Hidden 5 mos ago 5 mos ago Post by Oraculum
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Oraculum Perambulans in tenebris

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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.
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Hidden 5 mos ago Post by Cyclone
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The ship’s cabin rocked and lurched with the motion of the waves, yet the captain inside sat upon his desk and scratched endlessly at parchment letters and updating ledger books. Time was valuable, after all, even if he now had an eternity of it. Ever meticulous about tracking the details of his many inventories of goods and their coming and going and fond of arithmetic and accounting, he was consumed by the mental toil. His work was fazed neither by any seasickness nor by the cabin’s near complete blackness that was broken only by a few tiny cracks of feeble moonlight that wriggled through gaps between the planks. His eyes no longer cared much for the light; a good thing to be sure, for light itself was now a scarcer thing in these waters so near to Leria.

A brief flash followed by a whip-crack of thunder punctuated the midnight hour. A storm was coming, but it was still a ways off, and he was not long from his destination. They would make it to safety yet before the brunt of that storm struck. But he was getting ahead of himself -- it was about time for his daily ritual.

The smuggler set aside his quill and papers for the moment, rose from his chair with steady feet on the rocking floor, straightened his silk robes, and made his way out of the cabin and onto the deck. His ship was a sleek galley, its sides painted a dull gray to blend in with the dark waves at night and not reflect the moonlight. The sails were dark too, but they were furled up now as the ship made its way directly into the northerly wind. There was a rhythmic splashing of oars as the ghouls below deck rowed at double time in perfect unison, without the slightest hint of fatigue nor need for shanty or drumbeat to keep them in time. No living rowers could have ever competed, be they hardened galley slaves whipped into shape or free oarsmen who made a profession out of the work.

Besides the incessant sounds of the oars, the sea, and the distant storm, there was utter silence. Deckhands dressed in flamboyant yellow, green, and orange stood statuesque along the sides of the deck, gripping the railing or the rigging. When there was not work that needed to be done, they always maintained a silent vigil over the horizon, keeping watch for any ships of the living. Fortunately the oncoming storm had driven away any blockading fleets that might have dared to prowl so close to the Meridions, sending them back to calmer waters and to their safeharbors across the White Straits. For that reason the Merchant was in a sense grateful for the poor weather; there were always silver linings.

As he came to the edge of the deck beside one of the ghouls in his Motley Crew, the undead sailor turned its head to silently face its master. Its visage was a ghastly sight indeed, crusted with brine and with a gaping wound where one eye had been gouged out by a brave seagull, and yet regular dousings of aqua vitae had staved off rotting for the most part. Faustus saw his ghouls as any other sort of equipment, and so he spent what it took to keep them well maintained. In this case it had the secondary effect of making the whole ship reek of potent spirits, though the cloying odor of liquor was doubtless a familiar and friendly companion to many a living sailor as well.

Faustus untied the turban wrapped around his head and then tore off the wax mask that had been underneath to hide and protect the rest of his face, handing both over to the expectant ghoul beside him. The cool sea-spray brushed against his now exposed face, embracing him like a long-lost lover. He grimaced at the water’s touch upon his skin and at the near-forgotten memories of life that it evoked, then leaned over the rail, opened his mouth, and retched. A cascade of vile fluid darker than the night poured out into the sea, though of course there was no bile or bits of food to be seen in the revolting mixture. He retched a second time, with less fluid coming out. Then again, sputtering out only a few drops, and again, until there was no more. At no point did he ever gag; with undeath had come complete and unnatural control over all the muscles, even those in the stomach and throat, while most of his sense of taste and his ‘natural’ reflexes had vanished.

Having purged those spent fluids, he skulked back into his cabin with the sailor holding his turban and mask close on his heels, but also followed by three or four more deckhands. Faustus reached into pouches and pockets hidden in the folds of his extravagant robe to procure a collection of vials filled with strange salves and tinctures, laying them all out on the desk. He used a handkerchief to wipe off the bit of seaspray that had clung to his face, and then one of the several sailors acting as his attendant stepped forward in the cramped room to almost hover over its master. Faustus removed his gloves and handed them to that one, then began removing his robes to toss to another. Then came free the clothes under those robes, and the suit under that, and so on, the revenant shedding clothes like a moulting insect until he was left near naked in nothing but his undergarments. His body was abhorrent, but not in the manner of most undead. There was not a scrap of bone nor spot of rot to be seen; instead, his appearance was merely...bloated. He looked near-immaculate with no old wounds or telltale signs of meatworkers’ hands anywhere to be seen. The flesh was soft and supple like that of a baby, and paler than the yellow moon. Unnaturally pale -- whiter than even milk, if that were possible.

His aides held all of his clothes all with ginger hands, trying not to taint the lavish cloth too much with their scent or rot. He began with his routine, going through the array of embalming fluids, disinfectants, moisturizers, and other, stranger poultices and tonics. He drank many, gargled a few, put a few drops of some clear solution into his eyes, merely wet his lips with dabs of others, rubbed some into the skin all across his body. One more thing was left -- a vial reeking of metal, filled with a carmine broth. He downed the contents of the whole thing, licking his anemic lips, and then was finished. He set about wiping off the bits of remaining poultice that hadn’t been rubbed all the way into his skin, and then he slowly clothed himself once again with the assistance of the ghouls. When it was finished the sailors filed out and closed the door, leaving their master to his devices in the cabin once more. He put the assortment of vials back into their places, then resumed his work.

An hour or two later, there was a light rapping of bony knuckles upon his cabin door. They’d nearly arrived. Quickly packing up the papers and ledgers that were the only personal effects he’d cared to bring besides the clothes upon his back, Faustus carried out an armful of those things as he left the cabin to oversee the ghouls’ careful maneuvering of the galley onto its dock. A small assembly had waited like statues upon the deck in expectancy of their master’s return. They stirred to life as the ship finally bumped against the dock and the Motley Crew slammed down the gangplank, laid anchor, and tied down the ship.

Among the waiting ghouls upon the dock were many guards clad in well-oiled steel plate that gleamed with each flash of ever-closer lightning. In life they’d all been fighter-types of some sort, and even now in death they retained their skill. Their bodies were mostly intact, whatever wounds that had killed them having been stitched shut and carefully repaired by skilled meatworkers. Faustus had enough wealth to have his choosing of ghouls, and he only paid for the best. As with the sailors, he used abundant aqua vitae to keep their muscles and flesh from decaying too badly. Sharpened blades and pikes filled their hands as always, for the ever-ready guardsmen had no need for sheathes.

With Eagoth’s coquest of Leria had come the so-called Pax Mortis, with infighting forbidden and commerce allowed to go more unimpeded than ever before in history. That had bred an air of apathy bordering arrogance in the minds of many a revenant who thought himself untouchable, who no longer feared for the security of himself or his many things. Faustus was an exception to this; he had always kept a healthy paranoia and skepticism. It was better to be safe than sorry, for the occasional squabble between greedy, quarrelsome, or frankly just opportunistic rivals could lead to goods being requisitioned and loyal ghouls going...missing. Besides, it wasn’t as though these guards demanded wages, so he kept a great many of them and he kept such guards stationed at all of his many staches and warehouses across Leria. The paltry fee that was required for their aqua vitae and maintenance was well worth the security and peace of mind that they brought to him, and it was always good to have eyes across the lands ready to watch for any intrigue, and sharp blades standing by should they ever be needed.

But not all of these lost souls assembled on the dock before him were armed guards; there were also several dozen ghouls that were unarmed and much more harrowing in appearance, wearing little more than mere tattered rags if anything upon their backs. Many had crude prosthetics grafted to their bodies or were outright missing entire limbs -- these were cheap labor, mere porters. By virtue of their being so expendable, Faustus didn’t care much for their appearance or make efforts for their preservation and long-term maintenance.

Faustus was the first to stalk off the ship, his bulk making surprisingly light footsteps as he paced down the gangplank with his ledger books clutched tightly between his arm and breast, his papers neatly folded and tucked into his pockets. As soon as he cleared the gangplank, the porters sprang into motion and moved to shamble up onto the ship. The Motley Crew opened the hatch that led below deck and retreated down into the darkness, leaving the porters to follow them down and haul out all the ship’s cargo.

A half dozen of his waiting guardsmen broke off of their formation without being told, leading the way down the dock for their master at a quick trot. At the end of the pier was an old but sturdy warehouse, windows thoroughly boarded up and a heavy lock upon the double doors that were the only way inside. One of the guards, never so much as loosening the grip on his drawn blade, used a free left hand to produce a rusted key and unlock the doors. The combined strength of four of the surprisingly powerful ghouls was enough to quickly throw the doors wide open, and after pushing their way in they stood to the side. Faustus advanced into the darkness within, followed a few minutes later by the dozens of ghouls carrying heavy crates and filled chests, every container being slowly moved and always supported by no less than a dozen hands and shoulders lest one of the mindless ghouls bearing the burden suddenly have a leg give out or a muscle fail. It was inefficient perhaps, but Faustus still had it done that way out of an abundance of caution. The cargo could not be dropped or made to risk damage, after all; for its value was a hundredfold that of the ghouls which carried it.

Despite its frequent use, the darkened warehouse was filled with decaying floorboards and cobwebs, with a floor littered with dirt tracked in from outside and with dead insects. Faustus was not as meticulous about cleanliness as were the mad zealots that dwelled in not-so-distant Luminara. His mind was the pragmatic sort and he cared about function above appearances, so despite the grime, the warehouse was kept well stocked and he had stockpiles of many different goods within, all well sorted and placed into sections of their own: there was everything from caskets filled with jewels, bullion, and coinage stamped with the marks a hundred realms, both Lerian and foreign, fallen and still-standing, to great crates filled to the brim with clay amphorae and glass bottles of aqua vitae and undistilled wines and beers. And oof course he had all sorts of other strange things between wealth and liquor, like weaponry and tools. The Broker had at least a hand to some extent in nearly every trade in Leria, even that of the ghoul laborers themselves. In one entire corner of the empty warehouse there stood a hundred animated corpses, packed shoulder to shoulder, arranged by states of decay that varied from being worse than that of the rotting porters to nearly as fine as the guards outside. The stockpile of ghouls all silently stood awaiting their eventual orders should Faustus find a purpose of his own for them, or else for their new master should he trade them away to another revenant.

As there was little profit to be made in the petty cultivation of grain or harvesting of iron, or even in the refining of those goods that came afterward, he chose to use his time to greater effect and bought those things in bulk when a good deal was presented and only peddled them for higher prices as a side-task whilst he was working on more important things and facilitating the movement of more valuable goods. None of these sorts of goods or petty forms of commerce were more lucrative for Faustus than the trade of information that had earned him the moniker ‘Whisperer’, or his other specialty, the acquisition of rare and exotic things specially requested by various revenants major to be imported from abroad, smuggled past the troublesome blockades. And right now, it just so happened that he had many special orders and shipments due to Necron, far to the north. Not trusting his ghouls to travel nearly so long a ways unsupervised, and not wanting to unnecessarily risk the naval blockades and the storms to sail his way so much further up the coast, he immediately got to work organizing a land caravan that he would personally lead. It was good to see the countryside on occasion, after all, and he could do some petty trading along the way just for the fun of it.
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Hidden 4 mos ago 4 mos ago Post by gorgenmast
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This is Hell, he thought to himself once again. I am dead, and this is Hell.

His thoughts echoed through the void. Even silence can reverberate through such interminable darkness. He couldn't say for sure what he had done to deserve an eternity of solitude in the endless void; he couldn't even remember his name. An unknowable amount of time was spent trying to recall his life before this. It was much like trying to recall a dream long after awaking: he could only faintly recall an unrelated collection of memories and sensations, unable to make sense of any of it.

Fleeting snapshots of scenes from his life were projected upon the empty blackness. Illuminated by candlelight, he watched his hand scribble into an open tome with a ratty quill. Another memory from early in his life: a flock of cackling seagulls scattering into the sky ahead of him as youthful feet splashed into seafoam on some pebbly beach. In one more mundane memory, he recalled evening twilight shining through multicolored facets of a window of stained glass. Nothing about any mortal sin that would condemn him to an eternity of maddening solitude.

As he tried to peer deeper into what little recollection he possessed of his life, the perpetual silence of the void was interrupted. A distant crunch, followed by the tearing of earth somewhere up above him. The sound gradually grew closer and closer, until a resonant thud reverberated right before him.

“Careful now,” he heard a voice call out somewhere above him. “These are old graves. Coffins are all half-rotted away by now and we don't want to hurt whatever's in there.”

A second thud, as loud as the first, rang out through the darkness.

“Enough! Gimme the shovel, Grumble. I'm not letting you get us sent off to the Locus 'cause you busted up another corpse. Dumb ghoul..."

The pittering of loose soil and gravel could be heard just before him. A groan and subsequent popping of nails as the coffin's lid was pried open, and for the for the first time in a long time indeed, he could see.

Staring down a freshly-dug grave were two half-rotten wights against an overcast sky. Both caked in thick mud from the grave they had just dug up. One was missing its jaw; its tongue lolled out from under the skull as it stared dumbly down into the old casket. The other wight was better preserved, save for a missing right eye. With his remaining eye, he studied the contents of the coffin that they had just unearthed.

"This one's in rather good condition. Let's get him out."

The two wights extracted the contents of the unearthed casket, pulling a half-mummified cadaver by the shoulders out of the muddy pit up onto the earth, unceremoniously depositing him face-down onto the scraggly grass of an overgrown and forgotten cemetery. The disinterred corpse surveyed his new surroundings, too stupefied to even pull himself onto his feet.

"Where am I?" The cadaver croaked with much difficulty, having almost forgotten how to speak.

"Hmmm, this one can still think," said the one-eyed ghoul. "Been a while since we dug up one who can think."

"Where am I?" He asked again. "Is this Hell?"

"Hell?" The one-eyed ghoul gave a thoughtful scratch of the jaw with the tip of his shovel, leaving a smear of soil on his half-decayed chin. "I don't think so. I think the master said this place was an old priory... whatever that is." The jawless ghoul gave a nod of affirmation, causing his tongue to waggle back and forth.

The freshly-exhumed ghoul pushed himself up off the ground and gave a look around. They were in a clearing in the middle of a dense wood of gnarled, overgrown trees. It hosted a dozen or so ancient gravestones, piled high beside each was a tall mound of muddy earth; tailings from the wide pits dug directly in front of each grave marker. The mud-caked lids of caskets were tossed carelessly about the graveyard, unwanted husks cast off of from the prize within. And at the far end of the clearing, some distance away from the graves, was a moss-covered mass of rubble sprouting with weedy maple saplings - too large and too square to be a natural outcropping of boulders. In the dim light of the overcast sky, the exhumed ghoul noticed a few shards of stained glass amidst the rubble and vines.

The sound of hoof and footfalls drew the attention of the ghouls away from their surroundings. Approaching from a rut path in the woods came a procession of living dead toting shovels and other digging implements. Leading the procession was revenant minor seated upon the back of a withered horse with shreds of leather and sinew hanging loosely from a snout of exposed bone. A cuirass of rusted chainmail clinked faintly with each step of his steed. Two undead hounds flanked the rider, sniffing the crisp air regularly as they went along with their master.

"Did you find anything useful?" The revenant asked, trotting up toward the three.

"Yes!" The one-eyed ghoul exclaimed, casting a glance with his remaining eye to the corpse they had just unearthed. "This one still thinks."

"This region has rich soil and I am surprised to find bodies in good condition here. Surprised, but pleased."

"You there," snapped the revenant, turning in the saddle toward the new ghoul, "Do you recall anything from your life?"

"I recall this place," the exhumed ghoul said, remembering the shards of stained glass from the ruins of the nearby building. "I do not know how, but I recall this place and little else. I do not know how I came to know this place nor who I was."

The revenant glanced quickly to the headstone marking the grave from which the exhumed ghoul was dug. It was little more than a nubbin of weathered limestone poking out of the grass and moss like a worn, rotten tooth. Any name or markings had worn off a hundred years ago.

"Typical. Few of us remember anything from life," said the revenant. "This place appeared on some old maps as an abbey of some sort. Perhaps you were an abbot, which leads me to believe you are a mite smarter than this lot of dumb ghouls."

"Ah-uh?" The jawless ghoul moaned, trying to sound out 'abbot'. The horsed revenant gave a roll of his white eyes.

The abbot looked down to his hands once again, and noticed that his fingernails had fallen off of his grayed and desiccated digits.

"What happened to us? Are we dead?"

"Oh, right! We'll need to give this one the talk." The one-eyed ghoul remembered. "We need to tell him everything that's happened."

"The talk can wait," the revenant said dismissively. "Give him a shovel. For now, he digs."

Intermittent flashes of green lightning illuminated the land for brief moments in a sickly glow - the closest thing to sunlight that the gloomy environs of Necron ever saw. So dark was this country that all trees and vegetation had died long ago for want of sunlight. Barren snag trees sprouting polypores were all that remained of the verdant woodlands of the Rhanean hill country, and mushrooms and dense lichen beds covered the bare soil in lieu of wildflower-riddled grassland. The lichens and fungi, prolific as they were, did little to check the erosive damage of the frequent rains that fell upon this bleak country. Rain furrows carved deep gorges into the land all the way to slate bedrock which terminated in fetid, muddy ponds. Not that the erosion mattered; these lands were too sun-depraved to grow crops of any use to the undead who had ruled this country for so long.

Difficult though it might have been to imagine, this depauperate, utterly-exhausted country was in fact the nexus of the undead empire. Indeed, the ebon towers of Necron could be seen rising out of the eastern horizon like skeletal fingers up to the roiling tempest that hung perpetually above the city. Easily dwarfing all the other edifices of Necron's skyline was the Spire of Rutile, which served simultaneous as fortress, Eagoth's residence and library, and also as a mammoth lightning rod. Even here, some three leagues out of the sprawling undead metropolis, the Spire could still be seen. It illuminated the surrounding lands with stochastic flashes of lightning that struck it so frequently along with the the only other structure of import in this otherwise empty place: the Westward Way.

This was the main overland route into and out of the undead capital. It was a wide stone-paved highway that wound through the gentle hills west of Necron before turning south toward Comiriom and the Neck. Typically, the Way received a considerable amount of traffic - wagons full of supplies for the myriad industries of the undead capital passed couriers and others on official business for the Great Necromancer. Today however, the Way was traveled only by Theleden and his entourage.

Shod hooves clattered upon the slimy cobblestones over the distant rumble of thunder from the Spire of Rutile as Theleden's destrier cantered along. His steed, though unliving - of course, had few signs of decay and most of those were covered under a sheet of fine horsemail. Flanking the Theleden on either side were a cadre of mounted revenants. Each held high a lance affixed with a banner of black grubsilk. Embroidered on the fluttering banners was the right hand of white skeletal bone: Theleden's sigil. And behind them, on foot, were the halberd-wielding Skeleton Guard clad in their heavy platemail. With impossible synchrony, the Skeleton Guard marched in unison - their bootfalls sounding all at once as they kept pace behind Theleden and the horsed revenants minor. Some revenants major found the unified march of the Skeleton Guard maddening, particularly when accompanying them on long journeys such as this. Theleden, however, appreciated their rhythmic footfalls and much preferred it to the random peal of thunder that was heard constantly throughout Necron. He found their marching more conducive to thought.

Not that Theleden had any trouble with that. After all, it was thoughts that had prompted this journey from Necron to begin with: disconcerting thoughts that the Right Hand of Eagoth could simply not forget. Or perhaps 'vision' was a more appropriate word? Such distinctions were far outside of his area of expertise. Theleden knew his duty was to govern Necron and the subordinate provinces of the undead empire in his master's stead - nothing more. But to serve Eagoth in this function, Theleden needed total concentration. It was a challenging charge that the Great Necromancer had left him with and there was no room for distraction.

But what were these visions? Some were memories from life, vestiges left behind that the Cleansing had failed to remove, and those were unpleasant enough for Theleden. But some visions Theleden was quite sure were not from his life before. Were these visions of things that had yet to come? Or things that might have been? Theleden had to silence these thoughts, if not know their meaning.

Ostensibly, Theleden had undergone this journey to check the progress of Eagoth's revenants major and ensure that the collection of resources for the war against the living was proceeding smoothly. There had been no dishonesty when he reported his desire to make this journey to the Great Necromancer. But most important to Theleden was to end these maddening visions. Theleden had omitted that detail. Certainly not out of dishonesty - but for the sake of brevity. The Great Necromancer need not concern himself with such trivial things. Instead, Theleden would seek the counsel of the authority among the dead in matters of visions.

On the right side of the road came an old granite milestone from before the Undeath. A thick blanket of frilly orange lichen covered much of its surfaces, but the inscribed distances had been wiped clear either by ghoul laborers or travelers. It seemed some alterations had been made since the time of Eagoth, as some locales had been crossed out and others crudely added by an uneducated ghoul.

Narren - 18 Leagues
Comiriom - 54 Leagues
Vardo's Bridge - 72 Leagues
Ludire - 88 Leagues
Yzen - 109 Leagues

"How far is it then, master?" Asked one of the horsed revenants.

"At this pace," Theleden paused for a moment to consider, "it will take ten days to reach the White City."
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Hidden 4 mos ago Post by Lauder
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Lauder The drunk kind of hero

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The Road

A Collab between Lauder and Cyclone

The land itself was weak in these parts a ways south of Leria’s neck. The soil had become thinner and more ashy, having rapidly lost much of the fertility that it’d had in centuries past. It was hard to believe that this was once the breadbasket for many a Lerian kingdom and duchy, the land carved out and sectioned between small farmsteads and clustered hamlets in some parts with keeps, castles, knightly manors, and larger farm estates in others. Now it all just seemed empty, the lords in their great homes and halls having met the same grisly fate as the peasantry. Between the innumerable decayed houses that had been abandoned and left to collapse even by the undead, half-fallen fences wrapped around old pastures choked with weeds, but never in any of those fields or in any old barn or stable would one see the remains of dead animals -- all of those had been long since taken and put to use, or had left on their own after having been brought back by dark powers.

Though death had yet to fully conquer these parts, its cold grip was tightening. There were signs that the vegetation struggled, for the trees had sickly yellow leaves that would bud and then slough off not long after, leaving the scraggly branches always half-naked as if locked in perpetual autumn. Rather than taking on the hue of verdant green or even the yellow of parched fields or hay, the little blades of grass seemed somehow anemic, faded and just...colorless. A similarly gray and bleak morning sky loomed above the rural hills, accompanied by a crispness in the air that hinted at coming rains. The wind was lively enough, but everything else that moved was anything but; a large band of travelers followed a winding, cobbled road carrying themselves with dead silence, dead eyes, dead bearings.

Among the band there were well-equipped guards numbering at least two score, about twenty in the front and that many again in a rearguard trailing behind, with the rest scattered intermittently in a thin screen along the long procession’s flanks. The guards all marched on in perfect lockstep without the slightest hint of fatigue or deviancy. In that manner the caravan journeyed on through the morning just as it had done throughout the whole night and the day before.

Between the vanguard and rearguard of armored ghouls, there was a great caravan. Porters, well over a hundred, carried burdens of crates and sacks over their shoulders, in their hands, sometimes even upon their backs. Others drove the dozens of wagons that rolled in a long train over the road, pulled by draft animals every bit as ghastly as the rest of the ghouls. And in the middle of it all there was a lavish palanquin carried upon the shoulders of a half-dozen undead. The merchant named Faustus was of course the one sitting atop the thing; his was probably the only palanquin in all of Leria. Even before the Fall, when haughty nobles ruled this land and flaunted their unearned wealth in near every way imaginable, these sorts of litters had never been seen; the lordly types had preferred to ride those great and majestic warhorses that cost as much as houses, or for longer trips they oft used great big wagons with plush cushions and velvet inside, and shelves filled with books and other things to make the idle time pass.

His palanquin came from a near-mythical land called Salarmand that lay far to the east, across many mountains and seas. It was styled in the manner as the litters of the princes and lords of the eastern realms from whence silk came, with a canopy and silk curtains to shield the wearer from the elements and from unwanted eyes. And it was smaller than a wagon, with just a seat for him to sit upon and enough space on the sides to stack a few of his papers and ledgers, but that was fine. He did not need books to idle away the time for he was not at rest, far from it. As the only revenant around to keep control of all his ghouls making up this vast band, he remained ever vigilant. From his heightened position he peered through the transparent silk curtains and observed the passage of his caravan, occasionally issuing commands or directions when they came upon a fork in the road or somesuch. Fortunately he was able to save much of his breath as this was an easy and familiar enough path, being the most direct route from the southern ports by the White Straights (where they’d begun this journey) to round the Bight and then head up to Necron itself, the capital of this empire of the undying.

Caravans were almost always smaller than this one, but otherwise were a frequent enough sight upon Lerian highways. Even the undead had their needs and consumed certain goods, so industry of a variety of sorts remained essential and abundant enough. Labor was now in no short supply either, and slavering ghouls more often than not seemed to make for better and more manageable workers than had the living peasantry. Quarrels and trade disputes between the various revenants major and their respective minions happened on occasion, but by and large, commerce had boomed. Despite the Pax Mortis, patrolling ghouls or watchmen still existed as a relic of the past when the living, be they beast or man, occasionally made nuisances of themselves by preying upon small parties of ghouls or attacking poorly defended infrastructure. Up ahead, atop a hill that stood above the others, there was the silhouette of one such sentry. They lurked in high places all across the countryside, like scarecrows, or shadows, nominally guarding the borders of their masters’ fiefdoms in perpetuity. Nowadays their real primary role was to act as mere border markersor semi-intelligent signposts able to mutter garbled directions to any slavering ghouls stupid enough to both find themselves lost. Of course, the sentries also came with the beneficial side effect of being able to keep tabs on the comings and goings of the neighboring (and quite possibly rival!) bands of the undead while they were at their posts, or to alert their masters of any passersby.

As the caravan drew nearer, the near-skeletal sentry atop the hill suddenly stirred from its stoic reverie to lean forward and inspect the oncomers a little closer. After a few moments it threw its head up to the baleful light of the sky, opened its maw, and unleashed a harrowing and long-drawn howl. It shrieked for what must have been five or six moments, until every last ounce of air had been forced from its lungs, or whatever decayed cavity was left within its innards. The cry resounded off the hillsides, seeming to echo, but in reality being repeated in a relay of sorts. Another ghoul about a half-league away repeated the call, and then another one a half-league away from it, and so on. The message was clear--wait. The lord-revenant of this country would doubtless be on his way to find the source of that call, and he would expect the ones at his border to remain in their place until then.

Faustus peered at the ghoul above with displeasure; up until then, they had been making good time. Though the heads of the many ghouls in his retinue had all snapped to face the howling sentry, their march had gone on unabated even if a hint of trepidation might have entered their mechanical motions. Faustus leaned forward and brushed aside the silk curtain to speak, ”Halt the procession.”

The revenant’s voice came low and soft, icy and distinct, like the touch of snow upon flesh that still lived and felt. The words found their way through the rotted ears and into the head of a ghoul that marched immediately in front of his palanquin -- his ancient. In contrast to its own crude and decaying form, the standard-bearer held high a well-kept and freshly dyed banner upon a long and polished haft of wood, the bottom of the shaft terminating with a metal knob. Twice in quick succession the ghoul slammed the metal end of the standard down upon a cobblestone underfoot. That rapping was the signal that ordered the caravan to stop, and so stop it did. Then came silence, the sentry above still gazing emptily at the caravan, with some of Faustus’ ghouls returning the stare, some shifting their gaze to their master, and others peering off absent-mindedly into the distance or empty space. The waiting began, and Faustus’ mind wandered.

Even as the land in these climes could be called struggling by the standards of the living, the earth remained just fertile enough, and the days likewise just bright enough, to support agriculture yet. So scattered here and there throughout the mostly empty countryside were some of the old manors that remained in use, occupied by revenants major and minor; in some cases, by the very same knights and lords that had owned those lands in life. Around such occupied manors were vast fields of grain tilled and endlessly watched after by ghouls -- here was where the production and trade of the prized aqua vitae began. The master of that sentry above was probably just some revenant who managed such a plantation or brewery, but there were of course other possibilities too, and remote as they were, the Whisperer was a suspecting sort with a wandering mind. His talent for intrigue came in part from that constant wariness that bordered upon paranoia as he mused over near every possibility of danger, no matter how remote.

In parts where there was no industry at all to speak of, the revenants major still had need for supplies and yet had little to offer in turn. It was not unheard of for revenants major who faced such limited prospects (or who were simply particularly quarrelsome) to become robber barons and exact a toll upon all passerby, or rapaciously levy supplies from the nearby wards of other more productive revenants. Such types were loathed by Faustus and many others, for they were borderline bandits that strained the Pax Mortis and made little effort to contribute to the realm. With a haughty view of themselves, they’d often claim to be generals or warlords, and they and their ghouls for the most part merely idled around in great hordes, nominally contributing through acting as permanent ‘protectors’ of Leria -- an empty and largely needless role in these days of peace, decades having passed since the last earnest battles had been waged against the living.

In any case, for Faustus there was little reason for concern. His own ensign, imagery of a black field filled by a golden ship beneath a pale moon, was on prominent display on that banner that his ancient bore. His crest was well known throughout Leria; Faustus’ name and his epithets carried weight, certainly demanding enough respect to be above petty extortion. So he waited, mulling over his past dealings too numerous to count, trying to recall if he’d ever done business with a revenant who lorded over these parts. Even with the clarity of undeath, it remained difficult for a merchant as prolific as he to recall so many faces and past transactions from memory.

Silent minutes passed as Faustus sat in quiet contemplation, eventually leaving the revenant to turn to his ledgers in search of an answer to his musings. Yet, after a short time there came the slightest of noises echoing from further down the old cobbled path. The sound was easily picked out to be the sound of metallic boots upon the stone pavement, slowly drawing nearer and nearer as the caravan remained halted. That noise stopped as a darkened figure stopped further down the road a fair ways ahead of the front of Faustus’ vanguard, and the merchant looked out from his commanding position atop the palanquin to examine that lone figure. It was clear that the figure held aloft a sword in its left hand and a shield upon the opposite. There was nothing but silence from the figure as it stared down the caravan, merely casting a voiceless judgement upon them. It had seemed that a minute had passed before the figure continued upon its path towards the caravan, new features becoming clearer and clearer as it approached.

Faustus beheld the new arrival with some amount of interest, and then confusion. It seemed to be a ghoul, for the lord-revenant of these lands would certainly have come with a whole party, and would doubtless look more...impressive even from afar. It seemed as though the thing was no more than a wandering ghoul, perhaps even unbound. Perhaps it was this that had alerted the sentry? That theory was set aside when the one atop the hill suddenly snapped its head away from the caravan and towards that stranger, letting out a second, shorter howl.

Ancient armor, a patchwork of faded and greening pieces, was among the most clear of features, as well as the fleshless face of a skeleton walking towards them. While it did not make any hostile action, a sinister force seemed to follow it as no voice of greeting nor inquiry came from it until it was practically a horse’s length away from the guards of the caravan. That skull merely stared down the ghouls before it snapped to view the banner of Faustus, before returning its gaze to those that might be considered its kindred.

“Your master?” a near whisper of a voice came from the skeleton, speaking to the ghouls in a long and drawn out tone. It was clear after a moment’s contemplation that this was a request rather than any other sort of inquiry.

The withered and deep-set eyes of Faustus’ vanguard stared back in silence, their tightly-packed line stretching across the road’s length and then some. One of them answered the question by silently pointing its halberd toward the palanquin behind it, beyond many a wagon and porter. Visible even from afar by virtue of his raised pallet, Faustus had his ghouls set the palanquin down upon the ground that he could clamber out onto his own feet and approach in person. At the sound of their master’s coming footsteps, soft and near-silent even in spite of the bulk beneath his robes, the lines of the vanguard shuffled, parting to create a gap in the middle of the line with just enough space to let their master face through the formation and look upon the strange ghoul unobstructed.

Faustus was recognizable as the ‘master’ here, even if one didn’t feel the palpable force of will that he exerted over his ghouls. Whereas the guards wore fine steel plate that gleamed beneath a fresh coat of oil, and the many porters and other caravaneers were outfitted in rags, the revenant had fine long robes woven from yellow silk, the garb imported all the way from the distant kingdom of Bharata that lay beyond even Salarmand. Just the materials for materials for such ostentatious wear was worth more than many a noble could ever hope to afford.

A wax mask hid his visage and hairless head, just as the robes did the rest of his form. From between the shoulders of his bodyguards and through that mask, the Whisperer gazed upon the strange ghoul and remarked, “A lost soul, perhaps?”

The wight gazed upon Faustus, an unbearably long silence following as it merely stood there without movement. A harsher, guttural voice came in a response to Faustus’ words, “I am no ‘lost soul’, vagrant.”

The irony here did not elude Faustus. Here it seemed that he might just be facing some would-be robber baron after all, pathetic though it would be if the lone ghoul tried to attempt any mischief upon a caravan so well guarded. But what was more was that this wretch, a vagrant in every sense of the word, projected that same insult at him! If its capacity for speech was any indication then this wight seemingly had much of its mind intact, if not its manners or its sense.

Others might have flinched at the grating tone or prickled at the brash slight, but the merchant seemed indifferent, casting his eyes back to the sentry hill. “Then while we await the arrival of that one’s master, let us talk. If you are not lost, just what is it that you are doing?”

“I am looking upon an aberrant land,” the ghoul answered, looking around at the landscape that barely contained much more life than the wights themselves. It had become clear from how the unbound ghoul looked upon the area, that the now dead lands were not the ones that it was familiar with in its past life. However, as its gaze shifted back to Faustus, it spoke once more in the hushed tone that had spoken to the ghouls, “Now, what business do you have in these...withered lands?”

”Would you believe that these reaches are some of the most untouched?” the Whisperer quipped back, bemused at what seemed a quite recently risen ghoul. “Follow this road, and the aberrance and darkness only grows. At the very end is Necron, the city that hungers. I travel to it bringing goods. I am a broker of sorts, you see. A merchant.”

“A barterer,” the skeletal figure mused as he unhurriedly shifted in place, sword and shield still in their respective hands as the two spoke. Razzak’s stance was that of a hardened warrior, unlike the mindless ghouls that many revenants major and minor would use under their employ. His sockets stared at Faustus, meeting the revenant’s gaze in what could be assumed to be either wariness or blind stoicism.

“I am Razzak, Slayer of Atrebates!”

“I take it that we have no quarrel, ‘Razzak’? I do harbor a healthy respect for the Pax Mortis.”

If Razzak could have narrowed his eyes, he would have as he looked over the merchant through an intelligent face. The armor shifted as the lone ghoul brought his sword up to point at the leader of the caravan, unmoving otherwise while the other ghouls focused on the potential threat. Razzak did not know if Faustus was truly someone who could be labeled as a worthy individual and he knew very little about what to make of his ghouls. All that the lone ghoul knew, or rather what he instinctively knew, was that many caravaneers went hand in hand with underhandedness.

“I am beset by doubt as to whether you truly do harbor such ‘respect’. You have yet to step from your custodians to meet me as an equal nor have you even given me a name to speak to you by,” Razzak’s hushed voice stated, vexation clear in his voice. The ancient one took a singular step forwards, the armor he wore shifted loosely upon a form that contained little flesh. “I know not of this Necron nor your banner, magnate. How would I know that you truly are no ingrate merely lying to me?”

Displeasure now radiated from behind the mask, somehow. But Faustus was patient enough that his irritation had not become anger -- yet. ”I respect the Pax Mortis,” he reiterated, ”That is to say the law of the land. The peace that we maintain by the Great Necromancer’s wishes and demands. Do heed who you use such words upon, ‘Razzak,’ for you may well come across a revenant more irate than I: one who in his hubris might just cast aside the Pax Mortis as it suits him, one who may have you crushed and returned to the earth once more, or worse.”

He gave a moment to let those words of warning set in, then continued, “I am called Faustus, and to answer your question, you have no way of knowing save to take me for my word. If I bore you ill will, it would be easy enough to brand you a villain and have my ghouls mete out ‘justice’, after all.”

