Emperor Malantis the First was terrified. He paced anxiously back and forth across the thick carpets of his council chambers, wringing his hands nervously. The events of the last few weeks had left him near panic and he muttered apprehensively under his breath, his brow damp with sweat. He hoped the preparations that he had ordered would be sufficient to prevent the destruction of the Empire that his father had struggled so hard to build but was overcome with fear that they would not.
The Emperor's council chambers were decorative, yet functional. The windowless room, deep within the protective walls of the citadel, had been designed to provide protection for the Emperor and his advisors in the case of an attack on the city. Despite the city's bloody history, it had, fortunately, never been needed. Until now.
A large, round table of deeply polished oak rested on sturdy legs in the center of the room and the Imperial staff, Malantis's advisors, sat around it in uncomfortable but ornate chairs. The walls were adorned with heavy tapestries that were embroidered with scenes depicting the formation of the Empire and a crystal chandelier, a gift from the Archmage of the Academy, hung from the ceiling above the table. Its pale, magical glow provided the chamber's only illumination.
From his seat at the table, Trigorin, the Emperor's chief Advisor, stared worriedly at his Emperor. Malantis was still a young man, but he had been forced reluctantly into a position of great responsibility when his father had died unexpectedly, and the current crisis weighed heavily on him. Malantis's dark hair was cut short and his youthful face was lined with worry. His eyes, normally blue, were red-rimmed from lack of sleep. He had lost considerable weight over the past several weeks and his rumpled clothes hung loosely on his thin frame.
Trigorin had been Emperor Memdahl's most trusted advisor and he served Malantis in that capacity as well. Although he was only a few years older than the Emperor, the years had not been as kind to him and his neatly trimmed beard was already shot with gray. His head was shaved and it glistened with sweat in the wan light, emphasizing the wrinkles on his weathered face. "Your Eminence, please," he pleaded, looking to his fellow counselors for support. "You've done all you can. You must try to get some rest. The Paladins will protect us." While Trigorin was also filled with fear of the enemy that threatened to destroy them, it was his duty to try and remain calm. Malantis's state of panic had infected everyone in the city. The people were terrified and it was all the guards could do to prevent the citizens from rioting. "You do yourself no good by worrying. You need to get some sleep."
"Rest?" Malantis's voice cracked. "Sleep? Do you realize what it means if the Paladins can't protect us? This isn't a simple goblin incursion! If the Paladins fail, a quick death will be the best we can hope for!" The golden Circlet of Authority that symbolized his position fell from his head and landed with a muffled thud on the thick carpet as he waved his arms wildly.
Trigorin frowned. "The Paladins have never failed us, Eminence. I'm certain that they will continue to keep us safe."
"Against goblins and trolls, yes! But they've never had to fight anything like this! No one has."
"Nonetheless." Trigorin shrugged. "The Sword will permit them to prevail. Try not to worry. We are prepared for this battle."
With a sigh, Malantis bent and picked up his circlet then replaced it firmly but crookedly on his head. "I just wish this was all over." He rubbed his red eyes, afraid that it soon would be. "I hope you're right about the Paladins, my friend." He slumped heavily in his padded seat at the table and buried his face in his hands. "I pray you are."
Outside the council chambers, the sky was heavy and gray. A wall of thick, low clouds loomed on the horizon and a cold wind whipped them across the leaden sky. The weather had turned bleak to match the mood of the city's residents. The Imperial capital had been founded on the coast where the lush grasslands of the Empire sloped down to meet the sea. To the south and west, the ocean's gray waves crashed heavily against the coastline while grassy plains stretched to the north and east. Normally fertile and green, the plains were now brown and dead. The central point of the city, the Imperial Citadel was an imposing fortress of solid granite that had been mined from the mountains far to the south and shipped up the coast at considerable expense by Malantis's father, Emperor Memdahl. An impregnable fortress, it had withstood repeated attacks by savage goblin tribes as he had carved out his Empire. A tremendous wall, constructed of the same gray stone of which the Citadel was built, encircled the fortress and the city that had grown up around it. The city was a sprawling maze of buildings, houses, inns, stables, shops, taverns and guildhalls that had sprung up quickly after the construction of the citadel and grown rapidly until it had finally spilled out of the walled area and into the surrounding countryside. A massive gate of iron and wood provided passage through the wall into the inner areas of the city. That gate was now sealed tight and the citizens of the capital were huddled in panic behind the protective walls, fervently hoping they were safe from the evil that waited hungrily for them outside.
