Steel and Silk

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The scrolls of Ahriman
Enemies Within

I am Ahriman, third son of Zarathustra Hizir, the shaman of our people and I am without guidance.

My father has left for lands unknown for reasons I do not know. He refused to tell me anything about what he was doing and even forbid me to go with him, something he has not done since he first handed me my weapons all those years ago. That was a year ago now and I have still not heard from him.

I have continued my training as best I can, I can dance with the spirits but I can still not see them, I cannot hear their voices. I have yet to take on the spirit walk.

It is currently my 19th year of training and last morning, a Northerner came seeking my aid of behalf of Big brother Aldin. I say Northerner, because that is what she looks like, what she smells like, what my instincts tell me is an enemy. But she is not.

At least that is what I am told; she is Kuzeyli the half-breed, a “mule” as some call her. With the blood of Hyperboria mingled with that of our own great uncle Bishtak. She had been taken in by uncle Baatar and raised as his own. I do not wish to dishonor either of these great men by spitting on the faith they placed in this girl, but I will keep my eyes on her and judge her character myself. I feel that to be important, not least of which in the wake of Uncle Baatar’s murder.

We were asked to place the Khagan’s banner amongst the other great men of Ondar back in The Valley of Fires. She took off in a hurry to fetch me a horse, and claimed to know the way there. It was if she half-assume that she would lead, to take command, so I let her. She seemed to be in a hurry to reach our destination, choosing to take ‘short cuts’ which only ended up with us taking longer. I stayed silent and I watched, sometimes asking questions, seeing as she said she knew the way. This continued until finally she lead us to cross a bridge which had not survived the previous winter. As I told her about this, she finally decided to ask for help. This was good.

While she did not admit to leading us without knowing where to go, she could at least wound her pride enough to ask others for guidance. Perhaps this was a sign she was indeed not entirely like the stoic and arrogant Hyperborians. I granted what little insight I had and led us onwards to a safer and more expedient path through the forest. There we made camp and I arranged sleeping arrangements. While eating, she noted on how I was staring at her. I had not tried to hide it, so I simply explained that I was studying her. To see if she would be an ill omen who would bring misery to the people that I love. It was clear that she wanted to be accepted as one of our own but I was unsure if that could ever happen, there were not many of us who did not have at least one bad memory associated with someone with appearances like hers.

She then moved the conversation to me and my father. She gave condolences for my father, as if it was a matter of course that he was dead. Perhaps she was not a like the Hyperborians, but she did not have much tact either. I explained that while it was true that there was a risk that something happened to him, I believe it more likely that his journey simple took him far away from home. In the end, either he will return or I will go after him and bring him back. Either to Ondar or to The Valley of Fires so that he can rest.

With that we went to sleep and continued our journey. As we were about to leave the forest path, we saw two kinsmen riding hard towards us. On their tail were Hyperborian pigs. The horse Kuzeyli had brought me, Scar, was ill suited for war and for the dance so I tied it down and hid myself amongst the tress, preparing to leap down on them as they entered the narrow trees passage.

Kuzeyli however rode out to meet them on the open plain sword and the Khagan’s banner in each hand. Brave, but not very cunning. It split the pursuers and the horsemen veered off away from the forest road. I had to change my plan and as the horsemen and Hyperborian got close to the forest I braced myself and lunged. And so the dance began.

It was an ugly dance, one performed on the backs of horses and to the music of gutted swine. Two Hyperborians laid dead by my feet, two more where the Northerner had stood her ground. Then they ran like the rats they were, I caught up to one of them and ended him, but the others managed to get away, riding north. They were deep within Khazari territory which implies that they were far from the only ones in the area.

The Hyperborians are invading.

The Tragedy of a Bastard

How did things go so wrong? I am a bastard, yet I was able to see my siblings and father often. I was trained, and adopted, by my father’s blood brother. But now… My adopted father is dead, killed by a poison, and my father has died as well. I am ashamed that my thoughts are as selfish as they are… Will I be allowed to honour my father? What will happen to me now that both my father, and my adopted father is gone? I trust my brother, Aldin. My siblings Vashtu and Tobur are honourable, and have always treated me as their sister… At least in private. Imzash and Tolui blame me for our victory against Merkit, they have also always been less inclined to accept me as part of the family, due to my northerner appearance.

So, when Aldin-chaa told me that brother Tobur was late, and that he would give me the honour to represent our family, and the name of adoptive father, in the valley of Fire, I was overjoyed. Ahriman, the son of Zarathustra, was to accompany me. I know little about either of them myself, but I do know that Ahriman’s father has been gone for some time, and that they are shamans, of sorts. We set out on horseback. While the steppes can be dangerous, you rarely run into anyone. Ahriman asked me I knew the way, while I am not too well versed in the way there, we can, sort of, see it across the steppes. He is a strange man, this Ahriman. I assumed he did not know the way, but some time into our journey he told me insights about the land, and how the land was affected. Why did he not speak of this when we first set out? Why did he let me lead, if he knew a better path. My father trusted his father, therefor I shall trust him… But he is not making it easy.

As dusk approach, we set up camp. I was prepared to sleep under bare sky, but Ahriman had brought sleeping supplies, and officer me a spot in his tent. As we set up a fire, I caught his eyes spying on me. My father trusted his father. He said he was judging me. Evidently, he had heard of me from our people. I asked of his father, and I admit, due to the whole situation having already creeped me out a little, my tact was not what it should have been. This man is strange, and I know not if I can count on him, should we meet aggression, but I will defend him, with my life if need be, my father trusted his father.

The next day into our journey we did run into resistance. Invaders was chasing some of our people. I took out my father’s banner, I hoped that it would either inspire our kinsmen, or scare off the invaders. At the very least, it did succeed in informing our kinsmen that aid had come… I do believe they hoped for more men… But I would have to do. I assumed this would be a hard fought battle… But. It turns out that the son of Zarathustra is well trained. One rider managed to escape, however. They were of Hyborea… The land of my ancestors. Normally, I would pursue them. However, our goal is more important.

Invasion from the North

The kinsmen were from our brother tribe, the Kongar. One of them, Xuren, left to inform our kin that northern invaders. The other, Moonhawk, decided to come along with us. He is a singer, and a rather agreeable man. He informed us that the Northerners had invaded the valley of Fire, and attacked the flame posts. We cannot let this stand. While our task is important, it will amount to nothing, if the Hyperboreans remain in control of the valley.

