Chapter 1:

The Night of Orphans

A Sinner's Crown

"On that day, the so-called Night of Orphans, many sons and daughters lost their parents, all because of a king's antics, all because of a king's sins. Yet on that very same night, a certain Nemeian prince armed with holy prayers and a mighty sword shone like a new star in the arch of heaven."

—Uriah Aetos, Lord of Eagos and Royal Historian, 
In his writings collected in Second Nemeos.

Syra's Port, by the coastline's grasslands.

The first thing Xander sensed when approaching the city was the fiery and towering smoke, visible even during the full moon, then as he and his mounted guard rode atop the last hill of the Naruda Plains, he could fully grasp the devastation.

A few dozen ships floated beyond the coastline, some of them with fixed catapults on their bow, launching scorching vessels with incendiary chemicals, which exploded on the city walls and houses. The sound of clashing swords, battle cries, and wailing screams within the city's streets reached for Xander's feline ears.

"They arrived early," said Eniastes, one of the prince's entourage and second in command, sporting the ears and horns of a stag, clad in armor and weapons as regal as the royal family—not out of competition, but out of representing his king truthfully.

Xander frowned, "You know how Karkanians are, always sailing faster under the full moon," he examined the whole area with a glance, "See the reach of their sea catapults?" They have not reached the city's siege weapons."

"If they are not using it against the ships, it means the Karkanians reached the port before the ballistas and onagers could be manned," concluded Eniastes.

"Which means it is worse than we thought and that the Kingdom of Karkan knew what would happen before we did," said Valen, another man from Xander's supporters, swinging his mouse ears and twitching his head with the sound of cracked walls.

"That's not important now, Val, what matters is making Syra's Port safe," Xander said. He reached for his best friend with his hand, "Eni..."

Eniastes followed his prince's hand with his eyes and saw that a dozen ships aimed to land their troops near the city to gain a foothold. He nodded and wore his helmet, then he raised his hand and waved at the rear to advance, "Signal the charge." 

A horn shook the sound of battle as the hill was suddenly filled with knights wielding long spears, with them, the banner of a white, sleeping lion emerged, announcing the presence of Nemeian reinforcements to the enemy.

"Secure the peripheral shores once you deal with their disembarkment," Xander ordered, "if Lua wills it, we will drink and eat in Alopos' Keep."

"That is if they don't push us back, Xan," he said, stirring his mount while grabbing his spear from a squire.

"May her moonlight shine upon you, my friend," said the prince.

Eniastes bowed his head, "And you, your highness."

The horn blew once more, and the storming roar of a hundred knights prefaced the tremble of their horses' charge.

Xander unsheathed his side sword while keeping his larger crossguard blade on his back, he stood on his saddle's stirrups so that he would be visible to his entire host, "Nemeians, on me!"

The remaining cavalry and total infantry, composed of levies with short spears, swords, axes, and maces, lifted skyward as they followed their prince to battle. Almost immediately an incendiary arrow shot at the rear of Xander's army, alerting the city of their presence.

Soon enough, the wall gates growled as they opened, and Xander took a last glance at Eniastes' charge, just in time to see it squash Karkan men, who staggered due to the sea's tide and sand. As soon as the spears thrust through red-cloaked enemies, the knights switched to their side weapons and began to fight those who remained. Of course, some fell off due to the sand's tricky stability or due to a lucky spear being raised before the clash, but even then, Eniastes' men would lift themselves up, their armor filled either by sand or water, and would hack and slash at the enemy. 

That's the Eliphite cavalry for you, Xander thought, as his vision was then filled by darkened city streets.

"To the port! To the port!" He ordered, as his mount passed some quick steps, Xander heard the tumultuous steps of his infantry that hurried to be by his side. The light infantry led by Valen, the Muonian pickmen, was faster thanks to their lighter chest plates and minimal covering, ideal for urban fighting.

It was minutes, but for the white-maned prince, it lasted for ages, as the sound of fire and fighting drew closer and closer until a jump over a burning cart introduced Xander to the heat of the battle. Karkanians were lighting torches and throwing them inside houses while executing straggling men who did not bear arms around an open plaza. At this point, only a few Nemeian soldiers were trying to fight and instead led women and children away from the fighting. The cavalry behind him soon arrived and attacked all who lay in the open. Valen and his men arrived and proceeded to fight those who stayed away from the horsemen.

Xander took two with a swing of his blade and deflected a thrusting spear aimed at his side, executing the attacker with a stab of his own on the neck.

A volley of molten projectiles fell on the nearest houses, stunning Xander, but helping him see that the Keep of Alopos' noble house was burning on its lower levels.

"Valen, on me!" he shouted, as more Karkanians and Nemeians poured from opposing streets and fought in the plaza. The battle had just turned gruesome. 

More enemies came as they approached the keep, a few houses away, these were marine troops, armed and equipped with armor similar to the Valen's Muonian troop, designed to raid ships or to sack ports, thus better suited to fight in close quarters. None of that mattered to Xander, as he rode as much as it could be ridden while fighting them, then unmounted his horse and continued killing, using his blade and a Nemeian shield he had picked up upon fighting on foot.

When the Nemeians reached the keep's gate, they saw that it had been burst open by a mighty blow and that the sound of slaughter could be heard inside. Xander rushed inside and saw even more fighting between the guards and the invaders. Down in the center of the courtyard, the prince spotted a decorously armored woman with fox ears slicing a man's throat, clad in teal and bearing the sigil of the Alopos lords. Xander sought her on the field, eliminating those who came against him, never losing the Alopos girl off his sight. As he approached her, the prince heard her crying orders.

"Push forward men, we need to secure the lord's hall as soon as possible!" she yelled, desperate, "Fight! Fight!"

