I. TURBULENT BEGINNINGS
From the memoirs of
Sebastian Delano Blayac
In the year 1325 AE
“It’s one piss poor excuse for a day,” Caleb said between striking a match on his boot heel and lighting his pipe.
"Looks that way, all right." I leaned against the railing of our sluggishly moving skiff-tank, Pathfinder, and peered out at the storm clouds looming above the jagged formation of rocks that passed for hills in this desolate area.
The sky was a somber gray, illuminated by occasional flashes of lightning. Thunder echoed off the jagged rocks with blustering and increasing regularity. A fine mist snaked through the valley and hills like the sinuous form of some spectral dragon. It seldom rained in this region, but when rain came, it was sudden, furious, and never lasted long.
Shortly after sunrise, the Pathfinder along with another skiff-tank, the Reaper's Revenge, entered a section of Kofteros known as the Dagger Hills. I had been on edge ever since we crossed the border. There was something in the air other than the approaching storm. A sensation that had caused the hairs to stand up on the nape of my neck and my skin to break out in gooseflesh.
Caleb noticed this (not much escaped his watchful eye) and he clapped me on the arm.
“What’s got you spooked, boy?”
“Do you feel that?” I asked. “I've got this sensation. Like...I don’t know. It’s hard to explain.”
Caleb blew smoke through his nostrils and grinned. “Like some giant’s foot is about to come down and stamp us into the dust, you mean?”
I considered this and nodded. “Aye. Just like that. Do you feel it too?”
“I do,” Caleb said. “We’re being watched. And whoever’s doing the watching doesn't have our best interest at heart.”
“Think they’ll pick a fight?” I looked the hills over, but there wasn’t a soul in sight. If the enemy was out there then they were well hidden.
“So what if they do?” Caleb said. “Relax. If something happens then it happens. Worrying will only make it that much worse, believe me.”
I gave another nod, this one less assured, and continued to watch the jagged hills for any signs of movement. Kofteros sat in the far western region of the Deadlands, far enough from the eastern empire of Elysium and its surrounding provinces that most of its land remained free of imperial control.
That isn’t to say that our emperor, the wise and canny Arius Adrastus, did not have his eye on the territory and its many resources, but in those turbulent days, as we fought to expand the Great Walls of Elysium farther into the surrounding Deadlands, a place as far removed from the cradle of civilization as Kofteros barely warranted a second glance.
Because of this, many barbarian tribes called the place home. Their clans were diverse and well-organized. Most had been forced into the region by the empire's continued expansion, making them hostile towards both the inner and outer territories. They would often raid neighboring towns or passing caravans and retreat back across the border, knowing that what scant authority existed in the area would think twice about following.
That the empire’s elite cavalry scout regiment would be sent to such a wretched place was a sure sign that the already strained relationship we had with the barbarian tribes had gone from bad to downright unfriendly.
A report had filtered in several days earlier pertaining to an expedition led by one of the emperor's vassals, the famous explorer Alton de Breilmaier. It appeared Breilmaier had encountered hostiles while searching for a route through the Knochen Mountains, which acted as a natural barrier between Kofteros and the Skala Sea to the northwest.
Breilmaier had hoped to open up trade with the island-folk said to exist just off the coast. The wealth of exotic goods these sea-faring people were rumored to harbor would easily fill Elysium's near depleted coffers. Needless to say, things had not gone as planned. The scouts were dispatched to search for survivors, if any were to be found.
We were nearing the point where Breilmaier had sent his last frantic transmission, stating that he was overwhelmed by Deadlanders and in need of immediate assistance. From my position on the Pathfinder's deck all appeared peaceful enough (or as peaceful as a group of jagged hills can look, that is).
“Do you think we'll find them?” I asked.
“Alive or dead?” Caleb said.
“Either, I suppose.”
“Hard to say. We must stay optimistic, but the reality of the situation doesn't bode well for anyone in that party.”
“And if they're all dead?”
Caleb puffed thoughtfully on his pipe. “Then we bury them and track down their killers.”
“To dispense justice?”
“Aye. If it helps you sleep at night.”
