When Berkchani arrived in front of the council at Seljichan, he was silent. He didn't smile or shake hands with his fellows; he walked up to the small, wood-carved podium and stared out at the crowd. They applauded his safe return and then stood in silence, waiting for him to speak. The situation in Maljara had changed since he first explained those two seasons ago. It was worse.
"Friends," he began, "The Tortuns fight a losing battle."
The Tortuns were defending Gharivol on a daily basis, from vicious attacks, and their supplies were dwindling. The attackers were Kanen, dog-like savages from the northern reaches of the island. They fought with all the ferocity of a Draksar, with the blind rage of a Cyclops. Their offensives were sloppy, but their numbers often overwhelmed the defending Tortuns.
"From the moment I stepped off the Tortalleon," said Berkchani, "Gharivol was under attack. The Tortuns lost many soldiers to these attacks. The Kanen death toll was in the thousands. Yet they still continued their assault. When I left, Admiral Redjaw committed his entire fleet to defend Gharivol. He told me this may not be enough."
Given enough time, and a seemingly endless army of Kanen, the Tortuns would lose Gharivol.
"However," he added, "Admiral Redjaw told me Gharivol is not the only city under attack. The Kanen's main focus appears to be a city to the north, known as Ailur. The Kanen want to wipe out the Leoss."
The Leoss, a Lonx-like race of warriors, were losing the fight. Their numbers were falling, the last estimation placing their entire population at around 6000 Leoss. Against the tremendous force of the Kanen, the Leoss kept their capitol city, the Kingdom of Ailur. However, as was the case with the Tortuns, time worked against them.
"We need to do something. We need to spread the word to our allies in the Protectorate. Alone, we cannot offer much. But, with the help of K'thir, of our friends in the Ironfist Mountains, and of the Jakei, we can turn the tide in Maljara."
When he left the assembly, Berkchani prepared for another journey. He would travel across Poxanthuru, sharing his report with the elves and the dwarves, then to the Jakei. Word of Maljara spread across the land, making its way across K'thir, around the Savage Tundra and through the Ironfist mountains, up into the Sarnghaver, into the Forsaken Wastes and the Sundered Lands, and in the Shattered Peaks. Soon, the entire continent knew the struggle between the Tortuns, the Leoss, and the Kanen. However, the Protectorate would not assemble, even for such a dire situation. There were still wounds, which hadn't healed.
When Isran Hahndor returned to her personal quarters, she found the king's advisor, Feofil, waiting for her. The Grand Inquisitor paid him no heed. Instead, she placed her long sword on the weapon rack and began rifling through a stack of reports on her desk. Feofil stood a few feet away, looking to her expectantly. The efforts in Thoringard were finally paying off. The Draksar were finally retreating past the tower. She took a quill pen and began making notes on a piece of paper: fortify the tower, supply it with armaments, interrogate any prisoners, and support the soldiers anyway you can. They would need to use the tower as the defensive line. The next report was from the tower in the Shattered Peaks.
Feofil cleared his throat.
"Out with it," said Isran.
It was typical of all royal servants. They never knew how to get to the point. The exception to this was the king and the Ironfist brothers. Feofil was the prime example. It was wonder how anything was accomplished in a Stronghold of bashful dwarves.
"It's about the inquisitors in the Savage Tundra."
There were no reports from the Savage Tundra, because there were no Inquisition forces there. Isran looked up from the stack of parchment at Feofil. Behind him, she noticed a figure standing near the window with arms crossed. The figure was dressed in an elegant gown, with a light blue face and long white hair tied in a braid.
"The Arctic Delegation sent a representative. This is Shardseer K'aeyun."
Feofil motioned to the Shardseer. She stood beside him.
"The Lonx were ready for war, before the Delegation stepped in," said K'aeyun, "They've said Ironfist soldiers attacked their warriors. Several have died. They named the Inquisition specifically."
"Absurd! The Inquisition doesn't concern itself with allied territories, let alone attack them."
She lifted the stack of reports.
"I receive a daily report from every one of my High Inquisitors, each one giving detailed accounts of their detachments. Where they are, what they're doing, what they plan to do next: I know everything my Inquisitors do, as they act on it."
Isran paused. She was getting worked up again; a Hahndor's blood was the easiest to boil. This was a delicate situation. She turned to Feofil, then to K'aeyun.
"I don't run a den of mercenaries. My Inquisition is one of highly disciplined warriors."
K'aeyun was now standing beside her, with a hand on Isran's shoulder.
