Alright, here it is. I'm not really happy with either the beginning or the end, but it's not getting any better.
The skyship banked in the light of the setting sun, sinking downwards on the wind towards the eastern leg of the Lap. From the air, Kieran looked down at the remains of the once-majestic city. He had read about the Lap, but it was thousands of miles from his homeland, and he had never expected to see it. Certainly not like this.
Once, the city had been one of the greatest cities of the South. Nestled around the body of a statue half a mile high, buildings climbing the crossed legs and folded arms, the Lap had boasted a vast agricultural output that helped support much of the surrounding area. Now, most of those fields were ruined, either destroyed by blossoming shadowlands or occupied by camps of armed humans and demonic servants of the armies of An-Teng and Paragon. The city's centre was shrouded in smoke, the sun shining poorly down on the shadowland that had been formed when the armies of the First and Forsaken Lion had first attacked, killings thousands in the early hours of the battle.
Now, the city was quiet; its surviving inhabitants had fled the dead, taking refuge behind the armies that arrived to conquer the nation. To the west, at the edge of Kieran's vision, he could see the camps of the forces of An-Teng, an army of five thousand mortals and almost as many demons of the First Circle, which had been skirmishing with the Lion's undead since their arrival. And directly below them were the orderly ranks of Paragon's elite, soldiers and demons called from She Who Lives In Her Name, alongside those refugees who had signed on as soldiers to take back their city. Kieran shook his head as the boat sank downwards towards an area that had been cleared of tents, glancing around him. His friends and companions were standing along the top of the ship, looking out over the city with varying degrees of concern and unhappiness.
As the boat settled down on the ground, its flat bottom settled carefully into the dirt, attendants rushed forwards with a large plank, which they laid against its side. Khory and Serafin grabbed it at the top, quickly tying it off to the top of the boat, and Serafin led the way down towards the ground. Kieran followed close behind, glancing around.
â€œShould be one for the histories.â€ Khory's whispered comment brought a smile and a nod, as the attendants stepped forwards. Each was wearing a military uniform, bearing the gold and green seal of Paragon, and the two bowed low in unison, one of them speaking.
â€œThe Perfect sends his greetings, Conduit, and will meet you in his command tent. He regrets not coming personally, but events have made that an impossibility.â€
â€œOf course.â€ Serafin nodded graciously, glancing back to the others. â€œWill there be room for all of us?â€
â€œYes, milady.â€ Straightening, the attendant turned and started to walk. â€œWe were advised of your numbers.â€
â€œGood. Thank you.â€
â€œIt is our pleasure to serve, milady.â€
The attendant lead the group through the walkways between the tents of the perfect's armies, and Kieran glanced around as they travelled, noting which species of demons seemed to be prevalent with the soldiers, and that the soldiers themselves were at least used enough to the demons not to flinch whenever they passed by. Most of the demons present seemed to be shimazu - heavily-armoured creatures, their bodies almost completely coated in black lead - only a small area around their eyes and hands showing - with black-green skin that marched in perfect lockstep about their tasks. He also noted a number of lesser breeds, none of whom seemed as prevalent.
The attendant led the group past a quartet of shimazu and into the Perfect's war tent, larger and more ornate than those around it. Inside, a heavy oaken table had been set up, and a number of stands stood about the room with maps of the region around the Lap laid out. Each map was marked with pins, tied with ribbons, representing the distribution of forces. Around the table, which was itself marked with a map of the Lap proper, were three men and two women, all of whom paused and looked up as the attendant knocked on the wooden post by the entrance. Four of the five wore standard military uniforms, their ornate trim and medallions marking them as the generals of the army. The fifth, however, was instantly recognizable as the Perfect.
The Perfect's robes glittered in the candlelight of the inner tent. One moment, they were the deep gold of the sun, a moment later they bore a green sheen as if spun from threads of emeralds. The robes lay lightly across his body, hanging down to just above his ankles and leaving long sleeves that, somehow, stayed perfectly out of the way as he moved his hands across the map. His coronet was a simple one, green jade coiled around his head in two tight curls, and his staff of office leaned against his chair, within easy reach if needed. His hair was short and as black as pitch, constrasting the rich brown of his skin. When he looked up at the newcomers, his eyes bore the green tint of Malfeas, but there was a passion to them that made Kieran feel an irrational urge to please this man, not out of fear of retribution but of disappointment. It was easy to see how he commanded this empire.
â€œSerafin, it is good to see you again.â€ The Perfect gestured, and his generals stepped away from the table, finding chairs in the back of the tent as he looked past Serafin to the others. â€œI see that you were successful - and then some.â€
â€œVery successful.â€ Serafin smiled broadly, gesturing to the others. â€œMay I introduce Tandavi Kieran, Alina, Tenrek of the Sequestered Tabernacle, and Tepet Fokuf, the Circle that will be entering Autochthon. You already know my husband, Alakazar. These others are Thetram Nash, Cathak Lodaris, Cathak Citrios, Amaya, Khory Ironthews, and Ollir Elena.â€
The Perfect nodded to the group. â€œIt is good to meet you all. I presume that Serafin has explained your task?â€
â€œYes, but not the specifics.â€ Grabbing a chair, Fokuf dropped himself into it unceremonious. More gradually, the others followed suit. â€œI gather that you're going to open a path for us to get into Autochthon's realm?â€
â€œThat's correct. My armies, supported by Serafin and myself, will push the Lion's troops aside just as the forces of Wesmaken did for their Infernal servant.â€ The Perfect shook his head. â€œI am sorry that I could not stop them, but I faced two Conduits, and was forced to withdraw.â€
â€œTwo?â€ Kieran raised an eyebrow.
â€œSilia Sword-dancer, the new queen of An-Teng, and Harakken Cyrus, the Conduit of Sacheverall blocked my -â€
â€œNo.â€ Nash spoke up. â€œThat's impossible. Cyrus was part of the Inner Circle of the Bronze Faction. He died during Calibration...â€ He trailed off, his expression bleak, as Serafin shook her head slowly.
â€œNo. He killed Chejop Kejak and escaped. He's been organizing Sacheverall's alliance for the last three months.â€
â€œI see.â€ Nash shook his head slowly. â€œI'm sorry for my outburst.â€
â€œI understand.â€ The Perfect sighed. â€œIt is hard to learn of these things.â€ He turned his attention to the map. â€œBut we can discuss this later. For now, I will give you our information - we will attack shortly after dawn, and we need to be prepared.â€
As the group began to discuss, Kieran glanced over to Nash. The Sidereal's expression was even grimmer than usual, and he sighed internally, wondering how many more such revelations there would be before this war was over...