I glanced at Caleb, curious what he meant by that last remark. I knew better than to ask him. Some things he would tell me, others he would have me ferret out on my own. I had a feeling this was one of the latter.
“The barbarians are butchers,” I said. “They deserve what they get.”
“We're infringing upon their lands. Tell me, what would you do if things were the other way around?”
“The emperor only wishes to unite the lands.”
“With us on top.”
“What's wrong with that? Someone has to be, right?”
Caleb laughed. The wisdom of his forty-three years was evident in every line of his long, weathered face. I had known the man my entire life. Caleb and my father had served together in the military and fought in many campaigns together, earning each others trust and respect.
“There isn’t a man living I’d rather have watching my back,” my father once told me. High praise indeed coming from Alexandro Blayac, captain of the emperor's second legion and hero of the Boggarian Wars.
It was while Caleb and my father were off fighting in those very wars that I was born in the kitchen of our stately cottage, delivered by the cook and chambermaid. My mother, Lena, better known in polite society as the Lady Andreea, named me Sebastian, after my grandfather. I was the sixth of twelve siblings, and the third of four boys.
My family descended from a long line of heroes, whose exploits dated back to the empire’s sanguineous beginnings. From Xenodoros Blayac, who was instrumental in overthrowing Elysium's last king and paving the way for imperial rule, to Kol Blayac, who braved the Sorrowing Seas in search of pirates, our name carried with it a sense of pride and duty.
We had a responsibility to always be the first into battle and the last to leave, either on our feet in victory or carried off on our shields in defeat. It had always been this way, and the expectation was that my brothers and I would carry on the tradition. Not that we needed much prodding. Ours was a military family, after all. Service to the empire was the greatest honor one could achieve.
This was not to say that my father skimped on our education in favor of military service. To the contrary, Alexandros spared no expense when it came to his children's schooling. He understood that a well-honed mind was the greatest weapon in a soldier's arsenal. You had to be able to out-think your enemies on the battlefield, to predict their every move, and outwit them at every turn.
I had an insatiable hunger for knowledge from an early age. By my tween-years I was so far ahead of my fellow students that my teachers allowed me access to the archives between classes. I spent hours here poring over the histories of the ancient world, much to their approval. Most were convinced that once I had completed my mandatory service in the military I would forgo a soldier's life for that of an academic. How little they truly knew me.
I was my father's son. I lusted for the glory of battle as he once did. Never could I envision wasting away my days in some stuffy classroom as my chances for honor and everlasting renown gradually faded with the passage of time. So if it was true that I shined in my studies of the spirit and of the mind, then I all but radiated in my physical education.
Classes were primarily taught by lamed or retired soldiers who took their role of overseeing the next generation of soldiery with the utmost seriousness. Their jobs were to keep us fit, teach us the art of war, and see that we understood what was required of a vassal under the standard of our glorious emperor.
I graduated from the academy at the age of seventeen with top honors, ready to serve and die for the empire. I was given the chance soon after alongside my father and two eldest brothers, Joonas and Alaric, at the disastrous Battle of Tarkat. This was the emperor's first attempt at expanding the overpopulated empire farther into the surrounding Deadlands.
As anyone schooled in our rich history knows, Elysium did not always encompass the vast territory it does today. When originally constructed by the kings of old, the walls that enclosed the inner kingdom were meant to contain only a limited population. However, with the passing of several centuries and the transformation of the kingdom into an empire it wasn’t long before overcrowding led to disease, starvation, and death.
It took the Great Plague of 1314, which wiped out nearly a third of the population, to convince Emperor Adrastus that expansion was a necessary action. This was by no means an easy task. It meant seizing land currently occupied by other inhabitants. Some saw the writing on the wall and surrendered without a fight. The majority, however, wasn’t willing to go as quietly.
Tarkat was a relatively small province in Voor, an eastern region close to Elysium’s great walls. Barbarian tribes had been settling on the land for generations, all but thumbing their noses at imperial rule. Our armies lay siege to Tarkat in 1322, but we were ill prepared for the resistance we faced. The Deadlanders were outnumbered two to one, but they fought with a savage fury that was frightening to behold.