In the distance, the steady pounding of hooves could be heard off to one side. Faustus turned his head to see a host of horsemen crest a hilltop. ”Ah, the local lord-revenant. I suppose you could take him for his word instead of mine, if you would rather.”

A gesture of the merchant’s hand called forth his ancient, the standard-bearer advancing right up to the side of its master while the distant riders made straight for the ensign. The wall of ghouls that had faced down Razzak began shifting their attention to the side, and those that had been in the rear of the caravan now stalked forward as well to reform their ranks along the caravan’s flank and meet the advancing host.

The unbound ghoul shifted his weight, turning himself to view the direction from where the sound of hooves was approaching from. He allowed himself a brief moment of thought, desiring to see how the Pax Mortis was between others of his own undead kind. While Razzak knew nothing of the land that had perhaps been his home, there was no doubt that there had been much more that had changed than what he had felt comfortable with. Yet, he was confident enough to have an idea as to what a lord-revenant could be despite his unfamiliarity with the term itself.

As the horsemen drew near, Faustus’ keen eyes made out the heraldry upon a faded banner that one of them carried: a black iron warhammer backed by a field of blood. Yes, he remembered now. This was a revenant he’d met before, one with such a prodigious penchant for violence and talent for cruelty that he was notorious even among the undead.
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Hidden 4 mos ago Post by Terminal
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Terminal Rancorous Narrative Proxy

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The Vale of Nergthron

The main road that wound down from the Northern realms of Leria and through the Southern subcontinent diverged at many points before reaching ultimately breaking at a city, seated at the foot of the Northeastern mountain range - fair and resplendent still, even in the days of the Pax Mortis, for its great wealth as a major hub along the great road had seen it taken without battle; with illness and death that brought with it the black airs of Eagoth's necromancy - and the dead did labor to keep their prize as sacrosanct as the mausoleums they had risen from. Even with the light of day having been muted, casting faded, dead light upon the land, the city gleamed. A setpiece of marble, pewter, and brass, with soaring spires and lavish plazas.

Outside the city out from the city, the road was reborn as two paths - leading directly to the Southern Steppes and the Western Plain. Both were artifacts of Eagoth's conquest of Leria, built by living, mortal hands. Made to resist overgrowth, deluges, and the chill of winter, the wide and generous pathways had barely needed any care from the Ghouls of the local Revenant.

Yet for all their tidy, engineered splendor and the marvel of their craft, these roads were only lightly traveled by the Ghouls and other mindless dead serving Eagoth's many Revenants. The occasional massed convoy forced on a figurative and literal death march would occupy both roads regularly, but traffic was otherwise sparse - for both down from Northern Leria, and up from the South, amassed columns of the marching dead writhed and crept across a different sort of path. One that had not been dug, nor carved, built, nor in fact even intentionally planned. The path the innumerable dead walked upon, dragging along behind them carts and carriages heaped to the brim with rancid scraps of putrid flesh, was simply one that had been wrought upon the word from the sheer persistent pressure and volume of undead travelers and wagons gouging out a worn scar across the breadth of the land. Where this roughshod and barren stretch met with the main path, a crooked and defaced signboard had been erected amidst a cairn of stones, indicating the destination.

Nergthron, Locus Vale

The scathing defacement of the waysign went largely unnoticed by the legions of the dead that passed it by - but, every so often, one of the mindful dead would pass by either alone or with their fellows, and the abattoir of a crossroads would briefly be visited with laughter. Even amongst the dead, it seemed that ignominy and shame cast a weighty shadow. Such was the propriety of the rebuke carved into the sign, that the mindful guardians tasked with watching over the crossroad had not seen fit to so much as acknowledge the alteration.

Carrying South for several leagues, the footpath tore straight onwards, deviating only for bodies of water. It passed between winding hills and down previously impassable slopes - but by sheer, persistent wear, the very earth and stone that obstructed the way had been ground flat by the relentless pace of untold millions of bony heels and ragged flesh that had pressed against it. Where the path had previously been too steep, the crux of its incline had been forcibly depressed by the weight of bodies that carried along it, day in and day out, carrying infinitesimal clods of the tortured Earth with them as they went. Any living trailblazer would scarcely have been able to believe the mindless audacity of the feat, with the very surface of the world having been swept aside by nothing more or less than the apathetic relentlessness of the undead hordes.

Though those same trailblazers, awed as they might have been, would have been struck speechless by what awaited at the trail's end.

The trail led unerring towards the Tomega mountain range, and surely enough, if one were to look upon the imperious slopes from afar of the road, they would see that even the uncaring dead had at some point been forced to relent - and the remains of a crooked, zig-zagging ascent rose from the base to vanish into an unseen pass, obscured from view beyond a turn in the chasms of rock. During Eagoth's Conquest of Leria, that much had been true - but as his victories had grown in number, so too had the volume of traffic in and out of the mountain vale - and so the more noticed the delay and inconvenience of such an obstruction.

And so, as though a great godly blade had split the very mountains in twain, a great chasm kilometers deep pierced straight up through the mountainous terrain, from the base of the footpath and up to its tallest soaring peak - and where before, along the route where the footpath had ceded to the sovereignty of the mountain, great platforms wrought from pylons of wood and bone bridged the gap that had been cloven into the range. The passage itself - wholly unnatural and cast in horrid darkness throughout the day save for Noon, as it stretched from North to South - showed evident signs of deformation and collapse where great sinks had opened in the earth, or where rocks and muds had fallen to bury what had been exposed anew, and where entire subterranean chambers had been breached - but these stood as stark indicators only that not even all the perils of weighted Earth could stand against the tireless legions of the dead. Who, when the notion of walking up and across the mountains had suddenly seemed to tedious, had simply ripped what part of the mountain that was before them away from the top down, until there was nothing left to move - with whatever meager tools was availed to them, or else with their bare hands.

And thus, through the valley of the shadow of death did an unending tide of the undead surge.

The great break in the mountains finally gave way after several leagues to reveal the great vale of Nergthron, hidden within their midst - and here, was it made evident the true scale of Eagoth's grand vision, the Pax Mortis, for the whole of the vale was a sea, and the sea was the dead. Tens of millions of Ghouls and jerkily animated corpses churned in that cauldron, and here, even at midday, a great pall hung over the realm - for suspended, invisibly in the air like a second sun, was the unseen but crackling convergence of profane energies that was Eagoth's locus of undeath. Invisible though it was, it cast a long and great shadow, with motes of impossibly iridescent, crackling darkness seething across the sky and suffusing the ground, casting all into unnatural shade. Far across at the other end of the vale from the Northern break in the mountain, there loomed the second break in the mountains, heading South, identical in circumstance if not quite appearance to the first.

Amongst the churning sea of undead bodies, great ravines, carved into the soil and, far below, the bedrock, divided the vale - each chasm almost a canyon in its own right. Great edifices and gantries had been built across and down along the sides of these ravines, and therein true darkness hid away the unnatural work that transpired. Shallow but numerous trenches connected the edges and boundaries of these chasms, bridged with roughly hewn slabs of stone across the gaps where wooden planks had long ago sundered from wear - and if the vale was a sea of the dead, then within those pits flowed the submerged, secret currents of that sea. An endlessly pulsating river of putrefied charnel and flakes of bone, dark as soot-grounded skin from all the filth of the land that had seeped into it was the Black Blood of the Earth amongst the sea of the dead - aimless, mindless amalgamations of necrotic tissue, animated by unseen and profane power from above, corralled to move as a current. In places, these trenches flowed beneath crudely erected shacks and longhouses, where the endlessly seething, animated slop would be hoist and cut into chunks, to be dribbled and poured into securely bound barrels, ready to be sealed and shipped throughout all of Leria. Elsewhere, the channels emptied directly into the great gorges in the Earth, flowing into the dark depths below.

The sea of the dead was as unrelenting as a a true deluge - where some were too uncoordinated or rotten-through in death, they would either fall and be trampled into paste upon the ground, or else would topple down into the depths of one of the great pits or entire the streams of flowing flesh, not to emerge again. Minor Revenants, standing watch at crude, makeshift wooden watchtowers, would observe and direct the flow of undeath with subtle arcane probes, yanking, twisting, or jamming against the mystical bindings of Eagoth, that animated and drove most of the dead. The task was tireless and largely futile, whatever sheer obstinacy had allowed the dead to tear down passageways through entire mountains had not leant itself to erection of sensible logistics, here in the vale of Nergthron. The intent, while simple, was not readily accomplished with as few mindful Revenants were present to exert their authority and reign in the errancy of wandering, mindful Ghouls and their entourages - the intent that all of the undead that entered the vale descended to the depths of the dark pits, and in one form or another, would emerge again. The weak would become dissolute and remade, to become part of something else or to be made into the liquefied charnel and shipped back out of the vale. The strong would sup on death's nectar and emerge, changed, and whole once more.

Deep within the bared, subterranean passageways of the one of the ravines, a crude, makeshift keep had been erected within a cavern, with palisades and stacks demarcating its boundaries. More shacks lined the darkened chambers, one of the many sets of barracks for the small legion of Revenants Minor and Mindful Ghouls required to direct the flow of the undead in Nergthron. In the past, the arrangement had simply been that the Revenants would perform the work on end, without rest or succor, until they no longer could - but as the task had grown more and more complex, and the mindfulness of the Revenants Minor had grown or been enhanced to account, the more trappings of unlivelihood began to appear, as if from nowhere, in the depths of the caverns - the crude barracks where the Revenants Minor would idle for hours on end between work being simultaneously the least and yet most overt of their works towards creature comfort in the abyssal gloom.

The master of the vale was no different, in his own way. Towards the back of the cavern, a portcullis wrought from actual brick, mortars, and wrought iron barred entry to his personal quarters, the passageway therein carved by dead but discerning hands with artful but otherwise purposeless reliefs and engravings. A somewhat vainly-posted honor guard of four Mindful Ghouls slumped at attention there, armed with glaives and armored in mismatched plate - and, when they beleived nobody to be watching, they would distract themselves with elaborate games in the soul of the cavern using hand-carved knucklebone dice and marbles. With senses dulled by decay, they rarely saw or heard the occasional unexpected visitor to the master's chambers.

A wraithlike figure, standing out amongst all the numberless dead simply by merit of having anything whole and unragged to wear in the form of a long dark cloak, soundlessly approached the gate. Alerting the hunched-over and distracted guardians with a kick to the back of one of their rears, he then issued his purpose there.

"I have come to speak with the Warden." The figured rasped with a characteristic and unremarkable rasp of a mummified throat and withered vocal cords.

"The Warden is not to be disturbed, mi'lord." One of the guards explained as the others, in no great particular hurry, hid their crafts away and fetched up their glaives. "He is preoccupied wit the upkeep and direction of the Locus above, glory of Eagoth 'imself." The line, likely half-recited from memory, only evaded being rote for having been delivered so infrequently. The Warden did not receive many visitors.

"So it has been said to me on the last two occasions I have visited this beggar's hall in the last few years." The cloaked figure rasped. "Listen carefully you dregs, for I shall not repeat myself. I have been from here to Necron and back again in the service of our mutual true lord and master. I have studied many of his tomes and consulted with his apprentices and some of his most favored Revenants, and I tell you on authority as great as exists within this wretched slum: The Warden is not, does not, and has not been 'directing' the Locus in any form or fashion. He has been festering away as a waste of skin and sinew, perpetually trying to scrape together enough backbone to pose as the lord of this valley."

The stranger's rebuke of the warden raised several spluttering snickers from one of the guards, until his comrade slapped him across the back of the head while the captain replied.

"Be that as it may be, the Warden, such as 'e is, is not to be disturbed.: He said, his rotten lips drooping into an approximation of a lazy smile. He evidently had little of what the stranger said to disagree with in any haste.

"Let us say I lose my patience with all of you, reduce you to quivering piles of offal to be swept into one of the pits somewhere, and I confront the Warden regardless?" The stranger hissed.

"Woah there mi'lord, no need to do us in like that. We're just a showing is all!" The captain said, not with any great urgency as he made a placatory gesture with his free, while he lowered his glaive with the other. "We're more an honor guard than a real one, yeah? Probably the only ones here during less important work here than the Warden 'imself. But ah, fair warning to ya, you go in there on your own and he'll settle your hash."

"Settle my hash? Him?" The cloaked figure demanded.

"Look, 'e may be a coward and a bit of a lackwit, but thus far he's also been ever so faintly, slightly difficult to get rid of and replace, and uh, as much as it even really matters, he kind of has seniority down here. Not trying to bloody your pride there any, but he's ground down way tougher and meaner than you mi'lord." The captain went on in the same measured, calm tone.

"He's never been confronted by anybody like me." The stranger replied, their hoarse voice approximating an air of confidence. "So again, open this gate right now-"

The bars of the gated portcullis rose upwards smoothly and almost soundlessly, as though they had just been oiled. A sudden mass obstructed the passageway, framed by a silhouette from the torchlight beyond them. Almost as soon as the cloaked figure laid eyes on it, he found himself prostrating on the cavern soil on both hands and knees, along with the guards, entirely to his own surprise.

"...I can sense your power..." The voice that emanated from the indistinct mass was slurred and muted, as if coming from behind several layers of cloth. "...But a little arcane fire and book learning is not enough. In time, you will come to know the extent of your vulnerabilities...and how you will never. Ever. Unseat me."

The hooded figure could not even twitch a single muscle in their prone form, but they could hear the mass as it seemed to boil forward across the cavern floor, sounding almost like bark being pulped for parchment as it went, each roiling undulation underscored by innumerable, sickening pops and gurgling emanations.

"Did Eagoth send you?" The mass asked in a bored tone.

The cloaked figure opened their mouth to lie, but the truth escaped and unbounded from his lips. "No. I came of my own volition."

"I see. You thought to cast me down and become the new master of this place?" The slurred, muted voice asked. "No matter. Unlike the others who came for me in the past, I can sense some true potential in you. It would be a shame to unmake you...and that besides, I can make great use of you."

The cloaked figure became aware of a sudden imperative that was coursing through his muscles and sinew, moments after he had already started moving to rise and draw back his hood, his eyes cast wide to take in the view of the Warden.

Magus Rixis of Chalarune, Kinslayer, Betrayer, Coward, and very evidently still an Archmage, was a roiling heap of wet, darkly oozing putrescent sludge - dark as the abyss itself, the same Black Blood of the Earth that flowed through the trenches above and the pits here in the depths. A faint recess in the turbulent, seething mass gave way to a gap where, perhaps, what remained of his original body peered out - though the cloaked man could not discern whatever remained in that shadowed lane, not in the darkness of the cavern at any rate. His own features, in contrast, stood starkly revealed by the torchlight spilling around Rixis' turbulent form - a perfectly taut, drawn husk of withered flesh drawn over edged contours and ridges of bone, utterly dried and free of rancid decay - preserved, at least so far, as a desiccated hollow with empty eye sockets and lips so parched and thin, the bare and grayed gums of his eerily perfect teeth stood blatantly exposed in the firelight.

Another imperative struck the cloaked, mummified figure, only becoming apparent after he had already begun to act upon it. "I am Lineaus, Revenant Minor, formerly of the Court of Eagoth in Necron." He announced, somewhat to his own dismay.

"Formerly eh? Left in disgrace, so mad and thirsty for vindication you decided the best way to show them all was to storm me over and seize the great work." Rixis slurred. "Another reason to be thankful for my wretched repute I suppose. Like all the others who came, you have underestimated me. But fret not. You will still manage things great enough for your contentment here, in my service..." The surging Dead Sea of Rixis' body began to roll forward and past Lineaus, who found himself falling into lockstep behind it even as the guards returned to their posts.

"The timing of your arrival is most auspicious, you see. Though it has taken much study and work, I have finally attained an epiphany regarding the great work of Eagoth I am entrusted with the care of..." The slurred voice took on a rapturous tone as it went on, clearly Rixis now talking to himself moreso than he was still addressing Lineaus.

"...The Profane Locus! Another secret of its devise has been made known to me! There is much to experiment with now - and your extra set of hands will be ever so useful..."

Lineaus felt the simultaneous onset of both academic intrigue and dread born of tedium as Rixis began to babble on about his endlessly unappreciated toils, leading them both further into the midst of the cavern where they would eventually reach the hoist to return them to the surface...
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Hidden 4 mos ago 4 mos ago Post by Flagg
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Flagg Strange. This outcome I did not foresee.

Member Seen 4 days ago

The carriage rattled down the pitted road, axles screeching, suspension groaning under the strain. A handful of ghouls in the livery of Necron rode alongside the bouncing landau, their steeds thin horse-corpses with bared teeth and glowing eyes. One of the escort ghouls held aloft a banner as he rode, a black flag emblazoned with the Standard of Rutile: a black tower imposed over a green streak of lightning.

The company was riding through a forest of bent and twisted pines that loomed over the road like mourners over an open grave. Most woodlands in Leria had died in the many twilit years since Eagoth's victory, but the Hag Wood clung ferociously to life, infested with great spiders and corpse-eaters, pig-men and nosferatu, heretic liches and outcast revenants, among other menaces elsewhere eradicated by Eagoth's legions.

The dangers of the wood, however, did not concern the Thing within the carriage, sitting curled and silent and still in the shadows. It, after all, was far more terrible than anything the Hag Wood could hide. Indeed, It rather relished the prospect of battle with one of the truly great monstrosities said to lurk in the depths of the forest: a spider's corpse would serve as a fitting gift to the Necromancer.

Alac, there was no time to go hunting just now, and a spider was unlikely to attack a caravan of the undead. It was the Thing's understanding that they mostly cannibalized each other in these famine-times. The Thing's lipless mouth curled into an approximation of a smile at the thought. At least It was not alone in its constant hunger.

It felt the carriage slow, then jolt to a hard stop.

It hissed. Delay was unacceptable. It needed to be back at the Spire in time for the Feast of Withered Hearts, merely eight nights hence. The Necromancer himself was due to award It for bringing the Bile Spewer to heel, avoiding a potentially costly revolt in the East.

One of Its many thin hands wrapped around the dark metal of its stave and another reached for the door of the carriage. Perhaps the Great Worm would have mercy on these idiot ghouls in the Ashpits Beyond...but It would not. After all, was it not a Finger of Eagoth, most favored of the Six?

To be failed even slightly was intolerable.

It pulled its shrouded, serpentine form from the carriage, like a great centipede uncurling itself from beneath a rock.

Outside, the ghouls and their mounts were gone, and the horse-corpses that pulled Its carriage. Cinders burned in the mud of the road. Bits of charred bone smoked. It sniffed the air, flat nostrils flaring. The air stunk of spent magic, spicy and sour. Delicious. The Thing breathed in, Its first breath in many years. What remained of ancient lungs cracked and crumbled within Its slender chest. It hardly noticed.


It cocked its head, snaggle-fanged mouth falling open, tongue uncurling.

Was that....


...a heartbeat?

It turned toward the sound, eyes on its face and forehead narrowed to slits.

In the middle of the road stood a man in a mudspattered traveling cloak and heavy boots. He was shaved-bald, with a weather worn face, dark skin turned ashen from too many days in Lerian gloom. His eyes were closed.

He held a one-sided blade of dark metal in one hand.

The Thing hissed, several hands wrapping around the twisted metal of its stave.

"A long time since a living challenger has-"

"No more words," said the man, and he charged at It. The Thing drew itself to its full considerable height, its multitude of corpse-hands producing daggers and swords from within Its ragged robes. It leveled its stave at its attacker, firing a bolt of green lightning. The spell arced almost lazily from the black gem atop the staff, unhurriedly cutting through the air. The man caught it on his blade, uttered something in a tongue long dead, and the spell fizzled, emerald gobs of ectoplasm collapsing into the mud of the road.

Fire ran down the length of the man's blade, while the Thing's many weapons ignited with green corpse-light. The man closed the distance and leapt at the monster in a whirl of red flame.

The battle was brief but intense, both combatants a blur of blades and spell-craft. The air around them shimmered, over-saturated with magic. Small rifts in reality opened, unstable doorways into realms of utter madness.

In the end, the Thing's raw power overcame the man's considerable finesse and skill, and he lay in the mud, gasping, bleeding from a dozen wounds all over, crimson streams winding and pooling in the churned mud of the road.

The Thing brooded over him, yellowed drool leaking from its fanged maw, like a great snake considering a mouse before it strikes.

"Where did you come from, little wizard?" It hissed, "Were you sent? By whom? Answer me, and I will raise you again, present you to the Great Necromancer. Perhaps he will, in time, grant you freedom in undeath. He values skill such as you have shown..."

Blood burbled from the man's mouth. He spat it into the mud of the road.

"Eagoth's Art is strong, lich," gasped the man.

"Our Power is unrivaled," agreed the Thing.

"But there is much you have forgotten in your long half-life."


The man sat up, grinning, teeth scarlet with his own blood, and...the road sat up with him. Rather, a towering figure composed of mud pulled itself up behind him, resolving into the rough shape of a huge man. Little streams of the wizard's spilled blood crawled across the golem's dripping flesh like crimson worms, animating it.

The Thing hissed and struck at the golem with its many corpse-blades, sent bolts of bright and angry green at the lumbering monster from its stave. Little good it did. It hit only mud, while the ribbons of wizard-blood slid easily away from the lich's weapons and spells.

The golem embraced the Thing, bringing its huge weight down on it as it struggled and screamed and sank into the road. Mud churned, boiled, geysers of steam erupted from the road.

Then all was still.

The wizard picked himself up calmly, and with a gesture the little ribbons of his blood returned to him from the mound of caked mud that had been the golem. They slid back into his wounds, which clotted immediately at their return.

He picked up his sword and sauntered over to where the Thing had been crushed. He picked up the Thing's stave and, with a little effort wrested the black gem from its tip, sliding it into a satchel at his waist.

"Two more to go," he said to no one in particular, "and such complacent prey."

He laughed. It was the only laughter in all of Leria.

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Hidden 4 mos ago 4 mos ago Post by Cyclone
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44 Years Ago
Kronburg’s Fall

A Collab between Oraculum and Cyclone

“Why does smoke yet rise from that hearth?” a cruel voice rasped.

Not so far away, there was a hillock in a domineering position over the surrounding lands, and it was crowned by a walled fortress hewn from grey stone. Smoke indeed rose from the keep’s hearth on that freezing winter night, but the shadowy watchers along the walls had only a few tiny braziers to see by and warm themselves; the men in that castle were doubtless running low on firewood, or else trying badly to conserve it all as the siege stretched on.

That first question having been met only with silence, the revenant major cut right to the heart of the matter and asked another, this time in a tone that demanded answer, “Why do the men cowering behind those walls still breathe?”

“Lord revenant, we’ve lost hundreds of ghouls already, trying to storm the battlements,” came one pathetic excuse. The revenant didn’t even bother dismounting from his warhorse; he merely urged the skeletal thing closer to the one who’d spoken, then silenced the fool with a single swing of his mace.

“The losses mean nothing to me,” Lord Crake practically spat back, though the sound of his voice came off strange as it always did: his lips had been entirely hacked off, or perhaps they’d just been allowed to rot away; either way, the result was that his grimy teeth always showed in a grimace (or, on rare occasions, in an even more terrifying and cruel smile) with his withered tongue like a blackened worm trapped within a cage of yellow spears. “Those ghouls are just as worthless and easily replaced as that one was,” Crake went on, pointing the cruel, rusted, and now filthy iron mace to the motionless and wrecked corpse at his horse’s feet. That one blow from the weapon had shattered the wretched ghoul’s skull and killed him once and for all, with a finality and brutality that no necromantic magic could undo.

“And you sniveling fools commanding this siege will give me an answer, or you shall meet the same fate.”

The revenants minor fell to their knees stammering, a choice that only further infuriated their master. Crake dismounted from his nightmarish steed and yet still stood tall enough to dwarf all the ghouls around, gaunt though he was. This was one who even in life had been used to towering over and domineering others, and he no doubt felt slighted just from the sight of that unconquered castle looming on the hill above.

He went on, “This pathetic siege has stretched on more months, while the other contingents of my army have overrun all the rest of this country. All the highlands are ours, save for this one miserable pile of stone. Your delaying our victorious return is making me look more and more like a fool by the day, and I will not have the Great Necromancer think poorly of my service. So answer me! Or would you have me drag you to him, that you may offer him these excuses yourselves?”

“With the falling of the snows and frosting of the ground, the hillside has become treacherous. Too treacherous for battering rams or siege towers, and you see the strong walls. Storming the battlements has been futile, but the siege still makes headway. We know that they must be starving, and low on supplies, because their sorties have become more frequent and more desper-”

“They have made sorties?” Crake roared, his hand grasping the speaker by its rotting throat and lifting him into the air. What sounds came from the general’s maw, from behind that cage of yellowed teeth, were not words but rather inhuman growls of rage and frustration beyond description.

The revenant minor writhed in his grasp, but did not struggle for breath. It had of course stopped breathing longing ago, just like the rest of them. Even with the bony fingers locked in a death grip about its throat, it managed to force through enough air to slowly make words, “When they crawl out of the keep...they find us waiting...ghouls hid beneath snow...near every time we kill...more of the men that leave--”

With a guttural howl even more enraged, the general broke that captain’s neck and tossed him aside. The others, who had been silent up until now, all started murmuring and stammering.

“It’s their lord who leads the sorties--”

“--great giant of a man--”

“--mad, and horrible--”

The one with the broken neck clambered back to its feet, head hanging limply to the side even as he tried to straighten his neck again with his hands. It was to no avail; the meatworkers would have to splint its spine near the base of the skull. Still, the revenant minor spoke again unfazed by the injury that would have surely killed a living man, “Aye, the one called Bjan the Breaker. The Bloodhammer. His bare hands have felled dozens of our ghouls. That ugly hammer of his, even more.”

The words had been poorly chosen. Fury, scorn, and laughter alike all came from General Crake’s grisly maw, and any one of those three could be deadly on their own.

“So you fear this cur more than my own mace? More than the Great Necromancer’s fury? Fools.” Crake advanced upon them and raised his mace, ragged bits of rotted flesh and half-melted brain still clinging to its flanges.

The hall stank of hunger, illness and rot. Mounds of fetid hay were scattered around the corners, mouldering unchanged since weeks, a nesting ground for flies and roaches. The rats were long gone, caught with bare hands and eaten to the last. Heaps of rags and rusted arms were scattered about the dusty floor, spattered with caked blood, still pervaded with the stench of those who had died in them. The oaken benches, once sturdy enough to support scores of feasting warriors, had dwindled to mangled and splintered shades of their former selves, worn away to feed the struggling hearthfires in the most inclement of nights. The long tables that had stood between them were nowhere to be seen, long ago consumed to the last.

A whiff of bitterly cold wind came in through the door as Gertre slipped in from the courtyard, careful not to get the hides coarsely wrapped around her feet caught on the ruvid wooden frame. It made little difference, for the hoary hall was full of draughts and holes that made its interior every bit as chilly as the outside. With light and careful steps she made her way along the wall, deftly hopping between filthy heaps and strewn animal bones. In her frostbitten, calloused hands she gripped an old and dulled axe, half-hidden in the folds of her worn cloak. With every breath she cursed how there was nothing better left in the whole fort to break wood. Taking that worthless piece of iron to one of the derelict benches would make all too much noise, and though the winter cold had grown so painful she almost felt ready to throw herself to the ghouls rather than endure it for the rest of the night, what that might stir from deeper in the fortress frightened her even more than the dead that awaited beyond the walls.

From behind the door at the further end of the chamber there came a loud, regular growling, like the rasp of a serrated blade being dragged through the trunk of a tree. The lord of the Kronburg was at rest, and it would have been madness to disturb him now. Always when he returned from sallying forth he trudged back to his chambers without a word to anyone and threw himself to the bare floor in stone-heavy sleep. No one dared approach him then, for as long as the bloody haze in his eyes was not extinguished by crashing into slumber he did not always discern what remained of his subjects from the revenants he fought with tooth and nail. One of the farmhands sheltering among the walls had already died that way, his skull cracked by a blind swing of the fell Bloodhammer. Miserable as her life might have become, and little as she hoped this damned siege would ever be over, Gertre had no desire to end like that.

Crouching in a corner as far away from the inner door as she could, she hunched over one of the collapsed benches and hewed away at its edge. Slowly, quietly - to no use. The snoring broke, and in a moment the door slammed open, almost flying off its hinges.

There, on the threshold, hunched to fit his head through the door frame, stood Bjan the Breaker. Every body in Kronburg bore the signs of famine and sleepless nights; all, that was, but his. One could barely notice the disappearance of what little fat there had been on him, leaving a sheer knot of muscle, wide, rough and mighty like a wooden idol. There were whispers drifting around the fortress about how he could have maintained his bodily strength, rumours too hideous to contemplate, and the stains lingering on his wild, prematurely grey beard almost deliberately made them all too easy to believe. But it was not those stains that drew the gaze, nor his matted cascading hair or perpetually gnashing, yellow-toothed mouth. It was the eyes, so dire and overflowing with fury that they seemed to shine in the dim like torches. Whenever she glimpsed those eyes they haunted her sparse and disturbed dreams for nights on end, and even now their fulminating look pinned her in place, like the mortal hypnosis of a basilisk.

“What are you scraping for there in the corner, rat?!” Bjan’s hoarse roar stirred even the flies from their cold-stricken lethargy. He stalked over, crossing the entire hall in four great strides. “You’re hewing straight at my skull with that axe. Bring me wine, now!”

“But there’s no more-” A glancing smack from the giant’s hand turned the world dark for a few moments. Between the cold and the weakness, she felt more dizziness than pain. The Breaker’s snarled words reached her even through the ringing in her head.

“I said wine, not smalltalk! Go or I’ll warm myself with your guts instead!”

Blinking away reflexive tears, she staggered further along the wall and slipped into the adjacent room to the right. The cellars had been empty for weeks, and in such a winter there was no need to keep the last remaining scraps underground. Though the final anemic wineskins and moldy hams were stashed just across from the keep’s gates, no one dared so much as come close to the lord’s goods.

Gertre felt through a desolate heap of leather vessels, trying to find at least one that held some drops. Rage as Bjan might at such a meagre draught, it was better than returning to him empty-handed. To her luck, one of the skins felt still somewhat full, though a mushy sensation here and there belied that the wine was most likely rancid. It would have to do.

When she stepped back into the hall, Bjan had already gone outside, and his harsh barking told that he was gathering what emaciated souls remained in the fortress again. Brutish as he might have been, no one could deny that his own strength was truly inexhaustible. That no one else was capable of matching it and following close maddened him to no end.

“That’s all of you?” he was bellowing when Gertre emerged from the keep. He was standing in the center of the courtyard, a barren plot of frozen mud, and the last defenders of Kronburg huddled before him. They were a sorry bunch indeed. The last of the veteran warriors of the mountain-hold had long fallen, worn away by the unremitting tide of the living dead, and all that remained was a handful of the serfs that had sought refuge in its walls when the invasion approached. It had truly been of little solace to them, for their master had begun to drag them into battle at his side when his forces had run low, and the few that had survived until now all bore scars and wounds to show for it.

“Where are the other gutless wretches? There was a half-score more of you here yesterday!”

“All dead, m’lord,” a man with a crippled leg answered, not daring raise his eyes. “Gunter’s wounds got ‘im overnight, and the others-”

The Breaker waved him silent as Gertre approached. He snatched the wineskin out of her hands, tugged it open and, without even wincing at the vile sour smell that came from it, drained it in a pair of gulps.

“Doesn’t matter. Grab your weapons, we’re going out again when night falls.”

“What?” The crippled man gaped, as did many of his companions, though none else dared voice their consternation. “We ‘aven’t eaten and barely slept, and I can’t even-”

Bone cracked against bone as Bjan’s massive fist struck him in the chest. Such was the force of the blow that his uneven feet were lifted from the ground for a heartbeat as he collapsed on his back onto the hardened dirt. He lay there wheezing, and none of his fellows, paralyzed by fright, found the courage to offer him a hand.

“We’re going out,” the giant growled through his teeth, “and if you die, I’ll bloody make sure you die as warriors. You may have the hearts of sheep, but I will be thrice-damned before I let a bondsman of mine shame the land he was born from by dying a coward. Gather at the gates at dusk. I have spoken!”

The weary sun sagged in the sky and reddened as dusk came. The ghouls outside had not been idle. Oblivious to the flurries of snow, a great many of them had shuffled off to fell trees at their lord revenant’s order. The task demanded they go a fair ways, near every tree within a half mile having already been chopped to build and furnish parts of the holdfast that they besieged, or parts of the now-razed hamlets that had been scattered around the area as a part of Kronburg’s demesne, or to fill the now-depleted stockpile of firewood that had sustained the castle thus far. At least one past winter had come and gone with the castle under siege, and perhaps even more… Crake didn’t bother asking the ghouls how long they’d been invested in this siege, as he knew the answer was wont to just make him more wroth. This army only had a single necromancer to replenish the ranks of the ghouls that fell, a miserable little revenant that strode about with a necklace that contained a gem that glowed sickly green with Eagoth’s dark power. Though it claimed to be a ‘mage’, Crake knew that the revenant did little save expose the dead to that gem’s touch that their overlord’s power could take root in the corpse. Even so, there were hardly any suitable corpses to raise within a league, he had been told, and that this little fool had already gotten around to raising everything within that distance told him that they’d been here for too long. But he was determined that it would end now and that this army would be reporting back to the Great Necromancer for new orders within the fortnite.

For those ends, he needed timber. A few ghouls had been crushed beneath falling trees; at times it seemed that even the living lumberjacks, some of the worst and most ignorant sort of those idiot peasants that once worked the land, had been smarter and more competent. Half the ghouls had shit for brains, and the revenants minor that commanded these sorry lot were hardly better. In his bout of rage upon first arriving, he’d had half those captains beheaded, their visages mangled by piercing iron hooks at the end of ropes, and then their still-conscious heads had been left to hang them from a gibbet. Every time somebody walked past the swaying heads, they still cursed, howled, or pleaded for forgiveness as suited them, though lacking lungs and having hooks in their cheeks made the sounds into a garbled mess more often than not. Still, their incessant clamoring had the revenant major wonder if perhaps he hadn’t been cruel enough. He had half a mind to have their tongues ripped out now, but taking the heads back down to do as much would be a bother. ’Let the cowards on those walls see the grisly sight and despair,’ he thought.

Regardless, as the afternoon came to pass, lumber soon became available. Like so many scurrying ants working to drag along a dead beetle back to their nest, the undead carried whole unbroken trees in teams to the siege lines around the base of the hillock. There, in the shadow of Kronburg and in plain sight of whatever sorry lot still defended its ramparts, Crake had his minions strip the branches from the treetrunks and lash the logs together so as to fashion a giant, primitive battering ram. Trying to charge up the formidable slope of the hill and assault the strong gates of that castle above would have been folly for any living army, but the dead did not tire, and Crake had little regard for casualties and even less fear of meeting any form of meaningful resistance. Much time had passed since their last attempt to storm the castle, and the defenders could only have grown weaker and more demoralized with every passing day. ‘Their mad lord be damned,’ the general thought. ’I swear that I’ll take that miserable pile of stone, flay every maggot inside, and set their skinless corpses to work tearing down the keep’s stone walls.’

So it was that as the sun began to set, the battering ram had been finished. Ever impatient, Crake drew together the greater part of the army and assembled a horde of ghouls directly facing the castle’s main gate, with some scattered bands left around the other sides of the hill. He maintained the encirclement to counter the slim possibility of the defenders trying to lead a sortie out a side entrance and break free of the horde encircling the castle to flee into the countryside. As fun as it might have been to chase a ragged band of survivors through the hills and forests and ride them down one by one, Eagoth was growing impatient. When at last they had all been drawn up into place, the horde of disheveled ghouls looked more like some ragged mob of peasant rabble rather than any army with organized ranks or battle array, but it hardly mattered. They needed only to follow the battering ram up that hill and act as arrow fodder ‘til the gates came down, then pour in like a cascade of rotted flesh. In life Crake had been a commander of some repute, some city’s captain of guard...or was it a sellsword captain? It made no matter. He still carried some fading memories of past battles and campaigns, of leading men and devising clever ambushes and the like, but he’d found that as of late his conquests took very little in the way of strategy or tactics.

