Anya stood in the centre of the throne-room, her back to the closed doors and her eyes firmly shut. Her hands rested at her sides, dangling limply from weary wrists. There was a sheaf of crisp white paper clasped loosely between the fingers of her right hand and a pen held in her left.
She stood motionless for many long minutes, allowing the silence to wash over her, to bathe her in its cleansing fluidity. Sighing deeply, she moved at last to the table and laid down the papers, turning them face down so that she would not have to read them again.
She was tired, bone tired and soul weary.
She was heartily sick of war reports - of hearing that the dark forces had gained another mile in their bid for more territory, that another colony had fallen, that more refugees were desperately seeking help, shelter and supplies. It never seemed to end: the ceaseless violence, the never-ending struggle, the daily flee from terrifying danger.
Everyday, it seemed, there was someone knocking at her door begging for aid, which she gave and gave and gave. But no matter how much food she sent, no matter how many medicines, no matter how many soldiers, it was never enough. The dark forces were creeping ever onwards, spreading slowly across the land like an impossible stain.
So far her city was safe. Her people - family, friends and followers - were unharmed. The elves lived in their cities, in their safe little worlds surrounded by forests, mountains and rivers, and it was as though the world was as it always had been. Tucked away in their protective cocoons they did not see what went on beyond the borders. They did not see the dead bodies being piled up or the houses being burned to the ground. They did not hear the weeping and the pleading and the screams. All they saw was what happened afterwards but that was bad enough.
Just one hour ago a convoy of human women and children, shepherded by a few frail old men, had limped across the Weeping Walkway. They had been pale and haggard looking, their faces streaked with mud and ash, their clothes torn and the remains of their belongings strapped to their exhausted bodies.
She had ordered her people to feed and clothe them. When they were well rested she would have a small platoon of warriors escort them to a safe location. Safer, anyway, she thought. There was nowhere safe anymore.
The dark forces stayed well clear of the elves though and so far the vampires and the werewolves were untroubled, a fact that led some people to presume that they were somehow behind the recent troubles, but everyone else had suffered casualties. The dwarves and the trolls were being forced from their homes and had taken refuge in the hills. The volcanoes where the fire dwellers lived had been blocked up and there was no way of knowing if any of them were still alive. The water dwellers had been driven out of the rivers and lakes and had retreated to their strongholds deep in the ocean. The fairies, oblivious as always to the dangers surrounding them, were still being watched over by their elven guardians and were safe, for the moment. It was the humans that were suffering the greatest losses. It appeared they were being deliberately targeted.
Why, was the question. What did they have that the dark forces wanted? Was it their land, their wealth or their lives? With each new raid on a human population, men, women and children were killed, regardless of age, status or rank. Those that escaped were just lucky; fortunate enough to have been absent from their homes at the time of the attack or fortunate in being swifter of foot than those who died.
The dark forces did not care who they killed. The only thing that they had in their favour was that they brought a swift death to their victims. Pleasure through torture was not a part of their agenda. They arrived at a town, village or city and simply swept through it like a forest fire: relentless, uncaring and totally devastating. They rolled over anything and everything in their path and moved on without so much as a backward glance.
And what of these dark forces, Anya mused thoughtfully. Who were they? Who sent them and what was their ultimate goal?
From the numerous reports, she had been privy to recently, there were, as yet, no answers to these questions.
The dark forces arrived, seemingly from nowhere, striding on foot and dressed from head to toe in black. Even their faces were covered, only their strange milky eyes unclothed and briefly glimpsed by their fleeing victims, strange eyes that held no love or hate or any other feeling besides that of single-minded unstoppable purpose.