The Battle on the Ivory Road.
The enemy fell upon us in the first hours of the morning, and he would have marched right through the camp without any resistance if it weren’t for the lonely lookouts that lit the warning fires knowing it spelled their doom. It was still dark when drums woke us all. Officers kicked us or hit us with their swords, orders flooding our ears before we had chased the sleep away. I had never seen so much chaos, with hundreds of men running around, putting on armors, unfurling the banners, praying the gods and cursing them in equal measure for their rotten luck. I looked for my banner and once I found it went to join my regiment. Faces passed beside me, tired, terrified, angry, solemn, gloomy, resigned, as faujdars yelled their lungs out and herd us like cattle.
For half an hour we followed the road north, marching by torchlight and slowly assimilating what was happening. Rumors ran up and down the columns. According to some, we had been chosen to stop the enemy’s advance until a proper response could be gathered. Veterans knew what those words meant and laughed without mirth: we were going to be sacrificed for time. Then they laughed with mirth at our reaction.
We reached a trading post for caravans where some rajah was establishing his headquarter. We saw warriors in heavy armor and carrying silver matchlocks barricading the entrances and turning the place into a bastion. They also evicted the last merchants who for some reason had not fled all the way to Cathay the moment they heard the slavers were coming.
We left the trading post behind and continued until we reached the place chosen for our stand. A place where tall grass grew on both sides of the road, enough to hide several regiments who might want to turn said road into a killing ground. The faujdars, already hoarse, yelled again and the regiments spread in the tall grass.
“Tulwars behind! Matchlocks in front!”
I followed mine and we took position between the grass and the empty plain, where we could see the road losing itself in the distance. In the dark, we could see flashes of light from time to time. Our sentinels were selling their lives dearly. This did nothing to assuage our fears. The veterans simply lie down on the earth and fell asleep; they knew by experience it could be hours or days before we could rest again. Most of us would not have slept had we tried. We could only stare at the darkness. And so we did until the first rays of sunshine illuminated the field.
“Here they come!”
In front of us, we could see the steppe devils reforming their lines as they exited the forest. It was a mob of green skinned headhunters and flesh eaters from the ash desert, so close now we could see their long tusks, vicious blades and bone totems. I had only seen a stuffed specimen in a temple; it took me time to understand I was just about to kill some of them myself. Or be killed and eaten by one.
“They are vermin, men! Carrion from the wastes! – said the veterans - Pierce guts, slit throats and then move on! You want to outlast them? Do not get bogged down! You feel alone in the grass labyrinth? Remember they will too. And they are the ones fighting far from their dunghills. Smile children, smile! We are blessed! Only cowards and dregs! No slavers and no artillery! For now.”
All conversations stopped when we heard the drum. Somewhere behind us, the rajah was sounding the call to slaughter. It filled me with a sense of dread and pride I had never felt. Even more when I saw the devils waver and then stop, cowered by the men blocking their path.
It did not last. Bullied by their chieftains and the lashes of overseers, they resumed their advance.
“Back to the grass!”
We obeyed and hid in the verdure. Only the faujdar and the matchlockmen remained in the open field. They will shot for as long as possible, and then the matter will be resolved with tulwars and knives. There will be no line of defense. All over the grass, every regiment and every man would fight on his own.
Waiting on one knee with the tulwar and the shield at the ready, I felt as alone as the veterans had warned. I couldn’t see the men closest to me behind the wall of green. I tried to pray and could not remember how; I heard my faujdar screaming orders. The veterans howled to the skies, taking the gods as witnesses of what was about to begin. Further even, I heard countless clawed feet trampling my land and a horde of cannibals from the steppes shrieking promises of blood and death.
Then I heard a single “Fire!” repeated half a dozen times further and further away.
The enemy was in range.
Both sides of the road, the matchlocks unleashed their first volley.
Every voice lost in the grass rose as one.
“The Thousand! The Land and the Heavens! Kanishka and Gandhara!”
That volley started the Battle on the Ivory Road.