We rode on through the day, and with brother Moonhawk’s expertise we were able to make it there by dusk. We decided to go to the Kongar outpost, as that is where the men from Ondar currently reside. However, we saw a camp on a hill just before the outpost. Myself and Ahriman went to, quietly, take out the camp, while Moonhawk went to gather our brothers. We joined our brothers in the camp after the short battle, and they informed us that the Hyperboreans came from the north, and that the Merkit had charged into the valley to stop them, but they lost. However, not all had died due to sword and spear, some had been ripped apart.

Thus, Ahriman was concerned that we had angered the spirits. He geared up in his full shaman regalia, and painted myself and Moonhawk with ritual markings. We hoped this would be enough to allow us access to the spiritual grounds, without challenge. Not that I know… What kinda challenge we would be to spirits. Regardless, we must save our kin, and cleanse the valley from the invaders.

It was already dark, and we were all jumpy. The worst we had to contend with was nature, however, a sinkhole that tried to claim Ahriman. And we arrived to check on the Nagalai outpost. We erred on the side of caution, should the northern brothers have betrayed us, or have been taken out. We engaged in a plan where Ahriman went around to the west, and charged in from the side, while I attack from the east. Brother Moonhawk would set a fire, so our vision would be less clouded. During my approach I stumbled upon our kinsmen, they were left in the dirt outside. I hid, and waited for the guards to appear, at which point I ended them. I gave my brothers my knife, so could free themselves. Maybe I should’ve stayed with them? I… I heard Ahriman’s fight going on upstairs, he seemed cornered. Before I had time to think through what I should do, I was already up there… My blood was pumping… These northern dogs… They were trying to chain freemen… They stomped through our sacred grounds… They tried to end our shaman, our brother… As he tried to strike Ahriman, my blade moved in the way… I could hear words beating in my head: We are the sword and shield of Ondar, Kuze… You know that already. Soon you may be alone, though. He spoke, in a tongue I had all but forgotten… The tongue my mother had taught me. He would take brother Ahriman with him to his dark lord?! Not as long as I draw breath… I answered, unwittingly, in my mother tongue, before I cut him down. Ahriman thanked me. H-he called me sister. Whatsmore, we spoke to our Ondar brothers. And Tengar, one who had given me a good amount of grief over the years, called me Kuzeyli… Not Mule. It… gave me hope. Perhaps there’s a place for me here, even without my father.

Kill for the living. Live for the dead

As the Hyperboreans disappeared north I turned my attention to my brothers who the swine had been after. They were members of the Kongar tribe; a plump man named Moonhawk and his cousin, Xuren. Both looked exhausted and Xuren had a nasty injury to his arm. They explained that they had come to warn that a Hyberborean raiding party had attacked The Valley of Fires but the two had been intercepted on their way. Moonhawk agreed to guide us through the quickest path there while Xuren would continue to warn Ondar. I gave Xuren my horse, Scar who was still well rested as well as two days of my provisions in the hope he would reach Ondar as quickly and as safely as possible.

As Moonhawk and the horses were catching their breaths, I looked over the bodies. Their captain, the one I killed first wore a silver gorget depicting a wolf. It didn’t tell me anything but what was more interesting was a single golden coin he had secreted away. A coin with the face of a stern king on one side and a sunburst on the other. Moonhawk said he recognized it from one of the old songs. He was somewhat of a minstrel among his tribe, something he seemed to be almost ashamed of, comparing it to the glory of being a warrior. I tried expressing my respect for his craft, explaining it was thanks to men like him that our history and culture survived.

Moonhawk seemed unconvinced by the praise but readied himself to tell the tale all the same as we rode onwards. He told us of old legends, where sorcerers enslaved the people of these lands, and using their foul sorcery, ruled from atop the mountains to the north. Part of that story involved their wondrous gold mine which due to their greed and corruption became cursed and eventually led them to their inevitable doom. That same people used the sunburst as their symbol. The question then became, why were the Hyperborean carrying around treasure from an ancient kingdom and how was it related to the valley?

It seemed unlikely he would have carried it around hidden away like that for very long, and Moonhawk said it seemed as though the savages had rode around the valley looking for something. The reasonable conclusion then was that they had found the coin in the valley but why would there be hidden coin there and how would they know about it?

Moonhawks story brought on more questions than answers as we continued onwards. He knew the path well and we managed to reach the edge of the valley just as the sun set on the second day. We had the choice of going directly to the Ondar camp, which had been attacked hard as Moonhawk and Xuren made their escape or take a detour which would allow us to approach the more defenadable Kongar camp without being spotted by the enemy. Although I wanted to rush in to help Ondar, there was little we could do for them without knowing what was going on and so we climbed the hill leading up the path to meet with Kongar men.

As we were walking up the hill I noticed the smoke from a small campfire outside the settlement, assuming this to be work of the invaders, as kinsmen would have no need to camp outside we dismounted and approached the camp by foot. Me and the Northerner went on ahead as Moonhawk would signal the Kongar.

The Northerner once again took the lead as a matter of course. Unlike last time where leading us astray was of no consequence, this time, when my brothers’ lives were on the line I became agitated. This was a matter for the tribes to settle, she should not get in the way. I knew that was an irrational thing to think during a situation like this, where anyone carrying steel in hand was invaluable. Despite that the feeling remained.

Still, the girl did not lead us astray this time and we reached the edge of their campfire’s light without being detected. The kongar’s stone walls stood strong and had held the enemy at bay, their signal fire still burning strong. Outside there were two archers and what seemed to be another captain huddled around the campfire. The archers had prepared signal arrows, presumably to warn their fellows if the kongar tried to launch an assault.

We attacked. I leapt for the archers. The first one died before even knowing they were being attacked and the other only had time for a look of surprise before my knife met with his miserable throat. The captain attempted to mount some resistance but at that point Kuzeyli caught up and made short work of him. Moonhawk sang and his voice told the ones inside all they needed to know and we met them outside the gate.

