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The War of Athera - Printable Version

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The War of Athera - Iyoforeayo - 02-08-2019

Prologue
17th day of Cryos, 425 ACE

Rurik Marisova hadn’t gone hunting since before his inauguration.

Events in the northern cliffside town of Yukrovia had been so frenetic in recent months, that the young governor had barely had time to even leave the confines of the summit hall. The line of citizens demanding an audience seemed more endless than ever to Rurik these days, as it had become painfully clear the once-surging popularity he’d experienced after his election had all but evaporated. After his recent mishandling of an international summit, the fledgling city-state of Yukrovia had lost what little face it had on the world stage - and Rurik himself had lost the faith of his constituents. Needless to say, things had not been going well… so when Vladilen suggested they clear their heads with a hunting trip in the highlands, Rurik couldn’t agree fast enough.

“I’ve seen that look before,” Vlad had said to him, after a particularly frazzling trade dispute. “You need to kill something, or you’re going to throw yourself from the High Cliffs…”

“I’m sure there’s a few people who’d pay good money to see that,” he’d replied, drawing a smirk from his advisor.

And so the two men had set off into the highlands that foggy morning, making camp only a few hours’ ride south of Yukrovia. The grey mist that rolled over the highlands brought with it a deep chill, and an eerie silence, broken only by the occasional echoing bleat of a wandering ram. Almost immediately, Rurik felt better… the cold air that stung his chest revitalized him with every breath.

“You have no idea how much I’ve missed this,” Rurik said to his companion, as the two men sat by the campfire, stringing their bows and sipping tankards of Yukrovian mead.

“Hunting?” asked Vlad. “Or drinking before noon?”

“What on Atlas makes you think I don’t do the latter?”

Vladilen laughed. “That’s the Rurik I remember.”

Indeed, the young governor was quite a different person than the one who’d befriended Vladilen Ryabov all those years ago - back when the only thing the Marisova name was known for in Yukrovia was quality leather goods. A third-generation hide trader, Rurik was already a popular figure around the Yukrovian marketplace when he took over the family trade from his ailing father at sixteen. Vlad (at the time, a young recruit in the Mountain Guard) had taken a liking to the charismatic merchant, and the two became fast friends. Rurik felt as if he lived vicariously through Vlad’s exploits defending the city - even if they were nothing more exciting than simply keeping the highland wildlife at bay. But more than that, Rurik trusted Vladilen - something he’d come to discover was a rarity in his relationships, especially after his inauguration. The two had even run opposing campaigns for the governorship - and yet, when Rurik won, there was no question that Vlad would be made his top advisor, just as he would’ve done for Rurik had the roles been reversed.

So it was with great weight that Rurik heard the next words out of Vladilen’s mouth, as his trusted advisor gave a concerned look across the campfire:

“Rurik… I think you should step down.”

The governor stared back across the fire. “Excuse me?”

“I don’t recognize you anymore!” Vlad said. “This job is killing you. You’re not sleeping, you’re not eating… ever since the Summit, you’ve been a shell of yourself. Not to mention, your… approval rating these past few months... ”

“Are you saying this as my friend, or as my advisor?”

“Both.”

Until now, Rurik had been waiting for the joke to end, waiting to see Vlad’s stoic demeanor crack into an uncontrollable laugh, as he’d done so many times before. But as he watched his friend’s stony, unchanging expression through the flames between them, the silence in the air became tense.

“Where is this coming from?” Rurik finally asked.

Vlad shifted uncomfortably in his seat. “It just seems like now is the opportune time to… well, with the political landscape the way it is--”

“Oh, cut the shit. Don’t use that sugar-coated diplomacy-speak on me, I know you better than that. What aren’t you telling me?”

Another silence hung in the air between them, as Vladilen searched for his next words. “We received a message from Eastwind a week ago. The Vantians have taken Redspire.”

Shocked, Rurik let the news roll over him. The Dunsmoor town of Redspire had long been the target of Vantian raids and minor aggressions, but for the Empire to siege and occupy the city outright meant…

“This is an act of war!” Rurik shouted, standing to address his advisor. “Why was I not made aware of this news a week ago?”

“The message did not end there. Nor did our… correspondence with the Empire…”

Our correspondence…?” Rurik stared down at his advisor, still seated at the campfire. “Vladilen… what have you done?”

Vlad stared back at the fire, as if the answer were written somewhere in the flames. Suddenly, Rurik grabbed him by the front of his tunic, yanking him to his feet.

What have you done!?

“I did what I knew you couldn’t!” Vladilen finally spat back, all pretense of niceties falling away. “This war has been coming for years, and despite my urgent counsel on the matter, we are no more prepared for it than we were three years ago!”

“Because I have been trying to prevent this war from happening--”

“And you’ve been fooling yourself! Do you truly think it in our power to stop it? We are no superpower, no authority - we are nothing but pawns to them! Our only hope of survival is to embrace that fact and choose sides!

The young governor stared at his friend, knowing the next words that would come out of his mouth, yet not wanting to believe them.