The prince slayed yet another foe at the same time she slayed another, and her blade crossed with his in an instant, as she thought he was another Karkanian coming for her.

"My lady!" he yelled, guarding against another reckless assault from her, "be at ease! We've come to help!"

Only a few seconds (and more blows) later did she widen her eyes and blink in disbelief as she saw the sleeping lion and teal background in Xander's tabard. As bloodlust left her, so did her knees finally give in, and Xander rushed to catch her from falling.

"My father...! He... he's in there with that thing!"

"Calm yourself, my lady, where is lord Alopos?"

"I can't...! It took him... inside... moments earlier!" she said.

The thunderous roar of something bigger than the biggest of the awakened races of Nassau budged the wooden planks and columns of the keep, and so did the hearts of the guards, who distracted themselves cowardly with it. They had seen something that had shaken their core.

As if the very utterance of her words energized her legs, the Alopos girl showed her fangs with crazed eyes as she reached for her sword again, "I need to go! He needs me! My father...!"

Xander struggled to hold her in place, but then he uttered a small chant to her ear, touching her back gently, and her distorted face reversed to its exhausted state. Xander internally commended her scent, as beneath the smell of steel and blood was a flowery perfume innate to her skin, and her face, albeit brushed and bloodied, looked beautifully chiseled by Lua's maidens.

The doors from the lord's hall burst open, their locks exploding by a mighty hit. The girl in the prince's arms tensed, her breathing peaking in again. As the smoke cleared, a towering figure emerged, displaying hooved legs, a sturdy human torso strong arms double the size of Xander's waist, and a fierce bull head on top with spiky horns. 

"My prince," Valen said as he rushed to Xander's side, "is that...?"

"A minotaur," Xander uttered, dismayed.

The mythical beast roared before the fighting sides as he wielded a large axe in one hand, and an ominous round thing in the other.

"No, it didn't..." Xander said, frowning.

As if confirming the prince's fears, the minotaur lifted the strange object for all to see, and the Alopos girl gasped.

It was the head of a Nemeian noble held high, his two foxy ears grabbed violently by the minotaur's uncaring grasp, who then tossed it down the steps before the lord's hall. The head rolled towards the lion prince and the fox lady as if perfectly calculated to stop right at their knees.

The Alopos girl let out a scream as tears filled her eyes, desperation finally bringing her worse fears to bear.

The minotaur taunted them by chuckling, fumes of foggy air coming from its nose.

"Val, secure the city's siege weapons..."

"Xan, no, that thing..."

"Guide our forces to fire at those galleys, send them away or destroy them."

"But what about...?"

"We're covered here, that monster dared take a noble's life, I will bring retribution to the Alopos family," Xander stated, standing up and dropping his side sword, instead finally unsheathing his longsword. As he reached for the handle and pulled the sword, runes ignited in a blue light across the entire blade. 

The minotaur considered him, whiffing puffs of air as it studied the armored, white-maned opponent before him and his strange sword.

"My prince, be safe..." Valen said, before signaling his men and the guards to assist him.

Xander looked at the Alopos girl, "Do you want revenge?" he asked.

The teary girl looked at him, surprised.

"I'm prince Xander Nemeos of the royal family, and I tell you that if you wish to bring justice to your father, you stand beside me and see this beast beheaded."

The girl controlled her breathing and calmly reached for her sword, standing resolutely next to Xander, "I-I shall have justice for my family!"

The minotaur roared, not at all amused by this couple of warriors courageously challenging him for a final bout. It raised its axe above its head as he leaped towards them, his blow meant to crush its foes. The two jumped sideways to dodge the attack, and as Xander regained his footing, he correctly guessed that the beast would go for him first, as he kept his head low before a swing that cut through the air hushed above his mane. 

His eyes spotted the fox girl charging at the minotaur as it recovered from the axe's drag. Seeking to deviate the monster's gaze from his ally, he sprinted forward with his longsword in front, visibly showing his intent on stabbing the towering giant with his sword. It reacted accordingly, readying another blow at him before he could swing at the Alopos lady. As the axe fell down upon the prince, it met with Xander's runic sword in a splash of sparkling lights. The minotaur, all the while adding pressure to his crushing attack, hesitated, as he noticed a spherical shield originating from the sword, protecting his adversary. Looking further, the ground had given in, creating a crater beneath Xander's feet. 

Without a second to waste, the fox girl sliced the minotaur's hooved legs, making him crumble at his own weight. The beast roared in both pain and ravenous rage as it gauged the lady's next attack, seeking to hit her with its enormous fists. Xander noticed this and thus maneuvered around the axe in order to plunge his sword through the beast's greasy and husky chest. 

The minotaur gasped, its roars cut off by the lack of air. It was not able to keep its cries up for longer, as the fox lady aimed her next swing at its strong neck. The blade hit the beast's hide, stopping for a second, but with a mighty cry of vengeance, the girl finished her blow and the head flew atop them for a moment before falling a few meters away. The minotaur's body spurted blood for seconds before collapsing as Xander removed his longsword and cleaned it with a swing, ultimately sheathing it on his back. 

The Alopos lady fell to her knees once more, sobbing, "Father... I'm sorry..."

She kept uttering those sorrowful words as the crying returned, now inconsolably. 

Behind them, the sound of catapults around the keep launching pieces of debris toward the ships began to roar, and the battle on the streets seemed distant. The fire was giving in, as a heavy rain fell across Syra's Port, as if answering the prayer of all its inhabitants.

Whether they prayed or not was uncertain, but a prince prayed that day, truly. He raised his bloodied face to the dark skies of the night, where the light of the fire revealed its gray and stormy clouds. 

"Oh goddess," he prayed, "forgive us."