"Do you see this, Mandar? This is quality steel". The statement was made by a tall, muscular Mulan. The corded muscles of his arm played just under the surface of his dusky skin as his fingers tapped the tower shield he held up effortlessly. He was dressed in a loincloth, but his attire was complemented by sandals, a sword sheath, a yellow band wich his long braids were tied up with, and a tattoo on his left shoulder that was an artistic but bold symbol of him being the property of another. The one he spoke to, another Mulan, nodded. This promted him to ask a question. "Do you recongize the difference from your shield?" "There are visible impurities in the steel itself on my shield. And I would wager the carbon grade is lower, although what makes me come to this conclusion I can not clearly say", was the response, followed by a smirk. He too held a shield in his left hand, although not with the effortless ease of the slave. "You are quite right, young master. But I sense guessing!", the slave shouted gleefully and delivered a mighty punch with an uncanny speed that caught the lesser man unaware, staggering backwards. He was upset and eyed the slave angrily, but the feeling was soon overshadowed by shame. The second part had been only a lucky guess. His attacker displayed a grin and gestured to his shield. There was a large dent visible, a mark left by the punch. "You see, young master Mandar. Poor equipment can send a warrior into the afterlife even if he has the sense to parry. Had it been a sword, it may have ripped right through the shield." "You thought it appropriate with such a forceful demonstration, Demotep?", Mandar asked. Demotep, the large Mulan slave, nodded. "That shield was rejected from a shipment to the garrison. Now you know why. Normally a Thayan warrior should have exceptional equipment, well enchanted, but master Manotep told me to prepare you for fighting in the outside world. You may well have to use sticks and stones for weapons." "I see. Well, you asked my weapon of choice, and I have decided it will be neither a stick nor a stone," Mandar said pointedly. "Wich then?", asked Demotep with a chuckle, his muscles trembling slightly. "The long sword." "Good choice", Demotep replied approvingly. "Curved blades have been popular now and then in history, but typically straight blades are at an advantage. The longsword strikes a balance between individual fighting and fighting in close formation, having range enough for the first and being maneuverable enough for the second. Any larger blade and you'd risk cutting your brothers in arms short of an ear, or a hand." "Well then, instructor, shall we practice?", Mandar asked, unable to completely conceal his eagerness. There was no verbal response, but Demotep tossed him a sword belt, the sheath containing a wooden replica of a typical longsword, weighed down by carefully attached lead bars.
Demotep had been a member of the Mulhorandi Sun Guard before being captured in a skirmish with Thayan forces. He was a massive man, and although the life of a slave had reduced his mass somewhat, he was still tremendously physically powerful. His sparring opponent, Mandar Lucian Aghanim, was the son of the house's master, Manotep Lucian Aghanim. He had started to resemble Demotep on a smaller scale with broad shoulders, a deep chest and arms adorned by hard, corded muscles. The sun was still high in the sky over Eltabbar, and the shadows of the walls surrounding the small garden in wich the training took place did not touch him. Pearls of sweat were gathering on his muscular back as he raised practice sword and dented shield in defense. He wore loincloth and sandals, as well as shoulder-guards of light leather. A quick glance around would reveal the benefits of the terrain. He knew the garden well, but had been taught to always take note of his surroundings before battle. To his left was the pond, a miniature oasis where flowers and plants painted the picture of sprawling, multi-coloured life. To his right, nothing but the wall a few meters away. Behind him was the stair that led to the main house, a trap he would have to avoid. In front of him was his opponent, blocking his vision with sheer mass. And so, between one breath and the next, the first attack came.
