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

27Feb/13Off

Enzi’s Irregulars #0035

“The tale of the minotaurs starts a long time ago. Even I am not sure of all the original details,” Aldebaran stated in Nuvro, “But our most direct beginnings were on the isle of Casea.”

Ritter had heard a few snippets of information about Casea while he had been in the Disputed Lands. Most of the mercenaries there thought of it as a mystical land of treasure guarded by ferocious monsters. Many of the men thought that if they could survive there long enough to grab some of the treasures, that they would gain riches beyond their imagination. Of course, there were others who said that any good loot had already been taken and that all that was left was horrors from a bygone age. The Halz was most interested to see if the minotaur could explain some of the real truth.

“The Caseans had found a lot of information and research on creating new creatures. They never had any successes until one of their greatest scientists devised a new method with the help of a few artifacts. I know little of it, but it allowed the research to leap forward. The isle of Casea long had a population of fey creatures called the satyrs. They were animals in nearly humanoid form. I have seen them, I would have just called them goat men if they had any intellect.”

Eurysa hissed, “Were people would have hands, they have claws on terrible paws. They walk on two legs, but they are nothing more than vicious predators.”

“The Caseans wanted to see if they could create something to counter the satyrs,” Aldebaran said, “Something with the power of an animal but the mind of a man. They made several creatures, but most were failures. The melding of man and animal often meant creatures of terrible wrath and cunning. They worked to find a creature that had the right balance of animal power and human intellect. Eventually they created the minotaur. We were perfect for their needs. Powerful, strong, and fierce. Yet we were only fierce when roused to anger. It made us controllable enough to be useful.”

“Yet that was a long time ago,” Aldebaran said in his deep voice, “I was born far more recently. When I was born, Casea had long been ruined. A great flood had came to the island and the rest of the continent. The low lying coastal areas had been wiped out. Only the most vicious and sturdy survived. That included my people. Any humans that might have survived did not last long against the many creatures of the island. The satyrs, the giant ants, and many other horrors took over the isle of Casea. It also destroyed the Casean colonies on the Rava Coast. The Caseans that survived there eventually rebuilt and are now known as the Ravaleians.”

Kava croaked, “And they still work on the crazy science.”

Eurysa hissed, “Yes, but they were set back many generations and lost a great many items that had been crafted or found over the generations. They had to start from scratch without those aids.”

“With the Caseans gone, my people worked to build our own civilization. We settled on the shore, as most of the worst things were far inland. Our race bred slowly. Having been crafted, it was lucky we could do so at all. Of course, the Caseans had carefully controlled that. It was easier to breed an army than to spend massive resources crafting us one at a time with a chance of failure. We had to fight off incursion from the satyrs that swarmed the eastern part of the isle. Giant ants covered most of the central part. Undead had formed in the southern part of the isle and were quite dangerous.”

“The constant worry of those threats were our main concern. They should not have been. The Ravaleians came to reclaim their island. They wanted nothing to do with us. We tried to be peaceful, but it quickly broke out into battle. Their first ships was easily defeated and it fled back to the Rava Coast. However, the next ships that came were better prepared for the danger. We were soon fighting a war on multiple fronts. We were not numerous and we were eventually reduced to but a few.”

“The small tribe of survivors stayed on the move, fleeing from danger. Yet we were hunted down and eventually the last few were captured and taken back to Ravalei for study,” Aldebaran said as his gravelly voice wavered, “That is where I was born. I grew up in a cage, poked and prodded. I learned what little I am telling you from the other minotaurs. Each one died at the hands of the scientists until only I remained. What happened next is easy to predict. When the chance came, I escaped. I fought my way out and slaughtered anyone in my way.”

“Yet that was not enough to make me a monster. It is what came next. I was free in Ravalei. I was uneducated and did not understand their language. I only knew the language that the other minotaurs had taught me. The Ravaleians never spoke while they worked on us. The silence was rather creepy. I was the last of my kind, alone and enraged. I had but one goal. To repay all that had been done. I rampaged across the land, slaughtering any I could find. It did not matter to me who they were. I slaughtered the defenseless without any regard. To me, even the human children were monsters to be snuffed out.”

Knowing what I have learned now, I can not imagine how anyone could have seen me as anything but a slavering monstrosity that needed to be put down. It was all that I wanted. My people were dead, I expected to die as well but I was determined to take as many humans with me as I could. Yet this is where my tale intertwines with another. I met Enzi and tried to kill him, but found myself unable to move as if my muscles had turned to stone. He had another with him. A gorgon.”

Eurysa nodded, “I could not let you slay him, of course.”

Aldebaran returned the nod, “I agree. Though I was quite furious at the time. Though fury was all that I had.”

