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Riders of the Steppe (Astarte) GMed by Takimaru

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    Riders of the Steppe (Astarte) GMed by Takimaru

    Life on the Ulralian steppes was not an easy task by any means. The environment had little in the way of usable resources. The vast majority of the biome's flora was limited to grasses and shrubs, its fauna typically comprised of goats and various rodents--along with their predators in wolves, foxes and falcons. And of course, there was the most sacred of these animals--the horse, the most prized companion of any Ulralian. Groups of these creatures were few and far between, just as with the humans who lived there. To make it, one had to have strong alliances. Even if one had the skills to survive alone, they would still be at the mercy of other nomadic tribes, who could take what they pleased from a lone straggler... a popular choice when necessities were scarce.

    For that reason, Altani did not ride alone. About a dozen others rode alongside her--bandits, just as she was. Rather than be taken from, more often than not, she was the one to take. She had chosen such a life over that of a tent wife, whose tasks would largely have been limited to herding and milking goats, managing homes, and of course, rearing children. It was a boring, listless existence to her, and while she would have had the promise of survival with it, thanks to the promise of alliances and the sharing of goods, she would have also been subject to its drawbacks. A nightly duty to her would-be husband... and expected subservience to any man that managed to be clever or strong enough to take her from him, if she were to survive.

    That, she decided, would be left in her own hands rather than that of a man she didn't particularly care for. Many marriages in Ulralia were arranged, for the sake of forming and maintaining tribal alliances. Hers was no exception. But her rejection over such a lifestyle, as well as her loathing for her betrothed, won over filial piety. Her new loyalties lay with the group that she rode with. Suren, who traveled at the head of the formation alongside her, was probably the closest the group had to a leader--he was strangely responsible for a lifelong bandit.

    Tegus was the opposite, preferring the company of drink and women to managing anything, but proved himself extremely skilled nonetheless. With Altani, these three made up the core of the group's decisions, while others rode behind them; Qaral, a falconer; Vachir, whose skills in archery rivaled that of Altani's; Jurgen, a formidable swordsman; Berke, a wrestler; Oyugun, a former scholar; Ulaghan, well-rounded in most aspects; Houlun, an excellent rider; Temur, a smith; and finally Arban, the youngest and newest member of their group. This group of a dozen, while certainly not one of the larger forces to roam the steppes, was certainly competent and skilled enough to hold their own. They had raided over a dozen different groups of travelers by that point. With their skill at horsemanship, archery, and combat, even some of the most well-prepared caravans had little choice but to surrender their belongings.

    This next one seemed no different, at first. Along with the others, Altani spotted a group of wagons and load animals headed to the northeast. Their pace slowed as they allowed one of the members to gauge what they might be up against, if the final verdict was indeed to raid them.

    "Those... steeds... are not of Ulralia," said Oyugun, a seasoned brigand who peered at them in the distance through a looking scope he looted from a Deunic caravan weeks ago. "Never seen anything like them. Though they have four legs, they move differently. Slower, heavier. And a bit larger. They must be foreigners. Deunic or Ayonian, perhaps."

    "We should run them down before they have adequate time to prepare," pondered Suren aloud. "Against such creatures, it's hard to say, but the element of surprise has always helped us before."

    "Or we could save ourselves a buncha trouble by just threatening 'em. We'll run circles around 'em, they'll get the idea that they can't outrun us," suggested Tegus, glancing sideways to Altani. If she had a plan, then the time to formulate as much and share it would be running thin as they steadily approached.
    Developer of Despair Labyrinth and primary GM of the PbP.

    Re: Riders of the Steppe (Astarte) GMed by Takimaru

    Altani shielded her eyes against the sun as she looked down upon the caravan ahead, squinting to try to make out any details she could. Squinting was no match for Oyugun's looking glass though, all she could have out were vague details. They didn't seem to have many guards at a glance though, certainly not enough to stand against so many riders, which meant that this should go smoothly. Even if there were unknown elements, if their steeds were as slow and Oyugun suggested there would be no trouble if they needed to flee either. Few could catch them on the open plains, and certainly not any foreigners.

    "I have to agree with Tegus this time," Altani interjected, giving the man in question a brief nod as she glanced back, "But you're right, we should go in fast, spread out and surround them before they can respond. Just be ready to take out the guards if they don't surrender."

    She could only hope her guesses were right, as there was little time to think or plan before they were upon their targets. It had surprised Altani how quickly she'd acclimated to this like, to so easily consider the necessity of killing these people simply to take what was theirs. That was simply the way of the world, though. Her father may have spoken of honour and obligations, but in the end what he and the other clans did was little different from what she was doing now. They still killed and pillaged, however they might have tried to justify it.

    That he was willing to trade her away without a thought to her well-being or happiness, simply to secure another ally with which to prey on those weaker then they were only served to solidify her opinion. She could not claim that she or those she now rode with were good people, but they were more like family to her than her true family had ever been. She had taken great pains to conceal her gender while travelling alone—even now, a casual observer would likely see her as a young man, perhaps a little effeminate, but certainly not a woman—quickly learning that many would seek to make a victim of a lone woman. She had been terrified when she'd first revealed the truth to Suren and Tegus, but she was glad she had. They would have found out eventually, such a secret would be impossible to keep from those you lived with, and so far nothing ill had come of the choice.

    Altani gave her equipment one last check, her quiver full and her bow ready to be used at a moment's notice. Her blade was also sheathed at her side, but if all went as planned she'd never have to use it. While she'd been trained in its use, she was far from an expert, nothing like Jurgen. Her talents lay with her horse and her bow. The steed she rode was a majestic thing, hardy and fast and a beautiful shade of deep brown. Her mother had always told her he matched her hair. Aside from her bow, he was the only thing she still had from her home, one of her father's best horses, given to her several years ago. She hadn't taken much when she'd fled her clan, only her bow, a pack full of supplies, and the clothes on her back. Those clothes had been discarded months ago, replaced after they'd become too dirty and damaged to properly mend, so the bow and her horse—her beloved partner—were all she had left.

