The Silver Tower Chronicles Adventures in other worlds, other times, and other realities

30Jan/13Off

Enzi’s Irregulars #0031

“She's a war enchanter,” Enzi answered, “Very rare. Likely the only one this young. Not a lot of people train that direction, it usually takes too much time to learn all the prerequisites to pull off the final step.”

“Final step?” Ritter asked.

Enzi nodded, “Turning yourself into a living magic item.”

Rukiya nodded, “That plus a few preparatory spells each morning while I meditated. These thugs were not a major threat. If I did not have to sleep, this trip would need no guards. Fortunately you are capable enough to keep watches during the night. Thank you for your help thus far. Hopefully this will be an object lesson to the separatists. Perhaps the rest of the journey will be quiet.”

“They didn't have any casters or undead,” Enzi replied, “Although their leader had impressive combat skill. I somehow doubt this is the end.”

“I agree,” Rukiya replied, “Although we can always hope. I see from your fighting that you were trained at the Temple of Chasar. A former general as well? That is interesting.”

“A life long since past,” Enzi replied, “I am not half the fighter I was when I was young.”

“Still, I can see why you would be trusted then. An outsider, but one with known loyalties. It sounded as if you had no love lost with these separatists. I am impressed with the choice of your company as escorts.”

Kava croaked, “Yeah, with me around, everyone gets impressed.”

The vodyanoi flexed her stringy amphibian muscles. Rukiya giggled slightly before catching herself and returning to her stoic nature.

“I knew I could get through that armor,” Kava said, “Don't ever let it get too strong.”

Rukiya nodded, “That almost sounds like something an acolyte of Rakar would say. I may learn of that wisdom more deeply someday. For now, shall we continue?”

Enzi looked at the two slain oxen, then to the Irregulars, “I guess we are walking the rest of the way.”

Ritter looked at the inhuman mercenaries, “This should be interesting.”

“I am wearing a circlet,” Rukiya said, “No one will question anything I do.”

The group gathered their few meager belongings from the wagon and continued on. They might have been able to drag the wagon to town, but finding any oxen for sale would have been impossible. Such things could only be bought from the farms to the far north. It was far more trouble than it would be worth. Eventually the group reached Cahriq. The group got several stares, but with Rukiya leading the way, no one said anything. Enzi kept to the rear of the group.

There was some rumor in town about movement out in the Brackenwater Barrens to the east. Ritter wondered if that was the separatists. It sounded like an area that no one lived in, a perfect place for the rebels to hide and strike from. As the mercenaries continued northwest, they were moving away from that area and headed towards what was mostly a more heavily inhabited area. At least until they neared the Standing Stones. The group kept on guard as they made their way along the well traveled roads.

Ritter wondered what people would make of the abandoned wagon and the dead bodies between Cahriq and Quom. The wagon had Enzi's name on the side. It was too late to worry about that, the group had to move on. Losing the oxen had slowed them, though only slightly. No one in the group was out of shape. Rukiya in particular was in excellent condition for hours of exertion. The Halz wondered what her training had been like. It was obviously effective.

The trip to Jahrom was without incident. They did not run into any problems on the next leg of their trip until they reached the town of Agadir. A temple to the war deity Chasar sat there, and the priest in charge halted the advance of the group. He gave a suspicious look to the monstrous mercenaries and to the extraordinarily young acolyte.

“You will excuse me if I find your group rather suspicious, miss?” the man asked.

“Bora. Rukiya Bora. Acolyte of Chasar, on a mission from Iskandar to the port city of Ubayyid.”

“Odd I had not heard of such a thing,” the priest said, “Come with me into the temple and I will get this sorted out.”

Ritter noticed the man wore a circlet much like Rukiya's. It had a single black gem set into it. However, instead of a crudely forged iron circlet, this was a finely crafted circlet of the purest gold. The Halz noticed that Enzi felt distrust for the priest, though Rukiya was unreadable. As an acolyte, Ritter was sure that Rukiya had to follow the orders of a senior priest. This felt like a trap to the Halz, but he didn't see any way out of it that wouldn't cause more trouble.

The group passed into the temple. The inside of the temple was frightening. Pictures of combat adorned the walls and weapons hung between them. Armor stands sat is strategic areas. This was like a barracks, but the Halz could feel the oppressive violent atmosphere choking the air. This was a place of war. Templars could be seen in training, keeping themselves fit. The sound of battle filled the area. The mercenaries were led to a small room. Ritter noticed all the walls and doors of the temple were reinforced.

“Just stay here for now, I will be back shortly,” the priest said.

He closed the door as he left. It was a heavy iron door and the group heard the lock slide into place. The group was well and truly trapped now, but Ritter noticed that Enzi and Rukiya both looked relaxed. The rest of the mercenaries looked as unnerved as the Halz felt. The last thing a small group of mercenaries wanted to be up against was a force of superior numbers and good training. Especially since the enemy had chosen the battlefield. Ritter couldn't understand why the two from Feergrus were taking things so well.

“I can't go against orders, but you seem relaxed, what is your plan?” Rukiya asked.

“I'm thinking of kidnapping a young acolyte named Rukiya,” Enzi replied, “All I need is enough of a ruckus to draw attention. If we can make the final push to Ubayyid, there are people there at the docks to aid us. This priest would have his templars after us anyway, might as well give you a cover.”

“I'll try to look innocent and helpless,” Rukiya said, “Most people believe that of me anyway. My youth has its advantages when it comes to disarming my foes' expectations.”

“Solid iron door with heavy bolt,” Enzi said, “Not sure even Aldebaran can break that down easily.”