Leria’s life had been all but extinguished, the resistance grown feebler and feebler, and now the battles and conquests became a mundane and tiresome routine that brought about as much excitement and took about as much thinking as walking. So as with all things, those useful memories of life and his skills as a commander (or at least, the amount of effort and care that he put forth) had faded, and these days he was wont to simply throw waves of ghouls at his enemies until they were slain to the last. It wasn’t like he had any shortage of ghouls. So he stirred from his reverie, and from atop his dead warhorse he raised his mace and pointed it at the gate.

At the signal, the undead ranks stirred and began to march. The ones in front pushed their way up the hillside, plowing the thick layer of snow and forcing it down, packing it for the feet of all the ghouls behind. Rotting arms by the dozen gripped the crude ram and lifted it with a chorus of crackling and rasping. Slowly, but purposefully, the contraption began to move up the hillside. Around it, the mass of the dead followed it like a rising tide of filthy grey. It crept upwards, engulfing step after step of the elevation, a blight ascending to drown the last dispersed vestiges of the old world. Where it flowed, the ground itself could no longer be seen, covered as it was by the myriad soulless bodies. No whim of artistry could have conjured a more vivid image to depict the doom of the living than that, a great, formless, rotten grip closing around the walls of the fort.

And no response came from above. Though the ghouls had been so clustered together to shield the ram-bearers from arrows or stones raining down from the ramparts, no such volley was hurled, nor did any hidden cauldrons spew a flood of incandescent pitch. Indeed, the walls of Kronburg seemed wholly deserted. No sentries hurried along the battlements, no defenders flocked to the towers, no bells or horns were sounded in alarm. Only once a lone dark shape scurried out from a turret, and swiftly disappeared into another. In silence did the horde approach the foot of the fortress, and in silence it cleared the ground around the ram, leaving its bearers room to charge.

And then the gates opened.

Driven by the rusted, but still functional chains and pulleys within the walls, the robust hinges turned, revealing the court within. Darkness had descended, and little of what lay within the fort could be seen. Yet a few spots of light shone in the awning blackness of the gateway, a troop of torches crackling in the still dry air. Their ruddy glow illuminated sunken, starved faces, ragged and mangled bodies - the last defenders of Kronburg. They waved the flames and brandished their arms, but their swings and cries were feeble and hollow, driven more by desperation than courage. Yet there was one before them all, one whose head rose high above all others, and his defiant roar rolled down the hill and into Crake’s camp. The giant hefted his weapon, a great hammer redder than the torches with dried blood, and charged.

The ghouls themselves seemed almost shocked, or at least stupid and sluggish in their reactions--the closest was one that had been holding the battering ram near its head, and it was shattered by a single mighty swing of that warhammer before it could so much as loosen its grip upon the ram. But then the silence shattered like glass, the giant man’s bellowing warcry drowning out those of his feeble people, just as the utterly inhuman shrieks of hundreds of ghouls then drowned out his own shout a moment later. Those that had been manning the battering ram cast the thing down and joined in the wave of ghouls that surged towards the opened gate.

Against them came the defenders, pitifully few as they were. Most swung and stabbed almost haphazardly with weapons they were untrained to hold, their thrusting torches doing more harm to the walls of dead flesh closing in upon them than their blades. They were soon overwhelmed, forced apart, disappearing beneath piles of bodies. It only took a few moments for the undead to claim the few feet of ground outside that the defenders’ initial charge had claimed, forcing their line to give ground and back into the narrower confines of the gate and the hallway behind.

Yet this did not seem to deter their leader, who refused to yield an inch even as his fellows drew back and the horde pushed all around him. The mighty warrior’s every swing sent limbs and skulls flying, and spines and ribcages were crushed to mulch under his hammer and feet, mingling with the trampled snow into an unclean sludge. The dead encircled him on all sides, lunging at his back, his head, but his armour, the finest the keep had held though now rusted and soiled, bore the brunt of their claws and teeth. At one point his hammer was stuck in a jagged husk of armour worn by a sturdier ghoul, one that in life had stood in defense of those very walls, and remained there as he pulled back his hand after a bitterly furious blow, but still he fought. Rabid foam dripped from his mouth and befouled his beard, blood trickled from gashes and scratches over his body, his knuckles and fingers were torn raw. Still he thrashed like a man possessed in the midst of the horde. Step by step, inch by inch he had fought against the tide and made his way from the gate, and raged on the side of the hill.

But no man alone, no matter how puissant, could hope to stand against the numberless hosts of the Necromancer. His blows grew heavier and more sluggish as black exhaustion choked the flames of the wrath that drove him, and his war cries hoarser and weaker. It was then that a wedge of weathered iron pushed its way through the thronging dead - a maniple of risen warriors bearing mail and blade, their loyalties forgotten but their skill not wholly lost, come to finish the redoubtable enemy. One was torn apart in a surge of ferocity, its arms ripped from its shoulders, leaving it to stumble impotently, but the others pressed on. Merciless, their swords struck, and found flesh, biting into neck and flank.

Like the hunted bear feels its end draw near even in the depths of its rage, so too did the great warrior then falter at last. He tried to stagger back, but more ghouls barred his way from all sides. Then, in a final blaze of almost preternatural force, he hurled his bloodied body through their very thick, scattering them like twigs, before finally vanishing into the night. A crunching sound from somewhere below told he had fallen into one of the treacherous ravines that snaked along the hillside, and no doubt that would be his grave.

From afar, Crake might have smiled if he still had lips. The prodigious ’Bloodhammer’, though he’d made for a stirring glimpse when he first charged out of the open gates, had in the end been insignificant. The giant man’s crazed flailing had been a mere ripple in the unstoppable tide that had swept through the gate and into the castle, and for all the carnage he’d wrought, the hordes had managed to push right past him into the fortress. In truth, the general had lost sight of Bjar’s hulking body after just a few moments, so great was the mass of ghouls that had been massing at the base of the walls and surging inside.

The lord revenant cast a set of baleful eyes up to the gibbet above his head. “That is how you take a castle. That is what you worthless maggots should have done months ago. Pray that some of the wretches inside threw down their arms and surrendered; if the ghouls have left me with some playthings, then perhaps I will be in a good enough mood to cut you fools down on the morrow.”

Stirring by its master, the warhorse began to trot up the hillside and right through the still-open gates, trampling over the mangled ruins of half-rotted ghoul and slaughtered defenders alike. He might have taken more care to preserve the bodies of those recently slain, but they had all been lean and weak little things, and most were half torn apart in any case. Better to toss them in a wagon and offer them to the butchers and meatworkers than to have them reanimated in their pathetic state.

As he advanced deeper into the fort, he saw ghouls shambling about everywhere. They flung open every door, leaving no nook or cranny unsearched. Even though a pounding heartbeat and the stench of life were easy enough to find, there was still the matter of sacking this castle, and so they looked for treasure and valuables just as much as they looked for cowards hiding in the dark.

To Crake’s chagrin they found little in the way of things that might be useful, or treasures that might curry him favor if he turned them over to the Great Necromancer. But fortunately, there were some of the inhabitants that yet lived: a few that had been so sick or crippled that they hadn’t been able to join the sortie and were behind, and a few others that had broken and cast down their weapons and ran. When not in the thick of combat, the ghouls often had at least enough wits about them to not mindlessly slaughter. They could take prisoners, if they met one that wasn’t fighting too hard and if they were so instructed. And Crake had certainly instructed!

They were inside. She could smell the foully sweet stench of decaying flesh even from above as they crowded into the keep, and their shambling steps filled the hall with an animation it had not known since the war had begun. But it was no lively, festive gathering the one that had broken into the chambers of Kronburg, and the victory that had laid its path thither was not one to be celebrated with laughter and feasting. The things only groaned, gnashed and rattled as they shuffled back and forth, listlessly knocking what remained of the benches aside without so much as an intelligible oath or exclamation. There were no curious calls from one searcher to another, no holding up of valuable finds - if there could even be any - nor any expressive grumblings of disappointment when nothing was discovered in a corner or another. This sluggish, bestial rooting about was to her more terrifying than the ravages of the most barbarous living enemies could have been.

From her hiding spot, Gertre peered down through the wide cracks between the coarse planks of the floor. No one had been paying her any heed since the gates had been opened, and so she had scampered away back into the fortress, away from the struggle and the horrid masses of the dead. It was all she could do when battle broke out, and there was little danger of Bjan’s fury turning against her when he returned - even when not drunk on bloodlust, he seldom remembered she existed at all unless he needed someone to bring him a wineskin. The small side-room above the hall, set against the sloping outer stone wall itself, was as good a hiding place as there was, and never had one been more needed than now that the unthinkable had happened and the undead had at last broken through. There had been howling, and shouts, and screams she hoped came from dead throats, for a living body could only have issued them to vent some horrible torment.

Maybe she could avoid them there, wait them out and slip away during the day (did these monsters sleep during the day, as men did by night?). If she could just get out of the keep, she could go somewhere, anywhere, away from here. Maybe she could…

She heard the wooden stairs creak under the burden of many bodies, and dozens of dragging steps rustle over them. Spread over the upper floor, room by room, closer and closer. Moaning, snapping, gargling. She just had to stay quiet. If only-

The hide curtain separating one room from another was pulled aside, and they came in. Tall, lanky shapes, empty eyes, hanging jaws, exposed bone. She would not, could not look - not out of mere fear, but the sight of that mutilation and decay somehow moving was sickening. The smell was unendurable. She retched, painfully, with an empty stomach, and tasted blood in her throat. The nearest one heard, and it saw. Letting out a guttural sound, it clambered closer even as she shut her eyes in terror.

Horribly strong claws grabbed her by the arms and pulled her up and away, across the floor, down the stairs. She did her best not to look at any of them long enough to notice the deformities, but they were everywhere, glaring fully into sight - the missing fingers, the half-collapsed mouths, the purulent gashes that should have ended their lives forever. Across the hall, through the door. The sound of screams, muffled by walls of stone, reached her ears. They went on, the screams growing louder as they eventually passed into the courtyard. There, where once had assembled the armsmen of Kronburg, now a veritable swarm of the unliving horrors stood in a rough circle. She saw the other last survivors of the siege, or at least those who, she had to assume, had not yet been slain. The fate of the latter seemed in truth to have been the most enviable now, for the dead had not been idle with their captives; and when she saw a raw, unrecognisable body with half its skin torn away she struggled and kicked against her captors’ deathgrip, despite her weakness. It was to no avail, of course.

In the center, standing before one of the bleeding and flayed bodies tied to a post, there was a tall and hideous wight that wore a rusted set of armor. It carried itself with a cruel intellect and disposition that radiated power, and there was no mistaking that this was the monster that had been behind the siege. The monster turned its head for a moment to cast a glance towards Gertre, the newest captive. She looked upon its visage and wished she hadn’t, for the taut and leathery skin, the gash from chin to nose where flesh was missing, and the terrible look in those dead eyes all inhaled hope and courage as a ravenous fire inhaled good air and belched back terror just as flame spewed ash.

But Crake was too preoccupied to pay her much heed...yet. To Gertre’s horror, she realized that the flayed person still clung to life, if only just.

“Is there treasure in this keep?” the revenant major asked, a bit of entertainment creeping into its voice. For a response it received only an agonized moan. “No, we’re not finished yet,” the revenant laughed, and then he grasped at a loose flap of skin hanging off the person’s arm and slowly tugged to peeled it back even further, pulling until the strip tore completely free. Fresh blood and fresh screams came as a result. One of the ghouls held a dull skinning knife and waited silently nearby, ready to start flaying in a new spot when needed. And peel it did, at Crake’s command. The revenant took its time, drawing out the process, yet never going so fast as to make the unfortunate victim lose consciousness. Over and over, the general asked his questions: is there treasure in this keep? Where is it hidden? Do the surrounding villages have treasure? How wealthy was the lord of this castle? Is there treasure in this keep? Where is it hidden?

And to his questions, Crake received many answers. He ‘learned’ over the course of this interrogation and those that followed after that there was a vast trove of gold in the cellar beneath the tiles, that there was silver candlesticks stuffed in some attic, that gemstones had been thrown down the nearby village’s well to deny the Necromancer at least that small triumph and wealth, that Bjar the Breaker had been poor, that there was no wealth or treasure to be found at all, and so on. It was hard to tell if Crake took note of the discrepancies and all the answers, or if he hardly even cared about the truth of the matter and only did this for amusement.

Eventually that first victim grew weak and quiet and then eventually died, probably from blood loss. So the undead moved to the next prisoner, a man that had taken a terrible wound to his leg in one of Bjar’s mad sorties. The leg was probably broken, and the open wound had furthermore festered and blackened, so the sickly man could hardly stand. In truth, he could hardly even remain lucid either. Crake had him nailed upright against a tree, and when his answers to the questions came mumbled and slow, he was eventually impaled. So they moved on the next one, and this time went back to flaying. Crake intended to make good on that promise he’d made to himself, after all. Flay them, then set their corpses to work tearing down their own damned fort.

All of a sudden, there was a crash against the gates of the fort, which had been drawn closed to prevent any escape from within. Some alarmed howls and shrieks from the ghouls outside followed, and then, with a thunderous bang, the mighty panels swung open. There, faintly visible against the outer dark, loomed a figure imposing as a juggernaut. Moonlight glimmered on its beaten and stained armour, and refracted off reddened, glowering eyes, illuminating a madness that, it seemed, could endure beyond death. Upon his breast, something shimmered in sickly green amid the ragged locks of his beard. The being stepped forward, and it could be seen he carried a mighty hammer that only one man in the entire land could have been strong enough to wield. Bjar raised his tremendous weapon aloft, and, silent and implacable, and strode forward. When he reached the nearest ghouls, he struck one across the head with a horizontal swing of his warhammer, felling it instantly with no more effort than if he’d just given some woman a smack from the back of his hand. The next ghoul in his way got similar treatment, crushed by a great overhead swing of the hammer. And then the next one was knocked down by one mighty punch that broke its jaw with a sickening crack. Seeing it still move after it fell to the ground, Bjar stooped down to tear off the skullcap (great deal that thing had done!) from the crown of the ghoul’s head, then used the thing as if it were a brick, bludgeoning in the rest of the sorry ghoul’s face with such fury that the helmet became stuck sideways in the collapsed ruin of a skull.

The ghouls seemed dumbstruck and confused by the violence and the attack, oddly unsure of what to do. “Slay that man! Bring me his head!” Crake roared out, his victims entirely forgotten, and the horde came alive and surged at the attacker. But the Bloodhammer’s arm and weapon started flying so fast that they became a whirlwind, blurring alongside the shards of bones and blackened ichor flying everywhere. Sickening crunches and cracks resounded through the courtyard as he shattered ghoul after ghoul with great swings of his monstrous warhammer. This was a bloodrage unlike any that Gertre had ever seen him enter, for he felled them all effortlessly and swatted them down as if they were less than flies, and he didn’t even bother to bellow or spit curses, nor did he rave and pant. Every blow had a terrible strength behind it that screamed of restraint having been unraveled like a spool of yarn tossed out the window, wild and reckless. Bjar seemed even more berserk for how he shunned any semblance of a defensive stance and gave himself solely to pressing the attack. Relentlessly he smote down the ghouls one by one like some sort of god, giving no heed at all to the bites and scratches that they inflicted upon him.

Across the courtyard, Crake’s jaw dropped--a strange and grisly sight to see for his lack of flesh on the chin made his mouth and his look seem all the more unnatural and horrifying, but nobody saw for all eyes were upon Bjar.

No, that wasn’t true.

Bjar himself, the giant who towered at least a neck over all other men, looked above the heads of the massed ghouls, his furious gaze staring holes into Crake even as he battered his way through the flesh that stood between the two of them. The ghouls were mere obstacles, and they were not enough. Crake shouted and pointed with his mace. More ghouls advanced, and some from inside the keep emerged back into the courtyard upon hearing their master’s cry.

The wroth lord’s impatience saw him quickly grow tired of beating back the flailing ghouls. What had started as a slow and deliberate walk had gradually transformed into an angrier march, and now he was storming the courtyard, smashing and wading his way past Crake’s army.

The gaunt general on the other side of the courtyard finally realized the futility of setting his ghouls upon this foe, but he did not balk. He spat, or at least made the motion and half of the sound even as no fluid flew forth from his dead innards and dried mouth, and advanced forward with mace in hand. He too had a domineering form and towered over the ghouls, yet the towering bulk that was Bjar still made him look like no more than a misshapen little child that was skinny as a spear and only half as tall.

The Bloodhammer’s eponymous weapon struck an armored ghoul square in the chest, caving in the breastplate and the ribcage behind it with so much force that it sent the wretch flying. And then with that last one out of his way he was suddenly upon Crake, all the other screaming ghouls be damned, for he’d slaughtered or crippled half and the other half hadn’t been able to stop his rampage any more than one could stop the wind.

Only then, at last, did he speak, and his voice cut through the growls and mewling of the ghouls as he had through their bodies.

“The Kronburg is mine!” He brandished his hammer, pointing at Crake with its head. “If you would take it, meet me like a man, only us and our weapons!”

Crake sneered, but then he raised an ironclad fist and all the ghouls stopped their braying and their charges and their clawing at Bjar’s armored back, and they drew back to form a circle around the two combatants. He brought his hand back down, flexed the old and decayed muscles and joints in the fingers beneath that gauntlet, and found himself reaching for a shield upon his back that wasn’t there.

’Old habit. From life, when I was a baron leading all those knights,’ he thought. But then he cast the useless memory and thoughts aside, and remembered where he was. Shields be damned, he felt no more pain, and the meatworkers could reforge a crippled body if need be. So with that free hand and that boldness he drew a dagger from his belt before striding forward with mace and knife. His walk broke into a sprint, and he was suddenly jumping at Bjar with what was frightening alacrity for a corpse. For some moments, it seemed as though he might have held his ground, avoiding a pair of swipes from the ponderous warhammer and plunging the blade of his dagger between the joints of the larger man’s armour; but that was not to last. Unfazed by the wound, Bjar spun his weapon with dizzying quickness, striking his opponent square in the side and sending him sprawling with a crack of shattered bones. As Crake tried to rise, the giant was upon him, and the hammer swung down like a headsman’s axe onto his skull. There was a nauseous splattering sound, then nothing more.

Silence fell upon the courtyard. The ghouls gazed stolidly ahead, shifting their witless gazes between their former leader and the victorious Bjar in uncertainty. Gertre, still in the grip of her captors, found herself holding her breath, having been so absorbed by the sight of the struggle that thoughts of her own fate had slipped from her mind. The creature that had led the invasion was no more. Was this end at last? What of the undead that still thronged around like a bony forest?

The Breaker, however, showed no such hesitations. He lifted his hammer, cast a gaze around the courtyard, then suddenly raised a clenched fist and gave a shout. In unison, the ghouls caught it up, answering with a chorus of screeches, roars and ululations, stamping their feet in response to a boastful stomp over what remained of Crake’s head.

“This is what awaits anyone who tries to usurp the Bloodhammer! Do you understand, wretches?” the warrior barked, and once again the ghoulish horde brayed in reply. He glanced about them with a satisfied look, his cold rage seeming satiated for now. Except…

“I’ve no more need for these weaklings now,” Bjar motioned towards the surviving prisoners, towards her!, with a dismissive snarl. “Kill them.”

Gertre tried to scream, to plead, to curse the monster - for after all, she thought in a flash of clarity, even before he had grown cold as the grave-soil, he had always been more like them, a thoughtless vessel of rage with no warmth nor love for anything but murder - yet it was to no avail. Vile claws clasped her mouth shut, and another vise-like grip closed around her throat. Darkness fell, for her and for Kronburg.
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Dawn broke over the eastern coast of Leria, gilding her gloomy shores with rare sunlight if only for but a few scant minutes. The perpetual gloom that hung over Leria broke up into a constellation of tempestuous gray clouds over the sea far to the east - dispersed enough that they permitted the morning sun to poke through in orange sunbeams here and there on the coast of the land once known as Rhanea. Once the sun rose higher into the sky, into the cover of the perpetual Lerian gloom, this stretch of coast would darken once again. But this respite of sunshine, however brief, proved frequent enough at least in this locale as to sustain a coastal woodland comprised of gnarled, stunted hawthorns and anemic pines, clinging to life on only a handful of green needles amongst so many sickly yellow and dying.

The woods gave way to the coastline abruptly, terminating at a short bluff that demarcated the forest and the beach. Salty wind blew off the sea into the woods, carrying with it the roar of foamy surf crashing upon gray sand and pebbles. Mats of stinking sargassum deposited halfway up the beach delineated the furthest extent of the waves. Around these deposits of rotting seaweed and odd bits of driftwood wound a trail of some dozen pairs of footprints in the sand a mile long. The tracks emerged from a trail in the woods and ran along the beach - were erased by the surf in some spots - and terminated at the heels of a procession of ghouls led by a mounted revenant - one of whom was the freshly-risen ghoul known as Abbot.

For perhaps the first time in a hundred years, Abbot felt the warmth of the morning sun upon his desiccated and mummified skin. He squinted from the intense brightness on his dry, milky eyes; but did not look away. This sunrise was perhaps the first thing of beauty that Abbot had witnessed in his undeath.

"Not often that the sun shines here anymore," noted the one-eyed ghoul that had helped unearth him several days earlier, noticing Abbot's reaction to the sunlight. "The Great Necromancer's magic holds the clouds over the lands. Been that way for years and years. Ever since they built the Spire."

The one-eyed ghoul - Lops, he called himself - was the unofficial and unsolicited historian of the party. He was one of the only mindful ghouls in this procession, save for Abbot and possibly the jawless ghoul known as Grumble. Lops had clearly relished having someone else to talk to - or rather, be heard by - because ever since exhuming Abbot, Lops engaged in interminable monologues about everything and anything at all. Over the first few days of searching for old graves and new ghouls, Lops had covered the past two centuries or so of Lerian history, focusing of course on Eagoth and his conquest of Leria. Even when his knowledge of the Conquest had been exhausted, Lops would continue talking about something else until their revenant eventually tired of listening to him and shut him up.

"Not sure what it is exactly 'bout the Spire that keeps the clouds up," Lops droned on. "Complicated magic stuff that I don't understand. But the farther you go from the Spire, from Necron, the less cloudy it gets. I heard that it's almost clear skies once south of the Neck, and I guess far north past the Bridge too, but I reckon it's still gloomy up there too from all the snow. And of course, out there, far out to sea, it's clear skies. Way out there, hundreds of leagues away in the lands where men are still alive, they say that the sky is pure blue."

Normally, Abbot said nothing in response to Lops' ramblings, but something about sunshine and blue skies, living, breathing people, and a part of the world where things were still normal, piqued Abbot's curiosity.

"How does anyone know what it is like in the lands of the living? I thought you said that the Phasto Fleets keep the Necromancer's ships from crossing the White Straits?"

"The warships of Phasto are able to sink big, slow moving boats chock-full of ghouls, that's true. But small boats in the dead of night can make the journey across the sea into the lands of the living. Dangerous work that is, but there are some revenants in the Necromancer's employ that serve as spies. Very few - it's hard to get there and easy to get caught when they arrive. I heard that the living train dogs to smell the undeath, just like our master has those hounds to smell the dead underground."

"And what do those spies say about the lands of the living?" Asked Abbot.

"Those types don't associate with humble grave-diggers like us. They go directly to the most powerful revenants - Theleden and the like. But rumors get out to folk like us anyways. And they say that the living are not working together like they used to to keep the Necromancer from crossing the Straits. All those warships, all those soldiers, all the food and treasure needed to keep living armies working. And for so long - almost fifty years now. Word is that some of those living kings, princes, dukes, so on and so forth... they're tiring of paying their fair share."

"Less talking, more walking!" The revenant barked from the front of the procession back to Lops and Abbot. "If it doesn't involve how to find fresh new corpses for the Great Necromancer, then I don't want to hear it!"

"Yes master," Lops affirmed with a measure of disappointment.

Their taskmaster turned back and fell back into a bored slump in the saddle as he surveyed the coastline spread out before them. Abbot found this revenant master particularly unlikable. In the several days since Abbot had been raised, their master had never once offered any of the ghouls so much as a moment's rest. If they were not digging graves, then they were marching to look for another forgotten cemetery or unmarked grave that might contain a useful ghoul. He suspected that their revenant resented this lowly charge - scouring the countryside for ghouls like some undead gleaner - and hoped that he might be given a more prestigious duty if he demonstrated promise and usefulness to whatever undead lord he served. It seemed to Abbot that he fancied himself a knight - riding around needlessly on an undead horse in chainmail so rusty that it offered little protection and needlessly encumbered him. Obnoxious as his master was, Abbot knew antagonizing him was a profoundly bad idea and resigned himself to silence as well.

The cawing of gulls over the roar of the waves crashing at his feet drew Abbot's gaze up into the sky. A pair of cackling seabirds soared overhead on the winds blowing off of the sea. They followed the coastline for a way, flapped their way across an inlet and continued into the distance on a headland a league or two down the coast. A flock of fluttering white specks congregated at the tip of that distant headland.

The coastline veered inland in a small bay, at the end of which was a coastal meadow overgrown with willow shrubs and wild privet. Crumbling walls of wattle and daub just poking out of the sickly brush and barnacle-encrusted remnants of jetty piers half-buried in the sand of the beach suggested that this had once been a remote fishing hamlet - depopulated bloodily by Eagoth's undead minions during the conquest, or perhaps abandoned for more plentiful fishing waters some time before. Either way, where there were villages, there were cemeteries.

"Go find the cemetery," the revenant ordered, leading his ghouls down the beach to the forgotten settlement. "Any headstones are going to hidden under years of weeds, so make sure to cut down all the brush and ensure nothing gets missed."

Wordlessly, the ghouls in the party shambled over to the crumbling facades without so much as a word. Abbot, however, was transfixed by the flock of seagulls congregating at the tip of the headland on the other side of the bay.

"Did you not hear me, maggot?" The revenant snarled upon seeing Abbot staring off into the sea. "Get to work."

"I apologize, master, but do you not see those birds on the far side of this bay? Look at them," Abbot pointed across the water to a fluttering mass of gulls half a league down the coast.

"We are looking corpses, not seabirds."

"Right, but do you not wonder would could have attracted such a flock of them? Hungry gulls eat anything, carrion included. And to have attracted such a number of gulls? I think there may be a wrecked ship out there, possibly full of dead sailormen. Let me look and see, master, if only to satisfy my own curiosity."

"Go then, but be fast," the revenant agreed, clearly moved by the possibility of finding corpses. "You two," he snapped, beckoning Lops and Grumble over, "go with him and make sure that he comes back by noontime, lest I let the gulls feast on your carrion instead." With that, the three ghouls continued down the beach at a hobbling jog so as to reach the other side of the bay in a reasonable amount of time.

"You don't intend to try to escape from our revenant, do you?"Asked Lops, once out of earshot of their master. "Because if you do, that is a very bad idea. If we were to try to escape they would eventually find us, if not our revenant, then someone else, and we could expect no better fate than being tossed into the Dead Seas of the Locus."

"It is tempting, but I have no intention of fleeing from our obnoxious master today," said Abbot. "I simply want to see what it is that has attracted such a number of seagulls to that spot up there."

The sun by now had risen well above the cover of the clouds, plunging the Lerian coast into the typical overcast gloom. The winds off of the sea had picked up, bringing larger and more numerous waves crashing against the shore. But even over the roar of the waves, the cacaphonous cawing of a hundred seagulls could be heard as they approached the sand dunes of the headland. Tremendous splashes of seafoam against the windward side of the dunes sent dozens of gulls flapping up into the air with each crash of the waves, only to glide back down to whatever it was on the other side of the dunes that had attracted them. It was clear that something substantial had attracted such a preponderance of gulls.

At last, Abbot, Lops, and Grumble had reached the far end of the bay and crested the sand dune deposited at the tip of the peninsula. But there was no wrecked ship full of gull-pecked sailors on the beach below them. Instead, they witnessed a mammoth blob of orange flesh jiggling against the waves that had deposited it upon the beach. Gulls gathered around to peck at a conical bulb of meat that was three or four wagon-lengths long. The mass of flesh terminated at a preponderance of slimy tentacles as thick as a man's torso, each lined with a thousand suckers with sharp serrations on the cup of each. A gargantuan eye - easily dwarfing a man's head - stared up into the gloomy sky above.

"Whuuuh?" Grumble moaned inquisitively.

"That, Grumble, is a kraken," Lops declared, slowly ambling down the sand dune toward the beached monster. Gulls scattered into the wind, giving annoyed caws as Lops, Grumble, and Abbot descended toward it. Lops took one of the tentacles in his hands, marveling at the serrated suckers on the inside of the slimy appendage.

"A big one, too. When they get this big, they grab ahold of small boats with all these arms, reach up over the hull and pull on the masts to tip a boat over to swamp it. Once the crew is in the drink, it grabs em with these sucker cups, and pulls em down to their haunts at the bottom of the sea."

"Where did you hear that?" Asked Abbot, staring into the giant, lifeless eye of the kraken.

"Porter ghouls from the Meridions. Thought all that talk of krakens was just seamans' tales they recalled from life. Guess there was something to it after all. We'll want to tell our master about this. His lord, and probably his lord's lord, are going to be very interested in this."

"Stay here and keep the gulls away from it, Grumble," said Lops as he went back up the dune to head back to the rest of the party. "No doubt our master is going to drop everything and put us to moving this thing, and he'll be furious if it's not in perfect condition."

"Moving it? Where to?" Asked Abbot.

"Necron, without a doubt."
Hidden 3 mos ago Post by Jeddaven
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Somewhere in the Seas West of Leria

The scent of burning incense filled Lady Tiedriel's nostrils, forcing upon her a floral, copper-tinged stench so powerful that even her undead body could sense it. Deadened nerves were set alight, rocking her body with a painful sensation, so powerful it felt as if she had been set alight.

Kneeling quietly at the center of her quarters, Arane sucked in a deep breath through her nostrils, silently struggling to calm herself as the body of her flagship gently rocked and swayed beneath her.

Then, suddenly, the pain spiked - she felt a spear forced through her sternum. Pangs of fear at the possibility that her child would die. The realization that her existence as one of the living was about to end.

Another breath - useless and unnecessary for maintaining her bodily functions, animated as they were by foul magics, but helpful for meditation nonetheless. Truthfully, it was more a dry, unsettling sucking noise, but in this case, the effect was the same.

A touch at the back of her shoulder, as if a soul reaching through the veil. Where its fingers made contact, powerful stinging sensations built - then vanished just as abruptly as they came. Just as suddenly, the sound of her ship's travel seemed to fade from the world around her - and soon afterward, the burning scent of incense was replaced by the smell of... Ash, perhaps? The spray of the sea? She couldn't be sure. Even the grounding feeling of wood beneath her pale, smooth-skinned legs seemed to fade after a few moments more, replaced by thousands upon thousands of fine, smooth grains, each so paradoxically obvious that she swore she could feel every last one being pressed into her skin. Wind blew across her face, simultaneously sending shivers down her spine and making nonexistent sweat drip down her brow. Nothing made sense - not a bit of it, she thought to herself.

Rising to her feet, Arane wiggled her toes, feeling grains of sand pass between them. She swore she felt them scrape her skin, opening thousands of tiny wounds, blood pumping out of the many gashes - but, ignoring the sensation, Arane pressed on. She wasn't sure where, precisely - or was she? She knew where to walk, as if led by instinct - yet she scarcely understood where she was going.

The further she walked, the stronger the scent of ash and smoke became. Each step drew her closer to the flame, though she swore she could smell the salty water so strongly that she must've been aboard the deck of her ship. That worry soon passed, however, once she realized she'd been walking for far too long to have not simply waltzed off the edge. Cut after cut marred her feet, tearing into flesh like thousands of razors - and yet, the mage doggedly persisted in following a path she wasn't even entirely certain was the right one.

Then, in an instant, nearly everything changed. Gone were the sands beneath her feet in favour of the wet, mossy ground of a forest, thousands of birds chirping in her ears as other creatures howled out in agony. The scent of smouldering flame persisted, however, though it was now accompanied by the morning dew;- and still, Arane persisted, each step carrying her deeper into the woods.

...Or were they woods? No, now they were the broken cobbled streets of an abandoned city, the sounds of playing children echoing through nearby alleyways. Then she found herself in a desert, a small village - and, finally, that initial expanse of cutting sands and paradoxical winds. She felt a presence - something - staring past her, even with her eyes closed... And so, Arane opened her own.

A great, golden orb floated high in the sky above her, its surface covered by what seemed like thousands upon thousands of unblinking eyes, each belonging to a different species. A fly's compound orb gazed down at her from beneath a feline eye, next to that of a blue-eyed man... And not a single one of them blinked. This, she concluded, was the source of the smell. Here, it was stronger than ever, so undeniably invasive that it nearby drowned out all of the rest of her imaginary senses. Reaching out towards, she smiled.

It blinked. Thousands of eyes, all at once, so many that the sound was clearly audible - then abruptly began to fall toward the earth, catapulting a massive cloud of ash into the air upon impact. The cloud rushed toward Arane, engulfing her - then she was awake. Sensation rapidly rushed back to, the same sights and sounds that always accompanied her vessel filling her thoughts as she rose to her feet.

"A good omen, then." She smiled, holding out her arm as a tiny, crimson shape landed upon it. Taloned feet gripped tightly at her skin, though they dared not cut her flesh, instead opting to cackle quietly from beneath amber eyes. Its face, slightly soft and feminine in appearance, canted to one side, staring unblinkingly into Arane's eyes. Arane only smirked in response, pushing open the door from her quarters that led out onto the ship's deck where dozens upon dozens of ghouls mindlessly toiled away. Most earned little but an incredibly brief, pitiful glance from their mistress, but one, possessed of the same pointed ears as she, caught her eyes. Much like Arane, her body was one that was relatively well-maintained, still beautiful as elven women often were; if not for the ragged, charred wounds that left her face a brutally damaged ruin exposed bone, charred black by flame along her jawline and cheeks, her head utterly bald. Her plate armour, on the other hand, fared much better, glistening like the day it was first forged, decorated in the same reds and golds as Arane's dress. At her hip lay a sharp, wickedly curved sword - but the very moment she noticed Arane, she turned, rushing to the Revenant Major's side.

"Captain!" Arane barked, a smirk marring her features. "There has been a change of plans. We sail for Leria at once. Any amongst the crew who manage to express dissent are to be slain immediately; I will make use of the corpses in my rituals."

For a moment, the Captain simply stared back at Arane, only to quickly bring her fist to her chest in salute, hand over her heart. "As you command, milady Tiedriel! It will be done."

Questions yet remained, of course. There were few among the risen dead who had what Arane needed, and even fewer who could be trusted. Two, however, stood out as being of use - one was a coward, and the other a criminal.
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Hidden 3 mos ago 3 mos ago Post by gorgenmast
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Distant thunder rumbled softly over the wide, gently sloping valley as raindrops fell upon this verdant land and the highway that ran through it. Drizzling rain fell with a pittering on tender leaves of the nascent crop sprouting up all throughout the valley. Raindrops gathered on the leaves and coalesced into pregnant droplets that gathered on the leaftips before being released by the weight of accumulated rain and fell upon the loamy earth, releasing the earthy smell of springtime rain into the air.

Tirigue, as this land had been called in the time before the Necromancer, was one of the breadbaskets of Leria. In ages past, its perfectly-loamy soil was coveted among the southern realms, and this fertile valley had been fought over in many of the wars between the great powers of Leria. But even after Leria's final war, Tirigue remained just as vital to the undead as it had been to its living lords. Certainly, the undead did not need corn or tuber to sustain themselves, but potent alcoholic spirits distilled from crops served as the main reagent of aqua vitae and other embalming fluids that staved off rot and kept lifeless tissue supple and strong year after year of undeath. Unable to reproduce and unable to secure fresh new corpses with the living armadas maintaining their blockade of Leria, Eagoth's minions needed vast quantities of potent spirits - and by extension, fermentable crops - to maintain the undead legions in peak working and fighting condition.

