Saga - Prologue II:

SAGA

The Empire Falling Chronicles

 

Prologue I: What Has Gone Before

 

            Within the Academy at Matta over six thousand students could learn the arts and disciplines from masters from all over the Empire.  Every cycle, more and more students would enrol with the hope that they would some day take their places within the academic elite and play their part in making the realm a more prosperous and knowledgeable place for each generation to follow.  For over two thousand five hundred cycles this had been the aim of the Old Imperium since its foundation and the initial discoveries about what the Weavers referred to as the Enigma.  The Academy at Matta was but one of such universities but it was still the largest and to be granted access to learn within the marble halls and ancient libraries was an honour unto itself as it predated the Empire itself as both a fortress and as a learning institute by yet another four hundred cycles.

            Of all of the lecturers in the Academy, Jenna remembered one in particular.  Despite his talent for digressing from the subject at hand, Cadwick was a man of considerable knowledge and many a humorous story to share with the class.  She liked him because he was like the kindly elder that everyone wish they were related to, so she spent more and more time listening in to his other lecturers and picked up on other issues, despite her father’s wishes for her.

            Jenna had, from her earliest years, been superb with tactical games.  Not only had she beaten her brothers but her father and all of his friends also.  She had then gone on to use these logical and strategic skills to best all within her school and, during one of her fathers’ parties; she bested one of the local militia commanders.  It was upon being soundly thrashed at what he claimed was his favourite game that he wrote a sterling letter of recommendation that had her placed within the Academy.

            Cadwick was her tutor for several years but in subjects less orientated around military skills.  He was more interested in philosophy and literature, coupled with a teaching technique that erred the students in to contemplating the questions and several students displayed various different methods in figuring out the answer to Cadwick’s ponderings.  Through this, Cadwick examined his class and ascertained further understanding of how other people, especially his students, learned to solve problems.

            It was whilst she was observing one of his lectures that Lokric crept up behind her and said quietly,

            “You know that the results have been posted?”

            “I do.”

            “Aren’t you going to check yours?” Lokric asked further.

            “Not until Cadwick has finished his lecture and I have seen him.” She replied, finally turning to look at him.

            Lokric had very intense, sharp features in such a fashion that it reminded many people of a hunting bird akin to the one that he kept and flew.  He was quite handsome, though Jenna had thought him not quite her type.  He had blonde her that draped round his chin and thin blue eyes that never left his quarry until he was done with them.  Born in to one of the noble families of Matta, he was the first son and was expecting to inherit a great deal shortly since his father had fallen ill.  He was wearing his customary navy blue silks and shin high boots where he kept his dagger, an heirloom gifted to him on his fifteenth cycle.  He had joined the Academy at the same time as Jenna and was learning the military practices, though his forte was more in martial mastery.

            He turned his attention to Cadwick who stood at his podium in the centre of the auditorium, currently sipping at a goblet.

            “Where was I?” Cadwick placed the goblet down and absently brushed at his lips with a thumb, “Ah yes…  Agart was determined to rediscover the diaries Lord Menak had secreted away but, knowing that Manek would only allow him to read them if he proved himself worthy of his cause, Agart decided to do what?”

            A selection of hands rose from the lower circles and Cadwick pointed to one of them, seemingly at random,

            “He raised an army at the expense of the House of Wyvern’s Claw.”

            “That he did,” Cadwick smiled, “but whom did he attack first?”

            Another show of hands and another student chosen seemingly at random,

            “The House of Glass Shadows?”

            “Ah, that we have never had proven,” Cadwick shook his head, “and although we cannot discount the possibility that the House was attacked, it is unlikely that the House will ever discuss where or when or even by what means and with what numbers.  Officially, we must account whom was the first struck?”

            “Harrana Castle and the House of the Eternal Sun.”

            “Indeed it was,” Cadwick replied, “and the Castle fell within the space of a single day.  One of the mightiest castles within the empire was felled in a single night and then advanced upon, although it was fully capable of repelling a siege of that magnitude.  Why?”

            Oddly, the number of hands was few.

            “Because it was a surprise attack?”

            “Because someone let them in?”

            “Because they thought the army was there to reinforce them?”

            Each of the answers were wrong but Cadwick did not provide them with an answer and, almost with a glance, he prompted Jenna to respond.  She raised her hand as per with his practice within his lectures, and he accepted her suggestion.

