This is a fanfic for an MMO in development called Embers of Caerus.
Bal’gato stood at the rear of the small boat, staring ahead, as if locked in a trance with the river. His bronze skin baulked at the harsh summer sun boring down on us with persistence. Diego sat to the port, a few feet from me, writing a letter to some loved one in Valenost. The younger mercenaries still wrote home, it let them feel alive.
Our guide for the journey was an older Onakawan man, roughly forty years of age. Such an age still held youth in the more decent corners of the world, but here it was the highest proof of credibility.
These jungles were unforgiving of weakness. Those who didn’t respect it, learned to fear it. He hadn’t spoken since we had departed from Soa’Azaq, and I couldn’t see him breaking out in a tune anytime soon.
Bal’gato was the owner of this unobtrusive vessel; he was likely younger than the Onakawan, but the river had a way of taking life out of a man. His young deckhand was the only annoyance besides the constant biting of mosquitoes; a vociferous little thing that moved about frantically.
I watched Bal’gato gently skimming the surface with his lanky oar. The speed he maintained was impressive for how little noise it produced. Still staring off into the mouth, he knew what horrors lay inside the gut of this beast for the unprepared.
Slouching further, I drew the reports on the target from my bag. The job was simple, on the surface. Sneak into the depths of Nupoanqa, well inside Benghi lands, find the target, and neutralize him. Ignoring the fact that these jungles were the breeding ground of death itself, or that the Benghi would skin anyone who had even been to Soa’Azaq, there was still the issue of the target himself.
I pulled up the report detailing his history with the Red Jasmine Logging Guild. They were a group hailing from Caerloth, who sought to profit from the enormous Blackwood reserves in the Senokan and Benghi lands. The Senokan were easy enough to bribe, though some resistance remained. The Benghi however had proven… reluctant, to give up their forests for gold and silver. Where silver had failed, steel would prevail, or so Red Jasmine hoped. They had hired Callech’s mercenary group to coerce the natives that the trade agreements were in their best interests.
“Whatcha doin’ boss?” the deckhand probed, somewhat intrusively.
“Reading.” I snapped, hoping to deter further conversation.
“Whatcha readin’ boss?
I closed the report; I may as well gather some information on the region.
“Will the Senokan give us any trouble upriver?”
“Nah, they don’t care about us, Onakawa keep very busy”
His language skills were actually quite considerable considering how cloistered his people were.
“Are they still at war with Onakawa?”
“Always war, men always fight”
At least the boy knew that much.
I turned away, lighting a bit of rolled Sangruin on the torch that perched the bow of the ship. If there was anything good about this god forsaken place, it was the Sangruin. The boy skittered over to Diego, leaving me once more with my thoughts. As I sat there, inhaling the warm escape, I closed my eyes for a moment. There was beauty in the peace of the jungle. Bal’gato’s metronomic paddling setting the beat for the songs of the emerald mother. If not for man, it would almost be nice.
We had been adrift two days now, the safe shores of Soa’Azaq long behind us. These lands belonged to the Senokan. The Senokan were not entirely secular, but they had the sense to leave it out of their government. This was likely the reason for Red Jasmine’s success with the coin purse. Senoka didn’t approve of Soa’Azaq’s exploitation of the rich lands of Nupoanqa, or its brutal use of slavery. But survival came before tradition sometimes. And as always, wealth served a powerful instrument of survival.
The morning light peered through the canopies that served as our sky. The Onakawan had yet to speak. The point of a finger, or a subtle nod had served him well enough. Diego handed me what was left of his rolled Sangruin.
“This Callech, you ever hear about him?”
I took a strong puff as I rolled over the various stories heard in bars and brothels.
“They call him a giant, not just in stature, but in presence. That he can look at a man and know his hopes, his fears, and needs. And that he has never lost a battle. But telling stories about mediocre commanders doesn’t make for good revelry.”
Diego laughed in agreement. “So the, what do you know about him?”
A much better question.
“Well he’s a giant, a genius, and he’s never lost a battle.”
Diego smiled, “Guess they weren’t bullshitting for once.”
I passed the last hit back to him, and pondered our target. What I had said lacked exaggeration. He was truly a mountain of a man, nearly seven foot in height. He had made his name in Dalwyn, defending the nation from Thertia invaders as a mercenary. He accrued a reputation for being ruthless in all aspects of war. “Total Warfare” they called it. It was effective, there was no doubt. But the reputation also became a hindrance, as no nation wishes to be seen as that ruthless these days.
