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Guardian Chief
By Allan Maki, Turbine Entertainment Software

Sunlight filtered into the clay hovel through fresh cracks. A heady scent of boiling meat filled the room and caused his nose to twitch as he struggled free from another fitful night of rest.

His nightmares were getting worse.

A guttural cough alerted him that there were others stirring in the new day Sun. Soon they would be mulling about, picking dvorahd bugs from the fur on their feet and whining about the long walk that faced them. Dnaraag pushed out a heavy sigh as he opened his eyes and rubbed away his nightmare visions.

He peered through one of the cracks and spied a guard rousing others from their slumber with a sharp stick. He pulled his knees tight against his chest, peeled the Ursuin pelt from his body and tossed it into a corner. His mate let out an affectionate trill. Gulnaach looked toward him as she stirred the morning gruel over a small fire.

He responded in kind as he felt something sting his heel. A dvorahd burrowed deeper beneath his fur, nestling there, then biting his foot. He scratched it with dirt-blackened claws and moaned. The day had just begun and already he had regretted greeting the Sun.

Gulnaach drew a ladle of gruel and poured it into a chipped bowl; sandstone grated on old metal as the ladle scraped the bowl. Dnaraag looked at her gnarled fingers, swollen by the sudden relocation to a colder clime, another reminder of failure. How much longer would his tribe tolerate this incompetence?

Whiskers twitched as he smiled at his mate and crawled toward the table where she placed the gruel. His stomach rumbled. Stale bread, stolen in a raid as they searched for a more permanent home, lay on the table collecting flies. Dnaraag reached for the loaf and tore a piece free. He swatted a fly away and scraped off a corner that had grown green with mold.

Wind whistled through the flaps of Mite skin hanging over the entryway. Outside, the remainder of the tribe grew anxious. Weapons clattered against one another in shows of strength, howling voices rose to welcome the Sun.

The bread drank the red broth like a hungry cub. Dnaraag popped it in his mouth and hooked his claws onto a heavy piece of meat. Greyed by the boiling, the Reedshark meat retained its salty flavor. It was harder to eat than Mite flesh, but was sustenance all the same.

They had traveled for a quarter cycle of the moons. In that time they had been forced to build ramshackle shelters from mud and sticks. These makeshift dwellings crumbled within days of being built. This world was far different from theirs. There were no caves for them to inhabit, though sometimes a portal would open to a structure that could be taken from beings of lesser strength. Often they would find creatures that were stronger than they, resistant to their shaman magic and resilient enough to withstand onslaught from their guardians and scouts.

Dnaraag grunted and pushed the bowl away, sated. Outside the clamor had turned into the sound of a hundred members of his tribe eating morning gruel. Slurps, chomps and the occasional row filled the chill morning air and allowed him time to think and talk with his mate. They spoke in hushed tones, for they discussed a matter most foul.

"Mangluuad is a good Chieftain." He stared at the mite skin flaps, unable to meet her eyes.

"He is feeble," she retorted. He let out a simple grunt.

"Can he be blamed for this?" he asked, turning his attention to a buzzing fly that landed on a scrap of bread.

"He must," she said, scraping the bottom of her cooking pot, dented and blackened by time and use. She licked her claws clean and continued. "He has not listened to the scouts who say there is a fortress of Mites here in the mountains. Instead he dreams of taking a settlement from the humans, a settlement that may not exist."

He sighed. "He is the wisest among us." His resolve fluttered, as it had every day since she had first made these accusations. It was true: Magluuad had given no thought to any course beyond his dream of winning a human settlement. His tribe had lived in the hills in the south before the sundering, when the purple winds swirled and took them away. They had ruins there, and prime fields for hunting Aurochs and Mites. Then the sundering came and they were thrust here.

Gulnaach clacked her teeth together sharply. "He is weak, his mind addled." Her words, marked with venom, were enhanced by the twisted rage on her face. "It is his fault our children are dead."

"I do not wish to challenge him. I know the course of the gods. His power has waned but his mind is strong. Our bodies all grow weak with age." He dismissed her with a wave of his paw, paused and watched her as she turned back to the cooking fire. Outside, heavy footsteps drew near. The Chief would soon speak to the tribe through him.

"Our children are gone because he dreams instead of leads," Gulnaach mewled.

"Enough." He barked.

She recoiled, but did not stop. "You are the force of the gods. They thunder in your arms and veins. You are the strength of this tribe. It is your right to defend him, or remove him. We grow weaker with each day. We have no more food, our shelter is falling around us." She pounded on the hut to emphasize. Dirt fell in clumps, allowing more daylight to pierce the hovel. "You must!"

"I must do what is best for the tribe."

She grumbled and turned away from him.

He pushed the Mite skins aside and crawled out into the day. The chilling air funneled into the hovel, stoking the cooking fire. Outside, his tribe huddled together beneath tattered hides for warmth. The playful actions of the morning were now gone as the Sun retreated behind storm clouds. The temperature was dropping and on the peak above their camp, snow fell. Dnaraag made his way to Mangluuad's hut as he watched the snow swirl off the mountaintop in thin ribbons.