Many of our troops, mostly young boys no older than myself, broke formation and fled in every conceivable direction. The middle of our great phalanx collapsed. The officers tried vainly to reform the ranks. Most were slaughtered for their efforts, my father among them with an arrow through the neck. Alaric joined him seconds later.
Joonas and I made our stand along with the remnants of our army at what has been christened 'Reaper's Rock' by historians. Our situation looked helpless, but at that moment Caleb, who had been leading a separate attack to the north, managed to reform a thousand men into a brigade and attack the enemy from the rear.
Caleb's first wave shelled the entangled mass of combatants from a distance to soften them up for the impending attack. He was aware that he would be hitting friend as well as foe, but under the circumstances he had little choice. In the end, the opposition sounded the retreat, Joonas was killed by mortar fire, and Caleb was given a medal.
It wasn't long after that infamous battle that Caleb paid a visit to my family, offering his condolences for our loss and to beg forgiveness for his part in my brother's death. I thanked him for his kindness and assured him that neither I or anyone in my family bore a grudge against him for what had happened to Joonas. Caleb was a soldier fulfilling his obligation to win the battle at all cost. Had he not come to the rescue we all would have dined with the gods that day.
Caleb took me under his wing, becoming both my teacher and close friend. I learned that he once served as a member of the royal guard. He was quite intelligent, and was often called upon as an adviser to the emperor. I once asked him why he chose the life of a soldier when he could have easily spent the remainder of his days in the palace, content with his usefulness to the empire in any number of ways.
He smiled that sad smile of his that somehow passed for amusement and told me what I already suspected. He had an adventurous streak in him that could not be fulfilled any other way. He, like myself, wanted to explore, to carve new paths, to do something glorious with his life before he lost it to that unrelenting bastard, death. It was a sentiment I could easily understand.
Meanwhile, The senate was alarmed at how dearly Tarkat had cost us right out of the gate. An estimated twenty-eight thousand loyal subjects were reported dead. Another thousand were missing in action. Most were deserters who fled into the Deadlands during the battle, rightfully afraid to return and face our emperor's wrath. The cost of vehicles and equipment strained the already over-taxed plebs. Riots became a common occurrence in the streets.
The senate feared a full scale revolt if something wasn't done to quell their rage. They pleaded with Emperor Adrastus to call off his campaign, but he would have none of it. Instead, scapegoats were culled from the ranks. Generals, advisers, and instructors all found their necks under the executioner's ax. The emperor condemned his army as weak and undisciplined, unworthy of their roles as guardians of the empire.
That is, with the exception of us few who stood our ground at Reaper's Rock; we who fought and died to maintain a foothold into the undiscovered country. We were basked in glory. The emperor honored us further by announcing his plans to create an elite special operations unit, beginning with those of us who had shown our true hearts at Tarkat. The unit's primary duty would be to clear the Deadlands of all who opposed the expansion of our glorious empire.
So it was that the Cavalry Scouts were formed.
“...thinking it over?”
“Pardon?” I snapped from my daydreaming and shot Caleb an apologetic look.
“What I said earlier about us and the Deadlanders,” Caleb went on. “About what you would do if our roles were reversed. Have you thought any more on it?”
I sighed and said, “Is this another of your quizzes? Like the ethical judgments of soldiers during war and the difference between duty and revenge?”
Caleb puffed on his pipe and smiled. “Something like that.”
“What I don't understand is how you can defend these savages from a moral standpoint but not even hesitate when it comes time to kill them.”
“I do my duty as a soldier. It doesn't mean I can't sympathize with my enemy's plight.”
I looked over my shoulder to see if anyone was listening. “Careful what you say. The wrong ears might hear.”
“Relax,” Caleb said. “My loyalty is above suspicion. As is yours, so quit avoiding the question.”
A burst of thunder echoed through the hills. I closed my eyes, relishing the cool breeze on my face as I considered Caleb's words. At last I shook my head. “I don't know what you want me to say.”
“Maybe I just want you not to lose sight of yourself.” Caleb blew a smoke ring into the air. The ring stretched to the point of breaking and then slowly dissipated as it drifted away. “You're a lot like your father, Bas. He was a good man, but all too often he put his duties above his own feelings. He did things that would come back to haunt him later in life.”