They welcomed us although it was clear they had hoped for more reinforcement than just the two of us. A brother from Ondar, Roylik approached us and told us what had happened. They noticed the heathens inside the valley the previous night. The Merkit had left their camp and chased in after them, mounts and all. So far none of them had returned alive except for one, who came back with horrible claw marks sputtering about monsters before dying. Their recklessness seemed to have angered the spirits inside the valley. No word had come from the Nagalai but their fire was out so they were presumed to have fallen. The Ondar, while they had fought valiantly, fell quickly to the enemies’ overwhelming numbers. Several of brother had been killed and many more had been taken captives and brought to the Nagalai camp to the north.

When their position in the valley had been secured, they continued their ransacking of the area, heading towards the shaman caves; where my ancestors, my shaman elders laid buried. A cold anger rushed through me and I wanted nothing more than to rush after them and immediately make them pay. But… my honour nor even that of my ancestors could come before that of my living brothers held in captivity. I readied myself to head north and it would seem as though Kuzeyli and Moonhawk both had come to the same conclusion.

Once again I was torn about letting an outsider into the valley, especially now when the spirits were already angered but, she was uncle Baatar’s daughter and she did carry our blood. Besides, we needed her. I donned my ritual garb and smeared the marking of a trusted kinsman onto Moonhawk’s forhead and, given her appearance, I marked Kuzeyli as an invited guest. I made her mark large to differentiate her from the true savages.

Then we marched through the valley. I led the group although I had only been inside once before and in daylight at that. I led us through a path I knew would take us directly to the Nagalai camp and hopefully unnoticed. While crossing besides the great pond in the middle of the valley, sudden movement from the left halted us in our tracks. A large flock of birds spewed forth from the bush, I grabbed onto my amulet, hoping to stave off whatever spirit might come for us, but while doing so I lost my footing as the ground beneath me gave way. I sank into the morass as if eager hands dragged me downwards; the spirits did indeed seem angered. But with the help of my two allies I was able to claw myself out from their grasp.

We continued then, not having time to worry about what happened but keeping an extra eye on the ground beneath us. We came to the Nagalai camp and decided that Kuzeyli would approach from the stairs leading up to the camp while me and Moonhawk would take a detour to attack them from behind. Or rather, Moonhawk would light his arrows and set fire to the base of the tower to provide us with light.

As a crept closer, I could hear the ugly sounds of Hyperborean being spoken. That was when it truly sunk in. Hearing that accursed tongue being spoken here truly made me realize the crimes they had committed. The shaman garb had never felt so heavy upon me as that moment. As Moonhawk’s arrow came flying I began picking up my pace, giving no heed of my footing in the dark or keeping silent. I would be silent no more. Instead I sang. I sang hymns of battle and defiance. And I began to dance.

It was a good dance, performed to the beat of my prayers and the tune of righteous vengeance. I leapt the distance, landing through the window on the second floor of the building where they had gone to rest. Two of them died as I entered and as I took my bearings, I saw how the Hyperborean had gotten inside the valley without any alarm going off. Perhaps even why they had come here at all. Side by side chatting happily with their captain was a Nagalai tribesman.

My heart sank after learning of this the newest betrayal amongst the Nagalai and the knowledge that I would have to kill brothers once again. But the dance did not stop, nor did my singing. They had noticed me now and were prepared; I had to kill them before I got surrounded. The captain lunged at me with heavy swings of his axe, killing the small fire lit by Moonhawk’s arrow. And so the dance continued in darkness.

Two more of their group fell dead, leaving only the traitor and the leader. I would leave the traitor last, I would have him see whatever bargain he made burn before his eyes, have him tell me what he knew. Only then would I kill him. That was what I thought, but as I readied a killing strike against the Hyperborean leader, in a misguided attempt to distract me, the Nagalai moved forwards and I ended up slaying him instead. Was it an accident or did he choose that death before answering to his crimes? I did not know but his actions had left me vulnerable to the captain’s attack. Just as I feared I might not dodge out of the way in time, Kuzeyli rushed forwards to take the attack head on with her shield.

The two fought fiercely, exchanging guttural snarls to each other in that bestial tongue of theirs. No, not theirs. That was no tongue of Kuzeyli, she was of the people, I could see that now. She slew the captain and as his body hit the floor, finally my hymn to the spirits came to an end. She turned to look at me to see if I was alright, I answered her as sister without thinking about it. My spirit had accepted her before my mind had. Her appearance was still as unnerving as ever, but inside I knew throbbed Khazari blood. The blood of Bishtak.

The Spiritual Dangers

We decided to sneak back down into the valley, to attempt a faster but stealthy approach to the caves. However, during our approach, someone was sneaking up on me. It was a kinsman… But, out of who it could be, it may very well have been the worst possible. It was Manduhai, the daughter of Oglun, the champion of the Merkit whom I bested in combat. A tense moment followed as I evaluated her rage against me, compared to the current threat from the Hyperboreans. Before we had time to properly release the tension Ahriman suddenly shouts: Duck!, I turn around and… There… The reason why some of our kinsmen where torn to shreds. Every fiber in my being told me to run. But I turned again to see Manduhai in a similar state. I acted without thinking, steeling my gaze. My shield raised high, I charged the bear. My thoughts calmed me: I knew this was my final moments, I will gladly give my life to save that of a kinsman. This made me grab control of my limbs again, and I managed to defend myself against the beast, and even counter it with the speed the lands grazed me with. Even with this, I knew my life was forfeit. But then, Ahriman began his shamanistic rituals, showing the blood of our kin to the bear. He told me to do the same, as I carefully cut my hand and let the… Extraordinarily… big bear sniff my hand. I am glad my allies was as far back as they where, I do not believe they could see me shaking from there. The bear licked my blood, which I thought to myself: That is either very good, or very bad. It turned out to be the best of good… The bear reared back and left. My mind and heart wanted to explode, but my outer gave of the impression that I was cleared to move on, so we did.

We quickly dispatched the guards outside, and made our way into the cave. They were trying to set a fire to discourage us, but they underestimate the strength of the Khazari. The resistance was heavy, but we ended them quickly. As I was getting into position to parry the last attack, I moved as I always did… But, then the bear entered my mind, I stopped and the spear pierced my chest. In fairness, the surprise of some… seemingly, Khazari, leapt down from the sheer rock walls, may also have distracted me somewhat. They turned out to be of the Vulture tribe, a tribe we had lost contact with some time ago.

