A slow terror crept forth from the frontier. This wasn't just silence. There was some force which was swallowing up not just soldiers but entire towns, bustling cities which were thought to be strong enough to withstand an assault. Something had come for the empire, snuffing its edge like you might blow out a match. Something had to be done, a show of force had to be made. The emperor would send his men into the valley of shadow and wrest forth some light of truth beyond this terrible curtain.
So he assembled his troops. They formed from across the empire, from the deserts of the East to the archipelago to the South to the plains of the North. They were a force at least fifty thousand strong, soldiers from every island and province gathered in one space. Their train, their retinue stretched from the palace to the sea, one continuous line of polished armor and equipment. They represented pure unadulterated power.
They went forth from the capital, the emperor himself made an appearance and gave his divine blessing. They marched forth with grit and determination that they would return, victorious over whatever threat could possibly come their way.
But as the sun rose six months later, as day dawned in uncomfortable heat of the far off provinces, regions dwarfed by strange and foreboding mountains, populated by bizarre creatures which seemed too fantastical to be real, as the mists rose on yet another day marching by abandoned towns on well-trodden paths, paths which had once held an entire population put to flight, morale dwindled. There was no despair, the soldiers were strong and they were many, but the feeling of impending triumph gave way to an uneasiness. Rumors still whispered among the men. At night, when a guard thought that all the camp was asleep, he would hear hushed voices of some far-off tent, questioning whether something truly, truly terrible was in store for them. During the day, when a man felt he was with trusted friends, they would wonder if maybe what they were facing really were, possibly, too strong even for this host.
One of these men was a commander named Varden. He was no foreigner to the battlefield — he had been a soldier at the time of the civil war, and he had been in the garrison of Goinis during the slave uprising — but he was wary of it. If he had opportunity, he would prefer a chance to barter with this threat, and see if there wasn't some way to turn it away, back into the mountains, or wherever it originally came from.
His men loved him, and he loved them. His job, and he truly believed this, was to make sure that as many of them as possible managed to stay alive. And even with this as a policy his company was one of the more effective ones in this outfit. They were strong and they were brave. They were said to fight like demons on the battlefield, yet they had few casualties, and even these were ones people could recover from. There was no doubt they would be in the front when the day of battle arrived.
That day was not far off. A scout returned saying the enemy was finally sighted, and he was met with a certain feeling of relief. Finally the army would have something to do more than perpetually trek through the now abandoned wastelands on the outer edge of the known world. Finally they had a force they could confront, a gut that they could pierce with the long sword of the empire.
It was another two months of dancing before they met, each side positioning, trying to find a better flanking strategy. It was two months of half-glimpsed ghosts hidden among the trees. The corpus of the enemy's troop was hidden away somewhere and despite the attempts the army made to press them, no battle was joined, no skirmish was started.
Finally the generals split the force in the hopes to finally flush these men from their hiding spots and force them into some form of confrontation. Twenty-five thousand tried to circumnavigate these hidden ones by going North into the mountains, trying to get behind them. Twenty-five thousand advanced on them in a relatively unbroken, straight line. The goal, so said the generals, was to have them become a hammer and an anvil. Though, truth be told, it wasn't clear which one was supposed to be which, but then it probably didn't matter anyway.
And so it was that on one sweltering Summer day that Varden's commanders told the army to stop, and told the men to form lines. It turned out, or so said the scouts, that the battle was coming to them.