Calipula, Capital City of Lacorum The Evening Prior to Departure
The heat of the day breaks with the setting sun. Fat and orange, the sphere hangs low and heavy over the waters of the Phobos as the river creeps lazily through the heart of the city. Its mercurial surface blazes by the sun’s dying light. Along the riverside docks, ships crowd the wharfs to unload cargos of fish and trade; packed like pigs to the trough while their masts sway together in an undulating forest of timbers and rope. In the onset of twilight, the white stucco walls of residences and shops burn golden. Between them the shadows stretch, and the bustle begins; a second wind of activity brought about by the cool of the evening.
In the city’s eastern quarter, the colored lanterns of the Promenade are lit in anticipation of merchants making their nightly push. Not produce sellers or fish mongers, who dominate the daytime streets. The evening markets are exclusive to exotic fare, intended for the curious and discerning customer. Animal handlers from Goshe mingle with silk traders out of Karak amid clouds of exotic incense, while local wine merchants argue with vintners all the way from far off Edom over who can produce the better vintage.
A wooden dais rises from the heart of the market, a long rectangular thing with five posts crowning the top. These posts are spaced roughly six feet apart, worn and weathered, and utterly unadorned, except for an iron ring attached to each that hangs six feet above the platform’s floor. In the days when Lycinea ruled Calipula, this would have been where the Masters sold their slaves. Lacorum is a nation of free peoples, however. There are no slaves to be sold anymore. But the dais remains, as it has for over one hundred years, a reminder to what Calipula has left behind.
As the low lying mist comes creeping from the river over the cobbles, music filters through the air from the windows and doors of taverns to either side of the Phobos. Voices ring amidst raucous laughter, joined by the percussion of drums, the trill of flutes, and the twinkling melody of the lyre. Steam drifts from bathhouses at every quarter, where men and women splash one another, laugh, and whisper conspiratorially. Blacksmiths stoke their forges to put in a few good hours in the cool mercy of dusk, and the courtyards echo with the steady rhythm of their hammers. Above it all the sky is still a cerulean blue, though gradually darkening to navy. Wisps of cloud collect the fading sunlight, glowing shades of gold and red. A school of sparrows alights from square rooftops. Their wings catch the light and flash as they wheel single mindedly through the air, circling once before winging their way to the west, following the retreat of the day.
A shout can be heard from the Golden Hind, Calipula’s most renowned tavern, as a tullie man is thrown head over heels into a nearby pile of woven baskets. The bouncer scoffs and brushes his hands together before going back inside. There is a beggar nearby, laying flat on his belly in the street with his ear to the stones. He looks up long enough to watch the belligerent drinker rise from the tangle of baskets and stagger cussing into the night. The old man grins, chuckling through broken teeth, then lowers his ear back to the cobbles, listening.
Along the northern edge of the city, where the ground swells into the rise of a gentle hill, horns and flutes announce a wedding procession, making its way to the temple at the hill’s stop. Maidens dressed in brightly colored tassels dance before the bride, showering her in flower petals while loudly proclaiming her beauty. The noble elite, sitting on the balconies of expansive manse overlook the urban sprawl and toast to the wedding party as it passes. Then they drink to the sun, Prote’an, their god, and to the passage of the day. From a nearby garden the lovely tenor of a male voice sings a sorrowful hymn, marking the end of an evening’s religious observance.
Calipula thrums with life, with sound. The city thrives.
The barracks at the northern gate was a bustle of activity. Rows of militia recruits grunted and barked in unison as their unit leaders ran them through formation drills. Spear shafts slapped into shields again and again as they practiced the phalanx. Captain Bouros watched from the ramparts of the city wall, occasionally glancing away to admire the sunset over Calipula. His commanders would continue the drills for at least another hour. Bouros was briefly tempted to push for two, but quickly dismissed the thought. Tired soldiers don’t march well, and the night would already be too short for most men’s liking.
