The canyon fills with the sounds of drums. The allied armies are arriving from all directions, half arriving a day earlier than planned. They are given food and assistance setting up camps at the top of the canyon. The following day, the rest of the allies arrive, filling the tops of the cliffs with tents as thousands of men and women prepare for war.
The many different styles of armor, weapons, fighting, and races amazes Meah. It reminds her how much of the world is still unknown to her. The different armies greet each other, some mixing better than others, and, though wary of the groups of bandits and rogue magic users at first, share their food and stories. Many others, mostly those who escaped the Arena, who’ve never seen the armies of other lands, watch as the soldiers arrive with curious excitement.
The leaders of the allied groups, once all have arrived, gather in the Great Hall, eager to meet Ime. The large table is now filled and drinks are placed at each seat. Seated at the head of the table is Altan. Deven and Saunem stand behind him, representing Kellahn along with their leader.
Meah and Ime sit to Altan’s right. Kylii, Daniil, and Tanith stand behind them, much to Kylii’s annoyance. To Altan’s left sits Jaxon with Bruer and Fleance standing behind him.
Herbart Slayer and Marin Varth sit close together, each with two of their men behind them. They’re both pale skinned with heavy beards, Herbart’s being blonde while Marin’s coal black. Herbart is a larger man than Marin, but both have seen their fair share of battles. Their armor is thick metal with fur trimmings to keep the cold of the north at bay, though it appears out of place in the hot, dry lands of Kellahn. Herbart’s large battle-axe leans against the table. Marin’s broadsword is secured to the back of his chair, the tip touching the stone ground.
Pilian Grout sits still, holding his head high and arms crossed against his chest. An old scar begins at the bottom of his left eye and makes a trail down to his throat. His thin beard hangs below his chin, but his long black hair is pulled back into a clean bun tied with long white ribbon. His almond colored eyes observe each person in the room, making mental notes and hiding his thoughts. His armor is lighter than the men from the north, but thick enough to prevent smaller blades from penetrating. His long sword is beautifully crafted with an engraved hilt in the shape of a ferocious beast’s head. His two men stand behind him holding long spears with silk cloth tied below the deadly blades. Their helmets cover the lower halves of their faces, only showing their eyes.
Aryd Candok’s dark skin makes his sandy brown eyes stand out. A green scarf covers his head and mouth. He lowers it from his mouth as he sits, revealing his piercingly white teeth. His armor is made of thinner material than the other men, but it provides him with greater agility. He has two blades at his sides and a number of daggers. His men stand behind him wearing brown scarves, keeping their mouths covered. Intricate scars cover their bodies, purposefully carved into their bodies in beautiful designs. Some say it’s for decoration while others claim they did it to prove the will of their minds against pain.
Jada Boor sits with her chair a short distance from the table to allow her weapon to sit in her lap, as well as to provide room for her long, powerful legs. In person, the leader of the Green Pilit Bandits is as intimidating as Kylii made her sound. Besides her tall height, she boasts muscles as great as any man. She claims her large sword can be swung with enough force to cut through most metal, a feat not hard to believe. The tips of the blade curve out in both directions creating a T shape. Her brown hair surrounds her head like a mane and her armor is made from animal hide and bone. Metal protects her more vulnerable areas, but her arms and legs are left visible to make it easier for her to move. Her men stand behind her wearing similar animal hide armor, leaving their arms and stomachs bare. They stand as tall as their leader, and their weapons include a battle hammer and crossbow.
Gradyen Hutch, the leader of the Veran Desert Bandits, a smaller man, appears even smaller sitting next to Jada. Goggles protect the eyes, but now they rest on the bandit leader’s head, showing his characteristic pale eyes many from the Desert have. He’s completely covered in bandages, but it’s not due to wounds. All of his men wear the same to protect their skin from the harsh sands that blow across the Veran Desert. Loose cloth covers their lower body and thick gloves protect their hands and make grasping their throwing knives easier. The knives are oddly shaped; having multiple blades of differing sizes, shapes, and making the weapons look like an odd combination of multiple weapons. Bottles of strangely colored liquids are tied to their belts. Some are poison for their weapons, some are smoke bombs for quick escapes or creating confusion, and the rest are medicines to help with small wounds.