    They were approaching now, and Altani turned her attention to scanning the caravan for any sign of danger. She gripped her bow and a few arrows in one hand, ready to draw at a moment's notice but not wanting to spook their victims too much unless she sensed danger. An animal that thought itself cornered fought harder than one that still saw the possibility of escape, after all. She would let one of the others lay out the demands if thee weren't immediately attacked. While Altani could pass herself off as a young man easily enough, she still didn't have the voice to sound threatening. She could manage, if only through the physical threat that came with her words, but the others did it much better than her. Instead, she simply set to circling the caravan, eyes searching the wagons for any sign of danger that hadn't been immediately evident.


      Re: Riders of the Steppe (Astarte) GMed by Takimaru

      "Right," said Qaral, the falcon at his glove disciplined enough to stay, yet all too ready to take flight. "They're practically stranded. If we do it fast enough, and intimidating enough, we can probably get them to surrender without a fight."

      As the group approached their quarry, Altani would gradually see the gray beasts in more vivid detail. They were large--much larger than she expected. The creatures only seemed to gain size as she approached. Given the hushed murmurs exchanged by some of the men around her, most of which were hidden amongst the rhythmic hoofbeats, she wasn't the only one to notice their intimidating stature. There were three in total of these unknown animals, who possessed long, prehensile appendages near their mouths, with curved horn-like structures and large, floppy ears. Atop them were closed box carriages, the view into them obscured by wicker.

      Then, Altani spotted the glint of metal upon the animals' bodies. They were armored, as were the half-dozen horsemen accompanying them.

      Still, this likely meant that their speed wasn't quite able to match that of the bandits' Ulralian horses, at least not for any sustained period of time. Altani's group was accustomed to traveling long distances across the steppe. This group... not so much. They couldn't have started terribly far from the border of their own country, and likely weren't aiming to travel an incredibly long distance, not with that armor on. In addition, they were in the steppes--an environment which Altani and her crew knew quite well. Certainly better than these foreigners.

      Houlun and Ulaghan sped ahead, and already Altani could tell that the people they were seeking to raid wasn't keeping up a terribly fast pace. Perhaps they couldn't? Then again, she had never seen a faster rider than the former of those two, and the latter was no slouch himself. The pair easily began to weave circles around the caravan with relative ease.

      "Ayonians, most likely," said Oyugun. "These must be the formidable war beasts I keep hearing about. But this is hardly a war party."

      "Good," said Berke. "The easier they are to raid!" He drew his bow, a heavy thing that was not easy to draw by any means, and nocked an arrow with a large, dull head as he brought his steed to a steady gallop.

      With that, the others, Altani included, gradually joined the swarm of riders that began to weave an intricate formation around the apparently Ayonian caravan. Many began to draw their bows and loose warning shots around the ground near the animals' feet. Yet despite the potentially intimidating thwups of arrows into dry steppe soil, the beasts continued forward at the same pace. A few words in Ayonian could be heard being yelled out by one of the riders, and while it sounded like a command, the changes in this group's tactics didn't appear particularly dramatic. The horsemen, armored in chainmail and robes, lowered the mask-like visors of their peculiar helmets and turned their heads to track the Ulralians as they moved to and fro. Round shields were raised in a defensive stance, and... they continued to forge ahead. Other than the rhythmic beats of hoofs on dirt, there was an odd sort of silence from the Ayonians after the initial command. Then, a collective murmur from every member of the group.

      "They aren't slowing down," said Arban. "What do we do?"
      Last edited by Takimaru; 6th April 2016, 08:25.
      Developer of Despair Labyrinth and primary GM of the PbP.


        Re: Riders of the Steppe (Astarte) GMed by Takimaru

        Altani felt a creeping fear as they neared their targets, a feeling that something was wrong here. She'd never seen anything like the three massive beasts before, and the horsemen accompanying them were all well-armoured. This was no simple merchant and his bodyguards, and there were none among them they could easily pick off. They certainly weren't intimidated, and their equipment and practised response made her think they might be soldiers. What they were escorting she couldn't say, visibility into the shelters on the backs of the beasts far too obscured, but whatever it was seemed likely to be important, more than their usual targets were. That meant more valuable, but also more dangerous to take.

        "Take down the horsemen first!" She shouted to the others as she drew back her bow, looking for any sort of weak point while riding at an angle that would put her parallel to the armoured horsemen for a brief time. Their armour would make this difficult, but it wasn't an insurmountable challenge. At worst she could look to bring down the horse instead of the rider, but that would be a last resort. Not only were horses themselves valuable, even foreign ones like these—And that was what she'd tell anyone else—but she had a soft spot for the beasts as well. "The big ones look slow, we should be able to chase them down easily after!"

        As she neared her target she searched for any gaps in the armour she could exploit, or at the very least a point where they might have a hard time reaching quickly with their shields. The neck or legs would be the most common places to find such weaknesses in her limited experience, and at worst she hoped that closer proximity would help her arrows pierce the mail or at least injure them through it through force of impact. She kept only enough distance to react if her target drew a weapon and tried to engage her, firing her first shot as she closed in, followed by another pair in quick succession.

        She could only hope the decision to fight was the right one. They weren't in such dire straights that passing up such a dangerous-looking group as this would put them at risk of starving, there would be other targets... but the potential reward was too tempting, despite the risk, and she knew the others wouldn't be likely to want to give it up. This wasn't like their usual raids though, and she was still ready to call for a retreat if things were looking bad, confident in their ability to easily outrun these foreigners. She only hoped everyone would listen if she did, she didn't want to lose anyone here...


          Re: Riders of the Steppe (Astarte) GMed by Takimaru

          A quick scanning of her potential adversaries would have Altani find the most typical weak points to be found rarely near the upper body of the horsemen, as their torsos were protected by segments of plate and they wore hauberks and coifs made from chain. Even their faces were protected by odd-shaped visors, and though there were sizable slots for them to see through, it wouldn't be an easy task to hit that exact target by any means, at least not for most. Still, as she knew, the portions of the men protected by chainmail were not exactly impenetrable where Ulralian arrowheads were concerned.

          In addition, they were much less visibly protected around their legs, which seemed only clad in cloth or silk, perhaps for ease of riding, and the very front part of their steeds' necks remained exposed. And while Altani might have had reservations about slaying such beautiful creatures, at least one of her teammates did not. Arban was the first to act after hearing her command, as his arrow had already been nocked for far too long, perhaps due to hesitation or indecision. Either way, that period was to come to an end thanks to the strain on his arm, but his aim proved poor due to the same reason. His projectile, intended for the throat of the Ayonian horse, merely struck the armor along the sides of his neck ineffectively.

