In a hidden world below a ruin on the far end of the ravaged plains of the ~~Vaj Valley~~ a singing can be heard. It echoed through the vast systems of tunnels and cave dwellings of the underground. Behind her melancholic melody hides an unshakeable conviction, an unfathomable courage and a tragedy lost to the river of time. This is the strength of an oppressed soul. Alone, she has long bore the weight and felt the gravity of it all — But now, things have changed, she will no longer bear these scars alone. Now, She will unleash her pain on the world.
Prologue – Ashes
“Make haste,” A young mother of two whispered to her children as she hushed them along, her ragged dress trailing in the mud behind her feet. The blistering afternoon sun above showing no mercy to the young and the elderly alike as they treaded in the dirt. The mother gently placed her younger child, a messy-haired little girl of three, wearing a ragged dress she inherited from her elder sister, in a cart. The mother slid a tattered book into her daughter’s garbs as she kiss her forehead. The child clutched the bound parchment close to her chest as she tries to bury her face in the warm reassuring bosom of her mother.
The mother grabbed the hands of her elder daughter and kissed them before grasping them onto her own cheeks. Looking into the eyes of her elder daughter, she whispered hastily, her voice stricken with grief and worry.
“Just keep running and pulling the cart, Do you understand? Everything will be fine” The mother tried to put on a smile as she kiss her daughter’s hand again.
A nod and a tear was the only response.
“Whatever happens i love you both, remember that please.” the mother said while hugging both her children; taking care to wipe her cheeks with her hands behind her children’s heads so they will not see her tears.
As they started walking towards the hundreds of men and women assembling near the gates, a once popular Garum lullaby in the voice of a young child started to reverberate throughout the crowd.
here comes, here goes
my dreams and sadness
my life my people
my pride my tribes
shall never be ashes
Perhaps it was out of sorrow, perhaps it was the loss of hope or the indignation of circumstances, the rest of their fellow men looked up at the sky as some of them chimed in. Their earthly voice stood in stark contrast to that of the child’s, yet a strangely calming resonance begin to occur as they prepare to meet the inevitability of their fate. Their feets started to shuffle restlessly as they sang on.
Here comes, here goes
our songs of madness
our cries, our Mourning
our hearts, our Glory
shall never be ashes
By this point in time, the shuffling of feets have transpired into linear movements as the people started to march and stomp their way towards the huge steel city gates.
here comes here goes
Life’s light, Life’s darkness
our Hope, our Courage
our Dreams, our Freedom
shall never be ashes…
The steel gate creaked as it inched open bit by bit. The wind from outside the city penetrated and speared through the crowd, sending chills down their spines as they neared the end of their tear-stained merrymaking.
Our Hope, Our Courage
Our Hearts, Our Freedom
shall never be ashes…
The steel gates moaned loudly followed by a loud crash. The gate had hit the wall. At last it is now fully open. The harmonic resonance of the lullaby is now replaced by a deafening silence, short-lived, however.
“Fuck the Highlord! To Freedom!!!!” A man shouted.
“To Freedom!!!!” echoed the rest in response as they all started charging out of the gate. Their feet and wheels creating a dust storm in their wake.
An arrow whistled through the air before finding its mark in the skull of a would be free-man.
A limb went limp as the poor soul plunged face first into the mud. Any mourning from the now fugitives was short-lived as more arrows filled the space between them and the Empire, dyeing the field red. Amongst the fleeing fugitives, a child in a cart cries endlessly as the cries of death and pain echoed throughout the grasslands.
“Make for the trees! Use them for cover!”
The fugitives hastily made their way into the nearby woods, hoping to shrug off their pursuers in the thick undergrowth of the woods. Those that didn’t make it in time died amidst the barrage of arrows. Unbeknownst to the survivors, on the other side of the woods was a steep plunging drop into an old abandoned Empire mine.
As a child’s cries echoed from within the woods, Lucius, Shield Captain of the Tugary Empire’s 42nd brigade ordered his men to surround the woods and prepare for the final assault. His soulless eyes signaled that this is but another boring grind to him. A soul long murdered by his very own desire for power, Lucius held no qualms about massacres.
