone. They are far from their home as Black Keep lies within Isalmur, not here, this close to the capital. They accompany my daughter to my tower, the "Tower of Vail" as it has been fittingly named. My refuge. The one place where I can be far away from the politics, the problems... and my internal enemies. I leave the window alone and take the letters from my desk into one of the drawers. The tower is guarded by a strong garrison of loyal Zyaise troops and kept operational by a large amount of servants, all completely loyal towards the rulers of Zyainor. The irony is not lost on me, two decades ago people hated me as soon as they knew who I was and today they'd kill for me.
    Someone knocks on the door to my chambers and once asked to come in, Zurae enters the tower, smiling at me. I smile back and hug her as she comes towards me.
    "Mother! It is so good to finally see you again!" she says. I give her a parental kiss on the forehead.
    "It is good to see you again too, Zurae. Take a seat, I already had the servants prepare some food and water." I say and we both sit down on the dinner table. She takes a glass and we toast. My lovely daughter has grown from a beautiful girl into a beautiful young woman and skilled mage. I still remember her when she was a little child. Gardon never had much time for his children. Though he had tried to spend as much time with them as he could, most of their training and raising was done by me and those whom he trusted enough to be near his children. However, unbeknownst to her siblings, Zurae would often sneak into his chambers and spend time with him there while he was working. He allowed her to do so, but only when her teachers had finished training her. I also remember her sneaking into a supply wagon once to travel with him when he was about to leave for a few weeks. It took us HOURS to find her in that wagon, but in the end, we all laughed about the entire matter.
    "Mother, there is something I have been wondering for a while now. Why are you REALLY here, in this tower, when you could be in the fortress father has built? I know that you dislike politics and a lot of other things, but you are so far away now. Father won't tell me. They claim that the two of you have 'finally' started to hate each other. I know it isn't true, but what is it then?" she finally asks. I expected her to get to this topic soon. It had been kept as secret as possible. It is true that Gardon's relationship with that elven queen annoys me, especially since Larine has proven to be rather jealous and very hostile towards me everytime we meet. It is also true that the flask he always has with him these days confuses me a bit, but people are fools if they actually believe that we hate each other. He and I both are very similar in many ways. It is our similarity that made us start liking each other. I smile at Zurae. She is too smart to believe what people say and too social to not care.
    "It is complicated, Zurae, but I can assure you that everything between me and your father is fine. There is a reason for everything, that is all I can tell you now." I explain, putting my hand around my daughter. She cares for our family, she always did. She is a fierce follower of the belief that our family, the rulers of Zyainor, are the only ones who can protect humanity - and preserve it. I believe I may have allowed Thanok to spend too much time with her when she was still a child, but I tend to agree with her. Gardon was betrayed and therefore unable to destroy the Demons for good. But I know him, he won't just leave them be - he and I are very similar after all. Zurae smiles at me.
    "I understand. I can't say that I like being left in the dark, but I trust you as I trust father. Also, I think I know why you are doing this" she says with a conspiratorial grin. My lovely daughter will be a force of destruction against the enemies of Zyainor. She may enchant others with her beauty, but behind her beauty lies power beyond anyone's comprehension hidden. When she was still but a child with only little training, Gardon had her wipe out a camp of armored brigants and rebels all by herself. With age, her powers only grew and it had taken a lot of training until she could fully control it - we had to rebuilt parts of our home several times, I remember. But what mother would blame her daughter for her skills?
    We continue our talk until we grow weary. I bring her to the door and tell her to sleep in the guest room. She gives me a hug and leaves. I smile after her and close the door. I wonder how her siblings are doing. Garan is far away on a secret operation that even I don't know all the details of and Hotar should be joining the Ca'rach this evening. I should send him a letter, congratulating him. Then there are the other two... They are not my children, but they also are Zurae's siblings even if I don't really see them as such. If I am not mistaken, one of them is studying under Birram and the other one is tutored by the Guardians of the Grave. A mage and an archer using necromancy from Larine, a tactical mastermind with both magical and martial skills, a powerful wizard and a great warrior from me. I can't help but smirk, Gardon has raised a group of powerful children. Sometimes I wonder if there are any more than that, but I doubt it. A powerful family to fight the enemies of Zyainor. However, the children won't be the only ones doing all the fighting. We will protect them, as all parents would.
    The next day, my daughter and her fifty guardians leave, I am again sitting in front of my window, watching them. Zurae turns around and waves, I wave back, smiling. My face turns grim as I turn away from the window.
    I, Vail Bloodclaw, Ca'lea of Zyainor, will protect the lives of my children with my own life if neccessary. The realm of Zyainor has brought back order to the human nations and I will do what I can to make sure it stays this way. The time of kings, high kings and emperors is over, the time of the Ca'laers and Ca'leas has returned.

    Dragon Knights
    I pause in cleaning my weapon and look towards the entrance, hearing that another person has just entered. I smile at the unexpected guest. Then again, he is not entirely unexpected, this is HIS tent after all, not mine. I am merely a... "guest". Hotar embraces me and kisses me as soon as he reaches me. I embrace him as well. We allow ourselves to take some time before we are done kissing.
    "You're looking good, Laura." he says with a grin. I give him a playful slap on the backside of his head.
    "I figured that I could wear a formal armor rather than a dirty one for this occasion. This is your great day, after all. But I won't lie to you, I can't wait to get out of it when this is over." I explain. Hotar laughs.
    "I'll gladly help you with that later." he says with a wink.
    "Oh, I know you do. Depending on your behaviour this evening, I may allow you to." I reply, sticking out my tongue in his direction playfully. His laugh grows louder and I grin. His hand slides over my shoulder as he goes towards his clothes, he has to change. I continue cleaning my weapon.
    "Is your family going to attend the ceremony?" I ask him while doing so. He shakes his head while putting on his armor.
    "Garan has his hands full with some maneuver of his, he can't come, Zurae is visiting mother in her tower and father is busy with ruling the nation. But he has sent Thanok to visit. It's fine. This is only the opening ceremony. They promised they'd attend the graduation one, when I have become a full member of the order." he says. I pause and look in his direction.
    "You haven't told them about... us yet, have you? About our relationship?" I ask. He stops, looking directly into my eyes.
    "Thanok knows about us, there is no doubt about that, but I don't know if he has told father anything yet. His loyalty towards my father knows no bounds, but perhaps Thanok wants me to be the one who tells him. At least father has not mentioned anything yet. I've told Garan and Zurae, of course, and mother too. Only father... I will tell him when the time is right, I promise." he explains. I smile at him and raise eyebrows.
    "You mean when you stop being afraid that your father may disagree?" I ask him. He sighs. I stand up, go towards him and put my arms around his waist.
    "I understand, don't worry. Perhaps it would be too soon. I know you don't mean anything with it, but you have to face him sooner or later. You can't keep it a secret forever, you know." I explain, hugging him. He returns the gesture.
    "I know. I just don't think it is a good time, he is very busy with--" I silence him with a "Shh" and move my finger on his lips.
    "It's okay, Hotar. I know. There is no need to justify yourself." I saw, giving him a bright smile. He smiles back and after another kiss, we both return to what we had done before. When he finishes putting on his ceremonial armor, he waves me goodbye. Lord Daskor the Dragonheart, a high-ranking Ca'rach, awaits him to discuss the formalities of the ceremony. My beloved Hotar is joining the Ca'rach this evening. However, he will not be a full dragon knight yet, that honor will be bestowed upon him when his training in the order is complete. From what I have been told, the rulers of the old Zyainor also always had one of their children join the order and Hotar had wanted to join them very early on anyway, so it was only a logical step. I am happy for him, even if it means that we will hardly be able to spend any time together.
    Another hour later, I rejoin Hotar at the great banquet table they have set up in the center of the camp. There are countless other tables around with soldiers sitting, talking and laughing together there. The banquet table is the one where the highest ranking in the camp and the Ca'rach sit together. Hotar is granted a place on the edge of the table, I am allowed to sit next to him after he insists that I stay close to him. We're served water and wine before everything falls silent. The ceremony is beginning. Lord Daskor the Dragonheart has stood up.
    "Fellow soldiers of Zyainor, we are gathered here this fine evening to welcome a new member in the ranks of the Ca'rach. The traditions of the old nation of Zyainor demand that at least one son or daughter of the Ca'laer and Ca'lea joins our order to strengthen the bond between the Black Dragons and the Humans. It is an honor for our order to finally be able to welcome Ca'ler Hotar, son of Ca'laer Gardon and Ca'lea Vail Bloodclaw, in our ranks." he announces. Hotar stands up and slightly bows his head in Daskor's direction before moving his attention to the many soldiers in the camp.
    "Ever since I was a child, the Ca'rach have fascinated me. I wanted to join them for a long time and it fills me with joy that my wish can finally come true. I vow to honor the traditions of the order and the nation of Zyainor as well as the bond between Black Dragons and Zyaise. During my training, I had the honor to train besides many of you who are willing to give their lives in the name of my father and our great nation. I want all of you to celebrate this with me which is why we are all sitting here - together - instead of holding the ceremony within the walls of Ker'Dramos." he says, loud and clear. He grabs his glass and raises it.
    "Raise your glasses with me, soldiers of Zyainor! Today we celebrate not only me joining the order of dragon knights, we celebrate our great nation and its ruler. Hail Ca'laer Gardon and Ca'lea Vail Bloodclaw! May their rule lead us into a glorious future! And may our friendship with the Black Dragons endure the sands of time!" he shouts and everyone, including myself, joins his hails and drinks. I think I can see Lord Daskor nod with satisfaction in his eyes and sit down again. Suddenly, Thanok stands behind Hotar and lays a hand on his shoulder. Hotar immediatly stands up.
    "A proper speech, young Ca'ler." Thanok says, crossing his arms behind his back.
    "The order can teach you many things. Prove your worth to them as you have proven it to me. That's an order." Thanok says in his demanding tone. Hotar salutes.
    "I will not disappoint you and never forget your lessons, sir." he says, looking Thanok directly in the eyes. Only few can withstand the cold they emit. He can. Thanok nods.
    "Good. I will inform your father about this." he says. I may be wrong but I believe Thanok is actually... proud?! Then he gazes upon me.
    "Soldier Laura Greendale. Follow me." he orders and I immediatly do as he says, following him to his tent. I throw a look behind my back and can see Hotar watching us go away with worry in his eyes. I nod in his direction, trying to look reassuring, but I am not sure if it looks convincing.
    Thanok enters his tent, I follow him, ignoring the two guards standing silently at the entrance, not paying attention to us or the events in the center of the camp. Thanok turns around, studying me.
    "It is about time we talked about your relationship with the Ca'ler, Greendale." he says. I slowly nod.
    "I had expected this to be the reason why you asked me to come with you, my lord. I assure you, my feelings for the Ca'ler are true and of no ill will." I tell him without fear but with proper respect. Thanok crosses his arms behind his back, his eyes get even colder and his gaze seems to pierce through my eyes and directly into my mind. I think it is causing me a headache, I can feel some pain but I resist the urge to hold my head. I don't want to seem weak, even if I will admit that High Lord Thanok is one of the few people who actually scares me. There is a reason why his soldiers would rather die than disappoint him. After a few seconds, the pain slowly reduces until it is gone. I am not sure if Thanok had said anything during the pain, the pain must have numbed me.
    "I trust you to understand that he is the son of our Ca'laer and Ca'lea. You are a soldier, even if your family has been elevated in the status of nobles by our beloved Ca'laer. The Ca'ler has grown to like you, if he hadn't, you wouldn't be here anymore, instead you may already have joined the order before him." Thanok explains. I raise my eyebrows, I fail to understand what he means. He turns to the left, looking out of the tent into the direction of the ceremony.
    "You are a skilled soldier and I happen to know your mother from the war. She has served Zyainor well and is a faithful dragon worshipper. I trust you are going to be that as well." he says, looking again directly at me.
    "I offer you the chance to join the Ca'rach as well. I am aware that your affection to the Ca'ler affects you both. You both fight more efficiently when you are together and even though I am sure the Ca'ler could find a new girl to satisfy his needs, I expect that he may have reservations to do such a thing and he seems to really like your presence." he continues. I am shocked, I had not expected an offer to join the Ca'rach! I had dreamed of such a chance myself, I cannot believe that I could now be there - and also be with Hotar, making it an even sweeter deal!
    "That... that is a great honor, my lord. I am not sure what else to say besides thank-" I stutter. He silences me by raising his hand.
    "I want you to know that this chance is unique, Greendale, and that it has its obligations. How you and the Ca'ler behave in private is currently your concern, not mine, but how you behave in public is important. I trust you to understand what it means to be with a Ca'ler in public. You have not stepped too far as of yet and you will know when to restrain yourself." he finishes his explanation. Yes, he is right. I can see it. I have to be more careful. I cannot make jokes with others about dragons or the higher-ups when I am officially with the Ca'ler, it could cause a scandal! I nod and kneel before him.
    "I swear that I will remember your words, my lord. With your blessing, I will join the Ca'rach so that I can continue to be with my beloved Ca'ler." I explain. I can see his shadow on the ground nod.
    "Then it shall be. Stand up and return to him. Tell him the good news, I am sure he will be just as happy as you are about it. Celebrate tonight, tomorrow you are leaving to Ker'Dramos." he says and I do as he says. I return to Hotar with a smile, whispering to him that Thanok just decided that I would join the Ca'rach as well. He gives me a bright smile and kisses me. Then he looks at me, I can see the joy in his eyes. How could I not accompany the man I love?
    I, Laura Greendale, will accompany our beloved Ca'ler Hotar to Ker'Dramos and become a Ca'rach just like he will. Serving liege and nation, I will do what I can to protect the realm of Zyainor, my family and those who I love. That is my way serving our great nation, my Ca'laer and Ca'lea.