Eurysa hissed, “It was quite disconcerting. I knew of your people but I had never seen rage personified like it had been within you.”

Aldebaran continued, “From there it was a long process of gaining trust and finding a language to teach me. We had fled to Nuvroc as I was being hunted in Ravalei.”

“As was I if you remember,” Eurysa interjected.

“Yes, so Nuvroc was a safe place. I learned their language and learned more about humans and their nature. At first I though of the Nuvroc and Feergrus as different creatures and thought of the Ravaleians as the evil kind of human. That was a simplification that was wrong. Like all people, they had those that were good and those that are evil. I learned that I had not been examined by true Ravaleian scientists. The people that visited the isle of Casea and had captured us were tied to criminal organizations.”

“Learning that I had punished innocent people for the actions of evil ones showed me what a monster I had been. You may say that I had every right to be angry. But can you honestly say that the slaughter of innocent children and unarmed citizens is not monstrous? I have sought to repay my debt since then, helping the innocent and the weak.”

“So Eurysa was already with Enzi? Anyone else or were you the first two?” Ritter asked.

“Definitely the first two,” Aldebaran said, “The only two for a great many years.”

“Yes,” Enzi said, “They helped me quite a lot in my nearly two decade journey of discovery. I formed the Irregulars out of seeing a need for such a group. Eurysa and Aldebaran were examples of those who needed help in a world that was against them.”

“I don't imagine that Eurysa and Aldebaran both being found early was entirely a coincidence,” Ritter said, “Especially after some of the things Kava mentioned about her knowledge of nature and Eurysa's inability to fit in her classifications.”

Eurysa hissed, “You are right. Though you may be too smart for your own good.”

Kava looked up at the mention of her name. She had heard the tale of Aldebaran before but the vodyanoi had not put everything together quite like Ritter. It might have been the delivery. Kava had heard the tale from only Aldebaran. The few small additions by Enzi and Eurysa had certainly stoked the curiosity of the Halz. The vodyanoi, of course, had not been paying attention at all.

“You might suspect that the gorgons were another fruit of the dabbling by Casean scientists,” Eurysa hissed, “You would be wrong. Our existence came before their experiments. We were one of the proofs that it had been done before. My people were studied by the Caseans. They learned a lot from those they captured. We fought to avoid capture, to escape the spread of the humans. I suppose that without the pain my people suffered, then Aldebaran might never have existed. The two of us are kin in many ways.”

Aldebaran snorted, “I only wish that neither of our peoples had been subjected to suffering and death.”

“So if the Caseans did not create the gorgons, then who did?” Ritter asked.

“That I do not have an answer for,” Eurysa replied, “There were only three of my kind left when I was born, and that was nearly ninety years ago. I only met the one who gave birth to me. She taught me very little before she perished. I survived through stealth, keeping my distance, and using my gaze if anyone got too close. Even with that there were still those that noticed me. Some hunted me, the rest merely fled. I only wanted to find a place where no one would bother me again.”

“Good luck with that,” Kava croaked, “Every place is pretty much got something in it. Plus the humans keep spreading.”

Eurysa nodded as her snaky hair wiggled, “I had been cornered when Enzi found me. There had been too many. I didn't know if I was going to be captured or killed. Either way it would not have been good. It was in a quiet, dirty, dead end alleyway in a Ravaleian town. There was no one to help me. There were only my attackers and one homeless wastrel in a corner.”

Enzi nodded, “A vagrant with no home and no purpose. The hunters didn't care about some worthless Feergrus man in rags in a dark corner of a dead end alley. It was a mistake on their parts. I awoke from my depression upon seeing the desperation of a gorgon. I defeated her enemies swiftly, then turned to try to speak to her.”

“When I promptly tried to use my power on you,” Eurysa hissed, “You luckily have a very strong will.”

Enzi chuckled, “Yes. We spent quite a while learning to understand each other. Much like Aldebaran, you did not speak any human language at the time. We had many adventures in Ravalei. Things quickly became more and more dangerous. Rumors of you kept growing. We decided on one last mission.”

“To take care of a rampaging monster slaughtering its way across the country,” the gorgon reminisced.

Enzi smirked, “And take care of him we did. Transporting him to Nuvroc.”

Aldebaran chuckled at that slightly. Ritter had not heard much mirth from the minotaur. Despite many years of good works, it was obvious he still blamed himself for the death of a great many innocents. The thought that both the gorgon and the minotaur were the results of ancient experiments in alchemy worried the Halz. He wondered what other things had been crafted. What worried him the most, however, was who had crafted the gorgons and left other proof of their works. The Caseans had been gone for hundreds of years. Who had come before them?

