“This is quite worrisome,” spoke the first prince, ‘Bradley Avon Leonhardt’. It had been almost two weeks since he had sent Petra to the western borders to investigate the strange mana phenomenon, yet she had not returned- not a single message to inform him that her inspection may have required additional time. No, this was too out of character; the most likely scenario was that something had occurred and she could not reach him. “What to do,” his hands that were working through various paperwork ceased as he leaned back onto his chair. There were a few things he could do, but sending in more people when even his top agent was compromised may not be the best idea.
“Is something the matter, your highness?” a familiar and rotund man named ‘Bruont Aidus Shirley’ entered his study carrying more paperwork. It was honestly too much work for a single man, but these needed to be processed in order for the country to stay functional. Picking his pen back up, the first prince resumed his endeavour through the mountain of documents.
“Lord Bruont,” he acknowledged the man’s entrance. “I was simply getting a little worried because my agent had yet to return from the west.”
“Ah yes, that ‘Petra’ woman you sent to investigate the mana phenomenon?” Minister Bruont turned his gaze towards the calendar hanging by a nearby wall. “Yes, it’s been about two weeks since then. Though, if I’m recalling correctly, wasn’t the incident area still far off from the capital? Accounting for travel time, isn’t it a little premature to be getting worried?”
Had it been anyone else it would’ve been a valid argument. “That would normally be the case if her unit rode on normal horse-pulled carriages, however they are a specialized ‘mobile strike’ (assassination) unit that has learnt to utilize ‘Gaunt Steeds’.” Gaunt Steeds were a special breed of undead horses that had been tamed by many of the races throughout the world. They were slightly larger and beefier than the average horse and often had a dark blue to dark grey colouration about them. However, by far the most recognizable feature of these terrifying horses was their soulless red eyes that glimmered through the darkness. Not only were these Gaunt Steeds much faster than normal horses, they also required no rest on the account of them being undead- if anything the riders were the ones that needed periodic intermission to recoup stamina. They were also said to become intangible to those they have not recognized as worthy riders.
“Ohh! Gaunt Steeds, my word. I’ve heard only a handful of people in this country could ride them,” Minister Bruont added in an almost excited manner. That wasn’t empty praise either as learning to ride one of these ghastly mounts was the equivalent to mastering an entire set of martial arts. In fact, a prerequisite to even attempt to learn to ride these horses was to be a master of at least one martial arts form.
“On those mounts it would’ve taken her less than forty hours to reach the target destination. So you can imagine my distress when such a competent unit has gone dark under my direct orders. Perhaps this is a much more serious issue than we originally gave credence for,” the prince let out a sigh, unsure of how he should now approach this potentially dangerous situation. With the Baliazoural Empire’s army banging at their doors to the east, and now this to the west, he couldn’t but feel sandwiched by these burdens. “I’d rather not have to pull out an entire company off the eastern front lines just to deal with this issue, but there may be no other choice.”
The rounded Minister cleared his throat hesitantly as he spoke, “ahem, it pains me to be the bearer of bad news, your highness, but there is one more problem that demands your attention.”
“Yes, several of the War Ministers believed the situation wasn’t dire enough and retired back to their territories. From a certain perspective that may even be a good thing, but the problem is that they’ve also pulled out their reserve soldiers. Those soldiers were scheduled to be sent to the front lines to support the defences, however now there is a gigantic hole in our formation. For now the first princess- your older sister- is doing everything she can to hold position and prevent the enemy soldiers from getting through, but I’m uncertain how much longer she can maintain the status quo.”
Hearing this horrendous turn of events, the first prince’s pen stopped moving for a moment as his fists tightened. “Are those incompetent fools competing against the Empire to see who destroys this country faster?!” After a deep breath to calm his nerves, he asked Minister Bruont in an ominously calm and hushed tone. “Lord Bruont, now that it has come to this, I can see no other alternatives; it seems to me that the time has come to flush out the parasites that are bringing the country down.”
Minister Bruont stood still for a few seconds in complete silence as he was trying to interpret what that meant. Cold sweat gathered at the centre of his palms and forehead as his eyes twitched. “You... you can’t mean, but you’re setting a dangerous precedent, your highness!”
