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At the same time in the Bay of Fire, Empire of Corasan, Eastern Northland
The evening twilight lay upon the wooden town that is built at the greyly-green shores of the Fire Marshes. A last unit of slender swamp cruisers was touching at the port, delivering some cargo from the big city of Marcuria, mostly food and medicine – things that had been lacking for quite some time in this unfertile seat of mosquitoes.
Kara did not mention it to anyone, but for some people this was help at the last moment.
The mayor of the rebel hideout looked down on her list with the town quarters and compared it to the amounts that were given by the Captain. It was really something to behold, she had to admit, even more so considering the difficulties they had to face in order to get here. Raven really knew what person to trust with what task, and her determination and strategic wit still found very few boundaries. Except her usual recklessness.
But this was of no concern – the workers waited for her commands. Many different chests and bundles were to be sorted, while others had to be lifted up with cranes.
The work ran fast beneath willing hands, and the hidden joy of the workers was almost contagious, though Kara knew how fleeting such joy could be. After all, she had witnessed the arrival of the Azadi, ten years ago, when they had flown above the roof tops of Marcuria and driven out the damned Tyren from the city. Sure, the methods had been cruel – it was reported that the Azadi had poured hot pitch upon the heads of their enemies – but the many casualties suffered under the Tyren invasion were far too thorough to held any pity alive. Marcuria’s inhabitants were just glad to return in their houses and be there safe with their families, while the Azadi took over the provisory government.
Any conflict that had risen before the invasion had by now been put to rest in the sub-conscious. It took some time to establish some order in the town, and the Azadi claimed their interest in helping Marcuria’s inhabitants in doing so. They brought new machines, new technologies to the city, raised building materials and put their stamp on the city with an iron fist. Kara, like many, was intrigued by the new trends of technology more than by the wonders of the everyday life.
And in return the Azadi only asked for the belief in their Goddess, abandoning all other religions. The Sentinel of the Balance were expelled from their temple, and sometime later, the Magicals were expelled from their houses as well - they would not be worthy of this comfort the humans gave to them, they would only be parasites for the noble race born by the Goddess...
Kara was still so full of anger when she thought of these days, when old friends fought with each other about this cause, arguing whether this was worth the new order or not. Too many were greeting these new conditions, claiming the Magicals were thieves and rapists any way...
Two years later Kara had enough and joined the rebel squads that had been working underground for quite some time, helping the Magicals in need and agitating against the Azadi… back then without violence.
But fate had not been kind to their movement. They had to take up arms and fought the new reign of terror by hand. Kara was not often in the first line for this part, since she had always been a mere shopkeeper. But she was present, witnessed the struggles and helped in the background, until she was chosen to be one of the council members. And with that it was just a matter of time until she had the position of a spokeswoman, making decisions mostly in agreement with the foundation of their movement.
It has been never easy, and since the Azadi expanded their colony in the Northlands to Corasan and Irhad, many refugees had come to the rebel bases – some of them prosecuted for their race, some for their chosen religion. Kara and the council were still trying hard to keep up with this task, but by now some rebel leaders were fed up with patience and wanted to bring the war into the heart of the Azadi Empire. Among them – most furious as usual – Raven.
And since recently Benrime Salmin, a loyal ally of the movement and good friend of Raven, had been incarcerated by the Azadi, the dark-haired warrior had demanded an official rescue mission – such an reckless undertaking it would have meant the doom of everyone involved in it.
Kara had of course declined any such attempt, but she knew that Raven would certainly try some under-handed tactic to gain sympathy for her cause. Some dirty, sneaky way to avoid the pain of despair. Raven had nothing in her life except fight and she acted with no concern to the consequences when she threw herself in the battle. The feelings in her heart were clearly recognizable in her cold blue eyes – it was the wish for death.
Why could she not see that little sacrifices were par of the course by now.
Maybe Kara would have done the same like her… in younger years... in the days of anger... but these days were unimportant right now, in the middle of their low point...
Meanwhile, Jiran, her assitant had asked her about the destination for a certain bundle of herbs, and Kara, unsettled about her melancholy, tried to remember the name of a certain healer who ordered it.
But she couldn’t. A strange uneasiness had fallen on her. Her finger trembled when she ran through the lists – as if she could feel some wild giant predator in the jungle behind the town, laying its eyes on her. Maybe some liger or fangwar.
Which was total nonsense since they had certain barriers against dangers of this kind.
Kara was pulling their nerves together for the moment, when suddenly a noisy hiss raised above the tree tops.
Kara and Jiran turned around right away, searching first in the black shadows and then in the dark-blue sky, only shortly noticing a firecracker.
A spontaneous bonfire or an act of sabotage?
Kara decided to not take the risk and to send Jiran, accompanied by an escort, to the nearest barrier.
Some fearful minutes passed by. Kara sat down and studied her list again, counting the portions she could take to one or the other.
But when her finger went to the bottom, she noticed it – the slightly growing shadow, the hollow humming in her ear.
