"Your Majesty, preparations are complete. Your men only await your word."
The previously boisterous room grew quiet, heated debates turning to silent murmurs. Palpable was no longer a fitting description for the tension. It was concrete. It clogged throats and froze limbs. No one could move, no one dared move. Despair was the only thing left to dance freely around the room. And so it did, from creased foreheads to drenched backs it danced.
Their preparation was inadequate, haphazard. The enemy before them was without question the greatest force the continent had ever seen. Each day since their declaration of war brought fresh horrors. Week after week their scouts discovered new terrors in their ranks, new equipment they could not match, and new technologies they could not fathom. How such military power was built right under their noses, they did not know. But they could not fret over the past, the future awaiting them was too grim.
Too long had they reigned unquestioned, the great bastion of hope for humanity. Their perceived might kept would-be conquerors at bay, maintaining the illusion that humans were still the supreme rulers. For decades they safely hid behind the mirage of might and grew rich. Sitting comfortably along both major sea and road trade routes, wealth flowed in from all directions. Enough to not only fund their façade, but to also begin making it a reality. Unfortunately, with wealth comes luxury and with luxury comes complacency.
Years of decadence had rusted their blades, rounded their stomachs, and dulled their senses. A room full of kings, dukes, and generals and there was not one warrior to be found. They had forgotten their roots, their heritage and now time would do to them what it did to so many before. While their long, storied history would save them the disgrace of being mere footnotes in the legacy of an even greater Empire, that offered no solace. It would not save them from their upcoming demise. They were merely turkeys waiting to be slaughtered for their rich and flavourful meat. Of this, everyone in the room knew to be true.
But one man had a plan. A scheme of sorts. Only he knew the true history of humanity's rise and fall. With that knowledge, the truth behind this invasion was clear for him to see. He would not die here. He had much to accomplish, much to set in motion. Failure here was a setback, but one his forefathers had foreseen. Preparations for this outcome had been made decades in advance. While the rest of the room was a swirl of fear and anxiety, he was calm.
"Then it is time."
Emperor Andreas DiAltamont rose from his throne. Eighth emperor of the Atlamont Empire, his bearing fit his title. Assurance seemed to ooze out of his pores. He donned the armor of the great Alexander DiAltamont, the first emperor. In the hundreds of battles it had seen, it had never known defeat. Dark green with accents of gold, it was a perfect match for the emperors emerald green eyes and short gold hair. A hulk of a man, he towered over most of the room as he stood. His existence was one of the few things that gave the people in the room a semblance of hope. As he rose, they all turned towards him in reverence.
His voice, fierce and powerful, reassured them. "War is at our gates. You are the men and women who sit at the summit of the greatest empire to grace the planet. The time for dallying and debating is over. We have a plan, it is set in stone. I expect you to execute it to perfection. Come, Balas."
Leaving his council with those stern remarks, he marched off to address his soldiers. As emperor it was tradition to give a rousing speech, personally, before warfare began. The practice was somewhat old-fashioned considering armies were now far too massive to congregate in one place to receive a speech. Most of the army would only get to read it or hear a superior officer recount it. Nevertheless, it was a time honored tradition. He would not forego it. Plus, all things considered, Andreas was a soldier himself. He wasn't just speaking to a group of walking armor. Those were his men. The coming war would be bloody, the least he could do was try to raise morale.
His brother and retinue followed behind him as he strode through the castle's halls. Besides the clinks of their armor and weight of their steps, they moved silently. Neither joy nor gloom on their faces, they merely walked with purpose. With each passing staircase and each passing hallway, a member diverged from the group. Soon there was only a doorway separating Andreas from his destination. Beside him stood only his brother.
He chuckled, "You fret like a child."
Balas frowned, "You're reckless."
"A plan, one hundred years in the making, is reckless to you?"
A flare of anger singed Balas' frown, "You still take me for a fool. Even if yo—"
Andreas pivoted and gripped Balas' shoulder, "You are no fool. But you are ignorant. There is much you don't know, too much. Soon though.." He turned back to the door, "Soon you'll learn everything. Trust me."
They both walked through the doorway and out onto the wall separating the castle at the center of the fort to the outer sections. Below them stood thousands of elite soldiers in perfect formation, not a single foot was out of place. Of course, Andreas expected no less. He had trained them personally. They even boasted a replica of his famous suit of armor. A bitter smile crept onto his face as he gazed down at them.
This must be done. I must do this.
Taking a deep breath, he began his speech, "Soldiers of the great Altamont empire, your response pleases me. Your dedication to protecting our people is no less than exemplary. We have not seen an army brazen enough to seek our land for decades, yet still you train hard and you train diligently. You are the finest soldiers this world knows, the most devastating of blades and the most impenetrable of shields." This spurred a cheer from the thousands of men and women below him, "Today's enemies, ignorant to your might, think us pitiful turtles hiding within our shells. They think our bones brittle and our blades dull. The fools!" Another cheer, "They pray a day comes where the bards no longer sing tales of our triumphs. A day where the artisans no longer edge our victories in stone. Where our walls are not lined with the finest of silks and the purest of gold. Where the great Altamont Empire no longer sits at the summit of Leberah. But that day will never come!" An even louder cheer, "Tomorrow our campaign begins. I know none of you fear it. For tomorrow another line in our long history is written. Another tale of our triumphs is told. Tomorrow. Tomorrow we remind the world who we are. We are conquerors, we are kings! We are the greatest! We will not submit, we will not surrender. We, proud men of the Altamont Empire, know only victory. And tomorrow. We. Are. Victors!" The soldiers roared in response. The cheers were nigh deafening, seemingly shaking the wall Andreas stood on. It was a magnificent moment and it should have filled him with pride, but all he felt was shame.
The Altamont Empire fought bravely, fiercely. What they lacked in technology, manpower, and equipment they made up for with ingenious tactics and sheer force of will. They drove off wave after wave of attacks, holding firm under the unrelenting pressure. Each victory brought not only confidence, but experience as well. The constant struggle of life and death birthed many gifted fighters and tacticians. Some showcasing brilliance humanity hadn't seen in centuries. It was an unprecedented time of growth and advancement for mankind. A miniature arms race even formed. Although it was largely one side scrambling to catch up with the other, there were hopes that they could eventually overtake their opposition. Those hopes were short lived.
For as fast as they grew, their enemy was simply too far ahead. They could not weather the storm long enough to match them. After one city fell, so too did another. After one fort fell, another followed suit. One crack in the dam was all it took. Three long, gruesome years at standstill were rendered meaningless in mere months. The war was lost in a landslide defeat
Yet. When the Imperial palace was stormed, Andreas was nowhere to be found. The palace was empty, barren even. The emperor's disappearance aside, none of his brothers, sisters, uncles, aunts, cousins, or children could be found either. They searched his palace, his manors, his villas. Any land that had a connection to him was thoroughly inspected. They found nothing. As if whisked away by ghosts, they all seemingly vanished.