It was a time of peace in the empire. The long civil war was over for nearly a decade now, and a period of prosperity seemed to be returning. The many opposing armies united under one house, one ruler. Many soldiers, who had given themselves up for lost, returned from their long voyages to distant lands, exchanging oars for shovels and blades for plowshares. Finally the people could stop fearing the sword of their neighbors and once again look towards expansion, to new opportunities in distant lands along the frontiers.
Without an internal enemy, fortresses long abandoned, both for lack of manpower and the necessity for defense against the wrath of fellow citizens, were finally manned once again as they were slowly rebuilt and strengthened. Local tribes, long worried that theirs was a plight too soon forgotten, found that they could once again rely on an established rule of law and a reliable protection against invasion. It was a good time to live in the empire.
It was so good, that when there were strange reports on the frontier, reports of men of strange color and stranger mannerisms, they were treated as largely uninteresting: after all, men on the frontier were known to see and meet many a strange and wondrous people. But the reports came just the same, and they began coming in regular succession, first a trickle, and then a torrent, a river of messages bound for the capital. Not just one fort, nor even one region, but an entire province spoke of these strange men. They were ignored. After all, the army was now the strongest in the known world, and really, who would worry about the frontier? The frontier tribes had been subdued long ago. Even at the height of the civil war they had not invaded or even posed a threat.
Eventually, the messages slowed. Then they stopped. But they stopped in the strangest way. Not only did the warnings stop, but all communication to the distant outposts was slowly extinguished. This had the effect as if someone had come in and started snuffing out candles. The first was not concerning, and the light was not truly diminished, but by the time two or three had been darkened the capital had begun to notice.
It was a subtle anxiety, at least at first. The heads of government began to wonder, what could be transpiring? Why had the reports not come in? What was happening to the runners that were being sent out and never returned? Slowly the awareness grew, creeping, as if from some dark and forgotten hole within the earth, until finally the consensus rested in the unescapable conclusion: something was very, very wrong on the frontier.
The emperor was not pleased. This, this "wrongness" along his borders was unacceptable, and must be dealt with in force. He ordered that the first legion, a legion of veterans, the strongest, bravest of the men who had stood with him in the final battles of the civil war, that these would go to face any threats and defeat and destroy them. These were his men, and the pride of the empire. These were the unstoppables, the undefeated, the ever-victorious. These were the men whom the emperor had tasked with his personal protection in the years after, the years when his enemies assassins still lurked behind pillars, even the pillars of the palace.
They marched north, in fanfare and expecting triumph. They went forth expecting that they would resolve this troubling riddle with a clean victory, and that they would return, bearing as banners the heads of the enemies of the empire. That is what they expected.
But they did not return either. There was not one man, or even one message that made it back. It was as if the fields and forests of the frontier had swallowed them up, that the earth had split open, and that they were consumed by fire.
After the first week of this new silence, a silence ever more profound than the last, a silence despite explicit expectation and without explanation, the empire grew concerned. The people had seen the first legion depart, but it had not returned. There were no fanfares in the streets. None proclaimed their accomplishments from atop the walls of the citadel.
And it was in this moment that rumor began to spread. The people spoke of defeat in the far reaches, of darkness, of some force that had gone unchecked for too long and had gotten hold of the boarder-lands. The people spoke of corruption, and wondered if, perhaps, some sort of rebellion had taken place. The wondered if, perhaps, the civil wars, so long absent, were doomed to return, to revisit their lives and their land with death and sorrow.
It is here that our story begins.