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AuthorThe Dilemma of an Honourable Mercenary
Far to the North by East off its gracious, well alight and spacious Imperial counterpart stood the throne hall of the terrible Ur'Khan. The climate of the throne hall was quite sinister. The narrow inside perimeter of dark metallic hue was hung all along with effigies of slain game and other much less peaceful beings and lit by several angular pointy chandeliers that rather resembled items of weaponry. The atmosphere was topped off by the throne itself, a grim seat composed mainly of nickel and skulls.
Once a bright and pretentious premise of the Great Tribal Khans decorated according to ancient shamanistic traditions, it had changed greatly over the last years as Ur'Khan lost his sanity along with the life of his only son, Mok'Khan. The folly had not only made him display ferocity in war with the old foes, the neighbouring Barbarians; it had clouded his reasoning, turning the spiritual leader he once was into a bloodlusty tyrant denouncing his cultural habits and beliefs. He was obsessed with one and only aim: to invade the land of Ur’shaq and have the killer of his son die a slow, painful death...

Ur’Khan was sitting on his throne contemplating the huge map of the Great Steppe rolled out on the floor in the center of the hall. His content gaze framed with a grinning grimace of self-exaltation wandered from his Capital city along the Northern shore to the West, downwards to the cliff ridges jutting out of the water and back to the East over his native grasslands. His Horde had annexed vast territories of the Steppe, and only the Barbarian tribes were holding the acres clutched between his fiefdom and the “Land of Ur’shaq”, more commonly known as the mighty Empire.
His look then landed on the lands held by the Barbarians, bordered with crimson silk threads on the map. He frowned, for the last and most desired piece of the great Steppe would not give in; the Barbarians native to the land and masterful in their martial skill kept repulsing his attempts to conquer them with both war and negotiations. Had he controlled the southernmost lands of the Steppe that adjoined the Empire, he would be able to set up a base of preparation for invading the antagonist domain.

He barely opened his mouth to cry out a command as his peon bowed down turning pale in fear of his wrath. “Call dark shaman! Me hear his shadows”, he yelled and the next second the peon ran out.
The Khan had long since disregarded the shamans’ ways of spiritualism and only treated them as supporting military units. There was only one shaman whom Ur’Khan continually consulted with, and that one was fairly peculiar. He claimed to be able to speak with shadows rather than with spirits, and a few visual demonstrations of his abilities several years ago quickly persuaded Mok’Khan and subsequently his father, Ur’Khan about the magnitude of his powers.

The shaman entered the throne hall with a revering bow. He was dressed in darker vestment than that of regular shamans, and a hood with a cloak covered him instead of bestial antlers and pelt.
“Have you called for me, my Khan?” he asked in a deep, prepossessing voice.
“Me smash barbarian tribes! All at once! My Horde strong, nothing stop my warriors”, the Khan announced in a stately manner.
The dark shaman objected, “My Khan, the voices of the beyond have spoken. The shadows acknowledge your great power and indulge your plan, yet they demand that the barbarian tribes are conquered one by one…”
Ur’Khan leapt to his feet and shook his fist in rage. “Your shadows not order Khan of the Horde! Me smash!!”
For a moment, a shade of bewilderment flickered on the shaman’s face, and then a cunning expression replaced it. He spoke in an ingratiating tone: “My Khan, I have heard the voice of your brave son. His shadow graced me with his presence last night”. The Khan scowled and snuffled at his words, but remained silent. “He yearns for deaths of the one called Ur’shaq, and the one who took his life, my Khan. He knows you wish to assault the tribes all at once, and he gave this message to you: be patient and wise. He acted in a hurry and paid his life for it; that you may not repeat. Only this way can you avenge him, and he calls upon you for revenge”. The Khan, defiance stamped in his eyes, slowly sat back on the throne. He waved his hand at the adviser as a sign of annoyance, dismissing him.

The dark shaman hit the mark with his improvisation about Mok’Khan; it was perfect leverage over the Khan. He bowed and quit the throne hall and returned to his tabernacle, the sly smile still on his visage. Before entering, he looked around to certify no one was watching, and then ran his hand over the other forearm producing a dark blob of shadow that slowly morphed until it assumed the silhouette of a raven. He whispered something to the “bird” and it took wing, rising high in the air, much higher than anyone familiar with ravens would expect it to, and flew to the South-West.