Farrow Klighdan sits with her legs crossed. She’s a beautiful woman with strong features and a perfectly proportioned body. Her green eyes are piercing and match the intensity of her fiery red hair. She strokes the large beast next to her. Even lying down, its head can be seen over the top of the table. Its striped blue and black fur swallows the light. It’s large silver eyes open and close lazily as it moves from Saunem and Tanith, a low growl occasionally rumbling from deep within its body. Its long body curls around the back of Farrow’s chair, its tail circling around to the front. Its face is wide, making its mouth appear as though it’s curved up into a smile. The triangular ears twist around at each sound. Long fangs hang over its bottom lip and chin. When it yawns its orange tongue adds a shocking moment of color. The claws on its enormous paws are retractable except for the singular large claw on its right paw. It taps the sharp claw on the stone floor as Farrow’s hand moves across its fur.
Kordeaux Fellet, the youngest leader compared to the others, is dressed in a tight robe that stops at his waist with a long, brown scarf around his neck and cape that hangs down his back. Under the robe is simple armor and belt with knives and bottles of liquid. With his hood down, his oddly white hair is slicked back with a few loose strands hanging in his face. The two standing behind him wear similar outfits, but keep their hoods up, covering the top half of their face in shadows. Each wears a sword at their waist and has a colored cloth tied around their waists to represent their magic.
The final chair is empty, but no one comments on the tardiness of the final allied leader. Instead they speak to each other in soft voices, gauging the strengths of each person in the room. Those standing behind the leaders, with the exception of Daniil and Kylii, stand still and silent, awaiting any orders from their leaders.
Meah feels the eyes of the leaders around the table occasionally linger on her longer than any of the others. She catches several whispering the words Life Healer and she grows anxious. Ime rests a comforting hand on hers and squeezes.
Altan turns to Deven. “Where are the Shadow Watchers? You said they arrived this morning, we can’t wait much longer for them if we’re to get anything accomplished.” His voice is different. It’s filled with the power of a ruler and Meah knows it’s for the benefit of those gathered.
“They’re here, my Lord,” Deven says. He nods his head at the empty chair. “Cease your illusion, Tayli. There’ll be no harm done to you or your men as promised.”
Three men dressed in blacks and grays appear, one sitting in the last chair and his two men behind him. Their skin is completely covered by cloth and only their eyes are seen. The man sitting in the chair lowers the black cloth from his face to reveal a sneer. “Forgive me for being cautious. It’s not in our nature to trust those who’ve attacked us in the past.”
“We only attack those who attack us,” Deven argues.
“Enough. We aren’t here to discuss past grievances between each other. We’re here to discuss the issue of the so-called Blood King who threatens to spread his reach into our realms,” Altan says, ending the conversation between the two men.
“We’ve heard the stories and some of us, I’m sure, have witnessed some accounts first hand,” Herbart says, eyeing Marin.
Marin crosses his arms and his lip rises in anger. “Small scouting parties of his men have been slowly moving into my lands for several months. They claim no harm, but my people are growing nervous.”
“If you were truly as strong as you claim you’d have nothing to fear from the false king,” Gradyen Hutch says.
Jada glares at the small man. “Don’t speak out of turn, desert rider. I’ve heard of your men running from Klaeon’s men like frightened children.”
Turning his pale eyes on Jada, Gradyen makes a disgusted noise. “We don’t run because of fear, giant. We don’t draw unwanted attention from our enemies. If they think we’re weak, they’ll be underprepared for any defense we present to them.”
Jada lifts her blade from her lap and thrusts the tip of the blade into the floor. “And that is why the enemy runs freely through your desert.”
