Timeline: Sixth Age, 45th Year, Mid-Autumn
Emcorae Azop’s grandfather Alfranco was continuing the regale the crowd at The Brandonale Inn with his stories about The Last Great War. He’d just made mention of the famous Azora warrior El-Janus. (1)
“Janice? That’s a girl’s name, ain’t it?” One of the guys laughed.
“Hey, what’s in a name, Dik?” Alfranco shot back to the man who interrupted. “The warrior’s name was EL-Janus, and the ‘El’ signifies him as an Azora mysstro – the highest level of their elite fighters – so show some respect. The fact is that El-Janus was quite remarkable. Talk about appearances being deceiving — y’all know most Amorosi are tall, right? Taller than us Enoks at least. But, not El-Janus – Hel, call me Myzentius if El-Janus was even five feet tall, but still you’d be a fool to underestimate him.
“I had the honor of serving on his scout team.” Alfranco continued. “More than once we’d be sitting around camp talking and the next thing I know he would be gone — disappeared right from under my nose – only to pop up later with all sorts of info about The God of War’ troops. It was amazing. Yet El-Janus was more than just some tracker – like most Azora’s, he was a fierce warrior.”
“Are all Amorosi fighters Azoras?’” Hal asked.
“Not by a long shot.”Alfranco laughed. “Sure The Amorosi have their regular armies — The Protectorate — and they’re a fearsome force in their own right — probably the only human troops that can compare are the Mersia Royal Guardsmen. But the Amorosi also have Azoras – basically they’re the best-trained fighters in the world. Imagine warriors who spend their entire lives prepping for battle! Trust me — I’ve seen them do things in combat that, like little Neil, I would never have believed if I hadn’t seen with my own eyes. But fact is, when you looked at El-Janus, nobody would have believed him to be a warrior.
“However, if you made that mistake in battle,” Alfranco explained, “it would surely be the last error you’d ever make – for El-Janus was the best swordsman I’ve ever seen — like a tornado he was; sometimes I felt like he could hold off the entire horde just with two blades!
“Alfranco,” interrupted Ben, “tell us again about the master’s swords, what were they called – rappi-something? I never heard of those things before.” (2)
“Ah, the Rapiletti.” Said Emcorae’s grandfather appreciatively. “Well, my friends, picture this: two equal sized blades, razor sharp and razor thing, a mere two-feet long. How beautiful they were – the blades made of midnight steel, with cross guards fashioned into the shapes of falcon’s wings. They were tiny yet deadly – like El-Janus himself.”
“Was he really a master with such small swords?” prodded Hal, moving the story along.
“Is Saint Enok really A’H’s prophet?” Alfranco quipped. “Ha, El-Janus was such an expert, he rarely wasted a stroke.” Alfranco made a swiping motion with his arm, before thrusting it forward. “Instead he could deliver lightning-like death!”
Ooohs and Ahhs were heard from the crowd at the oldster’s demonstration.
“Nonsense,” Neil’s liquid courage brought him up again, “I know a thing or two here, and fencing blades like those rapiletti sound like toothpicks compared to a broadsword.”
“A good point, my wise friend,” patronized Alfranco, “but consider, these were no ordinary blades. Remember El-Janus’ swords were made with Azora steel using techniques Enok blacksmiths don’t understand. So although his rapiletti were thin, because of their forging, they could withstand a blow from even the strongest longsword. Why any warrior stupid enough to use such a clunky weapon against El-Janus would be dead before he got the chance to even take a swing! I can remember more than one occasion in which my scout team ventured too far into Chakor Forest and got caught in an ambush – only to have El-Janus appear and save our skins – and never did I see him take even a nick, no matter how many attackers he fought at once.” Here Alfranco rubbed the crown of his head dramatically, “course the same can’t be said for old Franki.”
“Hey, Alfranco,” Aldom handed over a fresh mug, “I’ll bet just thinking about all those battle scars makes you pretty thirsty, huh?”
“You’ve got that right, Aldom. Didn’t think anybody here was smart enough to notice.”
