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1] Tarrant Struggled
2] Serpent Orb
3] The Founding of a Clan
4] Dragon Law
5] The Coming of the Wolf
6] Yukio's Time
7] Strangers Visit
8] Meeting of Clans
9] Blackbone's Trust
10] Lord Hideo's War
11] Whispers of War
12] A Hero Returns
Chapter 12: A Hero Returns

If the Lords Oja and Zymeth were unready for war, Grayback wasn't. From the moment he heard of Lord Zymeth's betrayal, Grayback saw the Wolf Clan's chance. Over thirty years, he had been building for this moment. Since his cousin Brighteye's death in an avalanche, Grayback had stealthily taken control of the Wolf Clan's fortunes, training his people, making them strong and maintaining their identity.

And he had spent just as much effort restraining them, making them patient. They were a warlike people. Men like Longtooth, a lesser chief in the Whiteshard mine, had to be counseled over and over against rising in undisciplined revolt and letting out the great secret the Wolf Clan were still a proud people, beaten but not broken. There were a few minor flare-ups, even in Grayback's own mine, but nothing truly dangerous. They would only get one real chance to win their freedom failure would mean death for them all.

However, Grayback knew they would never have a better chance at the prize than the current crisis. He knew his messengers had reached Lord Oja, when all along the Shaleback, Serpent Clan garrisons were pulled back toward Serpentholm and the lowlands. No one noticed when a few supplies and mining tools went missing, or lights burned late in the Wolf Clan barracks.

Lord Oja was returning from an inspection of the Fertile Valley when the news came to him of the Wolf Clan uprising. A dozen ragged soldiers and messengers had straggled in that day from the mining country, each bewildered with a similar story to tell. Two nights ago, as the moon rose all along the Shaleback, a sound had rung out an unearthly croon, a howl. The men who oversaw mining operations were not unfamiliar with late-night festivals and ceremonies. But that night it sounded as every single slave had joined in, and there was a note of anger they had not heard before.

No one could give a clear account of the night that followed, just confused impressions of violence and horror. Slaves hurled themselves at the armed Serpent garrisons with nothing but their fists or stones. Fortified positions broke apart with mining equipment by huge men heedless of the arrows that cut them down as they worked. Something, perhaps a pack of huge wolves, emerging from the forestlands to tear trained soldiers apart with their claws. Strangest of all, a manlike thing called the Shale Lord that fought alongside the slaves, a stone man that their weapons could not hurt.

The barbaric uprising was astonishingly tightly planned and coordinated. It was obvious that whoever planned this had waited for a time when the Serpent and Lotus Clans were wary of each other and forgetful of their slaves. Carefully chosen access roads have been cut off by avalanches, and the most defensible mines had been the hardest hit. In most places casualties on both sides were horrific, and blood pooled in the stony quarries and spattered the shale cliffs. But the Serpent and Lotus guardsmen could not possibly prevail against men who were fighting for the existence of their people most broke and ran, and of those a few escaped the mountains.

A few garrisons were reported as holding out, groups of terrified men barricaded into the mines, but these had most likely already fallen by the time word reached Oja. This was confirmed when another messenger arrived the following day, a Wolf Clansman riding in barbaric splendor. Five men only, huge warriors armed with what had once been mining implements but were now only too clearly weapons of war hammers and clubs and metal balls on chains. Speaking in a rough miners' dialect, but with dignity, they informed Lord Oja that the Shaleback mines and all the lands his great-grandfather Tarrant the Builder had originally granted to the Wolves, were now reclaimed under the Chief known as Grayback. This Grayback offered him neither friendship nor war at this time, but demanded only recognition and fair treatment.

He also laid out the full truth of the disasters in the shipbuilding camp, a confession extracted at great cost directly from a Lotus Warlock (it was never revealed how this was done, what might have frightened or compelled such a man. The druids had been involved). Lord Oja’s worst suspicions had been true. The Great Fleet had not been built to return, but to use the life energy of its passengers to subdue the corruption that would be contained within the terrible gems, the entire corruption of the Lotus Clan. Freed of that curse, with the Serpent Clan’s warriors gone, nothing could have stopped Lord Zymeth from claiming all the Clans as his slaves.

This event ushered in the new political age, in which no Clan trusted the others, and no Lord had supremacy. An age of fitful border clashes and raids, sporadic trade, and shifting borders this was the time in which Lord Oja's sons, Yukio and Kenji, came of age.