“Alright, come out now and I’ll promise you Garums a quick death by mercy of the Empire’s laws.”
Then a lone arrow flew out towards Lucius, albeit missing by a few feet and striking the bloodied ground before him.
“Dumbfucks,” Lucius grunted. He paid no attention to the futile projectile as he raised his right hand to signal his men. His facial expression remains stoic and unmoved.
A loud shuffle as the brigade starts to release scores of burning arrows into the woods. The hot dry climate of the terrain has made the trees highly flammable and while the fugitives will not perish from the fire, they will need Iroh’s blessings to survive the growing smog. As the trees start to smoke and burn up, an oxygen vacuum formed. The cries of the child got drowned out by those of his companions as they start to gasp for breathable air. Those that decided to run for it were pincushioned with arrows as they ran out of the woods. Some, refusing to die by the hands of the empire, took fate into their own hands as they leapt off the cliff towards certain death. The cries for salvation echoed throughout the forest as if words alone could quench the flames and appease Death herself.
As the sun starts to set in the distance, the cries of the child nor his companions were no more to be heard. Only the hooves of the brigade and the sporadic neighing of their mounts were all that remained.
The setting sun fell gently on Titus’s face. He woke up groggily from his slumber beneath the big willow near the guards quarters. A young man of six and ten, Titus has proven himself to be a true Empiran by acing the Ascension Trials and joining the ranks of the Tugary Empire’s Seven Elites. While his achievements were fawned over and deemed a source of pride for House Leviantus, he felt it to be hollow at best. Its an honour to serve the Highlord Lieutenant-General Vicon, the crowds would always echo.
Still, one does not simply achieve a position as an Elite simply by virtue of his highborn birth . While the children of nobles would be trained in combat, battle strategies, physical and mental prowess, not all are cut out for the job. Many wither away into obscurity as small time captains or lieutenants, only holding power over soldiers of inferior births. Only a few ascend to the highest of ranks and even fewer get the chance to fight in the Trials.
At any given time, there are only seven Elites in the empire. The position is neither granted nor conferred, it is earned – by murder. A battle to death witnessed by the Highlord himself is the sole criteria to be an Elite. To be an Elite is to kill an existing one. Titus himself slain an Elite, Xonde “Purifier” was his name, a formidable fighter to be sure but unfortunately age caught up with him and now Titus has assumed his position and his title. That was a year ago.
Throughout the centuries of Elites tradition, none has ever been killed outside of the trials. Despite hundreds of battles, Elites have always survived regardless of victory or defeat. Throughout the fifteen dozen or so documented battles, Empire’s forces led by at least one Elite have only lost five times. Three, a century ago and twice in the recent years. The reputation of the Elites were so feared that most of the Empire’s conflicts were ended simply by the mere mention of them.
Time killed Xonde, not me. Titus mused. He gathered his two swords from the grass from whence he laid, shook the dirt off his armour and made for his horse. He saddled on and headed for the Elite Council House. There’s a meeting tonight and he is not going to miss it.
The heavy leaden door gave way with a loud heavy creak that pierced the silence of the evening as its leaden hinges struggle to hold on. On both sides of the door,honour guards shuffled aside with the discipline of a mathematical precision. Their cold unwavering stares, slight tightening of the corners of their mouths and their tight grips on their weapon spoke volumes about the military discipline they received. As Titus made his way past them, they spoke not a word.
While the Elite Council House has many wings and courts, the central administrative hall is the most prominent one of them all. As Titus stepped into the main hall, a flush of heat swept across him despite him being here a dozen and one times already. The sense of grandeur and awe upon entry to the Elite Council House could never be measured by simply weighing the amount of gold and silver that line the seven Pillars and ceilings nor the weight of the rare gems that adorned the extravagant architecture. The seven Pillars represents the seven current Elites and their designated titles. While the individual assuming the role of the Elite may change, the titles and pillars do not. They have remained unchanged for centuries since the early days of the Empire.