    Students of Magic
    I close my eyes. I would use my magic or my hands to shut my ears as well but I know it to be for naught. On the contrary, it would be an encouragement to make the screams go even louder and louder. It is not their punishment alone, it is mine as well. I have created a monster and this is the price I have to pay.
    I was a naive child, unaware of the consequences of my actions. Some friend suggested that we'd put that little girl in her place. I took charge of this idea and... went through with it. Would I do it again? No. I was young and naive and stupid, I had no idea what I had done. Now I do. And I regret it.
    Our target, half-human half-elf, was a very nice and sweet but shy girl the same age as us back then. Talented too. Maybe were just jealous? After all, she received her training from no one less than High Lord Birram himself! Two years had passed until the high lord called me into his office. I was too foolish to imagine why, but that changed soon. He wasted no time, telling me that he would destroy me, my family and everything else I hold dear if I continued. The only option he offered was that I would from now on not only leave her alone, I would guard and protect her. I agreed. I do not think that Parlea knew of this meeting between me and the high lord, she was shy at first but when I had apologized and promised I would cause her no more trouble and prevent anyone from doing anything to harm her, she welcomed me with an unsure yet warm smile. It was this moment when I had realized how monstrous my actions had been. How could I have been hostile towards such a nice girl with such a wonderful smile? How could I have caused her mental pain with foul words and actions? I am not sure if I had fallen in love with her for that short moment, but my will to go through with this grew much stronger.
    Ever since then I had seldomly left her side, made sure that no one would mess with her even if it alienated me from my friends. I had no other choice and my friends would never have understood - besides, my talk with Birram was to stay between the two of us. I was not allowed to tell anyone, not my family, not my friends and most importantly not Parlea. The irony is that by now, I have lost everything except for Parlea. My friends stopped being my friends. I had to use... I was forced to use violence against them to make them leave Parlea alone. And my family? Gone. Birram had kept his word, it was not his fault. The true horror is that it was their own doing that doomed them! My family had made deals with the Demons, it had been proven that they were indeed traitors. The very day that proof had been given, the Blackguards of the Black Keep destroyed my home and killed everyone inside. For a moment of grief and suffering I hated them for it, but I came to realize that it was my family's fault, not theirs. If they had not done what they did, someone else would have. Or even worse, the Demons could have taken advantage of it! With my family and friends gone, all I had left were Parlea and my place as a student in the academy. Guess what, I lost the latter. I failed too many important tests, my arcane power was there but not good enough to become a full mage, a REAL mage. Instead, Lord Taray, a good friend of High Lord Birram and Guardian of the Lightning, offered to have me trained into a Thunder Knight of his order instead, combining my limited arcane knowledge and power with martial arms. I would take my lessons while Parlea took hers. I accepted, knowing that the only alternative would have been to join the army or one of the other orders in Zyainor. The lands of my family had been stripped from us due to the betrayal, so I didn't even have a home I could have returned to so I stayed. I became a Thunder Knight as Parlea's training intensified. Having lost everything gave me just another reason to stay close to her. Did we ever become anything more than a young woman and her guardian? No, and neither of us would want that.
    I open my eyes, gazing upon the damage. It had started a few years ago and over time, it had only become worse. She seems not to understand why it is like this herself, she even used to cry afterwards and still does it from time to time, but it seems that causing pain is what gives this otherwise completely friendly, peaceful and harmless young woman a sheer endless amount of pleasure beyond my - and probably her - comprehension. It had begun with insects, then continued with rats, later dogs, cats, birds, horses, and now? A prisoner. A human being. Her status as the personal student of our headmaster gave her access to otherwise locked areas like the dungeon and no one asked any questions, the guards were probably told to leave her be. They even left the prison cells, waiting outside for her to be done with whatever she wanted to do! I wonder if High Lord Birram knows about her... urge? Yes I think you can call it that. On any normal day there was no way you would even suspect this sweet young woman to have a hobby she herself does not completely understand.
    This was the first time she tortured a human and she seemed to love it. My ears are still ringing. I can still hear the screams. The body smells as if it had been burned, bathed in acid and... I will not even bother to describe what exactly it looks like, it has been cut, squashed and completely and utterly destroyed. It doesn't look like something that used to be a humanoid being, it looks like a sack of meat! Parlea stands there, looking at the dead body. Smiling.
    "I know I am not supposed to be enjoying or even doing this. But it felt good. Very good. Too good. Do you think we can do it again soon?" she asks me. I shake my head.
    "If this happens too often, people will start noticing. And this was the only prisoner here in years, a spy I think. We do not have any prisoners most of the time." I explain. She turns around, looking into my eyes. She is no longer smiling, instead her gaze is begging, other men would melt when she'd look at them like that. She is beautiful, I will admit that, but I am not falling in love with her even if I am destinied to stand by her side forever.
    "Do you think... my mother would hate me for this? Or my father? Or my sister? I-- I don't know why I keep doing this, I- I can't stop!" she says, sad and desperate at the same time. I say nothing, knowing the answer as to why she is doing this. I understood this shortly after it had started.
    After a while, we leave. The guards resume their positions in silence. I am sure they are going to remove the corpse with no questions asked. I expect them to inform Birram about it, but more than that is unlikely to happen. I can feel my stomach filling with pain. It is my fault. All my fault. My friends and I had bullied Parlea as children. She had felt enormous mental and physical pain for a long period ot time, now she had grown an addiction to it, but she wished to CAUSE rather than suffer it. I do not know who her parents are, but there is one thing I know for sure: I, Tojaz of Zertaq, will protect their child, even if she walks further down the path to torture and pain. It is my destiny and my responsibility. I will do what I can to make sure that she stays safe - and that she will, despite this particular flaw, become a grand mage of Zyainor, serving the realm. That is my way serving our great nation, my Ca'laer and Ca'lea.

    Grave Wardens
    I enter my room and close the door behind me. Moments later, stepping before the mirror, I study my body. Over the last few years, I have grown from a young girl into a young woman. Without the grim armor of the order, I don't think anyone would suspect that I was part of it, considering me to be just some young elven princess, thinking about nothing but my looks. I will admit that I do not consider it unimportant, I am still the princess of my people and therefore people will talk about my looks, but other things are more important, hence I am hardly seen wearing dresses. My mother was an exile, so people are not really shocked to see me, like her, break with some of the "sacred rules" of nobility. I believe that some armor serves me far better, especially when I am hunting or on duty. In fact, I am quite sure that wearing a dress would make the rest of the order make fun of it the entire day - I would do the same if one of the others would suddenly wear a dress. I smirk, imagining Thlea wearing a dress. That'd be kind of funny, considering her completely non-aristrocratic behaviour. I like her and the others, I am not treated like a princess here in Zyainor. In the Elven Kingdom, people are all way too nice to me all the time.
    I put on my formal leather armor and get moving. Lord Varan the Soulkeeper has requested my presence at a meeting he is having today. I do not know who his guests are, but he wanted me specifically to record everything said. Before leaving the room, I throw one last glance towards the mirror in my chamber. I often wonder if it was her looks that made my father choose my mother as a lover or her wit and intelligence. Maybe all of it? Mother says that he would have married her if he hadn't been forced to marry his current wife for political reasons. I wonder if it is true or if she is just telling herself this. I leave the room and go to the chambers of the First Grave Warden. Mother told me that he was once a soldier who rose through the ranks of the Ironfist and his dedication made him master the arts of necromancy and martial arts alike. It is stories like his that that keep motivating the soldiers of Zyainor to strive for more. I stop before the door of his chambers. There are voices inside. Am I late? I knock on the door and open it after being called for. Lord Varan sits in his chair, on the other side sit two men. All three look in my direction. I pause, staring at them. One of the other men is High Lord Birram of Isalmur. The other man is... my father. Ca'laer Gardon of Zyainor. Quickly I bow my head.
    "Forgive me, Lord Varan, for being late and for interrupting. I had believed the meeting not to begin for at least-"
    "You are not late, aspirant Velina. High Lord Birram and Ca'laer Gardon arrived earlier than planned and we decided to start without you as you were still training." Lord Varan interrupts me politely. I raise my head.
    "I could have stopped earlier, mylord." I dare to say. Was High Lord Birram just smirking for a short moment after I said that?
    "Your dedication is recommendable and welcome, but there were things to discuss that better stay classified. A record would not have been neccessary therefore. I would have told you, but it was a rather short-term decision of our Ca'laer." Varan explains, bowing towards my father as he says the last part. My father shows no response.
    "You may return to your chambers and-" Varan is stopped by Birram who is raising his hand and looking at Gardon. Gardon nods towards the exit.
    "Varan, Birram, if you don't mind?" Gardon says. Varan immediatly stands up, salutes and leaves the room, Birram follows him closely, bowing towards my father as he leaves the room. My father gives me a close look as soon as the door closes. I look back, withstanding his piercing eyes. He finally nods.
    "It has been a long time, Velina. You have grown. Varan tells me that you are very skilled and will become a great Grave Warden one day. You remind me a lot of your mother, I see a lot of her in you now... daughter." he says. I bow before him.
    "It is an honor to see you, father... even if it is still only behind closed doors that you call me your daughter." I say, looking into his eyes. His eyes seem to have lost part of the cold they usually emit. I believe I can even feel some... warmth? Or is it just my imagination? He turns around, looking out of the window down to the courtyard. I can see a small flask at the side of his belt, my ears can hear that it is probably empty. Maybe that explains it.
    "Even if I can't acknowledge you and Parlea officially as my children without causing a political uproar, I have kept an eye on both of you. I did what I could to make sure that you are in good hands, just like I take care of all of my children." he explains. I cannot resist the urge to make one step towards him upon hearing this.
    "Are... are you just saying this because you believe I may think otherwise? Are you really treating us all the same, father? Are you denying the mother of your pure-blood human children your presence when she would love to have you next to her? Are you only rarely with them as well? Have you not seen them growing up too?" I ask, getting louder with each word. I quickly regret it and look to the ground.
    "I... I am sorry. I shouldn't have shouted..." I whisper. A heavy hand is laid on my shoulder. Looking up, I see the eyes of my father.
    "Velina, like you, I was a bastard child. I would not treat you any different only because I am not married with your mother. There's almost no free time for me, I have to rule the most powerful human nation of Arkain. I spend only slightly more time with the Ca'lea as I do with the Queen of the Elves. I haven't been able to see you or my other children grow up like others fathers have. My time is spent with the realm and the war that will surely come soon. In your eyes, I have not been a good father. However, I want you to know that I do all of what I am doing for you and the others. For our races, our nations, our future. Keeping the realm safe is the only way to make sure that all of you have a future that is not by the design of demonic or other sinister powers." he explains. He moves towards the exit.
    "One day, it will all be over, Velina. I wish you good luck in your efforts, I have high expectations of you." he says. Before he can open the door, I raise my voice.
    "Do you love us? Your children?" I ask. He turns around, looking at me for a short moment before replying.
    "I do. I always did." are his last words before he opens the door and goes, leaving me behind. I think about his words before leaving as well. I have made my decision. Lord Varan is gazing after me as I go towards my room. I stop and turn around, bowing before him.
    "Mylord, I'd like to ask a favor of you." I say. I cannot see his face as I am looking to the ground, but I imagine him raising his eyebrows.
    "Stand up and tell me what it is you want to ask of me, aspirant." he says. I look up without standing up.
    "Allow me to be your student, mylord. I want to learn from the best of the order. I know that I have declined your offer to do so in the past as you had said it would have meant to sacrifice the entirety of my spare time. I humbly ask of you to renew this offer so that I may serve our nation and rulers more effectively." I reply. It sounds less like I am begging, I think it sounds as if I am DEMANDING it. I am my father's daughter after all, I guess. Varan studies me before he nods.
    "I shall grant you your wish. Your training will begin tomorrow, aspirant. Go, get some sleep. You will need all your strength." he orders. I nod and leave, satisfied with the result.
    I, Velina, daughter of Queen Larine and Ca'laer Gardon will train to become the greatest of the Grave Wardens, proving that my father's trust is justified. I'm going to make my mother proud of me and master the art of necromancy just like my skill with the bow. My sister and I will one day be acknowledged as children of the Ca'laer, not for the public fame but so that we could finally spend time with him like his other children - and maybe even become a real family one day. That is my way serving our great nation, my father and my mother.

    Seabright by Shar Dundred

    1st May 20 Z. R.

    Gardon sat in his chair and looked out of the window, down on the city he was currently visiting, lying on the western shore of Zyainor, not far from Castle Kome. It was one of the rare moments when he was alone and could actually take a few minutes to recover from his many duties. Many of his subjects were going through the streets, talking with each other, trading with each other, laughing with each other. Ironic that a few decades ago they all feared the history of the fallen nation of Zyainor, considering it a nation of evil, and now, they lived in it and it did not seem to bother them at all. Most of them, anyway, the few uprisings and rebellions were so small and seldom that they hardly counted. While he had been unable to destroy the race of the Demons once and for all, he was the one who had crushed their invasion. Many respected or feared him. And still, this "victory" had felt hollow. His life goal had remained unfulfilled up to this day and he could not completely focus on the Demons now that there were so many other enemies. Kerrel openly opposed him, not realizing that only united under Gardon's lead they could survive and ignoring that without Gardon and Zyainor, they would be unprotected. The Tribal Dominion had mostly left Zyainor alone, yet Gardon's spies informed him that they were preparing for war and despite what Brian had told him, Gardon found it hard to trust them. Their leader Amari may be smarter than the usual Orc, Gardon was actually quite impressed by her intelligence, he had not expected to ever meet an Orc as reasonable, smart and witty as her, but what about the rest of the lot? Then of course there was the Empire, ruled by his mad half-brother Theodor. The maniac would launch an invasion of Arkain sooner or later, that much was for certain, but the question remained WHEN it would happen. Gardon still wondered what had gotten into his half-brother that had made him lose his mind. And finally, the Undead. They still were a great mystery. While a large host of them had disappeared after their betrayal, there were still groups of them that kept causing harm. They seemed less... organized than they used to be but Gardon would never ever repeat the mistake he made in the past and would rather see them all burned on sight than have them remain.
    He turned his gaze away from the window and looked on his desk. There laid the a black seal with a golden anchor on it next to the flask he had drank empty only a few minutes ago. It would be worn by Merlon today if the Undead had not killed him – and perhaps Merlon even would be here with a flask of his own if he'd be still alive. Then again, Gardon had not been drinking anything back in the day. Merlon was a man who had been with Gardon for a long time, a close ally in all the conflicts. Sure, at the beginning they had their differences and Gardon had made sure that Merlon would remain loyal but in the end, Merlon had been both useful and trustworthy. And while his humor was almost annoying at times, it was something fresh from the grim behaviour of Gardon and most of his other close allies, maybe even somehow close to being some kind of "friend". Merlon was one of the many good men who died in the Second Voidwar. Only one of many.
    The door opened and a servant entered the room.
    "My liege, it is time." he said and left. Gardon stood up and was about to leave. Before he had reached the door, however, he stopped and turned around. He returned to the desk and took the seal before he left.