“Well, it just needs weakened a little,” the young girl replied, “Then the kick down will make lots of noise to draw attention so they can see all of you carrying me off.”

Rukiya walked up to the door and concentrated. There was a loud hiss as acid formed out of nothingness. She nodded to the minotaur. Aldebaran charge towards the door and kicked it with one of his mighty hooves. The door flew open with a loud slam. The minotaur hefted up Rukiya as she mimicked being unconscious. The group stormed out of the room and towards the entrance. Ritter and Enzi led the way, each tackling a Templar guard at the entrance.

The group left the temple as yells sparked behind them. Enzi's Irregulars made a run northwards along the road. As they reached the edge of town they settled into a steady march. They would have to push themselves to keep the distance between them and their foes. However, all the mercenaries were hardened to such things. The biggest worry was any warriors taking panther form. The speed of the panthers might let them catch up. Luckily, the number of people that could do that transformation were few. As the priest of Chasar had to have learned tactics, he would certainly realize that in the open and without superior numbers, any battle would not be in his favor.

However, there was one problem. Ritter's short legs meant he was slower than the average human. He was always surprised at how well Eurysa could propel herself with her slithering. It meant that the Halz was the slowest member of the group. If the enemy pushed as hard as they did, they would catch up. It was unfortunate that all were not as quick as Mayitso in his four legged form. The dusk turned to evening and the evening to night. The group was tired but an attack could come at any time.

“We aren't all going to make it are we?” Ritter asked finally.

“I don't leave soldiers behind,” Enzi replied, “Besides, I have a lot more experience than anyone at that temple. I know a few tricks. The rest of you make camp, we will take a short rest here, then continue on in a few hours. I will go and make their pursuit a lot harder.”

Enzi dashed off into the night and Rukiya looked to the group, “Just who is that man?”

“The leader of the Irregulars,” Eurysa hissed, “He can get any job done. Just leave your trust in that.”

The light of dawn awoke Ritter. Enzi was already preparing a quick breakfast to give energy to the group.

“Well, looks like we are still here,” Ritter said.

“Oh yes, they gave chase too,” Enzi replied, “And they believe they are still chasing us. We may pass them later today, while they are searching for our trail, since it appears we went off road a few miles north of here. They will be trying to pick up our trail again, or rushing to blockade our path. I have a few good plans for almost any situation. It has been a while since I have had to think up strategy on the fly. Usually I have plenty of time to plan.”

“Then we have nothing to worry about,” Ritter said confidently.

Enzi sighed, “That feeling is what worries me the most. This is too easy. There has to be something I am not thinking of. Something I can not be prepared for.”

23Jan/13Off

Enzi’s Irregulars #0030

From her appearance, Rukiya Bora was graduating from the temple four years too early. That meant she had to have beaten foes much older and larger than herself in combat. The fact that she appeared unscathed caused Enzi a great deal of worry. That either meant that she was exceptional beyond compare or that the Bora family had grown in power enough so that their daughter got an easy path through combat training. Both of those possibilities worried Enzi.

The Bora family were ruthless in their need to rise above their caste. While the little girl likely had little knowledge of her family as an acolyte in training was separated from their parents at a very young age, she might have feelings of being special if her family had indeed affected her trials. If things came too easily to a student, it was easy for them to be spoiled by it. Their overconfidence would be shattered upon the first time they faced a true challenge. Enzi wondered if the protection was to make sure that Rukiya did not dace such a challenge before she was truly ready.

The tiny girl had the air of innocence about her. She glanced across the inhuman mercenaries in the wagon and did not seem shocked at all. Ritter wondered if the child had been prepared with a description of the five warriors. Even with that, he doubted that any description would be enough to prepare a human for things as different as the members of Enzi's Irregulars. The vodyanoi gave a creepy overly wide grin full of teeth towards Rukiya.

Kava snorted and croaked in Infernus, “You seem awful calm little girl.”

The little girl gave the amphibian a cold glare that sent chills down Ritter's spine as she calmly replied, “You would have to actually be a threat to me to cause any worry.”

“Ooh, I like you,” Kava said, “I can see this trip is going to be loads of fun.”

Ritter looked at the odd accoutrements of the group's young charge. The clothing she was was little more than a few silken wisps of cloth wrapped around her. It was no armor, but it would certainly allow for easy movement. She did one one piece of metal, however. On her head was an iron circlet. Set in the circlet was a single black gemstone. The quality of the circlet was certainly not that of a skilled craftsman. It had obviously been hammered out quickly and cheaply. The Halz thought he could see rust at spots already.

Enzi had mentioned that circlets were the symbol of the priesthood. Ritter guessed that as an acolyte in training, the little girl therefore got the mass produced and cheap version. A nicer one would likely be made if she progressed to a higher rank. The Halz was not impressed with the little girl's attitude towards Kava, but she still radiated an aura of innocence. She was young, and likely had some overconfidence issues. Ritter hoped that her skills would not come to a test during the trip. He was worried the vodyanoi would provoke something. Rukiya took a seat in the wagon calmly. As they started to roll, she leaned back, The tiny Feergrus girl closed her eyes and began to meditate. Kava waved her one good hand in front of the closed eyes and Rukiya smirked.

“Just because my eyes are closed does not mean I don't notice things,” the little girl said, “I have ears to hear you move, the sense of touch the feel the movement of air.”

“Kava, leave the poor girl alone,” Eurysa hissed, “This is going to be a long enough trip as it is.”

“It will feel shorter with entertainment,” the vodyanoi croaked.

