Chapter 2: The Pikatan
Previously on Zang's Atriarch Tales, the Karshan Empire was locked in a continent-spanning war with the forces of barbarism, and desperate measures were needed to save Civilization on Atriana:
A signal was given, and orders relayed, and the Shaps were aloft. 70 unknowing messengers of Glurg's wrath flapped into the night to hopefully be delivered hours later as flame upon the barbarian Northern Army's source of supply.
"Glory to Glurg!", someone shouted, and the battle-cry was echoed and repeated for several minutes by the gathered Karshans."Glory to Glurg!"
Three Days Later (in Shayun Benu'ul):
General Bialar entered the conference room cautiously, wary of the Dictator's increasingly foul mood. The Generals of the Shayun and their allies were gathered around the map table in the stifling heat, which the mechanical fans overhead were able to cool only slightly.
General Xtaz, the tall Lokai supply-master, was gesturing at the map with its khanja. "With the city of Chimanser completely destroyed by fire, we have no way to adequately supply the Northern Army for combat unless they pull back to Orinsar."
"Unacceptable!", barked the Dictator Zepath, slithering back and forth on its tentacles in agitation.
"But Dictator...", Xtaz began.
"Silence!", Zepath bellowed, a small bit of froth forming at the corner of its mouth, "Our forces will not abandon the Karsh River Valley to those...those....Glurg Worshippers!"
General Eyeke, a smaller than average Tyrusin and member of an allied City-State, looked up from where he had been studying the maps, "There might be a way to resupply the Northern Army to hold their current positions."
All eyes turned to the dark-furred Tyrusin.
"With your permission, Dictator?", Eyeke asked, looking to Zepath.
Zepath stopped slithering back and forth, and calmly nodded.
Eyeke pointed to the map, as the assembled Generals looked on. "We might be able to temporarally transport supplies from Orinsar to the front using the Shaps until the facilities at Chimanser can be rebuilt."
"There aren't any more Shaps to be had", interjected an Unarran flight officer, "All of the available shaps in the region were confiscated by our Air Forces months ago."
"We'll have to use our Air Force's shaps", Eyeke explained, "If we use every available shap we have in our scout, cavalry, strike wings, and messenger units then we can keep the Northern Army supplied at a minimum level until the facilities at Chimanser can be rebuilt. They won't be able to advance, but they should be able to hold."
The flight officer shook its head, and smoothed back its head-tentacles, "Without scouts or air cover, I don't see how they can hold against any major Karshan offensive."
Zepath looked to the Intelligence Chief, K'taal, a fellow Cavolon.
"The Northern Army should be able to hold in place if supplied.", the Intelligence Chief commented, absent-mindedly using a tentacle tongue to play with the edge of the map, "Reports indicate that the Imperial forces are already shifting units from the Northern Front to the Southern Front. Apparently, they hope to just leave holding forces in the North, and use the extra units from there to overwhelm our forces on the Southern Front."
A nervous Eshlar wearing the rank marks of an engineering Under-General spoke from the corner, "Then it makes no point whether they hold at Chimanser or retreat back down the river, the Karshans will break through in the South regardless. Shouldn't we consider making peace with the Empire while their offers of amnesty and Citizenship still stand?"
The tension around the map table became a palpable presence in the room, as the assembled Generals froze. Those standing nearest to the doomed Eshlar edged slightly away, as nervous eyes turned to the Dictator Zepath.
Maniacal rage filled the Dictator's eyes. "Guards! Sieze the traitor!", it shrieked, sending small flecks of foam splattering onto the assembled Generals.
Several black-clad Tyrusins, members of Zepath's Personal Guard, burst into the room from behind hidden panels and siezed the hapless Eshlar. At Zepath's command, the former engineering Sub-General was dragged off towards the dungeons.
A few of those closest to the Dictator could hear the low mumbles escaping from Zepath's mouth. "Traitors, traitors, traitors everywhere..."
The tense silence dragged on, as each of the Generals wondered who would be the first to speak, and also wondered what horrible fate would befall the one to do so.
General Bialar broke the silence. "Dictator, I believe there may be a way to draw Imperial forces away from the Southern Front."
Zepath turned slowly to regard Bialar. An Unarran to Bialar's left, and a Lokai to Bialar's right each moved slightly away.
"Ah, Bialar", Zepath said, leaning forward, "Do you ever regret having turned the Governorship back over to me when I returned from my absence?"
"Not for a moment, Dictator", Bialar lied. Every day of my life, Bialar thought to itself.
"I know, you were always the most loyal.", Zepath replied, "What is your idea?"
