Ashes of the Empire
hooded cloak, hood down. band over forehead with Dwarven runes cute haIR (jedi braids) patterns along arms (kinda like henna tattoos) mithril bracer on left arm —gold bands trim with Dwarven runes inscribed travellers pants sandals with straps wrapped around ankle maroon eyes scimitar in belt javelin strapped to back? waist-height shield in left hand ring tattoos around neck chainmail knapsack with two straps
The Moonshire clan was an ancient clan of Halflings, whose history dates back before the beginning of the Galadrin Empire of the North. They came from a race of Halflings, who, at their most prosperous time, populated the entire western coast of the Mardok continent. However, in the era in which Benezia Moonshire was born, there were but few pockets of Halfling tribes left in the west. The reason for this rapid decline in population is never accounted for in most known histories of Mardok, though it is widely expected that many tribes were exterminated by other races in their quest for the abundant natural resources found in the Western Forests. But of the surviving tribes, there remained one village whose existence was still unknown to the outside world. The name of that village has been sadly lost, burned in the flames of the invasion to come.
Benezia Moonshire was born in this remote village in the dense forests of Western Mardok. Though she did not come to understand it until much later in her life, her people were no ordinary Halflings. Or perhaps it is more proper to say that they came from no ordinary place. For it was the forest in which they had lived for centuries that made this particular clan so extraordinary. However, Benezia new nothing of the mystical powers her people possessed as she spent her first few years among the ancient Chalpatea trees. For her and her people, life was as it always had been, at least since the oldest and wisest among her clan could remember. But things would soon change…
Benezia was still a young Halfling when the Dwarves invaded. Though barely at a rudimentary level of understanding of her native language, her first vivid memory as a child came from that traumatic night. The engulfing flames, the cries of the ancient Chalpateas, the silenced screams of her people. An entire civilization destroyed by the machines of war. Like a swarm of locusts devouring a field, a desolate barren land was all that was left, save a handful of children taken captive by the Dwarven brigades. Among them was Benezia, bearing only the clothes on her body and her knapsack on her back, one of the few survivors of a race that was almost entirely wiped out. As the final Chalpatea trees fell in that great inferno, so was the secret of the Halfling tribe’s mystical powers lost forever…or so it seemed.
Benezia and the other children were taken along with the Dwarven forces, and spent the next few years surviving in a series of internment camps, moving from one to another as the Dwarven military campaign progressed along the continent. In these camps, she and dozens of other children prisoners of war repaired clothing, prepared food, and served numerous other roles as domestic servants for the Dwarven military.
It was in the fourth such camp that Benezia finally met the Mage in Red. An aged mage was he, whose long black beard was all that could be seen from under his great hooded cloak. He relied heavily upon his great staff as he walked, always with a limp. The staff was the most ornately carved piece of wood Benezia had ever seen. All along it were carved a series of intricately detailed images: scenes of vast mountain ranges, tall ships upon violent seas, epic battles and great cities. Interspersed among them all were runes and shapes she didn’t recognize.
The red-cloaked mage came into the camp followed by a handful of Dwarven military officers (from the looks of their uniforms), though the mage did not seem to be of Dwarven stature himself. He was in fact much taller and less stout than the Dwarves he came with. The officers followed the Mage in Red as he walked among the children, who did their best to look hard at work. The mage seemed to take great care in observing the children as he walked, almost as if he were searching for someone in particular. Benezia felt his eyes finally fall upon her as she was mending an ammunition pouch, though she did not look at him. He stopped behind her. She heard whispers spoken between the Dwarves, and then the Mage in Red spoke, in a language she had never heard before. After he did so, one of the Dwarven officers took Benezia by the arm. Before he could lead her away, she broke free from his grasp and ran to grab her beloved knapsack, her only remaining possession from her native village. The Dwarves seized her again and then led her out of the camp to a waiting carriage, where she was taken away to the Dwarven capital of Ashol.
There Benezia spent the rest of her youth, mostly in the military compounds where she received basic combat training along with the rest of the Dwarven military recruits. It was never explained to her why she was chosen to serve in the Dwarven forces, but as it was a far cry from the never-ending labor she faced in the internment camps, she never asked. As she progressed, it was noticed by her superiors that she possessed an energy of great spirituality. It was decided that after she finished basic combat training, that Benezia would be trained in the Academy of Spiritual Arts as a cleric.
