BK II: Nestling

BK II, Chapter 2: The Steel Truth

Henry Steelborn was a guard. The kind that stood in front of gates and walls to act as extra security. One might think that it was a lowly occupation for someone bearing the Steelborn name but even Steelborns need guards and his responsibility was many times greater than the average one. He watched over the inner area of the clan compound. The place where the greatest of the Steelborns resided as well as where their prime offices were.

The pay was good and the acknowledgement and responsibility that came with being one of the clan’s primary warriors was stupendous. Far more than a guard should probably have. Then again he was one of the clan’s protectors. Despite this, even he knew that any enemy skilled enough to get past the wards in place would also be one that he would be near helpless against.

His position was mostly ceremonial. He’d stand in Steelborn plate at strategic locations with his weapon out and look vaguely menacing. Plus, he sometimes got to accompany the elders to some events and meetings. It was interesting. Then again so was gate duty. You wouldn’t believe the kind of people that passed through his station each day? Today was very dull though.

As if to make him eat his words a small horse-drawn carriage made its way over. It was one of the clan’s and looked like an elder’s but he didn’t recognise it or the horses. Stopping it for the cursory check, he was nearly shocked out of his boots when he saw the occupants.

Sitting in it was Magistrate Valan, Richard, Array Master Jonas and the magistrate’s grandson. That new kid who had been all the buzz lately.

‘Huh!’ he exclaimed mentally. Henry was an old guard and knew more about the clan’s internal political and historical setting than many. Other guards might not but he knew full well that… ‘The magistrate never steps foot in the inner compound. Never has. Not since … Wonder what he’s doing here’, he asked himself.

His mind nearly kaput when the man gave him small smile and gave him the answer. “Hello Henry. Let us in and inform my father that we are here to see him.”

Elder Foreson scurried about the Steel heart, the administrative hub of the entire Steelborn machine. Being the elder in charge of liaising with the magistrate and his family over the last five years, he had been the one contacted when the man in question came in and made his outrageous request to see the Patriarch.

Outrageous because the Patriarch was currently in the middle of closed-door cultivation and was not be disturbed unless in dire circumstances. However, he also knew that if he came out to discover that his son, that Valan, in particular, had been turned away after coming here voluntarily to see him … well, a series of unfortunate events would occur.

Unfortunately, he did not have the authority to interrupt the patriarch’s cultivation. He doubted he even could. He needed the help of a Great Elder. Unfortunately, in this pressing circumstance, there were none to found in the inner compound.

“What’s he like, the patriarch?” Valerian asked his uncles softly. He had been told who they were coming here to see and to be honest he felt a little unprepared.

Stories of his great-grandfather were so incredible that it was hard to separate the facts from fiction. The man had so much renown that there no less than five monuments in his honour in the duchy alone. The stories were a bit much though.

Many claimed he was as tall as the city walls and so strong that in the worst case scenario he would carry DaleGuard on his back and run away with it. That he had gale-force breath and wielded a hammer that shattered the sky when swung. The one thing that he knew as fact though was that one of the things keeping the enemies of Bathar away from its eastern lands was the fact that they’d rather not run into him. Hence his titles Champion of the Dales, Stalwart Monolith and the Dale Guard.

Valerian knew little of the man besides what he had read and heard, but what had come across to him was the sheer awe and reverence people had when speaking of him. He was made to seem larger than life. Obviously, he was highly respected and from what he knew he had earned it. Knowing that he would soon be meeting such a person filled him with atypical nervousness.

“The Patriarch is …” Richard began. The man of few words found that he had even fewer today. “Well … he’s hard to describe. He is the Patriarch. You’ll just have to see for yourself.”

That didn’t help at all.

However, Valerian did notice his grandfather glance over. He had overheard their conversation. That was another thing. He knew that his grandfather’s relationship with the clan was frayed and he knew why but he had no true knowledge of the matter between him and his father. Clearly, there was something there but as was customary in his house: no one talked about it.

They just sat in one of the lounges, waiting at the edge of their seats. Valerian wished that whichever messenger would bring news on their requested audience would come quickly. The atmosphere was unbearably tense. Then, Jonas had an idea.

“Uncle Valan, since we are here would it not be better to take Valerian to visit one of the memorials and have his induction done right away?”

Valerian’s head whipped in his direction. ‘What memorial? Induction, what induction?’

His grandfather’s voice came from the side. “I’m not sure we have time for that but we can visit the memorial. It’s past time he knew after all.”

Now, Valerian was well and truly curious. What is it that he should have known?