I do not truly remember what happened during the next two hours. My memories are hazy, like a dream. I remember sounds, movements, aromas, flavors, stenches. Emotions above all.
I remember being blinded by the grass. I felt the matchlockmen retreating. I remember the sound of the cannibals entering the grass, and being consumed by terror. I remember the first screams, and the sound of a blade cracking a skull somewhere to my left.
I remember the grass opening in front of me and a vicious, green, tusked face staring with a mix of cruelty and animal stupidity. I do not remember striking it, but I remember a pain that reverberated through my arm and a bloody tulwar.
The grass shook like in a storm and the sound of combat drowned everything else. I walked blind, searching for a comrade. I found one. His killer was gnawing his arm when I found him. A moment later he was beating my shield with a mattock. I was sure my arm would break, but then something flew close to my face and the cannibal fell to the ground, a chakkar embedded in his skull. I never learned who throw it.
Those are my memories from my first combat. All the others were lost, if I ever had them. I do not know how long it lasted. Things only got clearer when I heard a voice I had learned to hate but that now sounded like a godsend.
“Forward! Kill! Kill!”
I followed the voice and reached the edge of the plain. The ground was covered in green devils and living ones fleeing back to the forest. I found my companions. They looked more tired and dirty that I ever thought possible and I wondered if I looked the same.
The matchlockmen took aim, shot and the rest of us ran. I felt curiously elated, my terror replaced by a mix of joy and anger. We went at them, killed those who fled and stabbed the wounded crawling on the ground. I saw companions ransacking the corpses. Those cannibals carried with them the boon of months of plundering.
I was still under the illusion that we had broken them completely. The cannibals ran from us and kept running until they reached the edge of the forest. There they stopped. A booming voice thundered across the plain from somewhere beneath the trees. A commanding voice unlike anything I had heard from the cannibals. In fact, they all suddenly grow ominously quiet.
Then we heard lashes and moans of pain.
Then the mob turned around and their attack began anew.
“Back to the grass! Matchlocks in front!”
Those were the next two hours of my life.
After two hours covering our right flank, a regiment collapsed. Pressed from all sides without any support, the cragsman from Devalaya broke rank one by one, then in groups despite their officers’ attempts to keep cohesion. We saw them run out of the grass and sprint through the plain, all thoughts of resistance forgotten, looking for safety with us. Behind them came wolf raiders dressed in skins and pelts. A chieftain on a wolf the size of a horse pointed his cleaver at us and howled like his mount.
“Back to the grass, dogs! Matchlockmen in front!”
A few of us tried to obey but stopped as the veterans didn’t move. This time we had gone too far. There was no way to outrun the wolves. They charged, convinced by the devalayan’s rout they could break us in the confusion. Even the faujdar looked resigned.
“Form a line! Raise shields! Veterans in front!”
Abjuring from every god ever known to man, he grabbed us by the neck if we moved too slowly into position. The wolves reached us too quickly and too far from the grass. We will have to fight in the open, exactly what we had tried to avoid.
First the devalayans reached us in disorder. They brought with them their lord, the jamindar of Chatiwanam, more dead than alive, almost carried by his officers and leaving a trail of blood behind him. After letting pass as many as we could, we closed the lines and unleashed a volley that killed some of the stragglers and the steppe devils striking them from behind.
The wolves reached us too quickly to do much else. The matchlockmen shot two volleys almost on top of each other. Those who still had chakkars throw them. Some wolves fell. The rest broke us.
Only the devalayan lancers prevented the line from collapsing entirely. The veterans vanished beneath a tide of fur and teeth. The second line fell like straw in the wind. I hacked at wolves and riders. A devalayan impaled a wolf through the mouth. As it trashed around to free itself, its rider raised his cleaver and ripped my shield out of my arm. I lost the sword in the melee; I grabbed him and threw him down his mount. We wrestled in the mud; friends and foes stepped on us, I remember clawing at his eyes, I carry the mark of his teeth on my arms. It lasted until my fingers closed on a dagger lying on the ground and I shoved it in his eye.
