Roman Kahn is a human barbarian.
The earliest of my memories are of slavery.
I do not remember where I came from or whose ancestral blood flows through my body. I cannot recall if I come from the mountains, the forest or the city, if I was born from a noble line of kings or from a pathetic family of peasants. To me, they are dead and forgotten, no more important than the remnant of ashes of the departed left on a burning pier.
The first memory I have was of standing on a tall stool, nude and surrounded by fat, sweaty, bearded men with thick robes overlaid with heavy jewelry and large hats, all of them pawing and pulling at my face, hair, arms, legs, and genitals. I remember the strange language they used amongst each other, yelling at one another as if in a battle of words. I remember their sneers, chuckles, and wicked grins. I remember their malevolent glares and their wet lips constantly being licked by their tongues. I remember the mixture of smells of flowery incense, reeking sweat, and foul breath that culminated in a putrid stench of dread. I remember shivering like a tiny, helpless, newborn lion cub, separated from his protective mother and surrounded by ravenous hyenas about to pounce on their kill.
That, I remember, was my first memory of fear.
My next memory is of Master. He was a powerful man, both in mind and body. He led a group of other powerful men who traveled across the countryside fulfilling various tasks and raiding abandoned tombs, castles, and the occasional village. Master and his men were wealthy and feared wherever they went. Through it all I was the Master’s slave. I would clean Master’s magic armor and weapons and cook meals for all the men. I would fetch water and carry heavy backpacks like a mule. I would entertain Master and his men with my silly mannerisms and simple speech, as they would make fun of my barbaric and uneducated ways. I would amuse them by allowing them to abuse my body and mind for their twisted pleasures. And I would sleep with Master, each night, and be forced to do things no child of that age should ever be forced to do.
That, I remember, was my first memory of hatred.
During those slave years as a child, I remember a raven would occasionally visit me when I was alone. As I think of it now, I believe that the raven was a familiar and came from one of Master’s men, unbeknownst to any of them. This raven spoke to me and befriended me and told me stories of wondrous worlds, fantastic beasts and their incredible adventures. Oh, how I wanted to be with those fantastic beasts and be free like them. And the raven told me that I would one day. He told me the secrets of how to use my senses like the beast and speak with wild animals, but at the time I was too young to truly understand those things. And lastly, the raven told me a secret about myself – a secret that could be unleashed and wreak terrible vengeance on all that I hated. But again, I was too young at the time to understand yet, but soon.
As the years passed, Master acquired new men to follow him as previous men would leave, die, or disappear. The raven had left and I was alone, but I would dream of the worlds and beasts the raven told me of and dream of being like them – strong, courageous, and fierce. I would meet many different and strange beasts who would talk to me and share their bestial secrets. They would comfort me and show me a joy I never knew excited outside of my slavery. But among all the different visiting animals I encountered, it was the eyes in the dark that were always there, always watching, always with me. They were always distant and far off. They never drew near me nor did I ever have the courage to approach them. But I knew they were the eyes of a massive tiger – powerful, majestic, and fierce. Whenever I saw them in my dreams, I felt safe and feared them.
That, I remember, was my first memory of the spirit animals.
My next vivid memory was of the ship. I believe I was only eight or nine years of age. Master and his men had camped near a beach. I recall it was during one of their many expeditions in which they returned from raiding a small hapless hamlet, having taken their fill of theft, destruction, rape, and murder. During the night, as the men slept and I stood watch, chained to a magical leash that was connected to Master, I saw a faint light in the distant ocean. It appeared for only a second and then disappeared. Had I cared for Master, I would have woken him and his men. But I did not. I stood there, waiting.
The ambush happened quickly. Master’s men were captured or killed without much difficulty. Master was the last to resist. He killed several of the pirates that surrounded him and held the others at bay with his massive great sword. I stood among the circle of pirates, held by one of them. I watched as a lone woman stepped forward from out of the circle. She had long, black hair tied back in a tail, underneath a leather hat. Her sweaty, brown skin glistened in the light of the torch fires that surrounded the circle. She wore clothes not of rags and sheets like the other pirates, but of fine fabric and fancy dress and jacket. She looked to me like a great and elegant lady of nobility. But her eyes, bright yellow that glowed in the night’s light, betrayed any sense of noble delicacy. And the weapon she wielded, a wooden pole with a curved single-edged blade on the end, was a weapon of strength and savagery not typically seen among the noble classes. She stood there, tall, elegant, and full of grace as she gestured to Master for a single one-on-one dual.
My young eyes couldn’t comprehend the complex movements and speed of attacks. The two fighters were blurry images like two swirling ghosts in a deadly dance of death. The rapid clash of steel upon steel deafened my ears from the hooting and hollering of the pirates around me. Sparks ignited with each clash, illuminating, ever so briefly, the faces of the two great warriors – Master’s face was ugly, contorted, and angry in frustration. The woman’s was beautiful, composed, with a look of ravenous hunger for a kill.
