Large, pluming clouds of smoke rose from the charred ground, filling Shayana's lungs with the putrid stink of death. Her violet eyes scanned the ruined battlefield, savoring the utter destruction caused by a few hundred soldiers fueled by nothing, but the motive to annihilate each other. A raven flew overhead, its belly swollen from picking at the dead bodies. At least the scavengers would be pleased with the remains. They were the only neutral creatures left in the world, content to consume either Xhian or Thurulcan flesh equally.
"General Makea, are you injured?" A concerned voice inquired as she turned to meet the eyes of a fairly new member to her army. His scraggly form couldn't have seen more than fifteen winters and yet there he stood, clutching a sword half his size, pieces of armor missing.
"Tell me your name, boy." Her voice held the regal calm she had inherited since birth, while her cool eyes searched the young man's face. His head barely passed her shoulders, which at her five nine meant that hopefully he was still growing. He stood at attention, nearly dropping his large sword, "Liram ma'am, son of Kiram the blacksmith."
So that's why the face caught her attention, "Ah yes, your father has crafted some of the most impressive blades I've ever seen. My own sword is his creation and it has never failed me. Give him my best will you?" To her surprise, the young boy's eyes began to water as he choked out, "I will send a prayer to him, my lady. His life was taken this morning. I…I couldn't get there in time."
This news brought her genuine sadness as Kiram's skill would be sorely missed. But what stung more than her personal loss was the look of torment in a boy who was forced to become a man much quicker than he was prepared. Brushing back her battle worn cape, Shayana took the boy in her arms and held him close, "We have all lost those precious to us. I will send my own prayers to your father. Accept the men and women around you as your new family. In the end, it's all we have."
He tried to choke back a sob long enough to reply, "Yes, my lady." But it came out in a pathetic whimper when she squeezed him once more before continuing on her way. Liram felt a sharp slap on the back when one of the scarred men shook him slightly, "Dry your eyes, lad. There is no place for tears on the battlefield."
Liram nodded and brushed his arm across his face, leaving a black smear mark, "She is amazing." The bearded man let out a quiet agreement, "That she is. General Makea has seen more victories than any other leader in Xhia history. I still remember the first time she set foot on the field. She was no older than you, my boy; a bare snip of a girl and now ten years have passed and she is the masterpiece we see before us."
"I can't believe how kind she is. Doesn't seem like a quality a strong leader should have." Liram said as he attempted to tie his much too large sword to his side. The bulging man's gray eyes took in the boy with deathly sincerity, "Do not mistake her kindness for weakness, lad. She may care for her people, but betray her and she will cut you down without a second thought.See for yourself."
Liram swallowed as he followed the man's gaze to the mighty woman whom had taken him in her arms like a loving mother only seconds ago. His eyes widened when she approached the tied members of her army who all waited on their knees, heads bowed. In a voice which froze all who heard it, Shayana looked upon the four men with utter distain, "Cowardice is a sin I shall never forgive. Your betrayal is a poisonous cancer amongst those who are faithful to the Xhian army. When the battle took a dark turn, you joined up with the Thurucalns. You've spit upon the blood shed today. The only penance you have is to shed your own."
Shayana's cold gaze met them until one of the four men rose up to his feet crying pathetically, "Please reconsider, my lady! I am faithful to Xhia! To you! Have mercy my general! Please princess…." Quicker than was physically possible to follow, Shayana swung her blade up and decapitated the traitor where he stood. Before his head hit the ground, she was already at work on the other three, never ceasing her movements until four heads lolled at her feet.
Liram gulped loudly, a strange shaking over taking his body as the serene woman turned to leave the disgraceful mess behind her. When she passed by, he didn't miss the blood splattered on her lovely face, which in a disturbing way only seemed to add to the fierce beauty she already possessed. When she was out of earshot, the seasoned warrior smacked his shoulder once more, pulling the shaking boy closer, "That woman there is more deadly than any Thurucaln, lad. Stay in her good graces and pray you will never have to see the brunt of her weapon."
Shayana stepped around the remains of what appeared to be a severed torso and by the crimson body armor; she knew it was one of her own. The crest of a full moon circled by a mighty chain bent at an ungodly angle showing the evidence of a fierce hit to the wearer. Saying a quiet prayer for the life lost, the proud woman stepped up the hill to where her tent stood and her advisor waited.
"Ah, general Makea, good to see you're still in one piece. Are you prepared for more business?" The man with dangerous eyes inquired as Shayana sighed, "Yes Akiem, but first help me take off this silly cape will you?" The advisor smiled and lifted the tattered piece of clothing from her sore shoulders, "You'll never get used to it will you?"