I was bloody and beyond reason, may the gods forgive me. I would have killed my mother and father had they walked in front of me. I hacked and hacked, around me gandharans and devalayans did the same with no more time for cursing or praying. All saved their breath for the next strike, then the next, so close to each other lances and even swords were almost useless.
Images blur in my mind. Only sounds remain vivid. Sounds of men killing and dying, of split skulls, chopped members, wolves tearing flesh from bones and steppe cannibals laughing through sharp teeth. I got to a point where I thought no other sounds had ever existed.
Until we heard a horn. A long mournful blast coming from our rearguard. Then we heard a gallop.
Someone had finally gathered an appropriate response.
Mounted archers dressed in the red and yellow of the Land of Chariots appeared on the road, spread all over the plain and showered the enemy with arrows. Behind them came riders of another kind. Warriors dressed in mail, with axes and maces and pointy helmets crowned with peacock feathers. Mounted on rams the size of ponies, they went straight for the wolves. The rams gored their way through their lines with such strength we heard bones breaking. Wolves and cannibals went down all around the mountain cavalry.
Fresh lancers and swordsmen pushed the enemy back. On the road came the Blue Turbans of Kartarpur, armored in silver and brandishing tridents. Behind them came rocket bearers. The reinforcements continued the persecution. There would be no retreat this time. The cannibal horde would not reach the forest for another try.
Around me, men covered in entrails fell to the ground, crying and kissing their medallions, then the earth, in gratitude. It gave us a few minutes of peace. A few blessed moments during which I thought we had averted catastrophe. I felt I had given the very last of my strength and that I would collapse and sleep for a year on the plain of our victory.
But the reinforcements stopped in their tracks.
From the forest came a line of short figures marching in lockstep to the sound of drums. At that distance we could see their heavy amours, the omnipresent beards, and cruel looking axes. Beneath a horned icon, a bare headed commander covered in iron raised his fist and roared. They all did.
The steppe devils were gone. So their masters were taking the field.
The rocket bearers were the first to react. Without waiting for orders, they planted their weapons on the ground and lit the fuses. Rockets flew and crashed between the iron lines. The steppe horde would have stopped, would have retreated. The iron slavers kept walking. They didn’t even speed up the pace.
A dozen officers screamed as one. “Sound the drum! Matchlockmen in front! I want messengers! Inform the rajah! We need the warrior caste! We need artillery! Sound the drum! Raise the banners!”
Then the faujdar noticed me. “To the grass, boy! The slavers are here! The battle has begun!”
Those words felt like a nightmare. They were enough to bring my sanity back, although I did not felt any gratitude at the time. I saw the slaughter surrounding me, heard the war drums, the rockets shrieking over my head, the iron boots on the ground, and felt a crushing sense of futility.
Lost in my nightmare, I noticed a veteran, one of the last ones. He was covered in black blood and brain matter, just like his mace, and a companion was bandaging his left hand. Three fingers were missing.
He looked at me and found the strength to smile. A resigned smile I hope the gods rewarded when his time came.
“Rejoice brother. No artillery yet”.
The Meeting of Two Storms.
Memories of Vindavarna Sukoh.
Dealing with the flanks was routine. It will not bring glory besides the satisfaction of duty fulfilled. But axemaster Barkhukan would fulfill it all the same. True to their worthless kind, the manlings would waste all troops they could spare trying to outflank their foes, refusing the honest combat they were offered in the center.
As if that could make any difference. The indans had spent all day trying to make the dawi-zharr dance to their tune. But you do not make Zharr-Naggrund shake. This war would only end the way the High Priest was engineering.
In the meantime, Barkhukan would purge the outskirts of the battlefield from the dregs of an army of dregs. Archers, light cavalry, skirmishers, rabble levies, all those who could not be trusted to hold a line.
The last ones had been almost children, praying and crying as his warriors made short work of them. Barkhukan had started the day with ten clansmen. He was down to six, but he could not count how many prey they had felled. Even in the outermost reaches of the left flank, the dawi-zharr were outnumbered.
And even there it made no difference.