"And I told them this. I personally oversaw the talks with the Lonx. But, they stood by their accounts: that the Inquisition was in our territory, attacking our allies."
"J'thir doesn't want a war and neither do the Lonx," said Feofil, "Laerik is the one we need to win."
"It took quite a bit of convincing," said K'aeyun, "But the Lonx have decided to make a compromise."
Isran crossed her arms. She nodded. Just hear them out, she thought. She could feel the Hahndor temper crawling out of her stomach.
"Do you know of Maljara?"
"It's an island, beyond the eastern shores of Poxanthuru," said Feofil.
"Eastern shore is Draksar territory," replied Isran.
"Yes. There are only two ways to Maljara right now: a season's trip from Seljichan or a week's journey from the port city of Caillin."
"And you don't want to travel from Seljichan."
"We don't have a season's time."
Isran frowned. Getting to Caillin would take a large campaign, perhaps the entire Protectorate acting as one force. Was she really suggesting this?
"Why must we leave from Caillin? It's far behind the Valdaci border."
"The natives need our help. They lose more every day."
K'aeyun unraveled a map on the desk. It was a map of the Eastern side of Poxanthuru, the Ironfist Mountains included on the left hand side. On the right, past the Boiled Sea, was a new land mass. There were small details along its coasts, a sandy beach leading to grass and then into jungle; the detail ended at the jungle line, the cartography turning into a blur of rough shading. The map was incomplete. K'aeyun explained as she pointed to various marking on the map. This was their plan to get to Caillin. K'aeyun would make her way by traveling across the northern edge of the Forsaken Wastes. The Inquisitors would take a different route, to reduce suspicion. Both would arrive in Caillin within a few days. The ship to Maljara would be waiting for them at the port.
"We could cut a path straight through, avoiding major defensive points as we go," said Isran, drawing a line along the map with her finger, "We need a small party moving fast. No more than myself and three Inquisitors."
"Isran," said Feofil, "We need you here. The Nefari are still hammering on our western line."
"Then, who do I send to Caillin?"
"If we can't send our best, we send our second best. You know who I'm talking about, Isran."
"He's the only one who can."
The matter was settled. Magnus Hahndor would lead the party to Caillin. The rest of the day was spent preparing.
When Isran approached her older brother, he was fastening his sash across his breastplate. One end connected to the pauldron and the other to a metal loop on his side. He fumbled with it, but couldn't find the other loop. Isran grabbed the clasp from him and then secured it in place.
"You're doomed, Maggs," she said, "What happens if the sash comes undone while you're out there?"
"It will be the least of my worries."
Magnus made his way to the armory, Isran walking with him. As they did, Magnus noticed the various recruits and veterans stiffening and saluting her as they passed. He always noticed it, but he could never understand why. They didn't know her as the runt, the one who couldn't bring herself to tackle her boar to the ground. The one turned down from the Huntresses, the one they called the Kitten. Then, one day, she inherited the Hahndor fury. She scuffled with every warrior and troublemaker in their village, even took on a Huntress in a fist fight. Every fight garnered her more respect, even the ones she lost. She had gained a spirit so strong, and a courage so indomitable, that everyone quickly forgot the meek girl she used to be. When the Huntresses approached her, she declined their invitation to join. Instead, she left home for the Interrogators. And then, the dwarves came to escort him to the royal assembly. They made the kitten into their Grand Inquisitor. But, that was a story from the past and there were matters in the present to attend to.
"The weapons are ready?"
"Sharp and sturdy," replied Isran
"Counted, confirmed, packed away."
"And the others?"
"Korin and Tasro are prepared. Helvan is out."
Magnus paused. He frowned at her, but she was grinning.
"Zedin threatened to crack his skull. He says he wants to escort you to Maljara."
Now, Magnus was grinning.
"Al'Mara help the poor souls that cross our path."
Isran glared and punched him in the arm. He could feel it through the plate mail.
"Don't make me regret this! I know how you two get when you're together!"
"Come on, Issie, I was kidding."
They stopped. Isran was standing in front of him, her glare as fierce as ever. She was standing straight. Her shoulders were rigid. Her tone was official again.
"You are representing the Inquisition in Maljara, Magnus. I don't want you to forget that."
His stomach sank. The truth was facing him in the clear blue anger staring back. This would be his first expedition as the leading Inquisitor. He would lead them into uncharted territory against unknown enemies. He wasn't representing the Inquisition alone.
"You will be one of the first from the Stronghold on Maljaran soil. Your actions will reflect on King Rugolth and the Stronghold as a whole. It may even reflect on the Protectorate."
