Well friends, February is here and- even though that darn woodchuck saw his shadow and cursed us with another 6 weeks of winter- spring is coming. That doesn’t give our heroes from Tomorrow’s Demise an respite however. War is hell, my friends. Thank you all for the positivity over the past year as I rolled out chapter after chapter of my tale. Because of that, I have decided that it just wouldn’t be cool of me to leave you hanging. So, that being said, let’s dive back in to the world of Helscape and see how the survivors pick up the pieces. I present to you chapter one of Tomorrow’s Demise: Paths of Salvation.
It is said that the greatest stories of heroes are wrought from the ashes of tragedy. But where, if anywhere, do villains come from? Historians dither, bickering back and forth over the origins of evil without conclusion. For the people still brave enough to attempt a life in the Wastelands of Helscape their villains were born from the delusions of a madman…
The first whispers of sunlight stretching across the vast sands warmed Aeginion Xurilious as he stood atop the eastern battlements looking down onto his beloved city. It was the one time of day he felt in tune with his kingdom. He was the desert king, lord of Regwin Hold and the thousands of surrounding leagues of open desert. Guards dressed in blue and tan patrolled the walls all around, each knowing better than to disturb their liege.
Aeginion was already approaching his mid-sixties. He wore his shoulder length hair, now white from age, tied behind a simple band of silver. Crowns were for kings of stories and ceremony, not working monarchs struggling alongside their subjects. His skin cast a bronze hue from decades of exposure under Telgeise’s twin suns. It was wrinkled and leathery. Aeginion was slightly overweight but managed to carry it well enough to not be a burden.
Knuckled fists rested on the crenellation. Below sprawled Regwin Hold. The pride of the desert empire, the city was a beacon for hope and peace. Thousands flocked to her walls in search of a better life. Marble towers jut high into the sky, their bulbous crowns painted dark blue. Brick and stone buildings stretched for endless miles in every direction. Palm trees lined the hardened sand roads along with a variety of drought resistant shrubs. Wells and fountains fed off the main canal running all the way to Northern Ocean, lending majesty to the city.
Regwin Hold was the bearer of hope, yet it stood ready to fall.
Aeginion was the last in a long line of men who had once dared to dream of turning the empty desert into a paradise folk would be proud of for generations. Five hundred years of history and it was all crashing down around him. He closed his eyes and thought back to the heroic tales of Curtinix Xurilious. Called pioneer by some, heretic by others, he left the plush grasslands of Kierienan to found a place where man might truly be free. If ever such a place existed it was in the Wastes of Telgeise.
When Curtinix was felled in battle with the invaders from the Northlands, Hrolgrat took up the family mantle and began the foundations of immense gardens and cultivated sands. Groves of fruit trees began springing up throughout the empire as the desert slowly began the transformation process. The king was proclaimed a hero, a sentiment now lost on Aeginion.
But it wasn’t always so. When Aeginion first assumed the mantle of leadership he had dreams of making the Wastes into so much more. His popularity grew over the decades as the work of his ancestors neared fruition. He snorted. It all seemed like a dream now. The golden age of his family’s name was gone. Broken like waves upon the shore. He’d sired only daughters, and though he loved them more than life, they would never be tolerated as legitimate heirs to his kingdom.
Aeginion watched each sunrise with renewed interest, the knowledge that so few remained to him weighing heavily on his soul. He’d briefly thought of fleeing. Of taking his children and leaving the Wastes. But such cowardice wasn’t in his character. He was king, and a king needed to stand when all others broke.
“Why do you wear that long face, father?” asked a soft voice from behind.
Aeginion smiled warmly, recognizing his eldest daughter from the soft sounds of her slippered footsteps. The smell of her perfume was a welcome change from the grunge of his military advisors. She was the one thing he found more enchanting that the dual suns of his beloved world. And he lacked the heart to discuss the source of his lament.
His tired eyes continued to look over his kingdom. Down into the once flourishing community built around grand halls. Past the hundreds of acres of orchards and irrigated fields, and on into the open desert beyond. Beyond where the great Northern Army massed.
Jiena Xurilious smiled at her father. She was the vision of beauty. Raven dark hair spilled over her shoulders to mid-back, accenting her sun darkened skin. She had eyes so brown, so dark they appeared black in the right light. High cheek bones and angled features came from her father.
Finally, when he couldn’t stand ignoring her any longer, Aeginion turned. “Jiena, my heart, you should still be sleeping. A proper heir to the empire needs her rest.”
She offered a timid laugh in reply. “Father, you know full well I can’t succeed you. The Council of Governors won’t permit it.”