The rest of the mercenaries rolled their eyes. Rukiya remained quiet as she meditated. The young girl remained still and quiet throughout the trip and even at camp she ate without a word. That meant she gave no complaint either, and for that all were thankful. A long trip with a child had the potential to turn into a nightmare. The wagon rolled along the road to the town of Balquan, then passed it headed onwards to Amarah. Rukiya remained as still and silent as ever, moving only when it was necessary.

Kava, however, was beginning to fidget. The urge to break Rukiya's silence was eating at the vodyanoi. Even Ritter could see that. There was no sign of any problems. Traffic on the roads seemed normal and no one paid much attention the Enzi's wagon. Ritter wondered if an attack would even come. On the sixth day out of Iskandar they passed through the town of Quom. It was a border town, near the Tarvo Forest that covered all the southern tip of the continent. At Quom, the Marsh of Vashim crept quite close to the borders of Feergrus. The forest that surrounded it was the only real border between the inhabitants of the swamp and the land of Feergrus.

Even the trees looked twisted. The moisture of the marsh battled with the harsh dryness of the rocky Feergrus badlands. The trees seemed to bear more relation to the few scraggly plants in the badlands than to the great trees in the eastern swaths of the immense forest. The town was rather nervous. That worried Ritter. He heard a warning given to Enzi about problems from the forest. Instead of the usual problems with a few overly brave Vashimi wandering out to try and capture some unsuspecting Feergrus for their cannibalistic hunger, this tale spoke of a larger threat. It seemed that the lizardfolk had begun gathering in great numbers near the border.

Ritter suddenly put several items together in his head. The mission to evict the Vashimi earlier had involved the lizardfolk moving through Shimese territory headed elsewhere. The logical answer was to Feergrus. Such a threat obviously was a drain on the military resources of the country. This would be a perfect time for separatists to attack various targets. The hiring of the irregulars made much more sense to the Halz. Not only were they trusted not to be separatists, they were a resource that didn't tap into military forces that were likely already stretched thin.

After the warning to watch out for potential danger and attacks from the lizardfolk, the wagon rolled onward. They needed to continue to the next town. They would pass through the towns of Cahriq, Jahrom, and Agadir before finally reaching the mighty port city of Ubayyid. First they had to reach the town of Cahriq. That quickly proved to be an issue. That wagon ground to a halt a few hours out of Quom. A Feergrus man stood in the middle of the road.

“I have been expecting you.”

Ritter sighed and mumbled under his breath, “Again?”

Enzi grumbled as he replied back, “There seem to be quite a few expecting us wherever we go. It might be more important as to what you are expecting us for.”

“I know more than the others you have dealt with. None of them knew who you really are, general.”

Enzi's posture immediately changed and Ritter began readying his armaments as the mercenary company leader growled in response, “Just who are you then?”

“My name is not important, I am merely a servant of a grater cause. It is a cause you should join. You know the leaders of this country are corrupt. You have experienced it firsthand.”

“You are one of the Ahk,” Enzi said.

“Indeed,” the man replied, “I know there have been issues between our group and you in the past. You were a powerful general for our enemy, do not blame us for targeting you.”

“You didn't target me, you targeted my family,” Enzi replied, “I have no love for the corruption in our government, but your group is far worse. Your vision for the world is a dark and grim one that I want no part in.”

The man on the road shrugged, “So be it. While your talent would have been an invaluable aid to our noble cause, I expected this would come to this.”

Enzi snapped the reins of the mighty oxen that pulled the wagon and they leapt forward. The man on the road merely smirked. Crossbow bolts and arrows flew. The oxen collapsed to the ground dead, sliding to a stop at the feet on the man on the road. Ritter grabbed Rukiya as the projectiles flew through the canvas. His armor and shield protected him and the Feergrus girl as the rest of the mercenaries made their own defense, leaping one way or another.

“Your protective instinct is admirable,” Rukiya said to Ritter, “You may release me now, I can handle myself against such crude attacks. Thank you for your concern.”

The Halz was not sure whether to feel insulted at the condescending tone or to be thankful that Rukiya at least was nice enough to thank him. He saw Eurysa slithering about firing arrows at their foes. Enzi, Aldebaran, Mayitso, and Kava were on the ground moving towards their targets. For Enzi, his target was the man on the road. Ritter leapt out of the back of the wagon and assessed the situation for himself. It was quickly obvious to the Halz that the team was greatly outnumbered and that many of the separatists were dug in behind mounds they had built up themselves.

An arrow flew towards Rukiya who was now unprotected. The projectile suddenly slowed as it neared her and she batted it out of the air nonchalantly. The separatists leapt from behind the mounds and charged into combat as the mercenaries neared them. Ritter quickly found himself fighting three warriors. Aldebaran, Mayitso, and Kava each found themselves against similar odds. Eurysa was having an archery contest with one of the separatists. The two were exchanging shots on the move, each trying to land the first hit. Their skills meant they could predict where the arrows would fly from each other. Two master archers trying to outmatch each other.

Of course, Eurysa was trying to move to where she could match her gaze with her foe. That would end the fight rapidly. Enzi seemed to have his hands full with his own foe. Whoever the leader was, he was nearly evenly matched with Enzi. Enzi had superior experience, but his foe was younger, faster, and stronger. However, the real problem was the three men who stroke towards Rukiya with grins on their faces. One tiny little girl certainly would be no match for three fully grown men with military training.

“Sorry to do this little girl, but you need to die,” one of the men said.

Rukiya remained silent and merely kept walking towards the three without fear. The lead of the three charged in first to attack. Rukiya spun to one side with a flash of speed that shocked all who saw it. Her hand struck at the back of the man's knee. There was a sudden explosion of gore as the man's knee exploded and his lower leg flew several feet away. The other two warriors rushed in to attack at once hoping to overwhelm Rukiya. Her fist punched through the chest of the first with seemingly no effort. She glided away from her other foe as he attacked, moving with uncanny grace.