Guilds however… had no such reservations. He had been operating in Nupoanqa for some time now, commanding a modest force of men and women. The local people called him “Du’san Kalla”, or “The Absolute Death”. A name earned for his method of neutralizing entire tribes outright. But much like the jungle itself, many held respect where fear often lay. This underestimation by Red Jasmine is what led to my employment.
Bal’gato’s paddle had ceased. I reached for my bow and slotted a broad head as I rose. Before us laid a monolithic set of structures halting the river’s path. The ancient gate was guarded by a dozen or so tribesman, painted from head to toe in the traditional manner of the Senokan.
“Du’soka, bata na kalla sec.” The old Onakawan said with some authority.
“Bassa cal harra!” One of the tribesman questioned.
The tribesmen exchanged serious looks, and the leader spoke again.
The world seemed to quake as the ancient pass opened before us, and Bal’gato paddled once more. I turned to the Onakawan.
“What did they say?”
He turned to me with that same statuesque face he had held since Soa’Azaq.
The village of Sen’go laid half a day beyond the stone pass that had marked our entrance into Senoka. Here the Soa River met with the Serpent’s Tongue, and drove into the heartland. We stopped for the night, to gather supplies for the journey, and to stretch our legs.
The place seemed insignificant by Valedonian standards, but here it was a major trading port. The village was controlled by a group of privateers known even in Qadaroth to the south. They held sole dominion over the Serpent’s Tongue River, and thus, control over goods brought into Senoka.
Diego quickly ran to the closest Sangruin merchant he could find, and purchased a fair bit of Senoka’s largest cash crop, he could make a fair bit trading it back west. I took the opportunity to look into the local arms. My Iron Cutlass would be worthless by the time I had reached the Benghi. So I purchased an obsidian axe. It was brittle, but the locals didn’t use iron armor, and it would be more reliable in this humidity. I decided on a few dozen obsidian arrows, in case the mission took longer than expected.
The village had an ancient feeling to it. Massive stone stacked upon stone, with vegetation budding from every crevice. This place was not a village; it was a part of the jungle. Flowers of the brightest yellows and orange dotted the foliage, and the sweet smells of sugargrass being milled filled the bustling market. Pottery marked every doorstep and home, hand made by masters whose work could fetch the highest of bidders in Vallenheim. There was a sense of safety here, of peace. No outsider would dare enter the treacherous waters of the Snake’s Tongue. This grove was encased within a womb of Senokan lands. I took note of this sense of security, as it would likely be my last for a long time to come.
After sampling the wares, I decided to visit the local shaman. The shaman was the village leader outside of war. The people heeded his word with great measure, and if I were to find any wisdom on Callech, it would be through him.
I approached the old stone structure that housed the mystic slowly. The Senokan architecture was truly impressive. Most of the village was composed of the colossal stones before me. How the stones had been transported from the mountains to the north was beyond me.
Entering the dark room, I was overcome by the multitude of aromas. The mystic sat before me, warmed by flame, and occupied fashioning a brew of some kind. I sat down, and moved to speak, but was interrupted.
“You’ve come to kill the great demon, have you not?” The old man rasped, the fire now revealing the depth of his age.
He stirred his brew slowly, “You are not the first to seek his death in this place.”
“Yes, the men sent before me have all died trying to finish this task.”
A small frown stuck his face, grossly exacerbated by his worn skin,
“Died? No, they have not been killed. They have been reborn.”
I considered the meaning briefly, “He convinced them to join him?”
The mystic nodded, “Tell me, have you the strength to deny a god?”
I did not understand, so I considered the question outright,
“That depends on the god.”
The old man smiled, “Hm… Very well, you may drink.”
He held forth his brew, as if it was destined for my lips all along.
“This is Yodasca, the essence of the Earth Mother, drink, and you may request her blessing.”
I smelled the brew tentatively, an abhorrent stench emanated from it, but despite my ignorance of Senokan tradition, it was obvious I had been granted a great honor.
I tilted back and downed the putrid fluid. As I set the cup down, the mystic opened his eyes,
“You may not remember this journey warrior, but know that she is with you.”