    The carriage of the Ca'laer halted in the harbor of the city. Its doors opened and Gardon left it, followed by his daughter Zurae. His other children were occupied otherwise and could not be here, but Zurae insisted to be with him, even if she was his only child to be there. And Vail... She was in her tower. Many people, both rich and poor, noble and peasant alike, were gathered in the harbor for this was the day one of their newest and largest ships would receive the blessing of the Ca'laer – and its name. The flagship of the new Zyaise fleet.
    There were also visitors from the other lands: Duke Oshan the Stern of Rengar, current ruler of Rengar in absence of its king, and Princess Felicia of Kerrel were among the best known of them. Zurae made a large step forwards to walk next to her father and bowed her head to Gardon's ear, whispering that she was certain that there were some human spies of the Dominion among the visitors, just as planned. The two smiled at each other. Gardon himself also expected someone else to be here, someone whom he wanted to talk with when the ceremony was over. The rulers of the other kingdoms were here to witness the power of Zyainor – just like when they had been invited to his halls at the anniversary. They knew this, of course, they knew that he only invited them because it was part of the "cold war" status between their lands. They only came because they wanted to know what he had to show them this time, to analyze its weaknesses. They wouldn't find any. Gardon and Zurae stepped upon the pedestal and once everyone was quiet, Gardon stepped forward, Zurae remained in the background, though Gardon was sure that there'd be quite a few people whose gazes would be drawn to her instead of him. He raised his arms and his voice.
    "People of Zyainor, visitors from far and wide, you all have been invited here today to witness the craftmanship of our Zyaise engineers!" he said, his voice was being echoed by magic so that everyone in the harbor could hear him without him having to scream.
    "For the past few months, our most intelligent heads, both human and dragon, have worked on new ways to improve the mighty fleet of Zyainor – and they were successful! Our new ships, designed by our most skilled shipbuilders, have the power to defend our nation against all outside threats!" he explained and the crowd cheered. He waited for it to stop before he continued.
    "But we will also honor our fallen heroes. Grand Admiral Merlon Seabright, a man whom I had the honor fighting side by side with, a man whom I had considered a friend, dedicated his life to our cause. To honor his memory, I have decided to name the new flagship of our great navy after him. The SEABRIGHT will lead our fleet against all of our enemies, whether they come from the east, the west, the north or the south! None shall escape its wrath! Now, witness the first appearance of our great new warship!" he screamed and turned towards the open sea behind him, just like Zurae and the crowd. Along with several other new ships, the Seabright now drove towards the harbor. The crowd watched with amazement, such ships had never been seen ever before.
    The engineers of Zyainor had managed to create a new design of warships, ships made of black steel, powered by oil and steam. These warships formed the new fleet of Zyainor and would be the last step towards Zyaise supremacy. The armies of the Zyaise military and its orders controlled the land and the black dragons the sky, these new ships would control the sea. Even the Imperial Navy would not stand a chance against this new might of Zyainor. The Seabright was the largest of the new ships, the most powerful of them. A machine of war and destruction. Gardon wondered if his engineers would someday be able to create a Destructor with similar capabilities. He looked back towards the crowd, most of them were clapping. The duke of Rengar hid his emotions yet Gardon was sure that he knew that Rengar was doomed if they'd join Kerrel in a war against Zyainor. Most of Rengar, the part that was still accessible anyway, laid on the shore or next to it and therefore was vulnerable for all kinds of naval attacks. The princess locked her eyes on Gardon, her eyes were filled with contempt. Then she left. Gardon knew that King Dorten had once hoped to have Gardon marry Felicia before the old man knew that Gardon intended to bring Zyainor back to life, to have a new protector for Kerrel. Now he had a nation at his doorsteps that protected mankind more effectively than the old man ever could instead. It was only a matter of time until the people of Kerrel would join Zyainor. One way or the other. It was part of the deal with the Black Dragons, and once his enemies WITHIN mankind on Arkain were gone, he would be able to completely focus on the rest. He could see movement in the crowd. A familiar face. He knew where to find it again. Once the ceremony was over, Gardon told Zurae to return to the mansion they were occupying during their stay in this city without him, he would meet with her there later. She hesitated but nodded eventually. Then she left and Gardon made his way to one of the empty harbor buildings. A storehouse. There, he would meet whom he wanted to talk with.
    "T'is dangerous for one of your standing to come in here all on your own, o graceful ruler." were the first words Gardon heard upon entrance. A female voice, a woman stood in front of him, as if she had waited to him. Around her stood her band of vagabonds. Zora and her pirates. Just as expected.
    "I hope you don't think that you naming some black pile of iron after my father changes anything. I expect you to be smarter than that, you know." she explained and sat on a barrel.
    "You had nothing to do with this decision." was the short and honest reply. Zora crossed her arms.
    "Then I will just assume your growing age is starting to make you soft. No, actually, I don't believe that. Anyway. What do you want from me and my lads?" she asked. Gardon took a close look at her companions. She rolled her eyes and told them to get lost. When the two were finally alone, Gardon raised his voice.
    "I want to renew my offer." he said. Zora's raised her eyebrows surprised.
    "You are serious? I declined it the last time. The pirate queen does not kneel before any ruler, not even you. Even a Demon could not tame me and my boys, what makes you think you could? You may be a lot of things, but arrogant? That'd be a new one for me." she said. Gardon studied her. She reminded him of her father.Where was that damn flask when he needed it? He crossed his arms behind his back.
    "I am not asking you to kneel before me, Zora. I ask you to stop fooling around and finally get a grip of your life. You and I both know that you pirates are doomed. The amounts of unlucky souls that would join your ranks have decreased dramatically since the rebirth of Zyainor. Since the end of the Second Voidwar, all nations have gained much strength. Raiding has become very dangerous. It is time to leave your game of playing pirate behind you and get a REAL life." Gardon said. Zora spit on the ground before his feet.
    "You act as if you were my father – if he had cared about me or my life – but you are not even old enough to be that, do not presume you know me only because we met two or three times." was her angry reply. Gardon's eyes pierced through hers. She could feel a small headache yet refused to show it.
    "Tell me, how romantic is the life of a pirate when there is nothing to raid? No gold to spend? No drinks to be had? Having ships filled with people who start uprisings against you? Do you really enjoy all of that?" he asked, his voice had become... darker. He sounded much more like the general from back in the day Zora had met back then. She had really thought he had gone soft, apparently she was mistaken. The pain in her head disappeared as quickly as it had come.
    "You.. you want me to sacrifice my freedom." she groaned. The pain was gone but she could still feel it. Her angry gaze met Gardon's.
    "And for what?! Some land and title so that I can watch peasants making the crops grow?! I am a bloody pirate, not a goddamn steward!" Zora explained furiously. Gardon threw something at her. She caught it mid-air. Before she could take a look at it, he raised his voice once again.
    "I am not asking you to be a steward. I am not asking you to kneel before me. I am asking you to join me, to no longer hinder my goal of uniting all of mankind on this continent to stand together against our enemies. What I offer you? I offer you the place your father would have on this very day if the cursed Undead had not taken him. I offer you to command the very ships you have seen earlier, the most powerful fleet on this damn continent! I offer you the adventure you seek in the war against the Imperial Navy instead of some pathetic raids. I offer you land for you and your followers to settle on. I offer you a chance to have all of you be pardoned for your past misdeeds." he explained. Zora looked at the item Gardon threw at her. It was a seal. Black background and a golden anchor in the midst. She stared at it. This would have been her father's if... She looked back at Gardon.
    "You... you want me, a criminal, as your grand admiral? Are you insane? Your nobles would surely-"
    "Do not bother yourself with such things, I have everything under control. This is the last straw, Zora. I will not repeat this offer again." Gardon interrupted her. She nodded, to signal that she understood.
    "What land? And what do you want me to do?" she asked. Gardon turned around, his hands were again crossed behind his back.
    "The islands that used to belong the Orcs. They belong to Zyainor and used to be the so-called 'pirate baronies' ages ago so I think they would suit you just fine." he explained.
    "The Burned Islands? You are offering me scorched earth where nothing grows."
    "I thought you didn't want to watch crops grow anyway. Some of the islands are still unoccupied and we have lost scouts trying to search them so I am sure that there is something on them now. However, the ones that we were able to occupy can offer much more than just fish. Beneath the surface, we have found new oil supplies that the Orcs probably were unaware of. The very fuel of our new fleet. I want you to go there and oversee the harvest of that oil and the construction of our new fleet. The Seabright will be put under your command, you can use it as your flagship if you so desire. It goes without saying that no one knows that this is the place where we construct our fleet. We let all other nations believe that they are built in Ker'Dramos instead." Gardon continued to explain and turned back to face Zora. She seemed intrigued.
    "If you want to keep so much hidden, why did you show them your new toy anyway? To intimidate them?" she asked. She was curious and obviously interested by now. Just as Gardon had predicted.
    "To show them our strength, yes. Many in Kerrel and Rengar are already considering the idea of joining Zyainor out of free will rather than risk open war – and even those who do not want to join us will dislike the idea of war even more when they see that they cannot match our might. I expect Rengar to join us soon and Kerrel will not stand on its own for long. Once they both belong to me, Zyainor can finally focus on its REAL enemies in the west, the east and the south. So. Are you with me, Grand Admiral Zora Seabright?" he asked. She looked down on the seal in her hands and then back at Gardon. After a few seconds, she nodded.

    When Gardon returned to the mansion, Zurae approached him with a smile.
    "Duke Oshan wishes to meet you. I have already talked a bit with him. He wants to discuss the possibility of... Well, perhaps you will need a new high lord soon." she explained. He smiled at her and entered the room where the duke was waiting for him.

    The Nexus of Old and New by Shar Dundred
    The Nexus of Old and New

    When the Avatar of Death created the Undead, we were bound to his will. Yet, while he wanted them to remain his loyal serants, he wanted to see them develop without his interference. In order to do so, he created the nexus to seperate his armies of the Dead into different organisations. While the nexus were still bound to Aridon, they had some sort of own will and could develop their own behaviours and mindsets how to best serve our master while he remained on the top of the mountain, watching over them and the rest of Arkain. Six of these nexus had been created, all of them had become their own "self" as time went by: The Ejara, Zirr, Rohir, Splecir, Ardoz and Scarec Nexus.

    The Ejara Nexus
    "Whether in life or death, all beings of Arkain are destined to serve our master in the end. We are the enforcers of his will, the harbingers of his rule. The Living will serve or die. There can be no freedom or alliance, only the master, the servants and the slaves."
    The very first action of the Ejara Nexus was their war against the Nerubians, a race that had evolved out of the spiders living in the caves of the mountain. The Ejara Nexus used brute force to slay the beasts and dark magic to have the dead creatures serve them. As soon as they were done either capturing or killing the creatures, they took the eggs and had the undead Nerubians breed them. In doing so, the Ejara were the ones that would turn the Nerubians into the slaves of the Undead. The Ejara believe that all living have to serve our master - and if they refuse to, they must either serve in death or be slaves in life. Hence they are in charge of the Nerubian breeding stations. They guard them and protect them from outside harm so that the Nerubians may live until they have evolved for long enough to be killed and raised as undead servants.

    The Zirr Nexus
    "Knowledge and power are one and the same. Mastery of knowledge and magic is what makes us worthy in the eyes of the Watcher. Our knowledge is not for the mortals or immortals of this world to be seen, it serves one purpose only: To aid us in our eternal service."
    The Undead of the Zirr Nexus are the keepers of knowledge and secrets, the masters of the arcane and lorekeepers. My Rasi brethren and I have been created long ago by the master to record all history and knowledge we could find in the mortal world. For a long time, we had been wandering the world and managed to both watch the mortals and remain unhidden thanks to the abilities he gifted us with while the others within the Zirr Nexus studied all kinds of arcane secrets and skills. The Zirr Nexus may not be the most numerous of the nexus, but they hold many secrets in their books and will not hesitate to unleash everything they can whenever it is required.

    The Rohir Nexus
    "The Living must see the folly of their ways. Only the master can grant vision. The Living will serve the master, whether they like it or not. We will infiltrate their ranks to make sure that they do what they are meant to do. If they resist, we will use our less subtle abilties instead."
    The Rohir Nexus are the actual nightmare of the Living when faced on the field of battle. They are not really dead but also not really alive. They are spirits stealing the bodies of the Living, they are the Reborn. The numbers of the Rohir Nexus are enormous as they are using their appearance to wander among the mortals and "turn them" to join their side - either by the use of persuasion or by force. The Rohir Nexus has its eyes everywhere, they possess both living and dead bodies to infiltrate mortal ranks, living a normal life, and gather their numbers until they are ready.

    The Splecir Nexus
    Out of all the different nexus, the Splecir Nexus is the one that has never strayed from its path, even when given some form of independence. They remain the loyal servants of Aridon without any quirks or doctrines, they only serve his direct will or the will of his most loyal followers. Yet, despite the lack of any unique "personality", they should never be underestimated. On the contrary, they are considered the champions of the Avatar of Death, the servants of his will. Among them are the Ethereals, the most sacred of his followers, like the Spirit Legionnaires, along with all other kinds of Undead. They do not fight with zeal or try to capture living for torment, they fight with cold determination until they are told to stop once they are unleashed.

    The Ardoz Nexus
    "Fear. Pain. Torture. Suffering. Agony. A slow, painful death. Cruelty is the key to unlock the powers of death. The more traumatic the death of a mortal is, the more powerful the servant when entering the service of our master."
    The Ardoz Nexus remained in a relatively dormant state for a long time. Only when they first encountered intelligent life in the form of Nerubians captured by the Ejara Nexus, they began to actually evolve. They experimented on the captive, using dark magic and other tools of torment, slowly driving their prisoners insane while also crippling them. The Ardoz believe that the harm they inflict both on body and mind will make the target more powerful when raised after death - or when its flesh or spirit are used to create one of their monstrosities or other devices. This has also resulted in their torturers to know a lot about the physiology of many different species. A living being may prefer being killed than being captured alive by the Ardoz as they know how to make any race beg for the sweet release of death. However, while their behaviour may be cruel, their creations that come from these experiments are without a doubt extremely effective.

    The Scarec Nexus
    "The flesh is weak. To serve the Watcher of Arkain means to let go of not only the desires and weaknesses of the mortal mind but to also let go of the filthy flesh. Only bones are pure and can bring both the living and dead understanding on how to best serve in the afterlife."
    The Scarec Nexus was the first to develop a very specific mindset and they have remained loyal to it up to this day. For them, every kind of flesh is undesirable and must be disposed of. They are zealous believers that they are destined to start their own unholy crusade to rid the world of all that is flesh until nothing but bones remains. The fact that they know that the master would not approve of them doing such a thing is the only thing that prevents them from doing exactly that but it should be noted that there is not a single Undead in their ranks that is anything but bones.

    However, during the Second Voidwar, new nexus have emerged: The Kezzar Nexus and the Lenira Nexus.

    The Kezzar Nexus
    "We were betrayed. Left back to die. Now we have returned to take revenge on them all. We were Demons in life, now we are demonic nightmares in death."
    The Kezzar Nexus was born when the dreadlord Ornasion entered the service of Aridon the Watcher. Our master had decided that he would be given the chance to lead his own nexus and allowed him to shape it by his own designs. Ornasion used his new powers to raise the dead Demons of the Blooddrinker Legion, and later also other legions, to serve in his army once more. Just as they did in life, the now undead Demons fight with fierce ferocity and grim determination. They have cut all connections to their old life and now want to prove that they are just as loyal as all other nexus.

    The Lenira Nexus
    "The will of the Divine One is our will. We are the humble tools of his divine will, students of his endless wisdom. Only the maidens of the True Elves are worthy of this sacred honor. No other race is worthy for we are his creations. His children."
    The Lenira Nexus was created when the Dark Elves re-joined our master to serve him once more. A combination of Undead soldiers and the living dark elven priestesses and warrioresses. The Lenira consists mostly of Dark Elves rather than Undead yet the Undead within their ranks are developed very similar to their living allies, fanatics that would rather see any other living race burned than left alone. At the same time, they share the Splecir Nexus' determination to follow only the wishes of the master, which is also why they did not launch a full scale invasion against the surface. Yet.

    After the master has decided to go into seclusion, he has left the nexus for themselves to do as they like in his absence as long as they do not endanger his work... His great champions have either joined a Nexus or taken control of one. I will be there to record the story as time progresses.

    The Fall of Kerrel by Shar Dundred
    The Fall of Kerrel
    The borders of the Kingdom were set ablaze. Pillagers were destroying villages, cities, even castles and there was nothing the Royal Army could do. They were powerless against this enemy, still weakened by past conflicts and taken by surprise that such a powerful foe appeared out of nowhere so close in their lands.
    Armies of Orcs and Humans alike, wearing the cursed banners with their black thorn on it, ravaged the land and defeated the armies of the Kingdom with ease, using tactics not usual for their kind. It was obvious that they were just willing followers of a sinister mind that really was behind the attacks. Of course, the cursed Zyaise scum denied all connections to the attacks officially while it was clear that their officers were in charge of the mercenary forces as they slaughtered their way through the country. They did not even have to lie. Who would stand up against them? Kerrel was the only human nation left that was willing to stand against the mighty nation. Still, they used mercenaries instead of openly attacking. It was dire times indeed for the realm and the people of King Dorten. What chance did they have against the nation of the man who put an end to the invasion of the Demons almost two decades ago, the man who rebuilt a powerful nation out of the ashes of fallen kingdoms, the man who had struck an alliance with dragons and other sinister powers? There were no „heroes“ to stop this man, such existed only in dreams, legends and myths.