20Feb/13Off

Enzi’s Irregulars #0034

Ritter's hammer slammed down on one of the ghouls. There was a sickening crunch of sinew and bone. But the undead did not fall. It did not feel pain or suffering like a living creature. Ritter could not count on pain or blood loss to put a foe out of commission. The claws of the various ghouls slashed at the armor of the Halz. Ritter had raised the alarm but he could not see himself surviving the battle. He felt relieved that he had at least saved a few lives.

He was determined to go down fighting. He fought back with all his strength. It was not enough. Claws pierced his armor more than once. He felt pain as blood was drawn. One of the ghouls stepped into his vision as it blurred. He was familiar to Ritter. It was the same man that had attacked them earlier. Only now his features were sunken as his form had become gaunt.

“It is too bad little dwarf,” the ghoul said in Infernus, “The wounds are not enough to slow a warrior like you much. It is the toxins that make a ghoul deadly. Can you feel the poison from our claws sapping your strength? You and your little band defeated us while we were alive. Now we have come back stronger and with extra help. You stand no chance.”

Ritter grinned. The wounds hurt mightily, of that the ghoul was correct. However the one thing Ritter had learned of the humans was that few were truly strong in constitution. It would take a mighty poison to affect a Halz. The ghouls had paused expecting the wounds and poison to make Ritter too weak to fight effectively. He proved them wrong with a mighty swing that slammed into the head of the lead ghoul. The ghoul stumbled back as Ritter fought onward. He felt his warhammer strike true again and again, then he felt pain as claws found as opening again.

The Halz collapsed to the ground. Even he had his limits. He had killed at least three ghouls and disabled one or two others. It had to be enough. Then another ghoul hit the deck beside the dwarf. An arrow had pierced its skull. The real fight had begun. Knowing that, Ritter allowed himself to sink into the darkness of unconsciousness.

***

Enzi heard the yell of the Halz on the deck above. He quickly woke the rest of the Irregulars. He dashed towards the stairs as Aldebaran, Kava, and Eurysa grabbed their gear. Mayitso trotted along behind Enzi, not wanting to get too far ahead of the other mercenaries. Enzi saw the crowd of ghouls and leapt into battle. Mayitso was on his heels, but worked to protect the passage up to the deck so that Eurysa and the others could safely enter the fight.

The crew was awakened as well and a glorious battle began. The crew were little match for the ghouls, but when the mercenaries for the Rava Coast Trading Company finally arrived they made a huge difference. It took time to put their armor on, and without it they would have been easy prey for the ghouls. The regular crew had been little more than a distraction for the undead monsters, but that had helped Enzi's Irregulars in their job to eliminate the threat. The ghouls were powerful and well trained. The battle was not going well. Then Enzi saw the leader. The ghoul's jaw was dislocated from a warhammer blow but he was still recognizable to Enzi.

This was confirmed as the ghoul leader spoke, “Good to see you again. This time you are beaten. You had to transform last time to be a match for me. Now I am more powerful. Will you dare use that power in front of all these outsiders? Confirm some of the rumors about the Feergrus and their powers?”

Enzi narrowed his eyes, “If I have to. To get the job done.”

“It won't be enough and you know it,” the ghoul replied coldly.

The crackle of lightning filled the air and a bolt of pure electricity arced past Enzi and struck the ghoul leader in the chest. It left a giant gaping and smoking hole in the undead man's chest. He collapsed to the ground as small feet could be heard on the deck behind Enzi.

“Mere ghouls?” Rukiya asked, “How cute. Time to end this.”

One of the ghouls rushed towards her and she stared at him and spoke coldly, “Stop.”

The ghoul suddenly stopped and Rukiya grinned, “You may be an intelligent undead, but I am a very powerful necromancer. Go kill your undead friends now.”

The ghoul turned and leapt into battle against his former allies as Rukiya shook her head, “It is extraordinarily difficult to force a living person to attack their allies. An intelligent undead is far more difficult to control than the mindless ones, but once you have control it is absolute. That they would send undead against a necromancer shows how much they underestimate me. It was a foolish move.”

Rukiya took a deep breath and then began controlling one undead after another, turning the fight in her favor very quickly. Soon all that was left of the enemy were three of her slaves. Rukiya offered them up for anyone to do as they pleased but Enzi stopped anyone from attacking them.

“We should question them first and learn what other attacks may come,' the Feergrus man said.

Rukiya nodded and looked to the three controlled ghouls, “Honestly answer any question this man asks.”

