The Obelisk had reappeared.
Now the entire Southern Army of Altaxia stood marshalled on Brokenwood Plain, almost one hundred miles southeast of the fortress city of Aquina. The panicked response of the populace and the mobilization of the Altaxian army followed the same sequence as it had many times before. For millennia, the appearance of the Crystal Obelisk was portent of the impending arrival of the Dark Conjurer. Despite the ages through which the Obelisk had appeared, it was always exactly the same pristine and indestructible azure crystal, and it was always in the same place, appearing at the extreme southern edge of the enormous Augustine mountain range. The dreaded Obelisk had appeared once again just five days ago. From time immemorial it was always on the morning of the sixth day after the Obelisk appeared, that the Dark Conjurer returned and battle commenced.
The Dark Conjurer’s unwelcome visit, with his host of supernatural and out-world creatures, occurred perhaps once in every generation. Many thousands of Altaxian troops, trained since childhood and battle hardened from border clashes and terrestrial warfare, would perish within hours. The formidable White Sparks also fell in large numbers and even the almost immortal Sentinels sometimes died — or at least returned to wherever it was that Sentinels sprang from. If the defence mounted by the Southern Armies of Altaxia, under the command of the Knight Marshall failed, then the Emperor himself might be forced to join the fray to protect venerable Altaxia from the god-like Dark Conjurer, the perpetual bane and ever-threatening doom of the great Empire.
Fifty-one years ago, the last of these perennial battles went ill for the Empire. Lasting fully five days, eight Sentinels perished along with sixty aerial forces, the elite White Sparks, and more than two-thirds of the Empire’s Southern Armies also lay dead, mad or mortally wounded — more than eighty-five thousand souls. In the end, Emperor Gilaxian, the seventy-sixth of that name, had taken to the field with the remaining Sentinels and the Conjurer was finally repulsed. In the closing encounter, the Emperor had been critically wounded, and although most of the vile creatures summoned forth by the Dark Conjurer had also been dispatched, many had escaped into the marshes, forests and mountains that surrounded the principle battleground.
The Emperor took years to recover and was never fully restored. Even now, a half-century later, some conjured dragons, wyverns, imps and other unnatural and exotic creatures survived in remote parts of the Southern realms, despite repeated eradication campaigns and the creature’s own distaste for their magically transported and transfigured brethren. The new Emperor Gilaxian, the seventy-seventh of that name, had pledged devotion to more than the usual protection of Altaxia, he had bowed to popular appeal and committed to the complete destruction of the Dark Conjurer. In recent years, rumour had circulated that Emperor Gil had found his own out-world weapons and that he now keenly awaited the arrival of the Crystal Obelisk and the return of the Dark Conjurer.
Altaxia, for those who studied history, was no longer the glorious Empire of old. The enormous cost of the last encounter with the Dark Conjurer had robbed the great land of over eighty thousand virile and powerful young men. Beyond their deaths alone, the Empire declined as their great leader was retired to a lengthy recovery. To make matters worse, the benevolent Sentinels and their magic, critical to sustaining the affluence of the lands, and the morale of the people, had been vastly reduced as another destabilizing effect of the losses on Brokenwood Plain.
When the new Emperor was enthroned almost two decades ago, it was amid promise of a new renaissance and a golden era for the Empire. The reality however, of the military expansion the Emperor mandated for his planned destruction of the Dark Conjurer, had been an additional imposition on the already weakened resources and economic power of Altaxia. The impressive force, now amassed on Brokenwood Plain, was the finest and largest ever deployed by Altaxia and yet it was also one of its biggest gambles. The strength of arms was astounding, and yet should this encounter fail or lead to losses similar to those of half-a-century before, it could be a killer blow from which the Empire may never recover. Many commentators, court officials and the more astute in academia knew that the entire Empire may now be riding upon the outcome of this escalated conflict. Many at court wondered whether the Dark Conjurer could actually be destroyed or whether the up-scaled engagement would simply lead to more casualties and more destruction.
Knight Marshall Arte Morigan, the Supreme Commander of the Southern Armies surveyed his deployed forces with pride. One of the most highly decorated veterans of the last Obelisk War, the Knight Marshall was a living treasure of the Empire. Despite his advancing age, having seen some seventy-five summers, he remained an imposing physical specimen. At almost seven feet tall and with more spring in his step and agility than many of his Generals and Division Commanders, most of them some two-decades or more younger, the Knight Marshall inspired his army despite their full awareness of the horrors that most likely awaited them. Arte was certain that his assembled force was far superior to the one routed a half-century before, when he was a young Lieutenant leading his Decsquad of ten troopers into a hopeless battle against the Dark Conjurer and his unnatural forces.
This time, the Southern Armies totalled over two-hundred-thousand highly trained troops, more than half as many again as took the field in the last Obelisk campaign. The Emperor had ensured they were better equipped, more experienced, and more prepared than any Altaxian force before them. The innovations in the Sentinel’s dream training regime, instituted by edict of the new Emperor, had sharpened the regular troops skills and had also revealed far more potential aerial adepts suitable for training as elite White Sparks. The highly valuable White Spark units now had almost five hundred specialist flying warriors, more than four-times the compliment that was decimated at the last encounter. Fully half of the White Spark force was ready for immediate deployment upon Brokenwood Plain. The remainder stood in reserve, either with the Emperor or allocated to the protection of other strategic assets that could become targets of the Dark Conjurer.
