Steel and Silk

Broken Chains

The fire grew and we had to move. Kuzeyli and ‘her men’ jumped the fire while I ran along the ledge, getting myself up on the viewing platform, returning to the entrance of the sacrificial chamber. My robes caught fire, robes given to me by my father and the regalia of my faith. But the fire was spreading down below and there was little time to worry about cloth and feathers when Kuzeyli and Zeynep was still down there.

Kuzeyli and I helped Zeynep up after which my little sister helped me to put out the fire. Thanks to her help the damage was not too bad. Then we had to help hoist up of the Hyperboreans for what seemed like an eternity until finally Kuzeyli allowed me to help her up as well.

The smoke was becoming worse and it started to get difficult to breathe but me and my sister finally managed to lift the gate allowing us to enter the room. Me and Zeynep went in first as Kuzeyli led the others in one by one.

As we entered the room, a large roar shook the room and not long after an enormous paw emerged from the path forward, followed by a seemingly endless row of sharpened teeth as it climbed up towards us. No true name exists for such beings; servants, remnants and afterbirths of beings from beyond the veil of this world.

True terror threatened to settle in, but before it could do so my body had already begun to move. I yelled at Zeynep to fall back as I ran towards the creature. There was no time for plans or strategy, I had to get that thing away from Zeynep and I had to kill it or die trying.

I knew which of those scenarios were more likely as my knives bit into it. The beast roared in what I hoped was agony, but even so, anything vaguely mortal should have died, yet the creature seemed barely affected as sickly white blood poured out of it as we fell down into a large chamber. Some of that blood sprayed on to me, and with a ghastly realization, it dawned on me that this was the source of the abominations from before. The blood burned and burrowed, trying to change me.

I cut away my robes and armour, clearing away the taint as best I could. The loss of my robes pained me, not simply due to its connection to father or its protection, but the simple reassurance wearing it provided me. I would have to continue without such luxuries, but even despite all that, I felt a smile slowly forming on my face. I was still there. I had faced it and I had bled it. My smile grew wider as saw Kuzeyli leaping from above to join me.

Time and time again, did she draw the monster’s attention, giving me time to prepare my attacks, but it cost her. The creature caught her and tried to pull her away. I rushed in to attack, but I missed yet something curious happened. The monster, backed away, releasing its grip on my sister. I didn’t know if it was because I had been able to cut it before or if it was the runes and markings on my knives, but… the monster was afraid of them.

Bolstered by this we pressed the attack, until finally as the creature finally seemed near death, it turned its attention towards me. Kuzeyli refused to give the monster even a chance to get at me and once again made to block the attack, but at the last hurdle not even she could withstand the violent thrashings of the creature as she was slammed into the cave wall. But, even as she did so she had given me the chance I needed and I drove the knives into the creature as deeps as they would go, until finally I reached something that gave way and cracked.

And just like that, whatever power that sustained the creature was shattered and without it, it quickly withered away before my eyes, leaving behind only the remains of old human sacrifices buried within it. None of that mattered however. I rushed over to Kuzeyli. She was passed out but otherwise not too badly wounded. The real danger was the creature’s blood which was still trying to crawl its way into her, albeit with less vigor now that the monster was dead.

After cleansing her of the rest of the taint, I carried her up to see how Zeynep was doing. What greeted me was one of Kuzeyli’s dogs, restraining a weeping Zeynep. For moment I thought the man had snapped under the pressure and had to be put down but it would seem he had meant to prevent the girl from running off in panic.

He released her and she practically threw herself on me, hugging me tightly. There was no shame in her reaction and I held on to her just as tightly. We stayed like that for some time, letting Zeynep take the time she needed. Then I settled Kuzeyli down against one of the walls and rested.

The Hyperboreans did as well but we kept to ourselves, waiting for Kuzeyli to open her eyes. I kept an eye on Zeynep as she began to tend to Kuzeyli’s wounds. The same girl who had been crying in panic and desperation just a few moments ago was now calmly caring for her sister. She wasn’t really calm of course, and given the chance, the tears would flow again but she knew what needed to be done, she wanted to be useful, and so she got to work. I’m sure Borchim would be proud if he could see her, I certainly was.

In time, Kuzeyli awoke. She asked about what had happened and about the creature but Zeynep sternly put such inquiries to rest before I could. The less such beings are spoken about the better. She also surprised me by pointing out that Yefimov was likely using the creature as a font of power and would likely be weakened by its death, and he would know that we had killed it.

This statement worried me somewhat, what she said was true but such knowledge was dangerous and normally guarded closely. What other shamanic knowledge did Borchim learn and how much did he pass on to his daughter? But these were questions for another time as Kuzeyli went to attend to her soldiers.

In the end, two of the Hyperboreans were dead and they decided to heave their bodies in the fire to keep them from a worse fate at the hands of the remaining abominations or whatever other evil dwelled within the cave network. I tried to persuade my sister to at least take one of the men’s armour as I had to destroy her own when clearing away the tainted blood. But she refused, honoring the Hyperborean tradition of wasting precious metal and sending the men into the fire dressed for war.

We continued, back into the room where we fought the creature. Zeynep was wary about going in there but followed our lead. I looked over my ruined regalia, much of it had been ruined and defiled but some parts of it had somehow remained untarnished. I considered this to be a good omen, and chose to excise the tainted cloth and wrapped what remained across my arms.

Kuzeyli gathered her fallen weapons and we climbed a stair that would lead us to the bottom level of the keep. A door had been chained shut, but Kuzeyli and one of the Hyperboreans took their axes to it and it soon gave way.

We continued inside, following the most well-trodden paths until we finally reached the stairs leading up to the heart of the fortress. The fighting was well underway and served to hide our presence. Zeynep went on ahead to scout out the path to the gate so that we could open up the path to Manduhai and the other warriors. She soon returned, looking pale. She had found the path to the gate but she had also seen Yefimov working his magic from atop one of the towers. He had either completed or cancelled the project he was working on and had now committed himself on wielding his sorcery to defend the fort.

If he completed his spell, it was likely it would not matter if we got the gates open or not. There was no time for further discussions. I told Kuzeyli to go ahead and finish the mission without me, I was likely the one with the best chance of surviving Yefimov’s magic and Kuzeyli was needed to lead the assault on the gate. Neither of us was likely to succeed yet we both had to.

I wanted to appear strong and confident in front of my family this last time, but instead all I could give them was a sad smile as I said my farewell. Kuzeyli swore that she would come for me should I need to and she meant it. Having her face her attacker once more was not something she would agree to easily, and was something I would try to prevent from happening as best I could. She would come to my aid, although I suspect we both knew that if she had to do so, I would likely already be dead or worse by the time she got to me. Then it would be up to her to finish the job.

I ran up towards the tower where I could see Yefimov gathering dark clouds to do his bidding. I came across a couple of guards, private mercenaries by the look of things but I had no time to worry about them, I circled around them and continued to run up the stairs of the tower.

I could hear them chasing after me but there was no time. I continued until I reached a large hall with even more guards barring the way to a large oak door leading to the outside of the tower. They were not guarding the windows however and I barreled through them, continuing to run forwards.

Before me stood Yefimov and two guards and the remains of a further two, recently sacrificed to fuel his ritual. A large eight-pointed-star covered the way across and I could feel the hum of power even from a distance.

Everything had led to this point, since the very beginning of my training and all the choices up to this point. And to my surprise I found that I was surprisingly calm. I was still afraid of course, terrified of the man in front of me but the realization that this had been the culmination of my own choices, choices taken freely, served as a new font of energy.

Ever since I stepped into Hyperborea I had been plagued by uncertainties and worries. I had tied myself down in chains of my own making in an attempt to make sense of things. I had let my fears of ineptitude and lack of knowledge weigh me down. But there, at that moment I felt those chains break apart, feeling truly free for the first time since entering these lands.

I moved forward, I danced around the two guards. I could still not hear the spirits to guide my steps, not within these walls but my feet followed the music just the same. In its wake, one of the guards died, his blood disrupting the ritual enough for me to dare entering the circumference of the ritual circle to get to the sorcerer.