Barkhukan cleaned his axe with a ragged turban an allowed his warriors a moment of rest. He was considering linking with the other detachments when a voice called to him.
“Axemaster!” It was Gharanth, and he was pointing at the corpses littering the ground.
Among the piles of hacked flesh, something was stirring. Seven chaos dwarfs looked with curiosity. A bloody, dirty manling rose to his feet.
He was a ruin even by Ind standards. A half-naked emaciated wraith, aged and dried like the mummies dotting the cold steppes of Zorn Uzkul, the skin crisscrossed by scars, old and very recent. Among manling dogs, age was not synonym with strength and wisdom. For all Barkhukan knew, they had thrown the ancients into the meat grinder along with the young to delay him.
Whoever felled that one did a thorough job. A clean horizontal cut through the gut pulsed with entrails about to slip out. A painful way of dying that would provide a long agony, enough for the enemy to ponder the folly of questioning the order of things.
The manling stood in silence, clumsily keeping his feet. He looked at the dwarfs without seeing them. His boggled eyes stared at emptiness, most likely consumed by too much pain to even scream.
Gharanth probably thought the same, for he closed on the manling and slowly raised the axe.
The old man’s long arms still gave him reach.
So he slapped him.
He slapped him and Gharanth fell to the ground, his throat ripped to shreds.
The old man wore metal claws hidden in his palms.
He ignored Gharanth trashing on the ground and took a step forward. What in the mines would have passed for a starved carcass walked toward the axes. His eyes were suddenly quite focused.
Then Barkhukan knew something was wrong.
The manling plunged ahead. Barkhukan’s clansmen rushed him. The bug-eyed indan moved between axes, evading them all. He ripped throats, gouged eyes. Not a word, not a sound. Grotesquely thin, he moved like a spider, a puppet on strings, evading rather than facing, killing with each slap. His guts started spilling out as he danced around the dwarfs and he showed no sign of caring, or noticing.
Before Barkhukan could make sense of what he was seeing, half a dozen dawi-zharr lay on the ground and he was alone. In front of him, a bearded ape had somehow become a terrifying prospect. With one hand, his foe pointed a bony finger at him, accusing or condemning, singling him out. On the other, a handful of beard locks caught in the claws, to taunt him. Intense eyes full of hatred stared with clear intent.
He knew. He had noticed the axemaster and had left him for last. For a moment Barkhukan wondered if the indan had led the youth to their death just to get close to an enemy’s champion, but at this point all the arrogance that came with his title meant little. Six dawi-zharr’s shadows linger around him, demanding vengeance.
The dwarf unleashed a barrage on the human, hacking and slashing, sticking to a pattern, changing it, never taking a step backward, forcing his foe to retreat or to face the axe. He chose retreat. The manling evaded every stroke but unlike his clansmen, Barkhukan never left him the chance to hit back.
All was well. The carcass facing him was an aberrant killer, a freak accident corrupting the order of things. He would never understand that there and then, facing him, Barkhukan was at home, his hatred and skill as close as brothers. He remembered dueling with his father for the first time. Every time his father gave him the lash for a failure, every time he let him kill a grobi as a reward. Every battle, every kill, every felled champion. He was the axemaster of clan Ruinstorm, come from Uzkulak for blood and glory. And he was going to kill this mockery of strength and sturdiness.
One cut to the leg. One to the arm. Another. Then another. His prey had stopped playing. No more dances and no more claws.
Then Barkhukan cut vertically and a slice of entrails fell to the ground. The ape’s eyes opened wide.
That was all. The corpse was dead, no matter what. He had only to make time and the indan would fall on his own. But he would not give him the privilege. His clansmen demanded more, had earned more from their commander. So when the axemaster saw the indan stumble backward, he prepared a violent strike aimed at the knee. To cripple, and give him time to excruciate.
He hadn’t ended the movement when he saw his mistake. As he pulled the axe away for the final strike, the ghoul froze, planted his feet on the ground and his arm stroke out like a snake.