Enzi quickly questioned the three undead on the attack, who sent them, and what they knew. He learned that this was the final strike by the separatists. They had no resources to strike in Ravalei, especially if this force was destroyed. He learned that they certainly had underestimated Rukiya, assuming that her skills as a War Enchanter precluded any skill in necromancy. Both were paths of magic that usually took skill and a great amount of time to learn, but Enzi had seen that Rukiya had an exceptional mind. It gave the child a frightening amount of maturity. It made Rukiya seem quite creepy to most everyone she met.

The fact that she had been taught how to kill her enemies without any sign of remorse was what prompted worry in Enzi. Rukiya was a cold blooded killer. The priests of Chasar had turned her into an efficient killing machine. Enzi shuddered to think what such training had done to the psyche of a small child. It could not have been a happy childhood. Certainly his own brutal training had not been pleasant. Enzi then saw her end the undead lives of her three slaves without any care.

People moved through the deck cleaning up the fallen. A familiar shape appeared on the deck as bodies were cleared. An armored Halz lay on the ship's boards. Enzi rushed over to check on the dwarf. Ritter was badly wounded, but the Feergrus found that he was still alive. Enzi was surprised that the poison claws of the ghouls hadn't finished the Halz off. With the help of the rest of the Irregulars, the dwarf was hauled off to the cargo hold. They removed his armor and bound his wounds.

“After I get some rest,” Rukiya said, “I'll see what I can do with magic. The battle left me drained. This one saved our lives. It is the least I could do to return the favor if I can.”

It was easy to notice that the little Feergrus girl was correct about her condition. The mercenaries noticed her sunken eyes and her stumbling walk. Enzi knew that magic could be quite draining, especially if one used more powerful spells. Rukiya had certainly used a lot of power in that fight. Healing magic took a lot of power as well, it was why most priests learned regular methods to deal with wounds. It did not help that the human body had trouble handling such magic as well.

After magical healing, a person needed at least a day's rest to recover enough to accept that power again. Enzi knew a few healers who had refined their magical healing skill to be able to use such magic twice on a person. Such talent was uncommon, but the followers of Rakar were taught the methods. Not all could master it, but finding one of them to heal you was as close to an assurance of surviving a terrible wound as one could get in the world. For the moment, the group could only rest and hope.

***

Pain wracked his body. Ritter opened his eyes, wondering what terrible afterlife he had been drug into. Then he saw the faces of his allies around him. He would bear the scars of the ghoul claws for the rest of his life, but that was nothing to a warrior. Most of his allies shared such a reminder of combat. Enzi's largest scars were his leg and his face. Ritter had learned how Enzi had earned the scar on his leg. The fact that one of the leaders of Feergrus had cut the man's hamstring in a battle was brutal. Even with magical healing, Enzi still had a slight limp.

The scar on Enzi's face was still a mystery. It was his most obvious scar, one that crawled from under his right jawbone across his cheek, under the right eye and over the top of the bridge of the nose. Aldebaran bore a scar on his chest from a nasty wound he had taken a while ago. Eurysa had lost the head of one of the snakes that sat upon her head. Its limp body had been tied back and hidden in the tangle of other snakes however. Kava, of course, had lost her right hand and part of the forearm. The prosthesis she wore was a weapon and she had learned to use it effectively. She was as good with it as she had been with her normal hand and a regular hatchet.

Even Mayitso had a scar, though it was small. A silver dagger had stabbed the lycanthrope in the side. It was completely unnoticeable beneath his fur, however. The lycanthrope likely had the toughest hide among the group, easily matching the protective power of Ritter's own armor. All it took was a bit of silver to get past Mayitso's armor, though it was far more flexible and had better coverage than anything Ritter could wear. The Halz would have though that such a hide would have been hunted for its protective ability. Enzi had once mentioned that the lycanthropes were what the Feergrus called fey creatures. Some of their abilities were inherent to their life and faded with their death.

This meant that hunting lycanthropes was unproductive. It was one reason they still survived. Their numbers were shrinking, but most of them lived far from human settlements. Mayitso was still mostly a mystery to the Halz. The lycanthrope preferred to remain in his wolf form. While in that form, he was unable to speak. Even those few times he took human form, he did not seem to care for talking. Of course, the minotaur Aldebaran was little better at opening up.

“So now we sit on a boat for a week or two, right?” Kava said, “Someone entertain me!”

“I am more worried about what happens in Ravalei,” Eurysa said, “Aldebaran does not have a good reputation there.”

“Really?” Ritter asked.

The minotaur nodded, “That is where Enzi found me and brought me to a new path. Tales of my destruction there are likely only myth and legend to most, but seeing a real minotaur will make people rethink that.”

“Well we seem to have plenty of time,” the Halz said, “Why don't you tell me all about it and maybe a new solution will come to us.”