Yefimov had no intention of letting me go any further. He gave me a taste of the powers he had been wielding against big sisterJeshid, his thoughts clawing inside my mind, trying to make me submit to his will. But with my fetters broken and the new sense of freedom that came with it, not even his powers could bind me. But it was a close thing. Every step was hard fought; the blood beneath my feet erupted into fire , the burning rain pelted my naked flesh as the sorcerer wielded his magic to wrench the blood from my body. The pain was excruciating, my sight darkened as blood vessels burst but I was still able to move forward.

Right before I was in range to strike he made one final assault on my mind. He told me that he recognized me and that my father was already theirs, urging me once again to submit to his will. His words were meant to startle me and they did, but they did not have the intended affect. I did not sense lies in his words nor did I know who ‘they’ were. I did not know what had happened to my father, but I at least knew one thing he did not.

He did not own my father, nor Jeshid or any other Khazari; we are and always will be free. As his failure to bend me to his will dawned on him it was already too late. My knives sank into him, piercing his decrepit heart. He died with the name of the people who would not bend to his will on his lips, as I kicked him off his ivory tower.

It was over. Somehow Grigori Yefimov was dead. I turned, suddenly remembering the second guard. He removed his helmet and revealed a Khazari face. He asked if they were finally free. He, a Khazari had been a part of this. He had been a mercenary and ended up in Yefimov’s service. He had sacrificed people in service to him.

I very nearly slew him then and there, his crimes justified as much. But I chose not to. There had been enough death that day. I heard the screams of triumph as the fortress gates were opening signaling Kuzeyli’s success.

I suddenly felt very tired, every small cut and bruise making themselves known. The guards who had been chasing me arrived but there was no need to slay them as the man who had once been Khazari seemed to tell them what had happened. A mixture of fear and relief washed over them as they looked at me and one of them offered the key which led to Jeshid on the floor below.

I walked through them, making them move to make way and took the key along the way, making my way to find my sister. She had been hung up in chains, cursed gold piercing her flesh and binding her hands and feet. She was weak and I feared the worse until she opened her mouth. She was battered and bruised, but not broken. Her mind was still her own.

But that did not mean she was well. After confirming that the sorcerer was dead, she asked, pleadingly if her duty was finally at an end, if she could finally die free, a wished it would seem she had held for a long time and fearing would remain out of her reach.

I could not judge her or argue against her. Not after what she had gone through and not after swearing to set her spirit free should I have to.

Still, I told her of her clan and their need of her and it was with no small amount of guilt I saw the pain that caused her. In the end she left the choice to me, perhaps a greater sign than any other of her frayed state of being. If I told her to serve her people, she would, but she wished for death.

I told her I would take her away from this place; this was a foul place and had a corrupting influence on people even in death. But I promised her that if she felt the same after leaving I would honour her wish.

Even if it meant returning to Khazari lands empty handed.

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Time to Panic

This was no time for panic. I saw our exit from this inferno, I just needed to rally everyone with me. I shouted for Onfim to follow me. I trusted Boris and Vlad to follow Onfim, regardless. I leapt past the fires to Zeynep and the brothers. Ahriman was… Doing Ahriman things. I was going to send up Onfim, so he could catch people. But with Ahriman in place, I sent up Zeynep followed by everyone else, Boris was helping me hoisting people up. After I helped Boris up, I climbed up myself. Boris is a lot heavier than he looks… Luckily there are few things that motivates you to work harder than burning alive. Our troubles did not end here. Myself and Boris lifted the gate, and Zeynep snuck past. Before we could get everyone past… I heard a noise. A noise that made my stomach churn… The creature. Whatever unholy beast that lived in this forsakened tomb… There was no time to think… Ivan came running, in panic. This was no time for panic. I quickly shoved Boris off the portcullis, that we had been lifting. Ivan smacked into it. There was too much… I dunno what to do. Zeynep in danger… Ahriman leaping headlong into an abomination… More creatures from the right… I took a deep breath, and cleared my mind. Without any further hesitation I shouted my orders… “Boris on Ivan, keep him down, Igor defending them, Onfim and Vlad cover our flank.” And with that I ran, and leapt… Straight down towards the beast of my nightmares. I barely remember the battle itself… I don’t know how I steeled my mind, but I did… I don’t know how I stood my ground, but I did… All I remember is seeing a familiar vision, the vision Ahriman figuring out how to kill the beast… But the beast lashed out at him, my body moved on its own, the way I trained it, it took the hit, and it hurt… But I knew Ahriman would defeat the beast.

I woke up on the floor by the wall, the beast must’ve flung me here. I woke up to a half naked Ahriman looking at me. When did he lose his shaman outfit? During the battle? Wait… Why I am not wearing armor? I didn’t question it. I woke up, alive, armor or no armor made little difference. I still not move, and my eyes moved in and out of consciousness. I didn’t wake up proper until we got back up. Where I had to make some tough calls. I never asked for this… My insides are screaming, crying, panicking… But this is not time to panic. Igor was dead. Ivan was unreachable. Every fiber of my being said we should save him, except… My mind. I knew. If we take him up there, someone else will die, protecting him. I slit his throat, and we burnt the corpses, so they would not return as… Abominations. With that we went back down to the unholy creature, I grabbed my weapons, and we started scaling the stairs leading up to the fortress.

Getting in was a not big issue, finding out way was. Ahriman looked at the ground, and said that more people had moved to the right, so that’s where we went. Ahriman’s eyes never cease to amaze me… I am glad he is with us down here. I hate being here, I wish I wasn’t… But I’m glad he’s with me. We reached the basement, and Zeynep decided to scout ahead. She came back with a clear idea of where to go to lower the drawbridge. She had also spotted the sorcerer. My heart skipped a bit… Am I this scared? I should be… But, I’ve come too far to back down now. I steeled myself, and turned to Ahriman, who had said he would go face the sorcerer. What I said, admittedly, was as much a promise to Ahriman as it was a promise to myself… If he needed me, I would be there, to face Yefimov. Part of me couldn’t believe I just said that! But I meant it. For Ahriman, I would be there. We charged out.

When myself and my soldiers got the courtyard, we took decisive steps towards the drawbridge control. I layed out the plan. Clever Vlad at the bottom, strong Boris on the heavy control, captain Onfim with me at the top. The guards at the bottom was stronger than I thought. Or was more tired that I thought? They called for help, before we could cut them down. That didn’t change out plan, it just made speed more of a factor. I charged up alongside Onfim. Guards blocked our path, along with a commander of sorts. I told him to follow if he could, and I leapt over the spearmen in front, planting my axe firmly in his face. _ A single honest blade, huh, this feels more… Comfortable, somehow. I feel a freedom of movement… I can do this, even without a shield._ I weaved through the opposition, and got to the top. More soldiers waited us here. Onfim remained in the stairs. I met them directly. Some did get past me, but I managed to get back to Onfim in time to save him… And I felt something from above… Rain? Terrible unholy rain, from Gregory Yefimov. This would be the time to panic… So as to steel myself, I shouted at the top of my lungs I die free!, as if Ahriman had heard my prayers, I see one Gregory Yefimov impaled… And the rain stopped. Strength returned to my body, and I smiled. I told the guards to stand down. Most did, the rest died. As if by clockwork, after my shout Boris got the door open. Manduhai was among the first to get in. I would NEVER admit it to her face, but I was overjoyed to her face. And that is how we beat fortress Oblivion…

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Heart of Darkness

Time passed as preparations for the attack continued. There was little for me to do, I had little insight to lend nor was I asked to provide any. Kuzeyli acted as if she was the slave lord’s champion, spending her time with him and his men. Zeynep had taken an interest in the camp and Kuzeyli’s duties and so spent most of her time with her. Manduhai spent her days whipping her men into a fighting force and as for Khurdan, he had settled amongst the working men and women.

Because of this, I spent most of my time alone. I loathed staying within the city’s wall or amongst the army camp surrounded by Hyperboreans and their slaves so I typically settled my tent a few miles away from the army camp.

A admit it pained me to see how easily the others, Kuzeyli in particular, had settled in amongst the Hyperboreans. Each day they seemed more accustomed to being waited on by slaves, each day they seemed less horrified by seeing other Khazari in servitude. Kuzeyli it would seem had even developed feelings for a man from whom we had freed slaves from, whom we had freed Algidir from. This was what I had warned Kuzeyli about what felt so long ago. She had humanized them and so allowed herself to normalize the things they were doing.

I would not, I could not. And so I stayed alone, preserving the Khazari way of life in what little way I could out here in the north. And so the days and weeks went by as we moved achingly slowly towards the Fortress of Oblivion.