The room began to spin, and nausea followed. Time began to slip away from me, and as I looked up from the fresh vomit at my feet, I saw that I was alone now. No… not alone. Far from it, life abounded in the chill chamber walls. Creatures and beings of all sorts mingled through the fabric of space. Entities of purest light, and most fantastic form huddled around me. They whispered, not with tongue but with mind, “Relax”. And suddenly they had cleared, and in their place, a being of much greater magnitude faced me. She looked upon me lovingly, and placed her palm upon my head. Then, with a flash, it had ended.
Half a day has passed since Sen’go. The river is larger now; it’s breadth wide enough for a small warship, and the depth for more. It brims with the traders of the region, transporting goods through to the various regions of the delta. They don’t pay us much mind, though they keep their distance. The Senoka don’t hold the same level of contempt for Soa’Azaq that consumes the Benghi, but that doesn’t mean our path is without danger. The decision to allow Soa’Azaq, and foreign guilds that operated there, to use the sacred lands had not come unanimously. The resent could be seen in their eyes, but compared to where we heading, this was fine.
I notched one my new arrows, and pulled back. My bow was shorter than most of the Valedonian craft. A longbow could prove a hindrance in the dense jungle. I let loose the string, and the bolt followed. It flew true, and pierced the boa hanging precariously from mangrove maybe fifty feet away. Grabbing another arrow, I stopped to appreciate the craftsmanship. Such arrows would be useless against the armored legions of Jorvast, but for the hides of the Benghi, they were more than adequate.
Diego was putting ink to paper, forming a map of the Great Snake River. Few cartographers were given passage beyond Sen’go, and the Guilds of Soa’Azaq never missed a chance to profit. I didn’t mind, Diego was a mercenary, but when work was slow, he used other talents to get by, like the rest of us. I had worked with him before. A bit green in some respects but capable, and if I had to have a mapper tag along, better that he knew how to fight.
I sat aside my bow, and pulled out the reports on Callech as I took my seat by the bow. Before he gave the Thertians hell in Dalwyn, he was… a priest of all things. He spent his youth learning scripture in Vallenheim. The great libraries of the church must have served him well in developing his skills as a tactician. The details of his service to the temple are scarce, but at the age of nineteen he was excommunicated… beating a man to death. Interesting crime for a man of god, apparently the man in question had been accused of raping a local child, but had been able to avoid incarceration by means of nepotism.
Diego spoke without looking up from his map “So who is he?”
“He’s a man who solves problems in the most efficient manner possible.”
Diego frowned, “One of those eh? They’re usually not too bad, but they’re usually not a genius.”
I close the report and stare off into the black river gliding before me,
“The shaman said the others, they joined him.”
Diego paused for a moment, “You’re going to talk to him, aren’t you?”
I didn’t have to answer.
You could feel the shift on the boat. Even the deckhand had grown solemn. It was then we came across the first tangible clue of Callech’s existence. It was a blockade runner, run aground on the left bank of the river. It looked as though it had been set ablaze, and hanging above its carcass were a dozen corpses, hanging from the mangroves.
Diego stood up, “It looks like… their feet are burned.”
Bal’gato broke his silence, “They force ship to shore, they string up, they burn ship.”
A pale horror struck the deckhand, “While they’re alive!? That’s…..”
I stayed seated, “Effective. Keep paddling.”
The ship belonged to one of the foreign mining guilds. There were rumors of immense gold deposits inland, but Callech didn’t allow them to enter the heartland. That display was a warning, and a marker. We were in his territory now; we had entered the lands of the Benghi.
The Benghi were not as spiritual as their neighbors. They had come from the swamps of northern Qadaroth quite some time ago, and saw the spirits as more hostile than nurturing. They were a strong people, I thought, as I skimmed Red Jasmine’s recent reports on the matter. Devoid of fear, the greatest virtue to them was strength. The greatest sin, weakness. This is how Callech came to be the Dal, which may as well have translated to god.
The Dal was the supreme ruler of the Benghi, beyond reproach. Traditionally trained from childhood for his position, the very idea of an outsider becoming Dal was practically sacrilege. However, as Callech battled the Benghi, a mutual respect had formed. Callech saw before him a pure society. Not burdened by pity or timidity. And where the other tribes saw a demon, the Benghi witnessed a deity. He was the epitome of what they stood for, a symbol of pure strength.