    As King Dorten laid ill and weak in his bed, his daughter, Princess Felicia, had taken over all responsibilities. She was considered to be a beacon of hope in Kerrel, but still, even she could not turn the tide. The royal court spent hours, even days, discussing possible strategies.
    „We have to launch a counter invasion to attack Zyainor at once! They have to pay for what they have done!“
    „We have already been through this several times, Derran. You want us to send forces AWAY from our defenses while we are under attack! We don't have the forces to do such a thing!“
    „At least he is TRYING to find a solution rather than wait for certain death, Boranus! Still, we cannot attack Zyainor. This will only give them a reason to send their own armies IN ADDITION to the mercenaries. Gardon is just waiting for us to do that. No, we have to pull our forces back to protect the capital.“
    „And let the mercenaries destroy ALL of Kerrel? Restor, they will simply starve us to death if we hide behind our walls!“
    „Be my guest to suggest something better than that, Derran, but only if it does NOT include an attack on Zyainor.“
    „Mind your tone, Boranus!“
    Princess Felicia raised her staff and then hit the ground with a loud bang. The entire room finally went silent.
    „The people of Kerrel are dying out there in the fields, my lords. They fight and die in the name of my father, the king, because they believe that we will protect their families and friends, that we will find a way to end this crisis. But instead of solutions, all this council has done so far, is wasting time. Action is required.“
    „With all due respect, princess, you are a talented leader but you lack your father's experience which is why we are here in the first place. Without a proper strategy, we-“
    „All your planning and your strategies so far have failed to bear fruition, Lord Derran. The enemy has always been one step ahead of us and knows every single step we take. He knows what we do before word goes to our subordinates.“
    „Gardon and his generals are effective tacticians, princess. We can't deny that-“
    „This is not just the doing of supreme tactical minds, Lord Restor. I see only two options: Either the enemy has managed to catch our messengers on the roads or... Zyainor has servants within our own ranks – in the highest ranks too. To make sure that the latter is not the case, I will investigate who had access to these messages. I trust on your cooperation in this matter.“ Princess Felicia concluded. The lords looked at her and each other in shock before they nodded hastily. None could believe that there would be such vile betrayal within their own ranks.

    Later that night, Felicia met with one of her most trusted agents after making sure that no one else was anywhere near them in this part of the castle. Only Felicia's personal guardians, soldiers who were most loyal to the princess, were with them. Felicia's guard were an elite unit provided by her uncle, Lord Restor, the brother of her deceased mother. There were no soldiers that were most trustworthy for Restor had been Felicia's mentor until she had grown up and a close friend.
    „It is even worse than you suspected, mylady. There are more Zyainor sympathizers within Kerrel than we thought, even within these walls. At this point, I even suspect that the illness of our beloved king is more than what it seems.“
    „You think that he has been poisoned?!“
    „I cannot say for certain, mylady, but... it appears that the Zyaise have been operating within our borders longer than we had realized, hell, they may already have started doing that during the Second Void War when we were still allies! The conspiracy that I am on the track of may even run up to the highest officials in the kingdom!“
    „You mean... even the most powerful nobles and friends of my father? How could this have happened?“
    „I can only suspect that they have either been turned by promises of power – or keeping their power – or... Well, Gardon and his offspring may have used more... sinister means to turn them.“
    „We have to go to my father at once and tell him!“ Felicia said and turned around. Her guardians moved – however they blocked her path. She looked at them in confusion but then turned to take another way. Another group of guards blocked her way. Felicia noticed that she and her agent were surrounded. One moment later, when her agent tried reaching for his hidden daggers, he was impaled by one of the swords from behind. Felicia was then grabbed by her guards to prevent her from doing anything, even though she tried to fight them.
    „What is the meaning of this?! You are my most loyal guards, loyal servants of Kerrel! How can you turn against your princess?“ she demanded to know. A familiar voice came from the background.
    „First and foremost they serve Kerrel. And this is what is best for our kingdom.“ the voice said and the man stepped forward. Restor. Felicia's uncle. Out of all people...
    „The people of Kerrel have made their choice, Felicia. We will accept Gardon as our liege and in return we put a swift end to this slaughter. There is no use resisting Gardon, he will win, the cursed bastard always does. We had to either obey his wishes and save our people or resist him and watch them die. I am sorry.“ Restor explained.
    „Are you trying to convince me that your vile betrayal is actually sound or are you telling that lie to yourself, traitor?! Damn you, you were one of my father's closest friends and allies, you fought side by side in the past! You are part of our family!“ Felicia demanded to know. Restor shook his head and sighed.
    „You are too young to understand this, child. I did not want to do this. I tried to stop the conspiracy, I was aware of this issue long before you or your father had even noticed the possibility. I kept it to myself to avoid the information that I knew about it getting into the wrong hands. I failed to put an end to the Zyaise sympathy, too many wished to join the powerful realm that had defeated humanity's enemies.“ He explained. Felicia managed to loosen the grab of her guards and stepped forward to spit into Restor's face.
    „You are a honorless traitor, uncle! You disgrace our family and show your true face as a filthy bastard with neither honor nor loyalty!“ she growled. His face darkened.
    „You think that I wanted this to happen?! I have seen you turning from a little child into a strong-willed woman! I have been a friend of your father for my entire life! He was my sister's husband and you were my little niece! Do you think this choice was easy? I did it to save Kerrel and its people! I... I cannot continue to protect you.“ he said. His voice was filled with sadness and true regret but his eyes made it clear that his mind was set even if this decision would haunt him for the rest of his life. Felicia knew her uncle as a good man, a kind man who had spent much time with her when she was younger. He had been her mentor once. Tears filled her eyes as memories returned.
    „How could you do this, uncle? Father trusted you! I trusted you! What would mother say about this?“ she asked. Restor closed his eyes.
    „I had no other choice, Felicia. If I didn't do this, then... it would have been worse than what is about to happen.“ he explained and turned around, slowly walking away. Felicia felt the urge of disappointment and anger and screamed at him as he was walking away.
    „COWARD! You betray your family and don't even have the gut to watch as your henchmen kill it!“ she shouted as suddenly she felt a cold shudder going down her spine.
    „They won't kill you. I will.“ another familiar voice said. As Felicia slowly turned around, she saw the devilish smile of the most dangerous man she had ever met in her entire life and had ever heard of: Thanok.

    Dorten opened his eyes, gasping. He quickly took a look around. No assassins, no sign of anything being wrong. It was still in the middle of the night. It... it had been a dream. Just a dream. A nightmare. Or was it?
    „What you have seen is but one of many possible futures. Since I have shown you this, it is already unlikely to happen, but do not underestimate the danger.“ a voice said. Dorten looked around but no one was to be seen. He jumped out of his bed and grabbed his sword.
    „Show yourself, creature!“ the old king demanded. In front of him, the room filled with a green light. Then it appeared: A lich! It was a dark creature, wearing a black robe and its eyes were glowing. When Dorten looked into the eyes of the creature, it felt like... he could not describe the feeling but it was as if something divine had visited him in his chambers and he felt an urge to kneel – but resisted. The lich looked at him for a few minutes until it finally spoke.
    „Dorten, son of Tornen, you stand before Aridon the Watcher of Arkain, Keeper of Balance and Avatar of Death. I have blessed you with a possible vision of the future to warn you that you are losing your cold war – you already know that even if you deny even yourself of the truth because you are afraid of what defeat means.“ the creature explained. Dorten pointed his sword at the lich.
    „So you came to tell me that I should just give up?! Is that what you are trying to do? Is this yet another trick of Gardon?!“ he demanded to know. The eyes of Aridon seemed to pierce through him now.
    „Your enemy has made you paranoid – and paranoid you should be. He slowly poisons the minds of those who still are loyal to you. I come here to tell you how you can stop him from winning the war before it even begins. You can do as I suggest or ignore me, it is up to you but you WILL listen.“ the archlich said. Dorten slowly lowered his weapon. He felt like his mind cleared, but he wasn't sure if it was the doing of the undead or just his mind waking up.
    „If you are not here to deceive me, then why would you help me? The Undead are no allies of Kerrel.“
    „Nor shall they be. However, your enemy Gardon is a friend of an adversary of my own. By providing you with information, I support my own cause as well as yours.“ Aridon explained. Dorten nodded and put his weapon away.
    „Very well, I guess the enemy of my enemy is not my ally but if he is not my immediate threat, I will at least hear him out.“ he said.
    „Before you do anything, forget the faces of the people involved in your demise in this future. There is no need to dispose of them, on the contrary, I suspect that such an act will further decrease your own standing. And your enemies have not reached such power yet. I suggest that you still start counter meassures. You have to purge your realm of all traitors if you wish to have a chance. By any means necessary.“ Aridon explained. Dorten was not sure if it was the lich's doing or if his mind had managed it on its own, but he knew what he had to do. He nodded and a green lightning blinded him.
    Dorten opened his eyes. He laid in his bed and saw that the sun was rising outside. He stood up and put on his clothes. He was not sure if it had all just been a dream or if he had really been visited by... No, there had been no visitor. He had dreamt about a conspiracy that would end him and his daughter however – and he knew that it was a possibility if he did not act. Dorten summoned his daughter and those who he knew were most loyal to him. He explained that they would officially bring the Inquisition back, an organization formerly used during the days of his grandfather to find and hunt demon slaves that had been disbanded due to its brutal and controversial methods – in secret, some had still clung to the ways of the inquisition and had continued their work even if they had made themselves criminals in the Kingdoms for that. These people would be recruited by Dorten as well to create a pure basis for the organization. There were doubts about how trustworthy these people were, but already within the first few weeks it became obvious that the now redeemed Inquisitors were VERY thorough and effective with their work...

    Troubles of the High King by Shar Dundred
    Troubles of the High King
    High King Zarin Hammerfall sat upon his throne in the great hall that was his throne room and was lost in his thoughts. The room was otherwise empty save for his guards, the Chosen of the High King, that stood at the doors and the ones that stood around his throne, neither moving nor making any other noise. It was late in the night, everyone else was asleep but the troubled high king of the Dwarves could not find any rest. Despite the fact that his realm prospered under his rule, he could not ignore the events that were taking place above. Twenty years had passed since the end of the last great war – and the end of the alliance with the Humans and Elves. Twenty years since the rise of the cursed Bloodclaw and his kin. History repeated itself. The Humans, formerly friends of the Dwarves, allied with the black dragons and destroyed the friendship – though in this particular case, the black dragons were only ONE of the reasons – and caused a war. The real war had not yet come, but more and more kings began to suggest or demand that Zarin took action against Zyainor – Zarin could not blame them but the Dwarves were surrounded by foes. And if Zyainor fell... Who knew how long it would be until the Demons would invade again? Not to mention that this was possibly the worst time to go to war against Zyainor, the nation had reached power that surpassed even the power of the old Zyainor.
    Zarin, still lost in his thoughts, heard the heavy door open and steps in his direction. He did not look up, his guards would already have dealt with the intruder if it was someone whom the high king would not have wanted to be here. He was still lost in his thoughts.
    "High King, your daughter has arrived. She wishes an audience with you." said one of the guards who stood next to his throne. Zarin nodded and gazed upon his visitor. His daughter stood several steps away from his throne, in the center of the throne room. She wore the robes that identified her as a student of the rune priests. She was but an adept but a skilled one. She was Zarin's youngest child – and the only one who had remained. The only direct kin that he had left.
    "It is too late for you to be visiting your father in his throne room. You should be sleeping to be fit for your training in the morning." he said. She looked on the ground – as she should. She was being reprimanded, Zarin was sure that she had been explicitly told to go to bed by her tutors SEVERAL hours ago. She did not raise her voice to talk back on him. A child was supposed to honor the parents and never talk back – and unlike OTHERS, Zarin's daughter honored the traditions.
    "I could not sleep, knowing that my father's mind was poisoned by dark thoughts about the dark times on the surface. I humbly ask for your forgiveness." she said. Zarin waited as if he pondered and then nodded.
    "You are forgiven, my daughter. However, you should not trouble yourself with the political events of the world and instead focus on your training. As the daughter of the high king and adept of the runepriests, you are expected to perform extraordinary well." he explained.
    "I understand, my father, and I promise that I will return to sleep as soon as I leave this room. Still, as a responsible daughter and your only direct kin within these halls, I am obliged to care for your well-being." she said.
    "Your concern is appreciated but not required, my daughter." Zarin assured her. She did not seem convinced.
    "Father, it is not my place to say such a thing, but I'd like you to hear me out. I have heard most disturbing things regarding the nations of Zyainor and would like to repeat that the Kingdom of Kerrel-" Zarin raised his hand and immediately silenced his daughter by doing so. She was getting ahead of herself, she had not even waited for him to give permission to continue. While this was something a father COULD forgive, a high king certainly could not. She looked back on the ground, not saying a word. Zarin, on the other hand, slightly raised his voice to highlight his discontent.
    "This discussion is over. As I have already said, it is late. I will not let your training suffer. I suggest that you return to your quarters and think about this before you return to my throne room, daughter." he said. She stood there for a few seconds, staring at the ground until she bowed before the throne.
    "Forgive me for my intrusion, father. It will not happen again." she whispered and hurried to leave the throne room.
    Zarin watched her as she left. She had wanted to suggest to him that he should seek out the rulers of Kerrel to ally with them against the common enemy in Zyainor. Such a thing was impossible. Neither Zarin nor any other king had forgotten that Dorten and his followers had actively supported Gardon during the Second Voidwar – not only in the war but also politically by accepting him as king of two kingdoms and as if that had not been enough, accepting the return of the Black Dragons, allowing him to bring back Zyainor! An unforgivable crime. A human king might have forgotten or forgiven this act of betrayal, but no dwarf. After the Humans of the Kingdoms had now, for the second time, allied with the Black Dragons, most Dwarven rulers had little doubt that the Humans of Zyainor and the Kingdoms – what still remained of them anyway – had proven that their kind would NEVER be in a position where they could be accepted as allies or even trade partners ever again. And so, Zarin returned to his thoughts.

    Awakening the Dragon by Shar Dundred
    Awakening the Dragon
    Gardon watched inpatiently as Birram mumbled magical phrases incomprehensibly, his arms crossed. They had been in this caves for hours, it seemed like a dead end but Birram had insisted that this was the right place.
    Coming to this place had been easy. The Emperor had given Gardon and the Ironfist not only massive resources but also authorisation to do whatever they deemed necessary to achieve victory - meaning that Gardon and the Ironfist could go where they wanted and basically pretty much do as they wanted. Theoretically. In reality, of course, things were not always that easy. The Royals were stubborn and many other generals of the Imperial Army did not trust Gardon, he had a reputation as "untrustworthy", "sinister", "cruel" and many other things while in fact he was just willing to do what he needed to do. Others simply did not have the stomach to realize that victory required sacrifice. The end always justified the means. Only few were willing to acknowledge this fact. It did not matter. Their opinion would not matter, Gardon did not care if they'd change it once he had won this war for them. He did not do this for recognition or reputation, he did it because the Demons had to be stopped. Let them all hate and mistrust him if they desired to do so, he did not care. Their opinion was the last thing he cared about.
    "We have been here for hours now, Birram." Gardon finally said and by doing so, he mentioned what everyone else was thinking. Only the highest ranking of the Ironfist had accompanied him to this place. The rest of the army Gardon had taken with him had set up camp not far from the cave - but far enough away to avoid detection, remaining on standby. There was no telling if this would go as planned, so it was not bad to have additional forces ready if required. Birram continued as if he had not listened to Gardon until he was done with his last invocation.
    "I have studied all texts about the ancient creatures that were still available, mylord. I have spent the entirety of our journey with further studying the texts. There can be no doubt. This is the right place." Birram explained and rammed his staff into the ground. He then finished his final spell and the earth inside the cave began to shake. The soldiers started cursing and grabbed their weapons. Gardon and Birram stood there, unmoved by the sudden eruption. Then, on the other side of the cave, a bright light appeared and blinded the vision of anyone looking in that direction. When the light had faded and the soldiers could look again, Gardon's gaze fell upon a strange woman. Behind her, two torches seemed to have appeared, lightening the cave after the torches the Ironfist had brought with it had fallen dark in the sudden eruption earlier. The woman was a sight to behold. She wore a dark dress with golden decoration. Expensive jewelry seemed to highlight the decoration. Around her neck, she wore a golden necklace that carried a ruby. Her skin was pale, almost as white as milk. Her face was beautiful, covered in long, black hair, and Gardon had little doubt that, if this woman would appear in any court, the nobles would throw themselves at her. He knew that she was ancient but from looks alone she could be in her twenties or thirties. Her orange eyes seemed to study her visitors with little to no interest. She radiated an aura of superiority, an aura of power and knowledge.
    She said nothing - and neither did the members of the Ironfist. Birram had advised against raising voices until being asked to - a sign of respect, a foundation for a possible partnership. Yet Gardon had little time for such games. There was a war to be won, he had no patience for idleness. The woman seemed to sense his inpatience and finally decided to speak.
    "You are far from home, Humans of Rodan. You have studied the ancient texts we left behind well enough to call for me. I do not fancy being called upon by your kind for unworthy reasons, I will tolerate your gazes only for so long. Tell me, what brings you here?" she asked. Birram looked at Gardon, the latter nodded and stopped crossing his arms. Then he and took a step forward.
    "Queen Kasraazs, I am Gardon Bloodclaw, general of the Empire and leader of the Ironfist. My men and I have travelled far to ask you for an audience. We are here to request the assistance of the black dragons in the war against the Demons. Many centuries ago, your people stood side by side with the humans of this continent - I ask you to do so again. The power of your people is without equal, with you on our side, victory is assured." Gardon elaborated. The dragon queen had not looked at him during his speech but now her gaze met his. Her face still seemed unimpressed but Gardon had no doubt that he had her full attention despite her hiding it fairly well.
    "You know much about the history our my kind for someone who does not even hail from this continent, else you would not have been able to summon me, Gardon Bloodclaw. But you are not being honest with me, you are more than a simple general of the Empire, are you not? You are of.... higher standing." she asked. Gardon's look did not change but his eyes became colder as he continued to meet the gaze of the black dragon queen in humanoid disguise. His soldiers still stood there, not saying a word, their hands no longer on their weapons but still ready to arm themselves if necessary. Birram said no word, he seemed to study the dragon queen - while she was focusing on Gardon, he could proably afford to do so and Gardon would not try taking this from him. After all, Birram was the one who had found the knowledge to summon the dragon queen in the first place, it was his achievement. Now it was up to Gardon to forge an alliance.
    The dragon queen raised her voice once more: "If you know our history, however, then you should also know that we and the humans are no longer allied. We no longer have any interest in the fate of mankind. The Kingdoms and your Empire have nothing in common with the nation we lend our aid to once. Zyainor has fallen, our former friends and allies are long dead."
    Gardon took another step towards the dragon queen.
    "Zyainor may have fallen and you may have changed your allegiances, Queen Kasraazs, but do you truly think the Demons would care about that? They want to conquer these lands and subjugate all non-demonic beings that live there - including your black dragons. Even with your power, you cannot stand against them forever if you are on your own. They will not leave you be until they have either killed or enslaved all of you." he explained.