The prince swirled his chair behind him and glanced out the window. There were roughly around a million citizens in the capital and a further three or so million spread throughout the country’s territories. The unfortunate fact of the matter was, while those incompetent Ministers of War who had been arbitrarily granted the title of ‘General’ were leeching off the country, their presence and pedigree was necessary to maintain all of Xagontetia’s dominions. The War Ministers- especially during this war- was a blessed bunch that maintained a sizeable territory each. In fact, they used the conflict against the Empire as a reason to annex the surrounding territories of other dukes and nobles in the name of ‘national defence’. Out of the previously thirty territories of Xagontetia, there were now only six, and all of them under the control of the Ministry of War.
Thus it was difficult to forcefully remove them without leading to massive disorganization and decentralization of power. If such a thing happened, then it could lead to the collapse of the entire country. Even through all their greed and corruption, they each had a vested interest in maintaining at least a minimum standard for their responsible lands. This had been why the first prince, against his own sanity, had withheld his intention to remove these parasitic ministers until now; the middle of a war wasn’t a good time to removal all the Chiefs-of-Staff. Much less a power-vacuum, it’d lead to a power-black-hole that couldn’t be closed.
However, from this recent news, the first prince had finally come to understand that even if he had to risk the stability of his whole country, these leeches needed to be dealt with now. If not, they would drag the entire country down to the ground faster than the Empire’s army would.
“Lord Bruont,” he started. “I look out the window and see citizens who have placed their trust in our government. Yet, far from meeting that trust, the only thing we’ve ever done for them is exploit them to further our own gains. Perhaps... just perhaps, it’s time we started giving back to the citizens? And maybe once we’ve gotten over this long overdue issue, we can focus on more important matters.”
“While I can certainly see your reasoning, the forceful removal of all Chief-of-Staff would lead to major issues. The lack of personnel being one, but more than that, if you do decide to go with this then it’d be an express ticket to hell, your highness.”
“At this point, anyone with half a brain would serve better in those roles. And while I’m not one to promote family out of nepotism, there are some amongst the Royal Family and their retainers that could fulfil the roles the War Ministers have had. As for your second worry... Well, I believe it is the duty of a leader to save their subjects, even at the cost of one’s own soul. Is it not?”
Eventually, Minister Bruont let out a resigned sigh and nodded. He too could not see any other way out. “There are no legal justifications for the... ‘forceful removal’ of the ministers. Even if you were to succeed in getting rid of those people, you’d be the one who’d have to take the ultimate responsibility, and I should not have to remind you that we are at war. If you were dismissed from your current post because of this, and I mean no offence to his majesty- the king- when I say, this country would be left without its head.”
The first prince slid open his desk’s drawer and took out a certain object. It was a small bronze statue of a Balrog- a bipedal oxen demon with wings- holding a blackened gem with a purple glow. “This is an artefact that has the power to summon high-level monsters. The summoned monsters cannot be controlled and simply go berserk. You should get what I’m trying to say, right?”
Straight out assassination would be too obvious and immediately single out the first prince due to his history of disagreement with the other War Ministers. However, as the power of this mysterious artefact was clearly beyond that of a normal Human’s, using this artefact gives wriggle room to avoid the bulk of the suspicion- at least for long enough to last the war. After that, the first prince was all too happy to take the blame and be disowned or whatever punishment.
“Where did you get such a thing?”
“I’ve had an interest in ancient labyrinths since I was young. This was something I had excavated on one of my expeditions. I never truly intended to use this, but perhaps it would be valuable in this situation.”
“How do you plan on using this?”
“Petra wasn’t my only black operations agent, though she was certainly my best. I could send some of my men to secretly activate this item around their respective homes, then pin their ‘unfortunate’ deaths on a monster raid.”
“However, wouldn’t the monsters’ continued rampage affect the surrounding towns and harm innocent civilians?”
“Luckily, the duration of the summoning lasts only about an hour. That said, there may still be a few unavoidable and... ‘acceptable’ casualties.”
“Surely someone would find it strange if multiple ministers die in the same way?”
“Perhaps they might, but who’s going to do anything about it? I can hardly imagine any of those incompetent fools had anyone who remotely cared enough about them to try anything like avenge their deaths. And, if on the off-chance that someone really started asking questions we can simply pin the blame on the Empire. We are at war after all; I don’t see why they wouldn’t target the enemy’s generals. Besides, the point isn’t to completely avert the blame, we just need to stall suspicion until the war is over. After that, I’ll take full responsibility.”