The captain clasped a roll of parchment in one hand. Once he was able to tear his eyes away from the recruits on the muster field, he read over the paper again. It was a list of names belonging to those who had signed on to leave with the expeditionary force in the morning. Beside him, a tally man rattled off figures from the supply train.
“We’re short a day’s worth of grain.” The man was saying.
“Hm.” Bouros grunted. Coming from someone with his aquiline profile and square jaw, the sound of his displeasure of all the more intimidating. “Have you submitted a new requisition?”
“The storemaster says the court has supplied all King Priam is willing to give.” The other man replied. “The midland farms had a poor growing season last year, and the lack of trade from the south has hurt us further. If this inquiry turns into the opening battle of a war with Lycinea, the King feels the majority of the kingdom’s food stores should be reserved for the legions.”
“Then we will have to hunt.” Bouros said simply. “There are plenty of boar and deer to be found in the barrens.”
“It takes a lot of meat to feed over three hundred soldiers.” The tally man said.
“They will make due.” Captain Bouros retorted. “We will restrict rations from the start if we have to. Once we reach Chalcis we can resupply.”
“And what if Chalcis is already lost?” The other man asked.
“Then food will be the least of our worries.” Bouros grumbled. Then he pointed to something on his list. “Who is this man?”
Leaning in to get a better look, the tally man squinted his eyes slightly, reading the name allowed. “Rio Coatl.”
“Hm…” He ruminated the flavor of the name for a moment. “Interesting title.”
“I know this name.” Bouros said. “Could he be the Rio Coatl?”
“I do not know, sir.” The other man replied earnestly. “I do not have your familiarity.”
“Most of the hired men are camping beyond the gates, are they not?” Bouros asked.
“Find this man’s camp.” Bouros said. “Escort him to my offices here. I would like to speak with him.”
“Should I have a security detail accompany him?” The tally man seemed mildly uncertain.
“No.” Bouros waved off the other man’s concern. “A messenger will suffice. All the better if you go yourself. If this man is who I think he is, his experience could be an asset.”
“I will go at once.” The tally man said curtly.
“As you will.” Bouros dismissed him.
With a curt salute the other man turned and left for the railing that would lead down to the base of the wall. Sighing, Bouros watched him go, and then returned his attention to the soldiers drilling in the yard.
Rinnyrig ducked his head to step through the open door of the Golden Hind. The burgeoning evening chill washed from his scales the moment he set foot into the foyer. The oppression of the day’s heat had not only preserved itself inside the tavern, it actively perpetuated itself through the press of bodies within. Patrons jockeyed for seats wherever available. Where there were no stools or benches to be had, men and women lined the bar, and leaned against the walls. Most wore the local garb, though Rin could make out many who adorned more exotic attire. Whether they were merchant or mercenary he could not be sure.
The atmosphere was a cacophony of conversation. Rin, by contrast, emitted a brooding silence. People quickly took note of him upon his entrance, and as he stepped forward, the crowd gave him as much berth as they could afford. Jesthyri abhorred wanton violence, but Rin could not be bothered with begging pardon from anyone not aware enough of him to get out of his way. They would move, or be moved, and that was the final say on the matter.
At the bar, people scattered, revealing an olive skinned Tuyul setting mugs up along the dark polished wood of the counter. Rin settled in between two stools and leaned across to peer at the barkeeper.
“Fancy seeing you this early.” The tullie’s shrill voice carried the characteristic squeak of a female. She took Rin in at a glance. He wore a stained leather tunic that hung well past his waist, belted around his middle with a hide sash. His blue scales were smeared with black, and he smelled of soot.
“Figured you’d be working late.”
“There’s no time.” Rin rumbled. “I finished what commissions I could, but the King’s army has paid me to march with them in the morning.”
“A high price, I’d wager.” The tullie gave him a sharp toothed grin. “You’ll be needing a room, then?”
“Meat.” The Jesthyri replied. “And drink.”
