Only days after defeating the Barbidons, King Belgrave entered Nerak Nitil. It was there that Ikaro introduced King Belgrave to his brother Anou, the King of Nerak.
At first, it was an awkward experience for Belgrave. Here was someone of equal rank and importance, and even though the middle-aged king seemed very welcoming, Belgrave felt slightly intimidated by their differences in age and experience. However, King Anou encouraged Belgrave. “We all started young. One day the roles will reverse and you will meet a younger king. My advice to you is that you treat all national leaders with respect, but also as equals. We all have different experiences so you can always learn new things from both the old and the young.”
“I am honored to have you view me as an equal,” Belgrave replied.
“Actually, it is different in our circumstance” Anou said. “You are king of Tanarad, and after taking control of the Barbidons, are now the rightful ruler of all Panei as well. However, you are more. You are the fulfillment of the prophecies and for that I think more highly of you.”
“I have fulfilled one prophecy,” Belgrave replied. “I do not know what to do for the second and third.”
King Anou smiled. “It is good you have come to Panei,” he stated. “Standing at the top of the tallest tower on the clearest of days, one can just barely make out a large structure deep in the Dark Forest. Rumors claim it is the great temple made long ago by the Lunari. If you manage to reach this temple, you may also find the fulfillment of the second prophecy.”
Belgrave was getting curious. “Why hasn’t anyone tried to visit this temple before?”
Anou was quick with a reply. “Few who enter the forest ever return. The few who do return tell of terrors that words cannot describe.”
“Such a place must fill entire armies with fear,” Belgrave said. “Surely its reputation has exceeded the truth.”
“I have no doubt that you could lead an army through that forest,” Anou said. “You have overcome greater odds than any ruler on Panei ever has.”
“How long would such an excursion take?”
“I believe the temple is a week’s journey from here if you were marching on open terrain. However, at least half of that is through the Dark Forest. It could easily take much longer to get there. Talk to your soldiers, I am positive they would go with you.”
“I have no doubt about that,” Belgrave laughed. “They all volunteered to come to Panei and I am sure they would follow me anywhere else I went.”
“Well it is up to you,” Anou said. “It will be several weeks before all the kings and queens of Panei arrive, so you should have plenty of time.”
“I will consider this option,” King Belgrave replied. “It is getting late and I must return to my soldiers.
When King Belgrave returned to the camp, the soldiers were going about their normal business, but they seemed a bit quieter than usual. Commander Sidrahkir met him at his tent. “How much longer until we move inland?” he asked. King Belgrave looked at him questioningly. “We all know there’s an ancient temple in the Dark Forest which hasn’t been visited in thousands of years. It may have something to do with the second prophecy.”
King Belgrave smiled. “Well, you’ve either been spying on me or you’ve learned to talk to birds. I have decided to investigate this temple, but I want the men themselves to decide if they want to risk entering the Dark Forest.”
“I already know the answer,” the Commander replied. “Everyone will follow you if they’re given the chance. Still, I will assemble them anyway.” Commander Sidrahkir turned and walked away.
When the army had assembled, King Belgrave and Commander Sidrahkir stood in front of them and King Belgrave addressed them. “Men, friends, soldiers of Tanarad, you have fought well. You have liberated Panei from the Barbidons and brought peace to yet another land in this world. For such valor, you will all be rewarded.” He looked around as they cheered his announcement.
“You’re the greatest king in the world!” one of the captains yelled.
King Belgrave did not yet know many names of the soldiers. “Who is that?” he whispered to the Commander.
“He is Captain Haloz of the Red Exemplars,” Commander Sidrahkir replied. “I will tell you more about them later.”
King Belgrave then spoke directly to the captain. “It is true, Captain Haloz; that I am King of Tanarad and that Panei now falls under my authority, but you are still wrong. Another king is still greater. There is another king who controls more lands and armies than I do. A greater king has covered the world with his darkness against which men have fought since long before any of us were born. There is a greater king sitting in his castle far to the north wondering, ‘who is this person who has taken both Tanarad and Panei?’ There is a greater king and he is the Dark Wizard Voth. He alone keeps me from being the greatest king in the world.”
The army was now completely silent and King Belgrave knew he had the attention of the entire army. “You all know about the final three prophecies. I have fulfilled the first and must now look to the second. I will go in search of the three rings, but I leave you all to make your own choices. You can return to your homes and families in Tanarad, or you can follow me to the fulfillment of prophecy. The choice is yours and no one will think poor of those who chose not to continue.”
Captain Haloz broke the silence. “King Belgrave, I speak for the Red Exemplars and am positive that I speak for many others here. As you said, we have fought against the darkness since before we were born and would do anything to end the war and ensure a peaceful future for this world. When we volunteered to liberate Panei, we swore to follow you even to certain death. I will continue in that oath even to the ends of the world.”