    The dragon queen raised her eyebrows, she seemed annoyed though Gardon still had her full attention - which, he was sure, others would kill for. Too many simple-minded nobles would have cared only for the looks of her human body, nothing more. Gardon was above such desires - which further intrigued the dragon queen.
    "Your words ring true, but even if we WERE willing to ally with Humans, we do not support the Human Kingdoms. They have been founded by the usurpers of old. Their rulers are descendants of traitors and murderers, nothing more. And your Empire does not strike me as a nation that would sanction the cooperation with our kind - we have been watching you ever since your arrival. Then there is your unsufferable alliance with the midgets, who have many among them proudly calling themselves 'dragonslayers'. No, we cannot choose to work with such beings. We stopped working with Zyainor, why should we work with its renegades now?" she explained. Another step of Gardon towards her.
    "What if we could bring it back? What if the Kingdoms were no more but Zyainor was to return - along with its dragon cults. You were worshipped by the old Zyaise, we could bring your golden age back. Join me, not the Kingdoms, not the Empire, and I will bring back Zyainor - as vassal state of the Empire. The Emperor will not care about who is worshipped on this continent as long as it stays loyal during his lifetime and pays its taxes. When you have aided me in saving this continent, no one will be able to oppose the idea of having the black dragons return to Arkain once more. I know that it must make you suffer that you are here, hidden, waiting for the ages to pass by, knowing that your kind is being hunted and killed if you leave your caves and refuges." Gardon said. The dragon queen laughed, it was light-hearted and beautiful but at the same time also intimidating and arrogant tone. She held her hand towards her mouth while she laughed, her eyes closed. When she stopped laughing, she opened her eyes again and focused her gaze again on Gardon - this time it was not as 'studying' as earlier but instead calculating, as if she was considering about how believeable his claims were.
    "You are a bold man, Gardon Bloodclaw. Only few would claim that they could offer what you offer. Tell me, does your brother know about this proposal?" she asked. Gardon did not show any reaction.
    "The Emperor does not know about this, no." he said. Queen Kasraazs laughed in response.
    "Doing this behind his back and counting on him helping you uphold the bargain then?"
    "He WILL remember who supported humanity in this conflict."
    "Maybe so... Very well. I will give you a chance to prove your words. We will seal a pact. If you return the nation of Zyainor, my black dragons will assist you. However, in order to return Zyainor, you will need to find an heir of the ancient line of rulers, an heir of the Ca'lea and Ca'laer. Only this heir can bring the nation back." she explained. Gardon's gaze darkened.
    "I have to fight a war, I cannot search for an heir that may not even live anymore." he said.
    "Then fight your war while your henchmen - you appear to have enough of them to spare a few - are looking for all possible heirs - if there is more than one, the most suitable one must be found. There's still several in the human realms who remember where their loyalities SHOULD lie. In the meantime, one of us will join you and support you directly. And more than that: You will be given an armor as it had been worn by the Zyaise, a long time ago." she said and another light appeared to her right. A man in dark armor appeared. His eyes were black and in his hands he had an armor that looked like the armors Gardon had read about in the ancient Zyaise texts: The armors worn by the rulers, the Ca'laer and Ca'lea, of Zyainor. Queen Kasraazs pointed at the newcomer.
    "This is Thanok. He will from now on serve as your right-hand-man. He will train your forces to perform even better on the battlefield and support you in your battles - and not only watch you for us, he will also help you find the true heir of Zyainor. Unless you changed your mind, that is." Kasraazs said. Gardon nodded.
    "We have a deal, dragon queen." he said and looked at Thanok.
    "I wonder, however, what qualifies him to train my forces?" Gardon asked. Now Thanok's eyes met his.
    "I have trained black dragons. Trust me, I know what I do." he said.
    Later that day, Gardon, Birram and the Ironfist left the area. Gardon wore a new armor, the armor of the Ca'laer of old. And the Ironfist had a new drill sergeant who would form them into an even more deadly weapon than they already were. They made their way back to the Derryn Outpost, neither of them knowing yet where this pact would later lead them all.

    Drums in the South by Shar Dundred
    Drums in the South
    A blow, a parry, a counter attack, a thrust and an angry grunting noise. Rinse and repeat. It had probably been not even a full hour yet, but for Amari it felt as if she had watched this fight from her throne for several hours. She sat in the arena of her capital, a place built for any kind of larger event - but mostly used for these ritual fights that she had no interest in. There were many things she would rather do than sit here and watch but as leader of her people, she had to stay and feign interest since the two fighters were champions of the chieftains of two different Orc clans fighting for the honor of their chieftains.
    Despite her many reforms, she had not managed to completely put an end to the ritual fights that the Orcs used to prove and entertain themselves. She snorted. Entertainment! Sure, her friend Okri who had taken her place as leader of the Cliffhunter Clan after Amari had become Empress of the Tribal Dominion, loved these encounters, just like she enjoyed battle itself, but Amari found no pleasure in watching two of her own kind fight against each other - Orc fighting Orc was something that had almost led their race to ruin several years ago. At least Amari had been able to slowly but steadily decrease the number of Orcs who viewed this as their standard form of entertainment. And she could not deny that these battles served her people to increase their strength. In ancient times, ritual fights had ended only when one of the parties had died. To Amari's relief, this requirement had been dropped very long ago, long before her father and even his father had been born.
    Finally the battle concluded. Amari did not care to pay more attention to it than was absolutely necessary and stood up. She congratulated the winner but didn't bother to remember who actually won. She cared for her people, not for the traditions of her people. The battle had not even been important. As she was about to leave, however, she saw a figure entering the arena, wearing an armor that seemed to be human design but Amari could not remember ever seeing any armor like that before. The helmet of the figure hid its face behind the visor. The steps of the unknown visitor were heavy. In his hand, he carried a two handed sword. Amari stopped, like everyone else in the arena who had just wanted to leave.
    Whoever it was, the guards of the arena stepped forward. Whoever it was, must have come here uninvited as they readied their weapons. The figure reached the center of the arena, all eyes laid on it as it raised its voice, the voice of a male human.
    "People of the Tribal Dominion! I am Boranel Aspurex, former champion of the Empire! I have travelled far and wide after the war, searching for a new place to call home as my comrades and the people I called family were victims of the evil that plagued these lands!" he shouted. His voice sounded calm and yet everyone in the arena could hear him. Yet there was something about the man that made Amari suspicious. She could feel a hint of magic in his aura. He did not use the magic right now but she could feel that this man was more than just a heavily armored fighter. The fighter looked around as he continued.
    "I haven't just come to this place, your capital, your arena, to join your ranks, no, I have come here to prove my strength to all of you - and to your empress!" he said and Amari could feel his gaze on her. She met it. Then he pointed at her. Amari wondered what he really wanted. It was unusual for a human who wasn't from Salria to join them - but it was even more unusual that he did it in such a way. In fact, this was the first time ever Amari had a situation like this. Did he crave for attention or did he have sinister motives? He could be a spy - or worse.
    "Empress Amari! These two champions who have fought in this arena have shown that they are powerful warriors! Let me show you, you personally, not your recruiters, that I could be of value for your forces. Let me show my own strength by defeating them both in honorable ritual combat" He let his weapon fall on the ground "unarmed." The audience began to murmur even louder than before, some laughs could be heard. Amari inspected the man closely. He was clearly capable of using magic but she did not expect him to use it. He had some ulterior motive, he wasn't just here to have a big show for himself. But he certainly was sure of himself, wanting to challenge two powerful warriors unarmed. She nodded and sat back down. The audience went quiet.
    "Very well then, Boranel Aspurex. Show your strength, but be aware that you will be watched very closely." she said. The human nodded and now faced the two champions. The first one of them charged at him immediately - a dangerous mistake. As his axe aimed for the head of Boranel, the human simply caught the hand of his opponent mid-air and turned it around, breaking it. The champion roared in pain. Boranel grabbed him, spinned in a circle and then threw the first champion away from him. The poor warrior landed in the arena wall and lost consciousness. The second warrior did not charge at Boranel, instead he waited for him to come to him, after having seen what happened to his former enemy and now partner. Boranel then slowly walked toward him, yet the warrior did not move, not willing to fall into any trap. As Boranel was within striking distance, the warrior tried to fool him with a fake hit, but it simply did not matter. Boranel simply punched him in the face before the warrior could try to land his strike. Dazed, the warrior stumbled backwards only to be grabbed by his neck by Boranel and punched a few more times straight in the face. Then Boranel simply let him go and the warrior fell to the ground, also having lost consciousness. Nobody cheered, nobody in the audience made a single noise. They were still shocked at what they had just witnessed. Two powerful champions of two clans just defeated within such a short time with so little effort - and with bare hands too. Amari waited a moment before she stood up. He had not used any of his magic, that had all been his physical strength only. As she stood up, Boranel immediately kneeled in the center of the arena in her direction on the tribune.
    "Boranel Aspurex. You have proven your strength. Though it is uncommon for a singular person to ask about joining us in such a... special fashion, I am willing to hear you out. You will be given a place to sleep this night and meet with one of my trusted officers tomorrow morning." Amari explained. Boranel nodded and stood up. He took up his weapon and left the arena. Nobody moved to stop him this time. Then, after this rather curious encounter, things went normally again. Amari was interested to learn what really led this strange man to her. It was possible that she was being paranoid, but it seemed weird to her that an Imperial would come to join the Tribal Dominion. Then again, of course, it was possible that this man, being an Imperial according to his own words, had enemies in the human realms and therefore had no other choice. Time would tell, now Amari had other things to deal with. This human could wait.
    She left to return to the palace, accompanied by her personal guard. Grofzag also accompanied her. He had taken the place as chieftain of the Deathbreeze Clan and had been chosen by all other Orc chieftains to be the representative of the Orc clans. He and some other advisors were going to discuss several topics back in the palace when this stupid ritual fight had been over. Amari did actually not know how Grofzag felt about these battles. She did not recall seeing him ever fight in one himself and she wasn't sure how to read his face during them. He appeared neither interested nor annoyed by them. Then again, that was nothing that she should care about. She was happy enough that the ritual fights became less without her having to do too much about it. The other races and their traditions showed many alternatives for the Orc race.
    Amari took a look around. The new capital had grown to be a massive city for the Tribal Dominion. Everywhere in Salria, cities built by the different races of the Dominion had been finished or were still being constructed. It was an immense progress that seemed to never end. At the same time, the different races all brought their different technology together, creating new things that no race alone would have created. Pechan and his engineers had the time of their lives. Amari smiled. She was really glad that Pechan was such a great support. His abilities as a tinker and his unique way handling things made him the perfect person to deal with all technological affairs.
    "There had been another suitor earlier today. Ironthunder Clan. I took the liberty of sending him home. I hope you don't mind." Grofzag whispered, returning Amari's thoughts to the here and now as they entered the palace.
    "Yes, of course, thank you, Grofzag." Amari replied and rolled her eyes. "It begins to annoy me. Their number seems to have increased lately." she said and sighed. She was still the single empress of the nation and, since she was also beautiful by Orc standards, there were some who had tried to get closer to her - without any luck so far.
    "They will stop eventually, I am sure. They don't mean you any harm and from what I have heard, mostly don't protest when told to leave. They'll soon learn that this doesn't lead anywhere. But enough of this." Grofzag said. Amari nodded as they entered the meeting room.
    "Welcome. You are late. Did the fight take so long or did you have any other plans today before this meeting that I did not know about?" Zairmak said. The old (or ancient, Amari still was not sure how old he actually was) warlock sat in a chair on the other side of the table. He had been studying the map of the continent which laid on the table. It was a strategic map with all known locations and their strategic meaning. This place was used by Amari and her advisors to discuss all important matters.
    "It took very long. Wasn't very engaging. There was also a surprise battle afterwards, but that was very short and nothing we need to bother with now." Amari replied. Zairmak only shook his head. He wasn't the only one who had been waiting here. Grella and Oneeye were also there. While Grella greeted the newcomers warmly, Oneeye simply nodded. The others were occupied otherwise and therefore could not attend this meeting.
    "I thought King Gorehowl would send someone to represent him." Amari said. Oneeye shook his head.
    "We have received word that his ambassador could not make it. Too many things to deal with in the embassy, apparently." he explained. Amari nodded and took her seat along with the others.
    "So, what news do you have for me?" she asked.
    "The scouts report that the Dwarves have further strengthened their defenses. Pechan says that they keep developing and adding new equipment to do that. The good news is that their defenses only defend their own territory, they do not actively stop us from going further north - if you ever changed your mind about attacking the large nation of the Humans." Oneeye reported.
    "I still do not consider attacking Zyainor. They have left us alone all the time, I do not intend to give them a reason to change their attitude. I know that you expect them to strike us if we don't strike them first, but trust me on this, Oneeye. The Tribal Dominion will NOT be the nation that starts the next war. We will be prepared for it, but we won't start it." Amari explained.
    "I agree with this. For the first time, your race has found peace. I think it would be a mistake to just throw that away." Grella added. Oneeye nodded.
    "I don't disagree with that. I still warn you to remain cautious. From what the Salrian history has taught us, it is not unlikely that the people Zyainor will attack us sooner or later to retake these lands. We must make sure that we can strike back. They have massive numbers of black dragons and large armies from what I hear." he explained. The door opened and Vanessa entered the room. Closing the door behind her, she took her seat.
    "I apologize for being late, my talk with the other human leaders took longer than expected." she said.
    "Welcome, Vanessa. Now, what else is there to talk about?" Amari asked. The rest of the discussion was filled mostly with minor political issues. At the end, Vanessa raised her voice.
    "According to our contacts at the Blackthorn, the people in Zyainor, both commoners and nobles, think it is only a matter of time until all human realms have rallied under the leadership of Zyainor and its ruler. We will sooner or later have to decide how to deal with that situation." she said.
    "I have already told Oneeye that the Tribal Dominion will not get involved in this conflict, that was before you arrived. I am aware of the dangers, but I do not see a reason to start a war." Amari explained.
    "Oh, I did not want to ask about getting involved, I wanted to suggest that we maybe should try to get into contact with the Humans when this conflict is over. The Humans have not accepted us as a nation, but their new nation Zyainor is very different from the Kingdoms. We could at the very least try to set up some diplomatic connection." Vanessa suggested. Grella nodded.
    "I like the idea. A peaceful coexistence with Humans is possible, we also live peacefully with the Salrians now after all. We could at the very least try it." she said. Zairmak looked unconvinced, Grofzag seemed to think about it.
    "The people of Zyainor were the masters of the Gnolls once. I am not sure how they'd feel about this. I would prefer hearing the opinion of King Gorehowl before we consider this." Amari explained. Everyone agreed with that and their meeting ended with discussing the strategic layout. It was late in the night when Amari finally reached her bedroom. She took off her cloak but did not disrobe yet. She went into the back part of her room. There stood a pedestal with a black orb on it. She kneeled in front of the orb and the lights in the room immediately went off. She looked to the ground as she felt the presence of her master. He was not here himself but she could feel his presence - and then she heard his voice.
    "You called for me, searching for advice, Amari. Here I am. What is it you want to know?" Brian asked. "My master, my advisors are suggesting that we make OFFICIAL dealings with Zyainor if it wins its wars. I am not sure about this. I do not want this to possibly harm the secret deal with Gardon. At the same time, I need to know if I can continue to trust Gardon when he has every other nation under his control. I ask for your guidance." she said. Her master's voice sounded amused when he replied.
    "I do not control Gardon, Amari. However, I recall giving you advice on the matter in the past. You rejected my suggestion back then." he said. Amari looked up to the orb.
    "My apologies, master, I still think that a romantic relationship with him would only lead to problems - and I am not interested. Neither is he, I am sure. From what you have told me, he already has some elven lover in addition to his wife." she said. Brian let out a short laugh.
    "If I didn't know you better, Amari, I'd wonder if you were jealous. No, you need not reply on this, I know that you are not and you are not interested. I still think that you and Gardon would have benefitted from a closer relationship, romantic or not. Anyway, my advice is that you do what you think is right. I will not limit you by giving you a suggestion. You and Gardon need to shape your realms yourselves. I know that you will make the right decision." he said and disappeared. Amari continued to ponder on this for a few minutes before she disrobed and went to bed to get some sleep.
    In another part of the palace, Vanessa had an uneasy sleep. She felt like there was something in her room, watching, observing her, but whenever she stood up and took a look around, there was nothing to be seen. It also felt like the room was darker than usual - somehow, however, she felt comfortable in this darkness...
    Boranel sat on a chair inside the room of the inn he had chosen to spend the night in and looked out of the window. In the distance, he could see the palace. This was the place. The center of the new Salria, the heart of the Tribal Dominion. He had wanted to see it for himself and his mission had led him here. He could feel how the people here viewed him with suspicion, especially the empress. They did not trust him but after the display of his strength in the arena, nobody was trying to act up - on the contrary, already he had been asked by someone if he was looking for work as a mercenary instead of join the armies of the Dominion which he had of course declined politely. He did not like that he had had to show himself that openly, but there had been no other choice. The artifact he was looking for was out of his reach if he did not play his cards right. Especially since he could feel the shadows surrounding the palace. It was nothing visible, but he could just feel it in his bones. He knew that aura well. Too well. A bark came from the ground right next to his chair. Boranel smiled and moved his hand down to pet the animal there. The reply was a happy whimper from the direwolf.
    "Don't worry, girl. We will be leaving as soon as we can. First we have to finish our mission here."