The flaps were closed. The red fur of the guardians stood in harsh objection to the snow swirling about them. As he approached they stepped apart.

He was the champion of the tribe, a hulking mass of muscle that defended the Chieftain. His strength came from the gods and he could call on their power to smite enemies and strengthen his body. He too would someday become Chief, yet not while his body still held the strength of the gods. In time that strength would become wisdom, and the respect he earned as high guardian of the tribe would earn him the title of Chief. He wondered about that time, and how he would fare if he were in this situation.

Mangluuad called out from within the hut. Snow fell now in a heavy blanket onto the gathered tribe. Groans and hushed whispers sounded as they watched their champion go to speak with their Chief. The guardians pulled aside the Mite skin flaps to allow his entry.

The chilling wind caused Mangluuad to pull the hides more tightly about him. "Enter quickly, my bones are brittle, champion." Dnaraag did, and the flaps fell shut behind him. Mangluuad's mate was dead, for half a year now, age having taken her. His Chief looked ancient. Matted fur clung to his body in mottled, gray clumps. His cheeks looked sunken in the pale light afforded by the cloud-hidden Sun. He had become a shell, his eyes the last to lose the lust of life. They had a pink rim about them, the color of his lips, which had begun to pull away from his teeth. Age was a terrible process for them, especially for those favored by the gods.

"You look at me as though you pity me, Dnaraag." The Chief spoke in raspy tones.

"There is not pity for you, Chief Mangluuad, only thanks for your service to this tribe." Dnaraag bowed his head. "A wind howls from above, throwing snow on our people and hiding the Sun from our sight. We have no food left to share, and have not found the human settlement you dream of."

"It is there, many of our kind live there now."

"But we have not seen this place, noble Chief." Dnaraag said. "We may best be served by taking the Mites home, at least there will be warmth, shelter and food for a time."

"No--" the Chief snapped as a fit of coughing seized him. Mangluuad's body, once as strong as his own, heaved under great pressure. He feared that the tortured mask would last forever. Behind him the flaps fluttered, and he barked a command to have the guards hold it shut. The spasms and coughing passed. The Chief rolled to his side and stared at his cooking fire. "I know it is there." He paused and rolled onto his back once more. "I will soon be dead, Dnaraag. The gods favored me with a long life. You too, are like I was once." He paused and looked Dnaraag over with sorrow-filled eyes.

"I thank you for not following the wishes of your mate. You have proven worthy of the gods' touch." Mangluuad continued. "I will ask one more thing from you now. Face the mountain and turn toward where the Sun rises. Lead the tribe there. You will find the town. I have dreamed that you will find it. But I can no longer travel with you." Mangluuad smiled. "The gods chose you well, Dnaraag. Tell them I have passed and set fire to this hovel. You will lead them now, champion, and in time your wisdom and the gods' touch will make you Chieftain."

There was no protest, only agreement. This was the way of their tribes. Dnaraag rose and looked upon his Chief once more.

"Your memory will live through me, Mangluuad." He pushed aside the flap and walked into the driving snow. Huddled in a mass of fur the tribe sat in silence. The guards looked to Dnaraag and waited.

"Fire." He said loud enough for the guards to hear. They left and collected burning wood from a nearby fire. Dnaraag cleared his throat and began.

"Mangluuad is no more. The High Guardian now leads." His mate trilled and smiled wickedly. "We burn his body now and send him to the Sun. Pray for his soul." He snatched a torch from a guardian and touched it to the hut. Flames engulfed the hovel and spread quickly in the whirling wind. Grunts sounded over the wind's howl as the tribe bid their dead Chief to the gods.

Dnaraag watched the flames arch into the sky, whipped by the swirl of air and snow. Through the flames he saw his Chieftain. Proud eyes, open, greeted the flames without fear. His voice was held in check by the force of his will alone. He met the flames and his death with honor, a true hero to his people. Dnaraag prayed to the gods. He prayed for the strength to greet his death with as much honor when it was his time, and he prayed for the soul of his mentor. As the flames licked higher into the sky he bayed, and the tribe joined him in calling to the gods to collect the soul of their Chief.

Dnaraag rose to his feet and turned to his tribe. His time was now and he would lead them, as was his Chieftain's wish, into the mountains and into the human city. With the fire as his backdrop, he issued his first command to the tribe: "We march!" He turned and led them into the heart of the mountains.

Banderling small Banderlings are the larger cousins of Drudges, Mosswarts and Tumeroks. They are even less intelligent than other humanoids, but make up for this with sheer brutality. They prefer to fight in small packs, using heavy weapons or their sharp claws. On average, they stand seven feet tall, though their chiefs are even larger. Forest-dwellers by nature, they can also be found in Tumerok strongholds and dungeons near the Aluvian lands.
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