The journey was not entirely spent in solitude of course, I went to meet the others when it seemed opportune to do so and at times they visited me, but I believe it was clear to all that things had changed and that we at least for now walked separate paths towards our destination.

And in truth, perhaps that was for the best. Our separation allowed me to face my fears alone. The least I could do was to at least seem confident while in front of them and hopefully provide some hope or at least not drain theirs away.

I feared what would await us at our destination, not just Yefimov and what other horrors he might have prepared for us, but for Big sister Jeshid. I had not spoken about it to the others, but the truth was that there was a very real risk that the sister who awaited us would not be the Khagan I remembered. I did not doubt the will of any Khazari, least of all hers, but Kuzeyli’s tormented mind had been a sobering reminder of the powers we were dealing with. That had been the result of only a brief encounter; Jeshid had been his prisoner for far longer. But I held out hope for my sister and swore I would do whatever I could to free her, even if that was no longer possible for her in this life.

Given all this, it was difficult to keep dark thoughts at bay. Especially as it became more and more difficult to hear the spirits as we drew closer to the fortress. I had hoped that Araataan might show herself before the final fight to provide some advice, to teach me what I needed to know to be able to defeat Yefimov, but I heard nothing. Perhaps her spirit could not reach me this far north although that made little sense; distance meant little within The Great Plains. Perhaps something about the fortress itself kept spirits at bay or, perhaps more disturbingly, she too was afraid. Even she would be vulnerable to Yefimov’s powers within his domain.

In a strange way my fears and worries brought me a certain calm, my fears reminded me of what it meant to be human and my desire to face them reminded me what it meant to be Khazari.

Finally we arrived and set up camp in the shadow of that monstrous fortress. Everything it its vicinity seemed foul and unnatural and even though I slept a ways off, sleeping in that presence was difficult. Finally, on the fourth day as I was talking to Manduhai, Kuzeyli joined us to tell me that she had found a way inside the fortress. Despite the important news, it was not Kuzeyli but the man who had come with her that drew my attention. Much like the surrounding area, something was fundamentally wrong about him.

Apparently the old peasant had promised to guide us to a secret cave network connected to the fortress, a cave network where sorcerers of old had performed their sacrifices to their old gods and whose servants still supposedly slumbered. Had it been a story about any other place, I might have dismissed it as exaggerations but the surrounding area and the man’s twisted nature made me all too ready to believe it. If true, we would likely walk into incredible danger, but we had to get in there and soon. The siege would not survive long, reinforcements would arrive shortly and according to an enemy deserter, Yefimov had sequestered himself to work on a project instead of managing the defense of the fortress. A project that might well be tied to Jeshid. We had to stop him, whatever it was he was trying to accomplish.

I gave my farewell to Manduhai, leaving her to be victorious on the battlefield while we went inside to open the fortress gates. Kuzeyli went to prepare hyperborean men to fight with her as I waited behind with Zeynep, who had asked to come with us. She was no warrior nor was she particularly athletic, she would have to rely entirely on us to protect her, but she did not hesitate to entrust her safety to us for the sake of something she believed in. It was quite likely that she was the bravest out of all of us; she lived up to her father’s name.

The old man stayed behind with us, studying us with an undisguised hunger. Meeting his gaze made my eyes itch and my hair stand on end, but I kept it, refusing to look away from his mad blue eyes. Soon enough Kuzeyli returned with ‘her’ men and we set out. The man led us along a river and as he led us, other peasants, all with the same blue eyes and scent of wrongness silently began following us. The procession was unnerving but we continued riding along the river until finally the caves became visible. The horses were nervous being in its vicinity, once again proving their intelligence. Not trusting the peasants to leave them alone, we sent them back to camp and the horses were all too happy to oblige.

While that was happening, the old man had waded into the river. Beckoning us to follow him, but as he did so he raised his hand to his followers and they knelt in front of him. On his hand was a crudely carved eight-pointed star, a sign of old magic and old gods. He was performing a ritual right in front of us.

That was the last straw, if the slaver lord and the rest of his Hyperboreans refused to cleanse this taint from their land, then I would do so for them. I waded into the water, blade in hand. The man saw me coming towards him but did not react, not even when I severed his loathsome hand from him did he utter any sound. But it did draw his attention. I once again met his gaze and there, behind the obvious madness was a look of horror and I think, eagerness.

As his severed hand plunged into the water, so did we. The ground below us opened up and a sudden current dragged both me and the mad priest downwards. Something waited for me down there but I had no intention to find out what and I began to desperately swim back to the surface. Kuzeyli had waded in after me to help but had been dragged in as well. I helped her back up on solid ground and then turned to the other peasants. Still kneeling, they had all raised their own hands upwards, each displaying the same eight-pointed-star.

Kuzeyli asked what we should do. The answer was simple, they had to be purged. The Hyperboreans cut down a few of them but soon faltered, unnerved by the unmoving and unresisting devotees. I did not, I cut their throats without ceremony and would have continued had I not noticed something strange with their blood. Their blood was drawn towards the river, as if the river itself was feeding on it. This was true blood magic, the question was then what was it trying to accomplish and why it was still active. I thought I had cancelled the ritual and the priest was surely dead. Had I been too late?

As if in answer, the river began stirring and from it flew the old priest. No, what had once been him and had now been reformed by the gods he served. Barbed tentacles writhed where his hand had once been and he came leaping towards me.

Kuzeyli did not hesitate and shielded me against the horror and was grappled by the creature as it tried to drag her back into the river. Whatever ritual the priest had performed seemed to reanimate the dead, for this to end; it had to be put down permanently. As they neared the river I flew after him, and carved my blades into his chest, tearing out his twisted heart in the process. I then cut the tentacle hand away from Kuzeyli and…waited. As we were catching out breaths we studied the river but it seemed that whatever power that had been unleashed laid dormant, at least for now.

I looked around; everyone was visibly shaken by what had happened. Zeynep asked to spare the remaining devotees and to simply leave this place and enter the caves. I refused, it was possible that they would be able to continue the ritual after we had left and reanimate their dead. That was the reason I gave and it was a real risk, I did not know enough about what had happened to want to take any chances. Even so, the more pressing reason was that these people did not deserve to live. They were like weed, leave them be and in a few years, another one would take up the priest’s mantle and it would begin all over again. Weed needed to be pulled out by its roots. That was what we had failed to do with the Black Sun cult and I would not do so again.

We killed them, one by one. They did not scream or beg for mercy, they simply accepted their fate and offered their lives and souls in service to their gods. The others suffered when doing so, even Kuzeyli. Despite everything, they still saw them as people and not as the twisted beings that they were. Life was precious and one’s soul even more so; these people had made a mockery of both. And for that, they died.

I sent Zeynep to scout ahead; there was no reason for her to have to see what we were doing. When we were done and had dragged the bodies away from the river we joined her and entered the cave two by two. I was paired with one of the Hyperboreans. I had resolved myself to fight alongside these men but nothing more and so I paid him little heed. Eventually we reached a small tunnel that we could only cross one by one. I went in first, scouting ahead with my torch.

I heard them before actually seeing them, countless insects swarmed the floor. They backed away from the light of the torch but based on the half eaten remains of corpses dumped inside the room, it seemed they had little fear of humans themselves. The stink of guano filled the air and the bats could be heard moving up above.

The others soon joined me and Kuzeyli suggested scaring the bats to keep track of where they would exit. We did so and I made sure to keep track of something else, as the bats flew hurriedly to the left, at least that area of the cave did not stir. It seemed as good a sign as any and so we continued to explore the left side of the cave.

Kuzeyli took the lead. Usually this was due to a misplaced instinct to lead but this time it seemed different. Despite never being here before she walked with a certainty and sense of direction of these caves that the rest of us lacked, and I could have sworn that she moved to evade pillars and other obstacles before they had come into view more than once. She walked the stone floor with a familiarity of one who had grown up there. Her blue eyes, eyes almost identical to those of the mad priest, never strayed and reflected the road ahead.

Although the connection Kuzeyli seemed to have with the place was worrying, it seemed best to count our blessings and grab onto any advantage we could get, and so she led us further down the cave until we found what seemed to be a viewing platform of sorts, above us.