We stopped at the behest of the Onakawan. He moved for us to join him, and so we anchored the craft. He led us through a narrow path, hidden to any who knew not of its existence. The jungle caressed my arms with its cuts and scrapes as we pushed through the verdant growth. After a short time we had reached a small clearing, seemingly distant from anything I had yet seen in this place. It felt more akin to the magnificent chapels of Vallenheim than a place of nature.
The grove was lit by the glittering sun, its rays rained through the foliage that constituted the heavens here. The sun seemed to hide from us behind a statue that appeared to be more moss than stone. It was a woman, standing some twenty feet, with hands outstretched in a comforting welcome. The Onakawan knelt before her tranquil smile.
I spoke up, “Who is she?”
Without turning, the old man answered, “Alyssia, this place is sacred to my people.”
It seems the Benghi had taken more than trees and game from their neighbors.
Diego knelt beside him, “This place, it must be very old.”
The old man nodded,
I looked into the vacant gray eyes of the statue, and recalled that I had seen her face before.
I walked back to the boat where Bal’gato had waited alone, allowing the old man to do what he must. I wondered what Callech would think of this place. He would probably see such spiritualism as weakness, something people cling to as a means of avoiding the harsh truths of reality. The Onakawan would argue that their spirituality was the source of their strength though. If left alive, time would tell.
After a short time, Diego returned to the ship and the Onakawan briefly after. His disposition had changed slightly now. The deckhand began to paddle, giving Bal’gato some rest.
I looked to the old man, “Was that why you volunteered for this expedition?”
He nodded silently,
“You know better than any of us that we many never come back down this river.”
“I have knelt before the goddess, if I die now, it will be in peace.”
I nodded in respect, and wondered what Callech would think of his acceptance.
The sun had begun its lazy descent into the horizon, painting the sky a wash of yellows, oranges, and reds. The craft skimmed softly across the black surface, reflecting the oil painting sky. Silence pervaded, as we entered the shrouded kingdom of Mina’wai. The banks were lined by the hard-eyed Benghi tribesman. I was familiar with the eyes; they were the eyes of warriors. Not a shred of mercy or empathy laid within them. Beautiful, but they had no intention of striking. They simply stared quietly, restrained by the orders of the Dal.
The deckhand whimpered “Why they let us past?”
Diego turned to me with a look of faint worry.
I looked into the stern faces of the Benghi as I spoke,
“He’s showing that he isn’t afraid of us… and maybe… testing our own resolve.”
The deckhand trembled, but was rested by the hand of Bal’gato.
“Do not hold fear in heart boy, or they will rip it from you”
We all took the lesson to heart, as we approached the city marking the end of the river, and our journey. The old city’s shores were coated with the local inhabitants. Women and children alike all ready to welcome the courageous souls who had braved the harsh jungle. Diego and I left the boat with a great deal of hesitation, but were answered with cheers and gifts from the people. I looked back to Bal’gato, the deckhand, and the Onakawan. They had decided to stay aboard, in a futile hope that they could escape if needed.
Mina’Wai bore the structure of the Senoka, but none of the reverence. This was a place inhabited by men, not nature. Stone buildings towered above the thatch huts used by the common folk. The stench of skinned hogs and refuse churned your stomach. The smell of death suited the place.
Diego embraced the warmth of the swarm, answering smile with smile. He was pulled away by a group of children, eager to show the foreigner their home. A clever ploy by the Dal, to prod our guard. Diego had failed, I thought, as I watched him be pulled off innocently to what must have been his death. Lamentable, that there was nothing I could do. A man approached me swiftly; it was clear he was not from this land, but one could not tell from his eyes.
“You are from Red Jasmine?” he said, tossing away formalities.
“They are my employer, yes.” There was no sense in lying now.
“The Dal has been expecting you.”
He turned, and began making his way into the stone city of Mina’Wai.
I followed, curious what a man could see in the eyes of a god.
We climbed the steps of a great temple. I saw in the adjacent courtyards the training of young men. Spear thrusts, archery, hand to hand; the slightest hesitation resulting in painful reprimand. The stairs seemed to reach for the sky itself, which had become a deep red as it faded to the night. We stopped, just before reaching the summit, to be searched for weapons. The guards searched my tunic roughly, and once satisfied I held no threat, gave the motion to let us pass. I felt the rough leather of my knife rub my inner thigh. It would not be enough to survive if their spears turned on me, but I may have the opportunity to take my target.
The emissary turned to me upon reaching the summit of the great pyramid.