His red eyes smoldering from within the depths of his hooded black cloak, Malagar the Lich stared up at the walls of the Imperial City. "Soon," he rasped to himself. "Soon, my conquest will be complete, and my powers beyond challenge." He turned slowly and casually surveyed the forces arrayed before him. His army numbered in the thousands, easily sufficient to slaughter the pitiful forces the pathetic Emperor commanded. No mortal army could possibly prevail against his minions.
Although the wind was chill, neither Malagar nor his troops seemed affected by the cold. Confident of their loyalty and bravery, Malagar strode quickly among his forces as they stood motionless in the icy breeze, their cold eyes staring mindlessly at the fortress. His army had no fear of death, for they were already long dead, their decaying corpses forced into a gruesome parody of life while their souls fueled Malagar's black sorcery! The flesh of some had rotted completely away, leaving nothing but bleached bones wrapped in black armor. Others were more recently dead and their decaying meat gave off a nauseating stench. A shrieking cloud of ravens circled noisily overhead, drawn by the foul reek of the walking corpses.
Scattered among the revenants were the shadowy forms of Malagar's lieutenants, black-cloaked wraiths whose souls he had perverted to serve his evil needs. Each was armed with a rusty scythe, stained and blackened with the blood of the slain. Fiery red eyes glared their malevolence from empty, faceless hoods as the wraiths moaned and wailed in anticipation of the slaughter that was to come.
Malagar turned and glared at the walled city again eager to butcher all who cowered there. He snarled with hatred and hunger for the humans within. "Very soon," he repeated to himself.
Sir Ryan Mistryka, Lord Commander of the Paladins, double-checked the buckles that attached the sturdy shield to his left arm. Although not yet thirty-five, Ryan was the most experienced and decorated knight in the Empire. His skill with the sword was without equal and he had been instrumental in driving the goblin tribes back into the wilderness and away from the villages and settlements that now dotted the countryside. "Are we ready, then? We haven't much time."
"Yes, sir," said his aide as he examined the fittings on Sir Ryan's breastplate. "They're bringing the blade to you now, sir." The young squire completed his inspection of Ryan's armor and gazed in awe at his Guild master.
Sir Ryan was tall, strong, and handsome. Had he not been thoroughly dedicated to his faith and to his order, Ryan could have had his pick of the beautiful women who constantly threw themselves at him, but his emerald green eyes remained focused on the true path to which he adhered. Concerns of the flesh would only serve to distract him from his faith and that was something that he simply would not allow.
Ryan reached up with a mailed hand and gathered his long brown hair, tucking it away as he donned his visored helmet. His polished armor gleamed argent in the torchlight of the guildhall and bright pinpoints of light twinkled on the Paladins' crest that was worked in gold and silver on his breastplate.
"How do I look, son?" Ryan flexed his arms, ensuring that the joints were free and oiled properly. "Is everything in order?"
"Yes, sir!" said his aide, a grin lighting up his face. "You look magnificent!"
Ryan smiled and saluted his squire. "Let us hope the enemy will be suitably impressed. Perhaps then the battle will be brief and we can return the good people to their homes." He looked up as a messenger arrived bearing a large, heavy bundle. "Ah, the sword. Now, I am ready," he said as the youth carefully unwrapped the blade from its thick cloth covering and handed it to the Paladin.
The sword was sheathed in a plain metal scabbard and appeared outwardly similar to any of the dozens of others that Sir Ryan had mastered over the course of his campaigns. This blade, however, represented the salvation of the Empire. Sir Ryan strapped it to his waist and adjusted its sling so that it rode comfortably at his hip. "It's time. Wish me luck."
"Farewell, Commander," said his aide. He whispered a soft prayer for his master's safe return.
Ryan patted his young squire gently on the shoulder then strode out of his chambers towards the adjoining barracks. The knights that were assembled there straightened to attention as he arrived then saluted their leader. Surveying his troops, Ryan returned the formal salute. The Paladin guildhall was an enormous building, but it seemed cramped with the armored knights arrayed in formation within. The assembly room was normally sparsely furnished, but even the few chairs and tables had been removed in order to contain the men who were prepared to fight and die at the will of their Lord Commander.
