This issue's cover art, The Challenge [see the full-size version here], is a commissioned piece submitted by Jenni A. M. Merrifield. There's a story behind this great piece, as well. Jenni writes:
The name of this illustration is The Challenge. It was created, at my request, by Adam Diller who used a combination of physical models, photography, and digital graphic touch up software.
The illustration, depicting a key scene in the personal development of one of my characters, shows two characters, one a young, blonde woman, the other an older, steel grey haired man, facing each other during a Formal Challenge, both waiting for a tell from the other participant.
The woman is wearing ring-male with a blue leather swordbelt crossing it, and is wielding a katana (a japanese style sword) that has a blue cord wrapped hilt and a lion's head on the pommel. She appears to be road-weary and somewhat disheveled, but is obviously ready to defend herself.
The man is wearing studded leather in red and black, and wields a katana that has a red cord wrapped hilt and also has a lion's head on the pommel. The man also has a wakazashi (a short sword version of the katana) but it remains sheathed at his hip. He appears to be more self possessed and is, perhaps, a more accomplished fighter, than the woman. A careful examination of his right forearm, which is visible between the cuff of his sleeve and the black glove on his hand, shows that it is made of some dark, metallic substance rather than human flesh.
The woman is Andrea "Andy" Tschorff, a Karameikan of mixed blood, who has trained over the previous two years to become a "Blade" -- that is, a member of The Order of the Lion Blades, an organization of mercenary fighters who specialize in fighting with the katana (in the campaign, they are the only group who know how to make or train in the katana). She joined the Blades in order to mete revenge on the Slavers who ravaged the hamlet where she grew up and either abducted or slew her entire family.
The man is Sgt. Talin Hammel, Andy's former mentor in the Blades. Sgt. Hammel saw Andy try out for the order, and chose to sponsor her and even pay the fees for her when he learned she hadn't known there would be a fee and couldn't afford to pay them herself. As a result, he became her mentor. Interestingly, Sgt. Hammel only had one arm, having lost the lower part of is right arm in a Challenge duel against another Lion Blade many years earlier. Despite this apparent handicap, Hammel was an extremely accomplished swordsman and martial artist, and still acted as one of the many instructors for recruits.
Hammel met up with Andy, unexpectedly, just after she and her companions (who had all met as prisoners in a slavers compound after being subdued during a surprise attack on the town of Luln) had helped defend the Sukiskin homestead against an unprovoked attack and were trying to locate one of the family members who had been taken during an attack on another nearby homestead. (The adventurers, after escaping the slaver's compound, and having encountered some other unexpected detours, had found themselves in need of horses if they wished to travel to Specularum as quickly as possible. This need lead them to the Sukiskin farmstead.) Their meeting was initially awkward, as Andy was surprised to find him both apparently "whole" of limb and wearing Red and Black (the lion blades normally wear blue leather with a gold lion on the breastplate -- she, herself, is currently not wearing her standard armor). Hammel explained that he had finally ended his contract with the Order itself and become a "free" blade, able to choose when and with whom he would sign on. He was in the neighborhood with his current employer and had heard that there was a "young, blonde, swordswoman" in the vicinity, and had come to see if it was, against his expectations, actually her.
His next comments were to warn Andy that she was risking her career to be out here at this time. Since she was not yet a free blade herself, with another two years of full-time commitment to the Order, she was officially AWOL from the chapter house in Specularum. "If you were smart," he said, "you would leave your new companions and head back to the Chapter House now". Somewhat surprised by this, Andy explained the full situation to her mentor, including the fact that she had given her word to help the Sukiskin family, thus her own honor, and the honor of the Blades themselves would be at risk if she just left. She felt that, after debriefing her superiors when she did return to Chapter, they would understand. In response, Hammel offered to make a formal "Challenge" against Andy, which, he said, no one would blame her for "Yielding" to someone with his skill without actually fighting, and then he could send her back to Chapterhouse, giving her a valid excuse to return without harming her, or the Order's, honor.
Concern and wariness entering her thoughts, Andy prayed to Petra that her companions (one of whom is a Cleric of Petra) had gotten her message and were close behind, she gazed at her former mentor for a long moment before letting her eyes drift down to his "new" arm. At that moment, she experiences a mild, yet distinct feeling of "wrongness" rising in the pit of her stomach.
She raises her gaze back to Hammel's eyes and says, in a loud, clear voice, "I can't just yield to you, knowing you plan to force me to desert my duty, my honor -- the very thing that makes me a Lion Blade." She lets her voice drop low again, "I'd rather fight first ... or not fight at all."
Hammel's reply comes out fast and harsh. "Your duty is to fulfill your sworn obligation to the Lion Blades! It does not take forty days to cross half a country and check back in! Your honor has always been your own affair," and his left hand completes the Sign of Challenge. "Draw or Yield to my authority."...
Copyright (c) 2001, Jenni A. M. Merrifield, under exclusive license by Adam Diller. Used by permission. All rights reserved. No part of the linked artwork may be reproduced or distributed in any form, printed or electronic, without the express written permission of the licensee.