The pain meant little. Now that the enemy had gouged his eyes out nothing mattered much, not even the fact that he was blind. Through the hate-filled, blood-fogged knowledge that he was about to die at the hands of a dying man, Barkhukan could only think of his left hand.
He had dropped the axe. His clansmen will go unavenged.
He stood tall and faced his killer, with empty sockets crying blood onto his beard.
“I will linger manling! Hashut be damned, I will linger over this battlefield until your breed burns to ashes! The High Priest is here! You will never escape his grudge! We are Zharr-Naggrund! We are the Realm of the Father!”
He never saw the hand that ended him. He heard a voice, weakened by pain but sinister as it aped Barkhukan’s language.
The hiss of a terrible old man.
“Ashes are good for the land. Kalyan burns gladly”.
May the Thousand, glory to them, and you, my reader, forgive me for devoting so much time to my own small, irrelevant testimony. I merely seek to transmit the feelings a man can have when thrown by duty and divinity in the middle of a war for the survival of all. It would be contemptible to forget all those who stood in the same storm and did not live to testify, for the gods choose to reward their devotion and bravery by raising them to their side on the same day they walked into hell without turning back. We do not lack witnesses and thanks to the munificence of the temple-school of Kollur, I was able to devote most of my life to finding them.
At Lake Sagartha, black skinned abominations from the wastes, leading their green kin, overran all opposition in a single tide. They brought down the doors of the palace, elevating a mountain of corpses with the blessed defenders who covered the entrance with their bodies to stop them. It was not to be; only those few who jumped into the lake lived to tell the tale. The steppe devils butchered their way to the edifices, rampaged through the halls and chambers, soiled and despoiled the sacred ponds filled with water from Father Gandak, and feasted on His blessed turtles as the venerable, imposing creatures tried to escape back to the water.
There are no witnesses of what happened next, but no one puts the priests’ devotion into doubt, and all know that once all hope was gone, they grabbed the icons and statues, jumped into the water and drowned, choosing the safety of the lake for their souls rather than the teeth of the cannibals for their bodies.
On the other side of the lake, where the water meet the forest, the slavers pushed their lackeys in front of them, refusing honest combat until the archers hidden in the trees left them no choice. They unleashed the first volley of the Battle under the Canopy. With them, came tamers from Baghnagar, mercenaries from the Tiger’s Den. Hidden in the undergrowth, they waited until the slavers forced their slaves to charge and then unleashed their most prized hunters: tigers from the southern jungles and venomous goshap lizards the size of horses.
In an instant the greenskins were routing, and those who did not found death at the end of an arrow, turned to shreds by claws or their members ripped from their sockets by reptilian jaws. The slaves scattered all over the forest, to be killed by patrols waiting in ambush, except for those who forgot what kind of masters they served and tried to retreat trough their ranks. The slavers cleaved a path through them. Gun volleys cut entire trees in half and heroes’ corpses rained all over the forest. One can still see stumps, burned and melted by unknown projectiles. Those trees never grew back.
On the other side of the forest, they brought lava-spewing cannons and torched the trees. The iron daemons marched through the fire, we fled it. In the middle of the flames, a guru wearing the leering mask of Yaksa, hit a small drum, indifferent to the inferno. As the warlock leading the daemons reached him, the ground shook and a giant cobra sprung from the ground, grabbed the warlock in its jaws and swallowed him whole. The slavers froze, stunned that their lord could be so shamefully dispatched. That hesitancy was fatal to many: the cobra stroke.
Then something happened, something no one has been able to explain, if the slavers’ maledictions are something to be explained. The cobra stopped its rampage and hissed furiously, all bloodlust forgotten. Veterans swore to me the snake’s body turned grey in front of their eyes, and they heard a terrifying voice coming from its inside. In an instant, the cobra turned to stone, and then disintegrated. Chunks of rock that were once flesh crushed friends and foes, dust covered the scene and the witnesses saw nothing more.