The structure stood out since as it was clearly part of the fortress itself and not simply the cave network. It was not very high up and with the assistance of Kuzeyli’s back, I was able to jump on top of it. But I came in with too much force and had to take a few steps to brace myself, as I did so, heavy metal bars slammed down behind me, effectively locking me away from Kuzeyli and Zeynep.

That was when they struck. Twisted abominations not dissimilar to what the mad priest had turned into began swarming Kuzeyli. The Hyperboreans carved into them but I warned Kuzeyli that the only way to put them down for good was to destroy their hearts. I was unsure where I had learned that but I knew it as truth with absolute certainty. The heart is what gives us life, both physically and symbolically. It held power over life and death. This was true for men and gods alike.

An uncomfortable memory of the symbol the hyperborean witch woman had told me about flashed in my mind but there was no time to linger on it. More of the creatures were coming and Kuzeyli were risking her life to save the Hyperboreans. It pained me but it did not come as a surprise after her interactions with them this past month. It would not surprise me if she on some level viewed them as brothers…

If she would die for these people and risk her life for them, I cannot stop her. But I can be there to make sure she does not have to. The iron bars were not about to come loose or be moved by me alone but one of the corridors of the room seemed to lead to the lower floors.

The room itself appeared to have been used as a place of sacrifice, blood stains and an eight-pointed-star, still distinct and clear despite the countless years of disuse, marked the inner part of the room. I stepped through the room warily, making sure to keep to the walls and away from the mark itself.

I reached the corridor and noticed that the wall separating it and the cave below were crumbling. There was space enough for me to get through to the other side and so I went. Part of the wall and ceiling crashed behind me as I went but I kept my focus on going forward and reaching my family.

I got out and landed not too far from the fighting. My entrance drew two of the creatures’ attention and they came for me. They were inelegant creatures, entirely lacking in grace of movement but compensated with unrelenting resolve that was practically radiating from their blue eyes.

One of them stumbled as we fought and I took the opportunity to stab at it, my knives carving into its heart again and again. With the other creature’s attention on me, it could do little as Kuzeyli drove her sword through its chest. She had dispatched the other two and with that the battle was over. But it was no time to relax. At some point during the struggle my sister had dropped her torch and it had ignited the guano surrounding it, creating a wall of fire between us and Zeynep…

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A dank dark cave

The next few weeks flew by. I spent a good amount of time with Vashka. In other circumstances perhaps… I would’ve spent more time with him, but as it turns out… I needed to affirm to myself, that I am Khazari. He invited me to his tent, but I declined. I decided instead to sleep with my kinsmen. I would never admit this to Ahriman… But. I felt at home with the Hyperboreans. Calling them brothers might be a tad strong, but… I sparred with Vashka’s men, they are very impressive fighters. Both to train them, and to see what they’re made of.

The initial attacks had begun. Our time is limited, if we don’t find a way to breach the walls, this siege will be short, and mostly ineffectual. I started thinking perhaps this all was wasted, that this was an impossible task, when Vashka called me to his tent. I knew that he had been gathering legends and tall tales from the locals, but as of yet most of it seemed not worth sharing with the rest of us. This, however, was worth sharing. An old man seemed to want to share not just tales and legends regarding underground caves, but he would show us the entrance itself. I was all too eager to… Prove myself? No. Impress Vashka? No. To fight?… When did I turn so bloodthirsty… No, I need to prove to myself, and to Ahriman, that I still fight like a Khazari… Cause what if I don’t…? I gathered the men. Including Ahriman, and a couple of Vashka’s men, lead by Onfim. Zeynep asked to come. As much as I have treated her with “kiddygloves” up to this point, I wasn’t going to deny any Khazari from battle. I told her straight as it was, and that I wouldn’t ask her to come. She understood, and said that she could prove useful in the caves.

We left hastily. It felt good riding Epona again, after what had happened during our journey, I had stopped taking my time with her for granted. The old man moved with a strange vigor. Some similarly dressed folks joined us in the way, their addition made things quite uncomfortable. Just looking at them made my skin crawl. When we reached the shorelines they started some kind of ritual… Well, it just seemed like chanting and praying to me, but Ahriman attacked the old man. But the lake decided to swallow them up. I went out to aide him, but almost got swallowed up myself. A monster came out of the lake, seemingly from the old man. We managed to dispatch it, but killing his compatriots on the beach, who were just sitting there, made our moral take a hit. The men are fine, for now, but it was not easy to end them.

We then made our way to the caves, and quite the scary caves they are. Dark and dank, is just two of the words I’d use to describe them. I’ve been in caves before, not many, but these just seemed… Wrong. The bugs, the walls, the air… All of it was just WRONG. I mean, I don’t like bugs as it is, we don’t get that many in our homeland, but they were… Ugh. We found some bats in the ceiling, and scared them, to give us an idea of where to go. I looked around the room, and my gut told me to the right… I chose to trust my gut. It seems my gut was right. Time will tell, but it seems we found a way into the fortress. The corridor was a bit too high to reach, so we sent Ahriman up. We heard a noise, a portcullis shut behind him. We didn’t have time to think through the problem, though, as we heard noises from one of the exits. Creatures, similar to the one we the old man turned into, attacked us. We held took them down, with the help of Ahriman, who just appeared out of nowhere. Ahriman has a habit being surprising. The guano, bat droppings, had started burning. We have our way into the fortress, but will we live long enough to use it?

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Fear

The town was in panic as the flames spread. Soldiers and citizens alike swarmed the streets and it seemed risky to carry Kuzeyli trough that throng of people. I looked around in the dark and found a small house where they kept their horses. I laid Kuzeyli down to rest on the horse blankets, hoping that familiar smells would help anchor her mind.

What she had seen had damaged her, not her body, but her mind and no wonder. I too was afraid. Sorcery on that magnitude was far beyond what I could hope to go up against, and the implication that he was somehow tied to what was happening back home terrified me. Not only due to what that might mean for the cult, but what it would mean for me personally; that sooner or later I would have to seek him out.

But at that moment Kuzeyli needed me and that had to come first. So we stayed there during the night, as I quietly told her about who she was, the things she had accomplished, times she had failed, as many stories as I could remember, hoping that it might help. It didn’t.

Morning came and went as we stayed there, hidden from sight. Armed men had begun patrolling the streets and so I thought it wise to wait until the coast was clear. Finally, towards the afternoon I began leading Kuzeyli through back alleys towards the lodge house where I had left the others. I spotted Zeynep through one of the windows, working alongside the slaves.

My worries were alleviated somewhat after having called out to her and she explained that she was working so she could continue stay there while waiting for me to return. It would seem as though Khurdan along with many other men left the city to avoid being conscripted to help with the aftermath of the fire. She did not know where he had gone but we did not doubt that he would return.

Although I understood Khurdan’s reasoning, it angered me that he would leave Zeynep behind in a hostile slave city. Who knows what could have happened to her during the chaos that ensued. It also meant that we were stuck in the city until Khurdan returned for us. It meant that we would have to work as slaves.

As I have travelled, I have and been a guest in many tents and houses and it is often understood that you don’t simply laze about and abuse someone’s hospitality, especially during extended visits. This was different though, these were people claiming ownership of people, and I would be helping them. I would stay there, and do the jobs required of me alongside their slaves and so the distinction between slavery and freedom would blur. But Kuzeyli needed us and she needed a place to rest, and so we got to work.

Days passed and Kuzeyli’s condition improved but not by much. She had started speaking again but only a few words, seemingly strung along at random; she spoke of bears, spirits and rats, things that frightened her. I moved her into the stable so that she could reunite with Epona, hoping that perhaps she could help her where I could not.

Although she had a positive reaction to her, it seemed more instinct than anything else. I had returned her sword to her, but she refused to grasp it and I felt a growing fear that what she had witnessed had truly broken something inside of her, perhaps beyond repair. I cursed myself for my lack of knowledge. I did not know how to mend a spirit once broken, I only knew enough to see and understand her pain, but not to do anything about it; just enough to be useless.

Never before had I been more aware of my ineptitude in my craft. When my sister truly needed the help of a shaman, all I could do was to watch over her impotently. The spirits remained silent within these stone walls and a creeping melancholy had begun to worm itself into my mind. I was trapped within these claustrophobic walls and forced to work alongside the slaves, Hyperborean and family alike. In some ways, working alongside other Khazari was worse; there were no promises of escape I could make them and worse yet, I was unsure if all of them would accept freedom even if I could offer it.