"Knights of the White Fire," Ryan said, raising his voice so he could be heard. "Today we face our greatest foe. The forces of darkness stand outside the walls of our fair city. They wish nothing less than the total destruction of all we hold dear. This will be the most difficult battle any of us has ever faced and many of us will likely make the ultimate sacrifice today. But we shall triumph. Our faith and our honor will protect us and we shall stand victorious upon the field, our enemies vanquished." His green eyes flashing, Sir Ryan gazed squarely at his knights as he raised his steel clad fist skyward. "Follow me, my knights!" he shouted. "Onward, to victory! For faith and honor!"
"Faith and Honor!" the assembled knights shouted resoundingly as one. Their combined voices echoed off the rafters of the assembly hall as they streamed out of the Guildhall and through the massive city gate to their meeting with destiny.
The heavy gate slammed shut with a crash as the last of Sir Ryan's Paladins filed through. The gatekeeper was taking no chances, despite Sir Ryan's confident assurance of victory. His face pale and drawn, he whispered a quick, fervent prayer that the Lord Commander's guarantee would be accurate and then secured the sturdy lock.
"Form up, men!" Sir Ryan raised his voice to be heard over the howling wind. "Take your positions and prepare for my signal!"
Dutifully, the Paladins formed into ranks and stood shoulder to shoulder, waiting for the command to attack. Across the field, they could see the ghastly, undead army of the Lich. A low muttering rippled quickly among the men at the sight of their foes, but faith in their Lord Commander kept them in line.
Sir Ryan glanced to his flanks and observed that his knights were in position. "Swords," he ordered and watched as his men drew their blades with military precision. "Forward!" Without hesitation, he strode confidently toward the enemy. At his command, the Paladins started across the dead grass of the field, their armored feet marching in disciplined unison.
Malantis's father had chartered the Order for the express purpose of defending the Empire's citizens from the unknown and Sir Ryan's Paladins had proven their worth countless times already during the short but bloody history of the Empire. The sworn defenders of the realm, they had battled goblins and trolls and had once even forced a rampaging dragon to retreat to its lair in the north to lick its wounds. By custom, the eldest son of each family in the Empire was dedicated to the Order and sent for training at the Paladins' guildhall in the capital. There, they were trained and tested in a grueling regimen that claimed the lives of nearly half of those who attempted it. Those that survived the training were invested with special powers in a mystical ceremony and sworn to the service of the Lord Commander. The Paladins had never known defeat.
While the Paladins' faith and spirituality gave them the power to destroy Malagar's undead revenants, the Emperor and his advisors had realized that mortal weapons would be unable to defeat the Lich itself. Only an artifact specifically designed for that purpose would suffice, so the Emperor commissioned the finest blacksmith in the Empire to create a special sword that would enable Sir Ryan to stand against Malagar's malevolent power. With the aid of the Academy wizards and the Priests of the Order of Life, this blade was imbued with fantastic power against evil. It was this blade, and the noble Paladin who wielded it, upon which the hopes of the Empire now rested.
Malagar sneered contemptuously at the pitiful forces that had taken the field against him. His revenants outnumbered the armored knights nearly five to one, and his troops would fight untiringly and without fear. He cackled at the audacity of the mortals who dared to challenge him. "I shall enjoy this. Fools, I will feast upon their bones." At his unspoken command, his minions surged forward, staggering and lurching towards the approaching knights.
His Paladins marching boldly at his side, Sir Ryan strode across the plain. The gap between his troops and the unholy forces of the Lich closed rapidly. "Paladins! Charge!" He reached his mailed fist to his belt and grasped the hilt of his sword firmly. "For faith and honor!"
Sir Ryan yanked his sword from its scabbard and held it aloft as his Paladins slammed into the onrushing enemy with a tremendous crash. Unsure of precisely what to expect from the enchanted sword, the Lord Commander was briefly stunned by a blinding flash as the blade suddenly burst into flames and blazed with brilliant, white fire! Shouting with excitement, Ryan brought the blazing sword slashing down in a fiery arc and hacked deeply into the body of one of Malagar's creatures. The revenant disintegrated instantly at the touch of the enchanted weapon and Sir Ryan grinned widely as he realized that his confidence in the Blade's power was well deserved. Leaving a trail of fiery carnage in his wake, Ryan hewed a swath of blazing destruction through Malagar's army towards where the Lich towered over his gruesome army.
