"Of hubris and arrogance, the heirs of the House of Daar were well acquainted, having turned a small trading village on the Sieti-Kha River into a continent-spanning Empire. It was somewhere between the trading league out of which Sieti-Kha grew and the Empire that Sieti-Kha became that common sense fled the founding Imperial House."
--The Arrogance of Empire, Master-Professors Friedrich of Drakla, Jurgen Chandler, and Miroslav of Crossroads, the Departments of History and Political Science of the University of Drakla
The sun was a brutal hammer raining scorching blows down upon everything unwise enough to be active as it approached its zenith. Heat wavered above the white, sand-covered landscape broken only by random heaps and outcroppings of dark rock. The rolling, wave-like dunes seemed to undulate onwards forever, their breaking upon the rocks the only surcease of the eternal sandy tides. A strong, steady wind moaned mournfully, assuring the sand never stayed still for long; the landscape transforming continuously and perpetually. Very few living things dwelled within that blasted, barren wasteland save the beings after which it was named: the Killdari.
As far as anyone knew, the Killdari had always been there. It was said by the other races that the Great God Mac n'Og Tir asked his son Killmac n'Og Tir, Lord of the Killdari, where he wanted his people to be created and the Killdari God replied, "Let them dwell neither in comfort nor in lushness nor in beauty, lest they soften, becoming the prey of stronger races." And so Mac n'Og Tir, Lord of Man and Beasts, created the Killdari whilst bringing to bear his power with that of his brother Aphrae, the Lord of Earth and Sky, to create the Waste in which they dwelled.
Harsh was this desert waste, relief from the desiccated plateau only being found along the coasts, where one could trade hot, dry air for hot, humid air. Even along the coasts, near oases, or on the few hills and mountains, trees were few and far between, running high to dwarfed palms and fruit trees more valuable for the food they provided than the building material for which other races in other places used their trees. As such, the Killdari grew and matured in isolation for centuries, if not millennia, before anyone wandered into the coastal cities of Endiskill, Killdari, or Killori and even longer before the stone marvel of Killdori was seen at the base of Mt. Akkilleth.
The first race to encounter a Killdari, shipwrecked Human fishermen from the nearby Sieti Peninsula, thought them aged, cursed Humans, so similar were their features. It was the Killdari's white to sandy blonde hair that led the dark-featured Sieti fishermen to think those approaching them were eld. It was the rough, dry, almost rocky-looking skin that made them believe they were cursed. The completely black eyes and retractile claws only reinforced that thought. The first contact between cultures often goes one of two ways: a slow building to friendship and understanding or slaughter initiated by one or both sides.
The fishermen were never heard from again.
The wood from their wrecked ship and other things that washed ashore on the northern and eastern coasts of the Killdari Wastes allowed the Killdari of the coastal regions to eventually build what amounted to crude fishing rafts, good only for the coastal waters. Since those shipwrecked in the vicinity of the Wastes were never heard from again, Humans and the other races were never foolish enough to bring large, capable ships within range of the Killdari, even after they learned of the three Killdari trading cities. Trade would eventually open with the desert dwellers, but it was wary and limited. The Killdari traded their few valuable resources, salt, fruit wines, oils, and leathers, for luxury goods carried to the Killdari by mostly Sieti, Kha, and Steel Harbor ships. These three early city-states became trading meccas based on that trade and gave the lords of Sieti ambitions.
A trading league grew from the villages of Sieti and Kha that nurtured those early towns into great cities, eventually spanning the western quarter of the southern continent. The city-states who were its members flourished and expanded their influence. Sieti and Kha, two cities facing each other across the Sieti-Kha River, merged and expanded their territory. They eventually came to control all of the Sieti and Kha Peninsulas, embarking upon the road to empire by conquering all of their league partners. Steel Harbor, the last to fall, confirmed Sieti-Kha as an Empire and a force with which to be reckoned.
With the west coast of the continent in their control, the Sietitians rapidly explored and expanded south and east, eventually conquering lands all the way to the east coast, including the fierce Goendami tribesmen who roamed the eastern third of the Sieti-Kha Continent.
A decade after conquering Steel Harbor, however, the second Emperor of Sieti-Kha decided the rumors of hidden wealth protected by the Killdari Wastes and its formidable inhabitants grew too much to resist his might.