As Theleden cantered down the highway through Tirigue, he was struck by the lushness of this young crop of... potatoes, perhaps? Theleden had been a prince in life, not a farmer. But just from looking across the valley, one would be hard pressed to find much difference here after Eagoth's conquest compared to before. What, fundamentally, Theleden wondered to himself, had changed since his master had come to rule this land?

The fields were still being tended to just as before. Sun-bronzed peasants had been replaced with ghouls, of course. Theleden saw a few in the fields even now. A pair of worn-down ghouls grubbed through the muddy furrows beside the roadway to pluck out weeds and bugs - only three limbs were left on their bodies between the two of them. One of them had enough cognizance left to look up from his toil and regard with empty, eyeless sockets as Theleden, his horsed revenants, and the three-score skeleton guards went by.

Theleden could imagine how the living might counter that thought if given the opportunity. 'The heinousness of undeath is its lack of dignity', he imagined some living detractor protesting. 'The ghouls are nothing but soulless automatons, compelled to toil until their bodies fall apart, and then get tossed into a barrel of scraps for the meatworks.' Was the lot of those living serfs who toiled these fields so much better? They too were compelled to hard toil in the fields for the vast majority of their lives, tending to beets or grain for the benefit of some worthless baron. The serfs too toiled until they could toil no more, dying gracelessly and broken in some daub hut at the age of forty-three. What dignity did they ever have?

Leria had been much improved by the Necromancer's conquest, Theleden reasoned. For the first time ever, all of Leria was at peace. The Pax Mortis had ended all warfare on the continent - with only a very few notable exceptions. And furthermore, by extinguishing life, the Necromancer had effectively eliminated death! Well-maintained wights could last indefinitely, and with so much time at their disposal and all war prohibited, the undead could focus their efforts on peaceful and productive endeavors. To think of what could be accomplished when the Necromancer's forces finally broke through the armadas of the living and brought the Pax Mortis to every corner of the world! Eternal peace from Epiranth to Salarmand!

But why then did he feel a twinge of sorrow for the eyeless, legless ghoul in the field? Why had he traveled halfway across Leria to make sense of these visions?

"You did not fail him," Theleden whispered to himself. "It was the Necromancer you failed. But he is great and forgiving. He has given you a chance to redeem yourself."

"... but what if I hadn't failed? What if things had gone differently?"

45 Years Ago

Ash settled gently upon the golden locks of Theleden's mane - greasy and unkempt though still equally striking for lack of care - as the Lion of Esteline surveyed the countryside over the massive merlons of the city's walls. Billowing clouds of smoke blew eastward toward the port of Ludire, blotting out the sun and casting amorphous and fast-moving shadows over the patchwork farmland that surrounded the city for several leagues. Theleden grimaced at the implication. The army of the dead was fast approaching, and time was running out.

The smoke came from huge fires to the west, ignited not by the dead, but by light cavalry operating on Theleden's orders to destroy everything of conceivable use to the undead horde. Crops, houses, grain silos - anything that couldn't be carted off to Ludire was to be destroyed. Dead men and animals - if encountered - were under no circumstances to be left intact. Corpses were to be tossed into burning buildings, and if there were no buildings nearby to burn and use as ad hoc funeral pyres, the scouts were to dismember the bodies and scatter the pieces to prevent any cadaver from being risen and used against Theleden's army. The scouts had reported finding a surprising number of dead bodies in the hamlets they came to raze, slain not by ghouls or looters but cocktails of hemlock and moonseed vine. Theleden had heard one heartbreaking report from a fearless juggernaut of a cavalryman - one that Theleden had personally witnessed dispatch some thirty wights at Sour Bridge - who could barely relay through gulping sobs how he had encountered during a heavy rainstorm a farmhouse with a dozen young children poisoned in their beds. Having no dry firewood to burn the bodies with and needing to dispose of the corpses in short order, he and his men had no other option but to dismember the dead babes with their own swords. The smell of burnt flesh on the wind indicated the the light cavalry had encountered a substantial number of corpses that needed burned. Theleden hoped that it was merely livestock his riders had found.

Thankfully, very few had given up all hope as those poor souls had. The vast majority of the populace of Leria's southern realms had answered Theleden's call to rally at Ludire for the largest exodus by sea in history. Most those refugees had already arrived, ready to embark on what had to have been the largest fleet ever assembled. From Ludire, the refugees would be sailed across the White Straits to Orybulus, Phasto, Epiranth, Chayoun, anywhere but Leria. This was not simply a humanitarian endeavor; Theleden was going to deny Eagoth as many corpses as he possibly could before evacuating his own army to sail away and fight the Necromancer elsewhere.

This plan left much to be desired, but was the best option given the reality of the war against the Undead. The victory over Eagoth at the Neck of Leria had provided a sorely-needed morale boost for the living, but holding the undead hordes off at the Neck forever was just not possible. For the undead horde stymied at Sour Bridge was just the snout of an Undead serpent 100 leagues long and millions and millions of ghouls strong; growing stronger by the second with every man, woman, child, and animal slain to the north of the Neck. Fighting such a vast force head on was impossible. A war of attrition, the Lion reasoned, was the only path to ultimate victory against Eagoth. Give the Necromancer as few cadavers as possible, while simultaneously destroying as many he could.

The southern lords had proven quite amenable to Theleden's requests, particularly after the great victory at Sour Bridge, and acquiesced to demands that would have been unthinkable early in the war against Eagoth. By now, it was clear that full support of Theleden and his army was their best hope for the survival of their kingdoms, and themselves. But it was the White Wizard of Yzen, Callidus, who remained Theleden's closest ally among the surviving kings and dukes of Leria. From the very beginning, Callidus had supported Theleden, and had been instrumental in devising the current strategy against the undead legions. It had been Callidus who had suggested that the refugees of southern Leria should rally at the city of Ludire - predicting more favorable seas in the northern waters during this time of year instead of the more southerly port of Eilas. Furthermore, Callidus had pledged to submit all of Yzen's fighting forces to Theleden's command once the White Wizard had conducted his own evacuation of Yzen and the towns of the Vale.

That had been a month ago now, and the dead were now at Ludire's doorstep. It would seem Callidus and his forces were now separated from Ludire by an undead army at least one million strong. Fighting through such a host was utterly impossible. The most hopeful scenario at this point was that the Wizard had retreated to the west or south to find another harbor from which to evacuate. The most pessimistic scenario - and probable - was that Callidus and his army had been overrun and vanquished. Whatever the case, Theleden would have to hold these walls without the Wizard's aid. The 20,000 fighting men Callidus had pledged - including many knights and well-armored guardsmen from wealthy Yzen - would be sorely missed. Numerically speaking, 20,000 additional men would do little to even the staggering numerical difference between Ludire's defenders and the practically-endless undead hordes. But fighting from the ramparts of these massive walls, those soldiers might have made all the difference - to say nothing of the advantage a wizard as powerful as Callidus would have provided.

No benefit in wondering what might have been, Theleden thought to himself. Callidus or not, these walls had to stand. And so the Lion went across the ramparts in order to ensure the defenders were prepared for the fast-approaching assault.

For the moment, each segment of wall was only occupied by a score of men or so. Some watchmen with eyes glued to the western horizon, the rest were porters carrying supplies up to the wall. Barrels and barrels of pitch, countless cords of firewood to heat giant cauldrons of boiling oil, rocks, even boulders for the mangonels affixed to the roof of each crenelated guard tower, all rode up the stairs to the ramparts on the sturdy backs of strong men. Theleden offered them a nod of approval as he passed them by. Positioned behind every other merlon was a quiver of arrows or crossbow bolts - all together they may have comprised as many as a fifth of all the arrows in Leria, and more were arriving by the minute as the city's fletchers worked feverishly to produce as many as they could. Even with such a plentiful supply, Theleden expected to exhaust the arrow supplies in the first hour of the assault and had instructed the archers to wait until the dead were at the very foot of the walls before loosing arrows. This would be an assault after all - not a siege. That was important distinction that Theleden had stressed to his commanders and lieutenants. This would not be a long, protracted siege. Eagoth's legions could afford to do anything but wait, lest they allow the hundreds of thousands of refugees in the city to escape by sea. The dead would come hard and fast. The sole objective of each defender was to dispatch as many ghouls they could, to hold the undead outside the city for as long as possible and give the refugees time to get aboard one of the vessels of the evacuation fleet.

The boarding process was underway even now. Out in Ludire's harbor and spread across the azure sea for leagues and leagues beyond, the fleet had converged in an disorderly constellation of ships of all shapes and sizes. Deep-draughted merchant cogs, caravels, galleys, galleons, fishing boats, and others congregated in the waters of the harbor; the sheer number of boats gave Ludire's harbor the appearance of a forest of sail masts. Bobbing in the wake of so many ships were an even greater number of rowboats, coracles, hastily-assembled rafts, even driftwood logs piloted by paddle-toting gondoliers. Anything that floated was being used to ferry refugees onto the ships. Even from this distance, many of the ships looked like they were filled to capacity already. And yet there were still so many refugees.

Even now, a trickle of stragglers were streaming through the western gate through the city's ring of towering limestone walls. It was left cracked open to permit newcomers, but ready to shut and lock at a moment's notice. The paved highway leading into the gatehouse was left a muddy, cluttered mess. Dozens of muddy paths radiated out from the western gate in long dendrite ruts stamped into the soil by escapees converging here from every direction. Hundreds of carts and wagons had been left abandoned at the foot of the walls; the only worldly belongings of so many evacuees deposited at the foot of the walls by order of the gate guards - who were denying entry of all wagons except those of critical supplies in order to improve traffic and reduce crowding inside the walls. Such a vast number of people still needed to be loaded aboard ships. Theleden, who thrived on martial orderliness, could barely stomach watching the chaotic process unfold.

Unfortunately, a far more unsettling sight was just about to unfold before the Lion of Esteline.

"They're coming!!" One of the criers screamed from a guard tower. "The dead are coming!!"

Theleden's stomach dropped as he heard the warning. Immediately he was against the merlons, squinting to see any sign of movement on the western horizon. He hoped dearly that it was a false alarm - that the watchman had mistaken a party of refugees for the undead army. Theleden saw a flicker of movement on the horizon, emerging from the shadows cast by the haze of smoke in the air. And it seemed initially that it was indeed a false alarm. After watching for a time, Theleden could see they were horsemen - his light cavalry - riding at a full gallop for the gates. But as the cavalry charged across the farmland surrounding Ludire, Theleden could see that they were not alone. Something was pursuing the horsemen. Something small, fast, and numerous.


A hundred undead hounds were following right on the heels of a dozen riders. And as they drew near, Theleden could hear their deep, sickly baying. One dog, with no concern for self preservation, lept at the neck of one of the rearmost horses and clamped down upon the horse's throat with yellowed, broken teeth. The horse gave a neighing scream and tumbled into a fallow field in a cloud of dust and dirt clods. Its rider was catapulted from the horse and crumpled into the dirt a few feet away. Before the rider or horse could react, they had been swarmed by a dozen dead dogs. Even from the considerable distance, Theleden could hear the sound of flesh being torn apart over the ferocious snarling and baying.

Bowmen!!" Theleden called out. Despite the walls not yet being fully manned, some 200 archers were in earshot - and shooting range. "Notch arrows!!"

Arrows clattered against quivers as every archer and crossbowmen in firing range of the gate loaded their bows.

"Make readyyy!!"

"Sire! They're going to hit the horsemen if you have them shoot those dogs!" A watchman standing beside Theleden warned over the sound of bowstrings tightening. "You're going to kill them!"

"I know!" Theleden snarled through gritted teeth.

"You saw what those hounds are capable of, same as I. Those riders are already dead. It's too late to shut those gates and if those dogs get inside, they're going to kill hundreds of people before we can put them down."

Theleden looked back down through the crenels, and saw the horsemen rapidly approaching the gate. They were close enough now to see the archers on the ramparts, aiming directly at them. The hounds were pulling ahead of the winded horses, ignoring the horsemen and now making a furious dash for the gates left open for those very last refugees.

"...Loose arrows!!" The Lion ordered, squinting back watering eyes as the air whistled with flying arrows.

Smoke haze drifted over Ludire, tinting the sun an infernal red. The hellish light cast the city's grand monuments of chalky white limestone in a dismal orange, including the belltowers of the Basilica of Saint Nyssian, which now rang out in alarm. The bells called the fighting men of the city up to their positions on the ramparts. Unfortunately, the bells also instilled panic and disorder among the great throngs of non-combatants desperately seeking refuge on the ships in the harbor. Panicked shouting and screaming rose up from the thoroughfares of the great city - all thickly congested with refugees - knowing that only 30 feet of walls and a hopelessly-outnumbered army stood between them and the numberless and merciless dead.

Upon the walls, the armies of the living rallied. Horn blasts communicated orders across long stretches of rampart, and knights and lieutenants shouted commands to the yeomen in earshot as the men gathered shoulder to shoulder all across some two and a half leagues of walls, running in a rough semicircle around the natural cove around which Ludire was built, terminating at both side in guard towers built onto the very precipice of wave-hewn cliffs that dropped off into the sea. To so densely man such massive fortifications, the Lion of Esteline had to command one of the greatest mortal armies ever assembled. Any natural foe would have quailed at the very sight of such redoubtable defenses.

But Theleden faced no natural foe.

The living faced an army numbering in the millions. Depending upon how many the Necromancer and his Revenants decided to commit to this attack, each living warrior would be outnumbered anywhere between ten or fifty to one. A mortal army, most of which comprised of volunteers or levies with no combat experience to speak of, vastly outnumbered by a host of fearless, tireless undead. Ludire's fall was inevitable. This battle would instead decide if the last meaningful resistance to the Necromancer fell with it.

Theleden stood atop a guard tower near the main western gate into the city, surveying the countryside around the city. Smoke haze reduced the distance one could see, but for at least a league away, the undead horde was nowhere to be seen. A network of crude, shallow ditches and moats had been dug into the farmland and filled with dry branches and brush that the Lion knew to be soaked with pitch. Ignited with fire arrows, these moats would not necessarily stop the undead host, but funnel its ranks into the firing line of the numerous mangonels built atop the guard towers. And even if not ignited, Theleden suspected the undead would steer clear of these fire ditches anyway, after having suffered such a staggering defeat from similar traps at the Sour Bridge.

Theleden's survey of the battlefield was interrupted by the sound of arrows clattering together in a quiver of arrows laying against a nearby merlon. As if the arrows had been set to tremble from an earthquake...

The undead approached. Visible at first from the northern segments of the wall, evidenced by the fact that Theleden heard horn blasts off the north; four in rapid succession: that was the signal for first sight of the enemy. Then to the south, and then from Theleden's very guard tower.

The archers positioned around him went wide-eyed as the first ranks of the Necromancer's horde emerged from the smoke. Shuffling silhouettes ambled forth in wobbling, uneasy gaits out of the ruddy haze. As they approached, the individual ghouls and revenants could be distinguished in finer detail. The vast majority of them had been peasants, unarmored and still dressed in what the garments they had been slain in. Their mortal wounds were still covered in blood, long since crusted-over and dried brown, soiling their tunics, gowns, or bare chests in macabre stains. Their weapons were improvised for the most part: farm implements, rusted knives - many ghouls were armed with nothing more than stakes and staves whittled down to a sharp point. Though the peasant-derived bulk of the Necromancer's forces were poorly-armed, their rude equipment was compensated many, many times over by their numbers. The first ranks emerging from the haze and approaching the walls now must have numbered in the hundreds of thousands. Only Eagoth knew how many undead were behind this first wave - still obfuscated by the smoke.

The dead were approaching the brush-filled moats, dug out some 300 yards away from the foot of Ludire's walls at the outer edge of archer range. It was time to thin the horde's numbers.

"Bowmen!" Theleden announced. "Fire arrows on the moats!" Theleden's orders were echoed all along the walls by his lieutenants and knights. Archers along the ramparts acknowledged the command by dipping the bodkins of their arrows in evenly-spaced barrels of pitch and igniting them in the coals of braziers. Greasy smoke trailed off the flame-tongues lapping against the shafts of thousands of arrows as the archers notched and drew back their bows, aiming upward to achieve a long-arcing volley.

"Loose volley!"

Thousands of fire-arrows launched up from the ramparts and arced high into the hazy air before raining down in a diffuse, fiery rain among the foremost undead ranks. Plenty of the arrows fell into the dry boughs of the moats, igniting fast-burning brushfires that quickly grew and joined together to form walls of furiously-burning brush. The ghouls had begun climbing over or pushing through the moats in some spots, and they soon found themselves utterly engulfed by the blazes. Some simply fell into the brush and succumbed to the fire, though a few emerged from the moats as walking torches, continuing their march toward Ludire oblivious to the flames licking their bodies until the burns consumed their bodies and sent them tumbling to the dirt in writhing, burning heaps. Cheers erupted across the walls of Ludire at the sight of the ardent dead. Over-excitement, Theleden reckoned, over a few hundred ghouls destroyed when millions remained. But let the men have their morale boost.

The dead had redirected around the blazes and were funneling in through the many gaps between the fire moats. Thousands upon thousands of ghouls were teeming through these gaps, all positioned directly in front of the catapults perched upon the guard towers.

"Fire the mangonels!"

On the mangonel directly behind Theleden, an engine crew climbed up to the throwing arm of giant wooden contraption armed with burning torches, igniting the boulders inside wrapped in pitch-soaked rags. The crew quickly scampered down off the beams of the catapult before the lever of the machine was thrown. The guard tower jolted under Theleden's feet as the mangonel's torsion was released all at once, sending the throwing arm vertical in a swift, jerky motion. Three flaming boulders roared over Theleden's head as they careened from the ramparts down into the undead. The boulders crashed into the undead ranks in ember-laden smoke clouds, and even from this distance, the sound of a thousand bones snapping and crumpling could be heard. Fiery projectiles arced across the sky from the other guard towers: boulders, bricks, even some barrels filled with a mixture of pitch, lard, and sawdust with burning rags stuffed into the bung. Upon impact, they meted out horrific damage upon whatever they landed. The pitch barrels were particularly spectacular, instantly splattering their contents on impact and igniting it all in a great fireball that consumed scores of the densely-packed ghouls. A shame more of the pitch barrels hadn't been made.

The march of the dead had quickened under the fire of the mangonels into a charge. As fast as their legs could carry them, the first wave of the dead charged for the mighty walls of Ludire. Perhaps their revenants had ordered the ghouls to move faster to close on the walls in anticipation of arrow volleys that never came.

"Hold your arrows!" Cried the knights on the ramparts. "Save the arrows until they at the walls!"

The undead tide was at last at Ludire's walls. A wave of ghouls crashed against the city's defenses like those of the sea not far behind them. The walls trembled beneath the feet of the defenders as the dead threw themselves at the foot of the walls. All the groaning, screeching, howling, and all the other vocalizations of the ghouls blended into a dull roar that radiated off the approaching dead, building in pitch as more and more of the dead reached the walls.

"Arrows at will!!"

With that, the archers drew their bows and aimed straight down into the faces of the ghouls just below. Thousands of arrows raced straight down into the ghouls, embedding themselves up to the fletching as they found their marks on the heads and shoulders of the ghouls. In such dense throngs of ghouls less than thirty feet down, it was impossible to miss. A thousand ghouls collapsed in that first volley as arrows pierced their skulls and destroyed their minds, finally freeing them from Eagoth's rapture. Those destroyed ghouls went slack and sank beneath their countless comrades to be gracelessly trampled.

Withered hands struck the stones of Ludire's walls. Fingernails splintered as dead fingers wedged themselves into the mortared grooves between the stones, giving the ghouls purchase as they began their suicidal attempt to scale the walls. They rarely made a single reach or two before being picked off by the archers above. Arrows and crossbow bolts hit their skulls, causing some to go limp and tumble back into the horde, but others hung tenaciously to the walls even in death - clutching their purchase in rigid death grips. Those that hung on provided cover - and handholds - to the climbers behind them.

Arrows clattered against the battlements as the dead began firing on Ludire in their turn. The arrows arced harmlessly over the ramparts or plinked against the merlons, but posed just enough threat to the archers to huddle back behind the battlements as they notched fresh arrows onto their bowstrings - slowing their withering fire on the ghouls below.

"Ladders!" Someone called out over the sound of arrowfire and the roar of the dead. "They are bringing ladders to the walls!"

Like flotsam bubbling up from the depths of the undead sea, ladders were appearing at the foot of Ludire's walls by the dozens. Theleden watched through the crenels as one of the ladders was hefted up over the heads of the ghouls. Straddling the top rungs of the rising ladder was no mere ghoul: a barrel-chested warrior clad in a snug-fitting cuirass of ringmail armor. Wild, white eyes looked on ravenously at the living defenders as he ascended, brandishing a pitted bastard sword as he roared maniacally through an unkempt red beard. Somewhere in Leria, the Necromancer must have slain and raised a number of reavers: those ferocious warriors from the Bone Islands to the northwest of Leria. Even in life, these reavers were savage and fearless fighters that loved nothing more than a hard fight. But in death, they would be almost unstoppable.

"Take him down!" Theleden ordered, casting a pointed finger at the reaver riding the ladder up toward the walls.

A company of crossbowmen opened fire on the reaver, striking the undead warrior in the chest and thigh. The reaver's battlecry became a maniacal cackle as the bolts embedded themselves into his muscled flesh without any deleterious effect. The ghouls raised his ladder vertically before shoving it toward the ramparts without finesse, vaulting the reaver through the crenels and onto the rampart. Immediately, he was beset by archers - who had now drawn swords against him. The revenant northman swung furiously at the defenders, breaking off little bits of stone off the merlons or rampart pavers with each wild swing. An archer engaged him, successfully landing a blow on the warrior's left arm. The blade rent leather wrappings and cut to the bone - a grievous wound for a living combatant, but little more than a scratch for the undead berserker. The reprisal was swift and furious: the reaver delivered a ferocious uppercut with the battle-dulled sword, hacking - not cutting - through his attacker, rending the archer into two mangled pieces and showering his fellow defenders in a spray of bright red blood. Theleden knew at once he would have to deal with this revenant himself.

The Lion parted through the defenders on the walls, still firing at feverish pace on the rising tide of ghouls trying to scale the walls. A ramp of corpses gave the dead as much as a 5-foot head start in some places, and it was taking significantly longer now for the archers to dispatch the climbers. Nimble ghouls would get as far as halfway up before being stopped by an arrow through the skull. But the fire of the archers was divided now between the climbers and ladder-bearers. Emerging through the smoke haze, the silhouettes of siege towers appeared on the horizon. Slow, lumbering contraptions, though hefted by hundreds of tireless ghouls, the archers would soon have to contend with them as well.

The reaver had cut a blood-slicked gap in the defenders when Theleden reached him, and a steady stream of ghouls were beginning to climb the ladder behind him. The reaver's lifeless, milky eyes met Theleden's, and immediately recognized him as someone of import. A cut above these levied whelps for certain, and perhaps even a worthy opponent.

"I am Rulfir the Butcher!" The reaver snarled. "Heed my name and know it was I that brought you to serve Jarl Eagoth. Now fight me, you worm!"

Theleden did as the Butcher commanded, drawing his sword and closing toward the reaver. The revenant gave a growl as he swung down at the Lion. It was easy enough to see coming, and Theleden stepped out of the way and swung for the reaver's neck. The reaver's pitted sword met Theleden's with a sharp clang. Rulfir drew back and gave another swing, aiming to rip through Theleden's gut, only to be blocked there with the clanging of steel. Bouncing off of the reaver's blocked sword, Theleden spun around on his heels and transferred the force into a slice at the butcher's neck. Theleden felt the blade slide between the reaver's neckbones. The reaver's head - beard and all - flew off the tip of Theleden's sword and spun about as it flew over the wall and fell down into the teeming horde below to be crushed under the feet of so many ghouls. Rulfir's headless body went limp and collapsed onto its knees before falling flat at Theleden's feet.

The first of the ghouls had scaled the Butcher's ladder: a helm-sporting soldier still wearing a tattered tabard bearing the sigil of Comiriom. Theleden plunged his sword through the ghoul's helmet before he had even stepped onto the rampart, sending his listless corpse tumbling down the ladder - knocking another ghoul off the rungs before falling into the teeming dead. He gave a deft kick against the top rung of the ladder, sending it teetering off and skidding against the walls before tumbling back to the ground - knocking a score of undead climbers off the wall. The archers pressed back in to the opening cleared by Theleden, and resumed raining arrows onto the dead. The walls jolted underfoot as a mangonel on one of the nearby towers launched another projectile - a flaming pitch-soaked boulder - out into the dead. A contrail of smoke and embers arced over the dead as the ardent projectile scored a glancing blow to an approaching siege tower. The corner timbers of the tower were splintered, and collapsed under the great weight they supported. In a cloud of dust and embers, the siege tower collapsed, crushing a hundred ghouls in an avalanche of falling planks and timbers. Enthusiastic shouts and cheering resounded from the living at the sight of the fallen siege tower. For a brief moment, Theleden thought that he and his army could hold these walls.

That brief reverie was cut short when a corpse fell out of the sky, slamming into the battlements of a nearby guard tower with such force and speed that it burst on impact, spraying the archers on the walls with viscera and brown, coagulated blood. Before Theleden could even comprehend what he had just witnessed, another body crashed into the wall directly below him, collapsing into the climbing ghouls in a crumpled heap of pulverized flesh. Just barely visible beyond the smoke of the fire moats, Theleden could see the throwing arm of a trebuchet rocking back and forth from just having been launched. Peering through the smoke, one could see another trebuchet launching even now, throwing arm rising skyward as a giant counterweight dropped toward the earth. At the zenith of its throwing arc - Theleden could make out four small projectiles flying out of a sling on the distal end of the siege engine's arm.

Not projectiles, Theleden realized as he watched them sail through the haze toward Ludire, ghouls.

The ghouls tumbled crazily through the air, flying over the wall and landing on the rooftop of some tenement near the walls with a meaty thud and shattering of roof tiles. To Theleden's horror, the ghouls got back onto their feet. Another cluster of ghouls sailed over the walls. And another. Theleden's stomach sank as he realized that Eagoth had discovered that the Undeath made it unnecessary to capture walls anymore. Given enough time, a large undead horde could simply catapult their forces over any defense.

Theleden shoved his way through the defenders - now fighting off climbing ghouls just below the battlements - and seized a horn-toting knight by the shoulders.

"Sound the retreat!" Theleden demanded.

"But sire, we still hold the walls." Countered a rather perplexed knight. "Aren't we to hold the walls for as long as possible and allow as much time for-"

"Do you see what they are doing!" Theleden screamed, pointing into the ash-laden sky as ghouls catapulted over their heads even now. "If we tarry, they will send enough dead over the walls to surround us while they massacre the refugees! We are out of time!"

Without further complaint, the knight drew his horn and gave six blasts on the horn, repeating again and again until the other buglers echoed the order to retreat across the walls.

"Withdraw!!" "Withdraw to the ships!!"

"Hold still, everyone." The gondolier ordered to a overcrowded rowboat of panicked occupants. "Hold still and stay calm. The quieter you are, the faster we can get you onto the ships."

The waves of the harbor crested precariously close to the rim of the overladen boat. It was a simple harbor boat, built to ferry perhaps eight to ten people and a few crates to merchant vessels in Ludire's harbor. Today, it carried thirty - mostly children and their mothers - from the wharves and jetties to whatever ships in the Lerian evacuation fleet could yet take on passengers. But in spite of the adverse conditions, the gondolier at the rear of the boat navigated the crowded harbor magnificently; steering about the crowded waters with what seemed like decades of experience. In spite of his skill, the boatman was not a porter or sailor by trade, but in fact a knight. In truth, Sir Robben of Hallenberg had never seen the sea before coming to Ludire. The young knight had once been a vassal to the Duke of Comiriom, but abandoned his liege to serve the Lion of Esteline instead when Comiriom's leadership deigned to commit to a foolhardy and futile defense against the Necromancer.

Upon arriving in Ludire to evacuate southern Leria by sea, Theleden had tasked Robben with overseeing the evacuation of the non-combatants. And with so many still awaiting passage off of Leria, Robben had taken it upon himself to assist in the mammoth task of ferrying the refugees himself. The only indication that this boatman was a knight was the scabbard-bound sword on his hip; his suit of heavy chain armor would certainly drown him if the boat were to capsize. He wouldn't have been the first.

Several lifeless bodies bobbed among all the debris and flotsam floating in the harbor: refugees from a boat just like Robben's that had swamped or turned over. One such floating corpse approached on the left, floating just at the surface on his stomach.

"Everyone look straight ahead, hold still now," Robben ordered, trying to keep the children in the boat from seeing the dead body and panicking. Corpses tended to elicit terrible fear in children these days, now that it was possible for the them to rise up and try to kill them. Less than a mile behind them, beyond the walls of Ludire, a vast host of such walking corpses had converged on the city of Ludire with the sole purpose of murdering every living thing inside its walls. Only the bravery of the Lion of Esteline and his men kept the Necromancer's host from accomplishing that goal. Robben wished he could have been on the walls, keeping the dead at bay with steel in his hand. Ferrying peasants to the ships, while absolutely vital, was nevertheless cowardly work for a knight in the middle of such a battle.

Robben's rowboat was not the only boat in the harbor that was pushing the limits of its carrying capacity. Ludire's fleet of merchant galleons, those deep-draughted treasure boats that helped make Ludire the most prosperous port in all of Leria, were loaded to the brim with refugees. So overladen were they that the crews had resorted to jettisoning crates full of wares into the harbor in a desperate bid to lighten their load and alleviate the miserable crowding belowdecks. On almost every ship in the harbor, refugees were crowded elbow to elbow. Most of these boats were in the process of leaving the harbor and departing Leria's shores. But the crowded harbor and dangerous overloading of the ships had slowed the departure of those vessels to nearly a standstill.

Robben paddled around the galleons and cogs, out to the less crowded ships waiting on the periphery of the harbor upon which he could offload his passengers. As he paddled out toward the open see, he could see unfurled sails approaching from the southeast. Triangular lateen sails billowed in the wind, belonging to no fewer than a hundred galleys. Painted upon many of the sails was the head and fanged mouth of a hammerhead shark: the sigil of the armadas of Phasto.

Shouts of exhilaration sounded across the harbor as the refugees and crewmen of the evacuation fleet rejoiced at the sight of Phastos' fleet. The southerners had arrived at last to support the Lerians against their common foe. Robben hoped that they brought soldiers and intended to commit them to supporting Theleden's forces on Ludire's walls. Even if not, so many of the large, maneuverable galleys could take on a vast number of refugees and expedite the evacuation tremendously. With renewed hope, Robben paddled out of the harbor to the approaching armada.

As the Phastan galleys neared Ludire, their sails were furled and oars extended out from under the decks, allowing teams of well-trained oarsmen to row the remaining distance. Glowing in what anemic sun was allowed through the smoke haze drifting off of the battlefield inland, Robben noted strange bronze contraptions mounted on the bow of these galley: trumpet-shaped cones, some of which were made to look like the snout of a snarling serpent. Robben watched one of the Phastan galleys approached a Lerian caravel, the refugees and crew cheered and waved as it approached. Robben's rowboat was just close enough to hear the Phastan captain give a single, horrifying order to his crew.


From the bronze cone on the galley's prow, a jet of thin, yellow liquid erupted, passing over the tongues of flame from a torch mounted just beneath the cone. The jet of liquid ignited mid-flight, transforming into a belch of dragon's fire with a heart-stopping whoosh. The jet of fire splashed onto the hull and deck of the Lerian caravel, engulfing the densely-packed refugees on the deck. Agonized screams rang out across the harbor as burning, flailing bodies tumbled into the waves - desperate to extinguish the flames as the caravel's sail and mast were engulfed in a roaring inferno. The rest of the Phastan armada had set about engaging the other ships of the evacuation fleet.

"What are they doing?!" Screamed frenzied peasant girl.

"They must think we're the undead, or that we're going to bring it across the Strait!" Robben deduced. "Everyone stay still, I'm going to get us out of this, but you have to stay still!"

Robben's command fell on deaf ears and terrified children thrashed about, watching the Phastan fire boats incinerate their fellow refugees. The fire ships had completely enveloped the mouth of the harbor. There would be no escape for the larger ships, but perhaps a small rowboat could slip through the onslaught. It was nearly futile. But chivalric duty obligated Sir Robben to try.

Robben dug his paddle deep, rowing furiously for open sea beyond the armada. The boat rocked with the frenzied children aboard, tipping the lip of the boat into the water. Water gurgled over the right edge, pouring in among the legs of the wailing refugees.

"Reach for something that floats!" Robben screamed, before the boat turned over and cast him into the salty waves.

An undead river coursed through the streets and thoroughfares of Ludire, spilling through alleyways and windows to crash into the unrelenting shield wall of the living as they withdrew from the walls to the harbor. The conscripted and less-seasoned men had been sent first off of the walls to secure passage aboard the evacuation fleet, while the hardened soldiers, knights, and former mercenaries joined Theleden in the rear, holding back the undead onslaught to maintain some sense of order and prevent a disorganized rout toward the sea. Ghouls charged headlong into the interlocked shields of the rear guard, comprised of Theleden's most seasoned fighters. They pulled at the shields, reached in between, only to receive a spearpoint through the forehead loosed from between the shields. But the shield wall was only so effective: the undead were on the rooftops now, throwing themselves off of the eaves and into the living ranks. Revenants armed with crossbows shadowed the living from the rooftops as well, taking potshots at the living before scurrying behind a chimney or roofline to reload.

As overwhelmed as the living may have seemed, they were only contending with a very small portion of the Necromancer's forces that had managed to both scale the walls and make it this far into the city. The city's gates were still firmly shut, all of them chained shut and then barricaded prior to the assault with rubble and debris; the gates would not be needed again until Eagoth was vanquished. The floodgates of the undead therefore remained shut, and the withdrawal to the harbor remained manageable - if only barely. And there still remained the problem of getting his men aboard ships while simultaneously facing off against tens of thousands of ghouls.

"My Lord! The fleet! It burns!"

Theleden shoved his way through the retreating soldiers, rounded the corner around the Basilica, and witnessed for the first time what thousands of his soldiers had just discovered. In view between the thoroughfares and over the rooftops of the portside markets was the hellish seascape created by the Phasto fireships. Hundreds of ships - the majority of all the seaworthy vessels in all the harbors of Leria - burned in the harbor. Towering blazes consumed sails and ran up charred masts. Theleden fell to his knees. Despair overcame the Lion of Esteline at last, just as it had his father.

Phasto had sent these fireboats to Leria, without doubt, to prevent Eagoth from capturing any vessels with which to bring the Undeath across the White Straits. And given such a mission, it was natural that Phasto would come first for Ludire - the busiest port in Leria. But for the armada to arrive just as all of Leria's ships gathered in one single port...

"Callidus, you bastard."

Theleden realized at once that the wizard of Yzen had planned all of this. He must have foreseen Phasto's fireships coming for Ludire in late summer, and persuaded him to launch the evacuation from Ludire instead of Eilas. He had purposefully not sent his army to reinforce the city's defenses. This was not misfortune.

This was betrayal.

"Callidus," Theleden croaked, "you've doomed us all."
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Hidden 3 mos ago Post by Jeddaven
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Jeddaven the Dunmeri

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Lazily discarding her robes, Arane's shimmering, alabaster skin was laid bare, so unnaturally flawless that it seemed to glisten faintly in the dim light of the moon. Much of the deck of her vessel was drenched in shadow, shielded by the massive, rocky outcroppings that formed the sheltered cove it was moored in - but glimmering beams of moonlight seemed drawn toward her, bent by arcane might. None else among the Silverwind's crew were afforded such luxury, though few needed it - most were by now busying themselves playing quiet games under the dim light of shrouded lanterns, or simply lacked the will to do anything but stand statue-still belowdecks, awaiting further command.