Malagar watched in stunned shock as the Paladins devastated his minions. "This is impossible," he snarled. "My army is invincible!" The Lich howled in frustration as the wall of armored knights hacked their way closer to him. The motionless corpses of his revenants littered the brown grass of the field and for the first time Malagar knew fear. He pointed a clawed finger at Sir Ryan. "Wraiths, destroy him!"
Sir Ryan paused briefly as the shadowy wraiths detached themselves from Malagar's side and darted unerringly towards him. He whispered a prayer of thanks to the creators of the Blade he wielded and prepared for the wraiths to attack. The moaning black figures hacked at him with their gore-encrusted scythes but his gleaming armor turned their blows and the flaming sword obliterated them with the slightest touch. He laughed at his seeming invincibility and pointed the sizzling blade at Malagar. Ryan could almost see Malagar's panic as he strode inexorably towards the Lich.
"Your reign of evil is over, foul creature," the Paladin said. He glared distastefully at Malagar. "In the name of the Emperor and of the Order of the White Fire, I am here to stop you."
"You are a fool and your soul will soon serve my sorcery," sneered the Lich. "I have no fear of your mortal weapons. My powers are beyond your pitiful comprehension. You will die horribly and your order and your empire will be destroyed."
"I think not." Sir Ryan raised the Blade and prepared to strike. "Your unnatural existence is at an end."
With a furious snarl, Malagar lunged forward and grabbed the Paladin's arm, his filthy black talons groping for Sir Ryan's throat.
Sir Ryan's eyes widened and he grunted with surprise as he wrestled with the Lich for control of the sword. The creature's strength was incredible, but Sir Ryan's training and experience enabled him to escape Malagar's claws. He rolled away from the Lich and scrambled to his feet, his armor rent and battered by Malagar's razor-sharp talons. Blood leaking from beneath his mail, Sir Ryan swung the blade in a glittering arc and righteous fire streamed from the sword.
Malagar screeched a horrible, echoing, agonizing shriek as the blade tore into his withered flesh and a cataclysmic blast of white fire exploded from the sword, smashing both the Paladins and the revenants to the ground! The earth heaved and the sky trembled with echoing thunder and then all fell silent.
Finally, after several long minutes, the knights slowly struggled to their feet and surveyed the blasted battlefield. The motionless corpses of Malagar's minions lay twisted and broken on the field, the unnatural energies that had animated them destroyed by the power of the Blade of Purity. But not without a cost. Surrounded by the carnage, the body of Sir Ryan lay crumpled in the dust.
Emperor Malantis and the Imperial staff wandered gingerly across the blighted plain. The citizens of the capital had already begun referring to the battlefield as the Field of Bones and the Emperor quickly realized it was an apt description. A cloud of vultures, crows, ravens and other scavengers had already descended upon the thousands of corpses that littered the field, and their raucous squawking filled the air as they gorged themselves on the decaying flesh. The people were in mourning over the loss of their champion, but were also understandably jubilant at his victory over the forces of darkness.
Malantis held a scented cloth to his face in a vain attempt to filter out the overwhelming stench of the dead as he picked his way carefully through the carnage to the spot where Sir Ryan had fallen. The body of the Lord Commander had been removed from the field and entombed in a secret place of honor within the Paladins' guildhall. His heart heavy, the Emperor knelt down and said a quiet prayer of thanks for Sir Ryan's sacrifice. His selfless actions had saved the Empire and prevented the loss of thousands of innocent lives.
Malantis looked carefully around the ravaged battlefield. His men had already searched the area thoroughly, but no trace of the enchanted blade could be found. His advisors believed that it had been destroyed in the colossal blast that had killed Ryan and the Lich and in the absence of any evidence to the contrary, Malantis was forced to accept their explanation. He still hoped the mystical weapon would turn up, but suspected it was gone forever.
Rubbing his eyes, Malantis bade a final farewell to Sir Ryan. "Rest well, my Champion," he murmured softly. "You've earned it."