She tried to unhear it, but it only got louder and louder, as if it... crawled out of her memory.
No, no, that was not possible.
But then she turned around, and standing up she realised that the past had come to take its toll.
The cloud ships of the Azadi were coming!
Remembering the way the Tyren died, Kara ordered her people to not seek shelter and to split up as far as possible, but to stay near to safe ground.
First the main ship hovered further down to some north eastern pier, and a dozen soldiers swung down on ropes, not far from Kara and her workers.
But surprisingly they turned away and marched to the pier itself, that led to nowhere.
Some of the workers took their axes and knife to hand, but Kara stopped them right away, for she saw the other vessels sliding down to the roofs, releasing their forces on Boldterre, Snapjaw’s Cove and Bunnvik in the south west.
Kara heard the emergency bells, saw the fiery arrows raising from the grounds, but she knew she could not dare a fierce battle, instead sending her people to the central square of this quarter, Candredville.
There they awaited the Azadi with cold fury.
But their enemy did not follow them in the midst of the wooden circle. They kept their spears down, only waiting on the edge of the place.
Then their hands went down to their girdles, taking out little wooden staffs.
Kara became nervous, but her reason still held her back. Her hand rested on her sword shaft, while she looked in the eyes of her enemies, and once again she asked herself in unease: Was it really so smart to wait?
Then one of the western warrior pulled out the staff and focussed it in her direction.
There was no way, this could be another weapon, no wand or any other magical instrument. But Kara could not ignore the immediate danger. She sprang aside, escaping a loud “Bang”, and stormed straight ahead to the enemy, her sword fully exposed.
This was the signal for the others to begin, starting a massacre that Kara hoped to not witness again some minutes before. Soon blades clash against each other, bones are crushing, wood is splitting apart, fire rushes through the air. In a few seconds blood drops on the planks.
But only few of it belongs to the enemy.
Just three minutes later Kara lost one half of their fighters and stood against one fair-skinned Azadi officer, member of the second highest rank, as far as she could tell.
For once, she could block his long polearm. Noticing the sweat on her forehead, Kara let the sword rotate in her fingers, pressing the blade of the spear down.
Then she pulled away, trying a side attack to her enemy’s neck, but getting blocked by the staff, the Azadi pushed the polearm’s blade to her knees.
Kara pulled herself away, prancing to the central tree in the square, and then returned with an attack to his elbows, which he – again - blocked.
But with this counter-attack the thorn of the polearm cuts in her robe, throwing her whole body to the ground.
Terrified Kara tried to stand up, but the Azadi managed to make one more dangerous spin and then... rammed the thorn through Kara’s robe in the wooden ground, nailing her down.
Without hesitation he then took out a blank sabre, pointing it mercilessly on Kara’s throat. But his final swoop failed when Kara throw herself aside, released the robe and stood up, her leather armour still intact and the sword sharp.
The fight went on, but Kara’s fierce attacks could hold no water to the skilled training of the western warrior.
In the end, the inevitable happened: Her stamina fell to low, she had to retreat, but saw in her back the resistance of a wooden wall and – more terrifying – a closed door and fearful eyes behind a window.
Kara still countered an attack, but in the same swoop she threw her fist against the glass, the eyes disappeared, the light inside the house vanished.
Unfortunately, that was distraction enough: The sabre fell down to the wood, cutting into Kara’s hair, hitting her ear, going down in her shoulder.
The sudden pain had brought Kara’s system out of order and let her tumble to the ground. She still stood on her feet, but the next attack was too much for her.
Her arm fell down, too weak for any further defence. Also, some kind of paralysation had fallen on her left half, making any motion painful and uncoordinated. The battle noise hardly came through to her, and only then she realised the loss of her ear.
She still felt the next hits, but in her mind everything was already over, and she put her soul at rest.
In the moment of her defeat she grabbed the mantle of her enemy, pulling him down with his sabre hit and looking into his grave, dignified eyes. She had heard once how the Azadi greet Death as a friendly servant of the Goddess, who only carries the evil and mislead heathens away, while the true believers were sent to the Goddess herself to be reborn.
It was an idle thought in her eyes... but was any other option better? Was death as a release from earthly suffering really so much better... or would her fight have meaning for somebody?
What would Raven see?
Kara can already hear the iron tubes in the cloud ships, casting the fire over the town… somewhere the young Brynn throws himself in the battle, Raven’s name his battle cry... then Chawan follows him, roaring like a jergas-lion...
She is feeling herself floating away, below her some wooden planks, that already have burst...
... and below that, in the water, a woman's body, bleeding from a wound in her rib cage.
She’s still alive - the dark hair floating around her pale face, while her lips continue to struggle for air and her eye lashes are fluttering nervously. She winds her body against the pain and the incoming fishy predators, but in the end, she gives up any petty attempt.
Kara wishes her a last goodbye, half pitiful, half spiteful. She also believes to recognize a strange glow deep down in the lake, but that may be an illusion.
Her own mouth opens for a last sigh, when the warrior named Raven sinks into the depths of the water, down to the light.