"Frankly I find it a ridiculous concept. If the enemy is close enough to see that I'm a general and I haven't ended their life, then I'm not worthy of my reputation, am I? The horrible thing just gets in the way." Akiem smiled indulgently while Shayana sat down in the welcoming chair with a groan, "If you wish, I can bring matters up later, when you've recovered from battle."
As tempting as rest sounded, Shayana shook her head, working out the tension in her right arm, "No, let's settle things now so I don't have more concerns when I do finally decide to rest." Akiem's predatory gaze challenged her, "Now we both know that will never happen. You haven't stopped moving since we were children, Shay." Her scarlet eyebrow rose at the informal pet name her oldest friend called her before a faint smile rested on her lips, "You're probably right, but that is a discussion for another time. Now what are the final matters to attend to before we may return home? My men are ragged."
Akiem nodded and motioned to the table where he had already set out two large maps, "Yes, this battle lasted longer than expected. The Thurucalns are becoming more and more bold in their efforts. It seems like they are plotting something bigger than normal warmongering." Shayana watched him carefully, "Is it possible we are pushing them back so much that they are letting it all go? A final stand?"
Akiem's golden hair fell forward as his calculating gaze traced along the map, "While that would be understandable with how many of them you've personally eliminated, I can't help but think there's something more. Camps have been spotted, here, here and here along the river." He motioned to three different sections of Terru which were much too far apart to be considered a complete army. Shayana's eyebrows pulled together as she studied the individual camp locations, "I'm not concerned about the two locations by the river, however, the one located so close to the Fepican Forest is very curious. What could they possibly want there?"
The Fepican Forest was a territory neither Xhia nor Thurucaln dared to venture. There were beasts within those trees that were said to suck out a man's soul leaving him but a shell to return to his homeland and devour all he saw. The memory of seeing such a soulless man when she was only five winters still plagued Shayana's nightmares.
"That's exactly what I want to know. The camps occupying the rivers at least make sense, but for them to push so far into madness as to set up within any close proximity to the Fepican Forest is beyond me. Even for the Thurucaln, that is unheard of. What could be so important?"
Shayana analyzed the maps once more before she laced her long fingers in front of her face, "It may be time to call on an old friend, Akiem. Have we been able to locate Revarian since our last encounter?" The advisor shook his head before pouring her a glass of wine, "No, my lady, the last we heard of him was in this general area." Akiem gestured to the entirety of the map which caused Shayana to roll her mauve eyes, "Have I told you how helpful you are to me, paws?" At this he placed the wine chalice in front of her, his lethal eyes narrowing, "I believe we agreed you wouldn't call me that anymore, princess."
Her sultry lips curved, truly satisfied at the nerve she struck, "You cease yours and I'll stop mine." She raised the chalice to her lips and sipped quietly pleased with the annoyed shudder which passed through her advisor. Though she throughly enjoyed teasing him, Akiem was the one true friend she had and the only one who would see her as more than the general of the Xhian army.
She swallowed the bitter liquid, but didn't miss the flash of his green eyes changing from seemingly human to the beast which always lurked within. Akiem held a very special secret that only those exceptionally close to him were aware of since he had such a talent of hiding his wilderness within. While there was no official name for what kind of creature he was, legends had been written centuries ago of men who were possessed with the spirits of beasts.
Akiem was quite literally a cub when Shay met him so many years ago in the courtyard of the palace. A small lion caught in one of the traps set for the rekons which had been especially bad that year. Shayana had a nasty habit of freeing the weasel like creatures before the huntsman would kill them. So when she laid eyes on the yowling feline, her heart ached.
"Poor kitty!" She had cried, but when her four-year-old fingers reached to free him, her heart stopped when that cub suddenly transformed into a boy not two years older than her. His leg was a bloody mess which still caused a faint limp when the weather was foul, but not enough for one to notice if not looking for it. Shayana had him freed and brought to her father who agreed to allow the boy to live with them as hired help. Though most of the help he provided was entertaining Shayana so she wouldn't disrupt court procedures as she was so keen on doing.
They had been friends ever since; Akiem even joining her when she had run away to fight in Xhia's army. Along with learning the ways of war, the cursed boy had discovered the ability to tame the beast within him so much to the point that Shayana hadn't seen it in many years. She smiled at him, feeling a distinct comfort in his presence. When he turned to show her the plans for food rationing, a gruff voice called from outside their tent, "General Makea! Sir Akiem! We've captured a Thurucaln spy!"