It was… a difficult time for me, which seemed petty when my sister suffered far worse, and so I made an effort not to make it show. I had to appear calm as best I could, not only for Kuzeyli but perhaps more importantly for Zeynep. She was a strong girl, but it was likely this was even more disconcerting to her than it was to me. Because of this, I made sure to watch over her, to make time to talk to her when she wished and was hopefully able to provide some support to her at least.

So the days continued until a Hyperborean man, the one the sorcerer had marked for death, visited the establishment. It was clear he was some sort of lord and he quickly got the attention of the matron of the place. I could not understand but I recognized their word for Khazari and eventually the matron pointed him in the direction of the stable, where Kuzeyli was resting.

I went after him and saw him kneeling next to her with an intimacy he had no right to. He spoke to her quietly in his tongue and made to hang an amulet on her. I could not stand idle any longer and challenged him to stand down, my bared blade pointing at his amulet. I did not know its meaning, but I recognized it. I had seen my father use it once during one of his more powerful rituals. All I knew was that it was somehow tied to a dark god and that was all I needed to know, given these people’s devotion to such gods and their magicks, I wanted Kuzeyli to have nothing more to do with it than she had already suffered through.

He seemed to understand my meaning if not my words and dropped his amulet next to Kuzeyli. He spoke to her one final time and her eyes focused on him, a noteworthy feat for her current state, and whispered something to him. The man then spoke with the matron and arranged for her to be guarded, despite my objections.

After he left, I went back over to Kuzeyli. It was clear that she trusted that man, despite her better judgement and so, since she seemed willing to try, I offered to use the amulet he had left her. If it held any dark powers, at least it would go through me first. I picked up the amulet and studied its symbol further, there was no doubt that it contained power but to trap that power, a power with a connection with a dark god in permanent metal was yet another example of Hyperborean hubris.

It was that hubris, the one that made them think to tame not only people but the spirits and gods themselves that would inevitably bring doom upon them… and us if we let them. The power within the amulet felt strangely familiar as I guided it and placed it on Kuzeyli’s chest. I held my breath, preparing to rip it away should anything happen, but nothing did.

We stayed that way for some time but I could not sense any stirrings of power or any effect, neither good or ill, on Kuzeyli. More days passed and there was no visible improvement. Finally Khurdan returned and seemed surprised to find that we had not gone to find him. Apparently he had given Zeynep a landmark to meet up at, but it was too vague for her to even recognize that he meant it as a meetup place.

I explained the situation and he told us that he had heard rumors of a Hyperborean wise woman who had treated Kuzeyli’s wound. I felt ill at ease at the thought of entrusting Kuzeyli to a Hyperborean but it was not my choice to make. I asked her and although her mind was still feeble, she was still able to choose her own way forward, like a true Khazari. She chose to place her faith in the woman and so we honored her wishes and set out. The guards the slaver lord had placed did not intervene but the matron gave us some meat to take with us, presumably on the slaver lord’s orders.

It was not a long ride to the village and the woman was easy enough to find. She recognized Kuzeyli and greeted us in Khazari. I explained what had happened to her and what she said was far from comforting. She told us there was no medicine or treatment that would help her, the only thing she could do would require witchcraft.

I should perhaps have slain her then and there at that and I almost did. I would have, had she been Khazari. No life, not even Kuzeyli’s could justify tainting ourselves with that power, but this was Hyperborea, it was already corrupt as it was and I had no obligation to cleanse it for them.

Not slaying her was one thing, allowing her to use her craft on my sister was another. My sister seemed worried and looked to me for answers, for guidance and once again, my limited knowledge was useless. I have never wandered The Great Plains myself, I have not learned its secrets and so I could not judge the nature of her rite beyond the fact that it was blood magic. Normally that should have been enough, it is one of the most vile forms of magic, it was blood magic but not in the form of a sacrifice but as a focus. I… did not know what that would mean, for the rite itself and for Kuzeyli. In the end I was unable to advise her and my sister was left to choose her path forward herself.

After a brief uncertainty she pushed her doubts aside and agreed to let the woman use her crafts on her. Even with her mind and spirit mangled as they were, her resolve remained strong. Or, a darker thought told me, anything, even the risk of damnation was preferable to her current state.

The witch had Khurdan bury her in snow and then poured something in her mouth. I studied the rite on the sideline in case I had to intervene or to slay the old crow. At first, nothing happened. Her breathing slowed and right as I began to fear the worst, Kuzeyli burst out of the snow as if reborn. Perhaps she had been.

She was not healed, far from it, that would take time, but she had returned to us. Changed yes, but that was a given considering what she had been through and I could only hope the witch’s sorcery had not altered her beyond that. My misgivings aside, I was simply glad to have my sister returned to me. She told me that she never doubted that I would come for her, even if it had been too late. It was a bittersweet reunion.

I told her what had happened after she lost consciousness and she in turn told me about the sorcerer. It was far worse than I imagined; she told me that he was the one who had kept big sister Jeshid a prisoner for all this time and that he was using his magic to try and break her will.

Grigori Yefimov was his name and the thought of facing him terrified me. I feel no shame in admitting that. If I had learned anything since our encounter, it was that my understanding of my craft was laughably lacking and Yefimov was clearly a master of his. But I looked at my sister’s drained but still proud face and I thought of Jeshid, still struggling against that monster and the fear I felt for myself was swiftly overcome by that of losing my family to that man. I might not be a true shaman, but that was merely an excuse. It was to protect my family against threats like him that I had chosen this path to begin with. We would seek him out and if possible, I would make sure that my sister would not have to face him a second time.

But it was possible that we would not have to seek him out alone. It would seem as though during her stay with the Hyperborean slaver lord, she had suggested that they joined forces. The thought of joining forces with a man like that was anathema to me, but making sure that we end Yefimov was too important to ignore help offered to us. Especially if it was the difference between going there to face him alone as opposed to doing so alongside an army.

Before returning to the city to speak with him, we had to go and seek out Manduhai but before leaving I asked the witch about the amulet the slave lord had left behind. She was surprised to hear that I didn’t know, given my name. It was the sign for The Heart of Ahriman, a sign, supposedly for both life and death.

I had been named after a god, a dark one at that? Why and why had I not been told? Names had power and knowing my father it was obvious it was not a decision he had made by chance or on impulse. I had scorned the Hyperboreans for their hubris in forming a link to the gods using metal, but had my father done so using a person, using his son? What were you hoping to achieve with me father?

We travelled largely in silence, all of us having much to think on until we finally reached the place where we had set up our ambush. That was when I noticed that someone seemed to have had the same idea. A man had been hiding in a tree and began to alert his companions as he saw us coming. I readied myself and yelled out to him and to my surprise, Manduhai was the one who called back.

After the successful raid on one of the villages most of the freed men and women had split off, to return to where they came from. But some had apparently stayed behind and joined Manduhai as their chief. It was perhaps a bit too small a group to call it a proper tribe, especially since even some Hyperboreans had joined the mix, but she seemed satisfied. They had taken up banditry while waiting for our return and it was clear that they had done well for themselves.

Manduhai had taken her role as chief seriously and followed customs more closely than most khagans. She presented us with gifts and arranged for us to have places of honour around the campfire. We told her what had happened and why we had been slow in returning. I also took this opportunity to try and explain the situation more clearly to make sure they knew what they were getting themselves into.

I had asked them to join me in a quest to save a queen of our people from one of the most fortified places in Hyperborea. It was understandable why it was described as a suicide mission. Yefimov had changed things. It was one thing to ask your family to risk their lives, but another to risk their very souls.

I do not believe I am a coward, I do not fear death or even truly slavery since I know I will die free and that in death I will simply begin a new journey alongside my ancestors. Sorcery changes that; it can enslave you in not just this life but bind your spirit for eternity. That I do fear and it would be unforgivable not to warn the others of this danger.

Still, none of them wavered. Yefimov could bleed and die like any other man, and that he would. We spoke no more of it and instead ate and drank, watching Kuzeyli test the mettle of Mandhai’s warriors. I smiled despite everything; I was relieved to see her taking up her sword again.