It was important to both of them. If he failed, they would point to Isran's leadership, which was already in question by the Lonx. They would force her to step down, maybe even abolish the Inquisition. King Rugolth's reputation would suffer, as would the Stronghold. It would bring shame to the Sarnghaver, to the last of humanity. It would bring shame to the Hahndor name; a name Isran and he had spent years reclaiming. Seeing his dour face, Isran softened.
"You can do this, Maggs."
He looked up to her. Her brow was raised, a weak smile on her lips.
"I wouldn't send my brother out if I didn't expect to see him come back."
He would fight for her, not for the Inquisition or the dwarves and their stone chairs. This was a chance for humanity to prove itself and he would lead the charge. But, was he ready for such a feat? Magnus placed his hand on her shoulder. His grip was tight, his face still painted with turmoil. Could he prove so much to the world? No, but he could prove it to her.
"I will succeed, Isran. Al'Mara will guide me to glory."
He passed her and made his way into the Armory, without saying another word. There was work to be done.
They left the following morning for Caillin. They followed the winding trail down into the Ironfist Mountains, passing caravans and guard posts as they moved. Zedin was telling stories to the two Inquisitors, some less savory than others. Tasro enjoyed them, while Korin kept to herself. Soon, it became a game between the two: get Korin to faint. Magnus walked ahead of them. His pace was steady. Disgusted by her company, Korin walked with Magnus. For a long time, they walked in silence, Korin keeping with Magnus' pace. Then, as mid-day approached, Korin spoke. She was holding the map that K'aeyun had given them.
"I've only heard horror stories about this place," she said, "Is there anything we know for certain about Maljara?"
Magnus pulled a roll of parchments from his pack and shoved them at Korin. It was the Berkchani's report on Maljara. The report was copied by scribes and sent to each of the Protectorate nations. The report that Korin held was the one from J'thir. His pace slowed as he turned to her.
"This will tell you everything. This is what awaits us in Maljara."
He watched her skim the report, flipping through each piece of parchment. Soon, her pace slowed, until she dragged behind Zedin and Tasro. She was reading about the Tortuns, about their naval empire and the forces that threatened its core. She was learning about the plight of the Leoss, who fight for the few scraps of their kingdom that they still controlled. She was learning about the Kanen and how they were spreading into Leoss territory, taking new land with each passing day. Perhaps, it was a mistake to show her. He moved to her and pulled the parchments from her hands.
"Now you know. Do you understand?"
"Yes, sir," said Korin, her voice hanging to the breath in her lungs.
"Don't let it get to you. I need you to be a warrior."
"Al'Mara is with us, Korin. We will succeed."
They continued down the path. They would need to be in the Wastes by sundown. Lives depended on it.
Rashall swung his obsidian blade and the Kanen was felled before his feet. He turned to see the Ravager, running his blades through another, then twisting them and pulling them out. The mongrel's body dropped, one section pulled from the other. The spray bathed the Ravager. Mosharn, the mighty Barricade, stood several paces away, engaged against the pack Alpha. His shield smashed the massive beast, bringing it to its knees. Mosharn brought his spear into its flank. The Alpha struggled, roaring at the massive Leoss. Mosharn drove it further. The Alpha was felled. The battle would be over soon. Rashall charged into a blood-soaked Animus and drove his blade towards its snout. The Animus parried the blade between its claws, and then began to pull at it. Rashall kicked it in the stomach, his claws drawn and digging into its flesh. From the corner of his eye, another mongrel was approaching. The Animus began a hissing chuckle, its jaw in a rotten grin. He pulled the blade free and swung at the Animus. The Animus dodged then darted away. He was off-balance; his kicking leg wasn't planted in the ground, where it should have been. The Mongrel smashed into his side. Never get knocked down by a Kanen. He drove his foot into the ground and shifted his weight into the Mongrel's tackle. The two slid then stopped. Rashall was still standing. He cast off the runt and then drove his blade into its chest as it tried to recover. As he pulled at the blade, something landed on his back and bit at his neck. Claws scratched wildly at his back. The pain brought him to his knees. He pulled his blade from the dead Kanen and began to stab at the creature. It nimbly dodged each blow. The pain began to envelope his senses. He let loose a furious roar and stabbed at the creature with all of his might. He felt the blade connect with a soft body. There was a yelp and the scratching stopped. He turned to see the Animus, clutching its side. The grin was still on its mouth. Rashall raised his blade, staring into the wild eyes. These were the Kanen, beasts born to kill and to die. A creature that grinned at its death was a creature worth destroying.