Aldebaran patted Ritter's head and spoke in his gravelly voice, “You have proven a staunch ally. You should know exactly what I have been. What I may still be if provoked.”

“Yeah,” Kava croaked, “A monster. But we got plenty of that on the team. You fit right in.”

13Feb/13Off

Enzi’s Irregulars #0033

The docks of Ubayyid were well maintained. The yellow-orange dust of the badlands seemed to try to get into everything, but the salty air of the sea seemed to help keep the dust levels down. Most of the ships were made to hug the coast, they were little more than barges. However, there was one full size ship at the docks. The flag it flew was instantly recognizable to Enzi. It was a pair of blue waves on a white background. That meant the ship was run by the Rava Coast Trading Company.

That had to be the ship that would take Rukiya to Ravalei. The mercenaries employed by the Rava Coast Trading company were professionals. Enzi did not agree with a lot of what the company did, but he did have respect for their mercenaries. They were treated well and were known for their loyalty and devotion. There were few warriors one could trust more. At least as long as their employers like you. Crossing the business interests of the Rava Coast Trading Company was a good way to make your life more difficult.

Of course, Enzi did know one group that was even more trustworthy than the mercenaries of the Rava Coast Trading Company. The reasons were frightening, however. That group was the Shadow Guard of Feergrus. Each one was personally screened by Executor Devis Lane himself. As the secret police of the land, they were terrifying. A myth to most, but a horrifying reality to any that threatened Feergrus and its masters. Devis Lane could see into the minds of mortal men. He picked only the most loyal of people for his Shadow Guard. Even then he watched over them and made sure that circumstances had not changed them into someone he could no longer use.

Enzi was quite familiar with Devis and his methods. He had been the one that had spotted his own findings. He had seen how Enzi had learned the deepest secrets of Feergrus. Then Devis had moved to eliminate Enzi as well as all the sources he had found. Learning the secrets of Lord Glanar Dale were harder than ever. One would think that the simplest of questioning would have revealed the immortal nature of the country's leaders. Questions of the age of the leaders, their birthdays or birth dates were never available. Even immortality would not be considered a sin, however. Those that suspected it only saw it as proof of the power of the religion, assuming they did not think they were undead.

Public appearances by Devis Lane and Karrum Tamb helped dissuade most rumors, but only the highest ranked priests ever met Lord Glanar Dale. Enzi was sure it was the ones that were most likely to fall in line with Glanar as well. That ability to read people like a book by Devis certainly helped and Enzi suspected that Glanar and Karrum had similar abilities. Enzi could not imagine anyone could claim equality or superiority over Devis without some serious firepower to back up that claim.

Having the Shadow Guard in town was somewhat of a comfort as they would protect Rukiya. However, Enzi was worried as to why they were there in the first place. If they had been available to handle her transfer, they would have been involved sooner. Devis knew who Enzi was and knew Enzi had knowledge of the secret police. They had to be in town for another reason. Taking care of a traitor was just a side job. Enzi could almost smell the conflict on the wind. Something major was about to happen. Devis certainly had to know what was going on. The mobilization of forces worried Enzi.

This was more than just a border conflict with the tribes of lizardfolk. A concentrated effort would wipe that out quickly. Even if the Ahk separatists were making a major move as well, there was more than enough military force to deal with that. That meant one thing to Enzi. There was a major war brewing somewhere. The possibilities were endless. Enzi hated the idea of such large scale combat. He preferred surgical strikes. He liked his small band of mercenaries to take care of those kind of special situations. The only good thing about a war would be that all the attention that had been turned on the Irregulars now had a new focus.

As Enzi's Irregulars approached the Rava Coast Trading Company vessel, several heavily armed and armored men watched them. They wore the company symbol on the tabards they wore over their gleaming armor. The company spared no expense in equipping their mercenaries. Enzi knew they had excellent training as well. They were an authority wherever they went, thanks to their sheer might. A Ravaleian in the finest of merchant robes strolled towards the group.

“You appear to match the description I was given,” the merchant stated in Ravaleian, “I assume this sweet young girl is our precious cargo?”

“Yes,” Enzi replied in Rava, “We are here to make sure she has a safe trip to Ravalei.”

“Then you need have no worries, we have several expert warriors to make sure the trip is quite safe.”

“While I find your mercenaries more than capable, we will be coming with her,” Enzi stated.

“Oh?” the merchant asked, giving a glance askance at the inhuman mercenaries, “I am sure that is not necessary.”

“I am quite sure it is. I am sure our benefactors will pay you quite handsomely for the extra assurance that our dear Rukiya makes it to her final destination in one piece.”