Bialar gestured towards the map. "The Karshans are hoping to shift their forces to achieve superiority on the Southern Front. What I suggest we do, is give them a third front to worry about, that will tie down those forces and keep them from being shifted South. I propose we land troops on the Arrow-Leaf Coast and threaten the flank of their Northern Army."
The room was silent.
"Go on", Zepath commanded.
"The Arrow-Leaf Coast is technically held by the Empire, but is largely guarded by Native militias with only a few shap messenger relay stations manned by Imperial Citizens.", Bialar explained, "If we were to sweep in quickly and defeat the Native garisons there, then the Empire would be forced to divert troops to the Arrow-Leaf Coast."
Zepath looked to the Intelligence Chief.
"It might work," K'taal ventured, still absent-mindedly toying with the edge of the map "but where would we find the troops to do this? All of our reserves have been committed to the Northern and Southern Fronts."
"The Dictator's Personal Guards, and the Native militia from Shayun Benu'ul could be sent in by ship.", Bialar said, "The Guards can defeat the Imperial Natives, and companies of our Natives can be left in each town as garrisons." And once the Dictator's Personal Guard are gone, a certain insane being can be overthrown, General Bialar thought to itself.
General Eyeke frowned, a sheen of perspiration matting its fur in the heat."How would we deal with the Imperial Citizen troops at the shap relay stations?"
The Dictator smiled, and rubbed its tentacles together in glee. "We will use the Karshan's evil tricks back against them. They used Shaps to destroy Chimanser, and we will destroy their relay stations with....the Pikatan."
There was a noticeable rustling among the Unarrans in the room, many with head-tentacles stiffened in shock.
"But...but..the Pikatan are sacred.", stammered a young Unarran flight officer, "They cannot be used for warfare."
Zepath regarded the Unarran coldly, slithering slighty in agitation. "Are they more sacred than the orders of your Dictator?"
"N..no Dictator", the flight officer replied, its orange skin losing some of its color.
"Good.", Zepath announced, "Let us make preparations for the seizing of the Arrow-Leaf Coast."
Four Days Later (in a forest village):
The thundering paused every few minutes; the air rose heavy in anticipation of the next assault upon the soil. The rhythm was familiar to the groups of Unarra tending to the various tasks of the day. Some even used the noise to jolt them back awake after falling asleep from a night spent playing too many games of hyra. Atlak hated how the dust was stirred into the air, how its feet vibrated afterward and caused it to pause in its work to recover. Tynel Mellor and Tynel Atlak were lashing groups of vines together for the trainers' use. Mellor marveled at its spawn's ability to work single-mindedly, and had praised Atlak on many occasions at the amount it could accomplish in one day, even in comparison to such experienced workers as Mellor itself.
Mellor had hoped the long day would slow the relentless questions from its curious spawn, but such was not the case. Atlak paused only long enough to voice its frustration with the rippling ground swells experienced while taming the Pikatan. Atlak turned his attention back to Mellor and continued probing, "...but if Tallic had such obvious talent and empathy with the beasts why did the Tresed relinquish it to apprentice status for so long? Is that why it left? Some say you were friends. What was..."
"We are still friends." Mellor was thankful for the growing tremors of the Pikatan. "That is enough about Tallic for now my spawnling; the taming exercises have begun."
Upset that its questioning had ceased, Atlak tried not to cough as the dust kicked up around him. "Of all the creatures, what is so sacred about the Pikatan anyway?" Atlak's scowl grew deeper and darker with every leap and hard landing of the Pikatan.
Mellor was amused. "Keep that up, Atlak, and your face will become etched like that."
"Just once, I would like to stomp through their valley and disrupt them while they are trying to get work done."
"I suppose you would also want to be revered as the Sacred Atlak too then?" Mellor smiled. "Perhaps you would teach the Unarra about the patience of taming as well?"
The reprimand was enough to keep young Atlak from continuing to outwardly show his distaste for the Sacred Pikatan. Atlak just grumbled to himself as clouds of dust mushroomed into the air not far from where they worked. However, the thunderous quakes caused by the Pikatan didn't stop this time. A telepathic warning was sent to all nearby, but Atlak was distracted by the sudden and chaotic rearing of the Pikatan. Something was wrong.
Most of the Pikatan were rounded up before any large amounts of damage were done. Yet, one crazed animal, its eyes rolling in its skull, careened forward with its strange loping leaps, dodging all attempts at capture. Atlak's insides churned, a mix of ice and painful heat as it looked up to see a silhouette of a figure on a near-distant hill. Atlak began to scream even before Mellor was trampled.
Atlak ran in a panic to where its parent lay crumpled beneath a tree on the hillside. "Parent! Parent!", Atlak sobbed as it fell to its knees over the battered form.
