Call of the Herald
Within his cabin, General Dempsy adjusted his uniform, making certain every medal was straight and every button oriented properly. Moving automatically to counter the movements of the ship was normally as natural to him as breathing, but he felt unsteady on his feet, as if his years of sailing had suddenly been forgotten. It was not a feeling he was accustomed to. At sea or just about anywhere on Godsland, his power was undeniable, his orders obeyed without question. There was one place, however, where his power was surpassed, and even a man of his accomplishments must exercise great caution: Adderhold, seat of the Zjhon empire. It was from there that Archmaster Belegra ruled with an unforgiving will, and it was to there that General Dempsy was destined.
He had no reason to expect anything but a warm welcome, given his success, but there was an uneasy feeling in his gut. Again, automatically, he adjusted his uniform, as if a single stitch out of place could decide his fate. The general cursed himself for such weakness, yet he jumped when there came a knock at his cabin door. After cursing himself again, he answered in his usual commanding tone: 'Come.'
Mate Pibbs presented himself and saluted. 'Adderhold is within sight, sir. We've been cleared by the sentry ships, and there is a slip reserved for us. Do you wish to be on deck when we land, sir?'
General Dempsy nodded, and Mate Pibbs saluted again before turning on his heel. To some the salute is a source of great pride and a feeling of power, and most times General Dempsy felt much the same, but on this day it felt like mockery. After a final check of his uniform, he made his way to the prow. From there, he watched Adderhold grow larger and more intimidating with every passing moment. It was a feeling that should have passed long before, but the builders of Adderhold had done their job well. The place looked as if it could swallow his entire fleet in a single strike.
When they reached the docks, General Dempsy was unsure of what to think. There was no fanfare; no throng awaited the returning army, and there was not so much as a victory dinner to celebrate their conquest of an entire continent. The Greatland was theirs to rule, yet Adderhold bustled with preparations for war. Barges surrounded the island, and they sat low in the water, piled high with grain and supplies, ready to transport the goods to the waiting armada. These were not the usual preparations for an assault on a coastal province. The scale of their provisions foretold a lengthy sea voyage, and the taste of victory turned to bile.
General Dempsy knew, long before the page arrived with his new orders, that the Church had declared holy war. He tried to convince himself otherwise, but what he saw could only mean an invasion of the Godfist, a preemptive strike intended to stave off the prophecy. He thought it was sheer madness. Archmaster Belegra would ruin everything by sending them on a fool's quest. This was a hunt for some fantasized adversary, one not only destined to destroy the entire Zjhon nation, but also one that might herald the return of a goddess Archmaster Belegra and the devotees of the Zjhon Church had both dreamed of and feared. The devout believed that Istra would imbue them with miraculous gifts but that her presence would also mark the return of their greatest adversary.
In the face of such fanaticism, General Dempsy struggled to maintain his equilibrium. To him, the Zjhon beliefs made little sense. Though he had played his role in many ceremonies, he believed none of it; he simply did what the Church asked of him because it furthered his own goals. His military genius had only served to strengthen the Zjhon and their beliefs, and though it had granted him the power he desired, he suddenly wondered if it had been a mistake-a grave and deadly mistake. To say his army was unprepared for an assault on the Godfist was a gross understatement. Two-thirds of his men came from lands that had only recently been conquered; few were well trained, and fewer still were loyal. With his experienced and trusted men spread throughout the regiments, he was barely able to maintain control. He knew it was a suicide mission and that it would be years before they were ready to undertake a long-distance campaign.
Orders to get his army ready for the invasion confirmed the insanity, and when he saw them, he requested an immediate audience with Archmaster Belegra under the pretense of misunderstanding the mission. It was highly unusual for any member of the armies to meet with the archmaster in person, but General Dempsy felt he was entitled. He and his men had offered up their lives for the empire, and they deserved to know why they were being thrown away.
Days passed before he was granted the audience, and that gave him time to ponder every word he might use to implore the archmaster to change his mind. When a page finally arrived with his summons, the uncertainty was festering in his belly. Archmaster Belegra was the only person with enough power to have him executed, and his every instinct warned that the wrong choice of words could send him to the headsman's block.
A slight figure in dark robes greeted General Dempsy with little more than a slight bow. Though his features were concealed within a deep hood, the general knew of him. He was the nameless boy whose insolence had cost him his tongue. As he led General Dempsy to a private hall, he served as a silent warning. This had the potential to be a very dangerous encounter.
When he entered the hall, General Dempsy saw Archmaster Belegra swathed in thick robes and huddled in an ornate chair that was pulled up close to the fire. Though the years had barely grayed his hair, he looked like a feeble old man. As austere as ever, he did not acknowledge General Dempsy in any way, as if he were oblivious to his presence.
'A humble servant of the Zjhon requests the consideration of the Church,' General Dempsy said in a polite tone, trying to sound unassuming, but he feared it came out sounding forced and insincere. Archmaster Belegra did not look at him, nor did he speak; he simply extended his right hand and waited. The general did not hesitate in moving to the archmaster's side, taking his hand, and kissing the signet ring, wishing to dispense with protocol as quickly as possible.
'The Church recognizes her child and will suffer you to speak.'
'With all due respect, Your Eminence, I must ask you to reconsider this course of action. Launching an attack on such a distant nation, when we've barely secured the lands surrounding us, will put everything we've achieved at risk.' General Dempsy was more direct than was advisable, but he was determined and pushed on. 'It's not that I don't believe the prophecies, but sending two-thirds of our strength on a-' Archmaster Belegra raised an eyebrow, and Dempsy stopped. He knew he was treading in dangerous waters, and he preferred to keep his head.
'The prophecies are quite clear on this matter, General, but I will refresh your memory if I must. Vestra, God of the Sun, has ruled Godsland's skies for nearly three thousand years, but he will not always reign alone. Istra, Goddess of the Night, shall return to preside over the night skies. A harbinger shall be born of her hand and will be revealed by the power they wield. Thus, the advent of Istra shall be heralded. Faithful of the Church, beware, for the Herald of Istra shall desire your destruction and will endeavor to undo all you have wrought.'
General Dempsy despaired. The prophecies were impossible to argue since no proof could be offered to discredit them. They were sacred and above reproach.
'It is your responsibility to protect this nation and all the inhabitants of the Greatland. The Herald of Istra poses an imminent threat to the Church and the entire Zjhon empire. The holy documents have rewarded us with clues regarding the timing of Istra's return, and we must use these divine gifts to our full advantage. To do otherwise would be sacrilege and blasphemy. Is that clear?'
General Dempsy nodded, mute. He struggled to find words that would drive away the madness, but they remained beyond his grasp.
'You have your orders, General. You know your duty; the army is to set sail for the Godfist by the new moon and is not to return without the Herald of Istra. Go forth with the blessings of the Zjhon Church.'