Captain Nelenar sprinted through the camp. One of his soldiers, Drowtaht, had just told him that three Lunari had come to speak with King Emanpugnikam. Nelenar knew he could not miss this meeting. It would be here that he would learn the plans for the battle they would fight tomorrow. The Red Exemplars answered to no one and served only the Lunari and the ancient prophecies, but they would fight alongside the rest of the world in this conflict.
The camp stretched as far as they eye could see. It was the second largest army which had ever been gathered in the almost two thousand years of history of the world. The last Great King to have attempted an assault on Nazada brought a slightly larger army but had failed horribly and his name was forever shamed. Nelenar hoped the Lunari would have a winning solution.
He finally found the tent and a guard let him enter. Captain Nelenar shielded his eyes from the bright light of the Lunari as he slowly entered the tent. It would take awhile for his eyes to adjust. Someone pulled him to the side out of the way.
“The Dark Fortress must be destroyed,” explained someone who Nelenar knew had to be King Emanpugnikam, “but their defenses held against the army of Darthan and would also hold up against us.”
“The soldiers will do their job well if a path was made through the dark defenses,” suggested another. Captain Nelenar could not see who had just spoken but knew it had to be a high-ranking commander.
“The fortress is surrounded by mountains on all other sides,” countered another. “Our scouts say there is no way for an army to cross them. There is no way across the tundra either.”
“What does the enemy have to keep us from crossing the tundra?” asked another.
“We all know about the soldiers of darkness which Mathol has unleashed to prey upon the world,” explained the King. “While many operate alone, the Dark Lunari keeps many to serve him here.”
“The soldiers of darkness stay inside the fortress,” noted the second commander.
“There is more,” added the King. “Many large creatures have been hidden among the snow and ice we must cross. They have thick white fur and wear strong armor. Eight of our scouts died when one of these creatures attacked them. The reports I have been given indicate there could be thousands between us and Nazada.”
“The enemy must also be planning a storm to drop torrents of rain on us,” added the first commander. “It is too cold here and we would freeze to death as soon as we became wet.”
“It is true,” said King Emanpugnikam, “that the enemy has chosen to place their fortress in the most treacherous location possible. It is also the most strategic if they wish to survive. There is much snow, ice, and rock here at the bottom of the world. Any attack by fire or water would defeat us. However, the Lunari have come to our aid. They will deal with Mathol while we deal with the rest of the enemy. We will meet with success regardless of the number of losses we bear.”
Several in the tent clapped at the brief speech but someone spoke out. “Then allow us to know these plans so we may prepare for tomorrow.”
“Kathiv of the Lunari will present these plans before us,” replied the King.
An unusual voice spoke. It sounded delicate yet compelling. “Prophecy has already planned this battle,” it announced. “There is honor to be obtained in this battle and the red ones will lead.” Nelenar suddenly became more attentive in the bright tent. This concerned the Red Exemplars.
“I know the Red Exemplars are the greatest soldiers in the world,” someone said, “but what chance do fifty men have where a million once failed?”
“How many horsemen do you have?” asked Kathiv.
“We have fifty thousand,” answered King Emanpugnikam.
“Then fifty thousand horsemen will join the Red Exemplars,” explained Kathiv.
Several in the room breathed in sharply at the announcement and Captain Nelenar stepped forward. “The ranks of the Red Exemplars are full.”
Another moved to Captain Nelenar’s defense. “The Red Exemplars will not allow common soldiers to join them.”
“Does ritual take precedence over prophecy?” asked the Lunari.
“To wear the red armband is an honor few attain,” explained Captain Nelenar. “It is not to be given out freely.”
The other Lunari made what sounded like a faint laughing sound. “You know your heritage,” said Kathiv. “Rituals set you apart from the world but exceptions make you great.”
Captain Nelenar grimaced and bowed. “Exceptions can be made,” he agreed. “In death they will have earned the armband.”
“Is the outlook that bleak?” asked King Emanpugnikam.
“The enemy defenses will not hold against a charge of fifty thousand Red Exemplars,” answered Kathiv. “They will meet with success but the rest of the army will be crossing over a land paved in red.”
Captain Nelenar looked up suddenly with wide eyes. “Will any of the Red Exemplars survive?” The room was silent and not even Kathiv answered. “Now or later, we all die,” the Captain stated. “The Red Exemplars will gladly give their lives to fulfill prophecy.”
