The heavy curtain of ash and smoke would not rise. It was impossible to discern the outcome; the earth still rumbled from the assault and the monotonous grinding of the war machines choked out any possible clues of survivors. The sky remained thickened by the waste of the machines, but Sorral of the Bane warband strained her eyes to glare through it – a taut sneer exposing a set of lethal, carnivorous teeth.
“I say we launch another set.” Birek Banelash’s gruff voice broke the silence. The suggestion didn’t really invite for discussion; whatever that would have come from it was delayed by a loud howl.
“Survivors.” Sorral noted with a click of her protruded claws against the scabbard of her hipborne blade. The dozen charr seemed just as keen on handing out their abuse; spent gunpowder was replaced by new, claws were extended and swords were drawn. Sorral dared a look to Bataar, hunched over not far from her, and decided to take the lead:
“Fall in behind me.”
It was hardly a distance to cross. The ground was crisp and dry from the chemical battle that had raged, scorched by explosions and misplaced projectiles of fire. Occasionally an arrow was snapped under their heavy soles, regarded as little more than twigs and sprigs. No matter how close they got, the smoke would not dissipate.
Rahram Banecry was the female to voice the suspicion all of them had touched at:
“This is hardly right. The smoke should have gone by now. At least thinned out.”, and though Sorral was prone to keep the small group silent, she was inclined to agree: “Yes. We’ll try to flank them. ”
Leading the small detachment of the bane warband in a loose arc around the contained smoke, Sorral was sure that the humans must be watching them - and just like she imagined they were doing, she peered sideways into the cloud of ash, as reluctant to enter it as a gladium would be to enter the Black Citadel. Suddenly, a guttural wail broke through the thick wall of smoke and the detachment froze in their tracks, waiting in rigid suspense. It wasn’t until they heard the frenzied song of battle that Sorral lunged into the midst of it – the motley group of felines loping close at her heels.
Mere paces into their hunt they grew upon a haggard crew of battered humans, their back facing the incoming assailants. In the near distance, Sorral could make out the great shape of a familiar charr – and with this knowledge, she pounced upon the nearest human soldier.
At first it was a matter of claws upon ashen flesh, relentless attacks that left their opponents stunned and confused. As the human ranks shrunk, it was easier to grasp the source of the contained smoke.
“Elementalist.” Coughed Faral Baneclaw, dispatching a flimsy woman soldier under his heavy paw. It was enough to catch Sorral’s attention – she’d stood motionless for a while, but now her eyes drew to the robed, human appearance a few paces away. She flashed her teeth in a vicious bellow, catching the attention of her fellow warband.
It was Birek that reacted first. He threw himself off his current target and lunged his great paws to the ground, dashing to the sole elementalist on his fours. Sorral stood upright as she watched, her feet barely upon the ground as she readied herself to rush after Birek – but Bataar halted her with a raised paw – claws no longer extended.
It wasn’t until then that Sorral realised that the small band of human soldiers had merely been an detachment of something bigger, just like their warband was a branch of the Iron Legion. As Birek tore the life out of the lone elementalist, the cloud rose as if it had never been there. Beyond its heavy veil, the number of humans doubled. Then it doubled again. There must have been at least thirty of them, archers hiding behind eager foot soldiers – each and every one of them clad in heavy plate armour from toe to their very teeth. Sorral moved closer to Bataar, as if protecting herself by his great appearance. She stared to the motionless humans, waiting for the rest of the warband to draw closer.
Rahram let out a mock-impressed whistle, gripping onto her daggers as she readied herself for battle, head hanging low and her nostrils flared. “Birek. You’re an easy hit.”
Birek lumbered back to the warband.
“Do we run?” Muttered the female charr to her superior, her grey fur on ends, but Bataar’s answer was interrupted by Faral’s keen insight:
“Don’t think we need to.” And with that, he pointed to the emerging group of humans.
Out of the thirty surrounding the camp, a bare handful - Sorral counted six – approached with steps laced both with determination and suspicion, their heads held high atop tense shoulders. All of them were armed, but their armaments remained sheathed. Sorral disregarded this – and she saw that the rest of the warband had done the same; holding onto blades and rifles as if they were the very things that separated them from death. Bataar was the only one who stood tall and dignified, eying the incoming squad of humans with equal amounts of distrust and patience. It inspired Sorral enough to lower her blade, her ears perked and nostrils flaring wide.