The seven pillars stood erected around the marble table in the middle. Their statuesque are intimidating and they overshadowed anyone who enters the administrative hall. Titus’s pillar that represents the “Purifier” is a leaden pillar wrapped in sheets of pure silver adorned by opal and sapphires that give the impression of a crushing wave.
As Titus made his way to his seat, he noticed that two of the Seven were absent; the Lich and the Archon were nowhere to be seen.
Out of the corner of his eyes, the Siren sat with her legs crossed. She’s a statuesque beautiful woman with a resplendent demeanor. Her ceremonial armor was more of a fashion statement than practical protection: a simple onyx black corset with silver borders emblazoned over it. It revealed her ample bosom and leaves little to the imagination as her tight corset pants clinged on tightly to her shapely hips and long slender legs.
She looked over; she must have caught him staring. She playfully winked and licked her lips.
Damn seductress, Titus thought as he diverted his gaze. Despite the nymphomaniac facade, it would be a mistake, a fatal one at that, to underestimate that woman. Still, he wondered if she had somehow slept her way into the Seven. He doubt it though, he was there when she defeated the previous Siren in a trial. It was almost half a decade ago but he remembered how vicious her strikes had been. While most of the people present did not notice it, she had her dagger dipped in poison. That would explain why her opponent, the previous Siren, started to get slower and weaker with every wound as she succumbed eventually. Still there were rumours of her with many men, some including men in the Pillars.
And Yes, Titus is convinced she is mentally insane.
“Let’s get started.” The Pious proclaimed, jolting Titus out of his thought. Titus straightened himself on his chair; he swore he could hear the Siren giggling under her breath as she eyed him playfully.
“Today’s meeting is about how we’re going to address the Sklä′vōs threat. There have been three attacks in the past month alone. We have lost about five dozen men to those attacks. ”
“Oh god, is it those damn slaves again? It’s amazing how the well trained troops of the Empire keep getting their asses handed to them by those vermins.”
“Silence, Phantom,” Pious proclaimed, ignoring the former’s scowl before continuing, “The Highlord is not pleased with the situation. The constant rumours amongst the populace has made the Sklä′vōs a thorn in the flesh for the Highlord. He has ordered the Pillars to intervene before the Sklä′vōs make a mockery out of the Tugary Empire before our allies. You’re all summoned here today to decide on further courses of actions that the Pillars could take to alleviate the situation.”
Everyone looks bored, well almost everyone. Titus can barely make out Phantom’s expression under his hood. Still, this is a pretty dry session.
A crumpled piece of paper hit Titus square in the jaw. He turned towards the source and found the source of the projectile grinning at him. The Siren gestured towards the crumpled paper and mimed reading it. He fingered apart the paper and straightened it between the side of his knuckles and his thumbs.
It read, “miss me?”
Titus looked up, slightly annoyed, to find the Siren jutting her head towards the Pious while keeping her gaze on him. She is still smiling, a hint of insanity on the edge of her glossed lips.
Yes, crazy. Definitely crazy. Titus rolled his eyes as he crushed the paper.
This is going to be a long day.
An hour of debate and discussion has passed in which Titus found himself more and more uncomfortable with regards to the notions proposed as his previous calm and nonchalant face turned into quite a frown. His full attention now on the topic at hand as he furrowed his brows.
Rebels were said to be cruel and barbaric but these empiran means were worse. Scorched-earth tactics or making a statement with torture are but gentle compared to some of the proposed notions. Still, it did not prepare him for what the Pious said next.
“— so the Highlord has ordered us to use whatever means necessary. He has ordered the annihilation of the outlying villages to the west along with their inhabitants where the Sklä′vōs forces were spotted. —”
As they heard Pious words, as he stressed on the word ‘ annihilation’ the atmosphere in the hall changed rapidly—Even the perpetually silent Nemesis looked up, as if he had been awakened from his slumber.
Titus’s eyes widened in disbelief and suspicion. “Do you mean the uprooting and relocation of the settlements there?”
“No, the Highlord wants to make a statement with this. Those villages will be cleansed.”
