Ironwood's Deleted Prologue - still undecided whether to include
“It is done, my friend,” Michael said softly. “He is beaten.”
The young man lay on the parched ground, smooth skin pale with blood loss, almost as pale as the white peoples from central and eastern Annaria, those that still lived. The hole in his side was enormous, a bloody mess that no-one could possibly survive, not even him. Perhaps his sacrifice would be enough.
Michael was an impossible man, only seventeen years of age, but with the wisdom of decades. Born in one of Balina’s great houses, trained by the best tutors in the modern world. He was the Mirakan Alliance’s greatest military mind and its most capable warrior, rolled into one. He was the youngest graduate in the history of Balina’s military academy, and had built his own army almost single-handedly through victories in one unwinnable battle after another. All of his life, the alliance had been in desperate need for heroes: today Michael had made himself a legend.
“Do not leave us, General. Your people still need you,” Karimbe said, as if words could keep him from death.
“No, Karimbe,” Michael shook his head weakly, “my work is done. Hell reached out to swallow the world whole, but we have cut the head from the Demon. After all these years, he is finally gone. I leave what peace can be found in your hands. The war is over, though it cost half the continent.”
Karimbe grimaced. Half the continent had been lost, and lives beyond counting. An end? He could wrap his mind around the words, but not their meaning. War had raged most of his life, and all of Michael’s. It began when Annaka, the gate to the Empire of Travan had mysteriously fallen. The far eastern nomadic tribes had sparred with Travan for generations, but they had been jealous of their territory, not bloodthirsty. Somehow a charismatic young chief named Khardum had whipped them up into a frenzy, and in unbelievable numbers they had come not to conquer, but to kill. In the early days, none knew precisely how the towns and villages had been destroyed, for no one survived their destruction to tell the tale. The information came later, as Khardum’s horde, his Kharshe, spread throughout the land. Tendrils of his immense army had been stayed for a time, for even Khardum could not be everywhere. Yet wherever the Warlord approached, none could stand before him, none until Michael, who now lay dying in the reddening sand.
The broad general grimaced, showing the wrinkles that had come with the premature gray in his sort, curly hair. The great Empire of Miraka was gone. The Free Cities were gone. Travan, Ghoran, and Thenlar: all were surely dead, except for the unending stream of refugees who had not waited for the ax to fall upon them. Margon and Chaltan both were staggered and bleeding. Even the land was parched, as if in mourning for the dead, like the hundreds of men who even now feared to approach the site of their fallen hero, in case the Warlord should rise again. “My friend, you have earned your rest. No one else could have defeated Khardum, and the world will be colder without you. Forgive me: I had always imagined you would last forever.”
It was true. Karimbe had been bold enough to see firsthand what Khardum could do, and it was terrifying. He really had looked like a demon, in his red cape and gleaming armor, and he had the strength of a demon too. The general had watched in horror as Khardum had felled trees with his errant swings, and crushed rocks in his angry hands. Flames gushed where his feet had pressed into the ground. Karimbe would never be able to properly explain what had happened: even the most straightforward description of Michael’s duel would only be taken for hyperbole and children’s tales. No one really believed the stories of Heylen of Miraka’s powers, or of the reign of the Fire Demons a thousand years ago. Yet today he saw myths walk among men, clashing in thunder and flame. Karimbe was an ant among giants; it was absurd that he would outlive them.
“I will see you in Heaven,” Michael grinned weakly, his eyes knowing, his great will keeping his voice steady even now. “I only hope the Demon has learned his lesson. I have no wish to do this again, and we have paid far too much. Take back the Free Cities, as we planned, and rebuild them. The Kharshe are not evil, without Khardum, but they know the West will not forgive them. Take back your home swiftly, before they regroup, and build your walls high.”
Heaven and Hell, angels and demons: these were the fevered words of a dying man, but Karimbe would honor them. Michael had earned it.
“I will,” Karimbe promised the empty air, for now he truly stood alone.