“You always order the same thing.” The barkeeper frowned slightly. “Don’t suppose I could entice you with a nice turnip stew?”
“Meat.” Rin reiterated, this time a little more firmly. “And drink.”
“Your usual?” She asked.
“Something that burns.” The last word drug slowly across his tongue, and rattled in his gullet as a throaty growl.
“Tch!” The Tuyul woman clicked her tongue. “I’ve got just the thing.”
A moment later and she set a mug on the countertop in front of him, filled with an amber liquid emitting a mildly acrid odor. Rin palmed the cup, and tossed the contents back in a single gulp. He paused, rolling the flavor around in his mouth for a moment before nodding in satisfaction and returning his mug to the bar.
"Don't you think you ought to be better served as a barmaid in a tavern?"
The grating voice of Copti struck the back of her skull like a physical blow. Pozu stopped in her tracks and watched as the whorls of dust settled back into place around them. It was packed and dry, evidence of the blistering sun over the past few days. The heat was just as appropriately cloying as it brought beads of sweat to the brows of every person at the makeshift congregation. Pozu herself found it familiar and unsettling within the same moment. It reminded her of home, and home was not a place she enjoyed thinking about. It was likely this thought that had soured her expression visibly and not the rock thrown at her pride, but none would be privy to that information as she turned to face them.
A lull of silence swelled between Pozu and the unknown other as onlookers quieted when noticing the tension. It threaded between them, lax at first as she stared upon his leathered and haggard face. A triumphant smile was plastered across it and put his mismatched, yellowed teeth on full display. The dangling metal in one ear and dirt smudge across his colorful, but sea-salted clothes told her what he was: a pirate. Her time in Midea had not afforded her to meet one prior, and Pozu herself doubted this tragic first impression would be stellar.
"I'm sorry, what was that?" she inquired in Goshe. The thread went taut as she stepped forward once, twice, a third time. It left only two feet of space between the smaller female and the burly man who worked to loom over her.
A sore mistake on his part, she thought dryly.
He smiled wider, wrinkles appearing to dimple the innards of his cheek. By the gleam in his eyes from the afternoon sun he'd thought he'd already won with that one line, so he repeated his victory and this time in Goshe: "You'd be better off as a barmaid or in a brothel, lass."
"That's what I thought you said." Pozu nodded, her braid of dark brown hair scratching against the back of her perspired neck. She knew she'd need to wash her hair of the stench soon; one of the few pet peeves she couldn't ignore. With a vicious yell she careened her weight backward onto a single foot while the other lifted from the ground itself. Knee bent, leg twisting to the side - and then jammed forward. The hardness from the back of her boot connected with his knee, his thin trousers offering no cushion to the impact. It cracked loudly and seconds later followed his surprised-mingled scream of anguish. While he buckled to the ground to his good knee and holding the other, Pozu closed the distance and had slid a thin arrowpoint from the waistband of her own trousers. It kissed the underside of his stubbled chin.
"Next time I suggest you treat a lady proper, lest she turn into a man and treat you like that instead." Her point was carried by a contradictory wink paired by the raucous later of those around them who'd witnessed the scene. Embarrassment mottled the man's face as he sputtered a quip, however none but spittle left him instead. Pozu couldn't determine if it was due to his shock or stupidity.
She released him to his wounds and fit the thumb blade back into her waistband in full view of others to head back to her staked camp like all the others. She could hear the jeers flying toward the man behind her as she walked, but the thumping of her heart in her ears had drowned it out.
He'd been bigger than her. Larger. Meaner. Like the soldiers. And still she'd managed to have the upper hand, if only by value of astonishment alone. It was worth noting, even though she hadn't managed to break his knee like she'd intended.
"Was that really necessary?" It was a familiar voice, also feminine but far more sultry than the abrasive tones men usually carried with them. A friend she'd made in the two days of her encampment, Travelle. Unlike Pozu, Travelle was almost ethereally beautiful in her pale hair and even paler eyes. Somehow her skin had managed to only turn red at her nose and cheeks beneath the sun and Pozu thought that it befit her. She was dressed similarly to her tucked in blouse and trousers, though Travelle's were also far less dirty.