Almost immediately she was on the offense and her palm connected with the last man's chin. His jaw was torn off by the force of the blow as teeth and blood splattered everywhere. The three corpses laid in heaps at the little girl's feet. She was unmarked by any attack, although blood had splattered across her silken clothes and her face. By this point the other mercenaries had made headway on their own foes. Eurysa's foe sat motionless, stopped by her magical gaze. Enzi had transformed into his hybrid form and beaten his foe down. Mayitso, Ritter, Kava, and Aldebaran had hacked through most of the other enemies.

Ritter looked at the small girl and the incredible damage and asked, “What are you?”

16Jan/13Off

Enzi’s Irregulars #0029

Enzi looked down at the three men, “Looking for us? This is a vast world to find us so easily.”

“We were given a few acceptable choices of who to hire for this job, people that could truly be trusted,” the leader of the men replied, “That we found you first is merely fate.”

“I don't believe in fate,” Enzi said.

“And I did not believe that you should be on the list of trusted mercenaries. I have heard many things about your group, but I will not question my superiors on their choice. They know more than I.”

“You might be surprised at how often that is not true,” Enzi said.

The man grunted, “We have a great need for your aid. We need someone to protect an acolyte as she travels to the coast and perhaps further.”

“An acolyte?” Enzi asked.

“Yes, a young acolyte in service to the temple of Chasar. Her skills are extraordinary and she is headed to Ravalei as part of an exchange of young talent to learn from each other,” the man stated, “However, she is threatened by Ahk separatists. To ensure that her protectors are not separatists that infiltrated our ranks, we were ordered to hire outsiders.”

It was Enzi's turn to grunt, “Ahk separatists. I have a few scores to settle with them. We are in.”

***

The Feergrus town of Zubayr was not a lot to look at. It was a border town near the Disputed Lands. But it was a starting place. Now Enzi's wagon would be riding down well maintained roads. This was a land that Enzi had long fled for the safety of himself and his family. It was unlikely that anyone would recognize him now, but he wore a cloak anyway. It would be about a day and a half ride to the next town, an equally small town called Golbahar.

After that Enzi would have to decide whether to head to the city of Tafresh or to Badarash, They would have to backtrack away from where they wanted to go if they went to Tafresh, but that would have to happen at some point. The rocky badlands made roads the only safe way to get anywhere. One could not always go exactly the way they wanted to. In the end they had to reach the city of Iskandar on the north edge of the Boneyard. Tacking southwest to Tafresh would put them on the edge of the Boneyard and then the group could just follow the roads that circled that dangerous place.

The Boneyard was one of the major tourist attractions in Feergrus, while also being a place people wanted to avoid. Creepy stories were often told of the place. Enzi had been there. It was merely a vast area where a great many creatures had gone to die. Ancient sun bleached bones had fossilized across the area. Great walls of bones had formed in some places. No one knew why so many creatures went there to die, but many myths were made up to frighten the superstitious. The real danger there came from the scavengers that lived there. Such a place of death attracted a great many creatures that were not afraid to gnaw on the recently dead.

Enzi decided he would go ahead on to Badarash and then make the southwestern trip from there, heading to Khaymah. From there they would circle the Boneyard, heading to Dashkotan and finally to Iskandar. In total, Enzi expected about a ten day ride from Zubayr to Iskandar. He imagined if there was a road straight between the two cities that the group could shave three or four days off their travel time. He decided he might as well make some use of the extra time. Feergrus had several laws that could hinder the group.

“Well for camp tonight we get to begin a discussion of rules and laws in the country of Feergrus,” Enzi stated.

“Ugh,” Kava croaked, “I don't do rules, you know.”

“I will try to appear sad at your funeral,” Enzi quipped back.

Kava snorted, “You are not that good an actor. Although I would totally pay to watch as the giant hooved furball over there cries his eyes out missing me and my awesomeness.”

Aldebaran rolled his eyes as the rest of the mercenaries settled in to listen. They quickly learned that they would be encountering several odd things. Menial tasks in Feergrus were usually handed by mindless undead creatures raised by the necromancers of the country. There was nothing to worry, they followed the commands given to them mindlessly. They could be dangerous in large numbers, but the real threat would be whatever necromancer would dare disobey the laws of the land to bring harm using the undead. They were considered tools and nothing more.

A more dangerous thing to encounter would be a Feergrus panther. These large dark furred felines could easily kill or maim someone. There was a problem in dealing with them, however. Harming them was illegal, even in self defense. It was not uncommon to see them stalking through the great cities of Feergrus. Of course, not all the panthers one saw were actually panthers. Some of them were the Feergrus themselves, ones who had learned the ability to use magic to shapeshift. These sentient panthers kept the normal ones in line. The two species had learned to live together, although there were still accidents from time to time. The panthers were wild animals after all.

The next evening, Enzi went over the basics of the Ahk separatists. Back when the country of Feergrus was forming, there were two groups of people fighting to rule. One were the followers of the three deities. The others were the powerful necromancers that had planned to rule over a vast nation of undead. They were known for their chant of Adhabu Hatari Kifo. Roughly translated it meant pain, danger, and death. They thought that life was pain and that becoming undead was a release from the suffering. They offered immortality as sentient undead. Enzi could only speculate on the rest of their philosophy. Their forces had been crushed. However, that had not stopped their movement.