    Guardian of the North by Shar Dundred
    Guardian of the North
    Bales sat on his balcony and took a sip of his glass filled with red wine. His gaze went over the land around his mansion. The very ground was nothing but scorched earth and lava. Only very few places still were green and could be used as farmland - and those were all created with magic, not natural. Any natural source of food or water in the lands that he ruled over had ceased to exist long before his ancestors had been forced into servitude. If it weren't for the ice in the mountains on the other side of the border, all who lived here would rely on the southern regions or magic even for water. When the northern border was opened, Bales had been quick to send out expeditions to collect ice. That had made it easier for him to monopolize the water trade in the north. When the border was still closed off, he, like all others who lived in the north, had to rely on water exports from the southern lands - and those were expensive. The foundation for his rise to power had been laid. He had prevented other northern warlords from doing the same and by doing so, he had become more powerful than them. After only a few years, he had become the most powerful mortal in the north.
    He had been named the Guardian of the North. While the Kingdoms in the west had guardians of the different elements that were part of their respective orders, among the Demon Slaves, the rank of a guardian was the highest position that one could reach - a position that was envied and, from a certain point of view, the very position that most mortals dreamed of when they joined the Demons: Power, wealth, security. But the fools always underestimated the price that they had to pay. Most were little more than cannon fodder to the Demons. Bales loathed all who joined the Demon Slaves willingly. They were blind and weak in mind, no matter how powerful they were otherwise.
    Bales was nothing like those who joined the Demons willingly. He belonged to the old families, he was a descendant of those who had willingly sold their souls to the Demons. He was born and raised on this side of the Void, like many others. Unlike most of them, however, he had not made a new pact with any particular Demon to either renew the bond or to gain any advantage. Apart from the ancestors who originally joined the Demons, no one of the Bales family had been foolish enough to do such a thing. Bales did not rely on the help of his demonic overseers, he took matters into his own hands - and he made sure that those who were in his service shared his view. His personal guard consisted only of old family members who had never renewed the pacts of their ancestors and, like him, had no loyalty towards their masters. For the western realms, the Demon Slaves were all the same. While this was true for most of them, there were a few who secretly or even openly defied their Demon overlords. However, only the fewest were able to keep their agenda to themselves which was why Bales could not be sure of any other Demon Slave who shared his opinion. Most were discovered by Demon spies (or Demon Slaves who sought to rise the ranks) and then disposed of.
    Some who stood up to the Demons still held loyalty to the Kingdoms in the west. Bales on the other hand had never known service to anyone but the Demons and he had decided to keep his loyalty to himself. Of course, he was forced to send troops and resources to support all operations of other Demon Slaves, but he stayed out of conflicts as much as possible, using his position as Guardian of the North to prevent as much involvement as possible. He was the guardian of the northern border, to the Cold North as the western realms called it. The Demons called the northern region "Glacius" and for reasons that Bales had yet to understand, had never ever tried using the northern lands to attack the Kingdoms - despite the fact that it would have given them an advantage in their invasions of Isalmur. Something up there apparently made even the Demons uncomfortable which is why the Demons did not seem to mind that Bales kept much more troops back in his realm than he should - it had also allowed him to make sure that his court had as little Demons as possible in it. In fact, only lesser Demons and a handful of succubi lived in his border fortress now. As a guardian, Bales was even in a position to command the lesser Demons - the succubi on the other hand only answered to their own demonic masters and mistresses. They were dangerous but Bales had been able to hold them on a short leash. They never heard anything they were not supposed to hear and only had influence over those who were in no position to be dangerous to Bales. Some of the succubi or the ones who had fallen for their charms even had suffered some very unfortunate accidents. He was not sure if they had never reported him because they may actually enjoy this "game" - demonic minds, especially those of succubi, were difficult to understand by mortals, even those who had spent as much time with them as the Demon Slaves, they might even appreciate Bales killing someone they could maybe have considered a "rival" - or if their superiors simply did not care about what happened in the north. Bales did not even know who they answered to. The closest large demon fortress was the Forge of Kôstragoth in the south but they did not seem to be affiliated to the succubi in his court. Of course, he could just forget the whole affair, but ignoring it did not seem like a sensible course of action. It was better to know who was the one who kept an eye on him than not.
    Bales could hear noises coming from his chamber door. He groaned, but still stood up and left the balcony, entering his personal chambers as the door opened. He was certain that he already knew who was entering - and he was right. It was one of his lieutenants, followed by two female elven slaves. Or to be specific: Elven pleasure slaves. His lieutenant just looked at him. Bales waved him off and nodded to the door to the bedroom. The lieutenant led the two Elves into the bedroom, closed the door behind them and left. Bales made no attempt to follow them. Instead, he closed the door to his balcony, drew the curtain and took a seat at his desk to continue enjoying his wine there. These women were yet another "gift" from other demon slave leaders. He received those at a regular basis. Other Demon Slaves sent him such "gifts" to gain his favour, the Demons used to send him such gifts to buy his loyality. It was one of the "perks" that a higher ranking position among the Demon Slaves had. Bales was just annoyed, he had no interest in such things - also there was no way to tell who had sent this gift and what they had in mind. There had been a time when succubi had tried to infiltrate his chambers this way. This is how some accidents happened that, unfortunately, had made some of the demonesses "disappear". After a while, the Demons stopped trying to send succubi and also stopped sending slaves. Only other Demon Slaves continued to do so - the irony of slaves sending slaves of their own was not lost on Bales, yet he himself had no interest in keeping slaves. The fools should know better than wanting their own slaves.
    In the bedroom, Bales' concubine awaited those slaves with a smile, some tea and food. They would sit together, drink, eat and talk. Ironically, the Demon Slaves in the north treated their pleasure slaves poorly and therefore those pleasure slaves were very thankful to be treated like ordinary beings for once. Most of the time, the northern Demon Slaves sent the same pleasure slaves over and over again to Bales, who gave them small favors for the gift to make them believe that he actually cared for such gifts. Therefore, those slaves already knew what to expect and most of them were secretly in league with Bales who not only did not use their bodies for his amusement, but gave them food and some actual peace. They were even allowed to just sleep if they wanted to and their families were secretly sent supplies to make up for the lousy income. The fact that he demanded nothing from them in return, not even knowledge or espionage (some had offered such to show their thanks and even did it when it was declined) had ensured that they kept quiet and told nobody about the ruse. It was an unwanted necessity. There was two kinds of Demon Slaves in the north: Those who were shared Bales's point of view and those who were just barbaric, even by the standards of Demon Slaves. While Bales knew nothing but contempt for them, it was sadly imperative to give them the feeling that he appreciated their gifts to make sure they kept themselves occupied with other things than wonder about his motives. It was his careful behaviour that had ensured his survival so far. While he made clear that he was no simple slave but a powerful man (even though he had no illusions about "freedom" that others had), he also made sure not to act too suspiciously.
    He took another sip of his wine and studied the worldmap of Arkain that laid on the desk before him. Not much was known about Glacius to the north... At least not to the Demon Slaves, the Demons did not share much of their knowledge. From the south, Bales knew even less but the area down there was not his problem but that of the Guardian of the South. According to what Bales had heard, the southern border was far more active than the northern one. While he only sent expeditions to the north to gather ice, the southern guardian had no control over their border, Demons and their slaves alike travelled southwards to capture slaves though Bales knew nothing about the people who lived there. The west had no guardian and the Guardian of the East... Bales had heard that such a position existed but he knew nothing of it. Did it matter? Not yet, no. But one day... One day, Bales would not bow to the Demons anymore - neither to the kings of the west or the dangers of the north. One day, he would be his own master. And when that day had come, nobody would stand in his way. Nobody.

    The Iron Fists by Shar Dundred
    The Iron Fists
    Things were easier back in the old days. That's what you keep telling yourself, ain't it? 'Tis your mind tricking you. Trust me on this one, lad. I know such things. I've been through a lot: Poverty, starvation, battles, wars, politics, betrayals, intrigues, phyrric victories...
    Today it is mostly politics that bothers us and we old veterans complain about that and "the old days". But is standing your ground in the first line of defense when an army of hell creatures charges towards you and watching your brothers in arms die left and right really that much better than politics? Nay I say. Though I'll be the first to admit that politics feel pretty similar to that at times...
    I've been with the Ironfist since the old days, you know? When it was still an elite unit, before it became an army and, eventually, the force that put an end to the demonic invasion in the Kingdoms. Others may have called our general evil and sinister, but hell, he was the goddamn best general I ever served. Gardon Bloodclaw had unusual methods and no scruples and the higher-ups didn't like that - with the exception of the Emperor. Or at least we thought so until that son of a bitch betrayed us - may some dragon or wolf eat his corpse one day.
    Some of us "old" Ironfist soldiers took a while to get used to the new bloods. We were used to working in small but powerful groups or as one small army that just wiped out any resistance. But eventually, we grew used to it. Many of the new ones recruited from other armies were unexperienced but eager to learn and bloody loyal. I'll never forget one of them. A boy, just reached adulthood like a year or two before I met him. Had married his sweetheart before he left the continent - he also said that she expected a child. He was wondering how old this child would be when he returned home. I made a joke that he should've waited with the child until he had grown a proper stache and when the war was over. He grinned and said that he had wanted to assure his girl that she had no doubts about her being his only woman and that he'd actually come back one day instead of getting a girl in the Kingdoms. Later, when we were alone, he told me that he had actually wanted to make sure that she wouldn't be alone if something happened to him. I did not know what to say after hearing that. I had never met a lad that young who thought like that. I respected him a lot more after that conversation - despite his age.
    A good boy, him. Shared his rations with some poor folk who were on the run from the invaders. I often asked myself silently how long it'd take until he too would lose his kindness and good nature to the war, like so many others. He never did. I can still see it. His head smashed in by the hammer of that treacherous demon-piss-loving Genethas. Nothing left of his young face. Just a pulp of flesh remained. I could claim that it was the worst thing I've ever seen but that'd be a lie. Still, he was a good lad, he deserved better. Then again, they all do. The good ones always die first. I hear that van Durce later smashed all of Genethas' body into a bloody mess of flesh. I hope the bastard felt that.

