"Before I rose to power people lived on the memories of the Makers. Actions from a thousand years before set law and custom. That is as ridiculous as it sounds. The only way to bring Cernon forward was to reshape it into my image. I thank you, my devout, my Elect, my Dame, for giving me power enough to conquer Cernon."
-The Great Beast's Speech on the First Day of the Age of Clans
It was afternoon for the Ha'zhual. Their constant pursuit of the cannibals, the Ha'zhuotos, had led them to the middle of nowhere. If the Zhuotos expected to find food in that shit-hole corner of the world, they were much mistaken. They'd raided the area four years prior and eaten everything with a heartbeat.
In the edge of the Ha'zhual camp, Torbin ran his hands over his drum, caressing the smooth calf hide against his calloused fingers. He let out an audible sigh of satisfaction as he beat experimentally on the drum, a clear, low sound filling his ears. He closed his eyes in bliss, feeling the sound thrum through his being.
A noise in the distance jockeyed him back to reality. His eyes alert darted across the horizon, looking for any trace of the cannibals they'd pursued for the greater part of a decade.
When they first entered the area a few had suspected a trap. It wouldn't be the first time the Ha'zhuotos lured them to an area and ambushed them. Usually, they were smart enough not to try. The last time they did the cannibals had barely escaped with their lives. Usually they only tried to attack the Ha'zhual when they on the verge of starvation. With over a four hundred mouths, they got hungry often.
Torbin stood up, setting his drum down safely on the ground while he picked up his heavy stone maul. A strange sound echoed down the hills. It was a sound he hadn't heard in a long time, not since they'd last crossed the long plains. Not the cannibal's war-screams or the horns of an enemy tribe.
It was a horse, or rather several horses. What shocked Torbin most was that the beast bore riders. He'd only ever seen them used for the plow by some of the lazy tribes that toiled the earth.
The shock wore off quickly. He put his horn to his lips and blew loud enough for the whole camp to hear. By the time the riders approached every warrior the Ha'zhual had were ready for them with spears and clubs. The horsemen had swords and bows. The way they carried them, they knew how to use them.
One stuck out from the rest. He hands were naked on his horse's neck. There was no blade at his side, no weapon hanging from his saddle. Yet the men around him seemed to acknowledge him as he dismounted. On the ground the Ha'zhual could appreciate his size. He stood over a head taller than them and he was broad of shoulder. Auburn hair hung loosely down his muscled back. He was a massive man in size and strength. It was obvious he needed no weapons, it seemed he could crush a man's skull in one hand.
He spoke first, with a deep, smooth voice flavored by a heavy accent, "Greetings, warriors of the plains, I stand to meet your chief."
There was a rustling in the crowd as the Ha'zhual looked amongst themselves, unsure what to make of this unarmed man. He was from a different tribe, they knew that much. But the only interaction they had with the other tribes was either fighting them or trading with them. The horsemen didn't look like they wanted fight, and didn't seem to have anything to trade. Though their swords did look rather shiny.
Slowly, their ranks parted to make way for Kilgorn, a large man with gray hair and few scars. The Ha'zhual bowed their heads as their chief passed.
Kilgorn stood level with the giant horseman's shoulder but didn't back down. He eyed the man appraisingly, thinking of a way to bring the giant down to his level.
He was shocked when the giant bowed to him.
"I pay you homage, king of the legendary Ha'zhual," the man said. "I place myself at your mercy."
The Ha'zhual chief didn't know what to make of it. "Rise," he said hesitantly. "What name do you go by?"
"I go by a pair," the man said through sharp teeth. "Vishirian Cambello was the name I was born with. The other—."
"The Great Beast," Kilgorn finished.
Cambello smiled sheepishly. "I didn't realize my name had spread this far inland, though it does make this exchange a little easier."
Kilgorn took a step backwards. The Great Beast of the Coast. Yes, that name had flown through the land like a swift stream. His tribe had prospered beyond belief. None could stand before them with their mage-king at their helm.
"May I grant you hospitality?" Kilgorn asked.
Cambello bowed again. "If it pleases, my king."
Shaking, Kilgorn led the Beast into his camp, his home. His wife had erected their tent next to an ancient shrine to the Maker gods. Such shrines were common in the area. When the Makers had their vast empire they'd been waystones between cities. Faint traces of a dead language directed somewhere, but the Ha'zhual followed the Zhuotos, dead languages be damned.
Rekkus was standing guard outside with his axe. His long beard was braided into a thick rope that hung down his chest. Silently, he followed his chief and the Beast inside with his axe at the ready.
Thei chief's wife had a fire lit. Kilgorn bade the Beast sit on the finest cushion in the whole tribe, the seat Kilgorn usually took.
Cambello looked at the cushion and the relative poverty of the others. "My king—," he began.
"Sit," Kilgorn insisted. "You're my guest, and I insist you accept. Let it not be said the Ha'zhual skimp on hospitality."
Grudgingly, Cambello lowered himself to the ground.
For a few moments, Kilgorn busied himself getting his pipe prepared and his spare for the Beast. Mainly he didn't want to sit by the Beast. He'd heard too much about the man to believe half of it, but the half he believed gave him a health amount of respect for the man.
Still, seeing Cambello in person made him wonder about that other half, that half he didn't quite believe.
Cambello accepted the offered pipe and puffed appreciatively on the tobacco for several minutes in silence. He watched Kilgorn's bodyguard, Rekkus, examining every feature of the man's silent stature.
Rekkus stared back unflinchingly. As a Ha'zhual who'd fought the Ha'zhuotos his entire life, he couldn't find it in himself to fear anyone, mage or no.