“Red ones lead, for honor charge,” quoted King Emanpugnikam. “I would not have expected the prophecy to be fulfilled in this manner. Captain Nelenar, I will provide horses for your men. All fifty of the current Red Exemplars will lead one thousand horsemen. The fifty thousand will all wear the red armband but I want those leading to each ride with a red banner strapped to their back.”
Captain Nelenar bowed. “I ask permission to depart from this council,” he said. “I must inform my soldiers and prepare for this increase of our ranks.”
“We will see you tomorrow,” replied King Emanpugnikam with a slight nod. “Colonel Ved will assist as you take command of the horsemen.” The Captain turned and left the tent. The frigid wind was blowing down from the mountains as the Captain slowly walked back toward his own tent and he wrapped his cloak tighter around himself. It would be a hard night waiting for the inevitable death in the morning.
“Ready your weapons and shine your armor,” yelled Captain Nelenar as he entered the camp of the Red Exemplars. “Tomorrow we die the greatest deaths in history!”
Soldiers ran to carry out his instructions. “How will this death be greater than any other death?” asked Drowtaht.
“The enemy will see a sea of red surging toward them at sunrise,” answered the Captain.
Drowtaht’s eyes opened wide. “That is not possible!” he gasped loudly.
“I will not argue with a Lunari,” replied Captain Nelenar. “Besides, rituals only maintain standards while exceptions give us honor.”
“How many will we number?” asked Drowtaht.
“Each current Red Exemplar will lead one thousand horsemen tomorrow,” answered the Captain. “Fifty and fifty thousand will ride to victory but none will return. King Emanpugnikam is sending Colonel Ved with the horsemen tonight. I need you to assist in preparing them for morning.”
Drowtaht bowed. “To die for prophecy is an honor. I will not fail you.”
Captain Nelenar smiled. “Go prepare. We will remember before we ride.”
Drowtaht bowed and left to follow the Captain’s orders.
The morning was still dark when Captain Nelenar departed his tent for the last time. Drowtaht and Colonel Ved stood outside and greeted the Captain. “Here is your horse,” said Drowtaht patting the animal standing beside him.
“Are the Red Exemplars assembled?” asked the Captain.
“We are ready,” answered Colonel Ved, “but I doubt many of my men will participate in this ritual.”
“Just watch,” countered the Captain. “I think they will.”
They jumped on their horses and rode to where the rest of the Red Exemplars stood at the edge of the battlefield. They stood in a circle and the horses standing outside of the assembly. The Captain rode into the midst of the Red Exemplars. They surrounded the Captain as he looked over the faces before him. “Those who have recently joined us are welcome to join in our rituals but participation will not be required,” he ordered.
Captain Nelenar pulled out his dagger and held it high. Its sharp edges gleamed in the light of the silver moon. “We are the Red Exemplars,” he shouted. “We are red because of our blood bond with the fallen. We are Exemplars because we have no equals in all the armies of the world.”
The fifty Red Exemplars pulled out their daggers and held them high. He did not look to see if any others joined them. “Today is a day of death for us all,” the Captain announced and raised his other arm as well. “For this reason my blood will flow one last time in memory of our bond for I too will never leave this field.” Captain Nelenar clenched his fist and slashed his forearm. Blood flowed down and dripped from his elbow.
The other fifty Red Exemplars followed his example. “To be remembered is to be dead,” shouted the Captain. “The dead have nothing to fear. The sun will rise and the enemy will drown in the flow of our blood.”
He lowered his arms and looked at his dagger. The blood had already frozen on the cold metal but he put it away since it was worthless to clean it so soon before he used it again. “From fifty to fifty thousand,” he shouted as he turned his horse and thrust his bloodied fist into the air. “We are the Red Exemplars!” he yelled but the shout of the crowd drowned him out.
While the Red Exemplars sat on their horses waiting for the sun to rise and the rest of the army to assume their positions, Colonel Ved rode up to Captain Nelenar. “I wish to ride beside you,” he said.
“It does not matter where you ride,” replied the Captain softly. “You will die regardless.”
“I cannot fear death,” replied the Colonel. He raised his arm and showed the blood from earlier. “I am already dead.”
Captain Nelenar smiled. “I am truly honored to have you as a member of the Red Exemplars.” The Captain turned his head toward Nazada. “Ride beside me and let us hope we fall together.”
They sat in silent contemplation a few moments before another Red Exemplar suddenly rode up leading King Emanpugnikam on a white horse. “The world is ready to follow,” said the King.