    After the war, the Ironfist had become... numerous to say the least. Recruits were just lining up to join our ranks. Suddenly, we were no longer faced with winning a war but with stabilizing a new realm - one that had the size of several Kingdoms. The Ironfist was separated by Ca'laer Gardon. The recruits would no longer be joining the Ironfist but the regular Zyainor armies instead. The ones who had sided with the Ironfist during the events in Kerrel but weren't really part of the Ironfist were also transferred there unless they were deemed fit to remain - it wasn't a punishment for any soldier to be transferred, the new Zyaise military simply became more organized. The Ironfist became more elite but still remained extremely numerous.
    What happened to the old Ironfist? We went seperate paths. A few of the old members that had been there since the beginning formed the foundation of the Sadows of Zyainor. Most of the other veterans and elite soldiers stayed with our former general and now Ca'laer Gardon Bloodclaw as his personal elite army. Me and the rest instead joined the second branch of the Ironfist. Not exactly a "relatively small elite unit" anymore but a strong army with strong leaders. We veterans were made officers if we fulfilled the requirements or otherwise trainers and mentors for the younger soldiers. The new Ironfist was formed.
    We were still a force to be reckoned with but without our old leaders, some of us feared that we might devolve into a regular army - oh boy, we were wrong for our new leaders wouldn't let that happen. Let me tell you about them.
    Neither of them were members of the original Ironfist, they had joined our ranks when General Bloodclaw had taken half of Cleavehand's forces to serve under him instead. They were low-rank officers back in the day, nobody would have thought they'd get to where they are now. Some think it was luck that the general chose them. I however think that he has a sense for soldiers with potential. These two officers were Captain Herdon and his second-in-command Tormin.
    Captain Herdon was the grimmest man I had ever met. I've known him for years now, but I think I have never ever seen him smile or grin, heck not even in a diabolical way. Even Thanok had had his moments, though he mostly smiled in a rather evil way that scared the shit out of all new soldiers. Herdon did not smile at all during his time with the Ironfist - and as far as I know, he never smiled in his entire damn life. Got no sense of humor, that one, he is as grim as the reaper himself. He also is rather brutal and merciless, but if you think of him as a mindless brute, you're sorely mistaken. He's a damn good tactician and uses his special abilities to further increase his chances. When Herdon joined us, he was just a regular soldier fighting with a massive mace. However, when some of the Elves were put under Thanok's command, Herdon spent some time with them - we could never figure out why, we were certain that it was not because he liked them or anything. And of course he never spoke about it, he hardly speaks at all actually, being just grim and all. However, at the next battle, we found out why he had stuck with the Elves: He had learned their nature magic from them, summoning trees and animals to fight. Some soldiers jokingly called him a druid. But by all gods, if that man was a tree-loving druid, then I'm a goddamn supporter of that useless Dorten. Herdon did not use his power over nature like he wanted to preserve nature or like he cared for his power, oh no, he used this power to further the needs of the Ironfist. He cared nothing for the trees or animals he summoned, they were nothing but tools for him. The scoffers soon were silenced as we watched how a tree tore a rebel apart and spread its blood all over the ground. Those of us who had not served with Herdon before learned an important lesson that day: Don't fuck with Herdon. Unless you want the next tree you sleep under to tear your arms and legs off. That moment I almost pitied the poor rebels he fought. Now, General Herdon is known as the "Black Druid" - which is also due to the dark armor he wears. He uses the powers of nature to serve Zyainor, the Ironfist and our Ca'laer, not to preserve nature, leaving that to the Elves. Trust me, if you watch a massive Demon being torn apart by a massive tree in a bloody battle while raging animals clash with demonic animals, you have seen a lot of things. Regarding his strategic abilities... Have you heard of the abilities of Ca'ler Garan? It's just a rumor, but they say that our Black Druid has had a hand or two in teaching the boy. I will be honest, General Herdon scares the shit out of me whenever he uses his spells, but he's a great general. He's not General Bloodclaw, but he doesn't try to be like him anyway. He is effective in his own, very, VERY special way.
    Seriously, don't fuck with Herdon.
    Should I point out, by the way, how ironic it is that his former second in command and now co-general Tormin is very different from him? When I first met him, Tormin greeted me with a smile and an open hand. He always spent time with the soldiers, even as he later rose the ranks. However, at the same time, he often spent much time with Herdon, discussing strategies and tactics. He was a proper right-hand-man and still remained so very different from his superior, he even made a few jokes from time to time. In battle, Tormin used two blades and always engaged powerful enemies in single combat when possible. I have seen his technique many times and despite it, in my opinion, being perfectly fine, he always kept improving and modifying it. I believe that even if one of us had spent all the past years studying his technique, none of us would be able to predict his moves. Tormin makes fighting look like an art, he's like a bladestorm that cannot be penetrated by any weapon or spell - I am not kidding, I have seen him reflect fireballs mid-fight! That Demon was killed by its own spell, I saw it with my own eyes.
    I know that Tormin hails originally from Isalmur - perhaps Herdon does as well if they have served together for so long now - so he is not Imperial but before the Golden Guard showed up, he was a loyal servant of the Empire. Now he is a loyal subject of Zyainor and Gardon. He had managed to become the second general of the new Ironfist, which may or may not be because he and Herdon had already proven many times that they are an effective combination. While his loyalty is without question, there's speculation that he doesn't trust the black dragons and their cult - unless they serve directly under Thanok - or the necromancers. Considering the company he keeps (Herdon) I'd say it is pretty weird that people believe this. Maybe it's true, maybe not. I don't know. I know one thing for certain however: With these two generals, the Ironfist has not lost a single bit of its prestige and power and we'll damn well make use of that to keep the realm secure.
    May the Ca'laer and Ca'lea rule forever and may New Zyainor rise! I'm just an old soldier, but I'll make bloody well sure that I continue to serve this damn fine nation as long as I can - and I won't stop until I'm dead.

    The Divine Shield by Jayborino
    The Divine Shield
    The mood had turned even more dour when Sir Praxeus returned to speak with them. After meeting privately with the High Lord Inquisitor, he addressed the combined Paladin Orders of the Kingdoms of Arkain to reiterate the gravity of their situation, though The Holy Bastion appeared more resolute than ever. Whatever van Durce shared upon his return surely made clear that the march of the Ironfist had no hope of being halted in a way that did not end with them crashing upon the Golden walls.

    The High Lord Inquisitor indeed went unseen for a time from the fortress and word among the men was that their High Lord was intensively reviewing the schematics for the Purificator machine in his chambers, refusing to come out due to his total devotion to defending their fortress and their lives. The high ranking Order members knew full well the truth of the matter: van Durce attempted, unsuccessfully it seemed, to parlay with his bastard nephew Gardon upon learning the truth behind the Emperor’s nefarious motivations, a reality that only true believers were privy to.

    A true believer. Is that what he was? Salomar assured him he was once, but Sir Jay was no longer so sure. An abhorrence of necromancy and unnatural magics, a refusal to the revival of the hated nation of Zyainor and their cruel black dragons, a belief that fighting is preferable to outright extermination at the hands of the Demons… and above all, an unadulterated love for the lands and peoples of Arkain. Sir Jay was not ashamed to be considered zealously myopic with regard to these ideals. If only Salomar were here to guide the remaining Paladin Orders and manifest their rightful path.

    The sage Healer truly was an individual that inspired belief. Alternatively, Praxeus Braelon’s sheer strength of presence demanded belief. He exemplified many similar qualities required to earn the Orders’ respect through humility and purity, though where Salomar was a shrewd, flowing river of wisdom, loyal to all the Kingdoms of Arkain, Praxeus was an immovable stone, one ardently loyal only to the Golden Guard. No sooner than gaining majority support for his leadership of the fragmented Paladin Orders, he had them all donned in ornate golden armor and off to kill vermin in caves. Truly a task suited for veteran Paladins. The Dwarves would indeed be necessary to survive the coming battle, though Sir Jay still could not help but reflect upon how he came to be in this stronghold.

    Curse van Durce for his arrogance. General Greymoore could have been a key arbiter in this time of internal strife - a man who understood strength, but also acquiescence - perhaps a voice of clarity to unite and finally pay proper heed to the Demons; not to mention the so called “Dominion” that had ravaged Salria. But now he was needlessly absent, dead on the floor of a prison cell and left to rot in Kerrel. And still, curse Gardon thricefold for leaving the remaining voices of reason on the continent no choice. Turning to the undead? Surely he understood the consequences of such a pact when making it.

    Sir Jay, and by extension the Paladin Orders, would not let the Kingdoms destroy themselves because that fool Dorten believed it possible to somehow exit this conflict without becoming the next focus of Gardon’s insatiable lust for total control. The Paladins’ loyalty was to all the people of Arkain, not only the symbolic, titular Kingdoms presented by the royal houses. At least consorting with black dragons made it easy for the Golden Guard to conscript enthusiastic citizens from every surrounding Kingdom, as Gardon likely underestimated the visceral fear both the smallfolk and royalty had at the thought of Zyainor.

    Sir Jay grew up in Kerrel and heard many tales about dreaded Zyainor as did all children in the Kingdoms of Arkain. He was teased endlessly for his family surname, a name of no special importance, but one that simply sounded silly. His was a family of anglers that refused to answer the call to arms for the First Void War, hiding in their wharf hamlet of Stagcross and avoiding any post-war Imperial repercussions. It was not until his formative years that Jay began to resent his parents for their cowardice. Eager to escape the timidity of his bloodline, Sir Jay secretly left his family’s village and became the first to take up a different trade, for his talent was in spinning tales and singing songs.

    He first migrated north to Pyrru, visiting establishments both in cities and the countryside, eager to absorb the diverse lifestyles of the inhabitants. It was the sight of it’s cragged coastline which beheld such beauty that Jay could only dream of what wonders existed throughout the rest of Arkain that so many would never have the opportunity to experience. Thus began his cycle of voyaging the continent, a vagabond minstrel of sorts, keen on entertaining as a method to meet the diaspora of Arkain’s inhabitants, for he grew to love them. These adventures even took him to the Elven forests and the Dwarven mines that Humans rarely ever took the opportunity, or had the permission, to enter. The absurdity of his surname lent well to his trade, but he rarely shared it due to the shame he felt towards his family; shame that only deepened as he visited more and more of the lands they once refused to rise up and protect.

    It was during Jay’s third journey through Lor that he was graced by the presence of Salomar the Healer - a name many in Lor knew well for it was from their Kingdom the leader of the combined Paladin Orders hailed from. As the final patrons trickled out of the tavern where Jay was singing for the hope of a free drink, an inconspicuous straggler approached him.

    “You wrap your words around yourself in very special ways, bard. I can see the bubble they create.”

    Jay presumed any folk approaching him this late were drunk and likely to throw insults. Avoiding eye contact, he mumbled, “Apologies if you did not care for the songs, milord.” Jay turned to leave, uneager to sleep on the cold cobble again, when the realization sank in. “A bubble, you say?” The coincidence with his surname did not seem accidental.

    And his world forever changed with that conversation as Salomar could sense something within him unknown to himself. Induction into the Paladin Order was not a simple one and candidates needed to display natural talent with holy magics. In their training together, Salomar explained how the ability to bathe in a Divine Shield stemmed from a different, deeply personal source and it was rare indeed to possess the skill at all. Jay discovered his source to be storytelling: a deep desire to experience the peoples of Arkain around him and to spin those experiences into tales for others. At first, Jay needed to speak or sing aloud as if he were still in a dusty tavern or crowded marketplace somewhere, which made the process to summon the Shield untenable in the heat of combat. It was in one of their final sessions that Salomar began prodding about the past and why Jay left years ago, a topic stringently avoided due to Jay’s detachment on the subject.

    Upon hearing the admission, Salomar’s typically stern expression softened. “My boy, is this truly the source of all your guilt?” He leaned his hammer against the wall. “What need was there for them to leave behind a broken family and go off to face monsters that fishermen have no business fighting? The Imperials had already arrived and were pushing back! Their local conscriptions were entirely superfluous and your kin likely knew that.”

    The matter-of-factness of this response hit Jay like a bundle of lumber. Had he really spent his adult life running away from shame that was entirely misplaced, conflating loyalty to the Empire or even the Kingdoms with loyalty to the actual people of Arkain? He had been projecting his fears into tall tales for strangers in manors and brothels for spare coin and somehow those tall tales allowed him to summon undeserved Divine Strength.

    Salomar shook his head as if able to read those thoughts. “You should have told them you were leaving, lad, but what you’ve gained since then is what has shaped you into a true Paladin. You have seen more of Arkain than any I’ve known, even me. The Holy Light provides us with a pool of strength, but our ability to draw from it does not stem from our mere belief in that pool’s existence, rather in our conviction to use it to protect our people. You left your home and spent years specifically learning about the world you intensely believed deserved protecting. You are a true believer in Arkain, Sir Jay.”

    Sir Jay. He had not officially earned knighthood yet, but hearing his tutor say those words inspired something deep inside him. A wave of relief washed over Jay and he felt his powers develop over the coming days, for his conduit to the Light was not in telling stories of his experiences, but in the recollection of connecting with so many of his fellow Arkainians. A weaving of thoughts and emotions so powerful that he found he could not only wield Divine Shield, but do so for such a period of time that he quickly became known as the Divine Shield, a true symbol of perseverance on the battlefield.

    The day he was to be knighted arrived and thoughts of travelling back to Stagcross whipped through his imagination as he wondered if he would be able to find his family. That very same day, emissaries arrived. Demon gates were reopening and demons were flooding into Isalmur. General Cleavehand was amassing under the Dead Mountain in Lor and was conscripting Paladins to reinforce the Imperial defensive line.

    Jay blinked and the memories melted away, revealing the painful present he was in. His mentor was now dead and reflecting on his time with Salomar caused Sir Jay a great deal of grief. He longed for the opportunity to reconcile with his parents, which the start of the Second Void War had prevented him from doing. Renald van Durce and Sir Praxeus be damned, but this conflict needed to end and Gardon was simply too dangerous to all of Arkain to be left alive. Zyainor could not be reborn.

    And when it ends, Sir Jay would not travel across the Great Sea with Praxeus and the High Lord Inquisitor to confront their corrupted Emperor. For when the Ironfist heraldry lies trampled into the dirt, and the Undead are scattered back to their hellish underground labyrinths beaten and broken, and the Demon threat is utterly purged by the marvelous creation of Lord Marin, and black dragons’ skulls are thrust upon great pikes for all in the Kingdoms of Arkain to see and no longer cower from... Jay would return to Stagcross and find his parents, for he had so very much to tell them. To share with them the wonders of Arkain and confess that he understood now how they did what was within their limited power to protect their family, just as he now does for all of Arkain. At the dawn of the clash between gold and iron, Sir Jay Bubblerino, the Divine Shield, mused on all of the future tales he would tell.

    The Bone Mine by Shar Dundred
    The Bone Mine
    Ragnar Bloodstone stood on the platform, overseeing the efforts of his artisans, miners and explosive experts that were working in the caverns below him. They had been working on this mine for many months. They dug and dug. Further, ever further. Deeper and deeper. This was going to become one of the deepest mines in dwarven history, no orindary dwarven clan would dare to dig this deep. But the Bloodstones were no ordinary dwarves.
    Despite their technological expertise, the race of Dwarves tended to be more... conservative than most other races and also clung to traditions. The Bloodstones on the other hand were, by dwarven standards, extremely progressive. Too progressive. For a long time, other Dwarves had considered their Bloodstone kin as "outcasts" who went too far and the Bloodstones didn't have an easy standing in dwarven society - in fact, most of them were not even part of it. They were on their own. Only a Bloodstone would trust a Bloodstone. The progressive and radical thinking of the Bloodstones never sat well with other Dwarves. The Bloodstones had a hard standing in both economical and political matters - which only forced them to use even more radical means as time went on.

    One of the greatest strike against the Bloodstone Dwarves had been the withdrawal of the Runepriests. After the Bloodstones had dared to break just another tradition with one of their mining operations, the head of the Lorekeeper clan back in the day, the predecessor of Horgar Whitebeard, only mere weeks prior to his natural death, demanded that the Runepriests that belonged to the Bloodstones abandon their clan or be stripped of their positions as runepriests, forbidden to ever use the art of runes again. This happened before Ragnar had even been born but he knew the stories. There was little doubt that this had not been the decision of the former Lorekeeper "king", he had been forced to act by several other dwarven kings - maybe even the high king back then had demanded it. This weakened the Bloodstones, but only temporarily. They were very innovative after all and did not hesitate to take more... drastic actions. However, from a political point of view, this threw them back even further. When Ragnar had become king of the Bloodstones, it seemed as if the plight of the Bloodstones would never end.