The Ahk separatists were a group that claimed to follow the ideals of the original undead necromancers. They wished to at least make their own country but their real goal was to usurp the whole world under their thumb, starting with Feergrus. They were one reason why the necromancers of Feergrus only created mindless undead. The highest ranked necromancers of the land learned the techniques for the more powerful sentient undead certainly, their knowledge was a weapon. It allowed them to more easily control or defeat such undead.

There were a great many cultural reasons why the necromancers did not raise people as sentient undead of course. The evils of the Ahk separatists were one. The other was how the Feergrus saw death. They believed their souls would continue on to serve their deities in the afterlife. Their bodies were now just objects. There were no graveyards or burials in Feergrus. The dead were sent to a necromancer to be used as a new zombie for work in menial tasks. Tying a soul into an undead body was seen as an insult to the deities and an insult to the country for the loss of another body to do the hard labor so that the people would not have to suffer.

Creating sentient undead was certainly possible, and had happened a few times. It was always for reasons of the greatest need and only at the permission of the highest religious authority. Rumors said that the greatest leaders of the church had been granted immortality this way. However, Enzi stated that he had met the three leaders himself and all three were definitely living beings. He could not speak for their mortality. They had rules for as long as he could remember. Enzi suspected the rumors were spread by the separatists in order to try and weaken the arguments against sentient undead.

***

Iskandar was a beautiful city. It sat to the north of the Boneyard. Mighty stone walls protected the city from the danger of the Feergrus Badlands. Mighty spires stretched towards the heavens. Feline carvings adorned walls and panther statues littered the area. The Feergrus people glided through the city, at most wearing breezy silken wisps of clothing. The sun bleached area did not feel warm enough to Ritter for such clothing or lack thereof, but he imagined the people were used to it. Those who felt a chill in the air gathered together to embrace and share body heat. It was obvious this could turn to much more very easily.

The culture of the Feergrus was very open about sexuality. The Halz shook his head. Ritter's people were very orderly about such things. Lines of inheritance were very important and women were very rare. The Halz could not wrap his head around the very open nature of the Feergrus. From what he understood, inheritance was derived from the mother. Women held many powerful positions in the land. It was the men who often got the terrible positions or difficult jobs that no one wanted to do. Enzi had once led soldiers in battle as a general, risking his life on the orders of the state religion. More than likely, several of the orders Enzi followed had come from a priestess before he had finally come to the attention of the very highest ranks of the government.

The wagon had rolled into town with no fanfare. Enzi had told the mercenaries that Iskandar was a training area. Here many children came to learn the ways of divine magic. Some became necromancers and practiced on the abundant bones from the Boneyard. Others became acolytes of one of the three faiths. The group was to meet an acolyte who had graduated and was ready for the next step. Instead of advancing normally, they would be headed to a port city and headed to Ravalei to train at the magical college there. The mercenaries were supposed to protect the acolyte while still in Feergrus.

While the Halz understood the fear of infiltration by separatists, he wondered if it would not be easier to slay the acolyte while in Ravalei. The Feergrus certainly did not have the military force in that land that they did here. Ritter suspected there was more going on than Enzi had been told. He bet good money that Enzi thought the same thing. Finally though, the wagon came to rest outside a temple dedicated to Chasar, the war deity of Feergrus.

Two templars guarded the gate to the great spire. They wore chain hauberks underneath an odd collection of thick plates. A large round plate hung on their front and backs and smaller plates at their sides. It looked highly flexible for the amount of heavy armor it provided. The pair also wielded odd looking polearms. They looked like the spears that the goblinoids had crafted to use for dismounting Agonish cavalry, except these were crafted with the care and skill of a superior blacksmith. It was still slightly unnerving to see humans wielding goblin spears.

One of the guards nodded to Enzi and spoke in Infernus, “Enzi's Irregulars. We have been expecting you.”

Ritter grunted under his breath, “That sounds familiar.”

“Rukiya Bora will be out shortly to join you,” a guard stated.

“Bora?” Enzi asked.

The guards nodded. Enzi looked to his mercenaries and explained quietly that the Bora family had long been a rival to his own family. The Bora family did not have the fame, fortune, or other advantages of the Cala family. While the Cala family was comfortably seated in the highest caste, the Bora family struggled. They would devote all their resources towards their best hopes, trying to help them reach the apex of society so that hopefully they could drag the rest of their family with them.

Finally a tiny girl strode out of the temple. She could not be more than eleven years old. Her skin was flawless and unmarked, something that seemed impossible from a temple of the war deity.

“You? You are Rukiya?” Enzi asked, “You seem awful young to have completed the training of an acolyte.”

The child smiled and spoke with a soft, sweet and innocent voice,, “Yes. They call me a prodigy. I will spend the rest of my time learning the ways of the Ravaleians. I don't know what all that means, but I can't wait to find out!”

9Jan/13Off

Enzi’s Irregulars #0028

“It seems that the troglodytes are making some sort of move,” Kava croaked, “They have driven this tribe out of the marsh. We probably just killed most of the warriors they had left.”

“So it isn't an invasion into Hirkan territory, it is a flight,” Ritter replied.

“Yes, and with no warriors, we have two fun choices,” Kava said with a manic look, “We can slaughter the villagers. Or we can make their home safe by slaughtering the slimy lizards.”

Ritter knew why Kava had grinned. Either situation appealed to her murderous streak. He imagined she would prefer killing the lizardfolk. They would put up a real fight. The vodyanoi's ploy with slaughtering the village was meant to get an immediate reaction to fight her most hated enemies. Kava was cunning and could be manipulative. The combination of a sharp intellect and an unrelenting lust for blood made her predictable, however frightening the combination might be.