But all of it stopped as abruptly as it started. The lone woman was down on one knee, her right hand ready to grasp her bladed pole which had fallen to the ground. Master stood above her with his great sword only inches from her neck. She stared at him with those fierce eyes and a smirk as if she had no worries nor cared for her own life. The circle of pirates stood in silence, shocked at what had happened. Master breathed heavily, a grin from ear to ear.
“Now, you die,” were the last words I remember Master ever saying.
For a brief moment, the pirate that held me let go of his grip and I then saw those eyes. I had seen them before, in the dark shadows of the dreams I had had of the animals. Those eyes had always been watching me in my dreams, distant and unknowing, but constant. I know now that they had always been watching me even in my waking days.
And out of the shadows, the White Tiger rushed towards me with a thunderous roar!
I suddenly felt a burning white flame ignite up within me. It started in the pit of my guts and exploded, quickly spreading like wildfire throughout my whole body. The burn was painful – not a pain that made me whimper and cry, but one that demanded I take violent action. My body shivered and droplets of blood trickled down my forehead. My whole being was consumed by that burning pain and I only possessed a single thought – slaughter Master. Nothing else mattered.
I grabbed a dagger from the pirate’s belt and rushed forward towards Master. The war cry I made gave me conviction, determination, and strength, and startled the two fighters. In my blind fury, I tripped on the dirt and fell, but my small blade hit home. It struck Master in the leg. He screamed in pain as he raised his sword to strike me down. I laid on the ground with my face planted in the dirt and Master’s sword only a few feet above my head. The burning I felt began to fade. My breathing became short and quick. I felt icy scratches along my body and became rigid. I had failed and knew death awaited me. Perhaps I would meet my animal friends in the afterlife. Perhaps I would see my homeland. Perhaps I would see the family I never knew. These were the thoughts that raced through my child-like mind as I waited for the inevitable.
But the sword did not slice through me. I lived. Instead, the sword fell to ground next to me with a resounding clank followed by Master’s head. The head blinked at me and the mouth opened as if wanted to scream but nothing came out. We made eye contact. I saw something in those eyes that only I understood and, to this day, hold in my heart. It is a secret no one would ever know nor would anyone truly understand. It is a secret that drives me forward and forces me to live each day with hope. I grinned.
I looked up and saw the woman standing next to the headless body, her bladed pole in her hands. I saw thick blood trickle down from the blade to the dirt. She looked at me, nodded and smiled.
That, I remember, was my first memory of rage.
For ten years, I had lived the life of a pirate.
The woman who decapitated Master took me under her protective wing and adopted me as a son. Her name was the Dread Pirate Raven Khan, Captain of the Princess Raven. She became my mother and I became fiercely loyal to her.
During those years, Raven Khan taught me basic knowledge such as language, reading, writing, mathematics, swimming, acrobatics, sailing, and fighting, particularly with polearm weaponry. She was the one to give me my name and taught me how to focus the rage that emerged, showing me that I had a gift touched by nature itself. She taught me that I had a power few people in the world possessed and fewer understood. She confessed that, while she did not possess such powers, she had a cousin, from her nomadic mother’s side, who had the power. They called it the “Wrath of Nature.” She told me that each person who has the Wrath of Nature, is able to commune with animals both in dreams and the waking world. But among all of the animals, the gifted person has one particular animal that is their Totem Spirit. She instructed me to always listen to my Totem Spirit.
Contrary to popular belief, the Princess Raven was not a completely independent pirate vessel. It was a façade Raven Khan carefully constructed and maintained for decades. In truth, The Princess Raven was more of a Privateer, secretly commissioned by the Emperor in secret service to the Empire. Every so often, Raven Khan would receive missions to attack merchant vessels or cargo ships. Sometimes, we even attacked small harbor communities that hid enemies of the empire. The Princess Raven was greatly hated and feared by enemies of the empire.
As the years went on, I became part of the crew, starting as a Swab and moving myself up to sailing master in the later years. These were the happiest moments of my life and it would all come crashing down in one fateful battle. It was on one of those excursions, assigned by the empire, which brought about the downfall of the Princess Raven.
Raven Khan received a message to hunt and destroy the Black Witch, a pirate ship that had attacked multiple cargo ships of the empire. It flew a red flag with a left-handed gauntlet held upright and four octopus-like, black tentacles wrapped around the palm. It was said that the captain was a dark elf that went by the name of Captain Sigmarus “Insidious” Inigo. He wore a white mask with red-tinted glass over the eyes and had a strange metal apparatus for a right arm that could crush stone. The Black Witch also had a giant for a Quartermaster who always wore thick, tattered, robes and a hood that obscured his face. No one ever saw what the quartermaster looked like underneath his robes and hood, so no one ever knew of his race, whether he was a human, half-orc, or something else. Only his low hissing and raspy voice gave any sign that he was most likely male.
But these things did not matter to the crew of the Princess Raven. We had our share of grand adventures, glorious battles, and wondrous visions. We only thought of the challenge and the fight ahead of us. We were not afraid. How naive and foolish we were.