Mellor groaned in pain and grabbed its spawn's hands in its own, and slipped the crazed Pikatan's guide-rope into Atlak's hands. "Listen carefully, there's no time to waste. Look at the rope."
Atlak examined the guide-rope through tear-filled eyes, "It's been cut!"
"Yes", gasped Mellor, its orange skin fading to a pasty gold color, "This was no accident. They meant to silence me as they must have done to Tallic."
"But why?", sobbed Atlak, "Why would anyone do this?"
"We found a courier pouch in the forest near a downed Shap," Mellor gasped a wheezing gasp, blood flecking its lips,"They mean to use the Sacred Pikatun for warfare, and Tallic went to warn the village elders, but they must be involved themselves somehow."
"Go get the courier pouch hidden in our shrine and warn....", Mellor managed to gasp before it began coughing up blood.
"No! Don't die!", Atlak wailed, clutching the now lifeless body of its parent.
The other workers arrived and helped carry the body of Mellor back to the village, along with Atlak who headed towards the village in a shocked daze. Many of the villagers spoke to Atlak as it passed, but it couldn't make out any of the words in its shocked and dazed state of mind.
Atlak stumpled into the small cottage that it had shared with its parent, and went to the small shrine to Glurg that they kept in the side room. Atlak started to remove an incense cube from the container to place on the offering burner, but the incense cube dropped and rolled behind the shrine screen. Crawling behind the screen to grab the incense cube, Atlak found a red courier pouch embossed with the seal of The Shayun.
Atlak started to open the pouch and examine the papers inside, but froze when it heard loud footsteps in the main room, and listened in fear.
"The spawnling isn't here," said Ratursa, the local Militia Officer, "Are you sure it has the pouch?"
"Yes", came the resonse from Frakt, one of the village elders,"Neither Tallic nor Mellor had the courier pouch on them, and it wasn't here when we searched earlier. The spawnling must have the pouch."
"I'll wait here then", Ratursa replied, the sound of its voice louder as it peeked into the side room, "I'll wait for Atlak to return and grab the pouch then. Do you want the spawnling alive?"
"No.", Frakt ordered distastefully, "We found a shrine when searching the cottage. They are filthy Glurg Worshippers."
Atlak's heart pounded in its chest, as it heard the sounds of Ratursa settling into the rocking chair in the main room. It stiffled its sobs for its parent and twinges of panic, and concentrated on being very quiet. Several tense hours passed before the sun went down, and Atlak began to hear loud snoring from the main room.
Slowly easing its way from behind the shrine screen, Atlak moved as silently as possible towards the open side window and crawled out slowly. The spawnling dropped to the ground and looked around, searching for signs of any other watchers. There was no one to be seen, and nothing to be heard except Ratursa's snoring from within the cottage.
Atlak made its way cautiously towards the animal enclosures. It made up its mind to steal a clift and ride it across the border to the Imperial shap way station. Moving very carefully so as to not spook the animals, the spawnling quietly saddled a clift and led it slowly towards the forest trail and away from the village. once well away from the village, Atlak had the clift kneel so that it could be mounted. Once in the saddle, Atlak made tsk tsk noises at the Clift so that it would stand back up.
Atlak had ridden a few hundred yards down the forest trail when he heard the sound of galloping clifts behind him on the trail.
"There it is!", shouted one of the pursuers,"Get it!"
Atlak nudged its own clift into a gallop, and fled down the trail towards the border hunched low over the back of the clift. From behind came the clack clack sound of a dart thrower being fired, and from either side came the humming sounds of passing darts.
The spawnling knew it couldn't last for long while being fired at from behind on the open forest trail, and veered off into the deeper woods swerving around tree trunks and ducking under low branches. The two pursuers followed, but became too busy steering their clifts around trees to fire the deadly dart throwers.
The chase wound through the forest at top speed, until Atlak's clift started to weeze and snort flecks of foam from its nostrils. The spawnling knew the Clift would collapse soon if it kept up this pace, and noticed that the two pursuers had started to slow also.
After rounding a large thicket of brush that would mask him from his pursuers, Atlak nudged the clift to kneel and lept from the saddle to the ground and began to frantically tie the taming rope taken from the saddle pocket between two trees. It then grabbed its clift and led it quickly further into the forest. The two pursuers rounded the thicket of brush at a near-gallop, and each of the clifts caught their legs on the rope strung between the trees.
Atlak winced at the snap! sound of breaking legs and the keening screams of the injured clifts. It ran over to where the two clifts and riders lay sprawled on the forest floor. The first rider was dead, its neck twisted at an unnatural angle for an Unarra. The second rider lay trapped under its screaming and thrashing clift.