“Grandpop,” Emcorae tugged on Alfranco’s sleeve, “are you ready to go yet?”
“Sure, Em, I’m almost done. Here, Aldom, get him another would ya? Thanks. Ok, Em, we’ll go just as soon as I finish this pint; one for the road, eh?” And Alfranco winked from atop his mug as he took another drought. “Well, guys, my grandson says I better be going — seems my wife can’t ever let me have fun. You know how it is, huh?”
The guys laughed, shaking their heads knowingly, while Sally Romaine playfully slapped her husband for laughing a little too loudly in her opinion.
Meanwhile, Alfranco continued, “Well, let me finish my story and get on my way. As I said, because El-Janus discovered ol’ Myzentius’ plan, we Easterners were ready to turn the tables on the dark hordes when they came out of Chakor. Why everybody who was anybody was there – men from all over Pennal, The Amorosi of Regalis and Arbola, and a portion of the Drokka from Iztak, Chaldea, and Kel-de-Kaba. Later on came the Amorosi of Meridia, the Drokka of Al-Uzza and Duzarez, and even Men of Mersia – ‘course everyone knows the Mersian king has the money to finance ten wars if he wanted to – in fact, last I heard that bastard actually made a profit off The War!”
“What about the Drokka from Rhokii Pass?” Neil called out, trying to catch a mistake by Alfranco.
“Pay attention, boy.” Alfranco admonished. “Remember I told you before, The Derk were threatening to attack on the western side of Rhokii Pass, so the Drokka had to guard the gateway there.”
“Regardless of which allies were at Crux, those western dogs must’a been pretty shocked to see us waiting for them!” said a patriotic Hal, filled with pride as if he had actually been there.
“Surprised or not, the Derkka still controlled Chakor and they weren’t leaving without a fight.” Alfranco advised.
“Chakor Forest.” Aldom shuddered at the thought, “Don’t know as I’d ever like to see that place.”
“That’s the truth, Aldom.” Alfranco agreed. “After all, Chakor is the biggest forest in the world – must be a thousand miles end to end if it even be a tree or two. And unlike the woods controlled by The Amorosi tribes, Chakor is a dark forest – gnarled trees with dead trunks huddled together and blighted foliage shuts out the sun. It was enough to give me the willies whenever I had to venture in.”
“If their plans didn’t work, why did the westerners stay?” The barkeep asked.
“Two reasons,” Alfranco instructed. “First off, they still had numbers on their side – remember, they had us at a huge disadvantage. But on top of that, there was nowhere for them to go – by this time it was nearly summer – that meant the bogs of Stax were filled – any retreat was thus out of the question for months.”
“Don’t sound like they had a very good plan.” Ben Wirtz pondered.
“On the contrary, perhaps that was Myzentius’ real plan all along. After all, regardless of what you people believe, Myzentius IS Baal’s God of War, and what’s the best way to ensure your troops fight? Take away their retreat. Therefore if they wanted to get home, the golblins of Gor had to come through us — that meant both sides were desperately fighting for survival. I think the scribes named it The Last Great War because so many warriors died and I don’t think either side wants to see that happen again.
“Now, as much time as I spent among the Amorosi,” Alfranco went on, “both during and after the war, when I lived in Arbola for a year, never in all that time did I ever learn why the fighting stopped! All’s I know is the same as you: the Last Great War ended with the loss of many lives for both sides and no clear victor – sure our side held our ground and protected these eastern lands — but I can’t see how you can say that we ‘won’ when we lost so many of our friends on those bloody fields. And Jak was one of them! I didn’t see him die because I was about 100 miles to the south at the time, I only heard about it later.”
“Poor ol’ Jak,” said Aldom, remembering back, for he was once a childhood friend of Alfranco Azop and Jak Newberri before those two left town for the war. “He didn’t last too long once he got there, did he, Franki?”