They decided not to kill us for, what we were later told, trespassing in the caves, and asserting the curse. They decided that we could help, however. We met with grandmother Kiryat, who told us the tale of why the Vulture tribe secluded themselves. I didn’t follow along completely, partly due to them speaking about magic, and partly because I was still bleeding. But they mentioned Ahriman’s father. Also, something about dark cultist activities, I have no doubt that Ahriman will head to confirm their words, and to do something about it. After my current mission is done, I may very well want to go with him. I live to protect my kinsmen, and this path seems to be the way to do that.

Extended Family

Kuzeyli had killed off two more of the invaders down below and more importantly, given the Khazari a chance to free themselves. They had taken so many… Although I was of course happy to see so many of my brothers still alive, my heart ached at the thought of how close they had been to being clapped in irons.

I spoke with an old man of Ondar named Tengar who explained much of what happened. Thankfully it was confirmed that the Nagalai snake who had sided with the enemy did indeed not act on behalf of his tribe. I had not truly thought that he had but it was still good to hear it confirmed. The snake, a man named Izir, slew his own brothers in their sleep and opened the way for the Hyperboreans.

They were indeed here for the cursed gold, hidden away within the shaman burial place. The only reason they would store the gold there, would be so that the shamans could guard it. These heathen fools did not know what they might unleash. And neither did I.

I suggested that Tengar and the others would settle in for the night at the camp, and barricade it the best they could. It should prevent any potential Hyperborean stragglers from attacking them, or from easily escaping. They armed themselves with the slain Hyperboreans’ weapons and we returned into the valley.

We continued forwards, towards the shaman’s cave when I noticed a hyperborean helmet glinting up ahead. As a snuck forward, I suddenly became aware of sounds of a third presence behind me, not just Kuzeyli and Moonhawk. Someone was closing in on Kuzeyli. I gave away our position, calling out to her to duck. So she did, evading being grabbed by…a woman. A sister from the Merkit tribe.

That was enough for me not to worry and instead focused on taking down the enemies up ahead. Although they were on guard, their eyes had not adjusted to the dark and did not see me before it was too late. With the two men dead, I turned to speak with the woman right as the night’s earie silence was broken by a blood curdling growl.

An enormous bear appeared from the darkness, blood-crazed and bellowing at Kuzeyli and the Merkit sister. This was what…or who had killed the Merkits as well as several of the Hyperboreans. I recognized the bear as the spirit of an elder shaman, driven mad with rage and seemed unable or even unwilling to differentiate between friend and foe. It had a stark effect on everyone, especially Kuzeyli, who in a mad dash rushed the bear, telling the others to run.

At that moment she lost. She charged the elder, not to fight and win, not even I think, to sacrifice herself to buy time for the rest of us. No, she charged in to die. The Great Spirit was powerful and its very presence awe inspiring but I knew that it could be defeated if necessary and perhaps that was necessary to bring peace to the spirit. But not like this, this was not the crisp and rigorous attack and defense Kuzeyli used in the battles prior. She had already given up.

In a desperate gamble, I tried to reach past the rage controlling the spirit, proving myself an ally through my garb, and with a quick cut across my palm, through blood. Noble brother Moonhawk aided me with his singing, giving power to my voice where otherwise I might have faltered as I cried out to it in the old tongue. For a brief moment, the red fog lifted from the bear’s eyes and it truly looked at us for the first time.

Following my example, Kuzeyli cut her palm and let the spirit taste it. A long silence followed and for a brief moment I feared that the Hyperborean blood in the girl was too strong, but finally the bear simply turned and faded back into the night.

And then the world continued as if nothing happened. Even Kuzeyli returned to her usual self mere moments afterwards, at least outwardly. The Merkit sister named herself Manduhai and blood relative of Oglun who Kuzeyli wronged when she falsely wore Uncle Baatar’s name in their duel. Her respect and hate for Kuzeyli was palpable but she knew her duty and did not hesitate to fight alongside us against the True Enemy.

As we moved towards the shaman caves, Manduhai drew my attention to that for the first time in many years, the Vulture tribe’s fire was burning brightly up above in the mountains. What this meant however, I did not know. Did it mean they were alive and well and were ready to rejoin their brothers and sisters? Or was it a distress signal? I could only guess as we reached the cave entrance.

The enemy had barricaded the cave, with stones…as well as the cairn stones of my people. Once again, the same rage blinding the bear risked taking me instead. The moment passed and a plan of attack was made, Kuzeyli taking the lead. She ran towards the enemy, all hesitation forgotten and leapt over the barricade and began fighting. I sprang to join her but I miscalculated the strength of our new ally. With one powerful blow to the rock formation, Manduhai destabilized it, sending debris everywhere, disorienting both me and the enemy. Kuzeyli took the opportunity and slew them both.

We continued through the cave, everywhere were signs of the heathen dogs and their pillaging. As we continued there was more of that guttural barking they called language which Kuzeyli translated as them preparing oil. Whatever they had in mind, there could be nothing good involving oil inside these sacred caves so I began running, the others following soon behind.

A large fire had been set in the passage, likely as a way to defend against intruders but it would not stop me. I soared above the flames, knives drawn and landed, finding myself surrounded by six enemies. One of them was Crahask, the leader of this band of bandits. In the room there had been four shamans, standing in eternal vigil and protecting a large mound of gold with their bodies in death. One of the guardians lay shattered on the floor. Crahask spoke his insults in broken Khazari, making a mockery of our people, our traditions and even our language. Finally I felt my concentration waning, my self-control crumbling. Fuming anger and an overbearing sense of failure for letting invaders do this to my ancestors clouded my thoughts. I was trapped here with them. It would take time for my friends to douse the flames which meant that for the moment I would have to fight alone…or so I thought.

Kuzeyli fearlessly stormed through the fire, scattering it from the entrance, clearing the way for Manduhai and Moonhawk. With them at my back came renewed hope and clarity of both thought and purpose. I was not trapped here with them. They were trapped here with me.

A calm serenity made way past the anger. In here, I would not dance alone. The spirits joined me and smoke and ash danced in the air, blinding Crahask and his men as they tried to strike me down. As Manduhai opened the way forward by slaying one of his underlings, I finally made my way through to the man responsible for the attack. His dying words were of his lord, Valishin and his inevitable vengeance.