They fought back and forth across the garden as the day turned into a crimson evening. Mandar's shoulders burned intensely as he parried with his shield and even with his wooden sword, desperatly warding off the assault. He parried a low thrust with his shield and made a counterblow that threatened Demotep's abdomen, but the slave knocked his sword aside with practiced ease and tackled his shield with all his weight, sending Mandar backwards and off balance. His shield arm was numb, and he had to buy time. The fight had followed this theme for most of its duration, with Mandar retreating and parrying with Demotep following closely, using anything from forceful thrusts against his abdomen to low slashes against his knees and deceptive counterblows. Mandar knew it was a excercise to force him to constantly adapt his defense, but adrenaline fueled his fury beyond reason. Then, his feet felt cold in their sandals, and he realized he had retrated into the pond. Demotep followed quickly and Mandar feigned an attack, wich made the slave shrug back for a second and raise the shield. Mandar's quick feet brought him out of the pond and with a leap he took off from the ground and landed on the stairs that lead to the main house, grunting softly as his already tired legs absorbed the shock of his landing. A quick movement of hand dried the sweat from his eyebrows as he watched Demotep's advance. The sandals stirred up dust as they carried the large slave towards him, and the masked agility and years of experience Demotep possessed captivated him. The attack was like a dance... He was brutally awakened from his admiration when the first sword thrust hit his shield, and he prepared to make his last stand. Summoning reservoirs of strength he thought already were drained Mandar fought on, giving ground slowly. Wood and steel clashed in rapid succession as the measure of both men's skill was tested to the outmost, and the practice swords seemed more forces of nature than physical objects as they were swung against each other with forceful determination. For a moment Demotep was forced on the defensive as Mandar used the height advantage for all it was worth. Eventually Demotep climbed the two first steps, still untouched by the practice blade as Mandar started to tire, then slashed with the full length of his wooden blade against his shield. Mandar thought his arm was going to break. He crouched and thrusted, but Demotep took a quick step aside and repeated the cruel, powerful blow. This time there was no counter, and the third time the sword hit the shield, Mandar's arm went completely numb and he dropped the tormented sheat of metal. Demotep took a step back and tossed the practice sword aside, as it had been reduced to little more than lead and firewood. Mandar realized his weapon was similarly broken, and let it fall to the ground as Demotep presented a slight bow. "You have potential for swordsmanship young master, I can see that. Tomorrow, we will return to building up your strength." His voice made it clear he was barely winded. "I look forward to it, instructor", Mandar replied, hoping that envy was not recognizable in his tone of voice as he headed into the main house, quite ready to fall asleep at the spot.
The area was quiet and peaceful. No children were playing in the street, no slaves were hurrying along on errands, no gatherings of people disturbed the perception of timelessness. For Eltabbar it was a mild day, and Mandar wore woolen leggings with his camel-hair tunic. His sandals carried him along the cobblestone street with an even but quick pace. To arrive early was of the essence. As the building he sought came into view, he sighed of relief. The bronze gates were still open, and so he slowed his pace to a more civilized stride and entered the house. When he passed the doorway, it was as if a cold sheat of water covered him. He inhaled deeply and his fluid movements froze up. The paralysis only lasted a moment, but it was as if his blood and his truthfulness were examined in detail by scrutinizing eyes. The feeling of unseen observation did not leave him as he walked the hallway. Ancient statues portraying half-beastial warriors were placed in niches on both sides, illuminated by light-globes mounted high upon the walls. The floor was covered by a carpet of Thayan design, a deep blue colour decorated with runic patterns, wich muffled the sounds of his steps. As he finally reached the main room, a thin film of sweat covering his forehead, he laid eyes upon the occupant of the house.
Amatar Terexus had been dead for many years. His assassins had not, however, considered the magical nature of the very realm he served when performing their bloody work. The body of the ancient general was wrapped in a layer of thick papyrus, treated with oils and spellcraft to stand the test of time. He stood there, wearing a long, darkly varnished chainmail tunic and a similarly dark turban, contrasting against the bright wrappings. His eyes were gone, nothing but blackened holes like portals into an alien and immortal universe, but his teeth showed as Mandar approached and bowed. "Greetings, young citizen," said Amatar with an archaic accent. "Greetings general", Mandar replied. This was his tutor of strategy.