Finally we settled in for the night with Kuzeyli sharing my tent. She spoke some of what she had experienced and I noted that she had been prone to speak of herself in the plural form and more and more she had begun to use the expression of ‘we do what we must’. I warned her of this, her mind was still recovering and therefore it was all the more important for her not to let memories of the past bleed into the present. She had to focus on who she is, not on what others had been. I also cautioned her of the new expression she had picked up. That is the rationale of slaves, not of free men and women. We do not do things because we must, but because we chose to do it. I hope she takes that to heart.

We left early the next day, with Manduhai’s men alongside us. We decided to camp in the witch’s village and once there we found the slaver lord and his men. Kuzeyli rode up to meet him, presumably to explain the situation. I stayed behind, observing them and while I did not understand the language, there was little to misunderstand about the man’s attempt at seduction.

I threw the man’s amulet to him, drawing his attention. I had wrapped it in cloth to make sure it didn’t hang out in the open. I tried to explain to him, hoping Kuzeyli would translate that using the amulet frivolously was dangerous and might well have been how Yefimov had found him with his sorcery in the first place.

The man stopped Kuzeyli from translating and instead answered me in horribly broken Khazari and thanked me for returning the amulet and how it was precious to him. I stared at him in mute disbelief, even more so considering he seemed to take pride in answering in my tongue.

He had entirely disregarded my warning and had without missing a beat moved on to his flirtations with Kuzeyli, asking her to teach him our language.

The man who would be leading the army and who we would be forced to rely on, was an idiot.

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A Mind Broken

The darkness surrounded me. I say me, but at the time, there was no me. There was just the void. A void caught between the frozen lands of the north and the desert lands of the south. Who am I? What am I? These questions invaded my mind. I could no longer answer them. Even if I tried, all I would hear was Yefimov. What does it matter? We’re done for, he’s too strong.

Ahriman? He’s saying something. “I am here little sister. It will be alright.” I knew he’d come, eventually… But was he too late? What happened? I can’t move. But does it matter? Epona… How I’ve missed you. Did he win? I am done for? Vashka, he seems alright, worried.

My mind is returning slowly… But it’s not enough. Vashka suggested the witch, Ahriman hesitantly suggested it again, asking me to choose. Why should I choose? I need air, I need to get out of this town. I agreed. The witch had me buried in snow, and she… Awoke my blood.

Flashes of a time long gone. My kin, my ancient bloodline. There is magic in this blood, it’s been used and abused… We’ve used and abused it. No. They have. My mind has been filled with a sense of we, but I am Khazari, our individuality is not so easily broken. I am what I must be, what I always had to be. I am strong. Even in the face of those who would break me. My hand still hesitates before grasping the hilt of my sword. My sword, Bataar’s sword… Did Ahriman find it? Of course he did. I am still frightened… of what the sorcerer is capable of, of sorcery itself. Ahriman tells me this is natural. He tells of the spirit bear, Araataan, that scared me so long ago, back when I thought nothing could scare me. So naïve… How did Ahriman resist… How does he steel his mind? I must know… I cannot survive that again. If we are to face this sorcerer, I must know.

Manduhai was due south, we left to meet up with her. She had gathered a merry band of thugs and highwaymen. If we were bringing them, I wanted to know if they could stand up to trained soldiers, so I asked them to show me what they had. It also helps me not think about what happened… They were weak, compared to Vashka’s men. This force would not be enough, we needed an army.

Therefor, we returned towards Vashka, he has an army. After what happened, there is not doubt in me that he will aid us. We met with him in the village of the witch. He agreed to aid us, saying that it will take time to gather the army, that we would gather it on the way.

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Something Familiar... Something Unfamiliar

Something Familiar… Something Unfamiliar

As a child my mother told me stories of the grand cities and towns of Hyperborea, but it did not prepare for the share… Unnecessity? Is that even a word? The Hyperboreans seem to be very excessive in their use of space and buildings. I recall my father saying that: “Hyperboreans have buildings for everything.”, Khurdan mentioned something similar while making the sauna-thing. Khurdan… I wonder how they are all doing? Zeynep… Manduhai… Ahriman. Ahriman is with them, they’re fine. When we reached the town center, or whatever they called it… -Square? Maybe-, Vashka had his horse sacrificed. This was in order to appease the Gods, or somesuch. The whole display was somewhat violent and seemingly needless. We horsemen and -women honour our horses. However, we do sacrifice to the ancestors and spirits, so I can’t in good conscience call this barbaric. Gruesome as it was. His men asked him whether or not to sacrifice for the Dark God as well. This made my stomach turn… Why? I didn’t press the subject. I am lost in a foreign world, I have more pressing matters than the barbarism of my current party.

Vashka met with the mayor, and Vashka discussed the slaves he acquired from his raid. He invited me to join him, but I declined. I was to be looked after by Veliky, Vashka’s captain. I felt like trapped in a cage… I was free… But not free. I could leave, but I understood that leaving would be problematic… I don’t know. I didn’t feel free. It was, unfortunately, a familiar feeling. I didn’t want to bother Veliky from his usual duties, so I decided to follow him, instead of the other way around. His path took him past the soldiers training. I was reminded of the first time I met Bataar. I was watching my brothers practicing, while swinging, clumsily, a stick around. He walked up to me and with only few words he scooted my feet, telling me about the importance of a good stance. He told me saw potential in me… That from now on, he’d look after me. Bishtak smiled, so I did too, in all my innocence. This was, thus, somewhat familiar. I had often followed Bataar as he trained some of the Ondarians. My knowledge and ability made me able to see the weaknesses of their stances, their swings, how they held their swords. During dinner I spoke with one of his soldiers, named Onfim. These people seem very different than the ones I’ve faced in combat. They are still slavers… They have slaves taking care of them.

I had been asked where I was to stay. I am a soldier… My brother, Aldin-chaa, told me ones, a long time ago, that bastard or not, I am a princess… But I have never seen myself as anything of the kind… I am a soldier. Thus, I slept in the barracks with the other soldiers, and, eventually, Vashka. A high ranking man, as himself, staying in the barracks with his men. I can see why they respect him so. Nobody dared take the bed next to me, another familiar feeling. I may be a soldier first… But me being a woman becomes very apparent in these situations. I am one of the soldiers, yet a bit of an anomaly… I don’t actually know what it means, but big sister Vashtu said that to me ones. Vashka’s meeting ran until very late. I was roused as he entered. He asked one of the men to remain awake, and wake him should anything happen. As Vashka laid down on the bed next to him I asked him if there was something wrong. He said it was a worry. Paranoia? Perhaps… I didn’t want to push the subject at the time, so I dropped it.

The next morning one thing kind of led to another, I ended up dueling Vashka. Due to my arm, I used my left hand. Vashka, seemingly a man of honour, switched hands as well. It was not a long duel. In fact, it ended within few moments. The way he came at me… If I didn’t trust him, I would’ve buckled. He is that terrifying. He did push me back, I landed on my ass, but I managed to deflect his sword. I riposted like I’ve done a thousand times, my blade could have reached him. For some reason I was excited… I have sparred a great many times. It was a different feeling than with Bataar. When sparring with Bataar I never believed I could win, so when I did I was always equally surprised… But now… I didn’t want to lose. As I once told Bataar “I draw my sword when I must, I don’t enjoy it, but it is what I am good at.” But is this… Was that fun? Maybe. After this we had breakfast with the soldiers, and they seemed quite taken with my riposte technique. I told Onfim, and the others around me, the basics. I remember what Bataar told me “Beat this into your head… Read the opponent… Anticipate his action. For when you attack, you’re at the most vulnerable.”

Vashka had set up to meet with Marik, a fur trader, who may know about Ahriman and the others. When we met with him, he seemed to mostly have rumours that lead to little but speculation. But it was something… My heart was racing, but it was all letdown after letdown.

Evening came, and nothing. How long would I have stay here? I got up and went towards the window when… Rat. Another rat. Rats everywhere. They were pouring in through the window. I shouted for Vashka, but his was not the name on my mind. Ahriman! What is this?! … Ahriman? My minds are playing tricks on me A shadow burst in through the window, the movements… The fighting style, it looks like… It could be. Ahriman. I never doubted you, brother! He quickly thought of a way to deal with the swarm. But, in doing so it seems antagonized something on the other end… What is that? Who is… Grigori Yefimov. I— I can feel him in my mind. Wha—

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A Wretched Hive of Scum and Sorcery

Manduhai led the free men and women on their raid while the rest of us continued our journey to the city Kuzeyli had supposedly been taken to. Khurdan thought it best to avoid the open road and so we travelled in silence through the woods. Perhaps that was for the best, the elation of our victory followed by the bitter realization that Kuzeyli was not among the captives seemed to have made us all less talkative.