Those words hung in the air as the cornered stragglers made their last stand. Earth and rock began crashing down amongst us. Kuzeyli ended up being trapped while two of Crahask’s warriors used the opportunity to attack her while she was distracted by the falling rocks. One of them scored a grievous hit on her while she opened the throat of the other.

Before I could go and aid her, several men crashed down from above surrounding us. One of them pierced the last of the enemies, while the others pointed their spears at us. They looked like Khazari but their shaven heads and strange clothing appeared strange to me.

A man who seemed to be their leader named Azim asked us who we were and what we were doing in these sacred caves. He declared himself one of the vulture tribe and claimed they had taken to protecting these caves. This was all news to me, but I explained our goal and with our enemies lying dead before us, they believed us although it seemed as though he was still unsure if he should slay us anyway. One of his men, presumably by accident lifted a torch and showed us what was painted with great care on one of the walls. It depicted two of the great northern mountains and between the two, what could only be the location of the gold mine of legends. Azim did not want to risk us leaving with this knowledge and asked (or was it an order?) to go with him to seek council with their elder.

I refused, not just because of the implied order, but more importantly because I could not simply leave the broken remains of my ancestors on the floor the way the Hyperborean had left them. Brother Azim, to his credit agreed and let me do what little I could with my limited knowledge and time.

When I was done they let down ropes for us to climb and halfway up, I remembered about the coin I had taken from the captain. As I did not want to risk offense or have them take me for grave robber, I mentioned it to Azim who immediately suggested I throw it back down with the rest of the coins. That was what I originally had planned to do with the coin but somewhere along the way I seemed to have forgotten. I took the coin and just as I was about to throw it, I hesitated. Did I really need to be rid of it? It could be useful in the future, perhaps I could…. I hurled the coin back down to get it away from me, not looking back to see where it landed.

We reached the top as dawn broke and were hurried along to see their leader, Grandmother Kiryat. She seemed like a good but stern woman who had little patience with what she viewed as foolishness and invited us as honoured guests while provided us with hospitality in the tone of commands.

She told us of the Vulture tribe’s tragic history, of how they had been betrayed by one of their own. How it was one of them who had founded the Cult of the Black Sun and had unearthed its dark magic. Magic that would come to lead the tribe into civil war and cut off all ties with the outside world to keep the corruption from spreading. She told us of the mark of the White Ape in reference to Kuzeyli and the apparent resemblance she had with the Hyperboreans of old. But most importantly to me, she told me of my father, Zarathustra.

They had saved him during last winter after a fight with beasts controlled by the cult. He had stayed with them for some time to heal and recover, and then he had journeyed onward to seek out one of their stupas. He had also left a message for me. “Do not follow me”. I smiled, I wondered if my esteemed father had grown senile in old age, if not and if I did not know better, then he wanted me to seek him out.

I have listened to his command, and will act as is appropriate for one of the free men.

Spiritual Awakenings
or how i stopped worrying and learned to love Objectivism

Spiritual Awakenings

We continued our talk with Grandmother Kiryat and after coming to an agreement that we were family and could trust one another, we began preparations for the vulture tribe to rejoin the rest of the Khazari after their self-imposed exile. They had chosen to remove themselves from the outside world, to keep the cult, The Black Sun cult as they called it, locked away with them, as they waged war against them. Now, that it became clear that they had failed to contain the spread of the corruption, they had no reason to stay in exile and along with the constant threat of the unnatural beasts called ‘yetis’ that surrounded them on top of the mountains, I suggested that they should leave the mountains. It was decided that they would send a representative, a ‘diplomat’ to Big Brother Aldin as a first sign of good faith.

It is my hope that they will heed my advice but inevitably it will be up to them. Mountain dwellers or not, they are still Khazari, they are still free men and women and the choice is theirs to make.

Kuzeyli had her wounds treated by their wise women and herbalists and after it was clear that she was in no immediate danger I began fulfilling my duties. First was the removal of the immediate filth left within the cave. It would later have to be cleaned and have incense burn away the impurities but first myself and Manduhai hauled the slain Hyperboreans out of the cave.

Then we began scouring the land to find the fallen as well as any potential survivors. Two Merkits were found still alive although badly injured but the rest were all dead, either killed by enemies or by the Great bear. The injured were sent to the Kongar camp, as it was now the only safe and still operational camp in the area besides the vulture tribe’s one, while we carried the dead back to the Merkit camp. I helped with some of the preparations for their send off, but respecting Manduhai’s position as closest of kin, left most of the procedures to her.

Then came the cleaning out of the Hyperboreans. We took from them anything that could be of use and then they were dragged into the marshes, left there in the dark to be forgotten.

This took a lot of time and effort and several days passed. Finally, Kuzeyli was deemed healthy enough to move around and she could fulfill the duty she was sent out to do. The battles and her first encounter with the world of spirits had taken a toll on her, both physically and spiritually, but she did not hesitate to fulfill her duties. I lead her to the Ondar cairn stones along with Moonhawk and we left her to walk up the stairs herself and give her respects. She stayed there in silence a long time and after she returned, some of the old steely resolve from before had returned in her eyes. It was a good sign.

She had done what she had planned to do and would return to Ondar as soon as the Vulture tribe diplomat arrived. I was unsure how long my duties would keep me here but we agreed that if our paths strayed we would meet again and she promised that I would have her sword beside me when the time would come for me to look for my father. She was a good friend, for all the horrors the Hyperborans had brought with them I was grateful that at least it had led me to get to know her as well as Moonhawk, Manduhai and the others.

Me and Moonhawk went to give our respects to the Merkits while Kuzeyli returned to the Kongar tribe to await the diplomat. We arrived as the Merkit fire was already blazing and the air filled with the smell of the fallen as their spirits passed on. We stayed there next to Manduhai and she lamented that the Merkit fallen here had not been ready to fight. This was a holy place where people were sent to learn and to teach, to teach the young what it meant to be khazari. Instead they died.

Yet Manduhai had survived. She was a warrior and had not been sent there to learn or to teach, she had been sent to be out of the way and unable to seek out revenge for the death of her uncle. It was understandable, but it pained me to hear the depths of the chasm between the two sisters. I hoped that in time it could be healed.