The Dwarves of Northern Mardok were a polytheistic people, as most Dwarven societies are. Though there is evidence that centuries ago this particular Dwarven society worshiped Moradin almost exclusively, today the followers of this creator god are marginalized as being cultish and too attached to the past. Today the most revered deity of the Dwarven civil society is Bahamut, while among the military castes, worship of Kord is unrivaled. And it was the lore of Kord in which Benezia was taught in the Academy of Spiritual Arts. Though Benezia did indeed have a strongly spiritual identity, she never felt her powers grow under the study of Kordanism.
There was a vast library and archive available to her and other students of the Academy, though access was strictly limited. The Arken library was the largest collection of religious historical texts available in the continent, for the Academy was without rival in the spiritual and religious arts. And it was not only Dwarves who attended the school, for in fact they were a minority among the enrolled. Scholars and students from all over the continent and beyond came to the Academy to study and train.
While browsing the dusty and ragged texts in the Occult section while doing a research project on the history of Moradinism, Benezia came upon a book tightly bound in what were none other than tanned and stretched leaves. The leaves looked oddly familiar to Benezia, though from where, she could not remember. As she moved her hand closer to the book, it seemed to give off a warm glow. “The Order of Sehanine” was inscribed in Common on the spine of the book. As she flipped the pages, digesting all that she could, she felt a movement inside her chest, a feeling of growing power and connection. It was all so new and exciting to her, though it felt as if what she were reading she already knew in some strange way. From that day forth, Benezia made every trip she could spare to the library studying the lore and history of the goddess Sehanine, when she wasn’t busy doing her prescribed studies in Kordanism.
It was in her fifth year at the academy that Benezia met Faron. Faron was a Dwarven assassin training at the Ithyldor Center for War Studies (ICWS) next to the Academy. Though the two institutions were separate, they shared many of the same buildings, such as training facilities and the mess hall. Some students of the ICWS could be seen at the Arken library, though it was very rare. But it was here that the two met.
Faron Blankenship came from a Dwarven family that was well known throughout the Northern Mountains. Her family had produced some of the most skilled blacksmithing artisans in all the land. More fame did they have in the generations before Faron, but nonetheless the secrets of their craft were passed down to her. Once well off among the merchant class, the Blankenships had now descended to the lowest castes of society after the mechanization and industrialization of the armor-making business stripped them of their market. The scope of Dwarven military conquest had far outpaced the productivity of blacksmiths, and so most armor and weapons were now mass-produced. Faron, looking for more secure employment, put her natural dexterity to use by enlisting in the Dwarven Imperial Guard as an assassin.
Though Benezia and Faron came from much different backgrounds, they felt a natural connection between them too strong for social circumstances to diffuse. They shared a sense of isolation from their peers and an estrangement from the dominant feelings of patriotism and loyalty to the clan. The two forged a die-hard relationship that lasted for many blissful months. Their intimacy was of course heretical in their strongly religious society. But between completing her academic studies and her clandestine studies of Sehanine, Benezia devoted all her spare time to being with Faron.
As the Dwarven war effort continued to deteriorate in the occupation of Tazak in the south, Faron knew that sooner or later she would be shipped out with the rest of the reinforcements. Her heart dreaded the day of separation between her and Benezia, especially because her last moon cycle had not come when she had expected it to. Her recent feelings of desperation due to her inevitable departure from Benezia had caused her to be careless in using contraception when the two were intimate. But whether her change in physical state was from stress or from something else, Faron could not tell. At last Faron received official word that she would be sent out with a team of rogues into the heart of Tazak on an infiltration mission.
Benezia was devastated when Faron told her. Her tears, streaming from her maroon eyes, fell upon the hardened soil from which unnoticed buds began to emerge. The two held each other in an embrace of love that no war could tear apart. At long last, Faron took her satchel from her shoulder and opened it. From the bag she removed a shining bracer. It was made of a metallic material that seemed to reflect all the colors of the visible spectrum as it was rotated under the light. Around the ends of the bracer were rings of gold, upon which were inscribed runes. Benezia read and spoke fluent Dwarven, and though the runes were clearly Dwarven, the words seemed to be in a different language. The metal was cold to the touch, but Benezia felt a warmth emanating from it as Faron placed it around her forearm.
“I leave tomorrow, but I can never leave your side. Take this with you wherever your travels may lead you, and you will know that I am always with you,” said Faron.
Benezia could tell from the energy of the bracer that it was clearly magical of some sort. “What is this made of? It feels magical,” she said. The bracer was so light that she felt as if she were wearing nothing at all.
“This is Dwarven mithril. I put all of myself into crafting this for you,” Faron spoke. “Its properties may not be apparent to you now, but in your time of gravest need, it will make itself known to you. I will be there for you.”
At that moment, the moon Taurus in its full form emerged from behind the clouds and cast a pale light upon the bracer and the two lovers. The bracer glowed with a light of its own, as if in dialogue with the moon.