“There is another option,” Ritter replied, “We can actually try talking to the lizardfolk and learning why they are on the move.”

Kava glared coldly at the Halz.

“You can speak their language, and most of the lizardfolk are not the kind to attack first if we come in peace,” Eurysa said, “You know Ritter is right.”

“Do you really think they would talk to one of my kind without fighting first?” Kava asked, “We had a bitter battle. As far as most of them know, they wiped out every last one of us.”

“Oh I think we can pull this off and get everything in order,” Eurysa said, “And don't think I won't know if you are sabotaging things.”

“Hey now,” the vodyanoi said, “I may want to slowly peel their scales off one by one as painfully as possible, but I am honest.”

Ritter smirked. Kava was right about that. She was very honest. Bluntly honest, in fact. It was part of what made Enzi's Irregulars work. Each member could be counted on to do their part, even if they did not like it. Such dedication was expected among the Halz, but it had seemed quite rare among the humans. The group released the poor Vashimi woman after Kava said a few words to her. The mercenaries made their way towards the marsh.

Ritter felt the slight change in the ground before he noticed anything else. The softer ground was only one change. The air held more moisture as well. Kava had perked up considerably. The trees had begun to change as well. What grew in the swamps seemed to have drooping greenery. Between that and the vines and odd tangles of plants that made up the underbrush, the whole area felt alive with plants. It was almost overbearing. As the ground became more soggy the underbrush began to disappear, replaced by shallow pools of murky water.

The scent of sulfur could be found on the wet breeze. It reminded Ritter of the forges of his home. However, as the scent grew stronger, the Halz quickly decided it was nothing like home. Without the heat of the forges and the dry air of the caverns, the sulfur seemed to settle everywhere. Ritter expected it would take more than one bath to wash away the stench when this mission was complete. A horrific burping and whistling sound awoke the Halz during their camp that night.

All the camp was awake except Kava. When woken she laughed at the group's description. It was a sulfurous fumarole. The burping sound came from it erupting through the boggy ground. The whistle was the gas release as it continued afterward. While the group returned to sleep or watch, none but the Vodyanoi were able to get comfortable again. The next morning they slogged through the increasingly marshy area until Kava pointed out a light. The group crept closer and saw a large group of lizardfolk sitting in the remains of a Shimese village.

“This is not a war party,” Kava croaked, “These are smaller males. They work the land to provide food for the tribe as a whole. Still, there should be more warriors. This strikes me as odd.”

“Then let us learn more,” Eurysa hissed, “Time to get their attention. Call out to them that we wish to talk.”

Kava sighed, then made some horrific noises. Something about that language made Ritter's skin crawl. There was an odd power to it, something primal that made him feel an instinctive fear. He shook it off, the Halz had nothing to fear from primitive humanoids like this. They were powerfully built, but no match for the hardy Halz and their advanced technology. He watched as several warriors came forward. They wore no armor and carried large but simple spears.

There was some obvious shock among the lizardfolk upon their sighting of the vodyanoi as well as suspicion. They seemed most aggravated over Ritter, but calmed quickly as Kava talked with them. Their language was harsh and guttural, but the Halz was surprised at how well things seemed to be going. Kava was not exactly diplomatic, but he wondered if her simple, blunt manner might not work better with these savages. Finally the vodyanoi turned to the group with a slightly puzzled look.

“It seems some humans stole some relic of theirs,” Kava croaked, “They thought Ritter might be a human at first. After some discussion, I got the point across that there are different tribes of humans, much like there are different tribes of troglodytes. The female they work under had ordered them to slaughter all humans in their path. As we are not humans, we are safe for now. They are pushing northwards to set up a major war camp in the far north. This area should be safe for the Vashimi to return in a few days.”

“Won't they slaughter the Vashimi again on their way back?” Ritter asked

Kava shrugged, “I doubt it. Once they get their stupid rock back they will slaughter the people around it and forget about continuing revenge. Especially as discussion of different tribes filters through their people. They mostly ignored the humans as only the Vashimi were foolish enough to live in the swamps.”

“This is over a rock?” Ritter asked.

“They call it a dragon egg,” the vodyanoi replied, “But I've seen the troglodytes worshiping lots of silly things that are supposed to be dragon related. Many of the tribes are obsessed with this sort of thing. I figure they found a large egg shaped rock they couldn't break and worshiped it. It was probably a chunk of halzium or something like that. Some of the odd trinkets I have seen them worship are downright odd. Things they claim to be of dragon origin but obviously are not. At least obvious to those with an intellect. There is no such thing as a dragon. My people lived in these marshes for generations and never saw anything even remotely dragon-like.”

“Well, other than letting the Vashimi and the Hirkans know what is going on, I guess this is all finished,” Ritter said.

“Yeah, this was too easy,” Kava replied in a depressed tone, “We barely got to kill anyone.”

The trip back to the Shimese camp was surprisingly uneventful. Ritter strode in first, letting his armor take a few hits as Kava stayed behind him and yelled out what all she had learned. The rocks soon stopped pelting the Halz as questions came. The Shimese people quickly calmed and swarmed out to hear the news. Ritter was surprised at how human and peaceful they seemed. The tales of the cannibal tribes and their vicious and heartless nature seemed hard to grasp

It made the Halz wonder if they were the same as any outcasts. If they might share a kinship with Enzi's Irregulars. Life had not treated them well. They fought to survive. It was what all living things did. Ritter wondered if there was any way to bring all living things together to live in peace. He knew such a thing had to be impossible, but it was a beautiful dream. If it wasn't for all those who sought selfish desires, perhaps the world would be perfect.