          "D-Damn!" cried Arban, moving a hand to his quiver to nock a second shaft. But before he could do so, another arrow, one that was not his own, found the target that he initially hoped to strike. The wide, sharp arrowhead cut into the animal's carotid, causing a noticeable amount of blood to spew forth, and before long the armored mount came crashing down, along with its similarly steel-clad rider. A look over would show Altani that the projectile naturally belonged to her teammate Vachir, whose tremendous skills at archery made the feat far less of a surprise.

          But the only female member of the group was no slouch herself, and she took aim at the cataphract closest to her. This rider was moving in front of the one whose horse had just been downed, and he paused for a moment to take a look back. It gave Altani the opening she needed, as his round shield was moved away just long enough for her to loose her arrow at his leg. Her shot proved true, burying itself into the warrior's flesh, and he cried out, pausing and then turning his head to look directly at her--just as the girl had drawn her bow with her next shaft nocked. Altani's second arrowhead found its way straight into the man's face, and he fell limp, his horse continuing to ride on without him out of sheer panic.

          Meanwhile, Qaral's falcon swooped down with just enough force from behind to knock the helmet off of the last armored rider on that side. He looked back with a furrowed brow, wondering what had just happened... before needing to wonder no longer. With a swift and mighty cleave, the Ayonian's head had been separated from his body by Jurgen, who had ridden up on him from behind thanks to the superior speed of the Ulralian mounts.

          The swordsman proceeded to sail past each of the larger gray beasts, his curved blade drawn and gracefully slicing through parts of their legs. But while the experienced swordsman's cuts could easily take a man's head clean off, the limbs of these foreign creatures proved far more sturdy, and he was only able to wound them--which only served to infuriate them further. He barely dodged the flexible appendage of the animal in the middle of the formation, but the tip of the one in front grazed him. Even this slight point of contact was enough to cause him to wobble, and Jurgen soon fell off his horse. He managed to stay conscious even through the severe impact of the fall, but one of the dismounted cataphracts was soon upon him. Swords clashed, and as skilled as Jurgen might have been, his opponent proved formidable enough to prolong the encounter.

          Tegus was on the other side, twirling a loop of rope and skillfully throwing it over the neck of one of the riders, only to pull him off, practically executing the man on the spot, where he was hung from the force of the Ulralian and his mount speeding ahead.

          Suren loosed two and three arrows at once, repeatedly, at the legs of another one of the enemy horses. While his aim wasn't the best, eventually several of his shots did strike true, slowing the steed and distracting the rider enough for Temur to catch up and smash the foe with his warhammer.

          This left one last rider, who Vachir had sped over in front of. The skilled archer aimed behind him, drawing his composite bow taut and releasing in short order. It pierced the very slight exposure upon the armored horse's chest, wounding the animal and slowing it somewhat. Vachir frowned and nocked his second arrow, turning his aim upwards at the stunned rider, when suddenly, a large chunk of earth seemed to shoot out of the dry steppe ground in front of him. It caused his horse to tumble forwards violently, launching the archer straight off his mount, where he soon landed headfirst into the ground with a sickening crack.
          Developer of Despair Labyrinth and primary GM of the PbP.


            Re: Riders of the Steppe (Astarte) GMed by Takimaru

            Altani's initial assumptions proved to be mostly correct, the rider's legs vulnerable despite their heavily armoured torsos, as was common for anyone making long trips on horseback. The neck wasn't as vulnerable as she hoped it might be, but the visor looked wide enough that a good shot might allow an arrow to slip through. She drew back her arrow as she neared her target, seizing on his momentary distraction to take aim at his leg and fire, just as his shield arm shifted enough to give her a clear shot. The cry of pain that followed told her all she needed to know regarding how solid her hit was, but he managed to remain in his saddle.

            She quickly shifted one of the other arrows held between her fingers, arrowhead perfectly parallel to the ground as she drew it back in preparation for another shot. He turned to face her, probably intending to close to where he could use his blade, but she was ready. She met his eyes briefly through the gap in his visor, her own looking down the shaft of her arrow. Her aim proved true as the man fell from his horse, half of the shaft still protruding from the visor.

            She took the opportunity to quickly survey the field as she retrieved a replacement pair of arrows from her quiver, directing her horse towards the remaining armoured riders. Her allies were proving their skill as well, though their methods were varied. She spared a worried glance towards Jurgen, who seemed to have been knocked from his mount and was engaged in a fight on foot, but she couldn't get a clear shot into the melee, not without the risk of hitting her unarmoured companion. Not only did their movements make it difficult, the armour his opponent was wearing could deflect her shot in unpredictable ways. No, she was confident in Jurgen's ability, he should be able to win as long as she could keep anyone else from interfering with the fight.

            That left the sole remaining rider, who she took aim at, planning to use the same tactic she had before. The giant grey beasts seemed formidable, but they were slow, and with the last of their escorts taken down they'd be able to safely pick away at them until they too fell. Unfortunately, there was yet another threat to contend with, Altani's eyes going wide with surprise as the earth beneath Vachir's horse suddenly rose of its own volition, throwing both steed and rider to the ground. She couldn't even tell if he was still alive, but experience won out over emotion and kept her focused on her target.

            "Mage! Be careful!" She shouted to her companions in warning. She'd never seen such magic in person, but there was nothing else she could think of that could have caused such a phenomenon. She needed to eliminate the last of the riders before she could turn her attention to the backs of the larger beasts where the mage was likely hiding. Lining up her shot quickly, Altani tried to aim for the gap in the visor again, hoping to bring this one down swiftly, while he was still distracted from Vachir's attack and the show of magic. His horse had been injured and was moving slower, so the shot would be even easier to line up than the last as long as he didn't spot her first and guard himself.

            If he did, or her first shot failed to bring him down, she would turn her second to his mount, seeking to end what Vachir had started. She never liked doing so, but one of her companions was down, maybe even dead from a fall like that. This was no time to hold back anything, not with the mage potentially targeting her or anyone else at any moment. As soon as she managed to bring him down, unless complications prevented her from doing so, she would proceed to circle around the larger beasts, looking for any sign of someone who might be casting anything. Hopefully an arrow would put a mage down as surely as anyone else, because she didn't have many other options...