Letting out a cloud of smoke, Cambello spoke, "Is this man typical of your tribe?"
Kilgorn eyed his guard. "To a degree," he admitted. "Vallen Rekkus is one of a kind, though. I've never seen a man so skilled with a long-axe as he is. I've watched he's hurled it in the head of a Ha'zhuotos from forty paces."
The tale brought a small smile to Cambello's face. He bowed his head respectfully at the Ha'zhual warrior. He turned back to Kilgorn. "Many a story I've heard about the Ha'zhual and their eternal battle against the mad Ha'zhuotos. Your tribe has tracked them from one end of the earth to the other, constantly fighting them as they grow in number and you slowly dwindle. How do they grow, exactly?"
Kilgorn spat into the fire. "Some things do not bear repeating."
Cambello nodded. "Regardless, I have always been in awe of your tribe. No one in Cernon can doubt your people's power and honor."
"Flattery?" Kilgorn asked suspiciously.
"Truth," the Beast answered with a sly smile. He shifted his massive weight and leaned towards the Ha'zhual chief. "I admit to have an ulterior motive, though. I've taken my people as far as I can by themselves, but I need seasoned warriors to lead them."
Kilgorn arched a wizened eyebrow. "What exactly do you mean?"
The Beast sighed, his huge chest heaving. "I have plans for this world, my king, plans to leave a mark that will last for generations. I have a dream of changing Cernon for the better, but I need you and your tribe to help me fulfill my dream."
"We have no interest in changing Cernon," Kilgorn said dismissively. "Our concern lies solely in the Ha'zhuotos and their death."
"And what if I could give that to you?"
Kilgorn snorted in disbelief. "I have heard many things about you, Vishirian Cambello, and I have no doubt your armies are mighty and that you have some power of your own, but not even you can hope to annihilate the Ha'zhuotos."
Cambello's smile widened. He set his hands on the ground and adjusted his weight.
The Ha'zhual chief frowned. "What are you doing?"
Almost as if in answer, the very earth shook beneath their feet. One end of Kilgorn's tent collapsed in on itself as its support gave way, causing the center to dip dangerously close to the fire.
In a flash of movement Rekkus had his axe at the Beast's throat.
"End it," he murmured.
Still smiling, the Beast lifted his hands from the ground and the earth stilled itself. He looked Kilgorn in the eye and bowed his head. "I offer myself to you and your tribe in your quest to extinguish the Ha'zhuotos. All I ask is that you become first in my army, that you assist me in my quest as I do the same for you."
Kilgorn breathed apprehensively. The prospect of such power being directed at the hated Zhuotos made him giddy with excitement. Still, he was skeptical. If the Great Beast used his tribe and wasted them, Cambello would lose nothing while the Ha'zhual would lose everything. With power like the Beast had, small promises like this meant nothing. Their livelihood depended solely on the Beast's honor.
Kilgorn preferred to have something a little more substantial holding them together. Someone.
"Perhaps," the Ha'zhual chief said. "But for such a gift, I most offer you something in return."
"You can offer me your service," Cambello replied. "For that alone I would be grateful."
"Something of more value," Kilgorn said. "My tribe's greatest treasure."
"Very well," Cambello said impatiently. "I'd be honored to accept."
Kilgorn allowed himself to smile. "Aislinn, would you come in please?"
Cambello turned in time to see the beautiful woman enter. Her heart-shaped face was framed by black tresses that fell down her shoulders. He saw her wide hips and thought of the children she could bear him. She was slender, or as slender as the Ha'zhual got.
She was beautiful, Cambello would give her that, but he'd seen better.
Kilgorn gestured. "My lord Cambello, I give you my daughter."
The Beast was taken aback. "Excuse me?"
"To cement this agreement between you and my tribe, you will accept my daughter to guarantee your connection to the Ha'zhual."
"This really isn't necessary," Cambello said hurriedly.
Aislinn spoke, her voice like honey, "Oh, but is, Vishirian Cambello. You just don't realize it yet."
Cambello focused on her. He could feel his heart quickening just looking at her. His lungs couldn't find enough air that held her scent. It was as if he was drowning in her presence. He wanted her. He wanted her more than anything else in the whole world.
Something clicked in his mind. He had more control than this. Why was he thinking this way?
"Blood mage?" he asked in a forced calm tone.
"A clever man," she said sweetly. "But a man all the same."
Cambello smiled at her. "My father once told me that the only thing you can do in this life is aspire to be better."
Her lips parted slightly, a hint of pink tongue tracing full, red lips. "True, but in the end you're still a man. You're born, you grow old, and in the end you'll die just like everyone else. All that you achieve will be for nothing because you won't be around to see them. So tell me, what will your grand little empire do will you fall?"
Cambello hesitated. "It will go on," he said forcefully.
Aislinn arched her brow. "Are you so sure?"
"I can hope, can't I?"
Kilgorn chided, "You should quit playing with him, daughter."
She laughed. "But its not often you have a chance to mock a god."
Cambello's mouth dropped. "A god? I think you might be mistaken."
"And I think you might be underestimating yourself," Aislinn shot back. "And me. Should I tell you what I offer? More than just the Ha'zhual, I offer you the chance to be greater than the Makers. I can give your soldiers wings to soar the sky, no wall shall bar them. I shall grant you life eternal, to guide our people on the path of prosperity till all of Cernon lies in your domain. I offer you myself. Where my father offered me as a means to seal a bargain, I bring much more to this arrangement than you can possibly imagine. Vishirian Cambello, I will make you god."
For a moment, the Great Beast was silent. Cambello smiled, he said, "My Dame."