The humans stopped within a distance they considered comfortable, leaving approximately ten meters of charred grass and ashes between the two forces. For a moment the two groups seemed to only stare at each other, sizing each other up without making indications of hostility. It was the humans who broke the silence, a woman whose words were carried high by pride and authority.
“It is in the name of Queen Jennah that we demand you to stop your malevolent actions.”
No one replied. Bataar’s eyes were firmly locked on the messenger, and Sorral felt herself draw even closer to her friend and leader. It was another member of the warband that spoke, instead – instantly gaining the disapproval of his superiors:
“The human elementalist planned an ambush.” Snarled the young Varghant Banepyre, throwing his head in defiance. Sorral sent him a withering glare, but relieved Bataar with a barely audible thought:
“He’s right. If the humans carried any neutral intention, why would the first squad fight us?”
Bataar visibly ignored her, but she knew that he’d soaked up her words. Instead of granting her theory a reply, his words were directed to the humans.
“What business do you have with us?”
The human messenger suddenly became animated. She re-organised her crew to surround her before drawing slightly closer, and then she spoke.
“A truce faction has been sealed between the humans and the charr legions, as decided by our Queen Jennah and your imperators. The Claw of Khan-Ur has been given to these imperators as a gift to seal this truce, and it would be in the interest of us all to abide by it. We ask you to return to your superiors and inform them of this.”
When the woman had finished her explanation, the charr remained silent. Some bore expressions of shock at the mention of the sacred artefact, but it seemed like no occasion for triumph. Sorral lifted her head as she spoke for Bataar’s ears alone.
“They are either lying, or something big happened while we’ve been gone.” This time, her words were awarded by a curt nod. Bataar spoke again, the definition of a leader worthy of admiration – and Sorral admired him with her entire existence, both as leader and friend.
“There are thirty well armed soldiers behind you. How do I trust that your words are sincere?” His voice rung out, causing the ranks to restlessly shift in the distance. The messenger did not move, however.
“We were aware of an incoming warband, filled to the brim with gunpowder and machines. This is the most important trade route of this area, and if your mission was to sabotage it… then we needed to make sure it wasn’t so.”
Bataar turned to Sorral. She knew exactly what he wanted to know, so she hung her head in a slow, subtle nod: “I reckon they’re telling the truth. If anything, it’d be dangerous to challenge the imperator.” – It was a statement neither could disagree with. Bataar lifted his head to regard the messenger one final time.
Sorral knew that despite the brief internal discussion he’d likely had with himself, it was a difficult decision. He had a mission to consider – but he was also in charge of the warband, and any decision would affect them directly. In tacit consolation, Sorral straightened up enough to inspire the strength and pride that would be needed for the warband to abandon their mission without feeling an insufferable bitterness about it. It was likely for her own sake rather than theirs, but she pushed this thought aside as Bataar’s voice shot like an expertly aimed projectile to the human messenger.
“Very well. As long as I can be assured that we will be given a chance to leave unharmed, we will depart to verify that there’s truth in your claim.”
If there was struggle in his voice, Sorral couldn’t trace the slightest hint. She kept her alert gaze on the humans, head still lifted in an attempt to arise authority amongst both groups. If anything, she respected the fact that Bataar had put his personal grudge aside to abide both loyalty of command and the health of his warband. She said nothing. Neither did Faral, Rahram, Varghant or Birek - nor any of the others.
“These men will be at your disposal”, the messenger declared as she gestured to the five soldiers surrounding her. “They shall see that you make it out of our lands without any harm done to you or your…” she paused, eyes moving to the rest of the charr. “… warband. “
Bataar held her gaze for a while, and then nodded in silent assent.
Sorral relaxed her shoulders, but her senses were as sharp as in any battle. It would hardly be a distance to cross before they’d be on their own, but with humans at their side – it was a march that would feel twice as long under the burden of tension and silence.
She fell in close behind her leader as he resumed march, one ear drawn to soak up any sounds made by the humans behind.