Blood of the Emperor
The Annals of Drakis: Book Three
It appears that an ancient prophecy is about to be fulfilled as the human named Drakis—formerly one of countless warrior-slaves to the elves of the Rhonas Empire—returns from his quest in the North. Flying into the rebel camp with his surviving companions on the backs of the legendary dragons that were once humankind's most powerful allies, Drakis is hailed as the champion of all the slave races. But it is not a prophecy that drives Drakis in his war against the elves and their emperor. Rather it is his burning desire for revenge against the cruel ruler whom Drakis believes has stolen any chance he has for finding peace. And this hatred will set Drakis and his rebel army on a path that may not only bring down the emperor, but Drakis and his entire world as well....
THEY WERE COMING out of the east.
The dust of their line of march was made a brilliant orange-red by the rising sun on the horizon behind it.
It’s an army, Qistan thought, and it’s coming right at me.
Governor-general Qistan Sha-Barethin, elven commander, stood on the wall of Port Glorious above Emperor’s Gate sweating profusely beneath his armor. Perspiring was something that elves did only in intense heat or under extreme duress. This day accounted for both and so the gray-faced war-mage gazed out over the gently rolling landscape and reached up with increasing frequency to mop his brow with the hem of his cloak of office. It was a disgraceful act of disrespect for the symbol of his office but Qistan was as far from the Imperial Courts of Rhonas as it was possible to be and still be considered within the boundaries of the Empire. It was one of the places where the Imperial Grace sent his sons who were better off forgotten. Qistan’s previous offenses had earned him the longest road home possible. It was a road which he was certain now he would not have the opportunity to take.
Qistan offered up a quick prayer in his mind to the god Anjei—the god of all seeing and hearing—in the hopes that the god might pass along knowledge of his plight to someone—anyone—who might give him some aid. He turned around, looking over the port city and realizing that it simply was not important enough for the Emperor to care what happened to it. The seaside village known as Port Glorious came nowhere near living up to its name. There was his own Governor’s House, which, despite being the largest structure in over a hundred leagues, proved to be the most modest of residences by elven standards. It was also the only building in the port town that followed the traditional elven design of a subatria foundation and the floating avatria above it. Clinging to the outer wall of the subatria were the hovels and ramshackle shops of the inner city, which appeared as though children had poured out toy buildings within the confines of the city wall and then dragged a narrow stick among them to create the alleys that passed for roads. The city wall itself was of elven construction and enclosed the city on three sides before projecting out into the waters of the bay and ending at a pair of towers surrounded by battlements. Proxis could mount the battlements to defend the city from an attack by sea while his own full Cohort of warriors—nearly seven hundred strong—could defend the city proper from atop the walls.
Or they could defend the city, Qistan thought grimly, if so many things weren’t going wrong.
From the wall of the inner city and his perch above the Emperor’s Gate, he searched the horizon. The wide expanse of Mistral Bay lay to the south, its waters lapping up gently along the long curve of the shoreline that ran eastward before turning south down the peninsula to the port town of Markrethold some twenty-five leagues away. There had been no word or ships from Markrethold in nearly a week and all communication with Glachold and the Willow Reaches for a week longer still. The elven supply ships out of Shellsea were also overdue and Qistan was beginning to feel truly isolated in his port.
If that were all, he still would not be standing here sweating. Ships were often late and messages from Markrethold and Glachold were tenuous at best. There were two things that truly concerned him.
The first was that the Aether Well was acting peculiarly. The Well had failed altogether two weeks ago. The avatria of his Governor’s House had settled onto the subatria and threatened to fall over altogether. The Aether had returned to the Well, fortunately, but the Aether output was greatly reduced. It was barely sufficient to keep the avatria above the foundations and left precious little more for defense of the port. The few slaves that were in Port Glorious fell out of their Devotions and most of them had to be put down. Qistan had yet to determine what might be causing such a terrible drain of Aether.
He was still trying to coax the Aether to return when the second unnerving event had happened two days ago. The night watch had been drugged into sleep. The next morning, the Governor and all the elven warriors awoke to discover Port Glorious deserted except for themselves. The usual noisy bustle of the goblin shopkeepers, chimerian traders and gnome craftsmen as well as their brawling children and wailing infants had gone silent. The chimerian and gnomish ships in the harbor had all sailed during the night, leaving only the elven galleys tied up at the long docks. The smithy hammers were silent, the cooper’s mallets still and the streets deserted except for the warriors of the elven Cohort. No children ran or shouted in the streets. No carts moved. Indeed, there were no carts or conveyances left to be found anywhere in the port town either inside the crowded alleyways within the city wall or among the sprawling buildings outside. The goods in the shops were missing. The tools of the craftsmen were gone. Not even a dog had been left behind.