"No," Pozu admitted with a sly smirk. It had the mirth dancing in the emerald depths of her gaze. "But I liked doing it."
Travelle shook her head, though Pozu could tell she'd done so with endearment. It was going to be a long, long journey for them both.
The sunset and the orange blanket it lovingly laced over the barracks, with its longing kiss in farewell, announced the night’s hurriedly approaching arrival. Twilight’s more somber sister would undoubtedly bring with it silence—a contrast in stillness that almost felt telling of what awaited them in the morrow’s morning sunrise.
What would follow it on their trek was less certain.
A sense of unease remained Isolda’s constant companion ever since she’d received word about the mystery around Chalcis and the task for which they would march. The templar couldn’t discern if it was her inexperience with the unknown that made her walk on constant alert, but she couldn’t quite lose the tension she carried on her very shoulders as she ran drills on her unit.
It had taken all of five minutes for the unit to see that Isolda was in no mood to tolerate their foolery, further evidenced by the unforgiving drills she mandated. She wouldn’t push them overmuch, her orders clear, but she was not about to forgive disrespect. By now, all the recruits knew better than to bark their insecurities at her.
Well, almost all of them.
“How much longer must we continue, Chauthier?” Exasperation pierced the cooling air, resentment also present in the soldier’s prose. “We’ve been at it for an hour already!”
Isolda did not miss a beat, lowering her own shield and spear to turn to the weak link in her chain.
“How silly of me. Forgive me, recruit,” she mockingly jeered, emerald eyes cold as she approached. Though Isolda wasn’t the tallest in her unit by any means, the way in which she walked—how she carried herself—was analogous to intimidating. “I’d forgotten that battles, skirmishes, and all manner of warfare, only last but a single hour. The possibility that I’ve wasted even a minute of your invaluable time will hardly let me sleep tonight.”
For a moment, only hushed cackles resonated from other soldiers. One look from Isolda and the others fell silent immediately. The golden hue the light shone of the unit made Isolda’s ginger hair resemble fire, and the same flame was present in her unforgiving leer.
“I’ve not the time to listen to a bitch—” The soldier, scarlet from both exertion and embarrassment, lashed out once more, but could hardly finish his insult before Isolda rounded on him.
Isolda stopped just an inch shy of actually knocking him down, causing the soldier to nonetheless recoil at her fury. “And I have not the patience to continue to baby you, recruit. We will continue to drill until your Captain dismisses us all for the night. If it were up to me, I’d keep you here all night. Now fall back in line, soldier, or I will send you back to the captain myself, with my spear between your very legs.”
Silence hung over the unit once more, and the soldier reluctantly fell back into formation.
"Seems Templar Chauthier’s unit 's sharp as e'er.”
Waxley muttered in Quintus’s ear in Goshe, taking a slosh of his flask as each of the arbalests observed the training ground from their overlook at the southern wall, bent over with arms resting on the parapet. Quintus gazed side-long at his so-called ‘comrade’, a man who had preserved a habit of taking to the drink as soon as their marksmanship training had ended.
An unfortunate habit in the Quintus’s eyes. It was one thing to enjoy getting sloshed at a pub surrounded by company, three hands into a game of cards. It was an entirely different matter to treat it as medicine. There was no riddle why his marks were piss-poor in comparison, and not simply because Quintus’s marks were at the top of the rank. Intoxication on a regular interval was bound to dull the senses, and make a trained soldier stammer their strikes like a toddler swinging a stick around, or toying with a sling for the first time.
The Silent Fox knows it well: a narrow focus brings big results!
“Aye.” Quintus said, eyes turning back to the grounds. “Got iron in her veins she does.”