“Your highness, I don’t suppose you’ll change your mind?”
“I’ve given them all the chances in the world, yet they refuse to see reality. I’m forced into a corner with this hand.”
“Very well. Then, I’ve officially heard nothing about this conversation and therefore cannot warn my colleagues about any imminent dangers. How unfortunate.”
“Much appreciated, Lord Bruont,” replied the first prince with a serene smile as if all his problems had just disappeared from the face of the earth. “Now then, how goes our negotiation attempts with Drakenholdt and Ygdra”
“We’ve sent them a formal request for an alliance, along with a progress report on the situation, but I highly doubt they’d respond unless someone with real status- much like yourself- goes to them in person. However, having you vacate your post for too long would lead to dire consequences. It is quite the dilemma.”
“I figured as much,” sighed the prince. “How I would kill to have just one more competent personnel. Don’t you agree, Lord Bruont?”
“Indeed, your highness. If I may, I would also rather it be a beautiful woman while we’re talking about far off fantasies.”
“Hahaha! Yes, that would be delightful.”
Across the northern borders of Xagontetia laid the ancient nation of Dragons: ‘Drakenholdt’. Its aged ruler, ‘Aurendra Sinclair’, now teetering on two-hundred-years of age, lead a miniscule country with a measly population of about one-hundred-thousand. Yet, each citizen was an army on their own and possessed the power to move mountains; what they lacked in quantity, they made up for in quality.
From the peak of the highest mountain of Drakenholdt, overlooking the dominion of the Gold Dragons, the Dragon King sat upon his decorated stone throne. He had a bored look to his wrinkled face as he stroked his long white bears. “I’d really like some good wine right about now,” he muttered to himself and yawned. Surprisingly, the life of a Dragon King was rather uneventful. Of course, what insane fool would even dare to challenge the might of the land of dragons lest they desired to be instantly cremated? There was no need to worry about wars- unless it was with other dragon nations- and food wasn’t all that much of a problem either. If it came down to it, all dragons could subsist on pure mana in the air for a time being, though that was only a temporary arrangement- ‘temporary’ being a few years.
The mighty Dragon King slumped over in his throne and scratched his leg with his foot in an unbecoming manner. Then suddenly, the loud and ferocious voice of his beloved daughter rang through the hallways of the great throne room. “Father!” she yelled with an almost infuriated tone.
“Oh! Irina, my daughter,” he happily greeted. At this point he would be happy to hear any news if it would alleviate his unending boredom. “What brings you to visit your father?”
“Father, we have received a request from the Humans,” she rushed and bowed before his throne. By appearances alone she looked to be around her mid-twenties by Human standards. Her pony-tailed fiery crimson hair glimmered almost as though it were fire itself. She must’ve come straight from her training as she had still adorned her rugged and dark leather armour. They were of a basic design and offered not much damage resistance- made mostly for training. Her golden eyes glimmered angrily as she presented to her father the letter she had received from the Humans of Xagontetia.
“What do they want?” he asked.
“They’re requesting assistance to fight alongside them in their petty wars. They treat us as if we are their lapdogs to be unleashed upon their enemies!” she ground her teeth just thinking about how those ‘pathetic’ Humans were getting carried away. “Not only do they not have the courtesy to come in person, they threaten us in the letter suggesting that our mighty nation would fall to this ‘Baliazoural Empire’. Father! We should teach the Humans a lesson and lay waste to their capital!”
‘Irina Sinclair’ was the extreme kind. Ever since young she had always believed in the dominance of the Dragons over all the other races. There was certainly justification for it as they were the apex race, but Aurendra knew that there were much stronger beings. He had learnt long ago- the hard way- about being humble. About a hundred-and-fifty years ago, when he was still young, he had met a certain God that taught him that the Dragons weren’t necessarily the strongest in the world. That God did not move even an inch as he beat down Aurendra senseless through superior techniques. It was that day when the Dragon King learnt of humility.