Both advisor and general looked to each other with deadly sincerity as Shayana assumed the callous sneer she was famous for. Akiem reached for the dreadful cape to place it back on her shoulders before they stepped out of the tent to observe the prisoner. Two of her guards held a man on his knees before her; his hands bound with a crude sac over his head. She nodded to them for it to be removed which caused tresses of black hair to spill out past his shoulders. Thurucalns never cut their hair when they reached a certain age, believing their god gave them strength and honor with it.
Shayana's cold gaze scanned him critically while she inquired, "What is your name, creature?" When he didn't speak or even glance up to acknowledge her presence, one of the muscle bound men grabbed his long hair and pulled until his chin was vertical, "You speak when the general addresses you, scum!"
The mid-day sun seared the ground, heat waves emanating from the earth which didn't make Shayana's patience any stronger, "I asked you a question and I'm not in the habit of repeating myself." It took a moment before the guard released the Thurucaln's long hair and he replied with a sardonic, "Forgive me, great general Makea, but I was unaware you were speaking to me. I don't answer to the term, 'creature'."
"In this camp you will respond to whatever we call you, slime." The guard on the left scolded with a swift kick to the man's tanned abs. This elicited a round of wet coughing, which led Shayana to believe something must have broken. Giving him a moment, she walked closer, a dangerous, predatory look upon her cat like face.
Bending down and pulling out her curved dagger, Shayana placed it under the bone of his chin in order to force him to look at her, "Patience is not something I'm known for. Now as you can see the men of my army are quick to punish any other mordant comments you may have. This can be much easier than you believe. So if you would prefer to see the charitable side of me, I suggest you corporate or I swear by the fate's blood I will spill yours and drink it myself."
While such a practice was barbaric and completely unethical, Shayana knew the myths the Thurucaln ancestors created to frighten their young soldiers into battle; grand stories of the Xhia army sacrificing their children and drinking the blood of their enemies. Better to speak in a language he would understand to most quickly achieve her goal and that was sweet, beautiful information.
Her violet eyes locked with his golden irises while she purred "So, let's begin with your name, shall we?" The Thurucaln tried to keep her gaze, but quickly folded under the scrutiny swirling within them, "My name is Dyha." Shayana smiled coolly, first contact had been established. Among the other skills she had developed as a warrior, interrogation came as easily as breathing for the youngest general in Xhia history. In a way, she enjoyed it more than any other part of her duties. The ability to crack into an enemy's mind was in most aspects her favorite game.
"So Dyha, how many summers have you seen?" She asked gently running the tip of the dagger up and down the fragile flesh of his throat. He swallowed when the sharp end met the soft part of his neck where dirt and sweat had gathered before he stammered, "eight…eighteen…." The general nodded while examining the scar which branded him as a member of the Thurucaln army.
The Thurucaln's were seen as barbarians by the much more refined Xhians.Their skin tanned in the blistering sun,resulting in afrightening mix with their golden eyes and that black hair which depending on their age could easily be longer than a female's. Xhians were normally a creamy white, perferring to stay inside their elaborate halls instead of sleeping under the open sky like animals. While both chose to wear their hair long, most Xhians kept their hair tied up in elegant braids, not dangling down their backs.
"And what exactly possessed you to join the army?" Dyha became more and more twitchy when she stroked the tip of the dagger up and down ever so slowly in the space between his collar bones. Shayana kept on with her gentle persuasion, asking more mundane questions while continuing to tip the blade up and down with the faintest movement of her wrist. Dyha began to sweat and gasp until suddenly his body locked, "I won't tell you anything! You'll have to kill me! I'll never talk!" He screamed when the small strokes of the dagger began to feel like searing heat on his skin.
With a continual calm, Shayana inquired, "You are talking quite a bit actually. Why the upset Dyha? I haven't even asked you anything serious yet. I'm just trying to get to know you first. I like to build up a solid relationship before I get into the real torture. And you know part of me actually wishes you won't talk."
With that, she laced her long fingers through his onyx hair, bringing his ear close to her lips, "Because I really want to torture you. Think about which kind of pain you'd wish to experience." She released him before standing with her shoulders back in the posewhich expressed strength and domination, "Take him away. We'll speak again very soon." The guards heeded her command and roughly yanked the prisoner to his feet while Shayana cooed, "Gently, boys, gently. We must show our guest Xhian hospitality."
When they dragged him away from her sight, Akiem patted her shoulder gently, "You even frighten me when you're like that. Do you really intend to torture that boy?" She smirked, turning her face up to the three suns which hovered in the sky, "Let's hope not, it would be a pain to clean more Thurucaln blood from my blade. Fear is so much more motivating than pain. Right now he is imagining a punishment far worse than I ever could do, better to let his mind torture him for me. I have more important things to do."
Akiem watched her walk back into the tent, his eyes flashing dangerously, "Indeed my lady, you truly are a goddess of war...."