Atlak pulled the dart thrower from the saddle holster of the dead rider and fired a dart into each of the injured clifts and into the trapped rider. The screaming stopped, and the nearby forest was silent except for the wheezing of its own exhausted clift. The spawnling looked around and slowly walked towards the border, leading the clift.
Two Hours After Dawn (on the banks of the White River):
The clift was no longer wheezing after being led through the forest for hours, and a few hours of sleep curled up in a hollow tree trunk beside Atlak. As they arrived at the banks of the river which marked the border of the Karshan Empire, Atlak examined the Clift and decided that it was recovered enough to be ridden across the river.
The forest had thinned out considerably as they'd moved towards the river, and now the trees were scattered far apart. Further on, across the river, the few trees there were clumped together on small hills, with open grassland stretching out towards the Southwest. Atlak surveyed the river, looking for a spot where it and the clift would be able to cross safely.
Atlak had the clift kneel and climbed into the saddle, tsked at it to stand again, and then urged it towards the river. As long as its legs were, the cold water still came halfway up the clift's body as it slowly walked across the river bottom towards the far shore. A sense of relief built in Atlak's heart as he saw the Karshan side of the river grow closer step by step.
Then, the shadow of a shap flying overhead passed over the surface of the river, and small splashes of water marked where arrows were slicing into the river near Atlak and its clift. The terrified spawnling looked up, and saw the shap circling to make another pass overhead. A small whicker gondola was suspended from the underside of the flapping shap, and the Unarran pilot and its bow wielding Tyrusin passenger could be seen clearly.
Atlak frantically urged the clift to move faster, while tugging desperately at the dart thrower which was tangled in its tunic pouch. As the shadow of the shap passed overhead a second time, the clift gave a shrieking scream as an arrow entered its side and it lost its footing on the river bottom. Both Atlak and the clift fell into the cold river water and were swept downstream by the current.
Atlak struggled to free its foot from the stirrups, and to wrench the dart thrower from its tangled tunic pocket. With its leg trapped in the stirrup on the underside of the thrashing and screaming clift, the spawnling couldn't keep its head above water for more than a few seconds at a time. The spawnling was about to lose conciousness from lack of air, when it and the fataly wounded clift struck a small pile of brush and dead logs protruding from a sandbar. The clift gave a final shudder and was still, and Atlak coughed out water and gasped in air now that its head was above water.
The shap came around again, slowing this time. Atlak could hear the voices of the gondola's occupants. "We have to get that courier pouch! It can't fall into Imperial hands.", the Unarran pilot advised.
"I'm on it." the Tyrusin growled.
With a final tug, Atlak wrenched the dart thrower from its tunic pouch and aimed carefully at the gondola beneath the hovering shap, pushing the firing nodule as rapidly as it could. "That's for Mellor, you barbarian scum!", Atlak yelled. The pilot collapsed lifeless in a spray of blood, and the startled shap flapped away with its dead cargo.
Then, Atlak spotted the Tyrusin gaping in amazement from where it had jumped to the ground, as the frightened shap dissapeared into the sky. The Tyrusin growled wordlessly in rage, and turned to face Atlak. The spawnling aimed the dart thrower at the Tyrusin and shouted "Glory to Glurg!", but when it pushed the firing nodule only a faint clunk clunk sound came from the thrower.
The black-furred Tyrusin grinned, showing rows of serrated teeth."Time to die little Unarra. I'm going to rip off your arms for making me walk all the way home....", The Tyrusin started to say, but then stopped to stare at the arrow suddenly protruding from its chest. Three more arrows thudded into the Tyrusin a moment later, and it collapsed soundlessly.
Atlak heard splashing in the water along the sandbar, and suddenly several pairs of hands were pulling the dead clift from atop the spawnling. They were Karshans, three Tyrusins, an Unarra, and a Lokai dressed in the green and brown mottled armor that's hard to see in the forest, and with plains grass sticking up from their helmets.
"You looked like you might need a hand.", the Unarra explained, scanning the surrounding area with its bow half ready.
"There's a Shayun courier pouch in the saddle pocket, with plans for an attack using the Sacred Pikatan.", Atlak said as it came to its feet, "The barbarians killed my Parent and its friend, and tried to kill me."
"You don't have to worry about the barbarians anymore," the patrol leader commented reassuringly,"That's our job. We'll soon put an end to their evil madness."
Will General Bialar succeed in overthrowing Zepath, or will it end up in the evil Dictator's dungeons?
What will become of the orphaned Unarran spawnling, Atlak?
Will the Karshan forces of Civilization be able to thwart the barbarian plans for the Arrow-Leaf Coast?
For the answers to the questions and more, don't miss the next exciting episode of Zang's Atriarch Tales.