Indeed. It wasn't the only time Quintus had witnessed the red haired commander set fire to the infantry. It had become a bit of a show in fact; each time after his unit wrapped up for the day, walking the southern walls gave sight of some soldier faltering in their duty, and Templar Chauthier picking them to pieces. ... Waxley gave a gurgling chuckle, half-way into his swallow.
“Oi! Y’sound like you never seen a Templar.” He said. “They’re all steel eye’d and unforgivin’. I say that as a certainty! Say all ye want ‘bout religion n’ such.”
Quintus picked a speck of dried mud out of his black shock of hair, left over from earlier that day, and flicked it off the ledge.
“The moment Templars start showing up in mercenary circles, you know there’s something wrong in the world.” Quintus chimed. “Might as well call it quits on being saved altogether.”
Not that prayer ever saved Quintus from a likely death to begin. In his line of work, the time it took to close your eyes and mutter some self-pitying appeal to a mother or father figure in the sky, you could be stuck by a blade seven times over, in every direction.
Never waste time when you’re facing death. Death wastes no time.
“About that.” Waxley prodded. “Y’never told me what brought you ‘ere in the first place. All that talk about fightin’ in wars for petty lords in the north of Goshen, being one of the Named Few, a known man in the mercenary trade. Why y’down ‘ere with the enlist’d?”
“On a technicality.” Quintus spoke, absent of emotion like he took no interest in the conversation. “Lacorum’s doesn’t seem to like mercenaries. Figure I may as well play the part.”
That, Waxley might have figured, was a puzzling answer. Something for the drunken fool to chew on, and not look further into. In truth, Quintus was living the result of some very bad luck; decisions which involved a collapse of a contract, a pickup by a Lacorum patrol, and a certain marshals offer to either submit to punishment, or be impressed into the militia. One would think Quintus could slip away whenever he felt like it, if it wasn’t for the fact that the marshal managed to get one of the caster class to place a Rune of Bind to his forehand. Good luck finding someone in the Grey Market with the magickal clout to decrypt a bind in short order, before a timely visitation from some rather disgruntled reclaimers.
The whole thing could have happened to anybody. Unfortunately, it happened to him.
Since, he had been taking orders from a rather ill-tempered child of nobility with not a lick of strategic sense in him; the kind of person who gained his position as punishment, rather than promotion. A petulant mouth-breather who nasally sneered at each of his soldiers and gave them hazings and insults like a master ridiculing a slave. That man was lucky he had the cushion of position and name to him, and that Quintus was serving sentence. In any other arrangement, he’d be getting the hazing of his life. Perhaps have his nose delivered to him as a present.
“Private d’Eamon!” a uniformed messenger stopped just short of them.
Quintus turned to the messenger, a narrow eyed frown locked onto his face.
Private, he says. To think; he went from someone whose name racked wariness and song, to a pawn on someone else's board. Fucking private!
“You’ve received a summons. You are to report to the Captain at once.”
“For the last time. I didn’t mean to maim the bastard! He was standing in my way!”
“Captains orders!” The messenger repeated, before moving on.
Waxley chucked again, this time dribble falling from his lip.
“O-oh! Looks like you’ve got a date with destiny!”
The piercing of arrows that formed in his eyes chose Waxley in that moment. Sometimes, he had no clue how he had settled on this man being company worth having, say an excuse not to be completely friendless in this ordeal. Quintus carried on jeers and jests with plenty a rugged or earnest type before, but Waxley was something else. Always joking at the exact wrong time.
“Thanks.” Quintus said bitterly.
Lifting himself up from his lean, he begins stepping along the rough-hewn stone toward the east tower.
A date with destiny. We shouldn’t keep her waiting.
