Comiriom, Charnel Citadel
The day was grim, heavy and damp like a shallow burial. A grey sky hung low over the earth, as though the heavens had been drained of their depth and colour and replaced by an indistinct void of impenetrable fog and faded clouds. Everything overhead seemed to meld together into a dim haze, faintly luminescent, yet not so strongly that one could have guessed that a sun still shone somewhere above it. The land had been smothered by a funereal shroud, and so it seemed to have always been, for years and decades. Every day here was the same choking grey mist, every day was eternal dusk with no dawn. All that broke this dreary monotony were the abyssal starless nights that plunged the world into even deeper darkness, and the coming and going of rain, though of late the sky had been weeping more and more often.
So it was that day. Large, murky drops hammered down mercilessly, dissolving the loose earth into a morass of clinging mud. The road was paved, but its flagstones had been knocked loose long ago, chipped away by time, cracked and worn out and never replaced. The muck flooded the many crevices, large and small, oozed onto the stones’ surface, making it viscous and slippery, splattered over the feet and legs of those who trod on them. Gaping puddles churned with every step, sending up splashes of filthy water to meet the falling rain.
The caravan did not seem concerned. It trudged ahead, oblivious to the scorn of the elements, its many feet stumbling among the battered flagstones, but never falling. Most of the figures that marched in its files made no effort to even cover their heads from the downpour, and if there had been anyone nearby to see them, it would have been clear why. The half-bare skulls mottled with rags of rotting skin, the purulent blotches of bare flesh, the verminous sores and missing eyes betrayed them as belonging to the ranks of the living dead. Nuisance, cold and illness were no more known to them than the vital breath and pulse of blood, nor was fatigue, for they forged wordlessly ahead under the burdens of chests and caskets without a word or a faltering in their step. Some were even bound like mules to the procession’s wagons, filled with reeking draped mounds.
Those were few, however, for the place of beasts of burden was allotted to even ghastlier beings. Neither quite human nor horse, the things that pulled the heaviest loads were a cacophony in the flesh, agglutinated forms of mankind forced, crushed even, into moulds between the bestial and the fiendish. They had limbs that were like mangled arms and legs knitted together at the very bone, leather and dried skin holding its putrid flesh and sinews tied, ending in hooves that were knee-bones flattened with chisels. Their flanks were ribcages drawn open, bloody pulp and decomposing entrails visible through their gaps, strewn in apparently haphazard order yet painstakingly sewn together at the seams. Their heads were vile masks fashioned with hands, stomachs, teeth, dull and witless eyes staring out of them at the most unlikely and unsettling angles. Ghoulish attendants led them with weathered cords and chains, as though they could hardly see where they were dragging their charges and their own carcasses.
The convoy crawled between flat, empty expanses of desolate land, following the winding road like a sluggish barge floating down a grey river. Here and there, a skeletal tree stood in the rank wastes, but there was no other sign that anything had ever been alive there, that it had not always been a land of the dead. At length, however, after what might have been days of unceasing, tireless travel, traces of motion began to break through the fog and rain at their sides.
Dark shapes crept about in the murk, some almost level with the soil, others striding high as if on stilts. As their numbers thickened the further the caravan went, it became clear why. Throngs of ghouls toiled in swampy fields, dragging about tilling tools or pulling ploughs in mobs, and each of them was mangled and deformed in some way. Some had no legs, or indeed anything below their torsos that was not a ragged wound, and clawed at the mud to pull themselves forward, rakes tied to what remained of their spine. Others had no arms, and they shuffled ahead of ploughs like bound beasts. Others yet had their limbs replaced by wooden poles tied to or driven through exsanguinated stumps, and stirred the ground by clumsily dragging them in lines.
Yet these hellish crowds thinned as the convoy advanced further yet, and a new terror came into sight. It could as yet hardly be seen through the rain and mist, but the terminus of the road began to rise on the horizon, a phantom slowly gaining shape as it emerged from the earth. Now its beheaded towers loomed high, no parapets or standards to crown them, like ancient rotten teeth; now its eviscerated walls coalesced from the surrounding grey, the wounds they had borne from the conquest of the shambling hordes no more healed than those of its unliving masters; now its once-magnificent estates unveiled their squalor as their bareness shone through their still imposing size.