He was taken to a particular section of the Steel Heart. The Steel heart is not a single building like its name would suggest but rather a complex. The place Valerian was taken was one he had never been before. They passed no less than three sets of guards before stopping at a relatively nondescript alcove.

It was similar to the lounge they were in. There were comfortable seats few potted plants, murals on the walls and an ancient elder dozing in a corner. Why had he been brought here? He posed this question to his grandfather.

“Come Valerian”, the man said leading him to stand in front of the largest mural.

“This place is special but not in the way you think. There is a tradition among us Steelborns. We call it the Induction. When a cultivator consolidates the first tier or gains a certain degree of power we take them aside and reveal to them the true origins of the clan and then induct them as fully recognised members.”

“That is why we brought you here to the Steelborn only section of the complex and to this memorial. There’s no way you can call yourself a true Steelborn if you do not know the hidden history. Once you do you can register your name in the clan’s ledger as a main member and be accorded the full title and responsibilities”, he said.

Valerian opened his ears making sure not let any word escape him. This was news to him. Not the fact that the clan had a secret history. All clans did and in fact, he would be disappointed if they didn’t. Valerian wanted to hear it. There was one problem though …

“What does this place have to do with the induction”, that’s what Valerian really wanted to know.

“Ah! It’s just a visual aid and one of many memorials that the clan maintains to act as a reminder of our history”, his grandfather explained. “Look at them, Valerian”.

He did so taking note of the giant art of a Steel Monolith, what looked like a battle, a forest. The whole place was covered with them.

“This a place created so that we never forget. Be it the good times or the bad. All have shaped our clan into what it is today. It is very difficult to tell the hidden history without them. Each mural is a depiction of a scene from our history a visual reminder to buttress the oral record”, his grandfather added.

“And this one?” Valerian asked.

He was, of course, referring to the one they were standing in front of. it was the largest and most detailed of all the murals. It was a mountain scene, a massive range with a giant, central peak and two smaller peaks at its side. There was a river that flowed down the mountain into the lush forest that surrounded its foot. The setting was paradisiac and the art marvellous.

The artist had clearly poured a lot of time and feeling into the piece. The mountain invoked a sense of majesty and the forest one of plenty. It was the focus of the room making Valerian wonder what significance it held in the tale his grandfather was sure to tell.

“That mountain can be said to be our earliest ancestor”, his grandfather proclaimed with a smile.

Valerian just stared at his grandfather dumbly, waiting for the man to explain. A mountain as the ancestor of the Steelborns. How? True to his nature, the man began to speak, slowly weaving a tale that brought to light the hidden history of the Steelborn clan.

Steel is not a pure metal. It is nothing more than an alloy of iron and other materials to produce a stronger more resistant metal. For ages, men and beasts alike had experimented with it creating many forms based on the materials and methods used to create the alloy. However, there are also natural forms of steel created. Some by happenstance and others a result of basic evolution. The creatures called Steel Monoliths are an example of both.

The mountain range in the mural was known as Mount Menhir. It dominated a great beastland in CrystalSpur Empire meaning that there were few humans in its environs and that it was ruled by powerful daemons.

It had everything a Horde Lorde or even a human cultivator would need and it had them in excess. The entire range gathered world essence, naturally creating an atmosphere that was at its thinnest three times as thick as the essence elsewhere. This was what facilitated the rise of so many daemons but it also did more.

The immense levels of world essence led to the formation of all kinds of essence imbued treasures such as imbued minerals and materials, mystic herbs and vast quantities of essence stones of every variety. Mount Menhir was a treasure. One that kept producing more treasures as time went by. The same essence that produced its treasures, replenished them meaning that used wisely they’d never run out.

The empire’s human cultivators tried to seize its lands many times but, of course, the Horde Lordes would never let that happen. They adamantly refused to relinquish their paradise. The two sides remained in a deadlock until an event happened that changed everything.

Essence is life. High concentrations of essence elevate beasts to daemons, imbue materials with special properties and turn ordinary plants into mystic ones. But sometimes if heaven and earth are willing, it can do something more. Something miraculous.

It would birth new, special, blessed life.

It was incredibly rare but it happened often enough over the ages that everyone accepted it as fact. Such beings are touched by the divine and in many cultures are even referred to as divine beasts.

Steel Monoliths are such beasts and a few kilometres beneath the central and tallest peak of Mount Menhir one was being born. He was born like all other Steel Monoliths. A base of iron, a lot of it, some ash borne from earth’s fire, other minerals and of course the benevolence of the Earth.

But he was very different as well. A Steel Monolith’s uniqueness comes from its environment and the materials that go into his being. He was born of Mount Menhir a place known for its essence imbued minerals and its great stock of essence stones. A significant portion of which went into his creation.

