It was the end of history.
"Horsemaster, 3d grade, under the command of thirteenth Field General and High Lord Uppura Demoska - I am Selio Sagio Permidin. It is the 4th year of Lord Demoska's crusade against the barbarian tribes of Bhaotar, and the 570th year of the One Empire Under the Stars."
Selio said the words, but could write none of them. He thought it important to record the end of the Empire, but of what use was it to record the end of history? Who would read these words, in the dark years to come? More than likely, the pages would disappear into some savage's flames to warm him through a cold night, and Selio himself would be dead.
He could still see Demoska's body from where he sat, hanging obscenely from a pole, where the man had been left to the vultures and crows by the tribal warriors - it was the fate they allotted to powerful and honorable foes, though Demoska had not seen them in such a light.
"By the gods it is cold!" Selio's sudden proclamation shocked himself out of his reverie, there was no living person around for some distance, and so there were none to see him slowly going mad.
He might be the only survivor of the entirety of Demoska's army. He would have to note in his writings that it had not been Demoska's fault. Many would assume that - assume that a fool lordling had led his army astray, and been the main cause of their massacre.
The truth was much more frightening. The Bhaotar had been better. Better motivated, better organized, and much more ruthless than the Imperial legions. Once, the men who had been trained in the Black Cloister had been feared throughout the lands of Men. In Tya and Mezzo and the Infinite City, the soldiers trained in the Cloister and blooded on the green fields of the War Goddess were whispered of in terror.
Had been feared. That, even a lowly 3d grade Horsemaster such as Selio knew to be false, and had been for some time. Now men like Selio were the Empire's heroes, and men like Demoska its generals. A poor choice, Selio knew himself to be a coward, and Demoska was trained to lead, but not born to lead. Times such as these called for exceptional men, and only average and less than average men were to be found.
Returning the dead sage's writing materials into the sack Selio had acquired from Demoska's body, he lifted his helmet, it's smooth, glistening surface a wonder to look upon even with grime and blood staining it, and mounted his horse.
It was time to seek greener pastures, surely the Bhaotar had enemies, other tribes that would honor a man who could share the skills, if not the fabled resolve, of the Black Cloister with them.
It was raining.
Selio Sagio Sajjhio of the Permidin, twelfth to bear the name of the first of the Horse Lords, hated the rain.
It had a tendency to seep through his armor and moisten the most uncomfortable of places, leaving him wet, stinking, and profoundly uncomfortable in the saddle for hours after the rain had ceased. Especially when out on a long ride, and this had most definitely been a long ride.
The petty prince of the Immo villages had begun harassing some of the farthest outlying Permidin vassals for taxes - claiming that they were within his sphere of influence, and therefore subject to his will.
His head mounted on a spike had convinced his sons that this was not the case - but Selio XII had retained several of their sisters as hostages should they ever think to reconsider...
Selio XII turned towards the source of the cries in time to see one of his outriders riding his horse hard down the slope of a hill ahead of the main column of Selio's troops. The man was clearly shaken and flushed, his horse lathered from a sustained run. What had the man so agitated? Selio was intrigued and worried, they were deep in Permidin territories now - the possibility of trouble here had wider implications than a simple fight. The Horse Lords had long guaranteed their peoples safety in return for their fealty and taxes, and failure to provide that safety had led to the overthrow of lords and the shaking of the entire labyrinthine structure of oaths of fealty and vassalage that formed the Kingdom of Dumart in the past.
The outrider closed quickly, and as he slowed in front of his lord, he executed a brief bow from his saddle, and when he looked up, Selio XII simply inclined his head - indicating that the man should dispense with formalities and speak plainly.
"M'lord. I came across a party of slain travelers, and sought to investigate. They were Tuzarene it seemed, m'lord, but bearing symbols of Authority. All had been slain by some unknown menace, but for one, an old hag who yet breathed, but that I did not dare attempt to wake." The man spoke quickly and breathlessly, in a hurry to communicate what he had seen.