“Do not speak unless spoken to. Do not look the Dal in the eyes.” He said sternly.
I nodded in submission and stood before the great throne.
“Kneel.” Boomed the voice that occupied the throne.
I complied; it was an excellent position to draw the knife if needed.
“They have sent you to kill me, have they not?”
“Yes” I spoke, not looking up.
“Then why am I alive?” You could feel his voice in your bones.
“You would know the answer to this better than I.”
A sharp crack of the whip struck my back,
the assailant barked, “You will answer the Dal!”
“It was acceptable. You may rise, and gaze upon a god.”
As I stood, I caught my first glimpse of Callech. He was clean shaven, and bald. Every bit as massive as the stories had told. His garb was of the finest silks embroidered with gold. A face was without vulnerability, his eyes were a sharp green; likely of Caerloth heritage. He studied me, as I studied him.
He closed his eyes for a moment for deliberation, and once opened, my fate had been decided.
He ended the silence,
In a moment, I felt the thick blow of a club, another, and I was unconscious.
“I apologize for the dramatics, but you understand why they are necessary.”
I couldn’t be bothered to lift my head, the thick warmth of the air sucked the energy from me. Blood has dried on my nape, and the chains at my wrist gnawed at my skin.
“They are magnificent, aren’t they?”, he pulled a wooden stool to put his feet upon.
“But they lack flexibility. They avoid innovation for fear of it being seen as weakness, an amusing irony actually.”
He spoke in a tone more akin to that of an eccentric scholar than a warrior.
I opened my eyes to the black room, “Why?”
“Why? Why are you alive? Or why am I here? Or perhaps why am I leading them?”
I stared into the direction of the voice, awaiting the answers he seemed desperate to share.
“You’re alive because you are strong, quite strong, and I am in need of strength. You are here so that we may speak, or rather so that I may speak and you may listen. As for why I lead them, well… “
The man who thought of everything had no answer that he found acceptable.
“I don’t like violence, did you know what assassin? I abhor it. But the best way to remove it from this world is to perfect it. Make war so horrible that no soul would dare wage it.” He spoke, as he walked towards me, offering a bowl of water to his captive. My throat begged, but I drank tentatively.
“Interesting… approach… priest….” The water had helped, by my throat was still arid.
“Ah yes, well… the teachings tell us how to live in the world, but not how to change it. They expect their gods to change it for them. This world is in our hands, and it is by our hands that it has been warped.”
He stepped away, and took a deep breath.
“I have seen it assassin. I have seen the true nature of man. Man is the Raven, who watches its prey from elected pedestals. Man is the Snake, who lies in wait in the tall grass of the marketplace. Man is the Boar, who charges blindly into battle, crushing a path through the forest of life.”
He wiped the sweat from his forehead, and turned to me, his silhouette blocking the small bit of light from the door.
“I see now what must be done to bring peace to the world assassin. But I cannot do it, I am too weak.”
A sharp click, as he released the chains that bound me.
Callech looked into my eyes, and placed the bowl of water in my hands,
“You are stronger than I assassin. Do what I could not.”
And with that he, stepped through the mahogany door behind him, and revealed the top of the mighty pyramid. I stumbled across the threshold behind him, and gazed out across the vibrant growth and stone structures. His people had amassed at the base of the pyramid, at least five thousand strong. I looked around, noticing the throne, and the absence of any but Callech and myself.
I limped forward, and supported myself on the golden throne. At its side lay a dagger of silver. Callech stood near the stairs, arms raised, embraced in the glory of his army.
“So this was your plan all along… bastard.” I gripped the dagger and charged the Dal.
He turned, grasping my collar as I drove it into his gut. He looked at me, and smiled.
He let go, and began his dishonorable fall down the great stairwell. A silence had befallen the Benghi, as I stood before them, covered in the blood of their God. And then…
“Shu ga Dal!, Shu ga Dal!, Shu ga Dal!” It was quiet…
“Shu ga Dal!, Shu ga Dal!, Shu ga Dal!” The thunderous chorus grew louder
“Shu ga Dal!, Shu ga Dal!, Shu ga Dal!” The chant continued, and erupted into a sea of cheering.
I looked out again into the vast lands of Nupoanqa and at Callech’s… at my army, dancing and screaming in joy at the birth of a new Dal. In one hand, a dagger; in the other, a bowl of water.