Emperor Daar II sat in a padded chair; his once muscular frame was softening and a growing paunch hidden by the voluminous toga of scarlet-trimmed purple wool. His once glowing bronze skin was turning a sallow olive, his black hair grown long and elaborately curled in part to hide the beginning retreat of his hairline. The expression on his fleshy face could have been mistaken for indigestion had the men gathered around the table not seen it before. They were all either hiding distasteful grimaces or anticipatory smiles, depending upon the faction to which they belonged. Of the twelve men awaiting the Emperor's pleasure on padded benches around a heavy wooden table strewn with the remains of lunch, seven of them were military men still solid with muscles gained through hard training and five of them were built more like their liege, men comfortably living off of their prowess at trade and politics. All wore purple-trimmed white togas denoting their status as advisors of the Emperor.
The room was cool, the chill seeping through the cracks in the shuttered windows high on the stone walls of the large council room being battled by eight coal braziers stationed around the room and the fire pit behind the Emperor's chair. Daar II let his satisfied brown eyes lazily scan the faces schooled to blankness arrayed before him. That very blankness amused him. He knew the military advisors and those who used to be warriors would view his new project with dismay. The merchants and politicians would rejoice, for he was finally going to order something they had been begging the crown to do since his father was on the throne: invade and subjugate the Killdari.
"We have decided that since our borders have been pushed from the City of Dreams in the south to the southern shore of the Gorge of Madness in the north, we need to secure the entirety of the mouth of the Gorge and insure the free passage of our merchants and fishermen to the Sea of the Lost. As long as we do not control the mouth of the Gorge and the northern side of that passageway, our sailors can fall prey to anyone from pirates to Killdari.
"To that end, I am ordering you, General Kallath of the House of Coor, to assemble your forces and equip them for a protracted campaign in the Killdari Wastes," the Emperor proclaimed grandly, his smooth baritone undiminished by time and comfort on the throne.
His Majesty was one of his father's better generals before ascending the throne, and so he should have been more daunted by the task he was setting his army, cognizant of the difficulties inherent in such a campaign. General Kallath was more than well aware. He had been the commander of a small outpost beyond the borders of the Empire before he became a general. It was on the neck of the Killdari Peninsula, which saw, in times past, infrequent but costly raids out of the mountains that were the natural border of the Wastes. No one in Sieti-Kha knew why the desert people occasionally made the treacherous journey through the Vezier Mountains and down the neck of the Peninsula, but the results were always so disastrous that the Empire fought two brief wars to secure a base on the narrowest part of the Peninsula.
Kallath became a general on the back of defeating the largest Killdari incursion in decades, turning away the siege of Ft. Daar and chasing the Killdari war party all the way through the mountains to the very edge of the furnace that was the Wastes. So he was intimately familiar with both the enemy and the terrain. Or at least the terrain up to the actual desert. Nobody who was not a Killdari knew the desert.
"Sire, I shall prepare for the campaign expeditiously," he replied carefully, "but I have concerns about such an operation, especially at this time of year. By the time the army is equipped and marched to even the neck of the Killdari Peninsula at Ft. Daar, it will be approaching the start of the hot season on the northern part of the Peninsula. The very worst blunder we could make would be to invade the Killdari Wastes in the hot season."
"I believe I hear the clucking of a fowl in your caution, General," smirked one of the portly gentlemen across the table from Kallath. He was Grandmaster Merchant Haark of Coor City, the hometown of the House of Coor. Haark was born poor, the son of a tenet farmer living on Coor lands. He had the fortune to be apprenticed to a merchant of House Yeth and imbibed the Yethian hatred of their Coor rivals in Coor City politics and business. Haark was the undisputed leader of the faction that opposed nearly everything Kallath of Coor and his allies attempted.
Muted chuckles from Haark's side of the table were met with steely silence from the other. Even the Emperor turned a quelling glare on the Grandmaster.
"Have you fought many battles against the Killdari, Haark? I seemed to have missed the parade given in your honor for gallantry and heroism," Kallath replied witheringly, slapping down his rival while reminding everyone in the room that he had been greeted by a parade not once but three times upon returning home from the wars, one of which was held all along his route home from the capital to Coor City. A parade that lasted weeks and traversed the leagues-long high road between the two metropoleis. "Or perhaps you alone amongst the entire population of Sieti-Kha know the Killdari Wastes. Not just the scant few cities the desert-dwellers erected solely as trading depots, unimportant in the grand scheme of their society. If so, then perhaps it is you, not me, who deserves command of an enterprise you have been pushing two generations of Emperors to authorize."
