A Rime of War
A dirge’s personal tale by Elna Tsernin
The waves rocking this vessel as we cross the Timorous Deep should be lulling me into a deep sleep, instead I find myself examining my actions and the tide of events that swept me here. I had been a successful dirge, and a beautiful one at that, I had always been proud of my unblemished scales and frills. A young Iksar blessed with talent beyond her years known throughout the Sebilisian Empire. I had been entertaining barons and officers with the same old collection of historical songs and tales of the Iksar nation for years; from Sebilis to Jinisk, Torsis to Charasis. When I had grown tired of those tales I looked toward the rest of Kunark. Over the next several years I trekked from one end of our isolated continent to the other learning tales of other societies and their myths. My native tongue was Sebilisian, like anyone born within the empire, but I learned enough common in these years in order to unlock stories from other cultures. But I was still young. A few stories of the drachnid learned here, a song about Chelsith there. I grew bored quickly, too quickly. Always believing the big song eluded me. Skorpikis, burynai, sarnak, Yha-Lei, even goblins. I was certain that I had heard all there was to hear and my catalog of songs and stories had become rather impressive, but I had been arrogant and foolish.
And fate was about to point this out to me. I had decided to embark upon a voyage the likes of which would enlighten me beyond my expectations. The seas surrounding the continent had calmed enough that a few ships were preparing to leave on exploring missions. They were hoping to reestablish the legendary trade routes that had existed prior to The Shattering. Upon hearing this, I raced to the docks of Danak, quick to volunteer my services as deckhand, lookout, whatever and wherever they might find me useful. It was not that I longed to be away from my hatch-mates or countrymen. Quite the opposite, I liked my place within society and had a great many lovers spread across the inns and guild houses of the empire. And I would miss them all, but the siren call of the unknown had called my name. I was powerless to avoid it. No, that's not entirely true. I always tend to overstate the romantic. Truth is, I could have stayed in the lands of my ancestors, I just didn't want to. There were new and exciting tales to sing across the great expanse of the Timorous Deep and I was determined to find them.
They did end up taking me on board and to my relief, it was not as anything so physically demanding as other jobs upon the Empress' Journey. I had been taken aboard as the official recorder and map maker for the voyage. The task suited my talents rather naturally and the first few days upon the waves were exhilarating ones. I sung and played songs of travel upon my dulcimer to entertain my fellow shipmates. I even wrote a few, inspired as I was sailing upon Prexus' ancient kingdom.
Several days out the waves proved to be quite a bit stronger than we expected. The ship was being battered from all sides, and many of us had become quite ashen, the color of our scales having been flushed from our bodies, along with our last few meals. The storm was tremendous, striking fear into some, determination into others. We lost the first few crewmen to Prexus' wrath that day, but they would not be the last. The skies grew increasingly darker as the clouds piled upon one another, robbing us of Solus' setting beauty as it tore mast from deck. Not even the glittering remains of Luclin were allowed to stand witness to our final moments as port and stern were torn asunder under the immense powers of the crashing waves. I remember the confusion and shock as I hit the frigid waters. Then as my body struggled to right itself, to find the sweet air to soothe my gasping lungs, my mind had been freed. It started to sing.
O bury me not in the deep, deep sea,
Where the billowing shroud will swell o'er me,
Where no light will break through the dark cold wave,
And no sun beam rest upon my grave,
It matters not, I have often been told
Where the body shall lie when the heart is cold,
Yet grant, Oh grant this boon to me,
Oh bury me not in the deep deep sea.
I fully expected to find the wonders of The Ethernere surrounding me when next I regained some semblance of consciousness, instead my drenched clothes clung to my burning muscles, my chilled and aching bones, and my head was beating rhythmically, like someone was smashing a rock upon it. In the eternity between regaining consciousness and opening my eyes I wondered why life in Ethernere would not have granted me asylum from the physical pain now racking my body. The answer was quite clear - I was not dead. I opened my eyes to find my head had indeed been knocking against a rock. Here, I lay upon an unknown beach amongst other wreckage from the Empress' Journey. As the waves pushed up the shore I was lifted slightly to be brought back down when it rushed back out to sea, smacking me against the stone pillow below my head. No wonder the world was ringing and the light intensity was unmatched by any spell or natural phenomena I had ever known.