Her eyes closed, Arane broke the silence with her honeyed voice, feeling the careful hands of her Captain dusting her deadened skin with arcane reagents. "Captain," she said, briefly distracted by the faint pressure of a blade pushing through the surface of her skin. "What do you remember of our homeland?"

For the briefest of moments, the blade froze, embedded in Arane's skin.

"... Somewhat." The Revenant minor sighed, a puff of dry, salty air. Arane could not see the woman, but she could sense the hesitation in her voice, nonetheless. For a moment, it seemed as if she intended to brush the question away, opting to bury her discomfort in her careful work. But, still, the blade moved.

"The memories are... Clouded. Unclear. I find myself wondering which are true and which are simply figments conjured up by my own mind to fill the gaps in my thoughts." She explained frankly, squeezing Lady Tiedriel's shoulder. Arane reached up and back, gently squeezing her fingers in a rare gesture of compassion - again, she could feel little but a faint pressure, but it was present nonetheless.

"We know that it exists, do we not, Alaras? We cannot return there, perhaps, but..." Arane chuckled, quietly shaking her head. "At least we can make that bastard necromancer pay along the way." She shrugged. Alaras's hand abruptly slipped from her grasp. By now, Arane thought, she would be busy drawing the requisite ritual circle around her Lady, a formation of arcane runes painted with powdered metals Arane's own fluids, bone, and crushed gemstones. The Captain had gone completely silent, choosing to separate herself from the conversation - all for the best, Arane supposed, rather than make some grave error in the creation of the ritual circle and risk something truly catastrophic. Perhaps she was avoiding the conversation, perhaps not... Either way, Arane possessed the wisdom needed to avoid forcing an answer out of an experienced Elven mage-knight. Dogged loyalty aside, there was no reason to risk angering one of the few people she could truly trust.

Still, the sorceress couldn't help but let her mind wander back to her question - to home. To rolling green hills, towering snow-capped mountains beneath which whole cities were built, great ivory towers that reached fearlessly up toward the heavens, capped in bright, eye-catching domes... She remembered the salty air of the docks, the foul smell of butchered fish around the markets, even the feeling of cobbled stones against the soles of her feet and the biting insects that infested the spaces near local swamps and lakes. Her home was distant, to be sure, but especially so in time - how much had changed in those intervening decades, Arane wondered? Was her home still ruled by the same Queen? How fared her cousins? Her friends? Did they even remember her?

A pinprick suddenly broke Arane from her reverie, followed by the sound of her Captain's gruff voice. "I've finished, milady."

Opening her eyes, Arane nodded, gesturing for Alaras to step back. She did as bidden, of course, watching as Arane knelt in the center of the ritual diagram, completely nude. Eldritch sounds began to pour out from between her lips, suffusing the moonlight with a secondary bluish glow that was drawn to the diagram like moths to a flame, glimmering just brightly enough for anyone else on the vessel's deck to see. The reagents abruptly launched into the air with a great gust, flowing toward Arane and into her mouth, her skin briefly glimmering as it was suffused with the strength of steel. Then, she rose, the magic completed just as quickly as it came. She was a fragile sort compared to many of Eagoth's monstrosities, and with stealth being so necessary, Arane could hardly afford to wear anything more than filthy rags which she quickly began dressing herself in.

"We depart immediately." She said, tossing a brown cloak over her shoulders. "Leria awaits."

The Southern Lerian Foothills

"There," Arane said, gesturing to a far-off mountain peak. Behind her were four, perhaps five people, all dressed in plainclothes in various states of filth and disrepair. Each was an elf, a rarity on Leria in themselves - but they'd gone to great lengths to hide their unusual bodies, whether hunching over to mask their height or hiding pointed ears beneath thick cloth hoods. To an onlooker, they looked like little more than a band of ghouls - mindful ones, but simple human ghouls, nonetheless.

"*That* is the mountain we seek. Somewhere, hidden amongst the peeks, is an old Elven fortress. Isolated. Safe from Eagoth. If luck is with us, the Necromancer has yet to plunder its holds." She explained, taking a step forward. The cloaked heads behind her glanced between one another, then back toward the snow-capped peaks towering ahead of them. Then, one step after another, the ghouls followed their Lady, obediently plodding along an ancient stone path so scarcely used that it was nearly overrun by weeds and moss. The stone was still usable, nonetheless, if slippery and treacherous - but its faint presence was the party's only guide, wooden signposts long since rotted away to nothing beneath the pall of undeath. High above the foothills, closer to the mountains, Arane could see the hints of untainted flora - but those places were incredibly distant, and Arane would need to pass through much more of Eagoth's land before she could reach her destination, visible as it was.

Briefly casting a glance back at her followers, Arane wondered how many of them would survive the fight against Eagoth, only to quickly dismiss the wandering thought, a hand resting gently upon her belly as feet squashed rotten detritus beneath.

It didn't matter, not really - not compared to the joyous thought of becoming the spark that saw all of Eagoth's works burn to ash before his soulless eyes.

All she needed was an army that could neither live nor die.

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Hidden 3 mos ago Post by Terminal
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Terminal Rancorous Narrative Proxy

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A collaboration between Oraculum and Terminal

The Vale of Nergthron

If there was something that anyone approaching the Vale of Nergthron could be thankful for, it was that the dead could not smell. This was in truth a blessing for ghouls wherever they may have been, for to walk about cloaked in the eternal stench of one’s own decay would at length have driven even the stoutest spirits mad. Doubly so was it for the laborers of Leria’s meatworks, who moved daily among masses of rancid flesh that would have put the foulest abattoirs of mankind to shame. To walk among the dead without being one of them would have been a waking nightmare, and the affliction of the senses was only one of the ways in which this was made obvious.

Yet neither the prison of one’s own carcass nor the most unclean pits of Necron could compare with the air that hung around the seat of the Locus. Even at a distance of leagues, with the shadow of the mountains only just coming into sight, the noisome exhalations of the veritable oceans of rot that lay ahead, spreading unstirred for decades under the windless skies of Eagoth’s realm, would have sickened any living thing beyond its strength to forge ahead. Perhaps there, more than anywhere else, it was clear that this land belonged to the living dead, and to them alone. The corruption had permeated the soil, choked even the hardiest of weeds, stifled the last faint breezes with its cloying, invisible grip.

None of this gave the convoy any pause as it crawled its way upon the beaten road towards the towering fissure that was the gateway to the Vale. Little marvel, for even without the overpowering foulness that radiated from its destination, its own presence would have been noxious enough to be unendurable. Two pairs of meat-crafted horrors, mockeries of the equine form, pulled as many sturdy wooden carts, each laden with an enormous cauldron that barely fit into its confines. Within the vessels, churning and spluttering with every step, roiled draughts of the same infernal substance that coursed through Nergthron’s veins, ancient bodies nigh-liquefied by corrosion into a nauseating sludge interspersed with stray bones or limbs with the occasional scrap of still-intact flesh clinging to them. With every shuddering step the equine horrors took towards the vale, the more the contents of the cauldrons seemed to squirm and writhe on its own, though the bulk of it remained inert - for the moment.

A handful of scraggly ghouls led the draught-beasts, flanked by the convoy’s guardians, four gigantic creatures doubtless assembled from many a corpse. The many-limbed things, several layers of hide and large, ruvid dry leaves sewn to their very bodies for greater sturdiness, towered several heads over their charges, almost reaching to the lip of the cauldrons, and despite their malformed posture had no trouble keeping pace with the carts. A figure akin to a hunchback, bent under a bulging protrusion upon its shoulders concealed beneath a mouldy cloak and propping itself up with a walking-staff, led the cortege. These grisly sights, more than the upper half of a desiccated crucified cadaver mounted on the foremost cart in the stead of a standard, marked the party as having come from the dread city of Comiriom.

A merciful pall of darkness fell upon the monstrous procession as it neared the foot of the cleft mountain. The gaping passage bore the seeming of a giant’s handiwork - as if a massive being had simply slammed the edge of their hand down through the mountainside, leaving a great cleft through its length. Evidence of an older network of roads that had wound up the mountains and through passages higher up remained evident, still connected by unused and moldering wooden bridges that hung like webbing between the gaps.

This network of roads and bridges had been abandoned ever since the great causeways had been completed, traveled solely by undead vagabonds and miscreants who had made hideaways for themselves amidst the heights - which had been completely ignored by Rixis and his retainers. Which was why the unexpected presence of a newly-erected wooden watchtower up along the lowest of the obviated paths, and the uncharacteristic detail of guards there, had caused considerable anxiety amongst the haulers, flesh-masters and meat-workers seeking passage into Nergthron. Thankfully, the convoy from Comiriom was not stopped, the sentinels waving them through the crude palisades across the road in favor of holding up a drawn carriage emblazoned with the banners of one of Eagoth’s Revenants Major.

As the convoy moved on, the guards had forcibly drawn the carriage’s occupants out from the interior and restrained them. It was a brazen defiance of the Pax Mortis - guards acting under the behest of a Revenant Major could apprehend ghouls and their coterie with sufficient cause, but it was evident that these watchers were acting on only the barest of pretenses. The decision to approach Nergthron under the guise of an ordinary flesh convoy seemed all the more prudent for the unexpected development - clearly the master of the Locus’ vale was up to something.

Unhindered, save by the need to make its way among the ghouls shambling about on the paths and walkways, the carts moved deeper in, approaching the web of trenches where flowed the animate mass of the Dead Sea. The hunchbacked leader motioned over towards one of the closer barracks, and the pack-leaders turned thither, along with three of the hulking monstrosities. As the body of the convoy drifted off in search of a revenant to direct it in the task of pouring its noisome charge into the greater bulk beneath - a task that ought to have been none too arduous, but that nevertheless was best not trusted to mindless drudges, especially with the cauldrons’ contents growing more restless by the moment - the cloaked being, followed by the fourth abominable guard, shambled across bridges and raised passages towards the heart of the vale, where the master of the Locus resided.

The master and warden of the Vale was well-known to be reclusive, and to normally reside in the subterranean depths of the vale where none could readily reach or seek audience with him. However, amongst other indiscrepancies, there was now an active routine of armed ghouls on patrols amidst the bustling, shuffling traffic of the vale. Utterly unnecessary patrols, as the invisibly hanging Locus above was untouchable by any conventional means and there was nothing of great import in terms of infrastructure to defend. The only reason for so many guards to be out and about was if they were protecting somebody - and their lord was known through Leria for his craven nature. Only he would call for a ring of guards in the midst of his own territory and the seat of his power.

Evidently aware of the Locus Warden’s way, or instructed about what countenance to keep within his domain, the cloaked messenger seemed to do his best to appear unthreatening. This was to no small degree eased by his deformed frame. It was difficult to believe that so wretched a body, arduously shuffling under its own misbegotten weight, could have held the strength to menace. Even the creature trailing behind it attempted to seem subdued, to the best of its abilities, though with far scarcer success.

As he drew near to a larger handful of roving ghouls, the hunchback raised a bony hand to beckon to them, and hobbled with somewhat hastened steps to approach them.

“I come for the Warden,” a dry, parched voice hissed from underneath the frayed hood once the being had drawn close enough to be heard, “The master of Comiriom bids me deliver a missive for him alone.”

“The Master of Comiriom, says this one.” The patrol in question, comprised of ghouls in mismatched armor and wielding jagged, unkempt weaponry, was lead by the lowest of Revenants Minor, who approached the hunchback with a shortblade drawn. Being assigned to the Locus Vale and the command of its warden was the nearest thing there was to a punishment or penal detail in Leria under the Pax Mortis, and so those Revenants who did wind up there trended towards humorless and detail-averse. “Well, present your seal, and I will consider not tossing you to the hunger below.”

Without a further word, the hunchback lifted a fold in his cloak, and out from beneath it came a hand - one too many to have belonged to his body, and clearly disproportionate to the others, but a hand nonetheless. He reached out with the unnatural appendage, and presented it back; upon it, gouged with a searing branding-iron, was a crude simulacrum of the sign that had heralded the convoy’s entrance into Nergthron, the upper half of a withered body with outsplayed arms.

Is that the seal of Comiriom’s Revenant Major?” One of the patrol leader’s lackeys rasped inquisitively.

“You know, I’m not certain, I wasn’t expecting them to have one at all…” The Revenant Minor said absently as they gazed at the burnt sigil.

“What are we to do? The Warden bade us to apprehend-”

“We can start with you shutting up, for one thing.” The patrol leader snapped before turning his attention back to the hunchback. “You claim you have a personal missive for the Warden? Are its contents urgent?” He bade.

“Utterly,” the messenger rasped, withdrawing its branded appendage and lowering the folds of his garment once again. “The Harvester commanded that it be delivered as soon as we came to the Vale, and that only its lord may know what it is.”

“So be it.” The patrol leader sighed. “Come with us, I will send a runner ahead. The Master has been preoccupied with work at their surface workshop, I imagine they will receive you there.”

The troupe turned towards the center of the vale, leading the hunchback onwards. As they passed a certain point, the area suddenly careened from dimly lit to black as the early ‘eve. Looking up, the hunchback would see the sun seemed to have been eclipsed - though by what could not be discerned, as though some invisible obstruction was choking out the sunlight before it could reach the ground. Crackling, iridescent motes seemed to hover and glide through the air here, falling from some indeterminable point above.

Placed almost directly underneath the epicenter of the vale and the inexplicable eclipse was an actual tower - not one of the slapshod wooden hovels on stilts that dotted the vale, but an actual tower as might befit a citadel’s watch, with competent masonry. It was not particularly tall, perhaps only three floors in height, but from the network of trenches and pulley-drawn bridges surrounding it, this was clearly the workshop of the Vale’s master.

The hunchback was led across each of the trenches in turn, each bridge lowering one by one to permit passage over the churning, grime-black cruor in the canals below. At the tower entrance, the patrol turned the hunchback over to the party of sentries within.

“Search him.” The garrison commander ordered, a pair of faintly better-appointed and more put-together ghouls approaching the hunchback.

As if to anticipate their intentions, the messenger let go of his cane and tossed up his arms, letting his cloak fall off his body. The sight beneath was more hideous even than one may have expected from a herald of Ghural. His body was that of a mere ghoul, better-kept than one may have believed from him hobbling gait, but marked by death none the less, bare from the belt up and criss-crossed by sutures like a flagellant’s scars. The third arm, grafted to the underside of his ribcage, looked feeble and vestigial, gnarled and bent in the elbow.

But it was his back that most drew the eyes. What had, under cover of the cloak, seemed like a hump was in truth no less than a second, limbless torso surmounted by another head. The ribs of that body were interlocked with the spine of the wretch’s true frame with a morbid precision, and its sides tapered out to folds of skin that were sewn to his flanks over what remained of his own. The upper head was little more than an emaciated skull, with no eyes nor ears and with the jaw removed from its mouth. Underneath it, the ghoul’s own nearly fleshless features seemed almost lifelike by comparison.

His appearance drew the fluttering, wheezing remnant of what would have been a whistle had the ghoul uttering it been alive.

“Well, I don’t see any weapons, good enough-” The commander began.

“Sir, he could definitely have some weapons inside their cavities, I mean just look at the patchwork-”

“Oh, if only. Take a hint man.” The Commander rolled his one good eye while the other lazily drifted in its rotten socket. He turned back to the hunchback. “The Warden is on the roof, he has some new hoighty-toighty bodyguard. Mummy revenant of some kind. Seeing as you are completely and utterly unarmed and we will be searching you on the way back out, I don’t think it’s necessary for us to send you up with an escort.” The messenger’s two heads gave a nod in reply.

The ascent to the roof was unremarkable. The second floor contained an armory and barracks, the third contained an archway doubtlessly leading to the Warden’s personal lab - which was unfortunately shuttered and locked by a heavy iron door. The only way to go was up.

The roof of the tower was crowded with curious devices and mechanisms - telescopes, astrolabes, several tables with lain-out arcane scrolls alongside twisting amalgams of metal and crystal. Resting atop a raised wooden platform near the edge of the roof was the Warden himself.

Magus Rixis, little more than a steaming, undulating pile of offal, rested in place while a Minor Revenant - a mummy dressed in long robes and fine linen bandages as the Commander below had indicated - was precariously poised in an awkward arrangement. They were bent over, with one foot raised and protruding behind them upwards, with a bottle wrapped in rags perched on their sole - while they simultaneously held up some mechanical contrivance before the roiling heap of refuse, angled upwards in the vague direction of the noontime sun, all whilst balanced on their one remaining foot.

“...will require a sufficiently potent catalyst-” A gurgling voice emanated from without the mound of necrotic tissue. The Mummy Revenant glanced to the hunchback as they emerged up onto the roof, but said nothing.

Shambling ahead, more precariously, it seemed, than before, and keeping on his feet mainly thanks to his staff, the two-headed messenger approached the scene by a few staggering steps, but then stopped short, as if wary of unsettling the already tense balance. Instead, he lightly tapped the floor with his stick, and gave an inchoate, dusty wheeze from his two throats which briefly coalesced into words.

“Lord Warden,” the lower head spoke, as the upper one continued to rasp for a moment before returning to silence, “The Harvester has-”

As if the cursory break of the relative silence on the rooftop had brought down the wrath of a vengeful god, the hunchback was abruptly lifted off their feet and sent hurtling across the length of the rooftop as a wall of unseen force bowled them over, hitting them like a stone from a catapult. Two of the nearby tables fell as their legs gave out and splintered from the residual force, scattering delicate vials and parchment on the ground and to the winds of the vale as metal and crystalline baubles tumbled to the ground beside them or even tipped right off the edge of the tower to fall unceremoniously into the stew of death below. The Mummy Revenant immediately lost its footing, tumbling forward and slamming their jaw against the bannister for the raised wooden platform, the rag-wrapped bottle that had been perched on their foot shattering on the flagstones below and spilling a bright, phosphorescent mixture onto the stonework.

“WHO DARES APPROACH ME WITHOUT WARNING?!?” The voice that tore through the air was pitted by the underlying slur of lurching, liquefied meat as Magus turned his repulsive mound of a body towards where the hunchback lay, the small crevice in its side where his skull peered out orienting, bobbing wildly about the towertop in search of the intruder.

Despite its apparent motley composition, the messenger’s body had proved surprisingly sturdy. Not a single stitch had come loose in his fall, and even his staff had remained firmly in his grip. He propped himself up on his two free hands as he set it upright and rose to his feet, balancing his uneven body with what was almost skill. Righting himself as much he could, he again trudged a few steps forward and stood hesitantly at the edge of the chaos strewn by Rixis’ outburst.

“Lord Warden,” he repeated, almost obtusely retreading his words and tone alike, “The Harvester has sent me to bear a missive for you alone, in utmost secrecy.”

“Feh, just a mindless messenger. Chased the daylight right out of me.” Rixis burbled. “This must be the commander’s idea of a crude prank. They will answer most dearly for it…” He paused, turning the direction of the gap in his roiling mass towards the Mummy Revenant as they stood back up and began to recover from their fall before turning their attention back to the hunchback.

“The Harvester, you say? Utmost secrecy? And what possible matter of import could they have for one such as me? Speak!”

“I cannot say myself,” the hunchback answered in the same windy scraping, “I do not know. But it is here.” He raised a hand to his second head, which had fixed its empty sockets on the Magus’ shifting mass, and pointed at the dome of its skull. “He said that you would see.”

“A message kept secure in the other body’s mind? But it has no jaw, how is it…” Rixis began to murmur. “Ah. Through the other one. The Harvester is clearly a creature of ways and means.”

The hunchback felt a sudden rush of insight as some looming imperative took hold within them.

“Speak your burden’s message.” Rixis slurred.

The two heads briefly twitched in separate directions, then realigned in synchrony as if a single will were taking hold of both. The lower one’s mouth gaped open, then began to speak, more animated than before. Even its voice seemed for a moment to have grown less spectral.

“In old graves from the west, my ghouls have found a thing never seen before.” The messenger hobbled ahead, to where one of the fallen reagents had fallen over, spilling a grainy silvery powder. It had mingled with some concoction from a shattered vial, forming a thick layer like damp sand. With motions too sharp and precise to have wholly been its own, the ghoul drew some lines through it with a finger, producing a strikingly clear depiction of the pendant that had surfaced in Comiriom.

“A trinket, a jewel of some kind, that has a hidden power. A heat comes from it that even we can feel, and a slumbering strength that waits to be roused. You who know of things sorcerous - what sort of burial gift is that, and what is it worth?”

“A burial gift? This amulet was found within a grave?” Rixis’ voice had adopted an almost awe-struck kind of apprehension, as though they had just stumbled across a dragon’s hoard, complete with its serpentine guardian dozing lightly atop it. “What kind, and where?”

The heads twisted towards each other, as if straining to recollect.

“We do not know. The bodies came with many others. It might have been anywhere North of the Narze. Maybe from the coast, maybe from inland.”

“...A few possibilities do occur to me, though it would require direct examination. I will send my aide to appraise your master’s find. If it is one of the more valuable possibilities, I will charge them to bargain with the Harvester for it.” The roiling mass turned away from the hunchback. “Unless there was more, return below and await my aide Lineaus here, they will be returning to Comiriom with you for this purpose.”

“Speak to none of this. Many others may covet that find,” the altered hunchback admonished, before being struck by another spasm which shook his whole body. The heads spun again, and then his whole body seemed to slump, losing the spark of foreign vigour that had animated it for a few moments. He leaned heavily on his staff again, and in his withered voice croaked “It will be done,” before shuffling back towards the descending stairway.

“What is this all about?” Lineus demanded as they groped at their own jaw, probing for evidence of any lingering damage to the aged tissue.

“Not out here, we are too exposed - the wind might carry our words. Into the lab below.” Rixis seethed.

The two traveled down the flight of stairs, Lineaus fetching the key to the locked archway to permit them both entry before closing and locking the portal behind them. Both walls of the room were lined with book and scroll laden shelves, while the middle held a great cauldron perched atop a metal grille and a bench filled with alchemical apparatus and glassware. Trunks heaped with wooden slots filled with various ingredients and substances were heaped about here, and against the far wall was a podium mounting a large, ornate pewter basin. Patches of disturbed dust signified where previously, a number of now missing items and furniture had occupied the room - the clutter that had likely been moved up to the rooftop for Rixis’ purposes.

“What do you know,” Rixis slurred, “Of the Sidereal Amulet?”

“The Sider-” Lineaus began in surprise. “Tha- that is an older artifact, I believe. Younger mages would scarcely recall its history. From what little I have heard, it was an opal, set on a pendant of gold. The histories do not agree on its exact properties. Its bearer could control the weather, read minds, channel lightning, any number of outlandish things most common folk come up with. It was apparently sealed away as a burial gift in some remote, undocumented realm of Leria - I did not know of it at all some years ago, until somebody in Eagoth’s court mentioned offhand how he had acquired it during the campaign.”

“Yesss, so it was said. What you do not know,” Rixis churned across the room towards a certain trunk, blasting its lid open to bounce wildly on its hinges with a gust of power before levitating out numerous volumes that he then began to jumble and sort through in the air. “...was that the Amulet was an ambition of mine, before and after I entered Eagoth’s service. He learned of this, much in the manner as I learned of your own machinations - at the time, I believed he had set out and found the pendant for himself, so as to strike my remaining aspirations out from under me. He had his Vizier announce its discovery to the court, and of course everybody believed the claim though we never lay eyes upon it…”

“...So Eagoth lied about obtaining this artifact just to make you fall in line?” Lineaus queried.

“Not precisely, Eagoth has never held me in such great esteem. It is hard to venture as to all the purposes for the claim, but the pendant used to be, amongst other things, Regalia.” Rixis went on distractedly as he continued pulling books from the trunk with unseen force to jumble about in the air. “It would be one of many ways to shore up his rule as legitimate even amongst the living realms, having conquered all of Leria.”

“And you are certain it was deception and that this is it?” Lineaus ventured.

“It is possible.” Rixis murmured in response. “Plausible enough that it is worth sacrificing a useful pawn like yourself.” Rixis hurled a selection of the books he had pulled out from the trunk into a heap by the door.

“Those are a collection of tomes containing descriptions of similar gems and artifacts you could reasonably pretend the item to be - or that it might actually be if I am wrong. When you arrive to examine it, if it is the Sidereal Amulet, you will lie and bargain with the Harvester to obtain it. If such proves impossible, you are to take it by force.”

“By force?” Lineaus guffawed. “This is a Revenant Major we are discussing here, and one does not simply break that Pax Mortis so brazenly-”

“Oh, just like you were willing to DO AGAINST ME?” Rixis roared wrathfully, sending the mummy to his knees with a blow of force from above coupled with an imperative to kneel. The moment passed, the air settling from the sudden rush of power that had flown through it.

“But you raise a valid point. So I will address the specific issues with taking such action. If you should fail to escape with the Amulet, it will be because you decided to break the Pax Mortis of your own volition - for as you said to me, you did come to settle your own score with Eagoth’s court in much the same way, yes? By all appearances it will be that you were sent to me as punishment, and attempted to rebel by taking the Amulet for yourself. As, in fact, will be the case even if you are successful I imagine. Your only recourse will be to flee and return to me - and if you return without it, I will send you down into the Dead Sea below to be remade.”

“You - you don’t-” Lineaus struggled to draw breath into his dead lungs in order to speak, some invisible pressure still clamping down on him from all sides. “...don’t have the nerve...to risk all this…”

“Oh, it is a gamble, but one well worth it. My plan for the Locus, as you well know, will require a potent catalyst. The Sidereal Amulet, if that is truly what this is, will serve that purpose ably. And if it is not...I will be able to weather the consequences, even if you do not.” Rixis rumbled darkly as he drew the heap of his body away from the trunk and towards the basin near the back of the chamber.

“Now come, there are a number of enchantments I must cast upon you so as to promote your chances of success, if theft becomes necessary. Do endeavor to stay out of trouble before then, many of these will only remain useful for a handful of instances…”
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In the Shadow of the Kronburg

A post by Cyclone, Lauder, Oraculum

It’s the Bloodhammer.

The realization made Faustus stiffen, but of course he never displayed such emotion. ‘Masks beneath the masks,’ his mind reminded him. That was the only way of things. Still, even a strong will and a disciplined mind could struggle to overcome some terrors. For a few moments it felt as though the revenant’s heart was pounding, though of course it was not, and had not, for a long long time. That was just a sort of phantom sensation, probably akin to how maimed men had sometimes claimed to feel aches in their lost limbs.

As the pounding of hooves grew louder with the horsemens’ rapid approach, his own posse watched and answered with deafening silence. Faustus banished the idle and useless thoughts of cripples and lost limbs and other things, his mind now racing to recall all that he knew of this crazed revenant major. He ruled some bleak foothills and highlands from some fortress that he’d ruled in life, one of the last to have fallen. And his was a quiet and solitary nature, the revenant hardly ever leaving his keep save to go where Eagoth’s wars called. His realm produced little if anything, and yet somehow he’d retained his title, his lands, his head, and his sizable army (though it grew ever more ragged with the passage of time and his lack of income or attention to its upkeep, to hear the tales). All of those musings were of course overshadowed by the Whisperer’s recollection of all the countless ghouls, revenants minor, and even one or two revenants major that had gone missing in the country about his lands, or on visits to his keep. And even despite the open secret that this was a cruel, wasteful, and indulgent lord who cared little for the Pax Mortis and even less for his fellows in servitude of the Great Necromancer, again he retained his title, his lands, his head, and his army.

Perhaps it was the army and that formidable keep of his that enabled him to get away with such; smoking him out of his castle would certainly not be easy. But Faustus suspected that the Bloodhammer’s transgressions were suffered only because of the terror that he and his tale gave to the undead and the living alike. Every king or emperor needed his beasts of war, and this Bloodhammer had to be among the greatest of beasts.

And suddenly the pounding of hooves came to a stop, and the Bloodhammer and his outriders came to a halt just a few yards from Faustus, Razzak, and the entourage of caravan guards and porters. There was a pregnant pause as the giant lord revenant remained seated atop his mount, dead eyes peering through the slits of a greathelm to rest upon Faustus. The Merchant’s swollen body still looked small and childlike before the bulk of that giant, but he met the lord revenant’s gaze with no sign of fear.

“Lord Bjan,” he finally called out in greeting, “I had not expected to chance upon you on the road.”

In one motion, the Bloodhammer raised an arm, and for a moment it seemed as though he was about to strike. But then his hand grasped the crown of his helm and tore it away. The face underneath revealed why Bjan was so feared: even through his deathly grey countenance, a barely restrained fury shone through, a mad gleam that appeared to threaten to be always on the point of erupting into a storm of savage, gratuitous violence.

“No, you would not think of meeting me on my road, across my fields, in my domain, would you?” The towering brute attempted a mocking sneer, but his ragged lips, splintered yellow teeth and heavy jaw, still draped with the tattered, mouldy remains of what had once been a great beard, turned it into a beastly snarl. He lowered a hand from the reins of the creature he rode - a great, ghastly amalgamation of human and horse from the flesh-pits of Comiriom, for no ordinary steed, not even undead, could bear his swollen cadaverous bulk - and lifted a massive warhammer from a holster by his leg. The weapon looked old and weathered, scarred by a thousand blows, and rumour had it that it was ever the same one that had earned Bjan his name many decades ago. It certainly seemed venerable enough for that to be true, though no less menacing for its age.

“I know what you truly expected - to crawl by without giving me my due.” The horsemen behind him drew closer. They were ghouls clad in grimy, yet still robust armour that had clearly once come from a good forge, wielding spears and spiked maces. Their worm-eaten, unfeeling eyes dully stared at the hammer’s head, as if expecting a signal. “But you are not as wily as you think yourself. Speak, then, you flea - how do the living do battle these days? What do they wield in their puny blooded hands?”

A robber baron indeed, the Broker found himself musing to himself, and not very happily.

Faustus had always possessed a quick mind and plenty of wit, but before he could even speak his answer and try some clever way to defuse the confrontation, that strange unbound ghoul that he’d encountered just before the Bloodhammer’s arrival decided to step forth.

“I do not believe he owes you any dues,” came the hallowed voice of Razzak, having stood silent as the two greeted each other with displeasure. The ghoul stared down the Bloodhammer with mild contempt as it seemed that empty threats came about to intimidate Faustus for coming to the lands. No emotion could be conveyed as the skeleton watched the Bloodhammer and his entourage of brutes, noting their weapons and armor to not be as old as his own. Yet, Razzak stood his ground, unmoving from his spot on the road and very clearly lacking fear, as he spoke again, “I believe it is unbecoming of someone of your stature to coerce a merchant in this way. You are owed nothing upon this road.”

“Indeed!” Bjan’s semblance of a grin widened, baring most of his teeth in an outright wolfish grimace. His voice had dropped to a menacing growl. He gave a curt wave with his weapon, and the dead riders drew back again, with not a single superfluous motion. Faustus’ own guards remained eerily statuesque the entire time, the Broker observing with tacit interest. In a vault, the giant was off the back of his steed, landing on his feet with a heavy thud that stirred a small cloud of pale desiccated dirt from the ruined road.

“If I cared about the thoughts of every worm like you I would have rotted away in a ditch long ago,” he advanced towards the convoy, raising his hammer again - this time, it seemed, in earnest. “Pedlar, make way! I have missed the feeling of smashing skulls!”

Faustus had of course already stepped back and out of the way of the quarreling two; though not ingracious to Razzak’s protest, he certainly was not the type to stick his own neck out, and he had every expectation that this strange ghoul was about to meet a quick and grisly end. But he was wrong.

The skeleton began advancing towards the hulking mass of rotted flesh and armor, planning to give the Bjan the respect of meeting halfway. Razzak, however, kept silent as he approached and kept his blade ready for attack, raising his shield. Bits of bluish-green fell away from the decrepit bronze armor as the skeleton continued his stride, soon breaking into a jog and quickly a sprint, as Razzak surged towards Bjan. The old blade steadied itself against the raised shield, the sounds of Razzak’s boots against the ground and the shifting of armor as he moved filled the air. It was in the moment that the old, decayed corpse remembered how much he had longed to hear the sound again.

Facing him, the Bloodhammer hastened his own pace. In a single stride, he had gained speed, propelling himself ahead with no sound but the trample of his feet and the faint rattling of his armour. As he began to draw near to his opponent, he abruptly veered to the side, the length of his step bringing him beyond the paved road in a moment. In the same motion, he swung his immense hammer sideways, swiftly bringing it towards Razzak’s flank.

Razzak pivoted in the moment, quickly shifting out of range of the Bloodhammer’s attack, although just barely enough to avoid some of his bones crushed by the assault. Yet, the skeleton would not allow the potential blow to go without consequence as Razzak surged forward and thrust his sword forwards, aimed for a joint in the Bloodhammer’s armor, the point connecting the Revenant’s hammering arm to his body.

A flash of surprise passed across Bjan’s features as his adversary’s unexpectedly swift blade darted between his limbs and scraped upon the edge of his armour’s plates, biting into the dead flesh beneath. The wound would have been a debilitatingly painful one for a living body, but even in life the Breaker had never quailed under the sting of swords; in death, it was only the display of skill from what had seemed to be a nameless ghoul among thousands that gave him an instant’s pause. The already rigid muscle in his shoulder stiffened further, and the giant reached to grasp Razzak’s lunging arm with his free hand.

There was nowhere Razzak could retreat to without abandoning his sword within the arm of Bjan, however, that would leave the skeleton without a weapon and he was hardly as fast as he was in life. Still, the decrepit duelist pulled his sword back, attempting to make sure that the Bloodhammer could not grab his arm. Razzak, however, could not get free in time and Bjan’s cold grip went around the arm of the ghoul, although not without resistance as Razzak began to hammer away at Bjan’s forearm with the edge of his shield. To little avail, it seemed, for the brute’s armoured grip was implacable - until a fortuitous blow struck straight into the concavity of his elbow. Dead flesh twitched under laws it had not quite wholly left behind, and the grasp briefly loosened.

Bjan’s hammer-arm was now free of its rigour, however, and the great maul came swinging down towards Razzak’s skull as the huge warrior pressed ahead.

The sound of a metal clang ran through the air as Bjan’s hammer-arm collided with Razzak’s shield, and with the loosened grip the skeleton wretched his sword-arm free and backed up as quickly as he could. His shield had partially caved at the site of where the Bloodhammer had met the shield, surely meaning that Razzak would have met his end had he not blocked the blow. Yet, such thoughts were not present in the undead’s mind as he readied himself once more, taking up a defensive posture.

Bjan, however, did not push further. Lowering his hammer, he bared his teeth in another sneer, which seemed this time to be fraught with satisfaction rather than ire.

“It has been more years than I care to count since anyone gave me as much as a spit of a fight,” he rumbled, with a shade of joviality brushing past the frost of his voice, “Wherever this leech -” he motioned to Faustus “- dug you up from, he got a good bargain of it. A scar has always been a worthy tax under the Kronburg.”

He turned back, and in a few strides he had rejoined his steed, which he leapt astride with little regard for all his bulk must have weighted.

“Pass as you will,” he pointed his hammer further ahead down the road, “But I would yet hear of the arms of the living. Each of us should be ready to crush them when we march the next time.”

If Faustus had been taken aback by the turn of events, his posture betrayed nothing. Calm as a pond’s still waters, he flicked a finger toward one of his own servants to call it forth, then bid it, ”Bring forth one of the new weapons for the good lord revenant to witness.”

Though he’d never turned from Bloodhammer, only then did he deign to answer back to Bjan directly. ”A development has been made in the Most Serene Republic of Phasto: the workshop of some ingenious inventor designed a rapid-firing crossbow. I would know little of its implications, of course, but my suspicion is that it may promise to revolutionize sieges and mayhaps war altogether; it is easy to see knights in heavy armor becoming a thing of the past when they could be slain in scores by just a few unwashed peasants bearing such weapons. But my work was merely to obtain specimens to present to our most talented engineers in Necron that they can in turn replicate the technology for ourselves. Ah, here is an example of the device.”