On the Ivory road, the grass burned and our best efforts failed in the end. After half a day of unceasing combat, my brothers were pushed beyond their limit and one after the other they ran, looking for safety in the trading post the rajah was cowering in. The Blue Turbans covered their retreat. Cut off from reinforcements, with half their numbers dead, the holy warriors moved to the road, raised their tridents and fought until the end like people who could ask for miracles but would rather do their duty. The trading post, now a redoubt bursting with swords and matchlocks, faced a siege by thousands. It lasted for another hour and when the iron daemons finally brought down the gate and poured in, someone set fire to the hundred bags of spices abandoned there by merchants. Both sides died in the flames or asphyxiated. Away from the pyre, we levelled the place with cannon fire to deny it to the slavers.
But we could not deny them the road to Taxila.
I wasn’t there to see it. Before that last charge, I was wounded by the axe that would leave me lame in the following days. I was part of the last group of wounded evacuated before the front collapsed.
I was far away when doom came for us all.
The Meeting of Two Storms.
Memories of Vindavarna Sukoh.
Ashes are good for the land.
Maybe in moderate quantities. That wide eyed fanatic might die for his land, but that would not be of any good for the land if it never recovered from the fire. As Niethlan’s mind lingered over the eternal exhaling his last breath, she wondered what was the point of all this display.
She was here as a show of friendship from the City of Spires, along with a cohort of swordmasters. Nothing but the best for the great king , she thought sarcastically. Maybe his reputation was unfounded if what she was seeing was anything to go by. The battle had raged for half a day and she failed to see any strategy beyond bleeding the enemy into numbness. There was nothing she did not expect from dwarfs of any kind, but she had hoped humans would prove more sensible, if only because it was their home being torn apart.
Maybe it was too much to expect.
She let her mind rose, far above the battlefield, her mind eye encompassing all it could. On the ground, she could see the small candles that were the souls of the mystical gurus, fighting and killing. From time to time, one of the candles flickered and vanished.
Two dozen points of slaughter. Two armies clashed in two dozen different encounters without much of a unifying purpose. The center of the indan line had just collapsed after hours of bitter fighting, but the dwarfs were not moving. They refused to capitalize on what should be the beginning of their victory. And more surprisingly, the humans had yet to engage their reserves.
The more she saw, the more she felt both sides were probing each other while refusing to push their luck on the main road. There was a discordant note in both strategies, the same note, as if they had come to this field of battle with an agreement.
She rose further, leaving the gurus behind. Further away, she felt a different kind of souls: roaring fires and granite. Dwarfs were truly like stones, in body, spirit and value. That any of them could challenge her in the Aethyr realm was still an unsettling revelation.
So she went farther that she had ever gone, looking to pierce the purpose of this variant of chaos thralls.
And she saw what waited and bided its time at the center of the horde.
She saw a gathering of warriors in bronze scales and bone masks. She saw overseers with minds of clockworks herding new captives and keeping tally, not even combat distracting them from their odious trade. She saw creatures breathing fire and the aethyr itself prowling around brazier altars. She saw bearded centaurs worshipping at the foot of a smoldering bull of black metal. She saw engines of destruction driven by demonic entities reduced to raw components. She felt minds filled to burst with contempt for all that walked or crawled.
She saw a coven of sorcerers siphoning the aethyr winds in preparation for what was to come.
And in the middle of their gathering, she saw the keystone of their ritual, a soul bright like a volcano.
She moved closer and for a chilling moment felt like a moth mesmerized by a lamp.
Then she felt like smashing into a wall. The world exploded around her, the shock was enough to send her back into her body. She opened her true eyes and felt blood in her mouth. Without the swordmasters watching over her, she would have collapsed, her head was in agony and it took all of her training to subsume the pain until she could think again.
Her thoughts were not pleasant. There was something waiting on the Ivory road, someone who refused to be spied upon. A mind that knew her now. A mind that she was sure was orchestrating this battle plan… A battle plan the indans seemed to follow in their own way.
Two armies whose hatred for each other did not stop them from holding the decisive strike, both in the same place, as if waiting for a sign from each other.
A frenzied duel between two souls.
One, Niethlan would meet shortly. The other…