The flabby, loose-jowled face of Haark flushed deep red from his balding pate down to the neck fat rolling grotesquely over even the low cut collar of his toga. The muscles along his wide jaw rippled as he clenched his teeth in anger, his mind visibly clawing at some appropriately biting retort even as the deep-set, almost pig-like brown eyes stared daggers at Kallath.
Just as the merchant opened his mouth, his usually agile mind finally grasping at a comeback, the Emperor's hand rose, quashing it.
"Never mind, Haark. You deserved that verbal slap if for no other reason than foolishly questioning the bravery of the Hero of Ft. Daar," Emperor Daar II judged, amusement dancing in his eyes at the man's discomfort. Those brown eyes raked over Haark's allies warningly before resting on the blankly controlled visage of General Kallath. "I understand your concerns, General, but do not share them. The Killdari are a ragtag tribal confederation with no real trained army. They barely manage to put aside their tribal conflicts and blood feuds to man the defenses of those trading depots you mentioned.
"So, General, the Killdari I think will be an easier task than you intimate," Daar II declared confidently. "The desert is a concern but I am confident in your leadership and the preparation you and your staff will put in ere you embark on the march eastward. I could wish to ship your army east but there are neither enough ships for that many men nor suitable landing sites on the plateau on which the Wastes lay. Even shipping you around to Ft. Daar would only shorten the trip by a few weeks."
"Yes, Sire," Kallath replied, eyes empty of any emotion and face carefully blank, as were the faces of the other men on his side of the table. They were all well aware the Emperor could have given this command to any one of them. Kallath was just unfortunate enough to have that towering reputation he had earned with blood and sweat and death.
The meeting droned on for another hour, but little else of note was said. Kallath, his handsomely chiseled face stony, ran fingers through his shoulder-length salt-and-pepper hair as he walked out of the council room. He walked with steadfast purpose, trying to put as much space between himself and the man who just signed his death warrant. And he would not be going alone. He commanded twenty-five thousand men. He would be shocked if any of them ever saw the Empire again once they marched out of Ft. Daar.
"Kallath!" shouted an unpleasant and angry voice behind him. He knew Haark would not leave it alone. "Don't you walk away from me, you Coorfeld harrier!"
All motion and sound in the corridor ceased. The Coorfeld harrier was a vicious and often cowardly predator whose bravery was usually directly proportional to the number of packmates it had and inversely proportional to the size of the opponent it fought or hunted. Probably alone among the lords of the Sieti-Kha, Haark was stupid enough to call out a lord of Kallath's stature.
Kallath turned slowly, noticing that his friends Jadis of Lake Drad and Gendor of Konnor had been pacing him. He would have been glad for their company but for the phalanx of Haark and his cronies. While they weren't all flabby blobs of pampered flesh, most of them were. All wore looks of smugness or offended sensibilities.
"You think you are so clever, General, but I know you for the cur from a cow-" a large, scarred fist smashed into the fleshy jowl of the Grandmaster Merchant with a crack. Haark slammed into the floor with a jiggle-flop. Groaning with pain, his hand gingerly clapped to his jaw and a small puddle of bloody saliva growing with two white clumps that used to be teeth as the merchant had trouble closing his mouth without whimpering.
Kallath stood over his foe, glaring challengingly at the clutch of merchants and politicians.
"Ha day a shtike ma," Haark gurgled, tears streaming down his reddening face as he tried to talk without moving his clearly broken jaw. A crowd was slowly gathering to witness his humiliation and he knew the gossip mills would ensure everyone who was anyone in the city would hear about it.
"You greedy fools have put me beyond your ability to exact retribution with this little expedition I have been committed to," Kallath spat dispassionately. "Know your avaricious quest in the Wastes is what caused what will follow. You dream of riches beyond your wildest, most covetous imaginings but I suspect all you will ever find is dross. I will take the Empire's sons and march them into the Easternlands for you and your ilk, but if I find what I suspect, few of us will return. Know that the House of Coor will make sure my death is not wasted."