Comiriom, the dead city, awaited the yield of another graveyard to sate its endless hunger.
The caravan passed through the collapsed gates, its hinges rusted and empty, the mighty statues flanking it corroded and faceless. There were no guardians to bar its way, for who would enter those walls expecting anything other than ruin? Within, a silent animation haunted the streets, like a vicious parody of the life that had once flourished in them. Mutilated ghouls hurried about, hefting bodies barely recognisable as human with their broken hands and gnarled arms. More of the revolting beasts pulled carts of corpses, barrels and, sometimes, large clay amphors. Now and again, hulking shapes would shamble by - grotesque things with animalistic postures, loping on arms that had once been whole torsos like apes or toads.
In silence, without heeding the chaos of forms that surrounded it, the cortege made its way through plazas and courtyards, all barren and despoiled, yet perhaps even busier than they had been when the city truly lived, towards the towering bulk of a crumbling edifice. One of its walls had been torn down outright, and the ghouls passed directly into the hall within. It was a husk as barren as its exterior, its whole impressive size emptied of anything but dust and its high ceilings, once frescoed, black with dripping mould. A great circular pit had been roughly dug in its center after uprooting the paved floor, and a cloud of flies to rival the ones covering the sky buzzed above it, drawn by the vile stench of decaying meat. More ghouls idled about it, oblivious to the bloated insects touching down on them and nibbling at their exposed gashes.
Acting as of one mind, the caravan-bearers began to discharge their trove directly onto the ground. Caskets were loosely stacked as unwieldy dead claws would allow. The flesh-beasts were turned about, not without effort as their bloated forms slammed into one another in graceless motion, and the contents of their wagons - more and more bodies, already mouldering, many but a confused head of bones with some tatters clinging to it - were crudely shoved down.
No sooner had the bearers finished unloading their bounty and begun to amble their way out of the hall than the expectant ghouls finally stirred from their posts and converged onto the disorderly mounds. With mindless diligence, work was joined. The undead sifted through the macabre wealth, shoving the corpses to various sides in masses distinguished by their state of corruption. Those that were little more than a slimy mass, of which there were a great many, were hurled into the pit, where they fell with a splattering sound that gave a sinister hint of how deep the well of liquescent decay must truly have been. Loose bones were flensed, limbs were assembled together like oats after a harvest.
Although it seemed there was nothing in the grisly piles but filth and ancient gore, it was a wholly inadvertent motion that revealed otherwise. An ungainly shove by one of the ghouls pushed a decomposed skull to the ground, opening a gap in one of the heaps, and something fell alongside it, clattering lightly and glistening with a flash of light that cut through the dank penumbra. The ghoul stooped down and picked something off the ground, and when it rose, the light rose with it. A soft amber glow radiated from its hand, though there was no such luminescence about that could have been reflected. Transfixed in its simple mind, the ghoul stood and stared, incapable of tearing its eyes away from its strange find.
“What is that you have there?”
A dry, rasping voice from a darkened corner broke through the shuffling and squelching, and a tall, lanky figure emerged into the center of the hall. Its body was, though not much better preserved than those of the ghouls, for the most part intact, save for patches of skin eaten away by rot, and covered in old ragged robes. Some strands of faded overgrown hair even remained dangling from the top of its head. The revenant crossed over the chamber in a few long strides and snatched the ghoul’s find away from its clutch, bringing it close to his own crusty eyes.
It was a rare thing indeed, even among once opulent walls. A slender golden chain held a tear-shaped precious pendant, a thing of exquisite craft whose likes had rarely been seen in Leria since the Necromancer’s conquest. Yet it was not the pendant itself that immediately sprang to the eye, but the large amber gemstone in its center. It was unmistakable that it shone with an inner light of its own, one that could have no natural source; and as the revenant held it, he could feel, more as a thought than a sensation in his dead skin, perhaps, but feel nonetheless, that a warmth and a strength resided within it. It was difficult to describe, or even name, what manner of might that was, but it was certain that it was potent, and that, like a snake tightly coiled on itself, it awaited release after who knew who many centuries of entombment.