At the mention of compensation, the merchant looked over the irregulars once more. He waved his mercenaries off and showed the group on board. After the irregulars were on the ship, the Ravaleian hurried away. Enzi suspected he was off to confirm his payday. Most of the Irregulars looked rather uncomfortable with being on the ship. Ritter had never been on a boat of any kind in his life.

Kava spoke up, “So what exactly are we doing? Tell me we aren't headed back into Ravalei. Our last trip there did not end well.”

“We won't have to worry about that this time. There are some major events brewing and the only way we are going to survive is to be ready for them. We are already in too deep in this. Trust me that I know what I am doing,” Enzi replied in Nuvro.

Eurysa hissed, “You have a hunch again.”

Enzi nodded.

Eurysa looked at the others, “Then let us settle in. We have a job to do.”

Rukiya spoke to Enzi in Infernus, “You suspect there will be more trouble?”

“Much more,” Enzi said, “We have gotten lucky so far.”

Hammocks were soon set up for the mercenaries in the cargo area. There were no passenger accommodations for them, just a nice room for Rukiya. It was a small room, but comfortable none the less. After a few hours, the boat lurched as it set sail. Ritter immediately found himself off balance. The movement of the ship did not agree with the Halz.

“Ooh, lets get you topside quick,” Kava said, hauling the ill looking dwarf by the arm.

“I'm surprised you care,” Aldebaran said.

“It is a winning situation for me,” Kava yelled back, “I get to see him suffering and I don't have to smell vomit in a cramped cargo hold.”

The vodyanoi and Halz climbed the steps form the cargo hold and made their way to the side of the ship. Ritter then promptly ejected everything he had eaten in the past several hours. After a short while he sat down, panting.

“Didn't know that rocky skin could turn that color of green,” Kava croaked.

“Halz are not made for the sea it seems,” Ritter said between deep gulps of air, “I think I will just stay up here a while.”

Kava nodded and headed back down into the cargo hold. Below decks, Enzi Aldebaran, Eurysa, and Mayitso tried to make themselves comfortable for the long trip ahead. Rukiya was having a much easier time in her tiny but well furnished room. The light of day soon faded to dusk. On the deck, Ritter wobbled about trying to get his sea legs. The motion of the waves threw off his balance and he could not seem to find his center. He wondered why it was so difficult. He had fought over rough terrain before. Certainly he preferred solid ground beneath his feet. He was a warrior and a proud Halz. He would not let something like this defeat him.

The sound of the waves lapping at the ship was soothing. The creaking of the timbers was unsettling. As an engineer and a Halz, he preferred the sturdy construction of metal and stone. Making such materials groan was a more difficult task. He was familiar with the sounds of those materials and their breaking points. Wood seemed far too fragile for his tastes. The sounds it made were unfamiliar to him. He had no idea when anything might be at its breaking point. A rough wave made him lose his balance entirely and the Halz decided to just lie down on the deck and try to let himself become one with the vessel and learn its movements.

***

They called them panther claws. They could be used in hand to hand combat, but their primary purpose was to cling to things and make it easier to climb. The ghouls had these blades strapped to their hands. They had dug them deeply into the wood of the Ravaleian trading vessel. The warriors clung to the ship's bottom, keeping out of sight below the water. The undead did not need to breathe. They never got tired. They could cling with all their strength and power forever if they wished it.

However, they merely awaited the darkness. One of the powers they gained as a ghoul was the ability to see in the dark. It gave them an advantage over the crew of the ship who had to see by the light of the moons or a lantern. As the stars came out to greet the world, the ghouls began to clamber up the sides of the ship. The noise of their climb was mostly hidden by the splash of waves and the straining wood of the vessel. The few who walked the decks on watch would not be expecting this form of attack. It had never been done before. That was why the Ahk separatists expected it to succeed. With surprise on their side, they believed the whole ship would fall with ease.

The ghouls climbed up to the railings, glancing around to spot the men on watch. Two guards strolled the decks with lanterns and a third sat in the crow's nest to watch for other ships or other oddities in the water. A pair of ghouls waited for the right moment, then slipped over the rails behind each of the guards. One hand muffled the guard's mouths, the other raked the panther's claws across the men's necks. They unceremoniously dumped the corpses overboard.

With that a flood of ghouls poured over the rails. One made his way to the main mast to climb up and take care of the man in the crow's nest. The job would be much easier if more people were caught sleeping. There was one thing that the ghouls failed to take into account. While they could see in the dark perfectly well for most things, they could not see color or detail. Laying on the deck near a barrle, a pile of rope, and other junk was an odd lump.