Surprised by my own survival, I spit out the accursed salt water from my mouth and stumbled into the jungle flora, determined to find fresh water, food and shelter. Instead, a tribe of humans found me stumbling within their foraging party. I had not given mind to it then, but it must have frightened them something fierce to have had a half clothed, bruised and bleeding Iksar standing a good head and shoulders above them come bumbling within their midst. They scattered to the winds, screaming their tongues, quickly swallowed by the unfamiliar jungle that surrounded me. I collapsed there out of exhaustion, only to be woken by spears prodding me sometime later. My hands and feet had been bound and I was now surrounded by the warriors of the tribe. It was obvious due to their body language and further poking that they wanted me to stand up, and after a few choice words, I obliged. Of course, I didn't just leave it at a few words, but by the time we had arrived at their village I was singing. I don't even recall the ditty that saved my life, but it was enough to entertain the warriors that walked along side me and the leaders who they brought me before.
Over the next few weeks I slowly gained their trust and to my surprise they continued to keep me alive. They even tended to the injuries I had sustained in the wreck. I repaid them with song and word, song of which they seemed to grasp. And although this wasn't the best of situations or what I had imagined, I was alive. I was appreciating that as I had never before.
So, how did I end up on the boat I am writing this from? The fates had more in store for this Iksar dirge than being marooned upon an island in the Timorous Deep. I was eating a midday meal and entertaining the small group of villagers around me with a tale about the fateful battle of Ganak and Jaled Dar. I had by this time realized that their language was close enough to common for us to communicate.
That's when they attacked the village - the outsiders! A wave of swift aggression came barreling out of the lush jungle that surrounded the village. Men and women; gnomes, ratongas, humans, dwarves and barbarians - and dressed in an armor unlike anything I had ever witnessed. The warriors came hacking through the village and villagers wearing blackened plate with blue glowing runes upon the bands. Strapped to their chests was an aggressive ram head design mirrored by the ram horns that protruded from their emotionless helmets. Out of this terrorizing uniform protruded their deadly blades, like a glowing ember of cerulean sky upon a black canvas until they wet them on the blood of the islanders. The mages, shrouded behind blue, shimmering robes, adorned with bones and runes, had upon their shoulders the familiar ram head design. They unleashed frozen beasts upon us! Those that were not cut down by the glistening blades or crushed by ice hammers were now fighting for their lives against elemental wolves and boars. The village was in chaos! Huts were ransacked then burned. Those that took arm against the invaders were cut down by man or beast swiftly. The entire village was overwhelmed. Those of us that saw the futility of fighting such a devastating force along with those who were too shocked to draw their weapons were rounded up and forced to march beach ward as the pillaging continued.
This was an efficient military force, but their undeniable strength was in their overwhelming numbers, that much was evident very quickly. A fact made even more obvious when we emerged from the lush jungle to an utterly shocking sight. The sand covered tropical beach that had received my unconscious body, not so long ago was now covered by immense sheets of ice, that even stretched out into the waters beyond! The ice spread out from land to sea and showed no sign of weakness or melting. Men brandishing flags and wearing armor similar to those that pillaged and burned the village were packed so tight upon the ice that they blended into one mass resting upon the frozen sheets. No, not just sheets of ice - barges of ice! The biggest of which being a massive two story vessel pulled by two mammoth creatures my eyes would see, but my mind would fail to comprehend, neither dragon nor sea turtle, but both as one. The magics and power of this army was overwhelming.