              Re: Riders of the Steppe (Astarte) GMed by Takimaru

              As she had done hundreds, perhaps thousands of times before, Altani turned and steadied her aim backwards at the last rider. The moment his eyes met hers, her bolt was loosed... but found itself deflected only barely by an incidental turn of his face, causing the shaft of the arrow to shatter upon his faceplate. It stunned the horseman, who then felt another projectile strike him in the back near the shoulder, courtesy of Ulaghan who was just behind him. The arrowhead sunk right between the gaps in the Ayonian guard's plate and straight through the chainmail. It didn't go very deep at all, but it was enough to hamper him further and at least keep him from swinging his weapon.

              Ulaghan turned an eye to Altani and grinned, but the picture of his triumphant expression only lasted for a fleeting moment as a gargantuan, prehensile gray appendage swung at him. He wasn't quite as quick as Jurgen in dodging this attack from the massive animal, however, and was easily batted off of his mount, flying off to the side. It wasn't a pretty landing, either, given the hard thud of his body upon the dirt, but given the noise and the dust, Altani couldn't quite see whether such a fall was fatal.

              Still, she had to retain her focus. The head mage appeared to be casting again, this time at Houlun, but even their apparently competent timing and aim was no match for this rider's skills. Houlun darted from side to side, forward and back, dodging the small pillars of stone that jutted up from the ground, likely attempts to trip his horse in a similar fashion as with Vachir. Soon, a larger and wider stone wall rose up, but it did so in a much slower fashion than the other casts, and both rider and steed cleared it with a magnificent leap. While it was no surprise, given that Houlun was easily the best rider of the dozen, it was undoubtedly an astounding sight to anyone who might have been watching the spectacle.

              But more importantly, it bought Altani some precious time, time that she needed to nock another arrow and steady her aim at the enclosed wicker basket sitting atop the lead beast. She felt the whirr of its flight against her ear, and her projectile sunk into the basket, a bit lower than she might have wanted. She heard a cry of pain, and suddenly the casting of earth pillars and walls came to a stop. Whether she had actually slain the mage or merely injured them was hard to discern, but either way, a potentially lethal barrage had come to a halt for now. Houlun turned and fired another arrow into the enclosure. It struck something, but this time there was no loud cry of pain.

              Glancing behind her, Altani could see Arban, Temur and Suren in battle with the second beast. The smith tried his best to hammer away at the joints of the giant creature, all whilst avoiding the dangerous reach of its trunk. Arban tried a similar approach with his bow rather than his sword, but was finding little success. Suren had a better idea, directing his shots towards the basket up top, but the impacts made an odd, faint cracking noise rather than the expected 'thup' of bodkins piercing wicker. Suddenly, a blast of water from just within the enclosure struck and dismounted Temur, sending him rolling. But this mage, perhaps in the midst of all the chaos and due to the sheer number of Ulralian bandits to keep track of, didn't appear to notice Berke, the wrestler, who had managed to jump from his horse to atop the war beast's back. Stealthily, he crawled low and made his way forward to the enclosure...

              For the last of the three massive creatures, Altani couldn't see very well, but she knew that Tegus, Oyugun and Qaral were locked in combat with it and its rider. Bursts of flame came every which way from the enclosure as Qaral's falcon soared over head, circling in the hopes of drawing some attention. A gout of fire aimed in its direction barely missed, as Oyugun appeared to be making some signals towards Tegus, who nodded in return and unsheathed his blade.

              Diagram of battle scene:
              Developer of Despair Labyrinth and primary GM of the PbP.


                Re: Riders of the Steppe (Astarte) GMed by Takimaru

                The longer the fight continued the more Altani was convinced that she'd been right to worry. She could only hope the reward would be worth it, because there was no way they could back down now. At the very least the number and quality of their guards, especially the mages, and the large beasts accompanying them suggested this was no ordinary merchant caravan. She had the sinking feeling that they were going to lose more than they gained here at this rate, they needed to end this quickly.

                Vachir was dead—or at least seemed to be—and now Ulaghan was down too, and she couldn't spare the time to even confirm whether he still lived. She continued to give the beast to her side a wide berth, having seen what they could do to a person, but fortunately they had mostly dealt with the escorts, and as long as they could deal with the mages they'd have all the time in the world to chip away at the beasts they rode. Strong as they were, unlike their riders they couldn't hurt what they couldn't reach.

                The earth mage had stopped casting, so she could only hope her shot had been lethal, or at least debilitating enough to keep him down. She didn't know how magic worked, didn't know how to stop a mage short of killing them, so that was what she'd need to do. Drawing another set of arrows from her quiver, Altani was torn between trying to finish off the last of the horsemen or aiming for the mages, but spotting Berke clinging to the back of one of the great beasts made her decision for her.

                Altani directed her horse out and away from the head beast, circling around the last of the riders and trying to keep him at a distance as she took aim at the wicker basket on the back of the second. If Berke could get inside she was confident he could subdue the mage, she just needed to keep their attention directed outwards long enough. It was nearly impossible to see anything inside the baskets, but she searched for any sign of movement before loosing an arrow at it, quickly following up with the others she'd drawn from her quiver. She was focusing on speed rather than accuracy with no clear target, merely trying to keep the mage focused on avoiding being skewered rather than checking behind him.

                Once she ran through her arrows she glanced back to her left, trying to keep track of the last rider. He'd been wounded and she'd tried to keep her distance from him, but writing him off as a threat would be foolish. Ulaghan seemed to have injured his sword arm, but she knew well enough that such and injury could still be fought through. She needed to take care of him before he could strike at her back. Slinging her bow over her shoulder and bringing her horse around to face him, she drew her sword and kicked her horse into a charge towards him, intent on bringing him down for good. She wasn't as good with a blade as a bow, but she was confident in her ability, especially against a wounded opponent. Even if she could merely dismount him, it would be enough.