“No, Al, sadly you’re right again,” replied Alfranco. “But, I don’t know that those damn captains trained him too well or even told him what to expect either! ‘Stead I just think the commanders of his regiment merely handed him a sword and figured he would learn on the job so to speak. As I hear tell, he didn’t even have much of a chance. Died in his very first combat action! Seems, he went charging ahead of his comrades and tried to meet the Derkka before anyone else; probably ‘cause he wanted to prove to his new friends that even though he was a small town country boy, still he belonged there just as much as any of them did. Yup, as I hear tell, Jax rushed ahead and before anybody could warn him, a dozen black arrows came flying from the goblins’ archers and a handful struck Jak straight through the chest!”
Sally Romaine gasped at that and clutched her husband’s arm.
“So, he never even got to use his damn sword!” Surmised Ben Wirtz.
“Poor ol’ Jak.” Said Aldom. “What a tragic waste.” (3)
Alfranco raised his pint, “To Jak, he may have been just a simple lad like me, but he was a brave man to the end. Would that we could all have his courage.”
Everyone in the Brandonale raised their mugs and downed their pints to honor their old friend. Not knowing what to do, Em just sat there watching the rest of the patrons – his drink was already gone, but he didn’t feel like another, so he didn’t point that out to anybody.
Of course, sad though this occasion was, Aldom Mercaldo loved toasts or cheers of any kind, because just as quickly as his patrons had finished those drinks, he was busy doling out the next round – and collecting his tabs.
“But anyway, fellas…..oh, thanks, Aldom….” Alfranco gladly accepted another pint, “like I was sayin’, the war did come to an end, it was quite of a sudden too — because one day them evil clans just decided to finally leave Chakor and get on home! Now don’t go asking me why that was, ‘cause I sure don’t know. All’s I can tell ya is that day was like any other out there on the front — after another day of fighting and getting no where, the only thing that was certain was that more men were dead. It was all a god damn shame, I tell you.”
His audience breathless, the old gaffer kept on. “Now by this time it had been over five years since the first of our men had fallen upon them marshes south of Chakor. Around that time, me and my partners had been called back to a chat with some of the leaders who was trying to coordinate our efforts proper and all. The generals wanted all the latest news we scouts had dug up. I remember being in awe at the sight of all those high and mighty folks – cuz ya know I’m just a small town boy myself.”
“Who was all there, Franki?” Ben asked.
“Well, let’s see if I can remember.” Alfranco pretended it was an effort to recall. “Ah, yes. There was Rian, the Regent of Arbola. And of course Engelos, the Amorosi High King from Meridia. Both of them fascinating – not sure I could ever relate to them, being they were so intelligent and all, but the world takes all kinds, I guess. Besides them, I saw Cobol, a fearsome looking Drokka who was second in command to Rawf V, Mighty Lord of the Rhokii’s – he was probably the most intimidating figure of ’em all – the battle axe he carried glittered with an aura I ain’t never seen before and if he was against me in battle I’d have run for the hills!”
“So what did all the big wigs want with peons like you?” Neil baited.
“Well like I was saying, my blustery friend.” Alfranco didn’t bite. “We trackers had been called in to give a report. I was so scared to talk I don’t even remember what I said. All’s I know is that after the meeting, the boys and I decided to stay in camp for a bit and get some supplies before we headed out for another stint in the woods.” Wiping his brow, the oldster took another pull on this drink and added, “Now for some reason I couldn’t sleep; fact is, when I was a boy I loved to sleep; heck, I’d slept my life away if my pa wasn’t always on my back to do my chores, but after that war and spending all those jittery nights out there in the open when any moment a bandy-legged hobgolin could come up and surprise you in your knapsack, well I ain’t never been able to sleep like I used to. Only thing now that helps me get some shut eye is a good strong pint from the Monthaven!”
“Hey, you got that right, Franki!” Hal Sutton added, while the bartender smiled.
“So, there I was, staring up at the stars, thinking about what y’all were doing back here in town, wondering if I’d ever make it back again.” Alfranco mused, his voice trailing off, and his head lowered.
“Is he asleep?” Sally whispered to her husband.
“Ahem, Franki,” Hal gently prodded the old man. “Did you ever seen any of them Lepeds while you was on the front?”