The gloomy nature of the house had been vanished as Amatar manipulated the spells woven into the walls, intensifying the glow from the light-globes. The large round table between them served as a battlefield, where terrain and warriors in miniature scale were set up. How the mummified general could see the table Mandar did not know, and did not ask. "You have set fire to the plains here aided by spellcraft, and favourable winds have brought the flames in the direction intended", Amatar pointed and explained with his dry voice, removing and adding miniatures to the table at a quick pace. "Unfortunatly the enemy general is a cunning barbarian, and half his supplies are shipped in by sea here", he continued and gestured to what appeared to be a landing area on some imaginary coast. Mandar considered the scenario carefully before he spoke. "I have my Red Wizards raise another firestorm directed at the supplies at the shore, while my troops gather to march up to the enemy, making halt at the distance of a long charge." Miniatures were moved around further, and Mandar paled slightly at the new arrangement of figurines. "The barbarians charge your line as you have predicted and they are tired and weakened by hunger. But their morale is strong, and witchcraft adds a devastating momentum to their charge. Meanwhile, the apprentices and many senior Red Wizards are expended by their massive efforts earlier that day, and can not participate." "The remaining members of the order must deflect the witchery from the soldiers. I know they are better warriors than the savages", Mandar said, hoping to have his concept confirmed by the undead general. "The battle rages until dusk, and the horde is broken by your cohorts. Three fifths of your troops are dead, another fifth is cursed, injured, have deserted or are simply missing. You have lost the confidence of the order of the Red Wizards, and your position as a general is likely to be revoked", Amatar told him as miniatures were re-arranged again, large amounts of small tin soldiers being put on the casualty shelf. Mandar lowered his head in shame. "You made three errors, two of judgement and one of age", Amatar said, and there was some amusement in his voice. "Expending the magical arsenal on the destruction of supplies was foolish. The scenario is designed to invite this mistake. Ignoring the witches is the next mistake wich follows the first inevitably. The balance of magic would be on your side with all the wizards battle-ready, and that would give you the full advantage. Those first two are errors all strategists can make, but it takes a young man to march up to the enemy when he has nothing to eat, and nowhere to move but forward into the grasp of your own fortified position", Amatar chuckled. "I apologize, general Amatar", Mandar said with a great shame evident in his posture and voice. "Not at all! The purpose is to teach you to avoid mistakes and learn proper strategy so that this does not come to pass when lives, or the fate of the nation, are in the balance. What would the purpose be for you to study, if you came here knowing all the answers?" Mandar bowed his head to this wisdom. They spoke of warefare for some more time before Mandar returned to his home, head full of warlike fantasies.
For the entire afternoon miniatures had been moved back and forth across the table. A gruesome stalemate had been forced into place, and neither side wanted to march into the final battle of the campaign. The armies of Aglarond and Thay, in Mandar's imagination, stared at each other with mutual hatred as nerves were nearing the breaking poing. There was however a break in the scenario, and his mind wandered. How could the Aglarondans hold the Thayans at bay, being a nation with a fifth of their number and to that, barbarians? What esoteric resource did they have access to? His thoughts were interrupted by the voice of the undead general. "This was the battle in wich my life ended, you know", Amatar said, and even in death, some anger could be heard in his voice. "General? I thought you were cowardly slain during your rest?" "That I was, Mandar. I commanded the army you see represented there, as it marched to reclaim ancient Thayan territories. In an attempt to cripple our forces, the half-blood assassins came in the night, used some foul talent to slip into my tent, past the guards, and attack me. I struggled, a single sword against six daggers. My blood soaked the earth and my vision was fading when magic flared across the room and the assailants were slain." Amatar spoke passionatly, and the black pits where his eyed had been were staring at some outerworldly scene. "The Esteemed Amilus Gregorius had arrived to discuss our strategy and defeated the assassins, but I was dying, Mandar. I grasped my sword frantically and clinged to life as if I lived through the blade as he approached and sat down. I forced my eyes open, and he spoke. He told me that I could die honorably then and there, with a hero's burial. He said that I could also grasp at immortality and serve Thay until time's end, having deserved the honor many times over." Amatar drew his blade, bandaged fingers grasping the leather-wrapped hilt of the lightning enchanted blade as the memories became stronger. "I wanted to die. I think it is natural to come to terms with it with such greivous wounds. As it comes naturally to surrender to fatigue after running for a day. Somehow I defied my instinct, and chose unlife. Far from all who are offered are strong enough to return... many spirits are broken and sent to the afterlife instead of rising anew. I was just strong enough... and I rose as you see me now." Amatar sheathed his blade again. "My vengeance was terrifying, my anger was an all-scorching flood of fire. The earth drank deeply of the blood of barbarian and Thayan alike that day. In the end we were forced to retreat as my enraged attack had cost so many of our soldiers their lives... but we planted the bones of many enemies in that battle and salted the ground where they lay. A mark of death on the border of Aglarond. But was it worth it all? Hardly. Remember that, young citizen. Surround yourself with people who can correct you when your rage, your thirst for vengeace, overpowers you."