Finally the Sentinels themselves had been restored to full glory. Magically empowered, the Sentinels were the reclusive royalty of the Empire, and as far as Arte knew, they were back at full strength despite the past losses among their almost immortal ranks. Although Arte was unclear on the number of the disconcertingly long-lived and mercurial Sentinel Lords, he had personally encountered at least a dozen of them over the years, and had heard the Emperor’s current retinue may be close to twice that number. Although Sentinels outranked all but the Emperor himself, and kept their own council and battle plans, they were kept informed of the Knight Marshall’s strategies and it was certainly reassuring to know that as many as a dozen would be at hand to deal with the more supernatural elements of the coming conflict and the more direct magical attacks of the Dark Conjurer himself.
Then there was the Emperor. Arte knew something different, really different, was planned for this campaign and that gave him some greater measure of confidence. Arte was an experienced campaigner in more traditional military engagements and a fearless warrior. Still he feared the unknowable powers of both the Dark Conjurer as well as his own Emperor, almost as much as his common soldiers feared the myths that surrounded them. Despite his years of experience, he understood precious little of the supernatural forces at play, and felt consternation at what tomorrow might bring as he considered what the Emperor’s new weapon might involve. Surely it would be something of marvel and deliver stunning victory for the Empire.
Perhaps the plan had something to do with the Crystal Torqs, rumoured to have been hard won in some covert off-world campaign mounted by the Sentinels years ago. Possibly it was connected to an even more bizarre rumour of a fearful creature, kept under the most secure guard at Veritas, the Emperor’s summer retreat upon the Great Lake Mirramar. Perhaps something else altogether, in any case, thought Arte, I need to put unfounded hopes of a bizarre miracle out of my mind and stay focused on the direct orders of Prince Arrek. The Knight Marshall had been given the most clear instruction … keep the enemy engaged for 48 hours, no matter what the cost. The Southern Army must stand its ground on the Brokenwood Plain and force the enemy to stall in any advance. It would be a bloody battle with two forces locked out in the open in effective hand-to-hand combat. The order, direct from the Emperor was clear and left no room for confusion or failure, there must be absolutely no advancing force when dawn came on the third day.
In deep thought on orders and deployments, strategies and counter-strategies that could halt a difficult and undoubtedly magically imbued foe, Arte did not hear the Sentinel materialize just behind his right shoulder. “Lost in thought are we Knight Marshall?” inquired the now corporeal Sentinel Arrek, Prince of the Palace and Grand Duke of Lamont.
“Not at all your Majesty” replied Arte, “in fact, I was contemplating the enemies likely early gambits and how I might restrain them for 48 hours without loosing all of my troops. I should like to have an army remaining, should the battle demand a longer engagement,” baited Morigan with a humourless but light hearted tone. “I am of course most curious as to the benefit of holding the enemy stationary your Majesty, when such a stratagem is likely to result in a most rapid rate of loss amongst our principle campaign force. … I would most appreciate any further instruction on what we may have planned for the third day?” added the Knight Marshall, wondering if the Sentinel might elaborate on the Emperor’s plan.
“That is in fact why I am here Supreme Commander,” teased Arrek with a similar lack of humour. “Please ensure your command staff and Colonel Taylum are in the Grondholm Hall at sunset to greet the Emperor upon his arrival at Brokenwood this evening!” finished Arrek, knowing his comment and the announcement of the Emperor’s impending attendance would most likely stun Morigan to silence.
After a moment, the Knight Marshall using a most formal reply to cover his shock, replied “Prince Arrek, the Commanders of the Southern Army of the Empire of Altaxia will be most ready to receive his Empiric Majesty Gilaxian, the seventy-seventh of that name, and his retinue at Grondholm the evening”. Still reeling at the thought of an audience with the Emperor in person, only the second time in as many decades, Arte concluded by adding “with your Majesty’s permission, I will retire and make ready for the Emperor’s arrival?”
“Of course Supreme Commander! May you lead our forces to swift and glorious victory for the Emperor after you receive his blessing this evening” added the Sentinel with softening formality, “and let’s hope we may survive this battle and what we may unleash in the process” added Sentinel Arrek to himself under his breath as he disappeared into thin air as instantly as he had arrived.
The Knight Marshall found his adjutant Colonel Paxor and instructed him to gather the commanders and Colonel Taylum, the legendary leader of the White Sparks, and command them report to the old Castle at Grondholm to welcome the Emperor. Grondholm had always been the command Head Quarters for the encounters with the Dark Conjurer, given its proximity to the Crystal Obelisk. Grondholm was the name of both the converted castle and fortified town that had been the seat of power for the Earl of Brokenwood in antiquity. For millennium, it had been a purely military base with a supporting army town focused only upon the defence of the Empire from the Dark Conjurer and his forces. Arte left the field and commenced the three-mile horse ride back to Grondholm, momentarily feeling the full force of his advanced age. “The Emperor arriving here on the eve of the battle … that has to be good” thought Arte to himself without any real conviction.