    This finally changed during the First Void War. When the Demons attacked the dwarven realms, it was Ragnar who contacted the High King, Zarin's predecessor, and offered to share all of the Bloodstones had to offer with the other dwarven clans to fight this threat. It had taken longer than it should have, but with the help of the less conservative Zarin Hammerfall, Ragnar managed to convince the hesitant high king to agree. Soon, the Bloodstones transported massive amounts of equipment and soldiers to the frontlines. While the Dwarves already were technological advanced and had created many great mechanical inventions, the Demons were used to seeing it when fighting Dwarves and had prepared for such defenses and weapons. But they were not prepared for what the Bloodstones had in store for them. The combined forces of the Bloodstones and the other dwarven clans managed to push the Demons back. Then, they joined forces with the Kingdoms and stood together against the Demons.
    Ragnar remembered well. He had slain many Demons personally in combat, leading his forces from the frontline. This had been the time when the Bloodstones' reputation among the Dwarves grew immensely but many also remained weary of the "outcasts". It was also during this time when he had started to lose his trust in the Humans of the Kingdoms - though truth be told, the Bloodstones, due to their limited trading rights had far less interactions with the Humans than other Dwarves and only the fewest of them had ever actually met a Human before. The Bloodstones quickly grew frustrated with the tactical inefficience of the Humans who rather spent time arguing and plotting instead of focusing on the defense. From Ragnar's point of view, most of the generals and kings of the time were useless as they only hindered the united defense efforts. This caused Ragnar and the other Bloodstones to strongly suggest leaving the Humans to their fate. While the Bloodstones had grown in both power and reputation due to their war efforts, the rest of their race opposed this idea and stood with the Humans. Ragnar's hand ran through his beard. Quite ironic that the Dwarves were so supportive of the Humans back then and now the Dwarves and Humans were no longer allied. Of course, the reasons were not the same as they had been back in the First Void War, but still, the irony was not lost on Ragnar.
    After the First Void War, Zarin had become the new high king of the Dwarves - Ragnar himself supported Zarin's claim. He believed that Zarin would be more open to the Bloodstones than his predecessor - he was not disappointed. Zarin understood the use of the Bloodstones and gave them back many political rights that had been taken from them due to their "untraditional" thinking. What good is a tradition if it leads to defeat? However, Ragnar made no mistake. Zarin was a more reasonable high king than most other dwarven kings or high kings, but he was not one to abandon tradition. He wasn't a Bloodstone. Still, it was a great step for the Bloodstones. A great step towards earning their well-deserved place among their kin. They had been able to get on the same level as the other dwarven clans, both in power and reputation. No Bloodstone king had ever been as popular as Ragnar had become.
    Despite how other Dwarves treated them in the past, the Bloodstones were proud of their heritage. And they were still Dwarves and did not hold any grudges against their kin - despite having been treated as outcasts and still being looked at with weary eyes, they were fiercely loyal - especially now that High King Zarin Hammerfall gave them so much. The High King earned as much from this new arrangement with the Bloodstones as he gave. Both sides profited from this.

    The Second Void War then... Well, it could have been worse - but also much better. The Bloodstones were assigned to assist the crusaders of the Imperial Duke Volarian Redfist by the high king himself. It had been a great honor to be given such an assignment by the high king himself. Their task was not easy either and, if they had been successful, the Bloodstones would have been elevated! They could have had an actual chance to be part of dwarven politics! For the love of all gods, they could even, for the first time in their history, have had a valid chance to have one of their own become the next high king! Not to mention, that they would have done the entire damn continent, even the cursed dragon worshippers, a service: The eradication of the Orcs. Ragnar didn't want to become the next high king, he did not believe that he would have had a chance, but his clan, his PROGRESSIVE dwarven clan, could have had at least someone be CONSIDERED a POSSIBLE high king FOR THE FIRST TIME.
    Yes, the crusaders of the Redfist had been fanatics who did not hesitate to murder anyone getting in their way, but damnit, they got the job done. Like many other Dwarves, the Bloodstones prefered the Imperials to the Humans, but it was the Redfist's affiliation with fire and their determination that made the Bloodstones enjoy their task. The greenskins had been a great threat for Arkain for far too long. The Royals had been too lenient in their attempts to put an end to this threat - unlike the Redfist. But they too failed. The greenskins somehow managed to gather allies and a massive army. Ragnar regretted not having been there himself to turn the tide, but he had not been able to. His duties and his position as a king who now actually held political influence, had prevented it. The Orcs and their allies had slain many Bloodstones. Their clan may differ from other dwarven clans, but the Bloodstones also shared one attribute: They did not forget such acts, even in war. This defeat threw the Bloodstones back again - but not as much as they had risen before. In fact, the years after the war, the Dwarves more and more relied on Bloodstone technology to protect themselves against their many new enemies on all sides. The Bloodstones became more and more important to the high king and the other dwarven clans.

    Ragnar could hear steps. Someone came closer. Ragnar looked over his shoulder to see who it was and then focused his attention once again to the actions in front of him. His brother Tharskon stopped next to Ragnar. Tharskon was the elder brother of Ragnar, his long white beard a testament of his age and experience. Tharskon had not wanted to become king of the Bloodstones, he had never felt that this was his call, and therefore supported his brother's claim instead. Tharskon was now the Thane Pyromancer of the Bloodstones. While the Bloodstones had respect for the Runepriests and the Lorekeeper Dwarves, despite past conflicts, they themselves prefered a more aggressive approach when it came to magic - just like they overall prefered more aggressive strategies and technologies. After being stripped of the Runepriests within their ranks, the Bloodstones instead began to uncover the secrets of the more... chaotic forms of magic, to the dismay of the other clans - but the Bloodstones already were at a point where they did not need to care about such things. They added Warlocks to their military to replace the Runepriests. They never ceased to be an important part of the Bloodstones' military, even after High King Zarin Hammerfall and Horgar Whitebeard put an end to the ban of Bloodstone Runepriests.
    It was Ragnar's and Tharskon's uncle who then uncovered the knowledge of pyromancy. He was the one who made it accessible to the Dwarves, but it was Tharskon who not only mastered the magic of flames but also made it very popular among the ranks of the Bloodstones. The Bloodstones, who already had a fondness of fire weapons, formed a special bond with the fire magic - especially since their ancient nemesis, while apparently worshipping everything related to fire, was still far from immune to its effects.
    "The miners have found three more vermin nests." Tharskon reported. He wore his usual armor as Thane Pyromancer and carried his heavy iron staff. Without a doubt, if there was any danger, he'd be ready to incinerate it and walk away unscathed.
    "I assume you have burned them to ashes?" Ragnar asked without turning to his brother. Tharskon shook his head.
    "It was not necessary. They were already dead." he said. Ragnar now turned towards his brother.
    "The Undead?" he asked, raising an eyebrow. Tharskon nodded.
    "Most likely. The only corpses we found were the ones that were probably no longer useable. Still, we burned the nests to the very ground to avoid more vermin settling there." he finished his report. Ragnar's hand one more ran through his beard. During the mining operations in this area, they had come across massive, yet empty tunnels that appeared to have been there for centuries. While scouting it, they came across a few undead and quickly retreated, sealing the entrance they had dug into the tunnel. They remembered what had happen to their brothers from other dwarven clans during the First Void War who had also came across such a tunnel. They had all disappeared without trace, now the Bloodstones had an idea what had happened to them. They would not suffer the same fate. This event had made the miners refer to this place as "The Bone Mine".
    "I am starting to have serious doubts that these walking corpses are part of Zyainor. There's no way the scum could have been able to dig a tunnel so deep beneath our lands without being found out. And the savages in the south simply do not use enough necromancy for something like this." Ragnar pondered. His brother looked at the top of his staff and ignited a flame by simply looking at the metal end of the staff.
    "It could be the very Undead who betrayed the Humans at the end of the war. No one has seen them ever since then." Tharskon said and the flame disappeared.
    "Hmm. Quite possibly. But what are they doing here? And if it is them, why have they not tried to attack us again?" Ragnar asked but Tharskon had no answer. Ragnar's face turned grim and he put a hand on the shoulder of his brother.
    "Tell the miners to seal the nests. Double the guards. We have to make sure that there'll be no incidents. This operation is already expensive enough but we have to continue." he explained. Tharskon also put his own hand on the shoulder of his brother as well and both nodded simultaneously. Then Tharskon left to carry out his task. Ragnar looked back down the mine. Yes, this was an expensive operation, but they had to continue their mining operation - the ore they found down here was but one of the reasons.
    After a while, Ragnar left and decided to meet with his engineers. There was still much work to be done. He'd ease the troubled mind of his high king. Zarin had earned Ragnar's loyalty. Ragnar understood why Zarin did not act against the enemies of Zyainor, but the Bloodstones would not just wait for Zyainor to fall apart on its own. No, not again. If the high king did not want to act, then the Bloodstones bloody well would - with or without his approval.

    Aftermath of the Second Voidwar by Shar Dundred
    Aftermath of the Second Voidwar
    Gardon sat in his chair, leaning back while studying the map lying on the desk in front of him. It had been ten months since the end of the Second Voidwar. There were still conflicts, smaller fights with remaining demon forces that had been left stranded on this side of the Void. Their days were numbered, however. Each day, reports of more slain Demons reached his throne. Thanok reported that Herdon, Tormin and Varan were doing an excellent job hunting them down. There was no place left for them to hide. Gardon's orders were clear: Hunt to kill. No survivors. No prisoners. Undead, Demon Slaves and their demonic masters alike. They were all doomed. The Undead.... Gardon clenched his fist. They had cost him a great chance. He could have destroyed all of Demonkind but they had to ruin it! If he ever got his hands on this damn ranger, he'd tear her apart with his bare hands and impale her with a thousand pikes. But they could not locate her - in fact, they could hardly locate ANY Undead. They had all disappeared. Gardon did not like it, but he had to face the facts: He would not be able to find them. A massive amount of Undead had just vanished and would probably come back at some point. And if it wasn't them, it'd be the Demons or the Dwarves. Or that weakling Dorten. Or... Salria. Gardon did not know if he could trust Amari's people - or Amari herself. Orcs were unpredictable, they could decide to go on a great raid at any point. Brian assured Gardon that they wouldn't cause him any harm, he would personally make sure of it. Also, after the meeting with Amari... Brian had made Gardon a very specific offer to turn the non-aggression pact with the Dominion into an alliance - a secret one of course but still an alliance. The terms had not been not to Gardon's liking so he had declined. It would certainly have its benefits, but... it would also further complicate an already complicated situation that Gardon found himself in. It was one of the few things he wouldn't tell even Vail about. Vail... it was... unexpected how... close they had become. They were very similar to each other. It was a... weird feeling. Gardon did not know how else to describe it.
    Someone knocked on the door. Gardon looked up.
    "Come in." he ordered. The door opened and a person with a black beard, wearing a dark robe, entered. Birram.
    "What is it Birram?" Gardon asked. Birram bowed before his Ca'laer. This man had served Gardon for a long time faithfully. The forbidden knowledge that Birram had studied prior to joining Gardon had proven to be very useful - vital even. It was only thanks to Birram's knowledge that Gardon had been able to seek out the Black Dragons. Birram had been an important part of Gardon's operations - and he was to be rewarded accordingly for it.
    "My Ca'laer. I bring news from the west. Dorten's emissaries have returned from Rengar and they seemed to have good news for their king upon their return. Our agents have been able to find out that Rengar is also going to cancel all trade relations with us, just like Kerrel did. The Order of the Flame is also supporting this decision. Harmos acted exactly as we expected him to." Birram reported. Gardon looked back at the map.
    "Just as we thought then. Let them do what they want. We control Toran, Pyrru, Lor and Isalmur. While the latter two are in a bad shape, especially Isalmur, Toran and Pyrru are not. In fact, Pyrru is the one kingdom that is in the best shape after the war. We will use their resources to rebuild Isalmur and Lor. However, it means that we have another enemy in the west." Gardon pondered. Birram also looked at the map.
    "Enemies from the west, the east and the south... The good news is that we are too strong for them to take on directly. The war has weakened them all and many among them still remember who it was who ended the invasion of the Demons. They are unlikely to attack us anytime soon. Only the Tribal Dominion in the south is hard to predict. The two remaining Kingdoms could only pose a threat if they combined their forces with the Dwarves. And the Dwarves will not suddenly change their mind. They are too stubborn." Birram explained. Gardon rubbed his chin.
    "Zarin is too proud to back on his word now. Still, I would have prefered it if he had joined us..." he said. Silence filled the room for a while. Gardon finally asked.
    "How is Vail?" he wanted to know.
    "She is in good shape, mylord. She is tough but needs to rest. You... did not see her today yet, my Ca'laer?" Birram asked. Gardon just looked at him. Birram bowed again.
    "Forgive me, my liege. I know that you are a busy man. Still, I wish to remind you that-"
    "I know Birram. you may leave now." Gardon said. Birram bowed.
    "Of course, my Ca'laer. Just one last thing." he said and put something on the table.
    "This was found in front of your chambers on the floor. I did not open it." he said and left. Gardon looked at the table. It was a letter. The paper was completely black. Gardon opened the letter. As he did so and took its content, the letter began to glow. The writing appeared shortly afterwards. The letter turned white, the text was the only black that remained. This letter was written in a way that only Gardon could read it.

    My apprentice,

    your success is without a doubt most impressive. I never had any doubt in your skills and still you managed to amaze me with your prowess. You truly are the true ruler of these lands.
    You have accomplished much. More than most great rulers of mankind have ever accomplished in a lifetime. And still, you are not satisfied. You won't stop until all of mankind is united and all your enemies lie dead before you. I cannot blame you, it is your very determination and your willingness to do whatever needs to be done that made you the man you are today. You are truly a champion of mankind, a champion, not a hero. You are what this world needs. Others may not see this, but you and I know the truth. You are the one who saved this continent. I do not dare take credit for what you did but you will excuse me for feeling proud, I am sure.
    I also know that your wife is pregnant, expecting your first child. Whether male or female, I am sure this child will be a worthy heir. There is also other things that I know, but... I do not think I should mention them in a letter. But send your allies in the Elven Court my regards the next time you visit them.
    But... I am afraid that I have to ask something of you. I have supported your cause for many years, already when I first started to train you long before you ever set foot on the shores of Arkain. I was your mentor for many years, taught you many of my secrets. I have assisted your forces in freeing you, summoned my shadows to serve your cause, supported you with both knowledge, advice and skill. I was always there for you, never asking for anything in return. I am afraid that I am now forced to ask you to do a favor for me.
    You know what it is that I want from you. We already talked about it and you declined. I respect your choice, but I still have to ask you to reconsider. Even when you are currently in the progress of building the most powerful nation of man on this continent, I predict it will become more powerful than even Old Zyainor, you will need reliable allies. Old Zyainor fell when it lost its allies.
    The Black Dragons are a huge part of Zyainor and you owe them much. But I want you to remember something: Their Queen is... unpredictable. An old and stubborn creature whose arrogance is responsible for the fall of Old Zyainor. The nobles of the Kingdoms may claim that their ancestors did most of the work, but they were little more than opportunists, traitors and thieves. Without the betrayal of the Black Dragons, who knows? Zyainor may never have fallen. You cannot count on the dragons, even if your most loyal subject is one of them. He would oppose any decision to leave you, but the rest of them?
    I suggested that you get rid of her. I could have even used her to increase the lifespan of you and your wife!
    What is an ancient, stubborn dragon queen in exchange for the gift of immortality? Her shadow could have served me better than she would ever serve you in life and her life essence could have been used to make her immortality empower you rather than her with the help of my own magic. Especially when her replacement, Thanok, already is your most loyal servant and would lead the dragons in your name even if he knew what had occured? His loyalty lies with you, not with her.
    You can still consider this option, however, it is not too late. Of course, there are alternatives... Dark paths await those who want to gain what others dare not to dream of.
    But this is not what I wanted to talk about with you. You know what I am suggesting to you once more. I will visit you in three days at midnight. You have until then to make your decision.

    As Gardon had assumed. Brian. He wanted to renew his offer. Gardon still did not like it, but... perhaps he should at least consider it. One less possible enemy could serve him well and the price would be relatively low in comparison... But... should he really consider such a thing? It was below him. He stood up. She should pay Vail a visit. He'd leave these thoughts for later. For now. As he left the room, the letter turned black again.
    Last edited: Aug 3, 2020 at 11:10 PM
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