Yukio was handsome and proud, every inch the Lord's son and heir apparent. He appeared with Lord Oja on state occasions, and even rode with patrols and raiding parties. He excelled in swordsmanship, archery and horsemanship, and trained with the greatest teachers in the land, scarred veterans of half a century of unrest. He also sat with Lord Oja on the counsels, learning to rule as his father did through strength and fear. Several times he was sent away from Serpentholm to spend six months serving under one of his father's lords, Otomo or Shinja or Garrin, to understand their methods and successes.

Kenji was quieter and less apt to be noticed, as befitted the younger son, but fiercely competitive in his own way. They were only two years apart in age, and they trained together constantly. Indeed, Kenji seemed to live for the days when he would score a touch against Yukio with a wicker training sword, or outpace his brother on horseback. Neither Yukio nor Lord Oja seemed to pay him much attention, and perhaps Kenji preferred it that way. During the many hours when Yukio would be attending a ceremonial appearance with their father, Kenji practice alone, holding obscure, agonizingly difficult fighting stances or loosing shafts at an archery butt until his fingers bled and his left arm ached.

As Kenji grew older, he began to argue more frequently with his father. Once, he even interrupted his father with a question during a public meeting, an unthinkable slight that got him sent away to study with the Lords Shinja and Otomo for a year, learning the methods and philosophy of each. When he returned, he seemed even more determined to cause disruption. Some nights he spent in the inns and bathhouses speaking with the peasants, poachers, and common swordsman, listening to their opinions and learning their ways. He was neither lazy nor dissolute. He spent just as many late nights in the ancient archives at Serpentholm, reading the few remaining scrolls from before the coming of the Horde, scrolls that taught the legends and traditions of the Dragon Clan, now almost forgotten.

Kenji's clashes with his father became more frequent and public and more strident. Soon his brother Yukio would have no more to do with him, siding with his father on every issue and calling him disloyal and useless. Rumors spread about this break, and were amplified in the telling. Half the realm had heard they had fought a duel and that Kenji openly spoke against his brother. Lord Oja was more tolerant, although only barely.

Late one evening, Kenji went to visit his father to ask him about a recent court decision. Such visits were not uncommon. What happened next confirmed everyone's worst suspicions. The guards outside Lord Oja's chambers heard a gasp, and rushed in to find Kenji standing over his father's body with a knife in his hand. The Serpent Clan leader was dead, brutally stabbed. The conclusion was obvious. In either a premeditated killing or an argument carried too far, Kenji had slain his father. Before the guards could rush to arrest him, Kenji seized a weapon and escaped. Despite a massive manhunt, Kenji was never found.

Yukio lost no time in taking control of the Serpent Clan, but he proved to have no gift for statecraft. Where his father had used his power carefully and masterfully, keeping order through fear and shows of strength, Yukio used it foolishly to vent his anger and irritation. Within two years, he had been killed in a clash with one of his own lords as he tried to confiscate the man's lands. As Yukio was burning the man's fields, his horse panicked and threw him badly. Yukio, the heir of Tarrant the Elder who had saved the clan so long ago, lay in a muddy streambed, his skull crushed by a stone.

This event led to perhaps the most difficult crisis since the coming of the Horde. For the first time, the realm had no heir; the line of descent from the lords of the Dragon Clan had been broken. To the north and west were the other Clans, perhaps waiting for just this sort of weakness to tip the balance of power in their favor. Swiftly, the lords Otomo and Shinja moved to maintain order, each in their characteristic style, Shinja through strength and cunning, Otomo through honor, loyalty and fairness. Both men were capable, even brilliant, and for the next five years the borders remained secure, the realm survived.

As each year passed, however, it became clear that the Serpent Clan needed a single leader to make them strong again. The fate of the Clan that had survived the Horde and the Breaking of the World was now in the balance. Perhaps there would be civil war, as Shinja and Otomo found their differences increasingly stressful. Perhaps the Wolf Clan would take brutal vengeance for their years of captivity. Maybe Lord Zymeth would sweep down out of the mountains with unearthly power, and the Serpent Clan would be wiped from the earth.

Many wondered what had become of Kenji, whether he had truly escaped and where he was now in the long difficult years since Lord Oja's death. For a while there would be occasional rumors, telling of his death or of his deeds in a far land. However, no one could tell the truth of them, and soon the stories stopped. But after seven years had passed, the talk began again, word of a lone traveler who had been seen going under the name of Kenji. Word spread that in these troubled times, at the eleventh hour, Kenji had returned. But where he had been all this time, and what sort of man he really was, no one could say.