The line of ships slid gracefully into shore, their movements precise and controlled. White dreamwood hulls, fair as moonbeams, gleamed beneath gold and amber pennons.
From a pavilion on the shore, an aelf in gleaming armour stared up at the high flags. An amber sun, chased in gold, rising against a field of black. Proud and stark, the symbol of his house rippling in the air. Or at least, it should have been. Instead of the warm, clear winds of the light-seas of the Ceraphate carrying the colours, they hung rumpled and stiff. The interminable fog had soaked through the fine silks, and now they clung half frozen to the mast. Frost was already creeping across the amber sun, and it irked him.
“The landing is complete, my lord. The captains are reporting in good order, and convey their congratulations.”
He raised a hand, acknowledging the adjutant. The passage across the Sea of Shadows had been as fraught as the stories promised, but he had every faith in the men and women that served him. They were true Teclandec, chosen for their pursuit of perfection in all their endeavours.
“With your permission, lord, we will begin to-“
“Lord!” The cry came from the far end of their camp, where one of his soldiers was pointing up to the other end of the black stone beach. There, around one of the empty-faced monoliths staring out to sea, figures had begun to emerge. A few at first, then a dozen more, then by the score. Even from this distance, the light glinted off the crude metal plates they called armour, and from the massive heavy axes they carried. He could practically smell the stinking furs they wore from here.
“We must signal the captains! If we hurry, the household guard can disembark and reach us before these marauders.”
“No, Caelwen,” the aelf-lord said, rising from his seat. “The captains know their business. Unload the cargo as planned, I’ve no interest in being on this island a moment longer than necessary.”
Pulling the heavy mitten from his hand, he tossed them onto the map spread across the pavilion’s one table. Small icons already marked landing sites across the island. Over a dozen of them, all claimants for this Fated Blade, all stepping stones on his path to glory.
“Look at them, Caelwen. Illiterate barbarians. Filthy savages. Duardin. This island crawls with them. This is what my uncle would see our Ceraphate become, hiring mercenaries, granting clemency to those that took up arms against him.” He dusted his hands dramatically, then stepped out from the pavilion. “Come with me. Let us go see what they want.”
Caelwen, the adjutant, hurried to grab the vexillum and followed after. The aelf-lord was unusually tall for their people, and even setting a casual pace Caelwen struggled to catch up with the bulky and unwieldy banner. Across the beach, the approaching war band has begun to array itself. Over three score of the heavily armoured warriors, by the adjutant’s count, and nearly half that many bestial half-men prowling uneasily behind their ranks. They had been seen by now, and a massive warrior in a particularly spiky helmet separated from the pack, a cowled and stunty creature crab-hopping along beside him.
The two sides met halfway between the end of the beach and the aelf-lord’s pavilion.
“Your attention!” Caelwen began, adopting the tone of a court crier in Iscarion. “You are in the presence of Prince Sagradiel, of the noble house of Teclandec. The Lion of Iscarion. Prince of the Dawn City. Future heir to the Iscarneth Ceraphate!”
His voice was clear but brittle, and hung in the air in silence for a long moment. The smaller creature, its features hidden beneath its tattered cowl, gave a quick whistling titter before responding.
“Woe to you then, lion prince.” Its voice bubbled and cracked, in a gulping frog-like cadence. “You stand before Belagos Blackhand. Warlord of the Iron. Prince of nothing. Heir of ruin. Slayer of champions and fools alike. He accepts your challenge.”
Sagradiel took a half step forwards. “You misunderstand me, creature. Tell your master I have not come to fight him. I am here to accept his surrender.”
The robed figure gurgled in surprise, looking back and forth between them. Sagradiel raised his left arm, two fingers and thumb extended like a pistol and pointing at the hulking champion. His long blonde hair, tried back in a rakish corsair’s knot, rustled across his armour’s seal fur collar.
“Tell him he has three seconds to comply. One.”
A hollow, brassy laugh echoed from within the heavy horned helmet of the champion, deep and discordant. It echoed in the air around them, as the voice of Belagos Blackhand ground out like granite.
“Amusing, but now it's time to d-“
Sagradiel tiled his hand up, and Belagos was thrown backwards, a dozen points of impact smashing into his chest and head. A half second later, the rumbling thunder of a rifle volley reached them. Teclandec sharpshooters, Sagradiel’s pride and joy, began reloading in quick precise movements. Belagos lay in a bloody mess. A few shots had glanced from his armour or splintered on impact, but most had punched clean through the rough steel. The back of his helmet was a gaping red ruin.
The veiled creature lay on the ground as well. One shot had glanced off the champion’s armour and punched through its lower leg, shattering bone. Sagradiel walked towards it, brushing aside his coat and drawing a more real pistol as he approached.
“No, please! I am just a herald. A messenger!”
The aelf-lord looked down at the pitiful creature, then gestured with his pistol. “Then run. That is my message to all your ilk. This island, and everything on it, are mine, and any that stand in my way will be cut down. Now, run.”
The figure pulled itself to its feet, broken leg grinding in protest, then began pulling itself as quickly as possible back towards its companions without another glance at the fallen champion.
It made it another dozen steps before the shot rang out, and the herald toppled forwards.
“There, I think that sends the message just as well as he ever could.” Sagradiel tossed the spent pistol towards the adjutant. “Damned clever, these things. The Ruyular may have no more class than those mongrel Celandec, but they can at least turn out some fine workmanship.”
Up the beach, the line of marauders was turning to shambles. Each time a warrior took a step towards their fallen lord, a rifle round knocked them back or put them down. The rear of the line was already disintegrating, many running for the hills. For the moment, those that ran were not being fired on, and the choice between advancing into rifle fire and running was becoming abundantly clear.
Sagradiel turned and began walking back to his pavilion. One would-be warlord down. Another dozen or so to go. Then the sword would be his, and he could set everything to right.
“Oh, and send word to Captain Ruthlain to straighten out that flag. It's a damned disgrace.