“The Vantian fleet approaches our harbor as we speak. We will cede Yukrovia to the Empire, in exchange for our peoples’ survival--”

Rurik shoved Vladilen backwards, sending him tripping over the log he’d been seated at. “You betrayed us! Our pride, our legacy… you’d throw it all away, without even a fight?”

“Who would you have defend us? The Mountain Guard? Against the combined forces of the Vantian Empire? They would’ve thrown our soldiers from the cliffs!”

“And what makes you think they won’t do that anyway?”

Vladilen stood, brushing the dirt and snow from his clothes as he faced the governor. “I did what needed to be done. For Yukrovia.”

Rurik drew the shortsword from his hilt, and for a moment, Vlad braced to reach for his own weapon. But after a tense moment, Rurik turned and ran to his horse, cutting the rope that tethered it to the hitching post and hoisting himself up onto it. Within moments, he was galloping northwards across the highlands toward the city, Vladilen’s shouts quickly fading behind him.

***

It wasn’t until Rurik was within a mile of the city that he heard the shouting. Not the typical din of the bustling Yukrovian marketplace that echoed off the High Cliffs, but a frightened clamoring. As the edge of the city came into view, so did the outline of the massive Vantian warships moored just off the coast. Where a stone tower once stood guard over the clifftop entrance to Yukrovia, nothing remained but a flaming pile of rubble and pitch. Rurik silently cursed Vladilen as he approached the ruined tower, where a Vantian archer had made himself a nearby vantage point overlooking the city.

His horse had barely stopped before Rurik leapt from the saddle and charged toward the unaware Vantian. The archer turned to see Rurik approaching too late, and could only get an arm up to stop the shortsword from slashing his neck. The Vantian screamed as the blade tore a gash from elbow to wrist - he stumbled back to regain his footing, and reached for his own hilt. But Rurik was faster - he charged forward, throwing all his weight behind his shoulder as he tackled into the archer’s chest, sending the bloodied soldier hurtling backwards over the cliff.

Rurik watched as the Vantian plummeted down into the city, his body crashing onto a rooftop far below. The breath of relief was short-lived, however, as he looked over to see the city center in chaos - Vantian soldiers marched through the streets, dragging frightened Yukrovians from their homes. Golden-sailed ships filled the harbor, having sank much of the Yukrovian fleet that once defended it. And on the walkways above, he saw the soldiers of the Mountain Guard - those that still lived - beaten and bound to the railings.

Rurik!

The governor did not turn to address Vladilen, as the advisor rode up to the ruined tower and dismounted. As Vlad approached the cliff’s edge and looked down into the city, his face fell. Finally, Rurik turned to look at him, silent.

“This wasn’t…” Vlad stammered. “...this wasn’t supposed to happen like this!”

If Rurik intended to respond, it was cut off by the blare of a trumpet on the docks below. The two men turned to see the source, as a transport ship dropped its gangplank at the Yukrovian docks, and a line of red-caped guards strode out. Behind them, two armor-clad figures emerged - the Vantian High King, Valdrok Eastwind, and the grizzled leader of his war council, General Kazius. Rurik recognized them both from the failed summit, when they’d last stepped foot in Yukrovia three years ago - and as he watched them make their way up the docks to the city center, he tightened his grip on his shortsword.

“What are you doing?” asked Vladilen, as he watched the governor make for the walkway into the city.

“What you couldn’t,” Rurik said.

***

The winding wooden walkways that led into the city had been constructed by the first Yukrovians to traverse down the northern cliff face - but despite their age, the weathered spruce planks and railings still held strong against the brutal winds. As Rurik charged down them, he felt morbidly grateful that the Vantians had approached by sea and not land, else his path into the city would’ve been quite a bit more blockaded. As it was, he nearly made it to the bottom steps before running into a Vantian soldier.

The soldier saw Rurik’s shortsword slicing down towards him, and easily parried it aside with his own Vantian goldblade. But Rurik was not interested in this fight, and took the soldier’s momentary staggering to barrel onwards into the city center…

The next few moments were a blur to Rurik - a hundred yards ahead of him on the docks stood the Vantian king, and he knew, as suicidal as it was, he would only have one shot. His legs seemed to move of their own accord, granting him the focus to parry the first few goldblades that swung down into his path. But soon he felt a sword slice through his calf, and though the adrenaline dulled the pain, the collision sent him staggering to regain his footing. It was all the break in momentum the soldiers needed; Rurik didn’t see the Vantian that tackled him then, but he soon found himself pinned to the ground, his shortsword clattering across the docks.

Governor Marisova…

Rurik knew Kazius’ voice before he was pulled to his feet to face him. The Vantian general approached him, nodding to the soldiers that kept Rurik’s arms pinned behind his back. Rurik felt them release his wrists, and he winced as his own weight fell onto his wounded leg.

“It seems you’ve returned from your hunting trip early,” Kazius continued. But as Rurik looked up, he noticed the general had directed this not to him, but someone in the crowd behind them. The governor turned to see Vladilen, breathless and wild-eyed, glaring back at the Vantian.