One of the porters presented a crossbow that managed to look bulky and queer despite its ornate decorations and exquisitely fresh woodwork. True to the Whisperer’s word, it seemed to hold many a quarrel inside, and reloading was as fast and easy as flicking some lever between each pull of the trigger.

”I would daresay that the tactics and spirit of the mainlanders might be of more interest to your ears. The noose they’ve wrapped about Leria’s neck is loosening; with each passing year, some realms grow more dubious of the need for this blockade, or they wonder if they might spare some of their own coin by reducing their commitments and trusting in their supposed allies to pick up the slack. Indeed, old rivalries are starting to remerge with the lack of pressure that we have been putting forth, and the alliance of the living begins to slowly fracture. There’s already some infighting. If the Great Necromancer willed it, I’m sure that I could heap lard unto the fire and ensure that even more comes about.”

“If they start biting each other’s throats, we might finally have our chance to ride south, and the sooner that happens the better!” The Bloodhammer clenched a fist, as though the impatience to wade into combat with the southrons had been devouring him then and there - which might as well have been the case. “I tire of rotting in my halls like a maggot. If you can stoke those flames and sway the Necromancer to hasten our war, you will be well rewarded the moment I taste warm blood again.”

The skeleton stepped forwards, looking at the contraption with an unshifting look that would give the same look every skeletal face would bear, indifference. Yet, as Razzak stared at it, it was clear that he was interested in the device in some sort of capacity, whether it was greatly or a mild thought was something that could not be outwardly told. Then, the duelist looked between Faustus and Bjan in a gesture that was far clearer to tell, even without the necessary facial tissue.

“What is a crossbow?” Razzak inquired in a hallowed voice of genuine confusion.

It was easy to forget that some of these ghouls had been roused from graves dug hundreds or even thousands of years ago, or else forgotten much of what they had known in life. Razzak’s tarnished bronze arms of course said that it was the former, which made Faustus more inclined to answer. Trying to reteach a ghoul with a rotted mind all that it had once known was oft like trying to fill a cracked jug full of water again. ”You know what a simple bow is, I would presume? The crossbow has much the same purpose. It is a more complicated weapon to be sure, but with the added complexity comes some advantages.”

The revenant minor snatched the thing from the hands of the wretched porter that had brought it forward, then showed Razzak the trigger. ”It can fire with greater power than most bows, enabling it to pierce superior armor, and from a greater range at that. You can see that once the bolt is loaded, it can be indefinitely kept at the ready as well, whereas a bowman can hardly keep a strong longbow drawn for more than a few seconds. Having the weapon remain primed proves useful for keeping a steady aim. And this rapid-fire iteration can reload quickly from the bolts kept inside. A trained archer can of course maintain a similar rate of fire and perhaps even comparable accuracy, though this weapon nonetheless has all the advantages of crossbows without the normal drawback of a slow and cumbersome reloading process.”

Faustus demonstrated by shooting a quick three bolts off at some nearby hillside.

Razzak watched the bolts trail into the distance before turning back to Faustus, almost seeming to be in shock at the display, going so far as to take a step back. The ghoul looked at the contraption, drawing his sword once more as if the machine threatened his very fabric of existence. However, as the skeleton had just finished defending Faustus, he did not lash out immediately instead exclaiming, “That is an affront to all honor! Destroy it! Throw it the fires!”

“It’s a weapon for weaklings and cowards,” Bjan grunted dismissively from the top of his steed, baring his teeth in visible disgust, “But if the living would turn to this, let them! True men are only tempered by battle. The more they lean on these toys, the more watery will their blood become, and when we will come for them only a filthy rabble will be left to face us. The warriors among us remain as strong as the day we fell on the field. No effete trinket will save them from us.”

The poshly garbed caravaneer had little more than an ambivalent shrug in reaction to their disdain, but he did object to destroying his prized trinket. Obtaining the thing hadn’t been easy. ”A mere curiosity for the engineers to look over. Perhaps they or their masters will dismiss it as nothing and cast it into some fire, but it is not for you or I to do such a thing.”

“Have the living really gone so low as to resort to these… things?” Razzak asked, mostly to himself as he continued to look at the crossbow.
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Hidden 3 mos ago 3 mos ago Post by Flagg
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Flagg Strange. This outcome I did not foresee.

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The School of Arts Inscrutable

Some Two Centuries Before Eagoth's Conquest...

It was known to the common folk as the Wizard's Tourney, though- of course- none of them were allowed to attend. Each year a few peasants or city folk would try to sneak past the School's gates or scale the black stone walls for a glimpse of the colorful out-of-towners weaving exotic spells. They would, inevitably, be hanged for their troubles.

To the participants it was known as the Trials, and they took place every two and a half years, always (for reasons now obscure) in Comiriom. The most talented students were culled from the handful of Arcanums scattered across Leria's petty kingdoms; along with contingents from Phrasto, Vissaban, and lands beyond as far as Nyssos. They were put through a series of grueling- indeed often macabre- challenges both mental and physical, designed to test their mastery of the elements and the transmundane.

And each Trial culminated in this. The final day. The Contest.

Magister Syverin paced the edge of the sparring circle, black robes billowing behind him. The air had a faintly sour, faintly spicy smell, the characteristic scent of discharged aether. The magister's narrowed gaze was fixed on the pair of contestants squaring off in the in ring. He was not alone. A crowd of students, magisters, and other contestants had assembled in the quad to watch the man they had no doubt would be the winner of the Trials.

Prince Callidus of Yzen.

He was fighting two other young mages at once, both dour, shirtless, tattoo-covered Phrastans wielding bladed staves. Callidus himself- tall, dark haired, clad in flowing white- fought with a simple wooden staff.

The Phrastans were giving him the hardest time he'd had all day- all three combatants were moving so quickly their staves were little more than blurrs. Fast as they were, the Phrastans couldn't manage to land a blow on the young Prince, who weaved around them and knocked aside their strikes with easy grace.

The crowd murmured in appreciation of the display. Syverin was less sanguine. He had seen virtuoso performances before. He knew the combination of rare genius and magical power was a dangerous one, had seen too many talented mages lose their minds, their very humanity, to the allure of godlike power.

One of the Phrastans managed to break Callidus' guard and the Prince let loose a burst of magical force: there was a flash of whitish light and both Phrastans staggered backwards. Callidus now pressed his advantage, sweeping the legs out from one opponent and stunning him with another force-blast.

The remaining Phrastan backed away from the Prince, mouth moving rapidly as he wove an offensive spell. The air shimmered around him and Syverin felt the hair rise on the back of his neck. The crowd fell silent.

Callidus advanced on the Phrastan, unconcerned, and as he closed the other mage let loose, sending bolts of bluish lightning at the Prince, who caught the bolts on the end of his staff and sent them harmlessly into the ground. The Phrastan did not let up however, and Callidus' staff began to char and smolder. He was forced to dodge a few of the magical bolts and begin backing away. Behind the Prince, his fallen opponent was pulling himself to his feet.

Syverin crossed his arms, waiting to see how the Prince of Yzen would pull himself out of a seemingly impossible situation. He had no doubt Callidus would, for he knew the Prince's secret. The royal line of Yzen had long been gifted with foresight, indeed they plausibly claimed Vymar the Seer as their lineage's progenitor. But Callidus was no mere gifted augur. His father was a middling mage but a harsh taskmaster and his son was the object of his vicarious ambition. It was known that as a child the Prince was denied food and water if he failed correctly to predict the day's weather.

To see hazy visions in dreams was one thing, to foresee your opponents' next move in the midst of a fight was a rare skill indeed. As he watched Callidus masterfully sidestep a magical bolt so that it collided with the Phrastan behind him, Syverin wondered if he was not watching the Leria's future conquerer. After all, such talent wedded to the crown of a powerful state like Yzen could only...

It was then that Syverin noticed the boy standing next to him: a reedy, ill favored youth of maybe fifteen, with pockmarked skin and dirty hair. He wore dirt-stained peasant clothes and his eyes were rimmed red, as though he'd been crying.

"Boy!" barked Syverin. In the sparring ring, Callidus closed with the remaining Phrastan and quickly disarmed him. The crowd cheered. The opponents in the ring shook hands, Callidus grinning, the Phrastans bloodied and fuming.

The youth glanced at Syverin and smiled, "I challenge the Prince next."

His voice was surprisingly soft, fluttering and almost girlish.

"Who let you in here?" demanded Syverin.

"I let myself in," said the youth, watching Callidus, who had turned from the defeated Phrastans and was bowing to the crowd.

"I CHALLENGE YOU, WHITE PRINCE!" screamed the boy, and he laughed.

Syverin struck the youth across the face, sending him stumbling backward into the mud. The magister was just about to call for the guards when Callidus himself strode over, smiling.

"It's alright, Magister," said the Prince, helping the boy back to his feet, "No need for that. Tell me, boy, what is your name?"

The youth smiled, "You'll know that soon enough. I said, I challenge you."

Callidus laughed, "Well I'm afraid it wou-"

The Prince paused, frowning, as he met the boy's eyes. His mouth fell open in surprise.

There was a deafening crack and Callidus was sent sprawling backwards, nose broken, blood spattering his white robes.

The youth laughed and took a step forward into the sparring ring. Callidus sat up, dazed. He made a half-hearted attempt to reach for his staff but the youth uttered something under his breath and the Prince's weapon shattered.

"You didn't see me coming did you?" asked the boy. As he advanced, Callidus' body tumbled bonelessly away from him, dragged by unseen hands.

Some in the crowd charged the youth, or hurled offensive spells at him. He paid them no attention. The spells fizzled in the air around him, the bodies where flung away with the same invisible force that had knocked back the Prince.

"Pathetic," said the youth as Callidus managed finally to break his invisible bonds and struggled to his feet, "I had thought maybe you would be a challenge. The white prince. The man who sees the future."

Callidus, gaunt face covered in blood, grimacing, sent a bolt of searing white fire at the youth, who smacked it aside with a backhanded gesture.

The guards by now had broken through the crowd, swords drawn. Several Magisters, students and Trial contestants, including Syverin, had assembled as well, staves raised and aimed at the youth, ready to unleash a whirlwind of offensive magic.

The pair of Phrastans now stood behind Callidus, ready to fight alongside him.

There was a long moment of silence as the youth surveyed the forces arranged against him, his face serenely unconcerned.

"Who are you?" asked Callidus.

"I told you, seer," said the youth, contemptuously, "You'll know soon enough."

There was a bright emerald flash, a crack of thunder, and the boy was gone.

Sour Bridge

45 Years Ago

The White Wizard stood alone on the battle-scarred bridge. Waiting for the dead.

He was alone. The armies of the living had long since fled south. Forestalling their doom.

There had been a future, once, where victory over Eagoth had been possible. Theleden, empowered by the Wizard's own magic, could have thrown down the Necromancer. Become a great king over a unified Leria.

But that future had fled. Eagoth and Theleden alike, in different ways and both unknowingly, had seen to that.

Now the only ways forward were dark paths, sinful and treacherous.

The Wizard tightened his grip on his silvered staff. It had begun to rain. Green-tinged lightning flashed in the dirty sky.

In time the Necromancer's ragged horde shambled out of the gloom. The crowd of twitching corpses stopped well within bowshot of Callidus.

wizard they hissed in unison.

"I am here," said Callidus, "for your Master."

A lone ghoul stepped out from the festering mob. Barefoot, cowled, dressed in tattered robes.

It approached Callidus and threw back its hood.

"Oh," said the wizard, "Oh, I see."
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Hidden 3 mos ago 3 mos ago Post by Jeddaven
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Jeddaven the Dunmeri

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The Whitestone Mountains

Jagged bolts of white-hot lightning stabbed down from the sky outside Arane's shelter, each flash punctuated by peals of deafening thunder and what seemed like an endless torrent of flesh-rotting rain. Excessive moisture, perhaps, was one of the most difficult things for someone like Arane to deal with, accelerating the inevitable rot of undead flesh that all of Eagoth's servants experienced. It was thus that she found herself and her companions huddled together deep inside a mountainside cave, shielding their bodies from the unwelcome downpour. They'd been waiting for hours, quietly conversing in Elvish - an unacceptable delay, if not for the hazards brought on by venturing outside. The chance for conversation, in its own way, was more than enough compensation for Arane - it reminded her of the days before she died; the celebrations she attended with her parents, the gossip and idle chit-chat she often engaged in with the daughters and sons of fellow Elven nobility... And, in these dark days, societal barriers were torn down, with she and her companions united in purpose and finding camaraderie in their shared experiences. She went on like that for hours laughing and telling jokes with her former bodyguards, her Captain - until, suddenly, the entire party went silent, elongated ears twitching practically in unison.

Outside, a sound broke through the din of the storm - or, more accurately, became distinct apart from the cacophony of Mother Nature's wrath. A look passed between Arane and Alaras, more than enough for her to confirm that her companion heard the same thing she did - the regimented beat of boots against rock and soil, the sort of lockstep only realistically possible amongst either the most impeccably well-trained mortals or the walking dead of Eagoth. These could be no average ghouls, though - over the sound of footsteps, Arane heard a faint marching tune, its sound too shifting to be borne of the insanity of a broken ghoul's mind. As it drew closer and closer, she wracked her brain for its origin, but she could scarcely recall anyone specific - a blessing, bringing with it less chance to be uncovered, if half-mortal eyes could even see through her arcane cloak.

Eventually, the sounds became so loud that even human ears would hear them over the noise of the storm - and it began echoing through the cave, though Arane made no effort to turn towards it. The less aware her party seemed, after all, the less suspicion they would draw.

"...It seems someone had the same thought we did, lads." Came the sound of a gruff, rattling male voice, so tinged with a lack of care that its experience was made immediately obvious.

"And who might ye' be, travelers?" He said. Arane didn't respond - not for several seconds, at least.

"T-tuh... Tuh....Travelers. We are... Travelers. Sheltering from the... The..." Arane sputtered, clutching her forehead as if wracked by migraines, turning to face her guest.

"...The storm. It's called a storm. The shite fallin' from the sky's rain." A figure - the same voice as before - spoke. He was clad in steel plate, of surprisingly quality for one of Eagoth's men, dented and scratched by combat as it was. His body, on the other hand, was in far worse condition - though lacking many of the signs of degeneration that came with simple rot, the wear and tear of a soldier was more than evident, ragged strips of discoloured muscle and skin stitched into places where it had otherwise been eroded away. His jaw, perhaps surprisingly, was quite intact, as was the man's face, aside from the hinging joints where his lower jawbone would move to speak - ancient scars on the man's countenance spoke to years spent on the battlefield prior to his undeath, a greathelm clasped tightly under one shoulder, sword in the other hand, and shield secured across his backs by straps of dried, rotting leather.

More than a dozen men, similarly dressed, waited behind him, in varying states of wear and disrepair - but without exception, they were all *active*, moving and shifting about much in the way men did when bored with themselves, as slightly off as their movements seemed. All, of course, were armed.

"Storm... Rain. Yes. I remember now. Do you remember, brother?" Arane said, tilting her head toward Carralon, a young, otherwise beautiful elven man that sat opposite Aralas.

"Yes, I... The... The memory is becoming clear now." He nodded, reaching up to cup his chin. "I saw a storm, once, I think... On a... An ocean."

The undead commander - a Revenant Minor, Arane assumed - shrugged, leading himself and his men deeper into the cave, now fully under shelter.

"Well, we'll be joinin' ye', then. Never marched through the damned rain 'less I absolutely feckin' had to, an' I don't intend ta start now!" The Revenant laughed, expelling a series of gasps of moist, foetid air from his lungs. Arane was thankful she could ignore the sheer pungency of the smell, though she couldn't help but long for being able to tell when something did smell unpleasant, nonetheless. Still, it was likely for the best in a land of rot, corpses, and endless death.

"You can... Join us." She said.

"Uhuh. Not much of a conversationalist, I can see, so we'll be leavin' you to your devices."

Arane nearly let out a sigh of relief, narrowly managing to suppress the urge. Her disguise worked! That was an incredible relief, but...

As minutes ground on into hours, the only sounds being the storm outside and the gambling and chatter of the undead men, she began to grow restless. Arane never particularly liked waiting, though she was easily capable of patience, but that simply wasn't what was bothering her.

The soldier hadn't seen through her disguise, but he seemed experienced, by his haphazard manner - and judging by the number of well-armed, fully mindful ghouls at his apparent command, he must surely have been competent. He was perhaps friendly, even, but that did not mean he would fail to do his duty - by making note of a strange party of lonesome, half-present ghouls wandering through the mountains, apparently able to do so despite their lack of memories. Would he report their presence? Tail them himself? That was a risk Arane wasn't sure she could afford to take.

Eventually, though, she was forced into action. The rain began to let up, slowing to trickle, and Elven whispers passed between Arane and her companions. Theirs was a strange language, pronounceable by the human tongue but just as difficult to learn as any of the least-spoken tongues of mankind, effectively usable as a coded tongue among her kith and kin.

"The storm will end soon. We cannot risk allowing them to leave." Arane said. Her companions each nodded, though not in perfect unison. Hands wandered beneath cloaks, reaching for wickedly curved, sharpened elven blades - others for the long poles on their backs, the tips of polearms hidden beneath bundles of cloth. The undead men moved, too, though only to stand and leave - and the elves were upon them. Aralas was first to make contact, the singing blade of her metallic blue poleaxe shearing through the spine of one of the soldiers entirely, only to shatter his exposed shin-bone with a mule's kick to his leg mere moments afterwards, then shattering another's ribcage with a return swing from the weapon's hammer-tip. In those few moments where none of Arane's victims understood what was happening, confusion reigned - Carrolon's backsword sheared a soldier's wrist from his arm, deflecting his counterblow with a parrying blade. Elara, the party's archer, pinned one of the risen dead to a wall of rock with a careful shot from her reflexed bow.

Haleth, a veritable wall of elven muscle, charged headlong into battle, bowling over a pair of the soldiers with her sheer might, while Arodin kept another two at bay with his partisan.

Arane, for her part, busied herself with her commander - the Revenant Minor, a veritable beast of a man. Her familiar cackled as her fingers danced through the air, weaving magic through the air as the Revenant charged toward her. A sabre, curved toward the end, appeared in Arane's grasp, glowing with golden light - and Arane smiled, muttering an Elvish battle-prayer under her breath.

Though she managed to parry the Revenant's first blow, he struck with incredible force, unbefitting of a corpse. No words were spoken - this man was a soldier, after all, and he had scarcely little time for words in the midst of battle. His focus was hard as steel, unbreakable by most means - that much was immediately obvious to Arane as she danced out of the way of another blow. His swordsmanship, too, was impressive. He moved too quickly for Arane to easily bring her blade under his guard, especially with a shield at hand, despite her incredible dexterity.

No matter, she thought, sucking in a sharp breath.

She stumbled, blessed blade briefly soaring out of her grasp. The soldier, seeing an opportunity, permitted Arane's fall, her hand briefly brushing against his plate. He brought up his arm, ready to skewer her with a stabbing blow...

Then he froze with an abrupt, awkward jerk, metal screeching as his armor turned inward, spines punching through his muscles like an improperly sized iron maiden. What once protected him was now a nest of spikes, punching through his body in so many places that he was totally unable to engage in any movement but pathetic shaking. The battle was far from over, though - Arane had only managed to defeat the Revenant thanks to the element of total surprise, and many of his men yet remained. Noblewoman or not - she was no longer sure - Arane was no layabout, charging in to join her guards in battle, summoning her arcane blade back to her hand.

Thankfully, the veterans, skilled as they were, lacked the sheer physical ability of their commander. It was a simple enough matter to send one smashing against the rock walls of the cave with a powerful blast of force, arcane blade passing through another's armor to sever his spine like a hot knife through butter. Clutching the skull of said veteran in her hand, Arane cast yes another spell - and his flesh evaporated, transforming into a storm of reddish smoke that swarmed over any of the soldiers it touched, sapping the moisture from their flesh so intensely that it dried up into thin strips and began to flake away with every motion. To cast so many spells in quick succession was difficult, to be sure, even tiring - but Arane was a potent spellcaster, and mental exhaustion was something she was more than willing to accept for the sake of ensuring the safety of herself and her comrades.

Soon enough, though, the cave went silent - relatively so. Half-corpses crawled about the ground, attempting to claw and bite, but they were of little threat.

Arane finally allowed herself that sigh of relief, watching as the number of foes before them rapidly dwindled. Even her familiar was enjoying itself, its foul made dissipating to reveal a glowing, golden countenance, clawing strips of flesh away from its foes and buzzing around as an incredibly bright, annoying distraction, carried on glimmering, dragonfly wings.

Rising back to her feet, Arane looked the soldier in the eyes. His helmet was removed at the time she cast her spells, thankfully - he could speak, but little else.

"Lady Tiedriel!" He gasped.

"Yes, Lady Tiedriel... You heard of Eagoth's attempts to dispose of me, then?"

Seeing no point in being obstinate, the Revenant spoke freely, unafraid despite his predicament. "What the hell are you doing here, in these mountains? You should've been killed by the mortal navies!"

"I never met them." Arane explained, offering the Revenant an entirely nonchalant, uncaring shrug. "You understand that I can't alow you to leave her alive, yes? Or... Would it be un-alove?" She chuckled. The man, surprisingly, chuckled in turn.

"Aye... Thought as much."

No longer worried by the rigours of combat, Arane worked her spellcraft, flicking her wrist - the spines shifted, just enough to shatter the man's bones into hundreds of pieces, ripping his flesh - and the spines vanished, leaving his armour as it once was.

Around her lay dozens of corpses, and Arane joined her bodyguards in ensuring that each and every one was pulverized into dust. They were soaked to the bone, unfortunately - too wet to burn.

Deep within the Whitecap Mountains

Arane could scarcely remember travelling to the Whitestone mountains - the name brought to mind the very same peaks that she now ascended, but she struggled to discern whether the images brought to mind were derived from her own experiences or merely the study of paintings and books. That, perhaps, was the greatest curse of undeath - doubt in oneself, and the faint pull towards obedience of one’s creator. Arane lacked the knowledge of necromancy to know why this was; whether it was Eagoth or her own mind that was to blame - but as she clambered up one stone step, she supposed that, after all, it didn’t really matter. Her mind had been made up years ago - Eagoth and his empire would be destroyed, or she would achieve her final death trying.

The massive stone fortress that towered before her, its greyish-white face barely visible against the mountain face, reminded her of her own mission in some ways - like her, it had survived for decades beyond its ‘death’, persevering in the face of constant, punishing assault that it could do scarcely little about. Like her, it refused to collapse despite the overwhelming odds she faced. And like her, Arane thought, it might prove to be the salvation of the living despite its half-death. Arane hoped for as much, at least.

The further her party travelled up the mountains, the more Arane began to question her choices - her goal, the destruction of Eagoth, was of the utmost importance, but how would she reach it? Could any of the other Revenants be trusted to not betray her to Eagoth? The mortals across the sea, perhaps, could, but what reason would they have to trust a supposedly rebellious Revenant Major?

Sighing, the noblewoman let her dainty, silken fingertips brush against a nearby tree branch, the cold of gathered snow utterly imperceptible through her deadened hide. So far up, the mountains seemed practically dead - truly empty, unlike the foul parody of existence that dominated the places below. Perhaps the castle’s inhabitants used magecraft to feed themselves - or perhaps the fortress was abandoned due to a shortage of food in the wake of Eagoth’s conquest. Learned as she was, Arane simply didn’t have the answers - and the only way to find out was to enter the castle itself.

All it took was a quick, gentle turn to the right - toward the looming fortress - and the environment around Arane suddenly seemed to change. She could practically feel how her Captain’s mood shifted, a hand wandering to the haft of her poleaxe as they found themselves trodding upon matte, runecarved stone, a stark contrast to the broken steps - if even that - that dotted the rest of the mountain range. Had she not known the hour of the culmination of Eagoth’s conquest, Arane and her companions might have even assumed someone had been here recently, clearing away snow and debris, grinding away imperfections in the stone that would’ve proven dangerous to anyone walking upon them. Still, it would’ve been outright idiocy to call the pathway welcoming. Despite the decoration that studded it, whether runes or wintry flora, it was clearly designed for defense, only just wide enough to fit a wagon through, perhaps a handful of men abreast. It was difficult, even, to tell where the mountain ended and the fortress began - Arane swore she could see arrowslits carved into some of the smaller outcropping peaks nearby, but even Elara’s keen perception could give little but a shrug in response to her inquiries. The snow, of course, played havoc with their vision - but, even so, she wondered what could possibly be at play here.

More foreboding, perhaps, were the stone figures standing sentry closer toward what appeared to be the fortress’s gates. Each of the dozen was an elven warrior, three abreast on each side, three male and three female, though all carried unique armaments and suits of armour. Arane, however, was far more concerned with how their eyes seemed to follow her every move, though she knew such artistic feats were well within the capabilities of the most elite sculptors. Why such attention was paid to an ostensibly hidden fortress, however, was another question entirely, but it was a question for another time. For the time being, she and her fellows remained preoccupied with the grueling climb up towards the keep, difficult even for the untiring bodies of the risen dead. As of yet, though, natural difficulty and issues of morale aside, she had yet to meet any threats along the climb.

For that reason, she wasn’t entirely surprised when she arrived at the top, nor were her bodyguards, judging by a brief glance forward and back. Alaras, of course, led the way - even if danger was not expected, it could always strike at a moment’s notice, even in a land of rot and hopelessness.

Perhaps, though, Leria was not a hopeless land. Before Arane's very eyes, in fact, stood a spark of that which was so rare as to be valued more highly than the finest diamond - she knew not what, but as her hand reached up to brush against the cold metal of the fortress's gates, she hoped she would find it within

Except the steel wasn't cold; it was warm to the touch, as if heated by a nearby hearth. Anywhere else, it would've been insignificant, but here among these frigid peaks, it seemed to burn hotter than the sun itself. Arane's eyes widened, but before she could even turn to inform Alaras of the possible danger, the doors swung inward, unbarred. There was space for a portcullis above, she noticed, and for a second deeper inside - why, then were they left open?

Alaras, faithful as always, pushed her way ahead of Arane before she was able to push further on her own. The rest of her bodyguards followed closely behind, hands wandering close to their weapons - but they had no need to speak, communicating simple, clipped messages in Elven battle-sign. Deeper inside was a massive, empty chamber, surrounded on all sides by yet more defensive measures from arrowslits in the walls to murder holes in the ceilings high above - a killing zone designed to allow the easy slaughter of anyone that managed to break through the gates. In such darkness, it was difficult to see what the chamber was made of, but the way the floor squeaked with every step she took instantly told her it was made of some kind of finely polished stone, scuffed as it'd become thanks to the ravages of time. However, curious as she might have been about the room, Arane was well aware that she wouldn't find what she was looking for by dawdling, silently ordering Alaras to lead them through the gate looming ahead.

In the next handful of hours, Arane's party passed through many more such rooms - killing zones, trapped halls, stairways, and empty living quarters caked in dust alike. None seemed poorly maintained aside from dust accumulated over decades of disuse, shielded from the outdoors as they were.

Finally, though, their wandering was brought to a brief end - ahead of Arane and her companions was a large, wooden platform, held aloft above a dark pit by ropes and windlasses - an elevator, it seemed. Again, silent messages passed between the group - and Elara, the most lithe among them, slipped a hand past the metal bars protecting it, deftly unlocking the elevator from within. Haleth stepped forward, testing its weight, then placed her hand on the crank inside with a nod, gesturing for Lady Tiedriel to follow - and so she did, stepping inside as the contraption descended into near-total darkness.

Arane felt her heart drop into her stomach, anticipation growing so overwhelming that she swore it was about to kill her. From what little she knew of the fortress, this elevator was likely to lead to its temple, the innermost part of the entire complex, the point which would be most difficult to reach or damage. If she was going to find what she needed, this was where it would be. This was where the structure seemed warmest, insulated completely from the outdoors, and heated by some as-of-yet unseen source.

As the elevator came closer to the bottom, however, darkness began to flee in the face of bright, golden-blue light that poured into the shaft. The presence was faint, but Arane immediately recognized the source - something toward the bottom of the shaft was lit by arcane lanterns, much akin to the small lights conjured into being by the mages hailing from her lost home. Nervousness, with that realization, boiled over into sheer excitement, so much so that Arane couldn't help but practically charge out of the elevator, into the towering hall that awaited beyond, its grand, arched ceiling supported by thick columns of stone. Had she paid more attention, she might have noticed the intricate statues huddled into alcoves along either wall, or perhaps the paintings of grand scenes from Elvish religious faiths that adorned the ceilings. She was far too focused, after all, on what she thought was her prize, her companions vainly urging her to caution.

Opposite the place where Arane entered the cathedral was a shrine, flanked on each side by pristine suits of white-gold Elven armor, positioned at permanent guard, their hands resting atop the hilts of their swords. The shrine itself was just as intricate, perhaps more so - every surface was carved in relief, polished to an impeccable shine. Overtop the shrine towered the shapely form of a simply robed woman, a statue of the Elven mother-goddess, Minuvaia, her hands outstretched in imitation of a welcoming, motherly embrace. Of course, gorgeous as the display was, it was not Arane's goal.

Walking up the last few steps before the shrine, Arane's gaze fell upon a sparkling, starry black opal, its mere presence enough to suffuse her body with otherwise unknowable warmth. Unthinking, one hand rested on her stomach where her unborn daughter rested in magickal stasis, while the other reached out to touch the gem before her.

Her vision swam with burning light, searing pain shooting through every deadened nerve as if they were still alive. In the distance, nearly invisible beneath a cloak of blinding rays, she saw something that left her utterly breathless.

Dozens upon dozens of suits animate armor, charging into battle against teeming hordes of the risen dead, hundreds of voices crying out for the chance at righteous victory.

By the time sight returned to her, Arane realized that Alaras's hand was on her shoulder, worriedly bracing her - but she was more concerned with the sudden realization of what she held in - no, what was now embedded into her hand, protruding from the center of her palm. It was a focus - a lens through which magic could be focused to great artifice, if only she possessed the fuel, the lives of those who last inhabited the fortress reforged into an instrument with which they might see Eagoth torn down from his throne.

"*Rixis*." Arane growled, much to the confusion of her bodyguards. "...Tomorrow, we depart for Nergthron. My familiar will inform the fleet to relocate more closely to this fortress."

"Rixis, milady? Are you certain? The danger he poses is... Incredible, to say the least, especially consider the Locus, and-" Elara began, only to be suddenly cut off by a wave of Arane's hand.

"I know. He's a bastard and a coward, but he's the only other Revenant I can reach that is... Sufficiently capable. Besides, the craven has one thing right - I've heard tell he has no love for Eagoth. The... Steeds. We will need steeds, if we are to travel so far. Perhaps a peace offering, too - and plenty of wards." She chuckled.
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Hidden 3 mos ago 3 mos ago Post by Adverb
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Adverb The True Antagonist

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Hajra Longshadow saw them up ahead and crouched, feet slipping and sliding over the frozen rocks and soil, almost pitching her warbow at them when she threw her arms about in a wild attempt to not fall on her neck. Not that it would matter leastways, she reckoned. She’d been dead for years. Not like a fall would do much worse.

They looked to be dead too, as far as she could tell. There were three of them at work in the small clearing. She watched them jabbing at the hard dirt beside long torches planted in the ground, making an awful racket. How in the Ground did I not hear them sooner? Probably why they didn’t look up when she had almost walked on top of them, no further than ten strides away. That and the evergreens cramped and packed close like mortals on a busy market street. A really busy, really uneven, and really slick market street with rocks and stones of every size stabbing out from the ground. Good for hunting.

Torches for destroying the dead they find, but why the campfire? I’m missing something. The campfire was on the opposite side of the clearing. Undead don’t need to eat, don’t even feel hunger, and they don’t need to stay warm either. Hajra knew this all too well. Her glossy dark eyes narrowed, searching round, trying to see if she could make sense of this group.

They were wearing commoners clothes with odd one-handed swords sheathed at their belts. No crossguard? Unusual. They were holding long-handled shovels pitted with rust. Past the fire were packs full to bursting piled together next to a huge mound of dark furs. Blankets too? What, are they expecting to dig up a mortal? There were enough furs heaped there to cover twenty men, she guessed. That was it. That and trees.

Pines, spruces, and cedars all still with their green but strange needle-like leaves despite the frost, glistening in the light. In Harja’s mind, it was good to see some color again. Even the dark clouds, a constant overcast for the whole land, seemed to let a little more light through. Still dim, but better. At least it doesn’t rain all the time up here. I’ve almost climbed to the top of the tree with all that rain. Perhaps I could request in my report to be sent up here? Theleden, the threats to this great kingdom must be carefully watched. I know it is a great burden, but I exist only to serve. She knew she’d have about as much a chance of that happening as barging into the Necromancer’s chambers and demanding her soul back.

She didn’t have eyes on Hodjens or Broke-nose, but they would be circling round behind. They had better be, the bastards; she didn’t want to have to chase them through these woods. She could barely walk in this mess and didn’t want to think about running in it. Hajra Longshadow wasn’t much for running. Running away meant being spotted or outnumbered, and running forward meant she was out of arrows. Neither sounded to her like a tree worth the climbing.

They had to leave their horses a day behind, back in the old logging hamlet where she had first picked up the tracks that led her here. Wasn’t much of a sight, that. More like a group of houses and sawmills and flat-carts all set fire to more than once over the years. Must’ve been important once with all the corpses that were there. She’d arrived greeted by a massive pile of the things, dry and burnt husks of long-dead soldiers and workers. Families too, with women and children and the elderly. She remembered seeing at the edge of the pile a mother hugging her kit tight, both charred black. Hajra supposed it was the mother, all the warriors were in ruined armor. A kit wouldn’t make a good shield and even worse of a weapon, but if that’s all one had, it might have been possible.

There was probably a large battle there, long ago when the Great Necromancer took these lands. Long abandoned now, went to Ground. Lumber seemed to be important to warmakers, apparently. Where she was from, deep in the tropics of Kotza, they lived in the trees to avoid the dangers of the forest floor. But the trees outside of her homeland were twigs in comparison. Wouldn’t make well for living in. Hajra the Longshadow wasn’t much for history or military tactics. She was a hunter, a killer.

What are they up to? Hajra had been serving the Necromancer for a few years now, but she couldn’t figure what they were doing. The Necromancer sent units to dig up the dead to add to his ranks, not to destroy. This seemed a waste. Slowly it began to dawn on her. She started to unknock the arrow from her bow, decided it best to switch to the arming sword on her back. It hardly got any use from her, but arrows were shit when dealing with her kind - the undead. Hacking and smashing them to bits was about the only way to take care of them, in her experience. But, she never had to fight the undead after dying herself. How could you fight against him, being under this curse? All he would have to do is snap his fingers and that would be it, no? Snap, and you’d drop like a ripe bolfruit.

“Your name!” One of the three undead asked. Hajra’s left hand gripped tighter on the bow. At first, for that instant, she had thought he was looking at her, but she could see him leaning over the hole and looking down. There was a response, but she couldn’t make it out.

“This one have any worth?” Hajra’s eyes widened and darted back to the packs by the fire. A man stood from behind the supplies, orange light flickering over his untarnished white robes and white hair. He was stocky, sturdy, and held his sword by the scabbard in his left hand.

“Nah, Chief. As mindless an’ dumb as mine two brodders,” the first undead spoke, pointing his thumb at the other two beside him round the hole. Harja slid the arrow back out of the quiver on her right side, placed the shaft over her left thumb, and re-knocked it, thinking quiet thoughts as she did so. That old man was a mortal, as pig-skinned as the lot of them. A living human and he was leading them. She would have blinked if she could’ve remembered how.