Mandar listened, bewildered. He felt priviledged, sensing that this tale had been heard by very few now living people. When they resumed the strategy lesson, the Thayan army made its way back into the heart of Thay, and that of Aglarond did not pursue.
Mandar's visit to the estate of General Amatar Terexus did, for a change, not involve a historical battle. Night had fallen, and the young man and his undead turor found themselves on a balcony, watched by countless starts of the night sky.
"I know sleep only as a distant memory Mandar, and my concept of rest is mere solitude. But you need many hours of it still, yes?" The general asked. "I can not come to peace, general. In the morning I leave by caravan to Bezantur. There will be a trade ship in the harbor bound west, to this island called Thain. My knowledge is so limited that all it does is make me wonder. What will I find there? What will be my fate?" Mandar's voice held an edge of nervousness as he explained, but the general chuckled. "What will you find? Is that important?" There was a pause, and Mandar failed to hide his irritation as he replied. "I do not understand. Do you mock me, general?" "No. You know everything that is of consequence. Under what sign do you march, soldier?" "For the Zulkirate and people of Thay," Mandar recited. "Good. You will not always walk under a banner, but the banner is just a reminder. It keeps you together in times of desperation and it summons your courage. But its meaning is imprinted in your soul. You will always carry your commitment and your honor, these qualities do not depend on what outside forces are cast against you. You will live according to these words or die defending them. With that absolute certainty in mind there is no soil you can not walk upon in complete confidence and with your back straight." Mandar felt a surge of strength and purpose as he heard the words of the ancient general. It became clear to him that the general was not only a cold-minded strategist, but a leader of warriors. His doubts were not erased, but his discipline was strengthened. He would travel to the most distant and savage parts of the world, sword in hand, in service of his nation.
The two spoke further, about the distance to the stars above and what mysteries may lie on the bottom of the blackest oceans. The talked about memories and events, and the general wove tales of both comedy and tragedy taken from his long years of existance. Eventually, the sky was greeted by the red hue of the rising sun. The sounds of the awakening city tore Mandar from the comfortable world of quests and adventures, and back into his equally adventurous reality. He respectfully interrupted the general. "The rising sun commands my leave, general. I have said my farewells to family and friends, and now I bid you the same. It has been an honor beyond words to have been your student." His voice thickened as he spoke. "You have been a good student, young citizen. Now go, and leave this old corpse to his meditation. I ride towards the Rashemi border tomorrow." Mandar bowed, and left the estate. Soon he would be on his way towards the western world.
The eastern wind brought with it the odor and salty character of the ocean as it swept over the high cliffs of Raven's Watch. It playfully twisted the voluminous crimson cloak of the man watching from the top of the high cliffs. The garment entangled his body when the wind died out and unfurled like a flag as it gained strength again. His face was turned towards the ocean and eyes focused on the far horizon. The appearance of deep thought was upon him, and the noble features of his face were calm and collected while the unruly locks of his black hair were rearranged by the wind. His athletic form was clad in obsidian steel and chain, with red runic patterns in his native language serving as decorations. The mail-clad fingers of his right hand, through subconscious effort, found the hilt of the blade at his side.