It soared above the fiefdom of the Horde, passing then to the Barbarian lands, flying above the spot where many years ago the most epic battle between the Horde and the Barbarians in the history records took place, the ground littered with skeletons and abandoned camps and wrecked carts. It entered the territory of the Empire, piercing the air over the rough lands of Peaceful Camp and further on above the lush meadows of Tiger Lake and through the verdant thicket of Green Wood. Finally, it left the Empire region, heading further into unexplored lands.
Shaking uncontrollably, Glorlaf offered no resistance as he was dragged into the cavernous chamber. Flanked on either side by two burly guards, he kept his head down, firmly focused on his feet. The young barbarian was too frightened to protest his being here; too scared of the fate that might await him should he scream in his terror, or yell out his innocence as so many prisoners before had tried to do. The two guards dragged him into the centre of the room, relinquished him from their grip and set about shackling him to the cold stone floor. Only when the guards had grunted their approvals and had retreated from the chamber certain that their prisoner could not escape, did Glorlaf dare to lift his head and examine his surroundings. A wave of terror washed over him once more, numbing his heart as he observed the scene before him. The space was enormous; an underground cavern lit only by a few burning torches, the flickering flames adding to the sense of fear felt by Glorlaf. Stalactites clung to the ceiling above, barely illuminated by the glow of the torches. The floor was cold, hard stone. However, none of this frightened Glorlaf nearly as much as what lay directly ahead of him: a large stone-wall of dark granite was carved with crude images of barbarians. Glorlaf saw depictions of barbarians slaying elves, barbarians maiming knights and, he realised with a sense of horror, even images showing barbarians slaughtering other barbarians. At the sight of these images, panic erupted within Glorlaf once more. Even as he began to hyperventilate, heavy footsteps approached, their sound reverberating off the walls. A large barrel-chested barbarian emerged from the back of the chamber and lumbered to a halt in front of Glorlaf causing him to shake violently out of fear: Here stood Ulgrak, one of the leaders of the river Barbarian tribes.

...As all Barbarians, these two tribes were also native to the stony lands in the North. These particular tribes though, used to live in the nearest proximity to the Horde of the steppe, and over many decades of neighbouring with those, the Barbarians began absorbing the Horde culture and being greatly influenced by their military and social habits. That fact alone could already serve as a reason for other tribes to treat them with suspicion and to shun them; but on top of that, the leaders of those two tribes seemed to have been struck by a corruption of an unexplained source. When that became the case, a Great Council of tribes was summoned, where all Barbarian leaders debated, making an uneasy choice to exile the two tribes from their home lands. The only open route was to the South-West, rounding the small Empire that was gradually expanding, and further to the South.
After months of wandering, the migrated tribes finally found the place to settle; but the corruption of the leaders never vanished. They grew dark and ferocious and began to manifest a gruesome attitude towards their people. In response, many of the local barbarians began to fight back; and soon, guerilla style resistance became common, dragging youths like Glorlaf into the struggle...

Ulgrak stood silent, mere inches from Glorlaf’s face, appraising his prisoner. For his part, Glorlaf did not recoil in fear; his muscles felt to be frozen. The young barbarian had never seen his tribe’s leader before; he had hoped he never would. Just as thoughts of escape began to flood his mind, Ulgrak’s heavy fist came rushing towards his face. Glorlaf’s knees buckled beneath him. His view of the cavern flashed in and out of sight as he struggled to maintain consciousness. He felt the warm trickle of blood begin to run from his nose. Ulgrak stood back slightly from his prisoner and he spoke in a low growl; “You dare to defy me? I gave you an order to infiltrate the legion of that barbarian traitor and to help prevent them attack our tribes. My armies should have won by now, but I find out you have been working against me.” Ulgrak spat at the young barbarian’s feet. Glorlaf tried to swallow back the nausea in his throat. Opening his mouth he tried to say that he was fighting for the good of the tribe, but he didn’t have time, Ulgrak’s fist slammed into his face once more, knocking him out cold.

“You’ll soon learn what happens to those who oppose me” he said to the unmoving body of Glorlaf, before turning and making his way back out of the cavern to lead his army in dragoon once more.
Hours later, a small guerilla force, no more than thirty in number, made their way through the camp silently. They knew that forces loyal to Ulgrak had been here, the devastation lay strewn around them. Many of the modest wooden huts that housed the people of the river Barbarian tribe lay in ruins, destroyed by the man known to be their leader. Bodies of the dead were scattered beside their dwellings, some defeated by what appeared to be dark magic, others snared and slaughtered by some horrific weapons, judging by the wounds that ended their lives. As the small group of men made their way slowly through the village, they looked for signs of life. They sought out anyone that they may rescue or recruit to aid in the struggle for liberation from the leaders of the tribes in this region: leaders like Ulgrak, who once having ruled with sensible judgment, were corrupt by an unknown influence and now rule in harsh tyranny, having grown weary of their constituents’ desires to join the more prosperous empire to the east. Whilst most of the force continued to make their way forward, checking the huts that still stood amongst the ruins, one stopped in his tracks. His name was Rayzar and to the small legion around him, he was their leader. Kneeling down, he examined one of the bodies of the dead. Like all the other bodies in this camp, this one was a barbarian. However, unlike a majority of them Rayzar noted that this was not an inhabitant of this specific camp. Rather, the body belonged to one of those loyal to Ulgrak, a soldier. Rayzar noticed a small silver sword lying to the soldier’s left. Picking it up, he caught a flash of his heavily scarred face, features which he had come to acquire over numerous ventures in his role as a bounty hunter. Rayzar turned the sword over in his hands, briefly reflecting upon its worth. As a bounty hunter he had plenty of trophies, each with their own story. This sword however, was not his to keep. It had not been earned and thus it had no value to him, there was no honour in keeping it. He cast it aside.