However, his daughter- ‘Irina Sinclair’- was different. She was still young being only forty-years-old and knew little of the world outside of Drakenholdt. He had attempted to impart the lesson he learnt all those years ago onto her, but with only words and no real example she could not fathom the lessons. She must’ve understood that there could be stronger beings than the Dragons, but as long as she never saw them with her own eyes, she would never truly believe they exist.
“Irina, there’s no need to be so violent. Let the Humans do whatever they want. Or do you really want to drag the name of the Dragons down to their level?”
“N- no, that’s not what I meant, father. Forgive me,” to her there was nothing more insulting than being compared to the lesser races. “However, the Humans still need to be dealt with.”
“If the Humans wish to attack our nations, then we shall act. Otherwise, I see no point in embroiling ourselves with their problems,” was what he had to say as the Dragon King. However, truth be told, there was a small part of him that wanted to get involved if just to rid his long life of boredom. “Anyway, you need not concern yourself over them.”
“Yes father,” she nodded, though there might have been a sense of dissatisfaction within her.
“In any case, what happened to that subordinate of yours? That lone red dragon we granted refuge to. Is he still out and about?”
“About that, I have been unable to find him for the past month now. That boy always disliked the cluttered society we Gold Dragons have involved ourselves with, or so he says. ‘Prefer the open skies’ that was the last thing he told me before disappearing. That said, I believe he should be back soon.”
“Is that right? Then let us hope he returns soon with good wine.”
South-west of Xagontetia, there was a nation of Elves known as ‘Ygdra’. Since ancient times they had been a rather isolationist bunch. Almost four-hundred-years had passed since a being other than an Elf stepped foot into their territory. Yet, an envoy from the Human nation of Xagontetia had arrived at their front gates.
The Elven nation was unlike the Human’s, in that they existed only as a single entity; a single large city housing a population of about two million. How they were able to squeeze such a large population into a small corner of the continent was due of their technological capabilities. They were more advanced than most of the other races. Instead of brick houses, their dark, metallic structures entwined with trees and vegetation stretched towards the skies. Small gaps in the canopy allowed sunlight to leak through, creating a tranquil and quiet visage. The ‘Emerald City’ was another name for it. At the centre of the city existed the ‘World Tree’. Even from the outside, despite there being a large black wall in front of him, the Xagontetian envoy could see the top of the tree poking out and reaching far into the clouds.
Thus, the gates of their city were a tall, obsidian-coloured metallic wall that stretched on for several hundred metres into the sky. The lone envoy stood before it vast majesty as he held tightly onto the royal orders given to him by the first prince. Sweat rapidly dripped past his face as he prepared himself to meet the Elven representatives.
A small hole opened on the wall to let out a few Elves. Their complexion was pale and dark rings sagged under their eyes. Rather than typical elves they were somewhere in between a normal Elf and a Dark Elf. They lived in shaded cities, but not quite lacking in light. They practiced archery and magic from time to time, but alchemy and science was much more of value here. These Elves were known to be studious, trying day and night to perfect their technology and alchemy.
The leader of the Elven representative was a tall, lanky man with dishevelled hair. His ears were long, as one would expect from an Elf, but he betrayed the entire image of nature-dwelling spirits that they were widely known as. His attire was anything but natural- a white and almost sterile lab coat.
“What are you here for, Human?” asked the Elven representative. His voice was haggard and unfriendly. He looked and sounded sleep-deprived, almost drifting into a slumber between each word. His eyes, struggling to stay away, almost glared at the envoy in an intimidating manner.
“I hail from the capital of Xagontetia. By order of the first prince, we formally request an alliance with Ygdra,” the envoy announced. However, he was given only a harsh look as if he was nothing more than an annoying bug.
“We refuse. Leave.” The Elves weren’t known to be a hospitable race, but this was bordering on rudeness. He was an envoy of another country, yet he instead of being lead inside, they were discussing important diplomatic matters at their front door.
“You don’t understand; the Baliazoural Empire plans to invade this half of the continent. If our country falls, then Ygdra may be next! It is in both our country’s best interests to be allied!” the envoy tried to portray the urgency and necessity of this alliance, yet his pleas fell on deaf ears.
“If that Empire or whatever wants to invade us, they may try. They will be decimated at our gates. Now, if there is nothing else, leave.”
There was no more discussion. The Elves retreated behind their vast walls and the envoy sent back.