“Let this bracer be a guide to you when you are lost in the darkness. It will be my eyes and my ears, a companion with you during your journeys,” said Faron.
At that, Benezia and Faron kissed, a kiss that would connect their souls for the rest of their days. Benezia never saw Faron again after that day.
It was after that time that the visions started to increase in frequency and intensity. Benezia had always had vivid dreams, since she could remember. But after she was abducted by the Dwarves, she started to have images and visions come to her when she was awake. They came at unexpected times. Scenes would suddenly flash before her eyes, and she would come to consciousness only moments later, though the visions seemed to have lasted minutes, sometimes hours. Sometimes she would understand them and recognize the images that came to her as memories of her past, but more often she did not recognize them at all.
It was as if she were suddenly transported to another world, at another time, where she was free to wander around but could not interact with what was happening. The visions could be as innocent as walking around through an empty forest, or as horrific as being in the middle of a war. The more traumatic visions came to her as she grew older under the training of the Dwarves. No one around her ever seemed to notice anything strange when Benezia would suddenly awake from a vision. To them, Benezia had simply closed her eyes for a few seconds. After some of her more horrific visions, Benezia would suddenly burst into tears or shout for help. After coming to her senses, she would manage to play it off as if she had had a sudden pain in her stomach, but the other students always thought she was weird. She made sure to keep it to herself, for she saw the terrible conditions under which the Dwarves put those who were deemed mentally sick.
So for a long while, Benezia dealt with her sporadic visions, telling herself that she was just dreaming. But when the visions started to become so intense and frequent that they prevented her from completing her studies, she knew that she had to do something.
Benezia rarely thought about her native village and the Dwarven invasion. After all, she was a trauma survivor and thinking about what had happened tended to be too painful. But inside, she had always felt a need for connection. Not a connection to another person or group of people, but a connection to a part of herself that had been lost. During all of her 23 years, she had never felt at home anywhere she went. This subconscious need to reconcile, to find one’s origins and to be at home, grew more and more in Benezia each year. She increasingly felt alienated from Dwarven society, not that she had ever felt all that at home there. The values and structures of Dwarven society were all very alien to her, and she always resented how they tried to indoctrinate her in their ways.
In her studies at the Academy, she began to isolate herself more from the social life in the area, especially after Faron left. She had had a few casual friends at the Academy, but all of a sudden she found herself alone and yearning to be elsewhere. She was not sure what motivated her to want to leave, perhaps her desire to find herself, find her origins, or perhaps it was an attempt to escape from her haunting visions. It was, after all, in her nature as a Halfling to want to explore and seek new experiences. “Go,” said Sehanine, “seek your own destiny, and let nothing tie you down.”
That opportunity came one fateful day when Mishrael, the head of Clerical Studies, approached her after class and invited her into his office to speak. He told her of how a representative of the Empire of the Undying Sun from the east, a mage known as Aragu, had requested her services in his diplomatic caravan.
“The mage did not mention his reasons for wanting you,” Mishrael explained, “but it was very clear that you were personally requested to enlist with him and his party. Seeing as how our alliance with the eastern Empire is important to our success in Tazak, the Academy and I urge you strongly to consider his proposition. Seeing as how you are in your last semester at the Academy, we have decided that, should you decide to join the efforts of our ally from the East, you would be awarded your Clerical Mastery Rite and given a stipend of 100 gold pieces for your trip.”
Though she was deeply suspicious of this mage known as Aragu, she felt she had no better prospect for her post-Academy life. Her urge to escape the Dwarven walls and begin the next chapter of her life overcame her, and she decided to enlist.
After packing up her knapsack, which she now felt to be her only lasting symbol of connection to her past, and grabbing her Dwarven-made javelin, shield, and chainmail, she went off to meet Aragu and his party and the great gates of the city. As soon as she saw the long black beard flowing from under the red hooded cloak, she felt her stomach drop; this Aragu was none other than the Mage in Red whom she saw at the internment camp before she was shipped off to the Dwarven city. Aragu said no words to her, but turned and motioned for the caravan to depart.
Benezia took her place in the long line of covered wagons and horses and other armed men and women, who she judged to be mercenaries by the looks of their mismatched armor. Looking behind her to the large stone gates that signaled the closing of a chapter in her life, she noticed a large number of children sitting in the many covered wagons that comprised the caravan. A feeling of wariness came back to her, but she told herself she was just having cold feet about leaving behind what had come to be her home for the past decade and a half, no matter how alien it had felt. She turned forward and headed off with the caravan.