“So what,” I said, “you want me to put my personal feelings above my responsibilities to the empire?”
“I want you to think for yourself. Do your duty, but not at the cost of a guilty conscience.”
I laughed and clapped him on the back. “No worries, old man. My conscience is clean.”
“Good,” Caleb said humorlessly. “Enjoy it while you can.”
We watched the approaching storm in silence. It was 1325, nearly three years since Tarkat and the formation of the scouts. Before that battle I was a wet-eared pup fresh from the academy looking to make a name for himself. Now here Caleb and I were, well beyond the farthest reaches of explored territory. We stood in full battledress, our armor finely polished and gleaming despite the overcast day. Our helmets and ordnance were stored in the armory below deck.
Elysium's most renowned blacksmiths were tasked with creating the scouts' armor. What they produced exceeded the expectations of even the most enthusiastic among us. The armor was lightweight but ballistic-resistant and covered our chests, shoulders, and outer thighs. The remainder of our bodies were encased in aramid fiber suits that would automatically inflate over wounds to stop bleeding until medics could intervene.
Our helmets were designed with a special telescopic visor that could switch to infrared to better see in the dark. It also had a built in comlink, allowing us to keep in contact with each other during battle. This left our hands free to use any number of weapons built specifically for the scouts.
Chief among our arsenal was the battle-staff, a five foot metallic stave with a curved blade on one end and a barrel built into the other, which was capable of discharging twelve rounds of shot-shells. The battle-staff tilted the odds in our favor in close-quarters combat. We were trained mercilessly in the use of this weapon until we could wield it with deadly accuracy.
The .38 'Scourge' auto pistol was capable of firing forty rounds of ammunition without reloading. This was due to an extra magazine built into the pistol's grip. When one magazine emptied it automatically switched to the back-up. This little feature was handy in a life or death situation.
There was also the usual assortment of weapons carried by all soldiers—knives, grenades, back-up pistols, long-range rifles and the like—but the most unusual device in our arsenal was the LHED (Low-amperage High-voltage Electrical Discharge).
This piece of hardware could fire a jolt of electricity capable of stunning your prey for questioning, or, with the flick of a switch from low to high, fry him to a crisp. The LHED was large and cumbersome and took approximately sixty seconds to recharge after firing, so the scouts seldom relied on it when in the field.
Our cavalry cycles were made of lightweight armor along with a bullet proof face shield and two mounted machine guns on either side of the foot controls. Due to the Deadlands' rough terrain these wondrous machines were constructed sans wheels. Instead, they could hover up to five feet from the ground via an anti-gravity generator mounted beneath the bikes. This allowed us to ride freely without the worry of losing a wheel or becoming interred in anything from quicksand to man-made traps.
The cycles were quite expensive and meant to be used only for short distances. They, along with their riders, were transported from skirmish to skirmish within the protective hull of a skiff-tank. These armored behemoths were operated by a captain and crew, and served as a mobile barracks for the scouts during missions.
We lived ten to a room in twenty double-bunk compartments to a tank. It was cramped at best. To relieve the claustrophobia we often went topside to mingle with the crew or take pot-shots at wildlife and the occasional dust-dweller. This got so out of hand that the captain would allow only a few of us on deck at a time. We began drawing lots for the privilege and even getting into rows over it until our commanding officers threatened to ban going topside all together if we didn't shape up.
So was the glorious and much romanticized life of a cavalry scout. Truth is, we did see a lot of action in that first year, but as time drew on the Deadlanders learned to both fear and avoid us. With the steady decrease in opposition we were reduced to endless hours of sitting wedged between our brother scouts in compartments lingering with the smell of flatulence and body odor.
To kill time we cleaned our weapons, wrote home to loved ones, played endless games of Capture the Ace, pulled pranks on our superiors, and jerked off (the last of which we did with great zeal at every given opportunity). With egos swelling from past victories we were lulled into a false sense of security. We were the emperor's elite. A force to be reckoned with. The whole of the Deadlands cowered at our approach.
In other words, we grew soft. The Deadlanders did not. That they feared us was true. That they went into hiding was also true. But it was not to cower, but to wait—and to plan.