Without so much as another word to the ghoul, who, deprived of its distraction, returned to its task as though nothing had happened, the revenant jolted back, tearing away his gaze from the jewel with an effort, and, thrusting it into the cover of its robes by some half-living intuition, hurried through the breach in the wall and out into the street. With the same long, half-striding and half-scurrying steps, he made his way among the monstrous throngs of Comiriom. Once, without so much as looking who the horrors around him at that moment were, he barked out “Where is the master?”, and a few withered hands were raised to point the way. Weaving among the lumbering crowds, he made his way to what had once been a barracks, and now stood as little more than a dilapidated shell, with a gate awning like a toothless mouth.
Inside, it was dim and grimy, but eerily silent. Few dared approach the hideous Harvester of Flesh if they were not driven by some pressing errand, and for a moment the revenant hesitated, nightmarish visions of his master’s ire at being distracted from his work coursing before him. But the thought of rewards and a better post than watching over that dreary chamber - perhaps he would even be sent to Necron itself! - rose over them, and he dove into the shadows. Winding and dirty corridors brought him past hallways and courtyards, and at last into a large room in one of the building’s wings.
There, in the unsteady light of a handful of torches, a gigantic figure stood hunched over a table against the far wall. The table itself was one such that many men could have sat around it at once, yet even it seemed dwarfish before the colossus. His skin was stretched tight over his fantastically large body, so much so that underneath its unnatural construction could be seen. The strands of flesh were not laid over the bones, whatever horrors those might have been, but tied and woven among themselves like cords in ropes, giving the nauseous impression of knotted worms writhing below the giant’s hide whenever he moved. At his left hand, a pair of ghouls had just hauled in a cart of dismembered limbs from a side entryway that gave on a courtyard, and the behemoth fingers, each almost as thick as a forearm, were carefully feeling the ones on top.
The revenant hesitantly scraped a bony foot against the floor, and, heavily, the monster turned about to look at him. The mouthless, noseless face could betray no feeling, but there was a menacing glint in the arid eyes when Ghural spoke in an inhumanly deep voice issuing from somewhere in his throat.
“Yes? What is it, maggot?”
Beckoned by an immense hand, the revenant edged closer. Even greed was now hardly enough to bring him forward, but it was too late to draw back.
“I have found this in the latest haul, master.” He held up the jewel, and under its unexpected glow Ghural’s enfleshed sockets twitched, trying to wince with absent lids. “There is a power inside - an enchantment, no doubt. The Great Necromancer will want to-”
A cavernous growl interrupted him. The hand came forward, and he surrendered his prize with just a twinge of regret. As long as he held it, he felt as though he could bargain as he better pleased, though being in the Harvester’s presence had strongly dampened that.
“An enchantment, you say,” Ghural rumbled, raising the pendant closer to his eyes, but still quite far away. “Who else has seen it?”
“No one but the ghouls.”
The glint in the desiccated eyes grew into a wicked flare, though it was no doing of the jewel’s light.
“And the Great Necromancer will not see it either.”
The giant hand darted forth again, far quicker than it would have seemed possible, and in a single motion closed around the revenant’s head in an iron grip, crushing his skull to paste with incredible strength. As the decapitated body collapsed, Ghural motioned to the ghouls, and they impassively began to pull it apart and stick its pieces into the cart. In a few moments, all that remained of it save a bloody stain was gone, its remains indistinguishable among scores of others. The Harvester returned his gaze to the jewel, though still avoiding looking into the gem in its center directly.
No, the Great Necromancer need not know. Whatever uses he would draw from this bauble were beyond Ghural’s imagination, little versed in matters of incantation, but what was clear enough to him was that not much would come of it for him. But if he could get this to someone, living or dead, who both knew its value and would trade evenly for it; if it could earn him a prize from the far mainland, of rare salves, devised by minds who cared still for living flesh, that could be turned to incredible works of reconstitution; then… Who would say that his works would not in time surpass those of Eagoth himself, in their many forms and their magnitude? Yes, the Necromancer Lord would do well to be wary of what he could accomplish with such a bargaining bit in his hands. He would need to act fast, and in secrecy.
And for such things, he knew, the Whisperer was the best recourse.