“We have no fear of the task before us,” replied the Captain as he held his arm before him.
The King looked at Colonel Ved. “Let us hope we meet again.”
“Search the field for my body,” answered the Colonel as he also held out his arm.
“Then I bid you farewell,” stated King Emanpugnikam. “The trumpets will sound as the first rays of the morning sun brighten the field and the world will watch in awe as a sea of red precedes them to victory.”
They nodded as the King slowly rode away. Captain Nelenar leaned closer to the Colonel. “How many of your horsemen shed blood this morning?” he asked.
Colonel Ved grinned. “Every last one,” he answered.
The Captain breathed in sharply. “I will never understand how prophecy works,” he stated. He looked toward Nazada once more. “The bond of the Red Exemplars is so great they are one. For fifty thousand to become Red Exemplars on the eve of battle is something I will never comprehend.”
“You don’t need to understand it,” said the Colonel. “You just need to do what is required of you.”
Captain Nelenar held out his hand. “Then may we do what we do best and allow prophecy to do the rest.” Colonel Ved shook his hand.
The trumpets soon sounded and Captain Nelenar pulled out his sword and held it high. The sword flickered like fire as it caught the first rays of the sun. “As said by the ancients,” yelled the Captain. “One comes from many, one stronger than all, by one comes victory!” The Captain’s horse reared up. “The dead ride for honor!” he shouted as his horse jumped forward and ran onto the field. Colonel Ved rode beside him. Fifty thousand Red Exemplars followed behind as they sped toward the fortress of Nazada.
Captain Nelenar rode hard toward Nazada with the Colonel beside him. They could see the white creatures lying in wait before them. The Captain readied his sword as he led the Red Exemplars toward the creatures. The Captain never knew how many of his soldiers the creatures killed before they succumbed to the strength of the many horsemen. He did not care. He needed to go all the way to Nazada. The blood of his soldiers would pave the road to victory.
Few of the Red Exemplars made it across the field. They surged through the gate and attacked the dark soldiers inside. They had not been required to enter the fortress but Captain Nelenar had a goal. Many more would die inside as they followed the Captain through the streets as he pressed forward for his prize. He braved the swords in front of the large tower and slowly fought his way inside.
A large piece of falling ice shattered his shield and broke his arm yet still he pressed on. He noticed Colonel Ved was still by his side but very few other Red Exemplars were still with them. “My prize is to be the last Red Exemplar to fall,” the Captain stated as they ran up the stairs.
“Let us share the prize,” the Colonel responded.
Captain Nelenar smiled at the Colonel and grabbed his hand. “The blood of our orders stains the tundra. The blood of our courage flows in the streets of Nazada. The blood of our endurance will write the future of Mathol. May the two of us reach the top of this tower to die with the greatest honor.”
He stabbed another dark soldier that had been racing down the stairs.
“Then let us make haste!” responded the Colonel.
Only the two of them made it to the top of the stairs and they burst through the great doors. The room was empty except for a dark figure of shadow. The figure quickly turned toward them. They slowly advanced holding their swords before them. The doors slammed shut behind them and they were stuck in the room with Mathol.
“How did you survive to see me?” asked Mathol. “Did you expect to find me welcoming? You will both die.”
Captain Nelenar raised his sword. “Fifty thousand to none, we were the Red Exemplars.”
Lightning flashed from both of Mathol’s hands and both Red Exemplars fell to the floor.
Merak stood in the midst of King Emanpugnikam’s army. The armies of men made up the center of the great army. The larger Barbidons stood on either flank. The Canari spread out in various groupings within and around both men and Barbidons. King Emanpugnikam and the three Lunari stood in front of the army.
As the sun rose, they heard the trumpets sound and watched as the great number of Red Exemplars charged toward the dark fortress. The ground shook as the Red Exemplars thundered toward Nazada. Swords and armor flashed in the morning sun. Fifty red banners fluttered in the sky. Each banner had an emblem to allow each thousand soldiers to know where their specific leader was. Merak knew there was more courage among the Red Exemplars than the rest of the army.
They watched as the horsemen clashed against the defenses of Mathol. The white haired beasts killed many and still the red throng pressed forward. Bodies littered the ground and the snow was lost under the red stain. Merak could not see if any passed through the gates of Nazada.
King Emanpugnikam turned toward the army and held his sword in the air. “The path to victory has been paved in blood. Victory has been ensured.” The King turned his horse and began to advance toward the dark fortress. The trumpets sounded and the rest of the army began to march after the King.