Selio XII sat stiffly, stunned into silence by the man's report. It took several moments for him to reply, and his inner circle of warriors began to look upon him with worry painting their features. "Symbols of Authority? How is it that you know this? And why do you say Tuzarene? We have not seen a single Tuzarene trader this side of the Bahanis Gate in thirteen years, let alone a party of them wandering deeply in our territory without any warning."
The outrider licked his lips nervously before replying. "My father was a servant of the sage Jora who served your honored father, Selio the Eleventh. Jora taught my father the basics of the symbol histories to honor him for his service, and he passed the knowledge on to his children m'lord. I would not mistake those symbols for any other. As for Tuzarene, that was but a presumption of mine lord...their dress is alien to me, and they have the coloring of Tuzarene, so I assumed..."
Selio cut him off. "Assume nothing. Tuzarene who bear such symbols would not be blindly wondering my territories. They would have come straight to me, or gone to the King at Castle Dumart. Lead on man, and let us see this strange sight you speak of properly."
The outrider obliged immediately, and following his lead, the head of the column broke away around Selio while the rest waited for their return.
What they found was beyond the outrider's possible comprehension. An Imperial party, fully bedecked in the armor and sigils of the One Empire Under the Stars - but bearing the ancient symbols of Authority upon their banners, rather than any recorded heraldry of the Empire.
The nature of response that arose from each member of Selio's party bespoke how much each man understood of what he beheld. Those most ignorant gasped only softly at the sight of a party of well armed and armored warriors lying dead of no apparent cause in an empty meadow. Those better versed in the histories recognized the garb of the Empire and muttered soft curses...and finally, Selio and his warrior-sage companion, Bledor, took only deep breaths as they recognized the symbols that marked the banner that the party had carried...now lying in the field, partly muddied.
Selio ordered the outrider back, and he and Bledor and three others of his party rode forward to where the party lay, before slipping from their saddles onto their own feet to move amongst the bodies.
And bodies they were indeed, all men, and all cold and dead, without breath in their lungs and blood in their faces. Not long dead, there was a stiffness to them, but no stench yet. Though the outrider had been right to think them Tuzarene from their skin, they were indeed dark - their flesh a shade of rich darkened brown, their hair long and straight and black as pitch - but the Tuzarene had never served the Empire, and indeed, had come to trouble the Kingdom long after the Empire had faded into myth and legend.
Then Selio saw the woman.
'Hag' had been a gentle term, this was a fat old sow, greyed and wrinkled beyond belief, her body sheathed in black rags from head to toe. And something odder - she was not like the men, her flesh was pale, like that of the Bhaotar or the Immo or any of the other peoples bound together under the Kingdom's banners. Curiouser and curiouser, Selio was intrigued, especially since she yet breathed, while all the others lay dead.
He reached down to search her while she lay helpless, but the moment he touched her robes, her eyes opened, wild and mad, and her bony hands grasped his with a strength he had not expected from one so old...or even a woman of any age at that.
Her voice, when she spoke, was like gravel. "Who dares lay hands upon me? Foul ruffian! I am not some peasant woman for you to rob at your whim!"
Selio tried to pull back his hands, but her grip was strong enough that he would have to hurt her to break free, so he let her hold him...for the moment.
"I am no foul ruffian, and you will address me properly, hag. I am the Warlord of the Permidin Horse Lords, Selio Sagio Sajjhio, twelfth to bear the name. I am a vassal of the King at Dumart, and you will answer my questions as to the how and why of your violation of my lands!" His tone was firm at the beginning, but grew rougher and louder as he continued to speak. She had, after all, called him a ruffian and implied that he was a thief.
The old hag, quieted then, but retained a scowl upon her wrinkled features.
Selio spoke again, taking advantage of her silence. "Release me, hag, lest I break your brittle hands."
She released him, but then spoke quietly. "Selio...of the Permidin? Selio Sagio Permidin, Horsemaster, 3d grade, in the service of the High Lord Uppura Demoska?" She spoke the words flatly, clearly from having learned them by rote, rather than familiarity.
