Bonded In War
The first rays of the sun had just crested the rocky hills that marked the entrance of the valley. We had entered the previous night and made our way to a spot we could rest, shielded from the heat that would soon be on us. My eyes scanned every bush and pebble between our vantage point and those hills with all the scrutiny I could muster. We had climbed the loose shale about 75 feet to reach this outcropping of rocks, easing our bodies into the shade that would provide us relief until noon. Once satisfied our pursuers had not followed us in as of yet I allowed myself a few moments to look at my partner.
Her name was Sa’aleen. She was a proud Centari who was, in my opinion, far too young to have seen the tragedies that bonded us together an eternity ago. At least it had seemed an eternity ago. My life was different than hers had been. My world had been filled with violence and struggle since the day I opened my eyes. The food I ate, the place I rested…it all came at a cost. But her, she was different. Her parents were well to do, owning a successful jewel and orb shop in the capitol city of Tela Salar. She herself was a talented leatherworker with a promising future when the Grave War broke out. Her mother often spoke to her of a distant relative named Portine who had been instrumental in keeping their home safe during The Second War when the Voth invaded Quel'Anora. She also told her of the tragedy that befell her at the hands of Ha’aness, the Deathbringer. Ha’aness had invaded their lands when Sa’aleen was just a wisp of a girl.
The official story was that General Portine had died honorably in battle against Ha’aness and his undead minions and her body had burned to ash in the fires that consumed half of Tela Salar. Her mother told her the true story when she was old enough so that she would know the lineage that coursed through her veins. She told her how Ha’aness had captured Portine, tortured and mutilated her body finally killing her and resurrecting her as the first of the Gravers. She spoke proudly of how Portine overcame the hold on her and forced Ha’aness to retreat to Icelandia and then became The Dark Ranger, ruler of the Gravesent. When word came of the immanent battle between the feared Ha’aness and the forces lead by General Portine once again, many of the younger Centari had been drafted to serve in their army despite any social or political influence they might have.
Like my friend, I too did not come to enter the battles of my own free will. I was taken from my home and sent to a training facility, taught the arts of tracking and killing and finally sent to a place called New Astara in Centar to be paired with a partner and sent to battle.
I remember fondly the first time I saw Sa’aleen. She was standing quietly, her green eyes studying me intently. I could sense she was looking for something, but what? Eventually she spoke to me, her soft calming voice resounding in my ears and I knew I had found the partner I wanted. Many other spoke with me that day but Sa’aleen was the partner I wanted. I could feel the strength and determination she held, the tenacity and the compassion. Attributes that would no doubt make her one of the best the Centari ranks would ever see.
As the senior member of our team she would have the final say and I was delighted when the sergeant pointed to me and then to Sa’aleen. We set out on the road that day, the two of us, and for the next three years, we were sent from unit to unit as advanced scouts, finding and exposing every Gravers encampment on the long bloody road to Ha’aness and his final destruction. I was never more proud in my life than I was on the day that Lady Portine herself commended us on the work we had done.
Over those years, I learned so much about my partner, and she about me. I had known early on that my feelings had turned to love yet that was the one emotion I could never read in her. I never knew if she felt the same way. I knew I was important to her and that she was fond of me, but that isn’t love. Love was the one emotion she was able to keep inside throughout our long march to victory.
And just as quickly as we had found ourselves in the armies of Centar, we were now free to return to our homes. The thought of leaving Sa’aleen now at this point in our lives never passed my mind and I happily took up with her on her long road to her home. You must understand that to say I loved her was an understatement. I would fight and kill for her, and if need be I would die for her. She was the single most important person in my life. And I daresay she realized she felt the same about me and was now able to show it. Once she understood this, I believe she was truly happy with our decision to stay together.
Lost in the memories that flooded my mind as I gazed at her took me away from my duties just long enough for the band of hooded figures that had been following us to enter the valley. If not for the careless step of one of them and the snapped twig below his foot, they might have gotten close enough to find our trail up the hill. Before I could turn to signal her, Sa’aleen had worked her way to where I was already crouched behind a boulder to watch this strange group with me.
"That's them alright my love", she said quietly as they made their way through the valley. "The same group that has been with us since we left Unam. I think it's time we found out what they want."
She slid back noiselessly and slipped her armor back on. She hurriedly gave me silent instructions to hold my position until she engaged them and then to circle behind the group and await her orders. Even after our discharge, she still gave the orders and I still followed them without question. I watched from the boulder as she allowed herself to slide down the shale, noting that she wiped out the tracks we had made earlier in our ascent. I also watched as the hooded ones ran towards the clamor she made as she descended the hill.