A brilliant ruby set in the guard of the sword brilliantly took in the sunlight, while the gold-plated dercorations on the hilt and guard reflected it, making it a nearly blinding sight to behold. The guard took the form of two golden, eagle-feathered wings, beautifully detailed in a display of artistic perfection. The hilt, while functional, featured sets of golden runes in twirling patters from the guard to the pommel, they were names to recall past deeds this blade had seen. Herusallus, Galtoth, Semmanet, Nollur; so the inscriptions said, and the man knew them by heart. Names of blood-dreched battlefields of the civilized world where glory had been won, dreams had been crushed, honor and despair had dueled, and unbelievable sacrifices had been made. A shudder went through him at the thought, and once again, he considered his worthiness, and if it could measure up to that of such a sword. It was a challenge that carried the weight of generations of warriors in service of the ideals he was dedicated to. A quick thought of the journey from Eltabbar to Thain went through his mind, but it was quickly dismissed. His introspection was over, and he turned around to the waiting soldiers and spoke.
"I am Mandar Lucian Aghanim. Under my command you will train until you are fit to represent the military elite of our nation. Read the inscriptions on your shields!" "The Zulkirate and the people of Thay", the soldiers responed, as each one of them took the time to study what had been inscribed on their shields. "Louder!", demanded Mandar. "For the Zulkirate and the people of Thay!", the soldiers chanted in unison. "Good. Come morning, I will instruct you in the art of swordsmanship. Until then, rest and contemplate your role in the armed focers of the Zulkirate, and how you will carry the honor of this cohort. Dismissed."
It had started so well. Mandar had seen the potential in all of the soldiers, and with the training he had started to temper this potential. The process of crafting them into an elite that would stop at no obstacle to achieve their goals had begun. But then, the new orders had arrived. These orders were the reason one could, if entering the Thayan barracks, find the young man weeping. A dagger was placed on the table, and the fine steel tip was coated with blood. On his torso, just below the left side of the rib cage, a shallow scratch could be seen. The self-destructive act had not yet been realized, but his mind was clouded by a cacophony of thoughts swirling around in his head. Death before dishonor was so simple in theory. He had been told to openly dishonor himself, betray the trust of his soldiers, to cut short any progress made in creating a sense of pride and accomplishment. But on the other hand, should he run the dagger through his heart, he would have purposely failed his masters. It would be a dishonorable death, and he would be remembered as a despicable cur, a shame for his family. He repeated Sar'rel's words to himself over and over, but come to only one conclusion: excuses. Transparent excuses for selling out Thayan honor for a military advantage. To lead his men into disgrace, serving under foreign sons of hyenas without a trance of honesty and virtue in their souls. He could still not think of it without becoming nauseous. As the hours went by he was left alone with his dilemma, and noone came to disturb him. Finally, he had come to a conclusion. The soldiers would be ordered to perform the same duties even if he did not command them so, and should he kill himself to avoid leading them to it, he would merely pass the dishonor to another officer. That is when he started to write on his speech.
The morning after, all Thayan soldiers in the Watch that were not on stationary guard duty were gathered before him. Mandar spoke.
"Brothers and sisters in arms! I am Princeps Mandar Lucian Aghanim. Most of us have met, but only a few of you have served under me as an officer. This will now change due to direct orders from the Esteemed Sar'rel."
As Mandar continued, his words became coated in venom and his expression hateful. For all his cultured background and military discipline, he was no Red Wizard, and he could not muster the willpower to keep his facial features neutral.
"I have been ordered to submit to the command of a flea-infested ship crew of thugs, no doubt loved only by the rats who plague their vessel. This command effectively extends to all of you also. The purpose of this, as explained to me by the great Sar'rel, is for us to learn of naval warfare."
Chatter broke out among the soldiers.
"You heard me, ladies and gentlemen!", Mandar called out. "Instead of training with me and your respective Principes, Captains and the Major you shall become seaborne and perform duties, if they can be called so, related to the maintenance and war efforts of a ship. We will all effectively be in service of Raven's Watch. Hopefully there will be more than one ship avalible, as the war effort against the Vasheral proceeds. I understand the sensation of crushing dissapointment you experience, but there will be no break of discipline. Is that understood? Good. Assemble at first light tomorrow. Swords and crossbows at the ready, armor in your bags in travelling condition. That is all. Dismissed!"