The men and women of the Golden Serpents were used to unwelcoming climates, some even preferred the abusive love of the Karak sun. Survival was the first lesson learned in Karak; some learned it, others struggled to understand it. The Golden Serpents though, they thrived on it. Each member of the mercenary company was hand picked by it’s now infamous leader, Rio Coatl; The Shadow Serpent. They had to be killers, hunters, baptised by the golden wastes of Karak. If they could conquer where no man could live, then they were welcomed into one of the most elite fighting forces in all of Karak. Their shepherd was Rio, they would follow him anywhere, to glory, to death, to the jagged jaws of the sand drakes that made the golden wastes their home.
This time though, this time they had followed him to the distant and strange...Calipula in Lacorum, and they were loving it. The sun did not hate them here, it was not a predator seeking to consume all life, no, here the sun embraced them lovingly unto its bosom. The ale and wine were cold, the food full of exotic flavors and fresh ingredients, the women well fed and full figured, the men hairy and strong. Here the Golden Serpents could enjoy themselves. Sure, one could make the argument Rio’s crew also enjoyed themselves in the breathtaking coastal cities of karak, with their azure and jade waters, open air architecture, and spiced wines, but Karak was their hunting grounds.
Rio had carefully crafted the reputation of the Golden Serpents to be one of apex predators in one of the world’s most unforgiving countries. The serpents had to be at their best behaviour. In Calipula it was a different story. They were here to answer a question; find out what happened to the people of a plantation down south. Calipula men were not made of the same material Karak men were chiseled from. They were soft, gluttonous things, living simple lives dedicated to serving richer, softer men. Here, they were demi-gods, and they celebrated like it.
Meat was easier to come by in Calipula, so Rio had four whole stags and a boar brought to the camp along with various wines, cheeses, breads, and dancers for his men to enjoy before they set off in the morning. They were camped right outside the city walls, something Rio preferred as it kept the locals away from them and kept his men away from trouble. The sun had dipped behind the horizon and spilled the evening violets and deep blues across the sky, bringing a cool breeze and a wave of torches that lit the camp in a warm orange glow. Rio Coatl stood at the head of a table placed outside his tent in an open area where his crew was set up, large hunting knife in one hand and a cleaver in the other.
A roasted boar sat before him, if you were quiet you could still hear the bronze crispy skin crackling. Juices and oils slowly dripped out of the boar, catching the low light from the nearby torches and sparkling gloriously.
“This, men, is what the fat, rich bastards inside those walls are eating tonight,” chuckles and agreeable grunts came from the group of deadline men standing around him, "They sent out dried leather and warm piss for you to drink.”
“That is what they think of you, sell-swords meant to go out and die because some lord deemed it so.”
“I ain’t no sell-sword.”
“But you are no sell-sword, no, every one of you was bathed in the blood of a sand drake. You faced the rage of the golden wastes and conquered it! You are not men, you are predators, you are warriors, you are golden serpents, and we feast like the lords of battle that we are!”
Cheers. Cups in the air. Women yelping in joyful surprise as their bums were smacked as they danced around the fire.
Rio cleaved a chunk of fat and meat, biting into it and letting the juices run down his chin.
“When we march deep into the south of Lacorum, do not think yourself a man, do not think yourself a warrior, we are the tip of the spear.”
"You are the fangs of the serpent.”
“You are what the golden wastes couldn’t break, now eat, drink, be merry, for tomorrow we hunt.”
Rio raised his left hand and stabbed the hunting knife into the back of the roasted boar, the punctuation to his toast. The Golden Serpents raised their cups and began to hack away at the beasts brought to them like wolves to the slaughter.
Rio sat in his chair, his senior officers on either side of him.
“Look, a sheep has wandered into the wolf’s den,” Risur, his personal bodyguard, whispered in his ear.
Rio looked beyond his camp to a man dressed in Calipula fabrics, quietly but firmly walking towards him. The shadow serpent waved his man to clear a path for him, one the Calipulian quickly walked through.
“Good evening, master Coatl, I have been sent to escort you to Captain Bouros’ office, he is leading-”
“I know who he is, why does he wish to see me so late? While I feast with my men? It is Karakian tradition to break bread with those you will go on a hunt with.”