                  Re: Riders of the Steppe (Astarte) GMed by Takimaru

                  Altani looked towards the second beast, or the large wicker basket atop it in particular. She caught the shimmer of something upon the container’s left flank… and soon recognized this material from her daily life. It often formed upon the steppes’ brush and the lakes’ surfaces in the cold early mornings. This panel was made from ice, and the slight crackle that occurred when Suren’s second bolt struck the shield only confirmed as much for the group’s sole female rider. Suren frowned in response and lowered his speed in an attempt to get to the rear of the animal, but he was hesitant, seeing that the one just behind it had a fire mage that wasn’t shy about sending their flames at anyone and anything that veered too close.

                  The angle provided to Altani wasn’t all that much better, seeing as she had to strategically position herself outside the range of the foremost beast and the last injured horseman, but it was a shot she would daringly take anyway. The front of the second basket didn’t appear to carry the same gleam that its left side had; perhaps the mage hadn’t bothered to put up protection on that side just yet. But they soon would have to. Altani let her arrow fly, and while it went a bit higher than she would have liked, it sunk into the basket with relative ease. She heard a feminine cry of panic, "kyaah!" before a thicker, more visible layer of ice began to form on the side that she had shot at. While her shot probably didn’t hit the target, it still did its job in diverting their attention. Hopefully it would buy Berke enough time to reach them; a glance over to that side showed that he was right there, upon the rear of the basket. Altani soon witnessed its ‘door’ flying off, indicating that her group’s powerful wrestler had torn it away with ease, and by the way the carriage shook, a struggle had commenced up top.

                  She would have to trust in her cohort’s abilities as she stashed away her bow and switched to the use of her blade, moving in towards the last injured rider. His left arm had trouble lifting the shield he was carrying, thanks to the arrow embedded in the back of his shoulder, which must have struck him somewhere important. His right, however, still bore a blade, which he used to parry Altani’s initial attack, which was aimed for his throat, covered only by a veil of chain. But the girl had learned from one of the best in Jurgen, and her weapon arced from the follow-through back towards the back of his neck, at a momentary opening made possible only by the gallop of his steed, his helmet’s chain skirt flying up just slightly. Altani felt her blade bite into flesh, and she spurred her horse forward, letting its momentum handle the rest as she cut down the enemy rider. While it wasn’t a clean decapitation in the way Jurgen had managed, she clearly saw the armored man tumble from his horse, a gush of blood soon following. Even if he were still somehow alive, he would pose no threat.

                  A look back to the second creature showed that the basket had stopped rocking quite as hard. Berke hadn’t emerged yet, but on the other hand, no further water blasts came from the enclosure. The first had stopped altogether, leaving only the third and last of the three mages to deal with. Tegus and Oyugun both had their blades unsheathed and rode dangerously close to the animal’s flanks, hacking away at the thick leather straps used to hold the wicker enclosure in place. Arban and Suren joined the fight and began to fire repeatedly at the basket, which enticed the gouts of flames to curl in their direction. A few crucial seconds later, the straps could be seen snapping free, causing the basket to sway back and forth as the creature continued to hurry forth in an attempt to escape all of the turmoil and madness. Tegus could be seen twirling his rope, the end of which carried a hook. He threw it onto one end of the basket, and after seeing that his device had caught firm, began to pull to the left, urging his horse in that direction. At the same time, Oyugun had hurried over to the same side as Tegus, loosing arrows into the beast’s broad left flank as fast as he could. Of course, this wasn’t enough to seriously injure the giant mammoth, but it did much to annoy it, and the animal began to veer right—away from the direction of Tegus’ pulling via rope. The strain of it caused Tegus’ mount to fall, but just as it did, so did the carriage, which crashed upon the ground violently.

                  The others in Qaral, Arban and Suren wasted no time in peppering the enclosure with arrows, and loud cries could soon be heard erupting from it. "Stop! Stop! I surrender!" yelled a male voice from within. Suren raised a hand, and the Ulralians stopped in response, circling the fallen and half-broken basket for a few more seconds with their horses.

                  Tegus groaned, shaking off the grogginess from his fall, and checked on his mount before dusting himself off. Somehow, both horse and rider emerged without any visibly broken limbs. Oyugun approached the enclosure with blade drawn and hacked an opening by which their enemy could step out of and reveal themselves to the others.

                  An Ayonian male, perhaps about Altani’s age, slowly emerged with hands raised at the sight of multiple bows pointing at him. The oldest of the group proceeded to bind him with rope, and placed a bag over his head to obscure his vision. "D... do you even know who we are?! Our lord will have your heads for this!"

                  "Not that it matters when we could very well do what we please with yours, hmm?" queried Oyugun calmly.

                  Altani only needed to look around to see the results of the battle. Houlun and Arban had worked on looting the first carriage, whose occupant was apparently slain, judging from the lack of any bound figures being sent down. Berke had tossed all the goods out from the second basket onto the ground, and rode back towards his partners with a squirming, bound figure over one shoulder. No survivors remained of the enemy riders.

                  Jurgen could be seen riding towards them from the distance, having proved victorious over his foe. Ulaghan and Temur also came out alive, standing up after some time, though the first had been crippled, having broken an arm and a leg. The day had been won, though not without its price.


                  The group looked over the results of their raid. A mass grave had been dug for the slain enemies, who were unceremoniously tossed in. They were stripped clean of their gear, as was a common action on the part of Ulralian bandits--not a single piece went to waste. One resting place, however, was marked with a name: Vachir. His horse had been buried next to him as well, having proved itself faithful until death, which both rider and steed met due to the sudden impact from being launched high up into the air.

                  There was a grim, solemn air about the group as they went to task in divvying up the goods. It wasn't the first time they had lost a member in combat, but Vachir was easily the most skilled archer of them all, and was known for being able to survive many close calls, just as Ulaghan, Jurgen and Temur had that day.

                  One of the great beasts had been slain, while the other two escaped--though Altani could wager that they wouldn't survive for long on their own with the wounds they had gotten.

                  The goods acquired from the carriages were not nearly as plentiful as what Altani's gang had plundered from many a caravan, though they were certainly gorgeous and of high quality.

                  Each of the slain riders had ornate gear that suggested elite status; a weapon, a shield, and a set of armor that while heavy, could likely sell or trade for a fair amount. Numerous books bound in eloquent leather that couldn't be read by most, save for Oyugun, were tossed into a pile. The remains of their rations, half of which were still good, were taken and nibbled upon by the raiders. Several fine silks, tapestries, trinkets, and other barely identifiable items were looted, but all in all it seemed somewhat lacking, even for a small war party. What little alcohol they had was already snatched up by Berke, Oyugun, Ulaghan, and Tegus.