[ Edited 11:47:06 AM 07/27/08 ]
The warmth of the barracks was a welcome change from the wind and rain outside. The Princeps lazily placed his feet up on a low stool and leaned back in his chair, the red cloak comfortably swept around him. Slowly the tense muscles came to rest and the uncompromising expression on his face softened. So much had happened so quickly. The grain shipments had started to arrive, and there should have been no obstacles to their noble effort. Therein lied the danger of one-sided assumption, for one man had defiantly sentenced his people to starvation, and in his way of doing so ignited a peculiar rage in Mandar. The request for a duel had been penned so quickly to the parchment that he considered himself luckly it had not caught on fire. A man of honor was vulnerable he knew, but only to a point. He must stay on his course and not be distracted by others who tried to interject themselves into the situation. And should the Colonel refuse to stand by his words, his mandate to command would be tainted by cowardice. Not exactly an apology, but at least a punishment.
Mandar took a deep breath, as he felt tension building up again. He must try to think without emotion. The menace from the Abyss remained. The beast would likely have to be hacked limb from limb, and even that may not be enough should it reform on its plane of origin. It was simply a matter of motivating others into finding it so that the battle could begin, and perhaps not on the creature's terms. It remained to be seen if the resolve this task demanded could be found in his superiors. Hopefully an enemy so foul would make them see it in the same uncompromising light he did.
Above all he had his duty as an officer. New training schedules would be set. The cohort's competence in swordsmanship had been set aside for other tasks, but it was time to start improvement. They would have to earn their name. It was also the matter of Khazark Sar'rel. He had sworn to remain neutral until matters of leadership were settled. The question was, when would it be done? Could there be a voice raised in opposition in the Zulkirate even now, which would take weeks to reach them, or was it proper to salute him as the legal Khazark at this time? Important voices had named him Khazark already, but some more caution was in order. He must remain a man of his word.
A sharp smell of oil was in the air. Polished breastplates reflected the early rays of the sun outside the unassuming building. Belts and straps had a dark gleam to them. Sharpened blades were resting loosely in their scabbards. Each man and woman held a red-plumed helmet against their sides with their right arms, while their left hands rested on the tops of rectangular shields. Upon a long pole, the gold and red standard hung lazily, caressed by the damp, still air of the morning. The black-haired, sun tanned, silent Thayans waited under the banner of their motherland. The gate of the unassuming building swung open, the sound of protesting wood mixing with the steps of steel soles. The Optio, a man of exceptional stature and power located in front of the formation, announced clearly: “Officer present!”
The man who exited came to dominate the gathering. There was a tangible glow to his presence. The fine rune engravings upon his armor revealed promises and oaths to be held until death. The proud golden eagle wings spreading out from the guard of his longsword greeted the sun as their equal. His stride was confident as it brought him before the assembled warriors. He was taller than them, his shoulders wider, and his eyes more intense. It was clear he was the greatest of them, and yet he revealed to effort to dominate as he spoke.
“Fellow soldiers!” he began. “Guardians of the Zulkirate and people of Thay, I bring you news from the southern Enclave. Great tragedy has befallen us. Esteemed Jethik has fallen in battle against the lich Uultak, a creature of tremendous resilience and power. With the aid of the Red Wizards, the lich was ultimately defeated! Thayan steel and magic won a great triumph but not without great sacrifice. I grieve his passing as would any good Thayan!”
The soldiers lowered their heads in respect before the speech continued.
“Ambassador Urhun has also begun the journey of his afterlife. Upon the eve of our bittersweet victory over the lich, he was brought to answer Master Wizard Sar’rels ambitions of becoming our Khazark by Esteemed Sar’rel himself as well as apprentices Sarleta and Sephir. There were a multitude of resolutions proposed from which Ambassador Urhun chose to duel Esteemed Sar’rel despite my objection! One Thayan has slain another, and while I make no judgement to whether the cause was just, the Ambassador had every opportunity to choose life. As a result of the duel we have a new Khazark who holds authority of all Thayan affairs upon this island. Upon his orders we leave a few to safeguard this outpost while our main force marches south to reinforce the Enclave. All hail Khazark Sar’rel!”
Soon thereafter a column of Thayan soldiers, marching under a proud banner, made their way out of Raven’s Watch.