“Hey! You cou-”

“Fuck yerself, Alb-”

“Regretable.” The old mortal spoke as if the other two weren’t even there. “Shame, indeed. Not as many mindless as there used to be, but still happens.” He was holding his right hand to the campfire, wiggling his fingers, sliding the sheathed sword in the cloth sash at his waist. “Be good lads, and get it done.”

There was a thump, like dropping a wet sack of grain on a stone street, and the mumbling in the hole fell silent. The undead turned back to the Chief. “Oi, why don’t you drink tha drink an’ be like tha rest o’ us?” The other two had an expression on their pale faces as if they had once asked him the very same question. Chief walked up to him and gestured to the hole.

“Because, if I was to come back mindless who would be chief then, eh? You?” She drew back the bowstring slowly, taking aim. Suddenly, when she almost had the warbow to full-draw, she felt the bowstring slack then immediately heard a loud snap. The bow broke apart, flying out of her hands. One half hit her in the knee and the other smacked her squarely in her cheek and tumbled over her shoulder. The arrow, however, was still in her hand, pressed against her fingers by her thumb. She looked at it as if there was something else that was supposed to go with it.

“Who’s there!”, came first, followed quickly by the hiss of steel. If only their swords would break in half when they drew them. Next came a third and unexpected sound. A sound that brought back all the memories of the jungle and the terror. She didn’t feel fear now, but there was the memory of it, and it made her senses sharpen.

The heap of furs stood with purpose, looking directly at her. The guttural growl was so deep it made the ground vibrate. It was the size of a horse, mangy black hair with decrepit rotten flesh showing in patches, and charging at her deadly quick. Loud clicking of teeth broke the continuous growling in rhythm as it chomped at the air over and over, footpads thumping on the frozen ground, maggots dropping from its maw like drool.

She stood, sliding one foot carefully back, and pulled out the sword from over her shoulder. “Shit!” she shouted, throwing the arrow at the undead beast, and watched it snap in two with one of the beast's great chomps.

Hajra Longshadow wasn’t much for running.
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Hidden 3 mos ago 3 mos ago Post by gorgenmast
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Flashes of green lightning shone through a thousand multicolored facets of a grand rose window of stained glass, casting momentary beams of green light onto a sprawling desk covered in a thick layer of parchments and vellum. Cracks of thunder - loud and close - resounded through the vast and cavernous space, echoing off the vaulted ceilings and buttresses. The solitary occupant of the desk situated before the rose window was unperturbed by the powerful lightning that rattled the very stones of this mammoth edifice. Yuniz had long ago learned how to ignore the perpetual lightningstorm; such an ability was wholly necessary here, less than a mile from the foot of the Spire of Rutile.

The being standing at the desk hovered over the scrolls and parchments splayed out before him. His right eye was remarkably-preserved, among the most life-like eyes left in all of Leria, magnified to almost-comical size by a wide, thick magnifying lens held in place against his head with a copper armature. The magnified eye flitted here and there across the text and diagrams of the scrolls before him, illuminated by the orange glow of a half-dozen oil lamps scattered across the desk when not cast in brilliant flashes of lightning from the rose window. With his left eye - a milky white eye like those possessed by the majority of the living dead - Yuniz looked upon the grand window.

The great, circular window above him was a massive and spectacular structure in its own right. Some thirty feet in diameter, a golden-yellow oculus in the very center radiated out with meticulously-carved tracery, framing intricate mosaics of multicolored glass. Many of the glass pieces were now cracked and broken out after years of utter neglect, and a film of greenish-black filth had accumulated on the glass that remained from the condensed vapors of the disgusting work now carried out in this place. On the outer tracery-rimmed edges of the window, the likenesses of sixteen saints had been illustrated with stained glass mosaics like spokes of giant wheel. Some of the saints sported long beards and flowing robes, others were glad in golden armor, but all were adorned with burning halos above their stoic visages.

Yuniz knew little about the saints whose likenesses looked down upon his study. Even in life, he had been an agnostic fellow and never paid any faith much heed. Eagoth's conquest of Leria had completely disproven the existence of gods or goddesses, or at least any deity that cared for the suffering of Man. Desperate prayers from Leria's devout had done absolutely nothing to stop the Necromancer, and the holy men were butchered and raised in undeath the same as the godless. Paying any mind to the old religions or their saints and gods was wasted effort as far as Yuniz was concerned.

Useless though the old rites may have been, they had inspired the construction of monumental places of worship that sometimes found new uses in the empire of the unliving. Massive cathedrals and basilicas had been the cornerstones of many a great city in the time before the Necromancer. Flying buttresses held high towering steeples that reached for the heavens themselves; the tallest structures in virtually every Lerian city before the Conquest. Stained glass windows illuminated vast naves in which multitudes of the faithful once gathered to offer up their prayers to the divine. Such large, enclosed spaces could sometimes be repurposed, and such was the case with the space that Yuniz now occupied.

This place had once been called the Cathedral of Saint Olms if memory served the revenant correctly. Before the Conquest, it had been of middling size as cathedrals went. Now, after much of its competition had been ruined, razed, or cannibalized for building materials, the cathedral of Necron was now among the largest such structures left in all of Leria. It was certainly among the best-preserved of the great Lerian houses of worship: rather fitting, given that this place was now devoted to the art of preservation and embalming. For the cathedral now served as the Meatworks of Necron, and Yuniz was its charnel cardinal.

In life, he had been the physician of the Rhanean court, and was counted among the most talented surgeons in Leria and beyond. Critical of then-court warlock Eagoth, Yuniz had quickly earned the wrath of the wizard that would one day become the Great Necromancer. And so when Eagoth's very first undead warriors put the court of Rhanea to the sword; the Necromancer sought to punish Yuniz in undeath. However, Eagoth could not afford to simply torment the physician for eternity; Yuniz's knowledge was too precious to waste, especially in the earliest days of the Conquest when the living could have easily crushed Eagoth - only had they moved decisively against the nascent undead host. Enslaving Yuniz in the service of the undead horde while retaining all the memories of his life and his disdain for his new master in undeath: that would have to suffice.

And serve Yuniz did. He had pioneered the craft of meatworking - at first crudely stitching up battle-worn warrior ghouls. As the techniques were perfected, he progressed to the improvement of ghouls by scavenging useful limbs from otherwise-broken cadavers and sewing them onto the more useful combatants: the forerunners of the patchwork monstrosities built in modern times in the pits of Comiriom. Yuniz had even practiced this craft on his own body, attaching an additional two pairs of arms onto his torso. These augmentations were not performed for the sake of improving combat prowess; he had not affixed to himself bladed fists cut from some muscled warrior. Instead, four slender, delicate arms reached out from the folds of his stain-mottled robe, thumbing through the texts and unraveling scrolls before him with a quickness and precision seldom seen in undead digits. Supple, nimble fingers; too soft and unblemished to have been harvested from the corpse of any turnip-farming rube. These were the arms of children, picked by hand from the innumerable young slain at Ludire.

Yuniz heard the jingling of chains behind him, and felt the building shift ever so slightly under his feet. A deep, almost-inaudible groan emanated from somewhere below him. Though far quieter and more subtle than the cacophony of thunder outside, it was enough to give the revenant pause and cease his study. Galvanized by this muted sensation, Yuniz turned from the desk and drew his cloak taught around his nearly-skeletal frame with each of his six arms as he made his way to the edge of the mezzanine upon which his study was situated to survey the work going on beneath him.

The study mezzanine had been built over what had once been the narthex of the cathedral - clearly a post-Conquest addition suggested by the characteristically-amateurish workmanship of most ghoul carpentry. Mismatched floorboards were held up by creaking joists braced against the walls of the cathedral at odd angles; the unapologetically lousy mezzanine contrasted jarringly against the masterfully-constructed masonry of the cathedral supporting it. From the mezzanine went two narrow catwalks of equally-dubious quality that went around the entire interior perimeter of the cathedral's walls just below where the walls curved into a vaulted ceiling. While they certainly offered a commanding view of the floor of the meatworks below, their purpose was to provide access to the great number of pulley-mounted ropes and chains that draped from the ceiling as densely as cobwebs. Cords of rope hung down from the ceiling to supply dumbwaiters and lifthooks, all powered by the dozens of ghouls going about their work on the floor below.

Yuniz took a moment to oversee the meatworkers toiling below him. A dozen torsos hung from chain-mounted meathooks just above the meatworks floor; liberally-applied embalming fluid dripping off of the musculature of the bodies into pink-tinged puddles on the checkerboard tiling beneath them. Several ghouls were at work on each hanging cadaver, one of the more mindful ones scooping lumps of flesh from blood-encrusted barrels, holding them up against the chest or thigh of the hanging body like a tailor might regard strips of cloth to use in constructing a duchess' dress. One or two of the mindless ghouls carried out the tedious work of stitching slabs of muscle onto the body with threads of nerve and sinew wound onto bobbins like string. The bodies they assembled rippled with muscle, but were devoid of skin, as if they had been flayed. But sitting atop each hulking cadaver were fleshless skulls. Below Yuniz, the newest batch of skeleton guards was taking shape.

Skeleton, as one could see from Yuniz's vantage, was quite the misnomer for the beings taking shape below him. Muscle and flesh recycled from other corpses covered their bones such that the only part of the skeleton exposed was the skull. Seeing that they would soon be clad entirely in platemail armor from the head down, it was easy enough to see how an uninformed observer might think that the bodies under so much armor were as skeletal as the fleshless skulls peering out from under their helm. Skeleton guards were purpose-built ghouls, like more compact versions of the patchwork monsters of Comiriom. And that purpose was to crush any opposition - living or dead - to those they were charged with protecting. Crucially, their skulls were empty - completely incapable of free will and utterly bound to servitude under Eagoth. Ghouls could wander off and desert their masters, revenants both major and minor could disobey orders and serve their own interests. But skeletons? They would serve the Necromancer without question or hesitation until their bones were ground to dust.

Impressive as the skeleton guards taking shape below him may have been, they were but a sideshow - quite literally - for Yuniz's most ambitious project of all. The skeleton guards were hung toward the exterior wall of the cathedral, in what had once been the side aisle of the nave. Taking up the vast majority of the floor space in the center of the meatworks was an enormous trench, cut through the tiling and dug into the earth upon which the old cathedral had been built. It was filled with thousands upon thousands of gallons of a viscous black liquid, wafting with noxious vapors that rose off its iridescent surface. Heavy chains hung down from the vaulted ceiling down into the shimmering blackness of the pool. The chains shifted again, jingling softly as something under the surface stirred the great black pool.

"Master," a ghoul called out to Yuniz, approaching from the catwalk and disturbing the revenant: some errand-runner tasked with fetching reagents and supplies from the city. "The sentries at the eastern gate say there is a wagon on its way here carrying a high-priority delivery to the meatworks."

"There is nothing due to be delivered today," Yuniz said with complete certainty. "They are mistaken. Certainly nothing that would arrive here from the eastern road."

"Sentries said it was on its way 'ere now. Said they might have been some gravediggers."

"Then they are definitely mistaken. They must be passing through on their way to Comiriom. Rotten offal and old bones are of no use or interest to me; that sort of trash belongs to Ghural, talentless brute that he is."

"They did seem rather clear, Master," the ghoul insisted, "that they were on their way here." Yuniz gave a snort of disdain.

"I have neither the time nor the patience for these things. If some gravedigger means to come here and interrupt our work here, I'll have them cut apart and their choice pieces sewn into the guards. Pax Mortis be damned... this had better be good."
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Hidden 2 mos ago 2 mos ago Post by Adverb
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Adverb The True Antagonist

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The undead beast lept at her, two great big paws stretching in the air with toes spread out, hooked white claws glinting in the dismal sunlight. Its maw opened wide in anticipation of the kill, brandishing rotten and broken fangs, black-splotched tongue curling, swollen thick and full of writhing maggots the size of her thumb. There was no way to fight the thing head-on, not in Hajra’s mind. Have to move. She side-stepped to the right quick as she could, felt the matted fur brush past her shoulder and the side of her face, trying to get round the large oblong stone jutting from the ground like a lifted finger. She tried but fell on her ass, hard, legs shooting out from under her. Hard enough to feel something move in her skull, she thought. Hajra was thankful that the dead feel no pain, for that lick would’ve smarted for sure. The beast thudded into the tree trunks that had been at her back, but she had kept her eyes on the thing the whole time. The two trees shook, sending down the bits of ice clinging to the branches and pine-needles, making a rustling sound. Huge legs kicking, claws scraping on the frozen ground, righting itself in a frantic tantrum and staring back. Dead eyes locked on hers and almost felt hot with murderous intent. It was the closest thing to warmth she’d felt in a long time, that murderous glare. It seemed to Hajra Longshadow that they had that in common, the beast and her. Two things. The hunt and the kill. The only two things that made her feel anything close to being alive. There was no pleasure in undeath, even food and drink tasted of nothing. But, the hunt and the kill still gave that same old rush. Those two things she could always depend on. Have to move. She pushed herself off the ground with one hand, steadying herself against the boulder with the other, still gripping the hilt of the sword tight.

She wanted to back round the boulder, to at least put something between that hulking monster and her despite the futility of it. She wanted to but it gave her no time and charged, letting out a rattling roar that would have been bloodcurdling if she had any blood. It bit at her and she lunged sideways, not even trying to land on her feet this time. What’s the point? She’d just fall on her ass again. She thought about how she’d explain that one to the meatworkers. Yes, I found enemies in the north. I fought them and returned with a broken ass. It plowed by, missing again. Her shoulder slammed the ground, bounced, and she slammed down again on her back. She was sliding away from the trees, into the clearing--the wrong direction. She tried to get up, but her foot was caught. Now that she was up close, Hajra realized that the thing was bigger than a horse. Much bigger. She could see the harness wrapped round the beast, faded leather straps full with metal hooks and buckles, and now her foot. Somehow her foot had gotten caught on one of the hooks, and tangled in the mass of leather and fur.

Its pace slowed, turning back and dragging her with it, jerking its head this way and that searching for where its prey had gone. She chanced a glance over to the clearing, just now hearing the sounds of fighting by the campfire. Two ghouls lay dead a few strides away from the hole and discarded shovels, skulls caved in and oozing black and grey sludge. She could see Hodjens, the big brute, swinging his longsword at the old Pigskin in long wide arcs. Broke-nose and the third ghoul wasn’t there. Right, boys. You take them and leave this monster to me. I’ve got it right where I want it. She went to swing at the straps with her sword, realized her hand was empty, cursed, then pulled out her dagger. She climbed her own leg up to the tangle of leather, grabbed hold tight, and started cutting. It turned its head and bit at her, not able to reach. The woods spun in a blurring circle as the beast turned, trying to bite her like a dumb city dog chasing its own tail. Hajra held on long enough to cut herself free, let go, and slid a few strides away. It closed the distance before she stopped, and leaned back on its hind legs, standing upright. She looked around for something, anything, that she could use. She had the dagger in her hand, but little good that’d be. The arrows were scattered across the clearing, thrown about during the struggle. Those wouldn’t do her much good either. She’d lost her sword too but had no idea where it was, and the blades the ghouls had were out of reach. There were two shovels, one laying next to her and she tossed away the dagger, took hold of the shovel, brought it up as the beast came down roaring. She angled the head of the shovel to its chest and set the other end to the ground, letting go and rolling away when it connected, doing all she could to avoid being smashed into Kotzan jam. Hajra had seen the meatworks do some incredible, if not disturbing things, but she didn’t think they could fix her from that.

The roar stopped short, replaced by a rasping and a scraping sound. The wooden handle of the shovel snapped apart, the beast falling to the ground kicking. Hajra stood and moved closer, snatching up the other shovel, avoiding the legs kicking aimlessly. It was more difficult than she would’ve liked. Her foot was twisted round, pointing to the side and forcing her to limp. The beast was worse off. Its spine was damaged; it wasn’t able to make its body do what it wanted. The shovel-head had slid up the ribs and sank into its neck, almost cutting its head clean off. She turned the shovel sideways in her hands, raised it high above her head, and swung down. Its neck crunched and the head fell free wobbling onto its side. The twitching and jerking stopped, maggots wriggling out of the wounds, dragging out bits of rotten gore and putrified flesh and spilling out onto the ground at her feet. She brought the shovel down again on the head, and then again. She kept hammering at that twice-cursed beast from the Ground until the thick skull caved.

Hodjens and Chief were still fighting, the old man dodging and blocking against the barrage, not able to get a strike in. Chief was holding his own, but she knew it wouldn’t last for long. Hodjens attacked tirelessly without slowing and could keep that up for as long as he needed, but the old man was wearing down. Beads of sweat ran down the pig-skinned mortal despite the cold, brows furrowed in exertion. Hajra gripped the shovel tight and limped round carefully, keeping out of sight of Chief and making sure she didn’t slip, fall, and behead herself. After everything that’s happened today, it would be just my luck. She stalked up behind Chief-- if her slow shambling could be called stalking, and whacked him on the back of his skull. Hodjens stopped swinging and stood there, his longsword hanging loosely in one hand, and they both watched the mortal sag to his knees. Dark blood slowly seeped out, staining his white hair deep red. Chief looked up at Hodjens for a long moment, then fell forward on his face still grasping his sword. Hajra peeled his fingers away from the grip and picked it up.

“Where is Broke-nose?” She asked. Hodjens nodded over to the shallow hole by the torches.

“The hell was that?” He looked over to the headless beast behind her.

“A demon?” She guessed. Hajra made her way to the grave, using the shovel like a walking stick, leaned over the edge, and peered down. He looked back up at her and shrugged. He had a large gash in his gut, looked as if he’d been run through. A thick piece of his cloak tied about his waist, wet with grime and who knows what else. Two ghouls lay in the dirt about his feet, motionless and taken care of; one’s head smashed into grey and pink pulp. She slid the sword in her belt and held out her hand, pulled him out of the hole, and pointed at Chief. “Bind him. I’ve got some questions for him when he wakes.” He nodded and glided over to them as if he was walking on a dry city street. He couldn’t fight for shit, never could, but he was as sure-footed as he ever was.

She had known both Hodjens and Broke-nose for years before her service to the Great Necromancer, but only she kept her memories. Hajra had found it strangely interesting how that affected them. Some things were different, of course, but a lot stayed the same. Broke-nose had been an infiltrator, far better at sneaking and balance than Hodjens or her. He had more brains than them, too--at least he used to. Hajra reckoned that the old Broke-nose would have known what that beast was that she killed, but she didn’t bother asking him now. She knew he’d have no idea. He used to make all the plans, set up all the jobs for the crew, pretty much led them. She was in charge now, and after two years it still seemed strange.

Broke-nose clamped the iron shackles on Chief’s wrists behind his back and left him face-down on the ground. Hajra moved about the clearing, collecting all of her arrows, her sword, and her dagger. Hodjens was rummaging through the packs by the campfire when she made her way beside Broke-nose. He handed her the scabbard for the Chief’s sword, and she put the blade in it and placed it back at her side, behind her belt. It was a good weapon, made from good steel. Hajra appreciated good weapons. It would be a lot easier to maintain weapons up here in the north. The rain south was almost a constant, with dark skies that blocked the sun. An archer’s worst nightmare, to be sure. The damp warped shafts and bows, and ruined bowstrings. Sometimes, if a bow got wet and then dried out, it would crack and get dry rot. That’s what happened to her bow, she reckoned.

Hodjens emptied one pack on the ground, travel rations as far as she could tell, and was stuffing it full of items he thought worth keeping. He sauntered back to them and held out the pack. It was full of aqua vitae, the glass bottles sparkling in the light.

“You didn’t happen to see a bow over there?” She asked.

“Nah,” he closed the pack and threw it over his shoulder, “Bunch of junk.”

“Figures.” Hajra looked down at the mortal. He was starting to move, slowly, his shoulders working back and forth. She pulled out her dagger and grinned, thinking of the answers she was going to cut out of him.

Maybe there were more than two things after all.
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Hidden 2 mos ago Post by Terminal
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Terminal Rancorous Narrative Proxy

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A collaborative post by Jeddaven and Terminal.

The Vale of Nergthron

Over the course of a fortnight, many peculiar changes had transpired across the length of the road that wound into the vale of Nergthron. Where before the road had been largely unguarded and devoid of patrols, now the soldiers of Rixis - casual and mercenary as they were - now regularly stood watch and walked along the approach. Makeshift watchtowers and palisades had been assembled before the titanic cleft in the mountains leading into the vale proper, and wooden walls had been erected to cut off access to the older footpaths leading up across the old winding road abreast the mountain peaks. 

Rixis' sentinels were not subtle in their work. Any time a carriage or party bearing the sigils or banners of a Major Revenant approached the entrance to the vale, they were inevitably stopped and their leaders bound and dragged off, sight-unseen. Word of this seemingly brazen violation of the Pax Mortis had already begun to spread, and as it did fewer and fewer official processions were seen to approach Nergthron. Still though, the continuous foot-traffic of tens of thousands of the dead saw their way past the new makeshift emplacements with only cursory scrutiny. Those few lesser Revenants who had worked up the nerve to question the guards as to their activities had received blithe, dismissive answers.

"Our seizures have been in keeping with the Pax Mortis and the will of our true Master Eagoth himself. Be about your business in the vale, and do not make any trouble."

It was evident the magus Rixis was either up to something or else had been set off by some recent incident - resulting either way in heightened security. Though given the nature of the guardians and their lackluster adherance in faith to Rixis' status as ruler of the vale, infiltrating the place initially did not seem as though it would be difficult.

With many of the old footpaths cut off from access, Arane was left with few options - she could attempt to climb the mountains surrounding the vale itself, but she was far from being a sufficiently skilled climber  to manage such a journey. As she and her party approached the first of what would no doubt be many such checkpoints along their journey, Arane found herself glad that she was facing a such a band of bumbling fools as Rixis' so-called army - her head hanging low, doing her best to seem as unassuming as possible, she hoped that the nearly eight foot tall slab of walking heavily armoured muscle looming over her shoulders would discourage any meaningful interrogation - or if not, perhaps hefty maul in her hands. The figure's appearance - never mind its sex or gender - was far from obvious, its face hidden behind sackcloth with a pair of holes poked into it for eyes. Much the same had been done with Arane and her Captain, likewise - the Lady hoped that Rixis's undead soldiers wouldn't think too much of their impromptu masks or the tall, peaked hooks that served to obscure the long, pointed ears that most all elves possessed. Still, the guards looked exceedingly bored - perhaps enough to be desperate for a distraction, but Arane had no intention of stopping unless ordered to do so, trudging along the muddy, cobbled road ahead with the sort of aimless purpose one might expect of a walking corpse pursuing faint memories of a life long forgotten.

Thankfully, the guards seemed wholely disinterested in Arane's party as they made passage by the makeshift outposts at the base of the great cleft. They were waved through without comment or challenge, dismissed amidst the churning horde of undead migrating into the vale.

The journey through the cleft itself was one of blind shuffling. Past noon, the sun cast no light whatsoever into the sheer ravine dug out of the mountains by the bare hands of some past horde, and the Warden had done little, if anything, to provide any other form of illumination. Immediately, the purpose of the chains and ropes Arane had observed other groups of the dead utilizing became apparent. They were not strictly for corraling the mindless dead, although they likely were helpful enough for that purpose regardless - they were simply for ensuring each distinct group passing through the cleft was not broken up and scattered by the torrential, thronging pressure of bodies constantly pushing, shoving, and relentlessly advancing through the passage.

And Arane had neglected to prepare either in advance. She had plenty of rope on hand, of course, but time was hardly on her side, and any overt magickal display would risk exposing her far too early. Thinking quickly, Arane grabbed hold of her Captain, grunting as she strained herself to clamber up her giant's back in a brief moment of fatigue - she was forced to kick a wandering ghoul out of the way, but she narrowly manage nonetheless, frantically extracting a bundle of thick, silk rope that she tied around her waist, before doing the same to her captain - and then to loops on Haleth's rucksack. That'd mean they'd be forced to follow along behind her of course, but the constant motion of the mass and Haleth's sheer size made it far too difficult to continue the series of loops around her stocky waist.

Having settled herself on Haleth's shoulders, Arane's perception of the journey through the cleft was one of warbling disorientation as she swayed and jockeyed for position in the depths of the merciless and cloying darkness of the chasm. It was almost familiar, in a way, to the sway of the ships Arane had left behind, though even the sea at its most tumultuous was not quite this loud. In every direction, the shuffling, grinding onslaught of the advancing dead reverberated across and betwixt the walls of the passage through the mountains, rebounding and redoubling upon itself to in a macabre dirge of tormented moans, tearing flesh and snapping bones.

Time passed - perhaps minutes, or hours - and eventually the party emerged from the cleft and emerged within the vale. Though the light of day was once more evident, the whole of the valley was still cast in a dim pall, a seeming blanket of iridescent-edged shadows smothering the rays of light from above. From here, the challenge would simply be finding the infamous Magus Rixis in the morass. There were a plurality of chasms in the Earth where the trenchwork of the vale emptied into, the black blood of the dead flowing and churning into their depths, all cast in an even deeper darkness than the cleft through the mountains had been. The surface of the vale itself was littered with innumerable shacks, longhouses, and workshops, any of which may have been where the Magister had secluded himself or might be visiting - and of course, here in the vale of Nergthron more than anywhere else, the dead were legion. The causeways and roads choked with untold tens of thousands of the teeming dead as they were herded and guided from place to place, destined either for sublimation or empowerment of the dark sacrament of the Dead Seas, actively congealed in the canyons and trenches. Minor revenants watching from atop makeshift wooden watchtowers made cursory efforts to guide and direct foot-traffic and acted as waystations of respite for patrols of more of Rixis' soldiers, but their distribution seemed arbitrary and haphazard at best - resulting in a twisted pattern of motion amidst the thronging hordes normally only glimpsed in fugue-ridden fever dreams.

If nothing of value could be discerned from her slight vantage point, Arane was left with few other options - picking out Rixis's presence amid a teeming sea of bodies and foul magics would take immense concentration and time she did not have, especially with the thousands upon thousands of bodies urging her companion forward. That left her with one option, as she saw it - much like one would lure an enemy army into a trap, she needed a lure. Something that, hopefully, even Rixis's soldiers could not ignore.

Suddenly, her eyes widened. An idea came to her, bidden but unexpected. Whirling her neck from side to side, she watched as the walking corpses edged and surged. Picking out one of the taller examples, she worked her illusions; as the body's back was briefly obscured by the horde, she cast her spell, and by the time it was visible once again, a bright, white mask - clearly visible to anyone looking in its direction - appeared on its back. The symbol of the pale king. She would watch, and wait... And if the poor, unfortunate ghoul was spotted, hopefully follow it to Rixis... Or be forced to resort to much more drastic measures. She quickly thought better, though - or worse, more accurately - if Rixis's soldiery was as worthless as it seemed, they'd need a sign they simply couldn't ignore without facing their master's wrath.

Suddenly, the ghoul had the appearance of Callidus in the flesh - from his outfit to his gait, the illusion would be quite convincing - to their simple gaze, at least.

The effect was almost immediate.

Even if Rixis' lackluster soldiery were unable to pick the visage of the Pale KIng himself out of the thronging horde spilling forth from the mountain cleft, the minded undead in the immediate vicinity did not. Almost as one, the dead began to recoil from the glamoured figure in a roiling wave, bodies falling and tumbling against each other as they made efforts to prostrate themselves, flee, or erupted into sheer panicked confusion. Cries and shouts went out, causing rotting heads and ears to turn.

A scant minute after the illusion had been made, the word had begun to spread like wildfire amongst the hordes in the vale.

The Pale King Himself, Callidus, had come to Nergthron.

Two minutes later, the rather confused ghoul Arane had glamoured stood in a great clearing twenty meters wide in every direction, surrounded by awestruck ghouls and minor revenants. Rixis' soldiers had finally made an appearance as well, but with entirely unexpected results - rather than issuing challenge to the seeming of the Pale King, many of them were prostrating themselves alongside the other dead - some higher-ranking officers behind the first line of observers even seemed to be forming up into a procession in order to formally approach the disguised ghoul.

Arane hadn't expected such an extravagant response - but it made some degree of sense that Rixis's soldiers would eagerly bow to any such display of power, especially in such figuratively close proximity to Eagoth. It was a complication, to be sure, but she had no choice but to make this display work.

Closing her eyes, Arane reached out toward the wisps of spellcraft clinging to the ghoul. Shadows, faintly visible, clambered up the unfortunate's limbs, towards his head, slipping into the recesses of his mind. Throwing her mind back to the few times she'd heard Callidus speak, both in life and in death, Arane's lips began to move, though her voice emerged from the false king's lips, his body otherwise rigid.

"I have come to speak to your Master," the puppet said, a convincing --if imperfect-- imitation. "Take me to him."

"Oh Great and Terrible Callidus," One of the officers who had approched spoke in almost reverent tone. "if you have come to finally unseat the craven Rixis, be warned he has taken great pains and measures - sorceries and foul magicks - to thwart direct confrontation. But we are ready to serve you, simply permit us a day or perhaps two to fool that callow upstart into the open-"

"Your foolish master's petty sorceries will do nothing to stop me, nor you." The puppet said, quietly shaking his head. "Will you not bring me to him, so I may cast him down from his broken throne?"

"I fear our most grievous rebuke if the craven Rixis should peer into our minds and raise the Dead Seas, my lord." The officer replied. "Though we are, of course, at your command, I would caution against such a direct approach."

Days, however - any sort of substantial wait - proved a problem. Arane's party was not part of Rixis's traitorous throng, but... Perhaps it didn't need to be. 

"Very well. Nonetheless, where does the fool hide?"

"I am not certain, oh Pale King, for he has been taking most curious and perplexing acts of late. Our Commander would know with certainty, but he likely does not know you are here yet."

"Surely you can bring him to me, then?" The puppet said. Its face, though hidden behind a masked, dipped ever so slightly downward as if in exasperation. "We must act quickly - there is little time to waste!"

Inwardly, Arane smiled - perhaps Rixis would be thankful for the gift of handing his traitors to him on a silver platter, if nothing else. She could only hope that he'd be able to see through her glamours.

"That is our intent, my lord. We must approach the Commander discretely and bring him into our confidences so that he may execute your whims without arousing the craven Rixis' suspicions. We must take care not to rouse the Commander's notice from afar, lest he inform the Magus too soon. It will take some time - " The soldier hesitated. "Might I inquire as to the cause of your urgency in this matter, Master Callidus?"

"You cannot." The false Callidus responded. "There are certain secrets I must keep from the custodian of the Locus."

"Then beyond sending your imperative to act quickly, there is little we can do, a thousand pardons master." The soldier bowed in a placatory fashion. "In the meantime, we should get you out of the open. The longer you are out here, the more of a commotion it will cause. I can have my ghouls establish a suitable suite for you in one of the longhouses nearby. We have few luxeries available, but we can make it clean and secure at least..."

"That will have to do." The doppleganger said, gesturing toward Haleth - and the handful of ghouls clinging to her back. Arane, meanwhile, was busy memorizing the features of these traitors, her familiar, taking the form of a large, bloated fly, hovering high above them. "My bodyguards. They, likewise, are not fully equipped as I would prefer - but they will join me, nonetheless." He said, every word flat, emotionless, as if he were simply stating fact.

For a moment, Arane's party was abruptly subjected to the intense scrutiny of the gathering of officers that had come before the illusion of Callidus.

"Are those elves, mi'lord?" One of them asked. The faintest hint of suspicion edged his words. "How is it that they do not bear your mark?"

"It is hidden." The doppleganger said, a hand abruptly jolting upwards, forming the runes of a spell in mid-air. "There is no time to explain further - do you wish to act, or shall we instead dawdle while Rixis grows ever closer to uncovering us?"

"Of course. Everyone, for-" One of the officers began, before being interrupted by a cry from behind the assembled crowd.

"What trickery is this?!?"

Shoving their way through the back of the mob was a contingent of guards - a group of them that Arane recognized as having come from the makeshift fortifications at the base of the mountains. They must have been relieved of their shift shortly after her party had begun their journey through the passage.

"Do you not recognize the noble countenance of the Pale King?!?" Exclaimed the officer that had originally approached Arane's glamored ghoul. "This is Lord Callidus, the right hand of Eagoth himself! He has come to deliver the vale from the petty tyranny of Rixis-"

"Then how is it we did not see him pass us by or announce himself?" The revenant sergeant of the squad demanded. "We would have sent word had he done so. This is deceit! Callidus would not slink through the front watch like some base scofflaw just to reveal himself past the threshold!" The sergeant pointed a mail-clad and accusatory finger at Arane's puppeted ghoul. "Take off your mask! You will answer for this affront..."

"You dare question me?! You presume that I would be unable to keep myself hidden?!" The doppleganger boomed, the air about its finger twisting with invisible heat. An illusion, much like the glamour itself. "You are making demands of me, and when I come to rescue you from your Lord, no less? The insolence!"

"I am a true servant of the Emperor of all of Leria, Eagoth the Magnificent, and if you were truly his vassal such subterfuge would be well within your means, but unnecessary. Show us the instrument of your office and writ of your orders here or be struck down!" The Sergeant barked in retort. "The Pax Mortis demands it!"

The band of officers that had assembled before the disguised ghoul were anxiously glancing between the image of Callidus and the Sergeant, hands on their weapons but unwilling to draw them quite yet. The surrounding mob of thronging undead was finally beginning to pick up motion again as the current of undead streaming through the cleft flowed around the disruption and began carrying foot-traffic back along its intended route. If the situation was not resolved quickly, word of the irregularity was certainly going to spread further into the vale.

This was a problem. Arane could simply silence the sergeant, of course, but to do so meant risking her destruction should the rest of the ghouls fail to fall in line. The alternative, however, was even worse; she simply couldn't afford to give up the ruse so early, even if maintaining it risked alerting Rixis. 

Arane breathed deeply, Haleth's muscles tightening as she prepared to drop into a sprint.

Suddenly, a staff - another illusion - appeared in his hand, a blast of force lancing out toward the sergeant with enough power to shatter bone. His body launched backwards, narrowly missing the rest of the soldiers, only to collide with the ground with such force that it shattered into a wet, grisly heap.

For a split instant all of the observing parties simply stood or staggered back in dazed awe from the display of power. Shortly thereafter, one of the surviving members of the Sergeant's party bellowed.

"This fiend has just violated the Pax Mortis!"

"Oh, like you wretches at the base of the cleft have been doing for the past few weeks?" The Officer behind the illusion of Callidus quipped. 

"You fools! The Sergeant was right, the true Callidus-"

Evidently the party of Officers that had, at this point, effectively bought themselves fully into Arane's staged insurrection lost patience with the direction of the conversation and drew their weapons, marching forward even in the face of the squad's protestations.

Not quickly enough, it would seem, for even as they drew close to cut the unexpectedly adament watchers down, one of them drew a horned trumpet and managed to raise a deep, resonant bellow that careened across the vale, turning an ocean of undead heads their way.

Arane had to act - and quickly. Still clinging to Haleth's back, she directed her doppleganger to turn toward those officers that had dared to defy it.  Once again, it weaved its hands through the air, once again forming inscrutable arcane symbols. the Captain, meanwhile, dismounted, charging headlong towards the group of officers behind 'Callidus' alongside Haleth. All it took was a single swing of her maul to pulverise their aged bones, wide, sweeping swings knocking heads from shoulders with inhuman ease. Alaras's weapons, designed primarily for cutting, gave the Captain a much harder time - though she was nonetheless able to cleave bone, albeit with far more effort than the giant at her side. Callidus, all the while, remained deathly still, utterly unmoving, jaw completely slack. 

"Sincerest apologies!" Arane grunted, knocking herself out of her stupor. She made certain to bring her voice a register lower, just enough that it wouldn't be readily identifiable by the teeming masses surrounding them. Haleth, meanwhile, was busy smashing her way through the traitorous officers, smiling beneath her mask at the challenge they offered. Still, they weren't expecting her, and Haleth was an absolutely gigantic slab of muscle with a penchant for crushing bone - combined with Alaras's unmatched precision, she was able to slaughter her foes in relatively short order.