She moved to him before he could further protest, slipping her arms around his waist with a loving hug. “Besides, why can’t a daughter share her father’s most cherished time? I miss the days of my childhood where I used to sit upon your lap and watch the world go by.”
“Those were…simpler times.”
He looked deep into her eyes and saw so much of her mother locked within it brought a tear to his eye. That now familiar lump formed in his throat. This one truth he had to tell was a much harder deed than any he’d ever been forced to commit since his coronation.
“Jiena, there are forces in this world no man can explain. We live and die on the whim of faceless gods. Even then I think we are no more than playthings for their sick amusements.”
“It’s about the invasion, isn’t it?” she asked, being no stranger to his word games. The northern invaders had forced their way across the river and three quarters of the desert and now stood on the verge of conquering Regwin Hold. It was impossible not to know.
Still, Aeginion was slightly shocked. “How could you possibly know? We’ve taken precautions not to let any of you know until the threat was dealt with.”
“The walls have ears, father, and the servants are rare to hold their tongues when it comes to matters of state. And besides, I am the daughter of kings. I too have my sources.”
She beamed at this last, knowing his pride would shine through. It was a rare deed to outwit her father.
His smile was warm and filled his heart. “You always were the brightest. Very well. Our forces are no match for the Northern armies. We are attempting to raise a suitable defense with each new engagement yet they manage to cut through us like a sand dragon’s breath.”
Jiena shuddered at the thought of what had thus far turned out to be a faceless enemy. Like most people, she’d never seen one of the pale skinned invaders. The knowledge of their stark appearance however, was ingrained in her mind from countless tales from the walking wounded and refugees flooding west. Taller than the desert folk, the northerners were heavily muscled with cruel facial features and long, black hair. Their skin was so pale it appeared white. Not as advanced as other tribes of humans, their natural aggressiveness threatened to consume the world under the heels of their foul empire. No one knew what they wanted, for they took no prisoners.
Regwin Hold was all that stood between them and total domination of the world.
The darkness fell upon them in waves just over a year ago, catching the local population unawares. Grim was the tide that first struck the southern shores. The invaders attacked with alarming precision and quickly advanced west. When word had finally reached Aeginion the barbarians were already halfway through his kingdom. He personally rallied his armies and led the counter attack down past Rook Mountain to sweep around the enemy, meeting them in the city of Helgscroft. A great and pitched battle ensued but victory fell to the invaders. Aeginion limped back to Regwin Hold with the tattered remains of his army and began to despair.
His enemies were close now. He turned from his daughter to recheck the horizon. A force of habit. Each dawn he prayed there was no sign of the enemy advance. Scouts were streaming in and out of the city hourly with news of battles and losses. Little hope remained. The king knew that now, though it pained him to admit. Endless nights were spent wondering where he went wrong and how, if possible, to correct his errors.
Jiena placed a hand upon his shoulder and squeezed. “Father, I know your worries and share them, along with every other man and woman under your banner. Take heart, I beg you. We shall find a way to win the day.”
“How can you be so sure, daughter? These Northerners fight so aggressively. I have not seen their equal. Will you still hold to hope when they storm these walls?”
Her smile turned fierce. “Even should the break down the gates and sack the Hold.”
“Would that I truly commanded the deserts I would summon forth an army of sand dragons and cast my foe away under a hail of fire and doom.” He slammed a meaty fist down. “These are dark days in which we live.”
“Keep hope, father. We may yet again rule the Wastelands.”
Her words were inspiring to his failing heart, empty as they were. Aeginion knew what was going to happen when the enemy captured Regwin Hold. The males would be taken as slaves and the females raped or beaten until they wound up dead. He couldn’t allow that to happen. Couldn’t.
An idea struck him, and he secretly hoped it might work.
“Fair Jiena, I must go now and summon the council to session. There is…a task I must attempt to accomplish before this day is done.”
“I understand, father,” she replied without catching his true meaning. “If I can be of any help please don’t hesitate to call upon me.”
Aeginion embraced her again. “You grow more like your mother by the day.”
Three months passed before the last scouts reported the Northern Army was just leagues shy of Regwin. When that fateful dawn arrived Aeginion and his best general, Krinson Haddle, stood atop the highest point in the city and watched for signs of movement. To their disappointment, the enemy force was much larger than either recalled, and this was but the vanguard.
Confident there was at least another full day before battle was joined, Aeginion hastily ordered the evacuation of the city. Everyone but the soldiers and those volunteers willing to lay down their lives was to go northwest to the city of Bastion and then escape to Daelin Isle where his wife had already established a small colony. By the time the sun set Aeginion and his valiant army were finishing last minute preparations.