I asked, careful not to cause offense why they had gone into the valley in the first place. It would seem that it was due to a well-intended albeit misguided attempt by Big Brother Ögedei’s nephew, Khasim, to save the Ondar people and gain their respect. We stared into the fire and the result of that order. Manduhai argued that she was in no place to question Khasim’s decision. Her words confused me; surely she could have spoken up? It was all well and right to listen to one’s superior but she was Khazari, no one had the right to silence her right to voice her opinion. Had things changed so much amongst the Merkit that that was no longer the case? Was this another effect of them embracing that Thrice cursed Tarim?

Before I could question her further, sounds of a Khazari war party was heard across the plains. But it was not the Ondar reinforcements that we assumed, but one from the Merkit, led by Big Brother Ögedei himself.

We walked up to meet him and his soldiers. There must have been nearly 100 of them, all itching for a fight. We told them what had happened and while they were clearly disappointed to hear that the immediate threat of the Hyperboreans had already been taken care of, Ögedei, when we mentioned the two who had gotten away from us, Ögedei sent 30 men to hunt down them and any other potential remnant that might remain.

I and Manduhai explained as best we could what had transpired, without mentioning the gold or the painted cave walls. I was thankful for Manduhai that she understood the importance of keeping it secret, although I got the impression that she would not have told her king regardless. There seemed to be no great love between the two.

As we explained the return of the Vulture tribe, as if on cue, Kuzeyli alongside a tall man in vulture clothing, undoubtedly the diplomat, appeared heading towards us. With my meeting with the king over, I returned to the valley to begin the final and most important task, to restore the cave and hopefully, the seal.

I had already taken care of most of the crude aspects, the bloods and guts of the enemy as well as that of Kuzeyli had been scrubbed away. The physical cleansing had been taken care of, but the spiritual one would be far more difficult. In truth I doubted I would be much use, I had not learned the correct prayers or the right words but I lit the herbs and incense and spoke what was in my heart as I began to work.

I do not know when it happened; I was rebuilding one of the cairn stones when I began hearing voices, whispers just out of ear shot. This had happened before, always the same thing, whispers I could not hear, shapes I could not see. As my heart began to sink at once again failing to cross the barrier, one voice cut through the others. A voice crying out in pain, loss and anger

The sound was coming from the mouth of the cave. Startled, I rushed after it and there I saw a woman, clad in bear fur, curled up on all four, weeping. As I approached she turned to me, gazing up at me with pitch black eyes. It was difficult to determine her age, she appeared old and youthful all at once. She threw an old pair of bear claws at my feet as if to confirm her identity as the bear we met a few days prior. She mourned the loss of so many of our kin, kin she had killed in her blind rage. She recognized me as the one who had reached out to her before she had a chance to add Kuzeyli amongst them. She seemed grateful.

She named herself Araataan and she recognized me as an apprentice and appeared willing to teach me. So long had I gone without being given guidance and the chance of being taught by an elder spirit was an incredible honour. But, there was something that seemed off putting, something that frightened me. She told me that she had felt my rage, that I would need to let that rage free and then I would know what it meant to be truly free. To be truly Khazari.

She mourned the dead, but she did not feel at all guilty over having slain her kin. She felt no more responsibility than that of the blistering summer heat or the limb numbing winter, or a blood crazed predator. It was simply her nature. She told me to leave behind my humanity and be what Khazari meant once upon a time. To be like her, truly free.

Much of what she said echoed things taught to me by my father, but from a different perspective. He told me of the duties of a shaman, the importance of control of one’s self, of not being controlled by one’s emotions but to always be free to do what one thought was right.

She told me to rid myself of duties, the importance of letting one’s emotions run free and unchained and to always be free to do what one wanted.
Both were forces of nature in their own right, but their perspectives were so different. Different yet similar, like different seasons. Both were likely right. For them, but what about me?

For a moment I felt it. I was the endless grassy plains, the bird, the horse, the wind and the sun. All of it at once. But I was alone. That was the price this path would cost me. Brother to everyone, brother to no one. That was what it meant to be a shaman.

She seemed to sense my conflicting emotions and the meeting drew to a close with a promise that we would meet again and, if she felt so inclined, she would teach me.

I awoke. I was unaware of ever falling asleep but around me the cave was back to its original state; even the seal protecting the gold had been restored. Had I done this or had it been the spirits? My mind was hazy yet at the same time clearer than ever before. The gold, which previously held some temptation for me was now mere pointless metal.

I still did not know if Araataan’s freedom was the freedom I truly wanted, but she was a teacher and I was a student in desperate need of tutelage. I was grateful to her, and I am not ashamed to say it, frightened by her, but that does not mean I need to conform to her way of life. I will learn what I can from her and then choose my own path to freedom.

I made my way out of the cave on unsteady legs, walking on two legs suddenly feeling alien to me. As I was leaving I saw tufts of fur and a broken off bear claw where Araataan had thrown her old bear claws in my vision. I picked up the gift she had left for me, and then began my way back to camp.

As I arrived dawn was slowly breaking. I was greeted by one of the Ondar men who had been on alert to monitor people going in and out, which drew the attention of Moonhawk who seemed to have been worrying about me since I never returned. Perhaps because my mind was still reeling from the experience, that simple act kindness and concern struck a chord within me. I had indeed found good friends.

I was soon reunited with Kuzeyli as well and from above the rooftop, came the voice of the Vulture tribe Diplomat; Shigatse. He was an inquisitive sort who was genuinely interested to learn of our ways and happy to share his own. We sat down to eat our butter and breakfast had never tasted as good.

We rode on soon afterwards to meet up with Manduhai who would be riding in the same direction. The travels went well and with Moonhawk’s guidance, made good progress. The evening was less peaceful, although Moonhawk sang admirably songs of heroism and acts valour amongst our people, the tension between the women was palpable.

After being confronted about it, Kuzeyli admitted that she suspected or at least had suspected that the Merkit had been the ones that poisoned Uncle Baatar. I stepped in; voicing the suspicions I’ve had since I learned of what had happened. I told them that I believed that Bataar had been murdered by the cult. I could of course not say anything for certain, but the horrible symptoms described matched those of other victims of the cult. Honorable brother Shigatse was finally able to confirm my suspicions, identifying a poison as one made by herbs found atop the mountain.