            “It was because he did not send in the army.  He hid the army and sent in his elite fighters as peasants.  They assassinated the Baroness while her child poisoned the forces.  The army approached once they saw the flames light the castle battlements.”

            Cadwick nodded solemnly.  He turned one of his pages on the podium and then continued to talk,

            “So why did the Baroness’ progeny do such a thing?”

            “The Baroness had a Kildren offspring, sired by Agart, secretly, who had taken to Menak’s teachings, as per instructed by Agart’s personal Mentor who he had left, supposedly, in the Baronesses’ service.” Jenna answered without a sign of discomfort.

“Due to this, the military were powerless to prevent the fall of the castle and the city.  As a precaution, the High Council introduced a member of the military’s High Command in to the Council and that is how it has transpired from that point on.  That is why I set your final assignment; in your opinion, and backed with the history of our realm, were the High Council to be reduced in size which would be the more expandable? Should we remove the military High Command or the Noble Elite and why?”

            There was an unnerving quiet for a moment as those present considered the assignment and what it was that they had been asked to do, Cadwick put a relieving end to the silence by dismissing the class with a kindly message of goodwill.  Jenna, wordlessly, stood and headed down in to the forum and smiled as she approached.  Cadwick met her with a similar grin as he put his papers and books in to a satchel.

            “Are you intentionally looking for trouble with High Command?  You know that Lord Onak would like to remove you from the Academy, don’t you?  Asking the students to consider the position of the High Command is kind of like slapping them in the face with a gauntlet.”

            “Perhaps,” Cadwick chuckled, “but then the military’s role in the High Council is something of great debate none-the-less and history does dictate that our sovereignty is rife with private affairs that can have severe repercussions upon our people.  I do recognise the need for our military and nobility, but while they have excessive influence within the High Council, they have approved larger and larger budgets which, given the growth in population, we ought to be considering money to be invested in to agriculture and the maintenance of our cities as opposed to arranging for a war we cannot even see coming or the so-called ‘affairs-of-the-state’.”

            Cadwick finished the sentence with a particularly sarcastic tone.

            “But is it not the purpose for the military to be there during a time of unforeseen dangers?  And as for the nobility, we also have a grand history of leadership that is not in turmoil.  I think it more prudent to have more people on the Council for a more democratic society.”

            Cadwick laughed gleefully,

            “My dear girl, I very much wish that you had been learning with us as opposed to ushering your talents toward unseen battlefields we could all do without.  History is the building blocks upon which each civilisation is founded upon.  By understanding that which has gone before, we can improve, evolve and slowly reach a higher state of being.”

            It was Jenna’s opportunity to chuckle,

            “I am a soldier, Teacher Cadwick, not a philosopher.  What you are suggesting will not be accomplished in your or my life time.”

            “Then whose?” Cadwick maintained his grin.

            She shrugged and turned as Lokric approached.  He walked with the sure footed grace of a duellist in the making and his eyes were still locked on to the elderly man.

            “My father has spoken of you, as has my mother.  They have different opinions about you.”

            Cadwick looked back to him and replied with a knowing smile,

            “You are Lokric?  I have heard many promising things from Teacher Hagen concerning your athletics.  He professes that you are perhaps his finest student in weapon mastery.”

            “I am Lokric and I now see why a man such as you can cause such controversy.  May I ask you a question?”

            “Please do,” Cadwick broadened his smile and appeared to be eagerly awaiting a challenge, “what is on your mind?”

            “I understand that the question must be asked in order to start the evaluation of a given state, but to begin an evaluation of High Command and the budget constraints now, with the rumours of troop movements beyond our borders, seems like a bad time to question the bigger picture.”

            “Lokric!” Jenna swung, shocked at his question, “What are you saying!?”

            “No, if he wishes to justify himself, then I wish him to teach me.  I want to know what it is he’s teaching these students.  I want to learn.” Lokric did not shift his gaze from the old man, speaking with the conviction that made him a leader of soldiers.

            Cadwick nodded and approached him with a broad smile,

            “Yes, my boy!  Yes!”

            Jenna had never seen the old man so enthused, “Teacher Cadwick?”

            “Lokric, dear boy, these young men and women are learning to become our next politicians and philosophers, the next leaders of our realm when war is not an issue.  They are going to be tried with various tasks and they need to know how to overcome them through the use of their own insight when the hand of the military cannot prevail.  They must question the role of each of these precise cogs in the machine to understand how and why they work.”