“Well, sir, I wouldn’t call it a hunt exactly-”
“I don’t care what you would call it, seeing as Calipulian men call heading into the forest with ten horses and twenty dogs hunting. I am calling this a hunt, my serpents were hired to hunt you’re missing sheep, I was not hired to be paraded around after sunset.”
“Very well, I shall break tradition for this captain, but if this curses us,” Rio pulled his hunting knife out of the boar, then pointed it to the tally man, "We will feast on lamb next.”
The serpents hissed in laughter. Rio stood and motioned for Risur to follow him.
“Let’s see what this captain needs from the golden serpents.”
The first city, after he left Magog, was Karcorum in Samaria. He didn’t know the language, and as soon as he felt that he was beginning to get a grasp on it, another complex dialect was brought into the mix and he was back where he started – blinking in confusion, trying to work his tongue and teeth around a new array of shapes and sounds and unknowingly offending what seemed to be a very proud country of people. It was a boisterous city; antagonistic and – in comparative retrospect – hostile. Busy, and yet, entirely ingrained in a warmongering mentality where every new encounter only further cemented the impression that Samarians were a pugnacious people.
His second city was Shante in Edom. Fortunately, after having stumbled through the better part of five dialects and hardened himself under the combatant prowess of Samaria, Day had managed to somehow garner enough of a grasp on Samarian, that the language and its cultural differences weren’t much of a barrier when he arrived in the sea-side nation to the north. But what was the challenge was the cold, harsh temperatures and dampness which seemed to penetrate all manner of material right through the skin into the very center of his bones. It was a chill that clung even by the hearth of a roaring fire. It was only after weeks of living in Shante that Day had learned that one of the city’s more well-known commodities were the slaves that its seafaring residents brought back from their raids along the coastline and that he was lucky to not find himself among them.
The last two cities were the twin capitals of Bochem and Gilead in Goshen. One earning the nickname the Silver Hills and the other the Golden Gates of Goshen. The temperature and culture were far more agreeable with him, although once again he found himself faced with the challenge of being in an alien place, with a foreign tongue, traditions, and cultural niceties which he didn’t quite understand, haphazardly stumbling through like a bright-eyed Umano child staring up with wonder at a sighting of one of the Universities’ Mages. Perhaps that’s what drew Day, some sort of ill-fated attempt at learning more about aether and the Kadur, and the intricate relationship between the two and the world, only to learn its complexity went far deeper than the Caerna elders understood. Dayir had thought they were being purposefully withholding, as a way of entrapment to keep him secured in Magog. The truth was contrary to that. They didn’t hold the secrets, rather they feared losing the opportunity to uncover them.
The capital of Lacorum was his fifth city, and in this city of Calipula, with its arches and promenade, and architectural wonders, and young lively streets and thirst for growth and expansion, Day found himself strangely disquieted and restless again.
"Here." Murdommar offered a canteen to Day. The silver in his hair caught the firelight. Shadows danced over the wrinkles that had weathered his brown skin, telling of a lifetime of battles and experiences that the Caerna in their natal city could only imagine.
Someone cackled in the distance, raucous laughter followed, carrying through the tavern of eager and restless men. The King’s call to action had gathered them all, including Feggit’s band of sellswords and silvertongues, and one Dayir Sihwih'li, Jadebird of Magog, the nomadic city of the sun children.
Taking a swig, it was sharp and pungent, burning like fire in the pit of his stomach. Day must have made a face, because the old Mage smiled, slapping a hand affectionately against his back enough to jostle him forward. Perhaps Day should have expected it. The Mage expressed affection with force.
Taking back the canteen, it hung from one hand between Murdommar's knees as he stared into the dancing flames. The expression on his face changed, the merriment replaced with something somber. "Are you sure you still want to do this?"
He spoke in Khoi, a language only used by the Caerna, and a dialect specific to Magog. Day had encountered very few who knew it – and almost none of them were anything but Caerna – but Murdommar was an exception in almost every way to what Day knew about the workings of the grand world, and having known the man for nearly two years, very little surprised Day.