After having said that much, it was only right that I also mentioned that Kuzeyli had originally been a logical suspect. She was The Northerner, the outsider and someone who had been in a perfect position to commit the crime. I could see the hurt in her eyes, even behind that stoic veneer. It pained me, but at the time it seemed like the most likely explanation, any other explanation would mean that it would have been one of ‘our own’, be it Ondar or Merkit… That was then and any suspicion I had towards Kuzeyli is long since done away with and I could only apologize for having harbored such thoughts.

With that we went to sleep and so we continued our journey. It was largely uneventful beyond that except for the final day, as our supplies began to run low, Moonhawk felled, what he thought was a wild goat.

It was not until we were approached by a shepherd, returning from brother Aldin’s coronation that we were informed that we were eating his goat. It had recently escaped and he was clearly dismayed. I found it all rather amusing, a series of bad luck on behalf of my poor brother, but it was clear that he did not view it the same way and wanted some compensation. In truth I had problem seeing things from his point of view; we had done nothing wrong, it was he and his people who had let their animals escape. Was my lack of guilt for taking this goat what Araataan had meant when she told me to take and do what I wanted? I did not like the idea of stealing from family so offered what I had on hand, treated meat taken from the invaders and fairly valuable. It was meant as a sign of good will and I told them that Brother Aldin would likely compensate further should they ask, seeing as how this was a diplomatic mission. It seemed as though my younger brother was not convinced and he retreated back to his own camp malcontent. A pity.

We then travelled back to Ondar and met with Aldin. We explained what had happened in the camp and introduced Shigatse. It would seem as though the vulture tribe had taken my suggestion to rejoin the Khazari to heart, and were planning on coming down the mountains and claiming the territory around the Valley of fire. This made me somewhat uneasy, the thought of a single clan claiming a holy site like the Valley as their territory was concerning and it was unlikely the other clans would agree to it, not to mention how this would affect the fire keeping traditions. It is true that they had guarded the cave’s secrets but claiming sacred land for themselves would certainly not go smoothly. But this was not for me to decide, it would likely fall to the elder shamans and clan leaders, so I held my tongue.

There was also the concern that claiming the valley and its surrounding territory would also mean taking parts of Ondar and Kongar land. But this too was not a matter for me to weigh in on as a neutral party unless asked to, so once more I held my tongue.

Much had happened here as well. My brother was now crowned king, but my friend and brother Tobur never arrived for the funeral or the coronation. Search parties had been sent out but so far to no avail. Even little brother Tolui had been sent off to search for his brother in Aldin’s place. Rumors were being thrown around, some even claimed that Tobur had left Ondar to join up with a man called Borchim, who were uniting the small clans to the north. Kuzeyli was quick to say that Tobur would never do something like that but I was not so sure. Tobur valued the open plain more than anyone I knew and I could well imagine Tobur siding with a worthy Khan if that allowed him more freedom than he would have as the brother of the Ondar Khan and the duties such a title might bring him. What did concern me however was him not attending his father’s funeral. Tobur was an honorable man and would not neglect such an important duty easily.

This latest rumor caused further unease in that Tobur and thus Ondar siding with Borchim might be viewed as an act of aggression, seeing as how Borchim had also been recruiting Nagalai men to join him. It could even lead to war.

It was at this moment, when Tobur’s loyalty to Ondar had been brought into question that Manduhai who had remained silent for most of the audience, insinuated that perhaps Tobur had been the one to poison Uncle Bataar.

I was of course insulted by her insinuation but I knew she was just as eager to find the culprit as Kuzeyli. She however did not know Tobur and did not know him as the pious man that he was. As I was about to correct her, Kuzeyli stepped in for me and was… less understanding about the insult. Kuzeyli who had previously been apologetic throughout their previous arguments now went on the attack. It was right and proper that she would defend her brother but it became apparent that soon it might not just be words thrown between the two. As they in chorus asked me to side with them, I once more found it prudent to hold my tongue.

Instead, I turned the conversation back to Brother Aldin who was blissfully unaware of the hidden accusation of his brother. I volunteered to seek out Borchim as a neutral party and while there try and also convince the Nagalai that Ondar were not siding against them. Kuzeyli, Manduhai and Moonhawk would go with me as bodyguards and representatives of the different tribes, while Brother Shigatse stayed behind to talk with Brother Aldin.

I offered Aldin the adorned helmet of the swine Crahask as a small present for his coronation, and then we began preparations for our journey as well as distributing what we took from the Hyperboreans. A few days passed and we rode onwards and I was once again reunited with Scar.

We rode North, and although Moonhawk bravely tried to ease the tension through stories and song, it was clear that a line had been crossed between the two sisters and it would take time for that divide to heal, if it would at all.

After a few days we came upon a small farmstead that had clearly been attacked and ransacked. The farmers there were clearly frightened and on edge and as we approached, Kuzeyli’s unfortunately choose that moment to take off her helmet as a sign of good faith to greet them. The farmers did not see it that way, they only saw another Hyperborean that had come to enslave them. They attacked.

They were no warriors and while some of them hefted bows, no arrows hit the mark and we were able to convince them that we had come in peace and that Kuzeyli were one of us. They told us of how a band of Hyperborean soldiers had raided them the night before and taken food and supplies. They had not even bothered to try and enslave them, they had simply slain all those who would stand in their way. They seemed to be deserters and carried their wounded with them.

We decided that we could not let that band of raiders be left alone and so we followed after them and after tracking them for about a day, we finally caught up. Their pace was slow due to them caring for their injured, an act that initially surprised me but I supposed that even a viper cared some for its own kind. They had made camp across a lake with four men on lookout for any pursuers.

My good friend and sister Kuzeyli made a curious suggestion that I run a wide arc across the field around them so that I could attack them from behind. My sister’s faith in my ability was heartwarming, but at times it seemed as though she thought I was one of the great spirits themselves and not just a man of flesh and blood. Instead we decided to simply charge them and dispatch them as quickly as possible. It was still of course risky, but none of us wanted to leave them a chance to kill any more of our brothers and sisters.