Even that made him pause. How many of his desires were selfish? The desire to live was certainly selfish. The Halz may have been well educated with a strong background in complex subjects, but pondering on philosophy was beyond his comprehension. So many things seemed like they might be the correct path. So many ideas looked like they might bear fruit. In the end, every philosophy seemed to be flawed. It made him wonder if life itself was flawed.

Soon the group was on its way back towards the edge of the forest. The trip back to the wagon was also surprisingly uneventful. Ritter was wondering if Kava would ever get a chance to really satisfy her violent nature. Eurysa explained all that had happened to Enzi and the Feergrus man left to chat with his Hirkan contact. When Enzi returned, the wagon moved off towards the northwest. That quickly brought them into drier lands. Over the next few days the ground grew rockier. Ritter knew they had to be near the border to Feergrus.

“Well, now we can follow the border to Feergrus northwards. We should be safe here,” Enzi explained to the group as they made camp, “I expect some jobs near the border to Agon. I am hoping to get a chance to prove ourselves to the people of the area after the debacle we had earlier.”

“Hopefully it involves lots of violence,” Kava growled.

The trip northwards was quiet for several days. However after five days the wagon rolled to a stop. Three Feergrus men were standing in its path. None of them appeared to be armed or armored. Knowing what Enzi was capable of, this fact only worried Ritter more. One of the dark skinned men stepped forward.

“Enzi's Irregulars,” he said in Infernus with a deep, booming voice, “Exactly who we were looking for.”

2Jan/13Off

Enzi’s Irregulars #0027

Ritter continued his tale, “Freya's axe cut through giant after giant as she sought to reach her fiance. Her brave companions fell one by one as they sought to keep her alive. Finally she reached the one she had loved. It is said that blood poured from a hundred wounds. The villain was unharmed and ready for her. With a simple swipe of his weapon he beheaded the fair maiden. What was left of the small army retreated. Of her closest companions, only Barrett Orcdoom survived.”

“Ulf Silveraxe carried her body away from the traitor and the giants, despite the wounds he took as he could not defend himself. The elves then rescued Freya's corpse and took it to be honored among their people for her work in freeing the elven prisoners. The Halz retreated, most of their forces destroyed in the great battle. Trade relations began with the elves and the Halz began to build a great army to honor Freya. Eventually an elven delegation arrived at the Soulforge clan hall with a magnificent coffin that held the remains of Freya Soulforge.”

“She was honored there and her treacherous love had his named stripped from him. It was with this that the elves and the Halz became allies. The relationship was sometimes rocky as they were not Halz and we did not entirely trust them. Yet eventually our two armies joined forces and together we could fight off the giants. Life became much easier, especially as steel became common for both sides.”

Kava snorted, “So where is the elven evil in this?”

Ritter sighed, “For many years we thought little of the ramifications of the incident. The trade with the elves brought rare materials to us and we provided iron ore to them. We did not think much of their quick mastery over iron and steel. We took many generations to perfect it. The loss of Freya's knowledge had delayed our perfection of the process for quite some time.”

“After the elves betrayed us, our historians discovered many things. We had not paid much attention to the one thing that was missing from Freya's remains. Her armor and weapons. The elves had kept the steel to analyzed it with their magic. They kept a relationship with us so that we could provide the raw materials. They had many motives for aiding us. The release of the enslaved elves and the weakening of the giants we knew. Yet they had other plans from the start. They wanted to learn our technology and use our resources. Certainly we would have aided them if they asked. Yet they not only did not ask, they did not provide us with the information they had learned from Freya's equipment. The Halz could have mastered steel much sooner if they had been willing to share.”

“That really isn't that evil,” Kava replied.

“No,” Ritter said, “It was just the beginning. As they learned more of us, they found more important things they wished to harvest from us. This was just an example that even when our relationship was at its most honest and pure, they still had a secret agenda.”

***

Enzi's wagon sat near the Tarvo Forest. It was close to Hirkan territory. As spring had come, the Hirkans had begun to head southwards, following the great herds of Snow Elk as they migrated. Only the permanent trading center known as Kanea kept any Hirkans in the north. Those Hirkans stayed to protect their forest from being logged. Enzi was already in discussion with one of those Hirkans.

The Hirkan was quite large, as far as humans went. Most Hirkans were quite powerfully built. He was no match for Aldebaran, but the Hirkan towered over Enzi. The Hirkan had ragged blonde hair and was sparsely dressed. The Hirkans were used to colder weather, so any that remained further north as spring and summer came often shed as much as their clothing and armor as they could spare. It was one of the things that gave them a reputation as savages.

Ritter pondered that point. The Feergrus often went with very little clothing, but were not considered savages. However, he guessed that it was only one thing and that every culture had at least one thing different about them. Otherwise he assumed all of them would just all be the same country. The Hirkans certainly had a great many other reasons that people considered them savages. They did not build towns for one thing. Their attitude towards possessions was another. Since they did not believe in owning things they could not carry with them, that led to a great many misunderstandings where they would take things that were laying around. They were often called thieves and scavengers.

Enzi soon returned to his mercenaries, “We have a job.”

“I hope we get to hurt something,” Kava croaked.

Mayitso snorted. He kept giving glances towards the forest. He was uncomfortable about something, but it was hard to tell what it exactly was. The lycanthrope's communication skills were poor, especially since in wolf form he could not even speak in a human tongue. Eurysa and Aldebaran calmly sat and listened. Eurysa's calm came naturally to her. The minotaur's calm was practiced. He breathed carefully and kept his focus. Aldebaran kept himself under control as much as he could. He made it a habit.