            Cadwick stood a little straighter and returned Lokric’s unwavering gaze,

            “While many might misinterpret my intentions, I assure you that when they return their written works I shall not be grading them based upon their opinions but upon their reasoning for the answers.  Note that I have placed no constraints on my students; they can quite happily reply that neither should be removed and perhaps the cuts should come from elsewhere.  We should ask all the questions, not just the ones that we feel comfortable with.”

The elderly man clapped his hands and plucked up his satchel and turned to them both,

“Have you eaten, yet?”

 

*****

 

            The Cornerstone was the name of a fine little restaurant on Matta’s tiered plateaus.  Cadwick was enjoying toasted raisin buns.  He’d taken a liking to cutting them in half and spreading butter on them whilst drinking a calming tisane.  On most evenings, he would come to this plateau and this restaurant so that he could watch the sun go down on the opposite side of the valley wall.  It was a quiet ritual that the old man went through, knowing that these were moments that were a kind of reward for having thought about them.  But tonight he had company.

            Jenna and Lokric sat about the table with Cadwick, both with a goblet of wine.  Lokric and Cadwick, it seemed to Jenna, had struck something of a bond.  They had conferred notes about the other lecturers and made notes of other promising students but Jenna could feel the conversation up in her bones…

            “And what do you think of Lord Onak’s decision to move troops to intercept the forces over the border?” Lokric jabbed the question in like a knife under mail.

            “I believe he may be walking in to a trap.” Cadwick replied with just as much ferocity.

            “You believe it a trap?  To lure him out?”

            “Not quite.  A trap to lure anybody out.” Cadwick corrected him, “It’s a psychological move.  These movements have been reported for months now and all they’ve been doing is scaring town folk.  But when you send a force out to look at it, they tend to respond in kind.  They intend to overwhelm Lord Onak and strike the first blow.”

            “A first strike?  What precisely do you think this is?” Jenna asked.

“This is the dawn of an invasion.” Cadwick replied sullenly.

The three of them were quiet for several moments until Lokric lifted his goblet to his mouth and downed the remainder of the wine and hollered the serving wench closest.

“Well, I was wondering when I was going to get to take part in my first campaign.  What better way to get started then to defend your home lands from an unseen invader.  Have you heard of who or what they are?”

Cadwick raised an eye-brow,

“I have heard nothing nor witnessed anything that would be of real use to the High Command or Council.  If you don’t mind, I can see why you are doing so well with your martial mastery.  Please, tell me, what is it that you have taken for your Aesriken?”

Lokric grinned from ear to ear,

“The Yashena Staff.”

Cadwick was in honest awe.  He suddenly found himself having to close his mouth and then find himself again.  Once he corrected himself he looked Lokric in the eye and said,

“I am a man that abhors violence and bloodshed for I have seen it with my own eyes, but I believe that the defences of our realm are all the stronger for your presence.”

Lokric humbly bowed his head and took his drink as it arrived and downed half the cup.  Jenna sipped hers and was still a little taken aback by Cadwick’s remarkable reproaches.  Cadwick happily sipped on his tisane.

“Hold on a minute,” Jenna stammered, “If you believe this to be a trap, then why haven’t you told anyone!?”

“I have,” Cadwick’s face suddenly looking a little down, “They didn’t believe me.  Lord Onak, himself, asked me to stop being foolish and leave military matters to the military.”

“So what are you going to do Cadwick?  If the invasion is imminent, can you get out?” Jenna asked.

“Should I need to?  I believe two of the finest officers in our Legions can defend me.” He gave them a wink and then, with a shudder, wrapped himself tighter.

“It’s coming in a little chilly tonight, so I believe it is time for me to head on home to bed.  Where is Jared?”

“Jared?” Jenna asked.

“Yes, he’s one of the students.  He was left in my care when his father died.  He has triumphed in much the same way you have; he’s being accepted in to the Watchmen.”

Jenna and Lokric glanced at each other, quite surprised to suddenly be dropped with this revelation: Cadwick had a son!  Albeit adopted, Cadwick had managed to keep that one quiet.  They were both speechless, even when a youth of their age with long brown hair around his shoulders darted around the corner carrying a large basket of groceries.

“Hey, Cadwick!  What have I told you about drinking all that tisane!?”