Qistan had sent out runners to discover where the townsfolk had gone with the idea of sending out a Centurai or two—no more than a hundred warriors or so—to round up the citizens of Port Glorious and shove them back into their homes. Most of the runners came back no wiser than when they left but two of the three sent eastward returned with news of an enormous army possibly four thousand strong marching toward Port Glorious. In the lead were the manticores, but there were also goblins, gnomes, and even a few humans and elves observed by the two runners who made it back. The third scout did not return.
Qistan knew at once that they were about to be laid under siege. He commanded the Cohort to abandon the barracks outside of Centurai Gate and moved them all inside the city walls. He then ordered the shanties outside of the Emperor’s Gate and Satja’s Gate to be burned to the ground. The ruins still smoldered and smoked but Qistan now had a clear view of his enemy as they approached and knew that they would have to come at the wall exposed and in the open.
Four thousand rabble against my seven hundred? We’re in a defensible position of strength and I’ve already had the Proxis engrave fold marks into the approaches. We’ve the Aether on our side—what there is of it—and the manticorian tactics are easily countered. . . .
Qistan mopped his elongated forehead once more with the edge of his robe. So why am I still sweating?
“Are your warriors ready?” Qistan asked.
“Yes, General!” It was Tribune Sha-Meihuen who answered him. Qistan trusted the Tribune implicitly. “There are two full Centurai on the walls with four Octia positioned behind each of the five gates. The rest remain reserved in the plaza adjacent to your home; each are organized in Octia with their Proxis awaiting deployment behind the siege lines at your command. We have a single Octia of war-mages but I’ve spread them as evenly as I could across the Centurai. Proxis are also in the sea-towers as a precaution against any attack by water.”
Qistan looked down the line of the battlements. The elven warriors stood in their armor, black featureless eyes shining through the ports of their gleaming helmets. The morning breeze rustled their banners. The distant rhythmic sound of the approaching army rolled toward them across the landscape.
“Who are they?” Sha-Meihuen asked, gazing out toward the approaching battle line.
“The runners called them the ‘Army of the Prophet,’” Qistan answered. “Word reached me from Rhonas that two Legions had been dispatched to annihilate them weeks ago. We were to be the rear guard against their escape.”
“Escape?” Sha-Meihuen chuckled. “Escape to where?”
“The very problem I was contemplating,” Qistan said quietly.
“It would seem that the Legions did not accomplish the Emperor’s Will,” Sha-Meihuen sniffed. “All the more glory for us, General.”
“If we survive to claim it,” Qistan observed.
The forward lines were moving quicker now. The general could make out the shapes of the manticores bent over, the lion-men starting their charge toward the port town.
“Where is the House of your ancestors, Tribune Sha-Meihuen?” Qistan asked, his eyes fixed on the approaching battle line. The sun rose directly behind them, its rays obscured by the dust but the glare from its disk making it difficult to keep his eyes on his enemy.
“The House of my Ancestors is in Zhadras, General,” the Tribune replied.
“Mine was in Tyrania . . . my father was a Baron of the Aethergus Coast,” Qistan said with studied casualness. He could hear the manticore’s roaring battle cries more than see them in the glaring haze. “We are both far from the memory of our wives and children, Tribune.”
The manticores had nearly reached the outskirts of the town. The elven warriors shifted nervously on the wall to either side of him.
“Archers . . . READY!” the Tribune called out, raising his hand. The manticores were charging across the charred ruins of the outer city. Polished armor flashed on their backs in the rising dawn breaking behind them.
“You don’t suppose they’ll stop on their own, do you?” Qistan said with dry amusement.
“No, General,” Sha-Meihuen chuckled under his breath. The howl from the charging army was overwhelming. “I don’t suppose they will.”
“Then we’ll have to stop them . . . now!” Qistan said.
“FIRE!” the Tribune shouted.
Instantly, a rain of arrows flashed from the city walls, driving down into the front lines of the manticores. Some deflected from the elegant armor of the lion-men but more found purchase in flesh. Yet the manticores drove on, far fewer falling than Qistan would have expected. The Tribune shouted again, loosing another volley against the roaring charge. Then the manticores reached the base of the wall, charging the main gate with a battering ram as the Tribune released the archers to fire at will.
The Army of the Prophet continued its steady approach. Qistan could see from his position on the battlements that the army’s battle line extended well to the north and was wheeling rapidly around the northern side of the city, well outside of the range of his archers.
“Keep firing,” Qistan shouted at the Tribune over the din. “They’re trying to flank us on the north and put us under siege but the brunt of the manticores seem to be here at the east gate. If we wait for the rest of their army to draw in toward the north gate, then we can fold in the reserves behind their lines on the north—devastate their flank and then pivot . . .”