Alfranco perked up. “I still have nightmares about those ghouls.”
“Tell us. Tell us.” the crowd appealed, eager to be scared, yet just as happy they were safely inside the tavern.
“Well first off, let me remind y’all that I had never been one to actually fight on the front lines.” Alfranco explained. “That meant I wasn’t used to sleeping so close to the battlefield; usually my partners and I would be camped out somewhere well away from the main action, trying to figure out where the next assault was to come from besides ju–.”
“What’s that got to do with them lepeds?” Neil interrupted the gaffer. “You trying to change yer story again?”
“This IS the story of the lepeds, you fool.” Alfranco shot back. “The point I’m making is that while I had seen lepeds before, whenever my scout team encountered them, we’d would make quick work of them. A few of the dead walkers by themselves are easy to defeat ‘cuz they’re slow and stupid. So we’d hack ’em up and then burn their bones. And that’s the key – ya have to burn their bones or else they can come back from the dead!”
Even Neil Belzer felt a chill run down his spine at that gruesome thought. And once again, did more than a few of the crowd look towards the darkness of the windows, wondering what was out there in the pitch black, wondering if the legends about Tonka were really true.
But Alfranco pressed ahead, “So, yes, we’d burn up their bones real good and all, and then send them back to their graves where they belong! But, the point is that because we always made such shrift work of the few lepeds I ever did see, well I had never really witnessed what they could do on a large scale. But everything changed one night.”
Without a peep from the crowd, Alfranco continued, now with a faraway look in his eyes, “I was at the main camp, there at the end of the war. Remember, since I wasn’t a fighter at the front like ol’ Jak, I never slept close to the battlefields. Yet that first night in camp, I just couldn’t sleep so I got to walking around. I kept hearing these weird sounds and for whatever reason I found myself drawn to them – determined to find out what they were. Eventually I ended up at the very edge of the camp, where the sentries were ever on guard. That’s when the sounds became nigh overpowering.”
“What? What did you hear?” Aldom squeaked.
“It was dark and ya really couldn’t see anything, but that just made everything worse. It was like my ears were on fire and what I heard from those fields made your hair stand on end.” Alfranco wiped his neck of sweat. “It was like nothing I’d ever heard before and I get the heebee jeebees just thinking ’bout it!”
The gaffer looked at his audience, and when he saw them all with mouths agape, he knew he had them hooked, therefore he leaned forward in his stool and whispered, “I’ll never forget the cracking and the slurping, or that terrible sucking and the moaning. Not real loud, but always there mind you, just on the edge of your hearing. I ain’t never been so creeped out. Not knowing what it was, I asked one of the Amorosi sentries about it. That elf-boy never e’en looked at me, ‘stead he just kept staring off to the darkness with a pained expression on his face and simply said one word, ‘Morati…’
No one said a word, and more than a few could feel the hair on the back of their necks prickle as the old gaffer spoke on.
“Suddenly I knew what was going on,” Alfranco stood up from his chair to better command the scene, “for the carrion stench and those harrowing sounds were not just those of the mortally wounded, but instead were the same nightmare calls that those poor troops must have been hearing night after night ever since the first bloodshed of that god awful war – for that’s when I realized, the Morati were FEASTING again!”
- OK, even I will admit that El-Janus probably was the best swordsman I’d ever seen walk your world. I’ve seen all of our famous blade runners – after all, in my line of work, I LOVE an efficient sworsdman – it makes my job that much easier. And El-Janus sent many a man’s soul to me so I’ll forever be grateful to him – even if he was an Amorosi.
- This was not quite true, as most of Alfranco’s listeners had heard this same tale many times, Ben included; but as always, they loved to here Alfranco talk about things never seen in their small hamlet.
- Jak Newberri – another in a long line of young men who you humans have wasted in your war machines. Like so many of your youths – you cut them down before they ever had a chance to live. War? What is it good for? Actually quite a lot – it’s provided me with more souls than I could ever hope for. And Jak Newberri was a tasty one indeed!