And so it began, Kuzeyli and Manduhai charged on ahead, while I tried to keep up on foot. The enemies’ crossbowmen focused on Kuzeyli, she and her horse weathered it well and finally we were amongst them, We struck as one, fast and hard; three dead enemies in as many strikes. The dance continued and with it more of them fell. But one of them did not die easily, their captain had managed to pin Kuzeyli to the ground with a spear thrust in to her, right below her shoulder. Just as I was about to come to her aid, she roared her defiance and in a desperate attack, slew her would be slaver with one swoop of her blade. Indeed, a true Khazari. With a smile on my face I ran to Manduhai and helped her dispatch the remaining combatants surrounding her. Kuzeyli’s wrath had not been quenched however and she stormed after the last of them, a fleeing coward who she stabbed, again and again. It was clear that the encounter had shaken her and she let out some of that strain on the Hypoerborean.

Meanwhile, Moonhawk had called upon reinforcements using his singing who arrived just in time to see Kuzeyli vent her rage on the raider. I recognized the head rider of the war party, Sister Ay-demir. She announced her presence that she had come in the name of her husband, Khan Tobur.

The Mutual Anger

Our stay with the Vulture tribe was quite frugal. We learnt much regarding the cult, and they patched my wound quite handily it won’t take long to heal properly. We were setting up to leave in not too long. But I still had a mission to attend to. I went to plant the banner of my father, at the family grave. A place I knew all my siblings will surely one day have their banners planted, but a place I will never rest. It was odd… That is the thought that went through my mind, but at the same time, I felt content. At least I was able to visit this place, and honour my ancestors, ones.

On the day we were expecting to receive the Vulture diplomat, the reinforcements arrived. To my surprise they were not of Ondar, they were of the Merkit. I met up with the Vulture diplomat, Shigatse, as he was riding down the mountain of a… Goat-horse, of sorts. They called it a yak. He seemed a prudent man, I quite liked him. Without truly thinking about it, I revealed my lineage to him, which turned out to be a good thing, as he shared with me his own lineage. After acquainting ourselves we went to meet with the Merkits. It was none other than the king himself. Both king Bishtak and my master Baatar disliked some of his methods. And today was no exception. Politics… It was all I could do to simply say that Aldin-chaa should have words with the Vulture diplomat, before anything was decided.

Ahriman finished his shamanistic duties, and we set up to travel back to Ondar. Cousin Moonhawk came with us, so to did Manduhai. The travel went mostly undisturbed, save for a run-away goat. A herder family had lost one of their goats, and we killed it before before we were aware of it’s masters. It happens not infrequently, I understand.

We returned to Ondar, and diplomatic contact between Aldin-chaa and Shigatse could be begun. Shigatse expressed and interesting in speaking with all Khazari kings. During our meeting we discussed what we had learnt regarding the growing cult, and the attack on the valley of fire. During the discussion we talked about possible defectors and traitors. We began speaking of the duel that I took part in. Manduhai expressed that perhaps Baatar had traitorous ambitions. I was fine with her berating continuously for killing her father in an unjust duel, that I can understand… And that would not be wrong. But this… I lost my temper somewhat. And I lost my patients with her. During the meeting Aldin-chaa myself and Ahriman instructed to go search for brother Tobur and to make contact with the Nagalai.

The next morning we left, and to my dissatisfaction Manduhai was to accompany us. Cousin Moonhawk decided to come along as well, a fact I relished, in comparison to Manduhai. It was long before we across farmers. We rode towards them, but they seemed spooked, and decided to go closer to speak to them. Perhaps they had run into Hyperboreans. They attacked us, before we had to defend ourselves we were able to stop them. They told us that there were indeed Hyperboreans in the area. We set out to intercept the Hyperboreans.

We managed to catch up to the Hyperboreans and deviced out attack plan. During my charge the Hyperborean captain pointed at me and said, in their tongue “Bring me her”. Something sparked in me, all the stories of what the Hyperborean did to those they captured, to all the memories being called Mule, Slaver… And those of greater creativity. I— I lost it. I charged in and challenged said captain. Truthfully… I don’t recall my actions. All I remember is a sharp pain in my shoulder and blood… From the Hyperborean. As we finished the last few horsemen appeared. They were lead by Ay-demir, wife of Tobur.


Ay-demir lead us to a Nagalai camp. It turned out that Nagalai defectors were going to ally with Tobur, the new king of these neutral lands. We rested in the Nagalai camp. Ay-demir assisted in cleaning my wound. A perfect picture of strength, that woman. Stoic to a fault. I seem to recall Baatar saying something similar about myself. In the morning Ahriman had left to check on some guards that had yet return. I noticed he spoke to a few guards as we arrived, but I didn’t think much of it. I rode out to meet up with him, and he said that he sent them out because he thought he saw something moving in the hills. We did not travel far until we found two of the guards, gruesomely… squeezed, for the lack of a better term, into a hollow tree. We continued to follow the tracks for a bit until we found the last guard, he was still alive, if barely, he seemed to have fled, but fallen off his horse. Apparently, a great bear had attacked them and crushed two of them almost instantly, the remaining guard… Was less fortunate. He passed before we left. We brought him back to the Nagalai camp, that was already moving.

It was a long and silent trip, but we reached the camp of king Tobur. The Nagalai captain, Jarkha, along with several men, including Ahriman, rode ahead to meet with Tobur. I followed Ay-demir. We arrived somewhat later. It was good to see my brother again. We exchanged a few words, but he left for… Politics. I went with Ay-demir. I asked her about Tobur, and his new wife. She’s a woman of few words. She helped me with my wounds again, and she tried to impart wisdom on me. Unfortunately, as Baatar always told me: You’ll have to look hard for a thicker skull than yours.

The sprung into a party. I am not much for parties, as they have a sour taste for me. But, it was rather nice to party amongst my own people, given what had happened over the past few weeks. I also managed to speak with Shulami, Tobur’s second wife. She is a very different woman compared to Ay-demir. Where one is a warrior, the other is… I lack the experience and words to describe it, but her abilities seem to be more social than physical, at least. She is of the Merkits, and she met Tobur while he was present during the duel. She told me that Tobur and Baatar met prior to the duel, and Baatar explained his reservations for the need for the duel. Tobur was unhappy with this, and a few drunken horsemen I spoke to earlier, mentioned that he was quite upset about this. I had a horrible thought… Tobur wouldn’t have killed Baatar? No, never.


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