We soon found ourselves being led upon the sheets of ice that occupied the beach, some of which still held the wooden remnants of boats long since destroyed. My mind wondered for a moment to the Empress' Journey and the fateful night that brought me to this isle, but my mind was snapped back to the here and now when I was hit in the back of the head. A quick look to my fellow prisoners explained why. They were all kneeling on the ice in a row. I had been the only one still standing. I too kneeled upon the unforgiving ice. There we knelt, waiting, some shaking with grief or terror, others from the biting chill of the ice. No, wait. There was more to the tremors I was feeling than just that. The ice was being shaken! Something big was walking toward us on it. At first I thought of the Turgans, those shelled dragons that were tethered to the large ice vessel. But it was worse than that! I looked up to find that I could see the metal giant lumbering toward us, towering over the army that surrounded us, despite being upon my knees. His body was made of metal, similar to the plate armor that the invaders wore in work and styling, but it was far more detailed and embellished. With each unfaltering step I watched it take, a tremor was released upon the ice. I was reminded of the jade constructs hiding amongst the City of Mist, and had assumed it too was a construct of some type. A chill struck my spine as I watched vapors waft off of the frigid body. The metal pulsated with arcane power freezing the armor with an undying teal radiance. But it was the spikes and skulls upon his shoulders and head, which froze my blood! His face was a blank mask of undying terror – A metal skull with blades and tusks protruding menacingly. There were two pits of icy power pulsating where the eyes of a man should have been, the same radiance emanating from his open maw.
The crowd parted for this behemoth. It stopped before us. There it stood for a moment, cultivating the growing fear and desperation within us. Then the spiked hands reached up and grasped its head, removing it, revealing it to have been a helmet! This was no arcane construct. This was a man of towering proportions. And this was their leader! His skin had a blue hue to it, perhaps naturally or perhaps as a side affect of the frigid armor that he wore, making his red hair and beard even more striking.
The cold and imposing voice that bellowed from within this giant of a man matched the frigid vessel upon which he sailed. "Join us or die. The choice is yours."
Had I known of any magic to do so, I would have thought it was his stone cold nature alone that manifested the unmelting troopmovers we now knelt upon. I could already hear several fellow prisoners giving their allegiance. Then when one, two down from me chose service, the leader responded, "No. This one is too old and weak to serve." At which point he was run through by an ice blade from behind. His body was kicked forward to lie upon the ice, spilling his blood upon the glistening surface. The next prisoner spat upon the leaders' plate boots as his response and soon was lain out next to the other dead prisoner.
It was now my turn. I said, "Serve." The mountainous man stood before me. I could feel his cold eyes taking me in.
"What are you?"
"I’m an Iksar. I’m unlike the others on this island, as I was shipwrecked here."
"Interesting," was all he uttered before he continued down the line. I had somehow survived the first test, but I held no illusions. If I was to continue to survive I had to prove my worth somehow.
These forces did not seem the type to be entertained by ditties and historical tales, but as we stayed upon the ice over the next few days, being used as little more than slave labor during the day and held under guard at night, I saw the boredom of the troops and realized that they were once just like us, prisoners of a battle recruited by their captors. And if my talents had saved me before, why not now, too?
I was right. When I would begin a song or start reciting a myth I gained the attention of our captors. Then came a night I will never forget. The crowd around me had grown rather large, but I couldn't make out any details of those past the light of the immediate torches. I had just finished singing one of the silly ditties that use to be sung by the skeletal jesters of the Bone Field, when a dwarven inquisitor stepped forward.
"I am Lingwal," he said, "And you will follow me, now!"
I obeyed the commanding dwarf, who led me upon the two story vessel and the cold eyes of the towering leader. I had since learned that he called his force the Order of Rime, but I had not yet learned his name. He was simply referred to as "The Warlord."
"What is it, Lingwal?"
"Repeat the song, lizard woman." Bellowed the dwarf.
I was in shock, but repeat it, I did.
“Troll, men, elf and gnome. None of them wish to be dust and bone.
Long they’ve tried and far they’ve seeked all to stop being turned to meat.
Life they desire for eternity, control of their own mortal destiny.
Undeath, uncorked is all they find, unless you believe the burynai.”
“Sing more of these burn-eye!”
“I have no more songs of them, my lord. But I do know one of their most revered myths. Shall I recite it for you?”
“Get on with it!”
“Stealing the Sun –an ancient tale of the burynai.