Rayzar stood and looked around him at the devastation, reflecting on the past days. He had led the Crimson Blade brotherhood, his specialty mercenary force to this region three days earlier. Informed by a young barbarian named Glorlaf of the tyranny that the barbarian tribe leaders had been imposing upon the people of the region, and being of the local river tribe himself, Rayzar felt he ought to provide assistance for these people. However, things had not gone according to plan. Whilst the Crimson Blade brotherhood had been able to repel Ulgrak’s forces deeper into the west and liberate several small camps, there had been some problems along the way. They had lost Glorlaf; snatched off by Ulgrak’s troops in the midst of a battle for a small village, the enemy had abandoned the fight to carry him away. Rayzar had sent a couple of members of his brotherhood to follow and retrieve the boy from the soldiers, but was unsure yet of his fate. However, he remained optimistic that given time he and his forces had the strength to overcome the barbarian tribe leaders and recover the boy. Just as he was reflecting on the young lad’s fate, an alarmed cry sounded from one of his generals. Looking around, he saw one of his men approach. “Rayzar, look to the skies!” the man shouted. “A bird of omen arrives.” Rayzar peered heavenward and saw a raven circling the village. Before he had a chance to express concern to his men over whether this raven was sent by the enemy, it entered into a swift sharp dive and alighting on Rayzar’s arm, it fastened its talons on his wrist. Rayzar looked around at his men, curious as to why this raven had appeared. Instinctively, he turned his back, leaning in close to the raven. For a moment his men looked on, bewildered at their leader’s behaviour. They then watched as Rayzar drew back and stretched out his arm, releasing the raven in flight. Rayzar turned to them, his face grim, head bowed in thought. After a moment, he removed a small horn slung on his back and blew a loud trumpeting sound, alerting his squad to return to him. When they had all assembled he looked up at his men and announced: “Gather your belongings, barbarians. We set out for the Empire Capital immediately.”
Four burly knights were on duty outside the gates of the garrison on Empire border in Lizard Lowland. Seeing the group of barbarians approaching their garrison, the guards wondered whether they ought to sound the alarm. They were wary, having heard reports from the North that barbarians were roaming the borders between the Empire and the hinterlands. As the group approached, the guards readied their spears and one called out; “Halt, visitors! One step forward and state your purpose.” Rayzar extracted himself from his brotherhood and walked towards the knights, hands held loosely in front of him in friendly gesture. “Relax; it is I, Rayzar, travelling with the Crimson Blades brotherhood.” As Rayzar approached, the guards began to lower their spears, recognizing that it was indeed the scarred barbarian. Having relaxed, one of the knights stepped forwards to shake hands with Rayzar. The barbarian was well known around the Empire as an accomplished bounty hunter and faithful leader to his band of followers.

Having been allowed to pass into the Capital by the guards, Rayzar and his band of men were met in the courtyard of the royal palace by the Warlord Grammith who received them warmly. However, Rayzar had not come to merely exchange pleasantries. Seated with Grammith, he explained how he and his brotherhood had been fighting outside of the Empire to liberate the river barbarian clans from their tyrannous leaders. Rayzar’s expression being grim, he sighed and spoke. “I have come to ask of your assistance. I am on the crossroads now: a threat has emerged in the Northern territories to which my honour binds me to respond and to serve my homeland. However, I am unwilling to break the bargain...", the bounty-hunter stuttered, "The vow I have given to a representative of the river tribes. I believe the Empire owes them in a way; often the Barbarians of Empire have fought battles to secure the Empire’s glory. Besides, the lands are wild but rich with resources; and I'm sure, the two tribes will prosper if they join you if you lend them your assistance.”

Grammith sat in silence for a while, considering the request. On one hand, the Empire was already engaged in a protracted conflict with the relentless Survilurgs, but the perspective of joining a rich territory with potential fresh allies, and the sense of obligation to Empire barbarians, outweighed his doubts. Finally he responded, “I will alert the heroes of the Empire to the cause. Indeed the Barbarians of Empire were always helpful, never refusing a rallying call. We will help to liberate the river barbarian tribes from their oppressive leaders.”
Having decided to take action, Grammith offered for Rayzar and his men to remain at the Capital overnight. However, wishing to proceed to the North as soon as possible, Rayzar declined the hospitality. Instead he requested mounts to transfer him and his squad to Peaceful Camp; leaving Warlord Grammith to report to Her Majesty the Empress and arrange the military campaign.
News block finalised.

Special thanks and credits to: Corey.
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