                  Then came the two survivors. Oyugun pulled the bag off from the first, whom Altani recognized. It was the Ayonian fire mage. Likely a privileged young man, he bore a handsome face free of the blemishes that his Ulralian captors tended to carry, with his short ebon hair tied up in a knot. His clothes were remarkably embroidered, although caked with the steppes' dirt from the earlier events of the day. He wore a pair of cracked spectacles and glared up at them through fiery crimson eyes. "You're... you're making a huge mistake," he reiterated, though his words were met with dismissal and frowns from the others.

                  "We ought to break your back and leave you here," scoffed Temur.

                  "It would only be fair," added Ulaghan, leaning on his makeshift crutch and taking a swig of wine from the bottle in his good hand. He wouldn't be able to ride on his own for some time, from the looks of it.

                  The wrestler, Berke, then yanked the bag off of the head of his own captive, exposing the other mage's face. This one, who had blasted them with spouts of water and defended herself with walls of ice, looked up at them through icy blue eyes, which contrasted rather sharply with her lightly tanned skin and jet-black hair. She too wore elaborate clothing, a dress of sorts that seemed rather unsuited for the rigors of sustained travel. It vaguely reminded Altani of the dress she was slated to wear for the wedding ceremony she never had.

                  "Looks like we'll at least have some fun tonight," remarked Berke, a knowing grin slowly growing upon his face. "She was a lot of trouble for us... but at the very least, she can bring the likes of us some comfort tonight."

                  "N... No! You can't!" cried the fire mage, his eyes wide.

                  "Shut up!" spat Berke, motioning in Altani's direction at the young man. "Maybe you can please our lady friend if she fancies you, so don't whine like such a child. This is how things work in the steppes. You want something, you take it! Were you not taught how to be a man in that opulent palace or wherever it is you were raised?"

                  The water mage's brow furrowed, and an understandably frightened look showed itself upon her visage. She frantically looked around, her gaze eventually settling on Altani before taking on a pleading look.

                  "Please... I-I... don't do this," she whimpered in a low tone.
                  Developer of Despair Labyrinth and primary GM of the PbP.


                    Re: Riders of the Steppe (Astarte) GMed by Takimaru

                    Altani frowned as she took a closer look at the basket atop the second beast, not confident in her ability to put an arrow through both the basket itself and the ice that had formed on it. Certainly not with any accuracy, given that she was firing blind already. The front didn't seem to be covered in the same way as the other sides though, perhaps there had been no attacks from that direction yet? The mage would probably react to her first shot and erect a similar barrier, but she could only hope that would buy Berke enough time. Taking careful aim she let the arrow fly, rewarded with a scream of panic, and an unmistakably feminine one. It sounded more like surprise than pain, so she didn't think she'd hit, and the sheet of ice that quickly rose to cover that side as well cut off her only reliable means of attack. She could only hope she'd bought enough time.

                    As she slung her bow over her shoulder she caught a glimpse of the basket's door being torn off, breathing a sigh of relief as she realized Berke has at least made it that far. She'd just have to have faith in his abilities, there was nothing more she could do to help. If it was any other opponent she wouldn't even be very worried, she hadn't seen anyone a match for him in such close quarters, but she didn't really understand how magic worked either. Regardless she turned her attention back to the last rider, drawing her blade as she directed her horse into a charge.

                    A sword wasn't her first choice of weapon, her true talents lay with a bow, but she'd had a good teacher. The rider didn't seem like he'd be able to use his shield well, but his sword arm still seemed fine, so she'd need to take care. His armour was a problem too, especially considering that she wasn't wearing any herself. While she wasn't a master swordsman, her opponent parrying her initial strike, but she could claim superiority in riding skill, her blade slipping under the chain protecting his neck on the follow up, and letting momentum do the rest as her horse continued forward.

                    A shaky breath escaped her lips as she returned her blade to its sheath, her opponent dismounted and almost certainly mortally wounded. Her gaze turned back to the great beasts just in time to see the final basket pulled from the back of the third beast, and the lack of any signs of magic from the second left her confident in Berke's success. Sure enough, as she drew her bow again and made to approach the downed basket she heard the occupant surrender. It was finally over, then.

                    Ulaghan was alive at least, she discovered shortly after, though he'd been badly injured in his fall, and Jurgen joined them again shortly after. That left only Vachir who hadn't made it out, both him and his horse slain by the earth mage's attack. They'd gotten off lightly all told, considering what they were up against, but that didn't make it any easier.


                    There was little celebration, despite how much they had collected. While it wasn't the sort of quantity to be expected from a merchant caravan, what they did find would certainly be valuable. Everything, even the equipment stripped from the dead riders, was of much greater quality than they usually saw. That meant it was all more valuable, but it also left Altani wondering if they'd come to regret this later. The man they'd captured certainly seemed to think so, probably some sort of nobility judging by his clothes and actions. That meant that if it was ever discovered that they were responsible for this, they very well might have gotten themselves involved in something too big for them to handle. She could take some comfort in anonymity though, there were many bandits out here and other than the two they'd captured none were alive to tell of who attacked them.

                    But then there was the young woman. The dress she wore was elaborate, reminding Altani all too much of what she had seen back home, of what she'd been expected to wear for the wedding she'd fled from, and that left a heavy feeling in her stomach that just wouldn't go away. It seemed like an odd sort of procession, but had they been on their way to some sort of wedding? The fine silks and other trinkets would make sense if that was true. And now... well, she knew what would happen next. She didn't particularly like it, but she didn't try to stop the men from doing what they wished. That was how things worked out here, bandits or not, strength was all that mattered in the end. The victors took everything they wished from those they defeated, that was simply the way of things.

                    She did her best to ignore the conversation happening around her, of the young woman's realization of just what was in store for her now. Altani had let her hair down now that they were in a more relaxed environment, and while she still wore clothes little different than the others—certainly not particularly feminine—she wasn't bothering to try to hide her gender at the moment. Berke's comment pointing that out didn't help matters either, and he only got a half-hearted glare in response to his insinuations. She'd made her stance on the matter clear in the past: She didn't care what they did with captives, so long as they kept her out of it. She hadn't made any secret of her past around her companions, though she tended to act a lot tougher than she really was.

