This is the seventh chapter of Battle Realm's original history.
Chapter 7: Strangers Visit
Their arrival confirmed the rumors. The four strangers were indeed outlandish in appearance. All were well over six feet tall, and the tallest towered at what must have been eight feet high, with a long face and elongated limbs. The eldest had long straight black hair reaching to below his waist. He wore luxurious robes marked along the fringe with runes from an alphabet no one of the court recognized. His lined face marked him as old, but with an ageless quality he might have been fifty, but Yukio would not have been surprised to learn he was twice that. Despite his age he stood easily through the long diplomatic introduction, and moved gracefully. His three companions, apparently bodyguards, were equally baffling. One carried a long staff, and another, the gangly eight-footer, wore two dangerous-looking crescent-shaped blades. The third carried no weapon at all, but wore long bandoliers lined with silvery leaves. None of them spoke, and all had the same straight hair and flowing robes. The elder, introduced as Lord Zymeth, told their story in a deep, resonant voice, the voice of a practiced orator, speaking in an archaic trade language that had been common once on the continent. They were Clan Lotus, and they were exiles and refugees. Years ago they had been part of a great and ancient clan, who lived on a forested island that lay a score of miles east off the coast of the main continent. They were a peaceful and civilized clan, with a deep reverence for nature, and a matchless knowledge of magic and the inner workings of the world. He spoke of their island, the Blackmount, of great limestone ziggurats rising among the vegetation, and the mossy temples where they performed ritual devotions to the gods of balance and nature.
When the Horde devastated the mainland, the old clan had thought themselves safe, for the Horde seemed reluctant, or unable to cross water. They watched as the Horde moved unstoppably southward, killing not only those who opposed them, but all animal and plant life as well, leaving bare rock and dirt in their wake.
What happened next, no one had predicted. One day the winds rose and the sea seemed to go mad. A storm grew and struck with hurricane force, and an unstoppable current in the ocean began to flow southward, sweeping away ships and tearing docks out from their foundations. This in itself was no more than a nuisance, but the bizarre tides continued until, for the space of twelve hours or so, a causeway of bare rock was exposed between the Greenwood and the mainland, and that was all it took. The Horde had been gathered on the shore perhaps awaiting just such a chance, and thousands of them rushed across, and the devastation that had so far spared them finally descended. The clan, which had depended on its soothsayers to predict and avert all harm, was caught completely unprepared.
For all their learning, the old clan had not fielded an army for hundreds of years, and the Horde simply slaughtered them. Only one group within the Clan was able to put up any resistance at all, heroic wizards who had rediscovered an ancient area of magic that might offer survival for some. His voice trembling, Lord Zymeth described the desperate final moments of their defense of the forest temples, the fall of their mightiest heroes, and a desperate retreat to the coast.
The group of brave wizards put to sea on hastily-created magical craft, spells loosely holding timbers together until they could put in at an island harbor and build more permanent craft. Their magics had allowed them to endure the terrible currents that followed the breaking of the world, and they had wandered from island to island, hoping to find one both safe and large enough to live on permanently. They had come to this land in order to live and work in peace, and founded a new people, the Lotus Clan.
That night, the Lotus delegation was quartered at Serpentholm, while Lord Yukio consulted his advisers and the ancient scrolls of his library, the remnants of the recorded wisdom of his ancestors. There he found an account written some four hundred and fifty years earlier by Tarrant the Wise, that shed additional light on Lord Zymeth's tale. It told of eight strangers who had arrived on the Dragon Clan's borders pleading for sanctuary. They, too, had been exiles like the Lotus Clan, and had been more forthcoming about the Forbidden Path, describing it as a magical art that involved death and corruption, and harnessing those forces. With some misgivings, Tarrant the Wise had allowed the strangers to stay, and had even allowed a few members of the Dragon Clan to study with them, among them his own nephew.
The experiment had ended badly. The area where the strangers settled quickly became unpopular cattle would not graze there, and even birds seemed to avoid it. The following year a plague afflicted a nearby village, and the area was quarantined. A few months later, Tarrant was awakened by his guardsmen with word that his nephew had returned, gravely ill, and was asking for him. By the time Tarrant dressed and hurried to his nephew, it was too late -- indeed, it was almost unbelievable he had managed to ride home at all. Some kind of rot had invaded his flesh. In the act of dismounting, most of the muscle had actually sloughed off his right arm, the bones of which could now be seen. The stench was horrible. He managed to say a few words before he died. "Burn it...burn it, uncle...Forbidden... Path." His nephew's horse, and one of the guardsmen who had helped him in, also died within a week.
When Tarrant and a dozen volunteers arrived at the visitors' compound, almost all of them were dead of a similar disease. They found one man dying in the courtyard when they rode in; his legs were so badly decayed he could not walk. He wept incoherently and begged for death, and Tarrant recognized him as the dignified, scholarly man who had spoken for the group when they first arrived. Inside they found rotting corpses, most of them unburied, some of them still in their beds, or, incredibly, seemingly in the act of studying. A few were more disturbing, with elongated bones and extra fingers. There was a tree growing in the garden there that had increased enormously in size over the course of a year, and at its base they found another skeleton, this one apparently a child's. They burned everything they found, destroying all the written materials the strangers had brought. Even so, it took years before the area could be resettled.
After reading this, Lord Yukio considered for a day and a half before sending for Lord Zymeth again. The strangers of Tarrant’s time were clearly more dangerous than Lord Zymeth looked, but too much about them was still unknown he had decided to speak frankly. He acquainted his visitor with all he had read, and waited for a response. The elderly man looked very grave, and hesitated for a long time before speaking.
"We had long wondered what became of Lord Thuria's people. Now I know what end came to them. I wish to explain what has happened. Our way does indeed involve very dangerous forces. The corruption your ancestor witnessed is the danger we face, and seek to control. However, the fate Lord Thuria suffered will not come to us, because we have mastered what they fell victim to. Among my people I am considered most learned, a Master Warlock of the High College, but I have not died of it. Why? Because I learned to control the Corruption that claimed them. Please trust me, noble sir they died because they had only imperfectly grasped the secrets, the arts we have mastered."
In the end, Lord Yukio let himself be convinced, perhaps most of all because the Lotus Clan claimed to have had some power against the Horde. He granted the Lotus Clan all of the High Plateau and the passes leading up to it, land that in any case no one else had wanted, both because of its desolation and the sorcerous reputation surrounding it.
After that, Lord Zymeth was a frequent visitor at Serpentholm, and frequently offered advice. He also befriended Hideo, Lord Yukio's son, and the two of them frequently went riding together. In time, Lord Zymeth became, informally, both Yukio's adviser, and Hideo's tutor. Hideo was only eighteen when Lord Yukio fell ill of a wasting disease and died, and when Hideo became the head of the Serpent Clan it was natural for him to appoint Lord Zymeth as his chief adviser, and listen closely to his councils.
Strangely, in all that time, Lord Zymeth never seemed to grow any older.