Catapults were locked and loaded. Every man had a bow and a hundred shafts, still far too few to stop the horde. Traps were being constructed around the gates and walls. Aeginion knew there was no way to save his entire population but this was the best he could do. No ever had really believed the Northerners would get this far.
The enemy was close now, close enough for him to make out ranks of individuals as the vanguard marched nearer. His heart raced, much as it had during his younger years of conquest and battle. The bitter truth that he was but a fraction of that man remained hidden from his army.
Krinson stood patiently at his king’s side. His promotion was one of necessity, coming when the previous general was slain along the banks of the Angril River in the opening stages of the war. His skin was extraordinarily dark, his hair pure black. Krinson watched the enemy with the sharp eyes of a desert raptor. His pencil thin moustaches twitched in anticipation.
“Milord, the enemy is posting their picket lines. I deem they will not move before the morrow,” he said.
Aeginion agreed. “What would you do to disrupt that? They muster far more than we can muster in time to save the throne yet they choose to wait. I would crush this city with one fell swoop and yet they choose to wait.”
Krinson grimaced. “I would do the same, sire. They are in no hurry for good cause. The lands behind them have been pacified, leaving us the only real threat. If they are as smart as they have proven to be in the past they will take their time and encircle the city, slowly letting fear build. They will crush the life from us long before storming the ramparts.”
“Tell me again Krinson, why I even bother talking to you?” the king asked with wry smile. “With words like that I might fancy a jump from these walls.”
The rustle of soft wind was his only reply.
Aeginion choked on the smoke filling his lungs. His face was smeared with soot and ash. His armor stained with blood. A brilliant flash blinded the defenders, followed by an explosion dropping all to their knees. Even from his position atop the southern walls Aeginion heard the screams of those burning alive. The Northern Army had breached the outer walls and were marching on the last set of gates between them and their prize.
Krinson helped the king to his feet and together they looked towards the enemy. Bodies littered the sands, now dark red, for as far as they eye could see. Trains of dead and the dying were being conducted back across the desert and still the body count rose. Aeginion admired the ferocity with which his enemy fought, knowing that no amount of casualties were going to keep them from total victory.
“Sire, we have a problem,” Krinson said. “Jiena is still in the city.”
Aeginion felt his strength sap as his world crashed down around him. His heart instantly filled with dread. The most precious thing in his life was about to be slaughtered right alongside him. It was a pain he wasn’t willing to accept. She deserved better. He wiped at the trickle of blood running from his temple. Black smoke rose from various spots in his city, blocking his vision. Destruction beckoned them yet they fought on, buying precious time for the last few still attempting to escape. Suddenly none of that mattered. He focused solely on his daughter.
The king clasped his friend’s shoulder and said, “My friend, I have one final request for you.”
They ducked as a flaming missile from a barbarian catapult screamed overhead to explode against the tower. With the barbarian artillery in range there would be little time left.
“Take Jiena east. Get her out of the city and to Furnace Island.”
“That island is filled with the scum of the planet, sire. She will not…”
“She will not be noticed should these monsters decide to keep looking,” Aeginion countered swiftly. “Use the access tunnels to sneak out the back. Take as many house guard as you need. Press hard to reach Black Tide. Once there you should have little trouble finding safe passage to the Island. Do not fail me in this, Krinson.”
His heart pulled in opposing directions. Krinson knew his first duty was to king and land yet he held a burning passion for fair Jiena. He needed to be with the king however. Unwilling to disobey, he offered his best salute.
“I shall do my best, sire. That is all I can offer.”
“It is all I am willing to accept.”
The general made his leave but stopped a few paces from the stair. “What of you? What shall I tell Jiena of her father’s fate?”
“Tell her he met it with the strength of the gods. Farewell, friend,” he said.
“Farewell, Aeginion Xurilious.”
That was the last Krinson Haddle ever saw of his king, though history would later record those fraught, final moments of Regwin Hold. They would tell of a fair haired stranger, some claimed a wizard, come under the guise of night to meet with the king. Whatever he said seemed to satisfy Aeginion, for the king later led a final assault into the enemy ranks where his body was riddled with arrows.
Of Krinson Haddle and Jiena a fair amount is obscure. They reached Furnace Island and began a family. Life was hard but they fared well. Their bloodline was strong, stretching down through the generations to give birth to a baby girl with flame red hair and the legacy of royalty just waiting to be reborn.
But those are tales for another time.