We had a deal!” Vlad shouted. “This was to be a peaceful transition of power!”

The general bristled, but before he could respond, the Vantian king strode forward, raising a hand to stop him.

“Our deal, Lord Vladilen, was a peaceful occupation in exchange for a peaceful reception. Apparently not all of your forces agreed with the order to stand down…” Valdrok said, as he gestured up to the bloodied Yukrovian soldiers bound to the railings above.

“So what now?” Rurik spat. “You’ll burn our city to the ground as punishment?”

“On the contrary, Governor - I have no desire to further damage this beautiful city,” said Valdrok, gesturing broadly to address the crowds of frightened Yukrovians watching from the walkways above. “Nor do I intend to harm any of its people, so long as they swear fealty to the Empire. A small ask in exchange for protection against the true evils of the world, wouldn’t you say?”

Rurik stood silent, as he looked up at the faces of his citizens gathered around - huddled, frightened, defenseless… Once, he would have felt pride in speaking on their behalf - but now, that confidence was gone. ‘We are nothing but pawns to them!’ Vlad’s words echoed in his mind. ‘Our only hope of survival is to embrace that fact and choose sides!

“I will not speak for the people of Yukrovia. If they truly wish to make this deal, then I will not stop them,” Rurik said, finally breaking the silence. “But I will never kneel for the Empire.”

“Then I will find someone who will,” the king replied. “Vladilen Ryabov… step forward.”

The crowds turned to watch as Rurik’s advisor approached. Vlad turned to look at Rurik as he passed, but the governor would not meet his gaze. Finally, Vladilen reached the king, and hesitantly knelt before him. “...your Grace?”

“You have shown great leadership in ensuring Yukrovia’s safety as a vassal of the Empire. It is only fitting that you continue to do so as its governor,” Valdrok said. “But we do not simply grant leadership… as is tradition, it must be seized. It must be earned. It must be taken.”

The king gestured to the pair of soldiers behind him, and they stepped forward. The two Vantians drew their goldblades, then tossed them onto the docks with a loud clatter… one before Vladilen, and one at Rurik’s feet. The crowd of soldiers and citizens surrounding them began to form a circle.

“No... “ Vladilen said, shooting a panicked look back at Rurik. “I can’t. It’s… it’s not a fair fight! His leg…”

As if waiting for a cue, General Kazius stepped forward into the circle and drew his own goldblade, slicing it across Vlad’s leg with brutal speed. The Yukrovian screamed, trying to stagger to his feet and stumbling sideways in the process. “There,” grunted the smirking general. “Now it’s even.”

Rurik reached down and grabbed the hilt of the Vantian sword at his feet. It was heavier than his shortsword, but to his surprise, not by much. He tightened his grip, looking up to see Vladilen clumsily pulling himself to his feet over his own goldblade. In the circle around them, the Vantian soldiers began clanging their shields against the wooden docks in rhythm. It was a long moment before Vlad found his footing, but finally he was back on his feet, sword in hand, as he met Rurik’s gaze. And for the first time in all his years of knowing him, Rurik saw something new in his friend’s eyes: fear.

For a brief moment, Rurik felt pity for Vladilen. He knew the panic and regret his friend must have felt in that moment, as he imagined him desperately searching for another way out. But the moment passed, and Rurik gripped the goldblade’s hilt with both hands.

Though he knew Vlad to be the better fighter, it was Rurik who made the first move. Grimacing through the pain in his leg, he charged forward with a wild slash at Vlad’s torso. Whether it was shock or self-restraint, Vladilen was slow to react, and just barely managed to sidestep the blow. But one look at the fury on Rurik’s face, and Vlad knew he had no choice. Rurik’s next blow clanged against a parrying blade, and his opponent moved to counter - the rhythmic banging of shields around them stoking the fervor of the crowds that watched in awe. Time after time, Rurik found his blows parried aside, while Vladilen tried desperately to ignore the openings that his friend’s clumsy attacks were offering. It wasn’t until Rurik’s blade nearly found its mark below Vlad’s shoulder that the former Mountain Guard’s combat instincts got the better of him - dodging the blow, he pivoted on his back foot and swung the goldblade in a wide arc that caught Rurik clear across his stomach. The governor staggered back, clutching at the wound as the blade fell from his hand and he sank to his knees.

Vladilen froze, as he watched his friend bleeding out on the docks before him. Rurik coughed, still clinging to life, and it took every ounce of Vlad’s willpower not to rush over to him; such a sign of weakness would not be taken well by the Vantians. Instead, he made his way across the docks, blade raised to Rurik’s neck as if to make a show of his conquest. But when he reached the wounded governor, and looked down into his friend’s dying eyes, his emotions betrayed him. He knelt beside Rurik, and managed to choke out the only words that would come to him: “I’m sorry…”

“Go on… do what needs to be done,” Rurik spat back at him. “For Yukrovia…

When Vladilen Ryabov finally stood once again, he swung the goldblade with such force that it cleaved Rurik Marisova’s head clean from his body.