He caught a swish of red-trimmed purple out of the corner of his eye and he was not sure he cared. The General turned and stalked through the aisle respectfully made for him, hands reaching out to brush him as he passed. There was more than one jaded functionary and court butterfly with tears streaming down their face as Kallath walked through the crowd, Jadis and Gendor following him. Clearly word of his fate was already known by more than the Council.
Kallath stood staring out at the endless Wastes, remembering that day as he tried to summon some moisture in his mouth to spit the grit that the steady wind snuck between his lips. The mountain pass sat overlooking the barren wastes at an altitude of nearly two thousand feet, so the temperature was still cool, but the wind was a searing breath warning of things to come as the host of Sieti-Kha wound down to the floor of the sandy desert.
He sat on his horse, his war guard alertly surrounding him. Scouts were out in force below him and nearly twenty-five thousand men and more than two thousand supply wagons were slowly wending their way up and over the pass. The Vezier Mountains were a small but tall and jagged range covering the heel and northern neck of the Killdari Peninsula. There was really only one pass that ran from the southernmost foothills to the floor of the Killdari Wastes and it was a winding, tortuous path not truly meant for horses, never mind wagons. But if his men were going to survive more than a day out in the Wastes, the wagons were coming with them.
The nature of the pass was one reason why he had only twenty-five thousand men and not thirty or thirty-five thousand. General Kallath had gone from the council meeting and his humiliation of Haark to his House's manor on the outskirts of Sieti-Kha. There he sent out every one of his family's two score messengers to summon the lords of his House's clans as well as some of his political allies. He also sent one of his adjutants eastward to find a Goendami clan in hopes of finding more allies in the idiotic crusade he was being condemned to lead. If he could borrow a few thousand Goendami horsemen, the chances for surviving the Killdari would increase tenfold.
Over the two weeks it took the messengers to lead the clan heads back to the capital, the 2nd Imperial Army assembled outside the walls of the capital. A small, orderly tent city sprang up as the battalions and divisions of the 2nd streamed in from their various posts around the northern Empire. By the time House Coor assembled, nearly twenty thousand troops were camped around Sieti-Kha.
Kallath of Coor was the eldest son of Grand Duke Andath of Coor City. He had three brothers who accompanied Andath and the rest of this uncles and cousins and aunts as they answered Kallath's summons. The Coor Estate was full to the rafters, a rare occasion since Grand Duke Andath was not fond of coming to court and only did so when required. After the necessary obeisance to the throne by the Grand Duke, House Coor gathered to hear Kallath.
"The merchants have won the Emperor's ear," Kallath began, his face stoic as he looked around at the score of faces watching him as they sat, lounged, or stood around the large sitting room. There was a roaring fire warming the room and paintings of generations past looking down on them from wood and gilt frames. The stone walls seemed to emanate the chill brought north with the cold snap that hit the capital in the last day or so. The older men and ladies huddled in fur capes near the fireplace as they watched the man they all thought would become the next Grand Duke. More than one face looked close to tears. "As my messengers no doubt told you, I am ordered to invade the Killdari Wastes. There is nothing that will avert that disaster. The Emperor's mind is set and not even his famed tactical good sense will impinge upon his dreams of Imperial greatness and hidden wealth to be plundered from the Killdari."
"Yes, my son, we were told," Grand Duke Andath said as stoically as his son, his gray eyes the only sign of his pain and incipient mourning. His was a striking figure still, looming over most men at near seven feet tall. Once he was a great warlord in the days before Empire, the days of the League of Sieti-Kha and the beginnings of expansion. Even now, at nearly eighty, Andath of Coor had an unbent figure and musculature still formidable, a man said to be blessed by Bellei-Kauz, Lord of War and Destruction, Himself. Steely eyes, a full head of shoulder-length snow white hair, and a face chiseled from a rich olive with razor sharp cheeks, brows, and jaw that made his a face known to make men tremble and ladies swoon. And those features were stamped on each of his sons. "Before Daar I we might have exerted pressure to sway him back to reality, but such power is no longer ours. That said, I know you gathered us together for something other than a tearful farewell. Such sentimentality is not in your character."