                    She had to avert her eyes when the woman gave her a pleading look, the gnawing guilt too much for her to face right now. In a way, she couldn't help but see herself in the same situation. That was why she'd left her home, this was the sort of fate she tried so hard to escape. If she'd stayed, not only would she very likely have been treated poorly by her would-be husband, she'd have been at the mercy of anyone who might eventually take her from him. Such a thing was far from unheard of here. That was why she needed to know she could fight for herself. She relied on her companions of course, and they relied on her in turn, but she had her own strength now. She refused to let herself be that helpless.

                    "Leave me out of this." She replied tersely, with a tired sigh. After a few moments longer, she inadvertently met the young woman's eyes again before picking herself up off the ground where she'd been sitting, turning away perhaps a little too abruptly. "I'm going to take a walk."


                      Re: Riders of the Steppe (Astarte) GMed by Takimaru

                      "Have it your way," replied Berke with a chuckle, before happily turning his attention back to the hapless Ayonian girl.

                      None of the other members of the group would stop Altani as she made a temporary retreat from the undoubtedly less savory festivities that were to come. After all, this was something of a common ritual for the band when claiming their spoils of war. The team's sole female member would distance herself from the camp... but only far enough that she wouldn't have to hear the cries of help from other women too closely.

                      The mage girl's screams were mixed in with that of the Ayonian male's for a while, until they stopped--perhaps they had been gagged, as was often the case--and surely enough the blend of sounds and other noises seemed to fade off as Altani continued to make distance from camp. It still wasn't so far as to be too dangerous, though she would have to be vigilant nonetheless given the nature of the steppes.

                      Altani would walk for a bit longer than usual, until the worrisome sounds disappeared completely and only the steady song of the wind remained.

                      Eventually, she came upon a nearby stream, a lone thread of life which seemed to race through the otherwise arid steppe. It wasn't a very large source of water, but it provided enough, and there looked to be clear, fresh water from where she peered into it. Her waterskin was getting low, and so it would likely be a good opportunity to refill from here so that she might boil it later. Of course, they had just captured a water mage, but she likely wouldn't be in any condition to generate such a resource for them in the near future...

                      Downstream, a few antelope could be seen pausing to get a drink, seemingly blissfully unaware of the girl's presence--or perhaps, just not seeing her as a threat for whatever reason. It wasn't long before she spotted another figure, separate from them, slinking and stalking along. Altani's keen eyesight recognized the silhouette. It was an Ulralian steppe wolf on the hunt.
                      Developer of Despair Labyrinth and primary GM of the PbP.


                        Re: Riders of the Steppe (Astarte) GMed by Takimaru

                        Altani gave a soft sigh of relief as the sounds finally faded into the distance. She had always hated this part of their raids, but who was she to demand they stop? Was this any worse than what she had already done since leaving home? Yet she couldn't help but feel guilty whenever they took a woman captive. Perhaps it simply reminded her too much of how she'd only narrowly escaped a fate not all too different.

                        Coming to a nearby stream, now surrounded only by the sounds of nature, Altani finally let herself relax. She knew she was only hiding from the problem, but she didn't know what else to do about it. This was something all too common, and she knew most would see her as weak for being so unwilling to see it happen, but it always made it so hard when she saw their faces. It was one thing to see that sort of fear on the battlefield and she was capable of killing when she needed to. This should have been little different, and none of the others seemed to share her feelings. Was this because she was a woman too, or just another weakness of hers?

                        With another sigh, this time frustrated at herself for continuing to dwell on the matter, Altani made her way down to the water's edge. It wouldn't hurt to refill her waterskin now, she doubted the mage would be willing to cooperate with them after this to provide any for them—she didn't think she'd trust it even if she was, either. Who knew what she could do to the water she conjured? She was about to take a sip of what remained before filling it with water that would need to be boiled when her eyes caught movement in the distance, her other hand dropping to the hilt of her sword in a practised reaction.

                        She didn't have her bows with her, having left them back at the camp. The composite bows they used were too susceptible to weather damage to leave them out in the open carelessly, even if the skies looked clear at the moment. They were back with her horse and other supplies, safely tucked away, but that left her with only her sword for protection. Fortunately it wasn't anything immediately threatening—not to her, anyway. There were a few antelope drinking downstream, and the movement she'd noticed was a wolf creeping up behind them.

                        She might have tried to take one down herself if she'd had her bow, but it wasn't as if they were in need of any more food right now. Instead she scanned the area around them, looking for any sign of the rest of the wolf pack. Lone wolves weren't unheard of, but it would have to be fairly brave—or desperate—to go after a herd alone, even a small one. She didn't expect if to give her any trouble if she kept her distance, but she didn't want to get caught in the path of its pack either. Otherwise, it was simply a chance to watch another hunter in action.


                          Re: Riders of the Steppe (Astarte) GMed by Takimaru

                          After a look around the immediate vicinity, Altani would fail to spot any of this wolf's kindred. Indeed, it was alone, a sight scarce enough that the female raider had only heard of such in rumors and tales. If she squinted, employing her keen eyesight to get a better look, she'd see that it was a little mangy, with its fur out of sorts and its ribs somewhat visible along it sides. Still, there it was, trying its best to hunt. Closer and closer it moved, occasionally pausing once the small herd of antelope seemed to notice their sole harasser, perking their ears up and raising their heads.

                          At that point, the prey had shown themselves well aware of their would-be predator. Still, the lone wolf wouldn't be deterred, and would stop, looking to Altani and then elsewhere, waiting for its quarry to calm down some. After a few awkward moments, the lot of them would immediately bolt away, causing the dog to give chase. This wolf seemed to be testing them as it moved, darting its direction back and forth between different targets. Its audience recognized this to be a strategy, finding one that was slow, weak, young or injured to prey upon. Once it did, it soon closed in...