It meant that when he took his first breath and tunnelled his way out of the mountain he was a forty metre tall daemon whose limbs were worth more than some kingdoms. Monoliths are called titan childe by some people and for good reason. They were basically metal giants with more strength, power and durability than the mountains they spawned from and this one was a prime specimen.

He took on the name Menhirion after the Mountain that spawned him and set about turning it into his territory. It only took a century before he subjugated all the other daemons in the central peak and three before he ruled the entire range and the lands around it.

He was the first ‘living’ ancestor of the modern Steelborns and the true start of their line. His son, an only child, was begotten by a powerful human cultivator and from him, a family and then a clan began to shape up.

Eventually, Menhirion made an incredible choice. He gave up his cultivation and progress to become the clan’s first guardian spirit. With his new status as a minor divinity and the prowess of his descendants, who fortunately inherited many of his gifts, he began to dominate all the lands they could stretch their hands over. This attracted a lot of attention from the CrystalSpur Empire.

The clan then known as the Menhirionn grew powerful and as the rulers of that beastland they had legions under their command. Despite this, they knew they could not fight against the entire might of the empire and even before tensions could arise they submitted, becoming an Earldom of the Empire.

For generations, they were one of the exceptional clans in the empire and their power, wealth and influence had little bounds. But then calamity, in the form of a betrayal, struck and everything was taken from them.

There was a decennial celebration that the clan held as part of their traditions. It is one that Steelborns celebrate even today. Around that time, the ancestral peak would be filled with joy and cheer and every single Menhirionn capable of making the journey would come home to celebrate life, history and family.

However, it was also an open festival. A mistake they longer make, but back then all people were invited and that was their undoing. All the Menhirionn. All the members of the most powerful clan within ten thousand leagues gathered at one place. They should have known how tempting a target they were. Sadly, they didn’t or perhaps they were too caught in their pride and arrogance to care.

Four of the five subordinate clans turned against them. It was an unfair fight. Even together, the children of the mountain were more than a match for them but that was on a good day. On that day, they had been in the midst of celebration; unprepared, drunk and worst of all poisoned.

It was a specially crafted poison one that targeted their very blood and was spread slowly around their ancestral home. Placed in their tribute and gifts. Added to the food and wine. They never saw it coming.

That said, it wasn’t long before they noticed the strange rust coloured discolouration on their bodies and it wasn’t long before the more cautious among them found the doses in the food but the damage was already done and their betrayal discovered, the subordinate clans began their massacre.

At the time, the clan was more a little than a thousand strong. Today, generations after the massacre, the total number of Steelborns is ninety-six. That was because nearly every man, woman and child carrying their bloodline was slaughtered. The Menhirionn did everything to resist but the subordinate clans had joined hands with cultivators of significant power.

Even their great guardian spirit, their ancestor, was unable to do anything. He fought and raged and destroyed but eventually, the children of the mountain fell. They couldn’t surrender. They tried but they were killed anyway. So they died but they tried to die gloriously by taking as many of their enemies down with them as possible. It was the most they could do to buy the others time.

The Menhirionn had been caught unawares and taken severe losses but they weren’t stupid. There was no clan worth its salt that did not have countermeasures for the most dire circumstances. Theirs was simple. Small groups protecting some of the brightest and most important people in the family would be sent out under heavy protection. Each group would take a different route until they arrived at one of the safe havens set up where they would regroup and then flee the empire.

The ancestors of the Steelborns were in one such group. They were guards protecting Aeron, the son of an elder. Fortunately or unfortunately, they were slow to arrive at the designated location. They saw much fighting in their attempts to escape and their numbers had already been thinned. Afraid of being left behind they rushed to the safe haven.

A safe haven that had not been safe for the people that came before them. Every other group lay slaughtered and many bodies showed signs of soul scours. Confused and in flight they did the only thing they could. They couldn’t go to any of the clan’s holdings as their pursuers had no doubt gleaned them from souls of their relatives and from the way things looked, no one would survive.

So they made a risky gamble. They fled into the Wildlands knowing that no force would be foolish enough to pursue them there and they were crazy for doing so. It paid off.

Their time in the Wildlands was fraught with peril and escapades but as the years went by they begun to thrive. They lived as a nomadic group, flitting here and there. Eventually, they were able to press a young StormHawk into service as their guardian spirit and then become a respectable clan of mercenaries and blacksmiths.

With time, their journeys brought them to DaleGuard were Valerian’s great-grandfather was spotted in a recruitment drive for the Bathan army. The rest, as they say, is history.