This odd lump also had the ability to see in the darkness. It was one he was born with deep in the mountains of Nuvro. This lump was a Halz, a dwarf warrior in full armor with his weapon by his side. He had been resting and recovering from his sea sickness and had been lulled by the rocking ship. He had noticed the odd sound of too many feet on the deck. He quickly assessed the situation from his prone position. As one of the ghouls passed near a lantern to douse it, Ritter could see exactly what he was dealing with. He was alone for the moment, but he did what had to be done. He leapt to his feet. The ghouls immediately noticed the motion but it did not matter.

“Alarm!” Ritter yelled out in a great bellow, “We are under attack!”

6Feb/13Off

Enzi’s Irregulars #0032

Naphar Bura looked at the corpses of the two oxen. Scavengers had already turned them into little more than skeletons. The yellow-orange dust of the badlands had tried to scour away any other evidence, but the Cleanser saw the stain of blood. The name on the side of the wagon was obvious. Enzi's Irregulars were up to something. Now they were out of their wagon and walking out in civilization. The Kurrot could not imagine that lasting for long before a mob rose up against them.

He hurried down the road. He did not want to miss the opportunity to end their threat. His presence might save a few lives. As long as there were enough lives there to finish the job. Naphar wasn't about to make himself a target until he was sure he was at such an advantage that his foes had no chance of defeating him. He felt it was a prudent measure. Some of the other Cleansers thought Naphar was a coward. However, most of them were now dead. It was a dangerous job and Naphar felt justified in taking his time to make sure it was done right.

***

“Bring me the leader. Leave the rest of the corpses until we find out what happened. Then we can decide on their fate.”

“Yes, master,” a Feergrus man replied, rushing off to do as he was told.

His master was an ancient monstrosity. It was an undead who had led the Ahk Separatists for over a thousand years. He was a necromancer of exceptional power, though his body was little more than a withered husk. His life was sustained through his vast magical power. He avoided physical labor as much as he could. He was sure his undead form could handle such things, but he thought it better to yet the younger and fresher members of the separatists take the risks. He could always raise them as undead later.

The master was quite surprised that this latest group had failed. It filled him with dread as to the answer. The man he had sent was an excellent warrior and he had taken a great many skilled warriors with him. The master assumed that it had to be an error or incompetence on their part. Even the worst fears for this mission meant that they group should have had at least some success. The leader would be able to answer those questions. Soon the corpse of the man was dropped at the master's feet. He spoke a few arcane words and used a few ancient gestures.

The dead body on the ground twitched and shivered. It gasped and coughed as it tried to breathe, despite no longer needing to. The newly raised ghoul worked to understand his magically animated body. The master was patient. He had lived for many years, giving his vassal a few moments to adjust did not even register. Finally the master looked down from his throne of bones and spoke.

“I have found you and your men slain,” the master growled, “How have you failed me?”

“I apologize master,” the ghoul said in a gravelly and tentative voice.

Finding his voice, the ghoul continued, “It is as we suspected. It was General Enzi Cala who leads those mercenaries.”

“Even if he was more than your equal, you should have had more than enough men to grab the girl and bring her to me while the rest of you sacrificed yourselves for the cause.”

“We attempted that plan. However, the girl is far more dangerous than we realized. She is a war enchanter.”

“Impossible,” the master replied, “I know the real reason they send her to Ravalei. They need a necromancer for that, though admittedly an enchanter's skills would come in handy. I can not believe she is both.”

“Then perhaps she is not trained in necromancy. She certainly showed her other skills.”

“Hmm, perhaps some false information has been leaked. Or this girl is far more exceptional than even we were led to believe,” the master stated, “If this is so, then our mission is more important than ever. I will give you and your men one more chance. I will send some of my other undead warriors with you. You will be boarding the ship and bringing it back. Bring me Enzi Cala and Rukiya Bora. Alive or dead, it matters not.”

***

Luck seemed to be on their side. Enzi had seen signs where their pursuers had left the road in search of them and no sign of their return to the road. The mercenaries and their charge marched on towards Ubayyid. Time passed quickly that day and the lights of the city could be seen as they finally had to pause to rest. The mercenaries were exhausted. If their enemies were ahead of them with some sort of roadblock they would need their rest for the fight ahead.

“So what do we do if they are blocking our way?” Rukiya asked, “I can't refuse a direct command. Keeping me held only depletes your resources, whether I am held by someone or on the sidelines.”

“We don't need to fight them,” Enzi said, “If we can't ignore them, we just need to delay them. We have allies in the city, perhaps more than you know.”

“Oh, perhaps your family?” Rukiya prodded.

Enzi chuckled, “No, even if they lived here they could not aid me.”