Many soldiers applauded this response and Commander Sidrahkir finally spoke to them. “I too will follow our king regardless of who else comes. The decision is not for you as a group, but for each individual. If you continue with us, you will face greater hardships and trials than you have yet faced. There will be dangers and it is possible that many will be killed. Each of you must make this decision tonight. Captains, inform Colonel Balvain of the decisions of your men before morning.” With that, he dismissed the army and stood watching as they went back to their business.
King Belgrave stood there also and spoke after a few moments. “How many do you think will return to Tanarad?” he asked.
“Very few,” the Commander replied. “They may doubt the future, but they have courage to do what they know is right.”
“So tell me about the Red Exemplars,” Belgrave said.
“Come,” Sidrahkir replied, “I will tell you over supper.”
They returned to Belgrave’s tent and a soldier brought them food. As Belgrave ate, the Commander leaned back in his chair and began to tell his story.
“The Red Exemplars are an elite military unit that has withstood the test of time. Their exact origin is unknown, but they have a rich heritage that goes back farther than anyone can remember. Some say they are the last remaining unit of the original war between the Lunari. Others claim a man named Josloy formed them as he led the world to defeat the Dark Magicians. Regardless of their true origins, we know that they are the best soldiers in the world. They are neither infantry, nor archers, but both, and capable of changing their roles as the battle progresses. They fight harder and longer than other soldiers, and if they fall, their will is so strong that they rise again. They have no fear of pain or death, and it is by their blood that Tanarad lasted against the Barbidons as long as it did.”
“How do you join them?” Belgrave asked.
“You don’t,” Sidrahkir grinned. “Actually, to be admitted into the ranks of the Red Exemplars is not only an honor, but a lifetime commitment. Even fighting alongside them is considered a great honor. If you watch the way they fight, the way they work, the way they operate, you will see that those fifty individuals behave as one. They share a bond between each other that no one else will ever experience. When one is happy, they share it. When one is hurt, they all feel his pain. When one dies, they spill their blood over the grave of their fallen comrade.”
Sidrahkir paused and Belgrave asked another question. “If they have been around for so long, have they always fought for Tanarad?”
Commander Sidrahkir shook his head. “The Red Exemplars do not fight for countries or politics and they are not mercenaries,” he explained. “They only fight for prophecy. It may have sounded out of place, but Captain Haloz was right when he said they would follow you to the end of the world and certain death. They have sworn to fight for the prophecies and that is why they fight for you.”
“They sound like fanatics,” Belgrave stated.
Sidrahkir laughed. “No, Belgrave, they are not fanatics. While it may seem that way, they fight for a common goal. The rest of the world may also fight for the same goal, but the Red Exemplars have completely dedicated their lives to that goal. Watch them in battle and you will see this for yourself.”
“I am sure of that!” Belgrave said. “It seems they are coming with us wherever we go!”
The next day, Commander Sidrahkir had a final count of the soldiers who wanted to stay and those who wanted to return to Tanarad.
“Only four?” King Belgrave was astonished when he received the news. “I expected there to be more wishing to return to Tanarad. Do we really need this many soldiers to go with us through the Dark Forest? After all, we’re not going to war; we’re just going in search for an ancient temple.”
Commander Sidrahkir contemplated the situation for a moment. “While I believe it is better to err on the side of excess, taking the entire army would require more supplies than a smaller group. I suggest taking only four companies. We should have more than enough soldiers and the rest of the army can stay here to ensure that the Barbidons do not break their treaty.”
“Those we leave behind would feel as if we didn’t want them,” King Belgrave replied.
“Regardless, that is how it should be done. We want to go there and back quickly, and taking too many men will slow us down.”
King Belgrave gave in. “I agree. Is Colonel Balvain capable of maintaining control while we’re away?”
“Colonel Balvain is more than capable,” the Commander replied.
“Then I want you to select the soldiers who will go with us,” King Belgrave ordered. “I want to be able to march tomorrow.” He paused briefly. “What do you suggest we do with the four soldiers who wish to return?”
“They will return of course,” stated Commander Sidrahkir. “However, I noticed a bit of discord between you and your council before we left Amehtana and I think that sending these four men with a message would be a good way to assess the current political situation. If the council is displeased with your decision to remain away, it means they want you back. If they are glad you are staying away, then you know they do not want you there and may attempt to take more power for themselves. With you away, this will determine how well these men are fit to lead. If they fail the test, the four soldiers can inform the five brothers and have them take control.”
“I am not too worried about the council,” King Belgrave replied. “I left Naiya’Nal with instructions to deal with them if they attempted anything foolish.”
“Naiya’Nal is capable,” the Commander agreed; “but there are some things I would not leave a disliked woman to deal with. These men are returning so you might as well have them deliver the message.” He grinned. “Personally, I’d much rather have her here with us in Panei.”
“Alright,” King Belgrave said, nodding in agreement. “Have the four soldiers return with the message. Then I want you to choose the four companies to continue on with us.” He paused. “While you’re at it, have King Anou send messengers to the other rulers of Panei, requesting them to come to Nerak Nitil so that I can meet with them when we get back from the Dark Forest.”
“It will be done. We will be ready to march tomorrow,” Commander Sidrahkir said.