                          Altani spotted a shadow flying overhead--something large. This was no falcon, but an Ulralian eagle, a far larger and more intimidating bird. It swiftly came down upon the unsuspecting lone wolf, whose focus was far too diverted by that point to react in time, and sunk its talons into the back of the mangy hunter's neck. The wolf growled in retaliation and did its best to fight back, shaking its head about furiously and kicking with its legs, but the eagle proved quite strong on its own, flapping its wings to stabilize itself while keeping an iron grip upon its own prey. It managed to keep out of the reach of the dog's jaws, shrugging off kicks in a deadly wrestling match.

                          As this happened, a pair of arrows came flying into the neck of the antelope originally targeted by the wolf. The placement caused the animal to drop on the spot, heaving its last breaths weakly... in time with its initial predator, the lone wolf, which now lay in a similar predicament below the victorious eagle.

                          Then, the gallop of hooves could be heard. A rider appeared, a middle-aged Ulralian man who vaguely reminded Altani of Qaral in some ways. He was geared in light armor, not unlike Altani herself. She recognized his horse's build--it was undoubtedly that of the faster variety of breeds. Slowing down to a stop, his steed whinnied as he surveyed the results of his apparent hunt.

                          He looked down at the antelope and the wolf, then moved his dark grey eyes over towards Altani, remaining atop his mount. "A rare sight... and yet, understandably so, as one never survives long in the steppes alone. As you can see. Had he a pack, I wouldn't have been able to do this much."

                          "So tell me, young man--do you, too, travel here by yourself?"
                          Developer of Despair Labyrinth and primary GM of the PbP.


                            Re: Riders of the Steppe (Astarte) GMed by Takimaru

                            As the bird descended upon the wolf Altani's first thought was that Qaral had followed her for some reason, rather than stay back with everyone else as she had expected. It was quite evident from a second look that this wasn't his bird, wasn't even the same kind. An eagle, and quit a bit larger than Qaral's falcon. Initially she thought it was wild, that she was just watching the result of one hunter letting its guard down and falling prey to another, until the arrows struck the antelope as well.

                            Immediately, she was on guard. She didn't recognize the bird, and the timing was far too convenient to be coincidental, so whoever had fired the arrows was not one of her friends. She hadn't expected to run into anyone else so close to her own camp, not with how vast and empty the land was. He hand hovered near her sword, silently cursing her choice not to bring one of her bows. She didn't draw it though, the intimately familiar sound of a horse's hooves telling her all she needed to know about her chances in a fight. Better to hope that whoever this was didn't bear her any ill will.

                            When she finally saw the man, she couldn't help but notice his passing resemblance to her friend. He was older, certainly, but there were some similarities in appearance between him and Qaral, not to mention the fact that both seemed to train birds. His horse was impressive as well, trained eyes looking over it briefly and comparing the steed to her own and the others she knew. Her own horse had been one of her father's best, and this seemed to be a similar breed.

                            "No, not quite." She replied simply, trying to keep her voice even as she shook her head. He'd apparently still mistaken her as a male despite her lack of effort in keeping up the ruse currently, and she didn't wish to give him any reason to doubt that for the moment. Her hair was down rather than tied back in the slightly more masculine style she usually wore when going out, but she was still dressed in somewhat loose or otherwise unfeminine clothes. Her figure wasn't voluptuous enough to show through the leathers she wore, so she could be fairly confident she was still at least pulling off androgynous enough that her attire—and the fact that she was out here, seemingly alone—would be enough to direct any assumptions. "My camp isn't far off from here, I just came for water and stopped to watch the wolf's hunt. Could probably hear them from here if they were shouting."

                            She spoke it casually, but she was fairly certain the man would catch the thinly-veiled warning in her last comment. She could only hope it was true and not just a bluff. She'd tried to stay close enough to call if there was danger, but in order to get out of earshot she'd had to go perhaps a little too far. Even if she hadn't, who knew if they'd hear? Not while they were drunk and... otherwise occupied, at least. This man didn't know that though, and she hoped to keep it that way.

                            Hopefully he would just go collect his kills and leave her be. He didn't know what she and her friends were yet, but if he got closer to the camp he very well might figure it out. If he did, she wasn't sure what his reaction would be. She was worried for her own safety, of course, he had every advantage over her right now and if he attacked her she would certainly be the one to fall. Even if she brought such a conflict to a more advantageous position though, where her friends could aid her, it would still end in someone's death, one way or another. Hopefully such a scenario could be avoided, she'd seen—and caused—enough death for one day.


                              Re: Riders of the Steppe (Astarte) GMed by Takimaru

                              Oh? Good then. Our hakhan is nearby. We spotted your camp from the distance, and I went to scout ahead. I see you’ve no bow--you are a swordsman, then? What of the others? I hope you’ve some skilled archers amongst your group.” His gaze shifted from Altani to the yurt in the distance, no doubt where her cohorts were having their fun. Knowing them, they couldn't possibly be done by now.

                              The man stroked his chin thoughtfully. He then dismounted, going right to work in securing the slain wolf. He produced a dagger to cut off a piece of its meat, using the morsel to dissuade his eagle from feasting upon it completely, and the great brown-feathered bird returned to his glove, ravenously tearing away at the bit of canine flesh. While it was distracted, he wrapped the dog in a pungent hide, storing it away on the back of his horse, and followed suit with the antelope. He then looked back to Altani. Apparently he did not see her as a threat, nor did he care to present himself in a particularly threatening manner, yet.

                              After securing his kills, he looked back to the tent nearby. “The rest of your clan is all there, in that yurt? Surely the lot of you will agree to the terms of our alliance, then. A storm comes on the horizon. Too long have the lot of us raided each other--now is the time for us to unite and to expand Ulralia’s influence across Ayon, Honrai, even Deun. Our hakhan intends to unite the tribes. Too much of our own blood has been shed, don’t you agree? The rest of the world does not know it yet, but we are strong when we are not fighting amongst each other. Our offer is not one to be refused--after all, under his reign, each of us will be entitled to earn glory through their own work. You may run and tell your partners this. If not, then we shall go to see them soon enough, anyway.” She recognized the title as one of a chief, or warlord, depending on the group--her own little band had no official one, as the leadership was split between Suren, Tegus, and herself.

                              Altani heard the rumble of hooves in the distance, growing ever louder, until they finally appeared on the horizon as a wide collection of dust and riders. “Ah, there they are now. So, who of your group should we seek to speak to--who is the leader?
                              Developer of Despair Labyrinth and primary GM of the PbP.