“Didn't you see any of them on this trip?” she asked.

“No, the last time we were near any was in Iskandar,” Enzi said, “From what I know, my sister's granddaughter should be in training to be an acolyte of Rakar.”

“From what you know?” Rukiya asked.

“I have been away from Feergrus for over twenty years. She would be perhaps thirteen or fourteen. If any of the information I have is correct,” Enzi said, “I know you have guessed much. I am not exactly welcome in much of Feergrus, although the government has decided I am more useful alive.”

“I would agree with that,” Rukiya said, “Though the powerful gain powerful enemies. Much of your story becomes clear to me. I want no more information. It is easier to deny knowledge of things if you do not actually know them. A powerful enough priest could magically force a confession if they did not believe me.”

Enzi nodded and the group worked to get some rest. Morning came far too quickly. The bleary eyed warriors awoke to face the final push to the docks. As they trudged towards the city, Enzi saw a glimmer of hope. He saw their enemies. The priest and his men were rushing up the road, the mercenaries were ahead of them. Enzi grinned, his day had just been made. Even if the priest had sent some of his forces ahead, they were not nearly enough to stop the mercenaries. Without the priest to give orders to Rukiya, the rest of the trip seemed like a cakewalk.

The exhausted mercenaries quickly lost ground to their foes as they made their way to the city. They had made it halfway to the docks when the priest finally got within shouting distance.

“Halt! In the name of Chasar!”

“Ugh,” Rukiya grumbled as she ground to a standstill.

“No worries,” Enzi said, “Sometimes it takes experience to notice something that others may have missed. I suspect our priest will shortly find himself in over his head.”

The priest was panting, but grinned as if he had won. The path they were on was remarkably free of bystanders. The priest was too tired to make note of that being strange and merely took it as fortune on his side. Mayitso was looking around and sniffing the air, growling. The rpiest did not even take this hint, assuming the growls were for him and his templars.

“You thought you could get away?” the priest snarled in Infernus, “Fleeing against orders, I would be well within my rights to kill you now. But I am a kind and generous man, I'll just kill your escorts and take you back with me Rukiya. Be a good girl and surrender.”

“As you wish,” Rukiya said with a bow, “Your orders may keep me from my mission, hopefully you will gain knowledge of it soon.”

“You have no mission, not now or ever,” the priest said.

“So you won't follow the orders of a higher ranked priest,” a voice growled.

The priest looked around as a man dropped down from the roof of a squat nearby building. The man wore no circlet so the priest snorted.

“You are no priest,” the priest said, “Get out of my business.”

“No, but Balozi Dini is,” the man replied, “And he gave you strict orders about this little group.”

The templars with the priest all looked to each other at the mention of that name as the priest spit on the ground, “Templars, this man seeks to confuse you, slay him and these foul mercenaries!”

As quick as the wind, a dozen panthers pounced down from their hidden perches. The man who had leapt down earlier transformed into a hulking hybrid of man and panther. It was the same transformation Ritter had seen from Enzi. The priest paled at the fearsome sight as the panther corralled the templars. Even they could not attack the panthers. The hybrid leapt forward with blinding speed and with one heavy swing he ripped the priest's head from his shoulders.

The hybrid snarled at Rukiya, “You seem to be the highest ranking member of the temple of Chasar. I think these templars need your direction.”

“Flee,” Rukiya said, “Return to your temple. They have greater need of you now that their priest has betrayed them.”

The templars backed off. Enzi imagined they would stop at the local temple for new orders and reinforcements if needed but even if the temple sided with them, it would be too late. The panthers gave slow pursuit to the templars as the hybrid became human again.

“Your mission is known to us Rukiya Bora,” the man said, “Though you have questionable allies.”

“They have proven quite worthy,” Rukiya said, “And done well in their mission.”

“Yes, they have been given special dispensation from the highest level,” the man said, “Which is lucky for you, Enzi. I know who you are. I imagine you know what I am.”

“One of the Shadow Guard,” Enzi said, “I saw your trap.”

The man nodded, “I imagine you did. Tales of your skills rank you among legend and myth. Even if they are overblown in the tales, I would expect at least competence. Go about your business. None shall bar your path.”

Enzi nodded, “Let's get to the docks.”

Enzi looked at Rukiya as they walked toward their final goal. Worry filled him. Dispensation from the highest level meant only one thing to the former general. It meant that Devis Lane was involved. Enzi could not think of any situation involving Devis which did not make him uncomfortable. He wondered what exactly Rukiya's mission truly entailed. He had gained Rukiya's trust, Enzi knew he would now have to learn more about what was going on. He had hoped not to get involved. Now he saw no choice but to dive in fully.