The Tribune was not looking at him, his face filled with awestruck terror.
Qistan turned to follow the Tribune’s gaze to the east.
Enormous, unspeakable winged monsters flew out of the sun. Leathery wings more than fifty feet in span glowed in the sunlight. Talons as tall as an elf, barbed tails and flashing scales all flew at him out of the sky with screeching cries so horrible that General Qistan thought he might lose his sanity. Though he had never seen one nor even believed in their existence, nevertheless their shape was familiar to him from the histories and legends he had long considered dead.
“Dragons!” Qistan screamed. “They’ve got dragons!”
One of the enormous shapes—a dragon with gray-blue markings—wheeled suddenly, raking its claws down the length of the battlements wall as it passed. Elves tried to escape but found no refuge. Most fell from the wall, some jumping outward in their terror, plunging into the battle-mad rage of the manticores below, while others were crushed or torn by the weight and edge of the dragon’s claws. Two more of the dragons shrieked overhead toward the center of the town.
Qistan, in outraged wonder, saw figures riding on the backs of the dragons as they passed over his head. Humans! Humans and dragons together? That’s a legend we killed long ago!
“Shift targets!” Qistan bellowed, pointing to the winged monstrosities filling the skies over Port Glorious. The creatures were plummeting down toward the plaza near the center of town. Qistan could see the massed numbers of his reserve Cohorts still filling the plaza in their prepared ranks. “Archers! Take them down! Take them down! Stop them now!”
The archers swung their bows around but it was too late. The black-and-rust-colored dragon with multiple raiders on its back dipped its head and a storm of fire rained down on the plaza, engulfing the massed troops in a devastating conflagration. Fire roiled upward, catching among the surrounding buildings, its greasy smoke curling skyward around the avatria of his floating home. The yellow-green dragon with its own set of riders wheeled around the avatria, its claws extended as its wings opened wide, slowing the beast in the air. The wings folded against its body as the dragon alighted on the subatria wall, the raiders on its back slipping down the leathery membranes into the garden within the walls of his home and . . .
The Aether Well! Qistan realized with a shock.
The Aether Well that supplied all the magic of Port Glorious was located in the center of his garden. It had been secure behind not only the city wall but also behind the walls of his home’s subatria. The power of its magic could repel any assault from the ground . . .
But until this moment, Qistan had not considered the possibility of an assault from the sky. The Governor-general of Port Glorious suddenly realized that this Army of the Prophet had done to his Cohort what he had intended to do to them; bypassed his frontal defense and struck at his heart behind his own lines.
“Fall back!” the general yelled. “Fall back to the Aether Well! Protect the Well!”
Qistan could not see the Tribune. Chaos had exploded among the ranks of the elven warriors. The gray-blue dragon relentlessly ravaged the warriors atop the city walls, driving them down into the tight streets below. The black-and-rust dragon continued to pass back and forth across the city, breathing flames of death from the skies onto the troops as they fled in panic through the narrow passageways below.
“Captain . . . what is your name!” Qistan demanded.
“Neirah, General!” the captain responded, his sharp teeth chattering despite the warmth of the morning.
“Where are the Tribunes?” Qistan demanded.
“I don’t know, General,” the elf replied. “My own Tribune is dead, dragged from the wall by one of those dragons and dropped outside. We are without a Tribune, General.”
“You are now Tribune Neirah,” Qistan barked. “Rally your Octian and anyone else you can find. We have to . . .”
A brilliant flash of light exploded from the subatria of his home near the center of the town. An expanding dome of energy radiated outward with terrible speed, passing over Qistan and dissipating across the hills and the waters to the south. The avatria rose upward with the wave, tumbling sideways before smashing down just to the north of Centurai Gate, falling sideways and collapsing the wall. The wave rushed outward, passing over the wall where the Governor-general stood. Qistan nearly fell, not from its impact for it passed over them like a sudden wind but from its absence.
He nearly stumbled from the sudden lack of Aether.
The magic was gone.
How could this have happened? Qistan’s mind raced, trying to comprehend the incomprehensible. How could everything have fallen apart so quickly?
“To the galleys,” Qistan said to the newly-minted Tribune Neirah. “We’ve got to get to the galleys and escape. Get word to everyone you can to converge on the galleys and set sail at once!”
“We are . . . abandoning the city?” Neirah blinked.
“Yes, if we can,” Qistan said. “Tell everyone to rendezvous at Point Erebus in three days’ time. Then we’ll plan what to do next!”
“But, General, the Will of the Emperor is . . .”
“Run, Tribune!” Qistan barked. “Or there will be none of us left to care about the Will of the Emperor!”
The Emperor’s Gate of Port Glorious shattered beneath them. The manticores poured into the city.
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