A few days passed and then finally we stood outside the walls of a city made of stone. There was a coldness to the place that had nothing to do with the change in season. I could not feel the presence of any spirits within those walls.

I did not know what to expect as we walked up towards the gate, would they attack us on sight? Would I need to kneel and beg for information on Kuzeyli? I resolved myself to do what needed to be done, and followed Khurdan as he approached the city guards.

A series of barked conversations in Hyperborean followed, with Khurdan showcasing animal hides and asking for directions as we were allowed inside. Everywhere you looked around the city were either more walls or more houses, it was as if these people enjoyed walling themselves off from one another. It eventually led us to a hot and smelly house where hunters and tradesmen seemed to go to eat and drink.

We entered and it did not take long before we attracted unpleasant looks from the men gathered inside. Khurdan seemed to pay no heed to the attraction we were getting and simply called for a man he thought might provide us with answers.

As we waited, a coldness settled in deep in my stomach as I looked around the room. There were slaves everywhere. As much as I had tried to prepare myself mentally to do whatever I had to in order to find Kuzeyli, seeing my brothers and sisters serving the people there was enough to fill me with despair. I wanted to go to them, to free them, to take them with me back to Khazari lands… But I couldn’t.

Freeing Algidir’s people was one thing, but attempting a rescue from within the city walls would not be possible. The walls served their purpose and trapped them here and there was nothing I could do for them. Instead I had to focus on Kuzeyli, hating myself for it.

Eventually a fat man covered in layers of furs greeted Khurdan and after a short exchange in Hyperborean, they began speaking Khazari. In exchange for some pelts, he would provide us with food and lodging as well as answering my questions.

I asked him about Kuzeyli, where she had been taken and how she was doing. After asking around he claimed several things, some of which were obvious lies, such as her sacrificing a horse in the name of a heathen slaver god. The man also claimed that she was not wounded after all and that she was a guest at the city mayor’s estate.

I did not know what to believe and what to discount entirely, but he seemed quite certain that she was at least being kept within the mayor’s estate. The question would then be how to get inside, but that was something we would have to figure out in the morning.

And so we ate and drank and made our way to sleep. We tried finding a place on the floor at least mostly devoid of drunken Hyperboreans and made to settle in for the night. I made sure to position myself next to Zeynep, both as a form of bulwark and a signal to the other men. And so I uneasily drifted into sleep.

I awoke with a start. Something was wrong. Something was very wrong. I could feel it even if I couldn’t see the source. The room was dark, the house’s stone walls prevented the light from the stars from seeping in. A suffucating instinctual dread of the things lurking in the dark enveloped me.

I turned to look to my friends but they were still sleeping peacefully. That’s when I saw it, a rat. Something normally innocuous and not worth notice, but there was no mistake, someone or something was inside of it, looking at me through its eyes. One pair of yellow glowing eyes stared at me with an unnerving intelligence behind it. Then I saw another pair of eyes, then another.

I woke Khurdan and warned him of the situation. I didn’t have time to explain, he didn’t need to understand. I simply had to warn him of the rats. I didn’t dare move my gaze from them. They began to move, heading for the window. The creatures managed to open the window by themselves, I went after them knife in hand but I was too slow. What I saw as I looked out shook me to my core. It was not just two or three, there were hundreds of them, all heading away from me. Heading to what the Fat Hyperborean had claimed to be the mayor’s estate. The place where Kuzeyli was being kept.

I ran out after them but they were difficult to follow in the dark and I lost sight of them as I reached the wall (another one) sectioning off the mayors estate. As I began looking for a way around, I heard Kuzeyli scream. There was no time to think, I would not abandon her a second time.

I ran and leapt over the walls, but I misjudged the distance in the dark and fell down on the ground with a soft crunch. Something had dampened my fall. Rats, hundreds of them were swarming the house in front of me. Some of them tried to climb up and bite me, but I managed to shake off the worst of them as I ran towards the house.

Screams of battle and of panic blasted from the room as I crashed through one of the windows and was faced by a scene taken out of nightmares. A never ending tide of rats spewed forth into the room and I was amazed to see that they had seemingly not managed to kill anyone yet. The cause was clear however, Kuzeyli, unarmored but unwavering stood surrounded by rats and held back the tide with sheer grit and determination. But even skill and bravery such as Kuzeyli’s would only halt them for so long.

A Hyperborean man hefting a large broadsword swung his blade dangerously close to her and my instincts and adrenaline screamed at me to slay him and take Kuzeyli away from him and this place, but this was not the time for instincts or fear to guide my actions. I had to think.

Blades would not win this fight, there were too many of them. This was not something we should aim to defeat; it was something we had to hope to survive. I looked across the room and saw several oil lamps. Fire, the cleanser of all things; be it man, spirit or beast.

I tossed one of the lamps towards one of the walls where a large group of the rats were gathering and they were set ablaze with a satisfying shriek. The Hyperborean man seemed to catch on and directed the others in the room to do the same.

They helped spreading the fire but their actions were still largely panicked and lacked the discipline and coordination required to break the horde. One of them tried to escape the room which would provide the rats with another entry point, allowing them to attack us from behind as well. I stopped the fool, driving a knife into the door he tried to open to make my point across.

I turned to Kuzeyli who unsurprisingly was the only other person in the room thinking clearly. I began explaining about the fire, how we could use it to break the hold the sorcerer had on them. I had not gotten far when I saw something out of the corner of my eye.

The fool man almost killed me as I had my back turned. I managed to evade the blow but there was no time for a response. The rats and the smoke from the fire seemed to merge with one another and through it formed the shape of a man. Although I did not understand his words, I did not need to. With a surge of power, he sentenced the man with the broadsword to death.

The sheer force and the… wrongness of it flooded the room. I held onto my amulet and strengthened my mind as best I could, letting the horror wash over me. It was difficult; it was everything my father had taught and warned me about and more. The previous encounter with the cultists could not hope to prepare me for it but I followed my father’s teaching and focused only on reminding myself of who I was, keeping that image clear and inalienable, not allowing it to be changed by what I had felt and witnessed. I took strength in that and it allowed me to see the strain casting that spell had caused sorcerer, and how it caused his hold on the rats to weaken.

Kuzeyli had fared worse, having caught the brunt of it and had reverted into a similar state of hopeless abandon as when she first encountered Araataan. She threw the remaining alcohol and spread the flames, disregarding her own preservation entirely, saving the doomed man in the process. And with that final act of defiance it was as if the strings keeping her up were cut and she became catatonic.

The flames had scattered the brunt of the rats and I rushed to her before the fire claimed her as well. She gave no sign of recognition but I cradled her as best I could as I dragged her out of the burning building.

Finally emotions that I had bottled up since she was taken resurfaced and the façade of calm cracked with it. As tears poured down my cheeks I simply repeated, over and over, as much to myself as to her:

“I am here little sister. It will be alright. “

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Separation Anxiety

Khurdan led us towards the fort until he suddenly stopped. He noticed signs that people had been in these woods quite recently. The idea that whoever had wandered around might return and flank us during the attack worried him and so we decided to track them down first and then spring the attack.

As we got closer, Manduhai and I snuck closer and saw three Hyperboreans hidden away around a small campfire. As we were readying the attack, alarm signals began sounding from the fort. The enemy were readying themselves for us, which could only mean that Kuzeyli had been found. We had no more time to play things cautiously and so Manduhai and I swept in and immediately slew two of them, infuriatingly enough one of them managed to get away, yelling and screaming as he did so.

There was no time to waste in running after him, especially if he was calling for allies. We turned and joined the others, hoping against hope we would be in time to save Kuzeyli. We weren’t. As we stepped out of the forest, I saw on top of a grotesque stone building as tall as a small mountain, Kuzeyli being surrounded and quickly overcome. Increasingly desperate plans of how to rescue her were forming in my mind, first of which would be to save the captives, archery fire be damned. As I readied myself, a warhorn blew in the distance and with it came a large group of mounted Hyperboreans. It seemed we were not the only ones to have taken notice of the unguarded fort. The man who got away must have gotten the others to spring their attack.