Long ago, Norrath’s days were warmed by the Heart of Ro and its nights were watched by the sisters Drinal and Luclin. And long had the creatures known as the burynai been burrowing in the Underfoot -digging and finding gems and stones of rare beauty. These were the rewards Brell provided to them for their work. Gifts that he left them buried deep within the world. Upon breaking through to the surface of Norrath, they were enwrapped by the brilliance of the Heart hanging in the sky, warming their fur. They coveted it just as they had all things glittery and golden. It was the biggest treasure they had ever spotted and they believed the surface dwellers worshipped it. And so a plan they hatched to take it for themselves. They had noticed that the sun always rested in the same den when the eyes of night opened in the sky. There they laid a trap for it and when it came back to its den tired and at half wick after a day’s burning, they captured it. The Heart of Ro was now within the hands of the burynai deep within the Underfoot! The following morning the eyes of night stayed open and unthreatened. The blinding light of the Heart did not force them to shut against it. There they remained, in the sky looking down upon Norrath. For many cycles the burynai tried to unlock the secrets of the Heart of Ro. But no matter what they tried it only cried and burned them. After an ill fated attempt at cracking it open had only caused a piece of its shell to break off, they decided to return the Heart to the surface world. The Heart of Ro had given the burynai nothing and they realized that it was not a great power provided to them by Brell. Brell's power is within the rocks and soil of Norrath and the Underfoot. “Power does not come from the sky,” they said. They continue to search for that panicle of power that Brell promised them, but to this day they have kept the piece of sun in a bottle just so the sun remembers the burynai were once its masters.”
That wasn’t the only song that was to be sung that night. Many more followed but no others appeared to have piqued the Warlord’s interest. I was escorted back and kept shackled that night only to be returned to the Warlord’s presence the next day. This was to be the cycle of my days; entertain the Warlord and whomever from his inner circle. Lingwal was there regularly, as were three other mountainous men of the same mysterious blood as the Warlord. I had not realized it at the time, but they were all paying more attention to the songs then I had assumed. And when my catalog of songs had been exhausted, some of which multiple times, I turned to the myths, tales and histories of my home land in an attempt stave off my death with their entertainment.
One day, I began reciting the tale of the Torturer’s Tower.
“There’s much mystery surrounding the Cursed Tower of Kurn. We all know that Kurn Machta, the Dread Torturer, was the trusted general of Emperor Rile Sathir and the construction of the Tower began under his reign. But what is not often told is the tale of how Kurn became Rile’s most trusted general or whatever became of him. Kurn Machta had been an up and coming field officer under Venril Sathir’s reign. Ever obsessed with returning his lost lover, Drusella, to life Venril had sent out innumerable campaigns to find items, potions, and spells that may bring her soul back from Ethernere and restore her body. Kurn had just returned from one such campaign when Venril was overthrown by his son, Rile Sathir. Some dismiss the timing of the events and his subsequent promotion as mere coincidence. Others have been more suspicious.”
The sound of the Warlord’s fist smashing against the ice counter he had been leaning upon echoed over the vessel, interrupting the tale. “Continue, my dirge pet!” he exclaimed. His eyes held an energy that I had not seen before, and when I looked over at Lingwal I saw the same intensity. I continued the recitation as if my life depended upon it, as it may very well have.
“What had made Kurn so trusted in the eyes of Rile? Had he found something in this last search? Is this when Kurn took on the mantle of the Dread Torturer? We may never know, but soon after, during the great expansion of the Sebilisian Empire, construction of a tower stronghold in the Field of Bone began. Named after Rile’s trusted general, Kurn Machta, the tower housed an immense collection of torture devices, which Kurn took sadistic delight in personally using against enemies. Several of which he had captured during his bloody campaign in Warslik's Wood. He may have lived to regret this decision, but not for long. It seems one of his prisoners escaped to the nethermost depths of the dungeon. It was an area of the tower that had been sealed off long before, said to have held plundered treasures and torture devices, alike.
From there, the prisoner managed to dig a tunnel, escaping the confines of the nightmarish tower. Unfortunately, the route the prisoner carved dropped him within the burynai burrows that had existed below the Field of Bone. The escapee died quickly at the claws of the burynai treasure defenders, but he was not to be the last. Believing this to be an attack by the surface races, and an attempt to steal all of their treasures, they retaliated. It was not long before the burynai took Kurn’s Tower, and later killed the Dread Torturer, himself, with his own devices of torment. But it would appear that this is not where his story ends, as even before the Shattering, during the Age of Turmoil, rumors of his undead remnants persisted. He was said to have lurked within the innermost depths of his dungeon, existing only with the savage will to torment any that enter the confines of his chamber, but none of the unfortunate souls to have ever broke free of the cursed tower encountered the Dread Torturer.
