The sun was beginning to brighten the sky over the Eastern Hills, and William was utterly exhausted. He didn’t remember going to sleep, but the bucket of water poured on his head was an oblivious indicator that not only had he been dozing but that someone really wanted him awake.
“Begging your pardon, Master William, but Lord Cisco demanded you meet him immediately on the EastTower. His messenger seemed very insistent, and we tried to wake you oh so many different ways but you must be so very tired and well we just thought we had to do something…”
His apprentice’s voice trailed off in apprehension of William’s anger in being doused. Jonathon was a great apprentice, full of energy, never demanding, always ready to assist in any manner. Unfortunately, while gifted with numbers and vision, he was not touched with any measure of self-confidence. Constantly fearful of erring, this cold morning Jon was positively quivering with nervous energy. He fidgeted with his cloak and began pacing the tent. William gathered his wits, dried his clothes, put on an extra cloak, and stepped out into the ancient world’s greatest wonder, the Gateway of Empire. And, like he did every morning these last few days, wondered if this would be his last.
The Gateway of Empire is a castle works built atop twin spires, connected by a stone span almost 50meters off the ground, creating a man-made arch. Each peak is topped by what was once a golden shimmering tower, but time has eroded the surface to a yellowed stone. The span is not simply a slab, but rather an elaborate arch system that supports the equivalence of a great covered bridge, with 2 enclosed floors and a roof/deck that offers a dizzying view of the pass underneath. The spires themselves are at the top of an isolated hill overlooking a sea of grass to the north and the Orange Mountains to the South.
The golden Gateway was created as a tribute to the power of the Great Empire. Directly south lay the city-states of the Black Colony, and to the east lay the sands of the Spice Colony. Centered on the thin isthmus between the Great South Lake and the stormy Witch Bay, the Gateway served many roles. Those from the Empire viewed the Gateway with smug pride, as its construction demonstrated the total dominance of the Empire over its newly subjugated lands. To the newest citizens of the Empire the gateway served as a clear reminder of the power, ability and amazing wealth to construct such a wonder. All could not help but admire the beauty of dazzling arch.
William didn’t know how it was possible but he was even more tired once he finished the slog up the 198 steps to the entrance to the EastTower. Many years ago when he took the job as master architect for the Gateway he almost leaped up the stairs, gaping in wide-wonder at work of his predecessors. Now, each step was painful, and each step sapped what little energy reserves he had left.
Every year from the south King Mbotu’s Dark Phalanxes attack their old masters. Originally these attacks were simple raids, but lately they were full armies, complete with siege weapons and growing experience reducing castles. The last bastion left between the Middle Kingdoms and the Dark Phalanxes is now the Gateway. The job of turning the Gateway from an ancient wonder of beauty to an impregnable fortress fell to William, who poured his soul into this great project for the last five years.
William paused before entering the tower to turn and scan the south hills, looking at the forts that until recently formed the defensive line protecting the Kingdomof Zarco. As he stared into the morning shadows he began to see faint movement near the old forts. Could it be? The Phalanxes on the move so early this year? He’d barely gotten started on this year’s additions to the new walls at the base of the Gateway. He needed more time! He squinted again, and saw a flash of light as the sun crested the hills and caught a helm or spearpoint glistening. Then another flash, and then many flashes. The warriors of Mbuto were marching early this year…
Each tower was designed as a glorified observation deck, with living spaces for important nobles who wanted to revel in the amazing vistas. The inside spaces were just as beautiful as the outside, with painted frescos adorning most of the tower walls. The span served as a great meeting hall, the roof was used on several occasions as a site for noble weddings. As a special ceremonial place, what with its amazing views and beautiful construction it was renowned across the land.
When the Empire broke apart into separate kingdoms the Gateway saw steady neglect. It took a great empire to afford such a luxury. When the colonies also broke free the Gateway moved from the center of a great empire to just a frontier of a much smaller kingdom. The Kingdom of Zarco inherited this gem, but never saw to paying to have it maintained. The Gateway turned into a general’s headquarters, as each successive Lord of the Southern Watch took their turn attempting to hold back the Dark Phalanxes.
Turning art into a weapon proved quite a challenge though. While the towers atop each hill were nigh impenetrable, they were also doomed. No source of water other than the occasional rain and there was no easy way to lay in supplies. 100 men could defend the Gateway peaks against a million, but only for a few weeks until the water ran out.
At the base of the Gateway William oversaw the creation of a wall of earth topped with stone. This new wall surrounded the towers but most importantly a spring. A decade of work by trained workers could make the Gateway into a proper fortress. However the Kingdom of Zarco had neither the time nor the money for such an effort. And Master Architect William knew this, and knew that despite feverish work these last few years it was too little, too late. The wall was not finished, and nowhere near tall enough.
William finally climbed the last circular steps of the EastTowerand emerged into the crisp spring air. Lord Cisco was in a foul mood. He screamed with rage at the incompetence of his advisors and troops. One poor soul lay in a heap at the center of the tower, a trickle of blood coming from underneath his helm. As William caught his breath it became abundantly clear that Lord Cisco had also seen the enemy army approach.
“You! Finally, you’ve awaken. Do you not see the enemy coming? And still you move slowly! Your slothful attitude will not be tolerated further. The walls must be finished tonight, understand me, or you will pay dearly!” Cisco stopped only to gather the voice needed for another scream.
“Dear Lord Cisco, the walls, as you well know, will not be completed tonight, not this week, and not this year. I simply do not have the men or funds to complete this properly. If I am to meet the same fate as this wretch here please allow me the time to tell Mr. Jonathon that it is he that must finish the walls and pass final details onto him. I’m afraid the new assignment may not fit well with his constitution.” William was too tired from the climb, the lack of sleep, and the shock of the Dark Phalanxes appearing so close to worry about another tirade. He was burned out, and frankly looking forward to his misery ending one way or another.
“Begone with you! Show your face no more!” and on and on raved Lord Cisco. Master William turned about, and began walking back down to the lower wall. Perhaps today was his last day. He could envision the spearmen with their great shields pushing up and over the unfinished walls, slaying all who resist in their path. But then again the Phalanxes were not known for excessive cruelty; perhaps surrendering might not be that bad. Trudging down the steps he wondered if King Mbuto needed a master architect. And, not for the first time, he wondered how well the Dark Phalanxes pay said master architects…