Selio was stunned, and simply kneeled there, eyes wide. "Selio Sagio Permidin, the first, was a Horsemaster of the One Empire Under the Stars, whence it held sway over these lands, and he served an Imperial lord named Demoska in battle against the Bhaotar chieftan Fedharkeen. Who are you to speak of such things?"
Her response shook him to his core, and managed only to confuse his companions.
"By the Authority, by ancient oaths taken as pact of blood, I call you, of the Permidin line, into service again, as a child of the Hidden Guard, so you shall be Hidden Guard eternal. Life in service to the One Empire Under the Stars always and forever, unto all generations of descendants that bear your name and blood." Her fragile hands slipped into her ragged robes and produced a pair of smooth silver medallions.
Sigils of Authority!
The symbols could be copied, and had been time and again in the past by those lords and barbarian chieftans who knew of them to verify their claims to power...
But sigils? Those were unique. Strange medallions from an earlier era that were rumored to be able to unlock any door and command the service of any man, and responded only to their rightful bearers.
The Empire had never had any. Never! That much was clear in the most ancient of histories that the sages of the Kingdom maintained.
Selio had no choice, and simply made the sign of submission to her commands. There were rules, naturally, and he knew that her wording of her summons specified that her power over him only extended as far as the generational pact of the Hidden Guard called for - and the wording of the pact itself had been a family secret handed down for generations, even the first Selio had supposedly had the wording handed down to him by his father - but there was no reason that she should know that he knew that her power over him was far from...absolute.
"You shall take me to your home, or hovel, or wherever you reside that has the best beds and equipment. I shall reveal my further instructions there." Her voice was firm, and commanding - clearly she was comfortable with more than just screeching out orders.
"What of your...fellows? Shall we just leave them here? It would serve my armories well to strip them of their equipment. I will be doing so unless you command me not to." Selio waited for her to respond, and she did so with a simple gesture indicating she was not bothered either way. A cold woman, to see men so easily stripped of dignity in death, especially ones that must have been in some way in her service.
Selio proceeded to order his men to strip the bodies, and bring up a horse for Bledor, who had surrendered his own mount to the hag. This was going to be a very long ride home. And it was still raining...damn.
The Horse Lords maintained a series of forts throughout their lands - and each was maintained by a scion of the Permidin line, but the family's current Warlord was expected to move between each, so that the no single place became the focus of power in the Permidin lands, and farther regions become neglected because of it.
Selio suspected this was a direct result of the first Horse Lord's knowledge of how the Empire had lost touch with its far corners as it continued to centralize power at its distant capitol. Sages in the family's service since then had time and again intimated that the practice damaged trade in the region as there was no central hub for merchants to base their enterprises in - but Selio after Selio had ignored them, and the practice was now a firm tradition that no mere sage dared question.
So it was, that Selio approached the Seafort, the citadel established by some second or third son of the family a few generations back, and watched over the only place where Permidin lands touched the sea.
Hewn from a massive black rock that jutted from the land out over the sea, the fort and its adjoining town had grown well beyond the capacity of the initial fortifications, and a series of arcing walls separated the town into separate areas, with the innermost wall guarding the outer sections of the Seafort itself, built to house the growing army of servants and warriors that were housed there.
Selio had always thought it a rather majestic site. His new mistress seemed unimpressed.
The ride to the fort had proven to Selio that his service to this...hag was going to be quite the chore, and he waited for when his year and a day would be over. He already imagined when he would surprise her with his knowledge that he could not be called upon to serve her into eternity...
A scented smoke filled the great hall, and most of the inhabitants were ensnared in its pleasant effects. A weed grew on the slopes of the hills near here, which the local lord - Devion of the Seor Permidin - had managed to cultivate into quite the industry. It was sad the King even paid handsomely for casks of the dried leaves of the weed.