For two weeks we hunted the Black Witch. The chase became a cat and mouse game. I could tell Raven Khan and her crew were becoming frustrated. My dreams, during this time, became more intense and foreboding. I could tell something was wrong and my spirit animal was warning me about it. I wanted to tell Raven to retreat and return to empire waters. I wanted to tell her that the Black Witch was cursed and that we should not hunt it alone, if at all. I wanted to tell her that my spirit animal was warning us not to fight against such an evil ship. But I did not, and to this day I do not know why. Perhaps I was a coward. Perhaps I trusted Raven and her men more than my spirit animal. Or perhaps my old slave self that had taught me never to question any form of authority prevented me from speaking up. Whatever the case, we were doomed.
It happened so quickly. The Black Witch surprised the Princess Raven. We were boarded and overrun before we could even make a counterattack. Most of the crew died during the fight and those that didn’t, wished they had. Several of the survivors were brutally tortured and executed in public for the rest of the Princess Raven crew to watch. I witnessed such inhumanity and cruelty I had never thought possible. To this day I still have the occasional nightmare of those horrific images.
It was during those tortures that I caught my first glimpse of the dark elf captain and his giant quartermaster.
The survivors of the Raven Princess were bound and gagged, huddled in a group on deck. For hours, we were forced to watch as one by one, they began to drag each crew member away to be stripped, tortured, and finally killed. Then, near dusk, Captain Sigmarus “Insidious” Inigo and his nameless Quartermaster approached us. This was the first time I had ever seen them. All the crew members of the Black Witch stayed several feet away from their superiors and always held their head low, never looking at their captain or Quartermaster directly. The rumors were all true.
Dragged behind the Quartermaster, chained from neck to arms to legs, was my mother, Raven Kahn. She was nude and covered in black and blue bruises. With the look in her eyes, her heavy breathing, and the unclosing gape of her mouth, she looked broken. I desperately wanted to break free of my bonds. I wanted to keep fighting. The rage in me began to build up. The fire slowly coursed through my veins. And then Raven looked at me and pierced through my soul. The rage subsided and I felt nothing but sorrow, pain, and fear. Her single look told me to stop and accept what was about to happen. They tied her to the central mast.
“For the last few hours,” Captain Inigo said, “y’all have witnessed the awful mutilation of fellow friends and sailors.” His voice was nothing like I have ever heard. It was calm and charming. “But let it be said, am ah merciful man. The rest of you git to live under one condition. Submit and live. Resist and y’all’ll end up just like your Captain here.”
Captain Inigo began to torture my mother in ways that I cannot describe or even try. I wanted to look away or close my eyes, but I could not. I felt compelled to watch. Her cries of pain and the screams of mercy fell on deaf ears, but they echo in my ears even to this day. The torture continued for hours, even into the night.
“There now sweetie, we’re almost done,” Captain Ingio said, using a towel to wipe bodily fluids from his hands. There was a large smear of blood across the Captain’s mask. He stepped back from her mutilated body and nodded to the giant Quartermaster. The lumbering giant of robes slowly walked over to Raven and stood only inches away from her. While the others only saw the back of the Quartermaster, I was at a slight side angle and swore I saw gray tentacles slitter out of his hood. The hood engulfed her head and I saw nothing more.
Raven Kahn, Captain of the Princess Raven and my mother, made one last bloodcurdling scream and then fell silent. The Quartermaster stepped back and Raven’s body did not move anymore. She was dead.
Crew members of the Black Witch cut her bloody body from the mast and threw it overboard. It was the last I would ever see my mother.
“There now,” Captain Inigo said to his captives, “y’all may not ever be free again, but at the very least, y’all didn’t have to end up like your Captain there.” The Black Witch crew laughed.
“Bastard!” I shouted, “I will kill you!” The rage was about to take over. I saw the eyes of the tiger. In my mind’s eye, I envisioned myself using my unearthly strength to break free of my bonds, leap forward, and rip open the throat of Captain Inigo. But then, as if someone snapped a finger, the rage dissipated and I felt no change or the spirit animals. I do not know what happened but believe it was foul magic.
The crew of the Black Witch laughed in unison as they watched my pathetic attempt to free myself. Captain Inigo gestured towards me and I was picked up, dragged, and tied to the same mast as Raven.
“See now, what we got here is a failure to communicate,” Captain Inigo said, standing in front of me and holding the same tools of torture he had used on Raven Kahn. “I give y’all life and what y’all want to do but throw it back in my face. But like I say, I am ah merciful man and one that pities the stupid. This here’s a mighty stupid specimen. It’s time for him to get some learnin’ done.”
Captain Sigmarus “Insidious” Inigo slowly cut out my left eye.
That, I remember, was my first memory of vengeance.
The Black Witch took the surviving members of the Princess Raven to shore and sold us to Duergar slave traders. The Duergar knocked us out and when I woke, I found myself in the mines of Xymor.
For a year I had been a slave. During the day, they made me mine for ore. At night, they forced me to fight other slaves for their entertainment. I grew strong in body and in martial ability. Each day, my humanity slowly slipped away. Each day, I slowly turned into a wild beast and forgot what it was to be human. Each day, Roman Kahn gradually slipped into nothingness. Then I met Arien-gil Bihari and everything changed.
That, I remember, was my first memory of love. But that is another story for another time.