“Oh, you do fuss, boy.” Cadwick mumbled, “Jared, I would like you to meet Jenna and Lokric.”

Lokric recognised the boy immediately, Jenna hadn’t seen him before.

“You… you’re Cadwick’s son?” stammered Lokric.

“He’s my adoptive father, aye.” Jared replied, his accent oddly strong with a northern accent, “I saw you in the Martial Courts yesterday.  You have incredible technique.  Perhaps we could spar sometime?”

Lokric stood up and appeared to still be dumb-founded,

“You’re the one that Cadwick took in?  How can that be so?”

Jared was a little baffled but it was Cadwick that intervened.

“He’s an excitable boy.  I am well aware of the incident in the library, the discrepancy in the stables and the misfortunate qualm, today, in the soldiers mess.  And I was to be having a word with him about it.”

“I’m glad,” Lokric barked, “Two of those lads are fine troops and I need them…”

Cadwick took hold of Jared’s wrist and said as clearly as he could,

“Well done, my boy.  Did you give them a good kicking?”

“They were soldiers?  It’s a good thing I’m going in to the Watchmen; if the military fight like that then I’d be holding myself back.”

Jenna locked one hand on Lokric’s shoulder and placed her other arm tightly around his mid-riff, dragging Lokric back.

“Why you little…” Lokric blurted as Jenna put her weight in to it, “I ought to teach you what fighting one of our soldiers is really like!”

“Now, boys!” Cadwick shook his hand between the two of them, “Calm down.  We need all our best in defence of the realm.”

Lokric settled, but the urge to just thump Jared in the eye was anything but dissipating.  They each went their separate way, though there was a moment, as Jenna pulled Lokric away, escorting him with the sense to keep him talking so he can blow it all out, and while Jared supported the frail Elder away, the two of them glanced back at each other.  That would not be the last time they would see each other.

 

*****

 

            Lord Onak died at the confrontation in which he led over twelve hundred troops.  The word got back to Matta within the day.  Some would say that the word was perhaps a bit too quick, but none-the-less, it was the word that one of the Empires greatest warriors had died against a foe that no one had seen anything of.

Within a season, Matta was taken.  The capitol city for the House of the Eternal Sun, disrupted at its core, had very little chance of defending itself.  Despite having the Legions, they were assaulted deep in the night by soldiers already within the city walls.  The city did not dare open its gates, knowing that amongst the hills was an army just waiting to run in and cut them all down, but no matter what resistance was put up to try and stop the soldiers already within the walls, it was flawed as soon as someone realised that they could “disappear in to shadows”.

There was also the cry of poisonings.

When chaos ensued and no one wanted to come out of their homes, the army was literally let in.  Citizens did what they could to escape Matta and flee in to the wilderness.

Lokric and Jenna had been placed in to the same Legion and when the city fell, Jenna was the one to give the order to abandon the city.  They fought their way out and even then, only a handful of their original company survived; a mere six of them out of two thousand.

A season after the final break, Jenna heard from another traveller that an eye-witness had seen Cadwick struck down by one of the invaders.  All those years of knowledge and wisdom snuffed out when so many more could have learned from him.  Perhaps the sweetest man she had ever known.

But Lokric had a different view of the outcome.  Now they had seen the opposition and Lokric was quiet for several days as he came to terms with what it was that he had been fighting.  His foe was no man, nor was it one of the mythic folk; the feeling was all wrong.  These were something so very different.  They were monsters, plated carapace that looked like man-made armour grafted to their flesh, gleaming blood red, and more swift than he had expected.  They were Daemons.  The advance party had to have been summoned.  But he had no understanding of the Enigma and merely attacked them as and how he could.  He had tallied an incredible body count on his way out of the city, but he had lost something along the way.  Something inside him.

The small company made it their mission to run a message of the invasion to one of the other core Houses and give them as much information as they could.  They succeeded in their goal, losing another of their number along the way, but allowing the other Houses to fortify themselves for the trails to come.  Cadwick had been right, it was an invasion, but Jenna had to wonder if he thought that it would be an invasion inspired to take over the whole Realm?

Either way, the Sentinel War had started and for the first time since the death of the Last Emperor, the Realm was slowly falling and to a vicious adversary in much the same way as it had done before, though this time, there was no Emperor to sacrifice himself to save anyone.