The smoke was released when the leaves of the weed were burnt, and befouled the mind and senses for any who breathed it for too long, Selio enjoyed the smoke on occasion, but the hag had ordered him to remain clear headed, and so he was. He would, at the least, not be called oathbreaker, but the woman did vex him so. She had occupied the apartments that were rightfully his, and he had been relegated to sharing a room with Beldor, rather than forcing Devion and his lady out of their bed as was his right. Beldor had been the one to note that the Sigils of Authority carried less weight with Devion and his people, since there was no sage serving the Seor Permidins - and to serve the woman was seen as a matter of peculiar honor by them, but to dislodge Devion because of her...was closer to being seen as a personal insult to the lord of the Seafort. Selios had relented, and slept on a straw mattress when he should have had better after such a long journey.
So it was that Selios stood outside the great hall, alone, whilst his companions and distant cousins enjoyed the smoke inside. Indeed, Selios' mood grew fouler and fouler - and he suspected that some effect of the smoke was present even just outside the hall...as he could see wisps of grey wafting out from under the door.
So he could not stay even here. His anger began to bubble over, frothing almost - and his self control was not what it should have been. He knew the smoke was affecting him, but that only made him angrier.
This was the state in which he ascended the hewn rock stairs to the Warlord's chambers high in the central tower - angry and slightly disoriented.
There was a guard at the door, as was traditional, and Selios merely ordered the man aside - and found the door unbarred. The hag was too sure of herself by far. Perhaps Selios was an oathbreaker? What hold did a pact sworn by an ancestor long dead when the first Horse Lord had arisen mean to one such as Selios Sagios Sajjhios the Twelfth?
The large room was lit only by a few low burning candles, the windows shuttered against the moonlight and sea breezes. But Selio could see a series of misshapen lumps on the bed, covered by the thick blankets imported through the Hull Gate years ago, when last it had been open. This aggravated Selios further. Those were his blankets, his bed.
Approaching the bed, Selios saw that only the hag's face was uncovered by the blankets - she slept as completely covered as she clothed herself when awake, and Selios feared what disgusting sight her body might be, that she covered it so. She seemed, smaller though, and her earlier massive bulk was not so evident from the mounding of the blankets around her body - perhaps her clothes had made her seem heavier than she truly was.
Regardless, her face was still a wrinkled thing, so withered as to be almost inhuman - Selios doubted he had ever seen anyone so old. Suddenly curious, he leaned down to study the hag's face, the last time he had looked closely upon her was when he had found her with the dead Imperial party, before she claimed his temporary fealty through ancient oaths. At first, he was merely intrigued and slightly repulsed by the mass of wrinkled folds that her face was - like an ancient tree's bark, but soft pale flesh instead of dark tree bark. So curious was he, that he finally reached out, and touched her face with a fingertip, idly tapping a wrinkled ridge.
It was then he noticed, that there was something not entirely right about the hag's face. It seemed as though her entire face was, sagging, ever so slightly down towards the bed as she slept on her side. Odd that... So in a spurt of drug-addled anger and curiosity, Selios firmly pinched one of the sagging folds of flesh, and pulled...and pulled?
The flesh gave way, too easily, coming forward in response to Selios' tugs, and the hag responded not at all, as though she could not feel her own face. Then he saw it, a hint of dark brown flesh near her nose, just around the inner corner of her eye, separating the pink flesh where her tears would come from, from the pale wrinkled flesh of her...face?
Suddenly afraid, Selios almost let go altogether, but his mind was not entirely functional, and his curiosity got the better of him at this point. So he pulled some more, with more insistence, and found that the wrinkled flesh began to...pull away from her head slightly, and around her eyes, the pale - whatever it was, for surely it could not be real flesh - had pulled away almost completely. Pale flaps hung loosely where once they had concealed her true eyelids it seemed, dark brown things that spoke of the more Tuzarene seeming heritage of the dead Imperial soldiers than that of the local peoples.
It hit Selios then, a mask. It was a mask. So fantastic a disguise he had never before seen, or even thought possible - but then, the hag did carry with her Sigils of Authority and had seemingly traveled with Imperial soldiers who had all died of no reason at all. Perhaps a witch of some sort...but a witch with Sigils? That was heresy, even to a less than religious man like Selios.
Presented with such riddles, Selios could only continue to investigate. If she awoke now, he had no choice, much of her...mask...had already lifted away, and she would know it had been tampered with.