“I’ve been forcing his men from my lands for years,” Pilian adds, trying to bring the conversation back on track. “Every year it becomes more difficult as his forces grow in number and strength.”
“There’ve been recent activities men of this Blood King have attempted in my lands,” Aryd Candok adds. “Similar scouting parties have ventured through my lands, speaking to my people, and testing the strength of my fighters. They began as manageable annoyances, but recently they’ve escalated into full fights in many of my larger villages.”
Ime leans forward on the table. “These actions Klaeon’s men have been enacting are why it’s time to stop him.”
“We wouldn’t have gathered here if we didn’t desire that as well,” Kordeaux says, his accent dancing through his words. “He’s been especially difficult on my mages, as I’m sure you’re aware. If he doesn’t take them for his Arena, he kills them on sight. The killings have grown more frequent since a certain incident.” His eyes fill with animosity aimed at Meah and Ime equally.
“Our escape from the Arena may have increased that activity, but do you really think he sends magic users to the Arena to not die?” Meah asks.
“He’s been trying to easily eliminate any who could pose severe threats to his power. Magic users are at the top of that list, followed by any who have access to an army. His goals are obviously to stage a full invasion into the lands surrounding his and eventually beyond those lands,” Altan says.
“Whatever his ultimate goal may be, we have to decide right now how we’re going to defeat him,” Ime says.
“I have a suggestion,” Jaxon says. All eyes turn to him. “As it stands now, with all of our gathered forces we’re just over one hundred and twenty thousand soldiers. Our only true hope of victory is surprise. Attacking head on would be suicidal, but if we could find a means to attacking on lands that aid us more than the Blood Army we could easily overpower them.”
“Compared to Klaeon’s possible two hundred and fifty thousand that still doesn’t give us much hope of lasting long against him even with mages and Farrow’s beasts,” Deven says.
“My beasts easily count as two of your men, Deven. Your men know that firsthand,” Farrow says, scratching her animal behind its ear. “My simit has carved many men and she’s eager to carve more.”
“What I suggest is making sure we fight the Blood Army where we want and not where they choose. Everything is about control and whoever controls the battlefield has the advantage,” Jaxon continues.
“But even if we could manage to fight his forces in territories where we know the landscape better than his fighters, the fact he outnumbers us by a vast majority still has many of us concerned,” Pilian says.
“We gain more men and women every day.”
“One or two from small villages who’ve never fought in any kind of battle and have never held weapons beyond axes or hoes,” Marin emphasizes.
“What about Gaeren Banish?” Meah asks.
The room stills and she can see everyone tense, even the Shadow Watchers. Ime notices the reaction and his eyes narrow. “Who is Gaeren Banish?”
Altan shifts in his chair and releases a slow, careful breath. “He rules the land to the west.”
“He’s made it very clear he wants nothing to do with this war. He’s threatened our messengers and refuses to speak with us,” Jaxon explains.
Ime looks from Jaxon to Altan. “How large is his army?”
“At least twenty thousand.”
“Still not enough to bring us close to Klaeon’s numbers,” Pilian says.
“But it’s twenty thousand more than we have.” Ime stares at Altan. “Send one more messenger, one who can meet with Gaeren.”
“He won’t see any of our messengers,” Altan protests. “He’s threatened to kill the next man from Kellahn to cross his borders.”
Turning to Tayli, Ime smiles at the leader of the Shadow Watchers. “Can one of your men make it past his defenses?”
Tayli’s eyebrow raises, the only hint to his surprise at being asked. “To deliver a simple message? Of course.”
“How soon can you deliver it and return with an answer?”
“Two days. What would you have the message be?”
“An ultimatum. This war is as much his as ours and though he believes his lands to be safe, either due to distance or to his own strength, he’s wrong. He’s kept himself far from this war blindly and now we will open his eyes. There’s no neutrality in this war. He must make a decision. Either he allies with us or with Klaeon.”