Were these tales of his death and undeath an exaggeration? Are they to be believed at all? What ghouls and treasures may the bold hearted find if they should ever enter the sealed tower, now? We may never know the truth, which only adds to the allure of this tale.”
“Kreegar, we leave at first light tomorrow. Lingwal, ensure all is prepared.”
“Aye,” they responded, followed by their hasty retreat.
I turned, expecting to be escorted away, but instead I was told, “You have not been dismissed! Speak more of your land, lizard woman. Tell me more of this necrotic emperor.”
And so I did. But now he was listening to my stories with a new intensity. I could see him scouring my words for something, a prize I could not grasp.
“Venril Sathir became chief to the mightiest of all Iksar tribes, the Kunzar, upon committing patricide - an act that his son would later repeat, but not before he would leave his indelible mark upon Kunark. His reign began when he forced the other four Iksar tribes to unite under him, thus creating a single empire out of five tribes –The Sebilisian Empire. No longer warring amongst them selves, the great empire concentrated the efforts of the Iksar and unleashed a wave of terror and domination over all of Kunark. Later, after Venril Sathir wed the eldest daughter of the Obulus wizards, Drusella, the empire would grow even further. Drusella ruled alongside her mate, having control over the Eastern half of Kunark, and Venril the Western. Great monuments were built during these prosperous times, embedding a great pride in all the Iksar and inspiring fear in all those who would oppose the huge empire. Cities of grand scale were built by the Iksar's goblin and giant slaves, including Sebilis and Charasis. At some point, Venril discovered the Unholy Writ of War, a dark tome of heretical arts in the library of Kotiz. It was one of the original texts left from the Shissar! But these texts did not satiate his curiosity for the necrotic arts -It fueled it! Venril began seeking rituals and items to grant him and his mate immortality. Unfortunately, his beloved Drusella would not live to see the day, as she died suddenly before Venril could unlock all of the secrets of the tome. After her funeral rituals and burial within the depths of the city of Charasis, Emperor Sathir cast all citizens from the city.
Only the royal Iksar guard and servants where allowed to remain. They were to serve their empress, eternally. Never again would they know the warmth of the sun or bask in the moonlight. The haunting howls of the damned were to be heard echoing off the stones of the canyon for years. Venril would visit the cliff city frequently, but he had crafted a spell to hide the entrance of Charasis from raiders and those who dared to steal his knowledge or defile his beloved Drusella's grand crypt. What he would do inside is not known. What we do know is he became increasingly possessed by the necromantic arts during this time, seeking within it a way to restore his mate's life. Learning of this dark corruption, Venril's eldest son, Rile Sathir, went to confront him over the herasy, and interrupted one such dark ritual being performed by the Emperor, killing him. Rile destroyed his body, burying all evidence in the tomb of Charasis. And thus Rile succeeded his father though the same violent act which his father had performed to attain his first seat of power.
Dominus Rile continued to expand the empire established by his father. He was responsible for the creation of the Sebilisian Navy, the largest navy ever upon the seas of Norrath, and the Crusaders of Greenmist, a massive army of Sebilisian Knights. But Venril would not be defeated so easily, and these forces would not save Rile's life, just as death would not release Rile or his brothers from the Tyranny of their father or his necrotic spells. Returned to life by the very arts they opposed, the sons of Venril are kept in line by an unknown power he wields over them. How long will they remain this way? Will Venril ever find a way to grant his beloved Drusella with true life again? Perhaps, an oracle can see the answers, but the rest of us will just have to wait and see.”
“Do you miss your land, my singing pet?” he asked with a devious grin.
“Yes, my lord.”
“Then rejoice, for you have just convinced me of the powers that lie there in wait for me!”
And so, here I lay, a single dirge amongst hundreds of skilled warriors, and mages – all of whom are armed to the frills with impressive weaponry and magic, upon the frozen war vessel dubbed Spinebreaker, pulled by two turgan, headed toward the shores of Kunark. I can only feel nauseous and ask myself the same question, over and over:
“What have I brought upon Kunark? What have I done?”