A grim smile stretched Kallath's lips, his eyes anguished as well at the thought of the pain his lingering, uncertain fate would bring his father. "No, no tearful farewells," he replied, his voice firm with resolve. "Retribution is why I have gathered you. Right now the Emperor and his merchant cronies are too strong in their position. They have promised those who support them the hidden, mythical wealth of the Killdari and a short, victorious war carried out by the Hero of Ft. Daar and the unbeatable legions of the 2nd Army.
"This scenario is predicated on the idea that the Killdari themselves are a foe easily swept aside and that summer in the Wastes is not the potentially lethal experience that it undoubtedly is," he explained fiercely, his right hand curling into a fist. The odd gray-brown eyes flashed angrily; his kin seeing the rage burning in his heart caused by his orders and the thought of how useless his death and the deaths of his men will be. "I will try to get as many of my men out as possible, but I may only be able to get a messenger sent back before we are overwhelmed. I plan to leave Colonel Freidhelm of the House of Ferrus at Ft. Daar. Hopefully, his trip east to find aid from the Goendami horsemen will meet with success. He does not know his dual role, yet. Any messengers I get out are going to be sent to him and he will be charged with coming to you, father, to inform you of our fate before going to the General Staff.
"I ask you to assure his survival after delivering that message by spreading the word throughout the capital before he leaves to report," the General asked somberly. "I fear Haark and his ilk will suggest that Daar II buy time before the rest of the Empire finds out about their error in judgment by getting rid of the bearer of the bad news. After it is known what became of us, the Emperor and his sycophants on the Council and in the city will be weakened. It will be up to you to then decide how to use that to your advantage. I will be beyond caring, so I will not venture to advise you on that. I just ask that you make sure what we do is not in vain."
Kallath's tone was firmly angry, not a waver in his voice. Andath's shook as he replied, "We will do what we can, my son, to not only make sure Freidhelm survives his task, but insure your deaths are not forgotten." Tears spilled from his brimming eyes, tracking through the wrinkles tracing his mouth. A shaking hand rose to harshly wipe the tears away, his eyes fierce.
Moisture stung Kallath's eyes as he remembered the parting with his father and the rest of the family, especially the almost violent hugs his brothers gave him, their eyes nearly bursting into flames with their rage. He was neither married nor had he any children, his military career making that impractical. He saw too many officers as he rose through the ranks with wives and children who either hated them or never saw them. He planned to retire in a few years and allow his family to find him a younger wife with whom he would do his duty to his House as Grand Duke and produce an heir. Instead, he poured his love and energy into his men over the years; they became his family and his legacy. It was one reason his men fought so hard for him and why they followed him across the frontiers of the Empire to what most of them knew to be an impossible battle. All but one soldier, his right hand and sounding board.
"I know I cannot change your mind, sir," Colonel Freidhelm said, tears in his voice. His wide, olive complected, moon-like face pale and his black hair tousled from the number of time he had run his hands through it in frustration. They were in Kallath's tiny office in the Ft. Daar command headquarters. The only light came from the flickering candles on the general's small desk, casting deep shadows on both weary faces. "And I will do as you command. Know, however, that it has been my life's pleasure to serve beside you and it would have been my life's honor to die beside you. There could have been no better death."
Kallath rose and walked around the desk to stand before his subordinate, clapping a hand to Freidhelm's shoulder and clasping him in a rough hug. Breaking away, he placed hands on the dark featured man's shoulders, looking into his weeping eyes, smiling at the anger creeping over the man. "Know, my friend, that I would have no other by my side in battle were there any glimmer of hope that we could prevail," he told his adjutant in a choked voice. "We both know that such hopes are for those who have not faced the Killdari. Every man who was with us all those years ago in this very fortress knows how much luck was involved in the so-called 'Rout of Ft. Daar.' That such luck will accompany us into the Wastes is doubtful. You know this. I want one of us to live to carry our memories beyond our deaths. If Councilor Haark and the Emperor have their way, we will be swept under the nearest rug as incompetent cowards who were defeated by a handful of unarmed barbarians."
A bitter smile curled Freidhelm's thin lips, his black eyes flashing as his hands rose to rest on Kallath's forearms. "Would that I could unleash such paltry foes on those whose minds are so soft as to underestimate the Killdari," he said with a laugh, sounding more like gargling ground glass than a sound of amusement.