"Ho girl!" said one of the men, his features still obscured by the hood of his cloak. "We have been trying to catch up to you since you departed the halls of Bashardon!"
"Bashardon is now known as Gravesgate", replied my wary huntress, "and the home of the Rangers. It is a city of the dead. The city you speak of is long gone as you will be unless you tell me what business you have with me."
No less than seven of the hooded figures stood before her now and the one who had hailed her now laughed at what she had said. He slowly pulled his hood back revealing his Vothian race. Beneath his robes, she could see the edge of his war axe releasing a flash of the morning sun that was rapidly climbing over the hills to the east. Her own fingers moved slowly over the hilts of her own axes that hung by her side.
"Now now little one" the Voth laughed. "We have not threatened you. Our people are allies now thanks to Ha’aness. My name is Gorrnas and we have come to offer you salvation. Besides, there are seven of us and I see your friend is not with you. Has he gone off on his own or is he lurking somewhere in the hills waiting to fly to your aid?"
"His business is his own gentlemen" she replied, "and I can assure you I am very much able to care for myself. Now what is this salvation you offer?"
Once again, I could hear them laughing and my blood boiled at this blatant disrespect directed towards the woman that held my heart. I inched closer; silent as the grave I would send them to if she gave the command. They had all removed their hoods and moved themselves in a semi-circle in front of Sa’aleen. My ears could hear all they said as well as the clanging of weaponry beneath their robes.
"The salvation is this little one," their leader said in his gruff voice. "We are from a group known as The Dusk Cult. We bring a message from our master that all life in Centar and all the lands surrounding it will be wiped out save for our group. Join us and save yourself. One as talented as you would be invaluable in our search for pockets of resistance. We hope you can persuade your friend to come along as well."
I watched Sa’aleen's face as they spoke. I knew she felt what I felt, and I could see her heart sink as mine did. After witnessing so much death and destruction, the promise of uninterrupted peace had just been snatched away from us. No sooner does one threat die than another comes to take its place.
"I have no desire other than to return to my home gentlemen," she said sadly. "My entire life has been nothing but blood and death for the last three years and I wish it over with now and as I already told you, my companion goes his own way. Now then, If you will kindly step out of my way I will be going."
"You don't seem to understand girl," answered Gorrnas quickly. "You are either with us or a liability we will not leave to haunt us on some future day."
The Voth quickly dropped their robes and lifted their weapons. Some of them seemed to enjoy the fact that Sa’aleen had turned them down. I watched her face intently while at the same time looking over the group and planning my initial attack. I saw the tears welling up in her eyes and my heart beat at a furious pace waiting for her slight nod that told me the time had come once again. A nod she sadly sent to start the end of this confrontation.
From behind their group I sprang from my cover, silently crossing forty yards of ground before leaping with a deafening roar. My claws slashed at the two men on either side of Gorrnas, effectively cutting their jugular veins before I landed on the leader’s broad back. As I sunk my six-inch canines into his neck, nearly decapitating him I watched as Sa’aleen hurled her right hand axe into one of the surprised assassin’s chest and shifted her bow to her now free hand. Just like that, their number dropped from seven to three and the element of surprise had still not fully passed. The remaining three men turned their attention towards my continued roaring as I had intended and I backed up from them, my huge clawed paws swatting at the air in front of them. Behind them, my beloved was notching the first of three arrows that soon found their way into their hearts.
“Death has found us once again my brave Requiem,” she said as she wiped the blood from her axe. “And as in countless times before, your roar filled me with the courage to do what I must for us to survive. Aye, and survive we have done and survive we will continue to do. Not just survive Requiem, but we shall thrive as well. You and I will continue on together, bonded by war and then by love. It seems we are bonded with death now as well, perhaps a lingering curse of Ha’aness. Then so be it! We shall thrive! The best scout of the Centari paired with the best war tiger can have no other outcome.”
My eyes gazed into hers as she spoke, each determined word renewing the hope I had for our future together. A low, guttural growl slipped from my throat. Others might have found the sound to be alarming but my Sa’aleen understood me. She knew I was merely voicing my approval and urging her on towards the end of our travels. If our fates were to live within the shadows of death, then our love would light the way. If peace was destined to elude us in the revelations of this new threat then we would meet it together. On to another day of this life of wanton killing and destruction. On to another day in my true love’s company. Once bonded in love, two souls have no other choice.