"There's a mercenary group leaving at dawn. They're not a particularly cultured folk but at least they won't gut you while you sleep. They're headed to Ai in Karak – I know you've had your sight set on the capital since we first joined up. Perhaps you can finally see the Red Hill Valley for yourself.”
“You’re worried,” Day noted curiously, arching his brows as he continued to stare into the flames.
“There is more out there in the world for you to experience besides a warfront,” Murdommar answered.
The jade man simply shrugged his shoulders. “All life meets an end.”
“Which is exactly why there is no need to rush it,” the Mage countered.
Day might have replied had their conversation not been interrupted.
He had only caught the words ‘fucking lizard’ spoken in Goshe just before the unsuspecting soldier of fortune was thrown from the bar and landed on the table where Murdommar and Day sat. The table failed to hold his weight; the legs gave out almost as quickly as the sellsword’s back slammed into the surface. A piece of the splintered wood shot towards the door, while the rest crumpled underneath the table. Murdommar hadn’t moved from his chair, but Day had defensively shot up to avoid getting caught in the crossfire.
A Jesthyri stood at the end of the table; large, imposing, nearly a head – and shoulder – taller than every Umano in the tavern. Jaw taunt, his sharp pointed teeth gleamed between the folds of reptilian skin. Day had imagined it hadn’t taken much effort on the Jesthyri’s part to toss the Umano sellsword across the room and was likely a modicum of expressed restraint that he hadn’t tossed him right through the tavern instead.
“I see you have found yourself some disagreeable company, Master of the Forge,” Murdommar spoke, cutting through the hushed silence that overtook the tavern.
Those were the whispers on the streets and in the taverns, the dark and bending alleys of any city he dared stride into. The man they called The Shadow Serpent didn’t need a reason anymore than he needed permission to do anything; to break a leg, to sever an alliance, to end worlds.
Risur had only known him for a short while but even she knew just how wrong those whispers were.
She followed behind him, observing both he and the crowds of Calipula on the way to Captain Bouros, considering him. What the masses couldn’t see was just how deliberate his violence was.
Rio always had his reasons.
Risur just couldn’t always be sure they were good ones.
Though she prided herself on her unwavering morals and for all his selfishness and cruelty, Rio was still the man who had saved her. She wanted to believe he was worth saving too. And in any case, anything was better than Zarrius. Just the thought of his name was still enough to turn her stomach despite his life having been ended by Rio that fateful day six months back.
The little Linx her patron had called her when they met. Him standing in his foyer; him taking up the living room with his belly and his greed. She’d assumed it something sexual to him. Maybe it was the vulnerability she had felt since being stolen from her family (whom she presumed dead--if not that night then surely by now) but he had given her a smirk that tugged enough on the corner of his lip that it showed a glimpse of yellow stained teeth.
He eyed her. Even at fourteen she had too much resentment for her time at the Academy, she stared right back at him; he laughed harder. This titillated him, that so much fight could be left in her. That’s why he had picked her, he said. The fat pig had repulsed her. It didn’t matter that her time at the Goshen University was hell on earth, this was not a better alternative. So, fifteen years later, when Rio showed up purely by coincidence, Risur couldn’t help but see it as a gift from her Gods. An answer to a prayer she hadn’t yet prayed.
Pledging to serve him was her choice. Something her mother said had nudged her to it-- Zarrius’ blood still tacky on the floor as Risur eyed the man who had killed her abuser in short order.
“You have to learn how to hold your head as if you wear crowns. Wring the arcane from the ordinary.”
She remembered these words now, even though years within the system had tried to beat it out of her. “That’s how you survive when you aren’t one of the chosen. When the world owes you nothing, demand something of it anyways.”
Rio was the embodiment of the heart of her mother's words. And for that she would follow him into battle, no matter his reasons.