As they advanced, several of the surviving white beasts rose up to attack them. The Canari rushed in and fought with the rest. As they neared the Dark Fortress, a dark cloud spread from the top of the large tower and it began to rain. The ground became slick as the rain froze the instant it touched the ice. They slowly slid forward holding their shields above them to stay dry. Soon they were using the bodies of the dead for traction across the icy field. Large chunks of ice began to fall from the sky and soldiers around Merak began to fall from its force.
The army pressed on. The Lunari sent a wave of fire into the cloud but the ice fell even harder. Soldiers began to run toward the fortress and Merak joined them. The three Lunari also quickened their pace. Merak could not see through the thick rain but followed the frozen red smear in the ground to the gate.
Once inside, there was no more falling rain and ice but a wall of Mathol’s soldiers stood against them. The army of men surged forward. Soon the Barbidons would also pass through the gate. No mortal army would stand against the combined forces of the world.
The three Lunari ignored the blades of the dark soldiers and quickly passed through their midst leaving behind a trail of carnage. Merak watched as they entered the tall tower. He knew the battle would soon be over. The Red Exemplars had done their job and soon the three Lunari would overpower and destroy Mathol.
Merak heard a faint cry near the door of the tower. He turned and saw a Red Exemplar gasping for breath and unable to move. He knelt down as the soldiers around him continued to battle. “What do you need?” he asked.
“Finish me,” ordered the Red Exemplar nodding at his sword.
“Would it be better if I helped you?” asked Merak.
“No,” argued the Red Exemplar. “I have already been given my death honors. Now finish me!”
Merak slowly pulled out his dagger and propped up the Red Exemplar. “What is your name?” he asked.
“I am a Red Exemplar,” replied the man as his eyes closed and his body went limp.
Merak slowly put away his dagger and laid the man back down. A great blast of light suddenly flashed from the top of the tower and the entire battle paused as everyone looked up into the brightness. Mathol had been defeated.
Merak stood up and ducked into the tower. Bodies covered the stairs. He made his way over the piles and headed toward the top. The doors were open and he could see two bodies on the floor. Both had red armbands around their arms. One was the Captain of the Red Exemplars and the other had once been the Colonel of the horsemen.
He knelt down beside the Captain and rolled him over. The dead face had a look of grim resolve and Merak knew the man had given his life for the prophecies he believed. A tear formed in his eyes. Here was a man who lived a life worth emulating.
“Take up the armband,” ordered a delicate voice. He turned and saw the three Lunari standing beside him. “The Red Exemplars will continue to aid the world that needs them.”
Merak knew better than to disagree with the Lunari. He cautiously removed Captain Nelenar’s armband and placed it around his own arm. “What must I do?” he asked.
“One comes from many, one stronger than all, by one comes victory,” said the Lunari. “The Red Exemplars will always be reborn.” One of the Lunari pulled out a small dagger and took Merak’s arm. He yelled as the white blade cut through the skin and blood began to bead from the thin wound. Several drops fell on Captain Nelenar. “Your blood is shed in a lasting memory of those who have fallen before you,” explained the Lunari.
Several other soldiers were on the stairs as Merak was descending. One of them recognized him. “Merak, when did you become a Red Exemplar?” he asked.
Merak paused and held up his bloody arm. “A bond of blood cannot be broken, Lowkee. Did I miss anything important with the battle?”
“A great wind came from the sky almost as soon as the bright flash!” exclaimed one. “We sought shelter in here but many were unable to escape. Soon after the wind was gone, we watched as white spots formed on their bodies and they soon died.”
“Others sought shelter in other buildings but also had the same symptoms when they left their shelter,” added Lowkee.
“We will also die if we leave the tower,” said the third soldier. “Even king Emanpugnikam is stuck inside a building!”
“I am sure there is a way,” argued Merak as he pushed past them and continued down the stairs.
“Wait!” shouted Lowkee. “Where are you going?”
“The Red Exemplars will save King Emanpugnikam,” he stated as he kept going. From what Lowkee said, he knew the great wind had brought a plague to kill many of the soldiers who survived the battle. He wrapped a cloth around his face so he would not breathe in anything deadly as he stepped outside.
Lowkee and the other soldiers rushed after him and wrapped cloths around their faces. “We won’t let you go alone,” stated Lowkee. “Even a Red Exemplar needs help at times!”