Ritter had heard many hints that the minotaur had a terrible past because of his anger issues. He wondered if he would ever get the chance to hear the story. For now, though his curiosity disappeared as Enzi began to describe the Hirkan job. It seemed they were having problems with the Vashimi for a change. They were used to dealing with the normal threats from the Disputed Lands and arguments with the Tarvoni, but the Vashimi usually stayed hidden in their swamps.

This was definitely a mission for Kava. She knew the Vashimi and their swamps. The Marsh of Vashim was her home. The five mercenaries soon trudged off into the woods as Enzi remained behind with the wagon and the Hirkan. Being this close to the Marsh of Vashim also meant the group was quite close to the borders of Feergrus. Ritter wondered what that land was like. What he had heard of it was that it was mostly dry and barren. This made for quite a contrast with the Marsh of Vashim. Obviously the whole country could not be that dry, it made no sense as it was bordered by the ocean, a river, and a marsh for three of its sides.

As the trees of the Tarvo forest shaded Ritter from the powerful star Feras, he felt the chill of the spring. Summer would come soon enough but the group was headed southwards. Until they neared the swamps, he expected the temperatures to continue to drop. The evergreen trees that made up the Tarvo Forest held the chill well. The group traveled for several days until Ritter noticed the trees begin to change. The warmth of the marsh allowed for very different breeds of trees to survive. Deciduous trees were the first clue they were nearing the swamp.

Kava took the lead. Her caution was a warning to the rest of the group. Ritter was used to her rushing into situations. Yet here the vodyanoi was peering at every leaf as if it might jump out and attack her. It seemed it was for good reason. Spears flew from multiple directions as Kava rolled out of their path. A dozen Vashimi leapt out of every hiding place imaginable. Some came down from the trees. Some came out of bushes. Others leapt through the ground, obviously out of pits they had dug and camouflaged.

The Vashimi were extraordinarily pale and gaunt. While some had mistaken Mayitso's human form as Vashimi, seeing the real thing up close left a very different impression on Ritter. He could clearly see their veins working beneath the surface of their nearly translucent skin. It was ghoulish. Mayitso's human form was certainly far more pale than a Tarvoni or Hirkan, but not to the same level as a Vashimi. The Shimese people were just unnerving. It did not help that their noses were flattened, giving the a resemblance to a pig.

As the Vashimi that attacked were usually from the cannibal tribes, that also meant they would be adorned with horrifying mementos of their victims. These Vashimi were no exception to that. As they screamed, Ritter could see that they had filed their teeth into murderous points. It made them look like monsters. Ritter felt a few thrown spears bounce off his armor as he charged into battle. His foes wore no armor and used primitive weapons. Metal was rare among the Shimese people, reserved for their leaders and greatest warriors. However, that meant this battle was wildly lopsided.

Kava, Aldebaran, and Ritter's weapons slaughtered their foes with ease as Eurysa picked off the Vashimi spear throwers with her perfectly placed arrows. Mayitso seemed to be in his element in the woods, much as Kava would be in the swamp. The lycanthrope's fangs tore apart the wiry Vashimi with startling efficiency. Soon the Vashimi were dead and Kava declared the area was safe.

“Odd, this is a bit out of their territory,” the vodyanoi croaked, “I expect some scouts, maybe a trap or two, but not an assault. This is unusual.”

Mayitso snorted and then sniffed at the corpses and the ground. He growled and then moved off. The rest of the mercenaries followed. The lycanthrope had the best senses of the group by far, at least in hearing and smell. Eurysa's eyes might be sharper, but it was hard to tell. Soon the group saw what the lycanthrope had sensed. There was a Shimese village being built outside the swamp.

“Oh this really isn't right at all,” Kava said, “They would not build here unless they had to. The Vashimi like to hide and the marsh is excellent for places to hide and camouflage. This part of the forest is too open for that.”

“You can speak their language, right?” Eurysa asked.

“Ugh,” Kava croaked, “I know several enemy languages, yes.”

“Then we should question them,” the gorgon replied.

“Oh that won't go well. This is a cannibal tribe. Though I suppose if we kill enough of their warriors, the others might be afraid enough to talk. If we can catch any before they all run away.”

“Wonderful,” Eurysa said, “Mayitso, do you think you can grab us a prisoner to have a chat with?”

The great wolf nodded.

“Get a female,” Kava said, “Especially if she has children nearby. The males won't talk but their breeding females will be skittish about our power to slaughter her children.”

The lycanthrope looked to Eurysa. The gorgon nodded as Ritter felt slightly ill to his stomach. At least the group was not actually going to hurt the children, but instilling that fear felt wrong to the Halz. Mayitso soon returned with an unconscious female Vashimi. She wasn't wearing any clothing and had no weapons of note. Her sharpened teeth were still dangerous, as was her ability to yell out. Kava sat on her chest and waited with an oversized grin. The vodyanoi's frog-like maw could be quite disturbing.

Eventually the Vashimi woke and Kava spoke in Shimese, “We need to talk.”

The woman started to scream but Kava croaked, “I would not do that if you want your children to live. We can grab them as easily as we grabbed you.”

The woman glared at Kava with pure disgust and hate, “What do you have to say, monster?”

Ritter could see the woman's reactions. He half wished that he could hear what the vodyanoi and Vashimi were saying. His rational side knew that he was better off not knowing what horrible things Kava was talking about. The language was nearly as abhorrent in sound as the Vashimi seemed to be in appearance. Eventually the conversation was complete.

“Well, this is an interesting problem,” Kava croaked in Nuvro with obvious glee.

“If Kava is happy about it, than this can't be good,” Eurysa sighed.