Thoughts of facing the riders filled my head, a defiant last stand where we stood tall to fight both sides of the conflict and to save Kuzeyli or die trying. But that was once again the coward in me making himself known. It would have been easy to ignore the responsibility I had and find a good death on those fields instead of doing everything in my power for us to succeed; even if it meant abandoning Kuzeyli.

Abandoning Kuzeyli… the realization came to me slowly and the weight of it almost drove me to my knees. There was no hope of victory. Even if we managed to free the captives, they would simply be ridden down by the enemy cavalry along with myself and the rest of the group. No, our only hope was to fall back before being discovered. But I would come for her, I had made that oath and I would keep it.

Days passed without much being said. A cloud hung over the group and we were all reminded of the risk each day here meant for us. Self-doubt tried to worm its fangs in to me, if only we had gone with the idea of infiltrating during the night, then the enemy attack would have sprung and Kuzeyli wouldn’t have been caught. That and many other similar thoughts of how we could have done things differently assaulted me but I never voiced them and I tried to fight them off when they surfaced. Kuzeyli deserved better than to second guess her choices and it was arrogant of me to feel guilt or responsibility for her. She was a free woman and her choices were hers and hers alone to make. I knew that, I did, but it didn’t lessen the pain of having my sister taken from me.

What was important therefore was taking her back. Our only hope was that while the Hyperboreans fought over that abominable stone house of theirs, they would send their slaves away from the fighting. A so called ‘slave train’ would form and would likely be lightly guarded. We would strike at it hard, free Kuzeyli and the slaves and accomplish our goal that way.

A few days passed and we were in luck, the captives were beings sent off towards a nearby city. Khurdan had scouted the area and concluded we had two options, either ambush them in a canyon or wait until they made camp for the night in a nearby village and free them while the guards were bust drinking and whoring. Manduhai interjected a third option, to face them on the open field and fight in honourable combat. I respected her pride, but it would only lead to unnecessary losses, I did not fight for honour but for my people, putting them at risk unnecessarily was out of the question. I didn’t like the idea of launching the attack at night either. There were too many unknowns for a plan like that and too many things that could go wrong in the dark.

So we settled on the ambush with Manduhai compromising in attacking the enemies from behind on horseback. We settled in and waited. As the enemy leader rode right below be, I leapt down on him, severing his head from his body with one knife, then making a show of impaling the head with the other. I did not speak their language but that did not mean I could not make myself understood.

The sight of their leader’s unblinking gaze and a free Khazari with steel in hand was enough to unman them and break their spirits. They surrendered and with Manduhai performing a heavy assault on the remaining guard from the back, the battle was over within seconds and without and casualties.

It was a fine victory that was further sweetened with Khurdan being reunited with his brother in law, Algidir, and Khurdan giving a heartfelt declaration of freedom. There was only one thing missing… Kuzeyli was nowhere to be found.

When questioned, one of the guards who had surrendered explained through Zeynep that a blonde warrior had been freed by the invading Hyperboreans but due to her wounds she had been taken to a healer in a nearby city.

I could not imagine why the Hyperboreans would do something like that but the man seemed too frightened to be lying. We knew our destination, the question then became what to do with the freed captives. Things seemed more complicated than I had expected, Khazari and Hyperboreans having bonded during captivity despite their better judgement and there were several men and women with clearly mixed heritage. It was clear that simply dividing the captives between Khazari and Hyperboreans would not be work.

Algidir suggested raiding one of the nearby villages for supplies and clothes and then they could all choose their own paths afterwards. This seemed like a fine plan but they would need help and I was no warrior or leader. Brave Manduhai stepped up and volunteered to lead the attack while I went to find and save Kuzeyli from the Hyperboreans.

As if the spirits were guiding us in the right direction, as we looted the guards for weapons in preparation for the attack I saw Kuzeyli’s sword strapped to the leader I had killed.

Just a little longer now, hold on. I will come for you.

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Enemy Territory

Kuzeyli, always thinking about her friends, arranged a bath for us. It was a genuinely nice gesture and after our talk last night I suspected it was largely meant to help us relax. She’s a good friend.

Zeynep went in first and her naked form quickly drew the attention of the male audience. She was a beautiful young girl and even Khurdan took note. I was not beyond some curiosity myself but my father had been… thorough in his instruction of not entertaining thoughts of intimacy before becoming a true shaman and thus having the knowledge necessary to train my offspring. As such, my gaze did not linger long.

Although she made no outward show of it, I could tell that Zeynep was uncomfortable with the attention she was receiving and so I decided to steer Khurdan and his friend’s attention towards the keep. We had decided to save our brothers and sisters and so we needed as much information as possible before going there. Khurdan was not very optimistic about the idea but he and his friend told me what they knew.

When Zeynep had finished bathing it was Manduhai’s turn. In truth, her form was harder to ignore. In many ways it embodied what it meant to be Khazari, strong, proud, defiant and uncowed. Perhaps it was due to our conversation the night before but I took notice of it more so than I had before.

Still my conversation continued and soon it was Kuzeyli’s turn. She could not help the way she looked, I knew better than most that beneath that pale exterior lived a spirit as proud and defiant as any other. Many it seemed had never taken the time to learn that, in truth, had the attack on the Valley of Fire not happened then I likely would not have either. The remnants of that attitude could be seen across her skin. Her scars, especially the old ones were different from mine, they were not from training or rituals but from random acts of cruelty.

Finally it was my turn. I was surrendering my clothes and weapons and stepped naked into the water. I appreciated Kuzeyli’s attempt at making us relax, but I at least could not bring myself to relax while unarmed and surrounded by Hyperboreans. Despite understanding this, Kuzeyli did her best and helped to wash my hair, reaffirming her support.

Finally it was Khurdan’s turn and to my surprise he asked for my assistance. I was glad, despite everything, Khurdan’s mood had slowly been shifting towards the better. Perhaps drinking himself into oblivion was indeed what he needed although I suspected it wasn’t the only thing.

When Khurdan was finished I left the others to head out on my own. Kuzeyli was right, I had to calm myself before we reached the fort and for that to be possible I had to stop viewing everything as enemy territory. Nature, at least, should not be my enemy.

I sat down a bit away from the village and tried to familiarize myself with the environment. The trees there were different, so were the birds’ songs, and the wind’s whispers. There were plants and animals whose name I did not know and smells I couldn’t identify. The spirits were different there, I didn’t know them and they didn’t know me either.

I sat there for several hours. It was a tense experience, I was still very much an outsider and the spirits made that known, but we had learned some of the other and when I once again opened my eyes, my surroundings seemed less alien than they had before. Dusk had settled and I made my way back to my friends to prepare for the next day.

The night continued without further incident and we set out early the next morning. Kuzeyli, Manduhai and Zeynep all wore Hyperborean clothes while I and Khurdan wore our own. Khurdan’s clothes were at least as suitable to face the winter as the hyperborean’s and as for my own… they were my clothes. They showed who and what I was. Much like the ‘Mammoth’s spirit’ there was strength to draw from that and I felt that as our journey would take us further and further away from home, we would need all the strength we could get.

We set out and made our way through the forest. During the morning on the second day I heard the sounds of a brief sword fight nearby. We decided to wait until we were sure that the coast was clear and then went out to investigate. Two men, likely the Hyperborean lord’s scouts, had been killed.

It was hard to see the reason behind their murder, and it was also not of particular interest. The Hyperboreans could well kill themselves as best they pleased, as for us, we decided to steal one of the men’s outer clothes to use as a disguise. During our planning for the attack, it was clear that our biggest obstacle in freeing the slaves were the archers on top of the fort. So far we had only reached two plans that we felt had any real chance of success. One would task me to climb the fort walls during the night, slay those I could while opening the gate to let the others in or have Kuzeyli infiltrate them as one of their own. Both would be risky and as the rain continued to fall, making any attempts at climbing rock more difficult, we had settled with Kuzeyli’s idea of infiltration.

And so Kuzeyli donned the dead man’s clothes after washing them in the stream and we closed in on the fort. Kuzeyli would go alone straight for the fort while Khurdan led us around to approach the worker lodges on the other side.

We all knew the fight ahead would be dangerous and that we might not live through it, but Kuzeyli was risking most of all. Death was the least of her worries. My final words to her were that whatever happens, I would come for her.

I would not let her die a slave.

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