“You cannot be serious! That’s blatant massacre!” Titus exclaimed in disbelief, “These villagers are innocent! We, as Empiran soldiers are sworn to protect them, not murder them!”
“Perhaps, but this is not just about the villagers or their alleged crimes of treason — this is about sending a message. A message to all the outlying villages and settlements that those who aided the rebels shall share a single fate. A message to all the people that the Sklä′vōs only bring death and destruction wherever they go. A message to the Sklä′vōs that the fruits that their actions wrought are but bitter bloody ones.” The Pious responded while fidgeting with his beard.
“How do you think the people will react to this unjust massacre? Of innocent women and children? Do you think they will still support the Empire if they know just how callous we are with the lives of our people? We’re talking about the unnecessary murder of innocent empire citizens here.” Titus questioned out of desperation.
The Pious smirked ominously, “That’s the beauty of the Highlord’s orders. We will make it look as if it’s the Sklä′vōs who murdered them all. This will be an opportunity for the Highlord to rally the support of the masses. We can use the hate of the populus to fuel our military efforts.”
Titus’s felt an inhuman chill run down his spine as the Pious’s words hit him like a stab through the heart with an icicle.
“It’s wrong, it’s an atrocity, these villagers are innocent, they do not deserve to die like animals because of crimes they did not commit! Even if one or two men aided the rebels, we don’t have to massacre them all! They are our people, damnit! There are innocent families! Have you no morals?” Pleaded Titus, visibly enraged.
“It’s the Highlord’s orders. His word is law. I do not have the authority to challenge his orders — “
“Fine,” Titus cut him off before slamming on the table with his clenched fist, “then i will go speak to him personally first thing in the morning tomorrow.”
A chuckle. The hooded figure across the table looked up with a sly chuckle.
“Too late, Purifier.”The Phantom hissed, catching Titus’s attention, “Why do you think Archon and Lich aren’t here?”
It took a moment to sink in before Titus reeled from the horror of the realisation — his face grimaced into shock and horror. His clenched fist slowly unclenched as he felt his throat dry as he swallowed hard. His breathing shallowed as he met the demented gaze of the Phantom.
“Yes, the cleansing is happening as we speak, young Purifier!” The Phantom coldly cackled. His menacing laughter turned to a sneer.
“Aww, is the high and mighty Purifier mad?” The Siren cooed, her hand playfully twirling her long luscious black hair.
Titus stared into space as he calmly uttered “No…” but inside, his heart slowed with a numbing chill as his mind raced through faces he had assigned to the innocent men, women and children. He got out of his seat and ran for the door.
“Where do you think you’re going? We’re not done! There’s more!” The Pious shouted imposingly with a wry voice at Titus as he made for the courtyard.
Titus did not reply as he ran towards his horse. His heart racing as fast as his mind. He could have sworn the Pious had a sly smile as if he had something else in his mind. Nevermind that, Titus sprinted to his horse.
All his life, his father has taught him to serve the Empire with his loyalty and strength, to have faith in the system.
He mounted on and headed for the west city gate, his horse galloping as fast as he could rein it. The silence and stillness of the evening is broken by his mount’s stride as he raced past the endless buildings.
To protect the Empire and its people, to protect them from the evils outside the Empire.
It will still be a good twenty minutes or so before he even reach the gates, his mind fearing the worst. His heart ached as the thought of his beloved father’s words echoed throughout his head.
“You are the pride of House Leviantus, son. You will serve the Empire and do us proud. You will protect the weak and defenseless. You will curb evil at its source and bring peace and security to the people.
His grip on the reins tightened as he try to go faster, his vision became a blur as he rode through the Gates.
Before long, he reached the nearest outlying village.
Charred corpses littered the streets amidst rows of destroyed huts. The putrid stench of charred flesh invaded Titus’s nostrils as the dying embers signaled the period of the atrocity but not its gravity. Titus dismounted from his horse as he surveyed the burning ruins.
Trust the empire. Swear fealty to the Highlord. Bear true faith and serve with unquestioning loyalty. “
He is too late. There are no survivors.
Titus crumpled to his knees.