As if on cue, the moment the last of the traitorous soldiers fell, so did the masquerading ghoul, the glamour over him fading away into silvery mist before disappating entirely. Haleth wasted no time in smashing his bones to bits, even as Arane spoke from her position on the giant's back. "I had intended to offer these traitors as a gift to your Master, but it seems I miscalculated." She explain, hoping that she could now resolve this issue amicably, though she had no doubts about the very real possibility that Rixis's toadies would promptly turn on her and either try to take the credit for themselves or put her in chains regardless.

A possibility which became all the more realized when additional horn-bellows sounded from nearby, aired by those patrols nearest to the site of the original call. Arane could even see the descending groups of soldiers converging on the area through the teeming hordes. For the moment, the sheer, tumultuous number of the dead moving through the area down was keeping their progress at a stagnant crawl - but as each patrol shouted at those they neared, their weapons unsheathed as they also began to light torches and raise the banner of the Warden, the surging crowds began to impossibly grind to a halt and, in irregular waves, to kneel where they stood, leaving only the coward Magus' guards standing. Soon, all traffic in the area would cease and every head for a league would be bowed while soldiers prowed amongst them like wolves.

"Not keeping the traitors alive so they could sound a belay for you was your second mistake." The grievously maimed corporal - the same one who had spoken out after the visage of Callidus had smote his superior officer - commently blithely, the severity of his injury and the fresh absence of his right arm lessened in their intensity through undeath. "You will soon be at our mercy."

Arane quietly cursed herself for having been so brash - useful as a flair for grandiose display was in noble courts, it was of little use when one was attempting to stay unnoticed. Still, as long as she was brought to Rixis in perfect condition... "Ah, I see, I see... He plays two bands of his traitors against each other, does he? I am not the most familiar with how your Master maintains his control over you, but-Ah, there I go rambling again!" Arane laughed, shaking her head. "I will cut to the chase, then. If you do not take me to Rixis, quite simply, things will end quite poorly for you. You could try to kill me, of course, but it would be an incredibly simple matter for me to escape. Perhaps you could kidnap me, do whatever you do to the rest of Rixis's victims... But then I would have no reason not to simply slaughter the lot of you with me!" Arane laughed, legs wrapping around Haleth's waist as she holds her arms out wide in mock-embrace. 

"I've got no stake in whatever nonsense you're up to, wench, so I suppose we had better just kill you for the second time if you're really such a huge risk." The corporal drawled. "You have absolutely no leverage and a lot of bluster, you knife-eared quim. Never send a woman to do a man-"

"Silence!" Arane hissed, abruptly dismounting from her bodyguard's back.

The fleshed sloughed away from the fallen ghoul's corpse, racing toward the corporal, wrapping around his limbs af if to bind him. Jabbing a finger at the Corporal, she slowly advanced toward him, step by step, only to stop halfway, her lips peeled back in a snarl beneath her mask. The sheer, unadulterated rage on her lips was nearly palpable, even if none of the ghouls could see her face, an animalistic growl filling the air. "You will bring me to Rixis. You will gain nothing in return, except the knowledge that you have avoided a fate so nightmarish that Eagoth would seem like a saint in comparison. The next words out of your mouth will be words of accession, or I will show you that my so-called bluster pales in comparison to what I am capable of doing to insolent little wretches that think they are allowed to insult me." She seethed, Alaras casting a worried glance between Arane and the corporal. Perhaps she should stop Arane - but she knew how dangerous a spoiled princess could be when she was handed the power of a master wizard and given plenty of reason to unleash hell.

As if to punctuate her point, Arane wove a handful of runes into the air - but instead of a blast of raw force, the corporal found himself assailed by all manner of nightmarish visions. Twitching, writhing faces screamed into his thoughts, begging for death, their muscles jerking violently in ways that were utterly impossible.Their limbs, rotten and gangrenous much like the living dead, flailed wildly, clawing at eyes and pulling on jawbones as if in a vain strugle to kill themselves by pulling their own bodies apart. Some were men, others women, some eerily similar to the corporal himself in both appearance and tone, aside perhaps their obvious ability to feel incredible pain. Others simply ripped and clawed at their own skin, flesh peeling away beneath fingernails in bloody ribbons, their increasingly hoarse voices senselessly begging forgiveness for their unspecified sins. 

In the distance, atop a nearby hill, was the corporal's broken, shattered body, many-eyed golden beings dancing joyously about him as they clawed at, clubbed, and whipped him, so horrifically wounded that scarcely any flesh remained on his body. Nearby, others laughed as they drank his vital fluids out of bejeweled wine goblets as a glowing golden orb watched over the entire scene, its every surface dotted with millions of eyes of all manner of colours, a handful directed at the corporal. An old woman, her body covered in gnashing teeth, busied herself knitting a blanket out of screaming, still-living faces, occasionally glancing the Corporal's way with a rictus grin. Then, mercifully, the fog lifted, though it only took mere moments to transpire in reality, leaving the corporal staring at Arane, her arms outstretched. An illusion, perhaps, it was, but the sensations - the pain all those people felt from beyond the vale - was visited upon the undead corporal's mind as he awoke.

However gratifying the corporal's tormented screams and writhing on the ground were to Arane, or the particularly acrid stench of his dead and rotten bowels uncontrollably loosening from the sheer terror visited upon him, all else it did for her was to draw the notice of the descending squads of soldiers who had already been converging on her position. Already, the most proximal captains were barking distant and still incoherent demands in her direction over fields of putrid heads as their bands shoved and kicked their way through the kneeling hordes.

"I believe I have made my point, wretch."  Arane sneered, so caught up in her gloating that she would've failed to notice the soldiers converging on her if not for Haleth's strong, steadying hand grasping her by the soldier. She was wasting time - and drawing ever more attention. Perhaps that would eventually include Rixis himself, but, by then, word of her escapades would've been spread too far to be stopped, and that was already looking like a distinct possiblity.

She threw up her hands, as if frustration, then left them held high above her head in mock surrender. "Take me to Rixis, if you must!" She shouted, quietly weaving magic through the Corporal's shattered mind. In such a state, he would surely be vulnerable, she thought. Invisible tendrils of illusory magic wormed their way into his mind, turning his vision blank - and in their wake, they subtly twisted and pulled at the Corporal's thoughts, persuading him that, indeed, to bring her to Rixis was the best option. This mage was clearly not worth the trouble of struggling to draw away to process, and, at worst, she might actually succeed in slaying the bastard.

Lost in the throes of magically-induced delerium the likes of which had been alien to him even when he had been alive, the impulse sank deep into the roots of the corporal's unconscious mind, becoming realized as an unfulfilled ache that then permeated his senses as the anguish of the visions Arane had cursed him with slowly ebbed and faded. They left him lying prone and empty on the ground, staring with a twisted epiphany of rage and stark, harrowing terror.

"This one...is to go directly to the Warden!" He choked out as the first of the approaching patrols finally reached them. "She claims to be one of his slaves, with information for his coward's ears!"

"And what is with all the charnel?" The newly arrived sergeant demanded as his men moved to bind Arane and her crew in irons. "What is the meaning of all this commotion and mayhem?"

"...Spies of the Pale King in our ranks." The corporal spat out. It was remarkable, really, how quick on his feet the ghoul was, contriving the perfect excuse to have Arane thrown before Rixis' heap of a corse. He was probably moved by unadulterated rage and a desire to strike back at Arane for the torment she had just cut him, his hatred cutting through the snarl of the surrounding circumstances in short order. 

"So should we even be-" One of the soldiers hesitated, halting in their movement to grasp for Arane's arms.

"She brought them here!" The corporal spat. "She is a magus herself. Bind, gag, and blind her!"

Too wrathful, even, it would seem. The guards resumed their motions to subdue Arane and her party.

Arane made a show of shifting nervously, casting a cautious glance back at Haleth and Aralas - but her companions were familiar enough to recognize the ruse, likewise discarding their weapons. Hopefully, her spell would keep hold, barring unexpected mental fortitude on the corporal's part - and hopefully before Rixis simply chose to execute her on the spot.

The soldiers clapped her in her irons, stuffed her mouth with a wad of cloth soaked in tar and tied out and around the back of her head, and then took the sky away from her, reducing her world to the confines of a burlap sack - presumably doing the same to her companions.

From there, Arane was bundled onto a cart, and over the course of two agonizing hours was slowly trundled across the vale, the sound of countless seething, mindless undead the only thing she heard the whole of the way.

Eventually, the cart came to a halt. Arane was hoisted out from it with all the ceremony of laborers hauling a sack of potatoes, and carried by her chained feet and head...somewhere. The ceaseless sound of the mulling undead in the vale became subdued and dampened, and the telltall sound of echoing torchflame flickering danced through her ears - they were indoors somewhere now. The treatment she suffered was indignant, to say the least - far beneath an Elf of such high birth, in Arane's opinion - but such brief indignance was worth avoiding whatever fate befell those revenants kidnapped on Rixis's orders, she supposed. She hoped.

"And who are these?" An unfamiliar voice demanded.

"Evidently, one of the Warden's spies - one he failed to sufficiently ensorcel. They came and tried to introduce agents of the Pale King amongst the guard." Another unfamiliar voice, closer and to the side, answered.

"And they failed?"


"A shame." The first unseen speaker announced wistfully. "And so these others would be some of the Pale King's people?"

"You'd have to ask them."

"The Warden can ask, there is not enough time in the day to torture answers from the dead." The first speaker said irritably. "Though there's no way he'll want to meet with all of them. Wait here a moment, I'll go inquire about how to handle this."

There followed a brief interlude interpersed with the sound of retreating, armored footsteps on stone followed by the relative respite of being bodily tossed into a corner. Time passed.

Eventually, the footsteps returned.

"The Warden will see that one."

"And the others?"

"He wants them thrown into the Black Blood canals. The Sea is to claim them."

Arane felt herself being hauled to her feet, along with the sound of the others the soldiers had brought with them likewise being strongarmed to rise.

She shook her head vigorously, in hopes of catching the attention of the guards, shouting into her gag. Perhaps Arane and Aralas would find some way to escape, but the risk simply wasn't worthwhile - and they were her bodyguards, no less. Rixis might have faintly recognized her, but she knew they were likely little more than objects in the background to him.

That thought, however, promptly brought to mind how little Rixis's men seemed to care about much of anything. Once again weaving her fingers in complex patterns, she summoned up yet another spell, this one far more simple - hardly even a true illusion.

"The giant woman, the other elf - they are my bodyguards, you fools!" A voice echoed as if from everywhere at once. "Destroy them and I will be extraordinarily displeased."

 The men hauling Arane between them paused. A moment of silent lapsed as some unseen number of people considered the message.

"Whatever. I can hardly even be arsed." An unknown third speaker equipped. "Just drop them down the tower stairs, we can deal with them after the Warden makes up his mind about this one."

This commentary was pucntuated by the sound of a heavy object sliding against stone the the external din of the howling dead briefly heightening, alongside the dull thuds of padded objects being thrown out the door while Arane's entire body slanted, presumably as she was carried up a flight of stairs.

Several moments later, after several heavy doors were presumably opened and shut, the tell-tale stench of particularly wet and putrescent liquefaction assaulted Arane's nose, and the slick, squirming sound of molten bodily ruminants sliding across masonry filled her ears. That could only be one thing.

"On the table." A gurgling, muffled voice saturated the air. Moments later she was dumped onto a solid stone surface. A series of metallic clicks echoed through the unseen chamber, and Arane felt a number of sturdy metal bars fall into place around her. The implication was evident - she had just been fastened onto a torture slab.

"High Magister Rixis." Arane's voice echoed, though her body remained motionless. For the best, she thought, less she gag herself into unconsciousness at the stench invading her nostrils.

Immediately, Arane felt a shock run along her body, as if something had grabbed and yanked hard on an invisible cord running along her spine - there was no physical force accompanying the sensation. Just the peculiar sense that some massive, unseen object had passed by her in the dark, the invisible wind of its tremendous force rushing by her as felt only within her mind.

A moment of deathly silence passed.

"You are a Revenant Major." The gargling voice stated flatly.

"Your soldiers. Are they still in this room?" Arane's voice replied, her posture abruptly relaxing. She had angered him, perhaps, or he had attempted to exert his oppressive control over her for the simple reason that he assumed her vulnerable.

"Maybe they are." The gurgling voice hissed, lurched in intensity. Arane then realized - with the bag over her head, he could not see her evidently pointed ears, and he already seemed to want to bank on the ambiguity of whether there was anybody else present in the room enough that him removing it to see if he recognized her was unlikely. "You are not one of my agents, no matter what the Commander says, and the notion of the Pale King's wretched spies being able to elude my notice is laughable. Are you another disgraced pariah come to try and oust me, tumbling in rage from Eagoth's court?"

"To oust you? No, certainly not." Arane said, sucking in deep, calming breaths through her nose - even if she had no need to do so. The motions calmed her regardless, useless leftovers of life as they were. "Eagoth deemed my existence too great a risk. Attempted to dispose of me. I was unwilling to lie down and accept such a disgrace, much like how he has attempted to push you to the wayside. In you, I sought a like mind. Lady Arane Tiedriel, at your service."

"Arane Tiedriel..." The slurred voice slughed. "The Elf. Found your preordained burial at sea not to your taste? I find it more likely you came to usurp me, in hopes Eagoth would be willing to entertain your consignment here, much as he has entertained mine. I cannot control you, so I cannot even trust what I can forcefully wring from your corse. I should probably return you to Eagoth's court in pieces."

"I would hope not, High Magister. I assumed you would think better of me than to come crawling back to the court of worthless wretches that destroyed this continent, then thought so little of me as to think I would die on his behalf. Ha!" The voice laughed. 

"You are a powerful magister, Rixis. Surely you can see that you deserve more than this?"

"Destroyed the continent?" Rixis garbled aloud. "Is that what you think, elf? Perhaps the snuffing out of life has clouded your judgement. What little I have seen outside of the vale since Eagoth's conquest is enough to assure me Leria is much the same as it always has been..." The voice came up abruptly and seemed to let out a deflating drag of rushing fluid. After a brief pause, the sodden sound of churning, fleshy pulp began to echo through the chamber.

"He certainly did not improve it." The voice laughed.

"Debatable." Rixis slurred as he continued to move sight unseen in the surrounding chamber. "Though I will concede the whole of Leria remains overrun with imbeciles and useless lackwits who now do not even have the good decency to die of infirmity." The squelching, bubbling turmoil of Rixis moving about the chamber came to a hault, and there was another pause.

Eventually, he spoke again. "I am not entirely unsympathetic to your plight, though the manner in which you have quite literally fallen into my clutches does not endear me to the potential utility of your doubtlessly peerless intellect. For what purpose do you claim you came here for?"

"To ingratiate myself with you, which I have done an exceedingly poor job of so far." She said, a sigh echoing through the room. "I had intended to offer you a scrying orb as a gift, but it is currently with my bodyguards who I believe your guards deposited at the bottom of a nearby staircaise. I... Overestimated their loyalty to you.

"As evidently have I, yet again, insofar as my trust that they can fulfill exceedingly base instruction. I distinctly recall telling them to throw your chattel into the canals." A hint of evident irritation had crept into the gargle of Rixis' voice. "I accept your gift, of course. Now. What else can you offer me in exchange for not letting my guards have their way with you before letting the ghouls gnaw on your bones and tossing what is left to the Dark Sea?"

The cause of the soldiery's exceedingly frayed loyalty seemed evident: Rixis had all the generosity of a funeral pyre.

"The aid of a powerful sorceress, the continued, admittedly meagre existence of your soldiers, and the chance to destroy Eagoth for daring to confine one of the most powerful Magisters of our age to a backwater." The voice offered, though the slightest trace of of anger had crept into her voice. "I do not expect charity from you, by any means. I expect the both of us to profit immensely from this endeavour."

"The continued existence of my soldiers? Was that a threat, elf?" A sharp, burbling twang punctuated Rixis' words. The generosity of a pyre and the tunnel-vision of a masked horse.

"A threat against you? Certainly not, no. I merely mean to imply that I would defend myself against them."

"So I should unmake you on the spot rather than let them come to risk."

...And the diplomatic charm of a pile of manure. It was quickly becoming evident that everything Arane had ever heard of Rixis' odious social graces was not only true: It had all, in fact, been charitably downplayed.

Trying to broker with Rixis this way was doomed to end poorly. He was speaking an entire different language. One spoken by boorish, paranoid, petty tyrant governors and village elders who interpretted standing before them without a slouch as a challenge.

Hopefully he'd be one of those petty tyrants that responded to ego-stroking, then. 

"I would hope not. They are beneath you, High Magister - as is Eagoth. He is a wretch. A powerful wretch, but a fool that does not realize the value you hold. He has the foresight of a foetid corpse, the patience of a maniac, and the absurd gall the likes of which I have never before witnessed. You are wasting your time under his thumb." The voice scoffed, and Arane shifted uncomfotably from side to side. "I intend merely to destroy him. I do not intend to rule in Leria, nor do I intend to linger here once I have satisfied this longer than is needed. The continent would be your oyster, should we succeed." She explained, neglecting to mention the child interred in her belly.

"Truer words are scarcely spoken. Though of course, it hardly matters what sort of Wretch Eagoth is, does it? To his will our fallen bodies and spirits are bound, his manifest destiny that is the Pax Mortis. Bold of you to plot his destruction, knowing that all that would be required of him to thwart you would be to think of yours. You have a plan, I trust."

"A number, yes. Presently, I intend to bind my soul to a suit of blessed armour.  This is the more realistic of the options at hand, but... I will admit, I believe there may be a chance I can return myself to life." And my daughter, she thought to herself. "In the absolute worst case, any magic can be broken.

"Ridiculous." The liquefaction of a voice audibly spat. "Resurrection is impossible. But I can already see why you came to me. You have to wrest the Locus from Eagoth's control in order for the plan to bind your soul to armor to work - for were he to turn it on you and all the others you so treat, the Locus would devour your spirits. Hm." The warbling voice paused again. "How would you even animate such a body? Even the most potent Necromancy struggles to animate tissue other than muscle, already singularly optimized for directed motion."

"The enchantments and transmutations necessary are complex, I will admit, but I know that I am capable. I have been granted the instrument by my gods and by the souls of Elven smiths I carry with me." Arane shrugged - or tried to, at least, though her bindings made the movement look more like a spastic jerk of her muscles. Nonetheless, she opted to conveniently leave out her precise methodology.

The room fell utterly silent. With only the dead for inhabitants, none of its occupants so much as drew a breath to fill the void.

Eventually, Rixis spoke again.

"Even all the mighty Knights throughout all of Leria failed to conquer Eagoth's hordes and magicks. I fail to see how such an approach might enable your victory, where it is evident you will be unable to field nearly so many of these suits as the living could field living champions. Their own blessed armor yielded to the tides of the damned. So would yours." 

"My champions would be comparatively few, yes. That is why I would likewise intend to subvert Eagoth's enchantments, but these, my first soldiers... There is a soul, yes, but they would lack flesh, High Magister. It is likely that they would need to fight as guerillas, but they would make the resilience of the risen dead look simply puerile in comparison. My armour, no less, if of far better make. I will have an army that is neither living nor dead." 

"Remind me what still lives upon all of Leria." Rixis' slurred voice had a deceptively mild intonation to it as he voiced the question.

"Carrion-eaters, perhaps. In the highest mountains and the most hidden of places, a few things still thrive. Leria is a heap of corpses, but that does not mean I cannot take joy in spiting Eagoth and making a hero out of myself and perhaps you."
Arane admitted, sighing once again.

And Rixis laughed.

It was the sound of dribbling mud.

"Allow me to clarify. There is no living thing that remains in Leria. Every vulture and worm and maggot you have seen - those, too, are stricken with undeath. They continue to act as they would if living, for they are but simple beasts, but make no mistake that every fiber of flesh under, upon, and above the land belongs to Eagoth. And do you have a reckoning of their number, little elf?"

The squelching, popping undulation of Rixis' putrid form rose in intensity as he slid closer to the interrogation table. Arane swore she could hear the birthing of the words in what remained of his jaw as they slid, as whispers, into her ears.

"Countless. Millions. Do you even know what a Million is, elf? Have you ever heard the numeration before, ever seen it put to parchment? Have you any reckoning of how vast such a summation is?"

He did not await her answer, his inquiry evidently having been rhetorical. He pulled back and carried on.

"Yours is such a typical plan for your kind. Relying on stealth and skirmisher tactics to fight around the enemy. You can scarcely conceive of what you will be trying. The very soil of the earth itself will betray you. There is nowhere you or your minions will be able to hide or seek respite in all of Leria. Your plan is foolish and doomed..." He paused again briefly.

'...With that sort of strategy, at least.' He finally added.

Inwardly, Arane smiled. "I gather you have thought of an alternative, then? I would prefer not to have to burn the continent to ash, infested as it may be."

"Indeed. It is true that we may be able to mutually benefit each other with what you are suggesting. However...such discussion is premature. I have not waited this long to throw my lot in with your ilk with so haphazard a plan. My secrecy of your intent, I will provide as a gift, since you may yet prove useful to me. If you desire more - my aid, my assistance, my magicks - I have a condition. You will procure the service, the direction of an accomplished military mind. One who can bring effectiveness to your paltry plan and make it serviceable against Eagoth. He did not conquer all of Leria merely through arcane prowess. He campaigned against the mortal realms for decades on end. For me to demand anything less of you would be to entertain a second deathwish."

"Entirely fair," the voice admitted. "And a wise precaution, nonetheless. Though I must admit that I intend to seek out the merchant, too - Faustus, I believe he is called. He is not to be trusted, but with sufficient secrecy, I believe be can be bought into acquiring the reagents I need. And then there is the Locus, of course - if I manage to prove my usefulness, perhaps we can uncover a method to its madness. The precise nature of such a flaw in Eagoth's work. You, I imagine, would be key to such an effort."

"Ahahaha. Yes. Which is where we come to the proverbial other boot. And my ultimatum." Rixis' burbling, voice had taken on a particularly snide demeanor. "I will shortly release you and send you back out from the vale to do as you must. But you will be returning to me. If you truly desire to defeat Eagoth, you must, in fact. Tell me, elf, do you know why Eagoth conquered Leria with Necromancy?"

"I can make educated guesses, but I would prefer not to waste your time."

"Or you desire not to put your ignorance on display. It is simple. Eagoth was not always a Necromancer. He used to be a sorcerer of many means. He considered many different possible avenues of levying his campaign, and of course attaining immortality. Necromancy was not even his first preference. The reason it is what he used, is because it is the only sort of magic that would work on the scope he had envisioned. Do you know how many would-be summoners, golem-shapers, devil-binders, and fae lords have attempted to conquer Leria in the past? All of them with their own insurmountable hordes of impervious magical beings, summoned, conjured, constructed or otherwise? Much in the manner of your animated armor strategem?"

Rixis paused momentarily for effect in the manner of a novice orator before continuing.

"It is because there is no magical entity or construct, no matter how formidible, that can continue to exist when confronted with formidible abjurations. Any golem can be unbound and reduced to a pile of rubble. Any demon can be rebuked and banished. Any fae creature or otherworldly entity can be unmade, their very substance torn apart by abjuration, because inherently the core of their nature is that their existence is sustained wholly by magic. The undead are no different of course, but because of the principle by which they normally operate - the original spirit still bound to the body, or merely anchored to the waking world, and the body not sustained magically and merely driven - evades the deleterious principles of abjuration, rather than acting as a ward against them. Even if your mighty army of enchanted armor could batter their way past Eagoth hordes, it would come to naught. He would wave a hand and your souls would come unbound, your armor falling in worthless heaps of dull, abjured metal. And that is why you will need me. Not only for my Locus, which would otherwise then immediately devour any such wayward spirits, severed from their constructed bodies - but because..."

Once again, Rixis' rancid, gurgling voice seemed to whisper directly by Arane's side.

"I have a method to render all of Eagoth's necromantic magicks null and void. Without which, your victory is impossible."

The burbling voice receded.

For a handful of moments, Arane contemplated launching into another tirade, correcting Rixis on her methodology, how she had anticipated and contemplated methods with which to defy abjuration, until, all of a sudden, her disembodied voice laughed, as though Rixis had let her in on some utterly hilarious joke. Smugness and ego dripped from his voice, but it was not him she found so humorous - she couldn't help but cackle in delight at the mere possibility that Eagoth could be so thoroughly undone. 

"That is the other reason I sought you out, Rixis! The rest would call you a coward, but me... Oh no, no. I hoped - I knew - you would not sit idly by and allow Eagoth to so flagrantly mistreat you. I will look forward to seeing the look on the Vwynalyen's face when his army collapses before his very eyes! You most certainly have my loyalty. That much, I can promise on all that I hold dear."

"We will see. Now then. Was there anything else you have a needs to discuss before you depart?" Rixis' slurring speech now had a perfunctory tiredness to it.

"This military mind - was there one you had in mind? And, further, I would have my agents returned to me - they are far more adept at genuine stealth than I."

"Your lackeys will not be undone, yes yes. As for my condition...my preferences are shaped by my reach. My reach and yours differ. Anybody who can demonstrate sufficient skill, whomsoever you can also coerce or scheme into your service, will do." Arane felt more than heard a lurching shudder as Rixis slid away from the interrogation table.

"Ah, and one last, for the road - will you be dispatching one of yours to join my own spies?" She asked, though the question was clearly laden with rhetorical sarcasm.
"...In a manner of speaking. Your frail elven bodyguards doubtlessly leave nearly as much to be desired as my own soldiers. I will arrange for one of my more formidible Dead Seas to accompany you, with a few enchantments for the purposes of maintaining communication." Rixis said off-handedly. Arane then heard a dull thud upon the chamber door, which creaked open. The sound of armored boots clicked across the floor.

"This one and her lackeys are to be sent outside the Southern Cleft. I will arrange for a place to leave them, there will be cargo awaiting them there."

"Very good, Warden. They are to be delivered unspoiled and uninjured, I take it?"

"Hmm." Rixis seemed to mull over the inquiry for a moment. "I suppose your men may have their way with them along the way, though be warned this one has threatened destruction upon any who would make the attempt."

"I'll be sure to take that into consideration, Warden." The voice said.

"Oh, and one of her companions will have an artifact with them - a crystalline sphere of some sort. Secure it from their person on the lower floor, I will examine it later." Rixis added, having evidently remembered the Scrying Orb at the last moment. The unseen soldier seemed to reply with some hand gesture, possibly a salute. Arane then felt the clasps of the table's latches come undone before she was bodily heaved up from its surface and carried off.

"Farewell, little elf." Rixis hissed distantly.

"Farewell, High Magister."

The trip to the Southern Cleft of the Vale was precisely as distinguished as the trip towards its certain: Not even remotely. Arane and her crew were carted through the Southern passage over the course of several hours, and deposited, still bound, gagged, and hooded, by the makeshift stables of a wooden watchtower.

The guards heaped them all in a pile on the ground adjacent to a second cart, from which a sickening, pulsating thrumm seemed to emanate. The Dead Sea Rixis had promised - though that was scarcely noteworthy in light of the fact that the watchers seemed content to simply abandon the group in the open, still thoroughly clapped in irons.

Truthfully, Arane could not blame them for wanting to be rid of her - she'd wasted no time in shattering the mind of the first ghoul to become too handsy with her. After that, they were mostly quiet, though she opted not to remove her shackles until now, flexing her fingers to free herself with invisible key, then her companions. Almost immediately, Haleth launched into a tirade of Elven curses, stomping and throwing her hands in the air, while Aralas, dutiful as ever, spent her time examining the cart nearby, unwilling to approach it any more than necessary just yet. There was absolutely no space for passengers or any additional cargo, as it carried a massive barrel, fit for a gargantuan wine-cellar and dwarfing even Haleth in height. The indidious, churning impulse thrumming from within could only be the Dead Sea Rixis had promised, though how he expected them to move the cart without undead beasts of burden or an entire labor train of ghouls was not apparent.

Resolving to investigate the stables, and hoping she would find a beast there which Rixis would not particularly mind her making use of, Arane trudged her way over toward the structure, leaving Haleth behind - though Aralas was quick to join her the moment she noticed Arane departing. "Milady, are you sure it is wise to accept Rixis's... Gift?" She asked.

Arane simply shrugged. She would use Rixis's gift, of course, but for now, she was more concerned with his demand.

Fortunately, she had just the person in mind, if she could somehow manage to wrest him free of Eagoth's clutches.
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((A collaboration from Flagg and gorgenmast))

A fortnight of ceaseless travel across the southern half of Leria was nearing its end as Theleden and his retinue at last crossed into the Wizard’s Vale; the border was marked on either side of the highway by obelisks of white marble some twelve feet in height. They were suspended nearly a foot off of a plinth of the same white marble, levitating with perfect stillness by some arcane means. Relics of the pre-Conquest world, they had been erected with the purpose of demonstrating the magical prowess of the masters of this realm to travelers and passersby. But in the intervening years since the Conquest, these wayposts had become redundant, for there were no visitors to the Vale anymore.

“They say no ghouls come from Yzen,” noted one of the banner-bearing revenants riding behind Theleden, regarding the levitating wayposts as he trotted past. Theleden paid little heed to the chatter of his retinue, but the comment had elicited some interest from one of the other horsed revenants.

“How can that be? The Necromancer’s conquest of Leria was absolute. No realm could withstand him. No man was spared.”

“Then have you ever seen a revenant or ghoul from Yzen?”

“I haven’t,” the skeptic revenant confessed. “But what of it? There are some million wights in Necron alone. I see thousands and thousands of ghouls every day. But I don’t go about asking each shuffling wretch I happen across what patch of earth they crawled out of. What’s more, half of them don’t even know their names, much less where they came from.”

“Stubborn fool. You’ve certainly met revenants from every other corner of this land. From the Meridions to the Far North. But I know that you never have nor ever will meet one from Yzen. They do not exist.”

It was true what the bannerbearer had said, Theleden thought to himself as he led the procession through the border into the Vale: one of the great mysteries of the Conquest was how the Undeath had left behind no ghouls in the lands ruled by the White Wizard. Everywhere else in Leria, the slain inhabitants of the continent’s various realms and principalities had been raised as the walking dead. But in the Vale and its seat of Yzen, nothing had been left behind in the Necromancer’s wake. Only curtains of thick mist that wisped through the boughs of the forests of the Vale even now. Mist and silence.

However it had come to pass, Callidus’ domain had been completely depopulated. For the remainder of the journey to Yzen, Theleden and his retinue would not see much as a single ghoul on the road. Elsewhere on the journey across Leria, Theleden had seen a great number of undead travelers. Caravans and wagons drawn by unliving horse, ox, or some patchwork beast from the meatworks of Comiriom. Elsewhere the roads and highways of the undead empire flowed with traffic bearing resources and laborers moving between functional-though-unliving cities and towns: a simulacrum of the living world before the time of the Necromancer. The wards of Callidus saw no such activity. More so than any other corner of Leria, the Wizard’s Vale was truly a land of the dead.

Visibility quickly diminished as Theleden and his retinue advanced into the Vale. Thick mist poured in through the brooding forest, turning the very air around them as thick and white as milk. The movement of horses and skeleton guards down the road disturbed the stolid fog, leaving curling eddies of mist in their wake, interrupting the perfect stillness of mist undisturbed for perhaps years. And yet the white flagstones clattering under the hooves of the steeds were not overgrown with weeds or covered with leaves or other detritus for lack of use, as if nothing had changed in the past nigh-fifty years.

The retinue passed little roads that branched off of the highway into dells cut out of the forest to accommodate roadside towns. Villages of neat little cottages of plaster on cob oriented around little wellhouses or steepled chapels of limestone. But no ghouls peered out of the windows to regard the passersby. These towns had been abandoned long ago, though they almost looked as if they had been occupied as recently as a few days before.

Abandoned towns were rather common throughout Leria. However, without routine repair and maintenance carried out by the local revenant lord, these places quickly decayed into ruin from rot and mold born from Leria’s perpetual gloom and damp. But despite a half-century of neglect, the hamlets of the Vale were immaculately preserved. Just as necrotic flesh was preserved in aquavitae, it seemed the Vale had been preserved in this strange mist. The only sign of neglect came in the form of overgrowth: creeping brambles of thorny rosevines that crept through the understory of the surrounding forest and crawled up the chimneys and chapel walls. White roses bloomed out against the glossy foliage of the brambles. Droplets of dew condensed upon their frilly blossoms and occasionally dripped off of the petals in heavy drops, as if the land itself wept for what had transpired upon it.

The white roses, undeterred by the perpetual mist and gloom, became more numerous as they advanced deeper into the Vale. Their brambles crept up the moss and lichen-coated trees that grew on either side of the road, reaching from the branches of one side to the trees on the other to form giant archways high above the road. White petals from the roses above would occasionally fall from their blossoms and twirl through the air as they descended among the undead procession. One of those petals settled gently upon the right pauldron of Theleden’s cloak, prompting the revenant to pluck it from his shoulder and inspect it. The petal’s delicate flesh bruised under the grip of Theleden’s shriveled digits, gentle though it was. Gentle and beautiful things were rare indeed in Leria anymore; Callidus’ dominion was indeed a strange province of the undead empire.

Theleden’s musings on the rose petal were interrupted by the clinking and clattering of plate and chainmail as the skeleton guards stopped in perfect unison. Without uttering a single vocalization, they drew their weapons and directed themselves toward the woods on the left side of the road. Poleaxes and billhooks were levelled toward the gloom and mist as Theleden and his riders drew their horses to a halt.

“Skeleton guards must have seen something in the mist!”

“Who goes there?!”

The mist swirled and gyrated, driven by some force other than wind for the air was still as a grave. And in the churning mist, a silhouette of some amorphous being materialized from the gloom. A giant and terrible thing as tall as the trees from which it had emerged. Theleden reached for the scabbard on his back.

The air shivered as the Peacemaker emerged from its scabbard. It was a thick shortsword of mirror-smooth steel. Sparks of green energy crackled down the length of the bloodgroove, emanating from an ornamental fist of skeletal digits set upon the middle of the crossguard. The silver fingers clutched a black jewel the size of a small coin that shone brightly from within with a sickly green light: a piece of rutile imbued with Eagoth’s fell power.

“In the name of the Great Necromancer Eagoth, Master of Leria, leave us or be destroyed!” Theleden commanded, pointing the Peacemaker at the monstrous shade before him.

Without any other warning, Theleden’s sword erupted in a flash of green lightning that streaked through the misty air, passing above the heads of the skeleton guards into the core of the shade. The arc of lightning passed through the menacing silhouette and struck a hawthorn tree behind it, bursting the entire tree apart in an instant. Leaves and steaming splinters rained down upon the skulls and armor of the guards, who still kept their weapons leveled despite the fact that the shade had disappeared and only a steaming, jagged stump remained in its place.

“Where did it go?” Asked one of the horsed revenants.

The force of the blast had dissipated some of the nearby mist. There was no sign of any monster that may have been lurking in the fog. No corpse, blood, nor viscera from some beast that might have been annihilated by the power unleashed by the Peacemaker; there were not even footprints in the leaf litter surrounding the ruined tree.

“Nothing,” reported one of the horsed revenants as he inspected the area. “It was just the mist.”

“Perhaps so,” Theleden said, noting the piece of rutile set into the crossguard of his sword, now jet black and devoid of any arcane glow before returning it to his scabbard. “Or perhaps not. Regardless, we will continue on.”

The forests surrounding the road gave way to an open plain, still obfuscated by a haze of mist. Giant wolf trees peered through a veil of fog, suggesting that this had once been farmland. The crops were long gone; smothered in dense mats of white rose bramble that covered everything. Across the plain, as far as one could see through the fog, the walls of Yzen ascended from the roses.

It was built upon, or perhaps carved out of a large hill surrounded by otherwise flat land. Thick walls of alabaster white stone rose up from the brambles, whose blossomed vines attempted to crawl over the walls in many places but failed to scale them. Beyond the ramparts was a small, dense city of tall buildings replete with domes and cupola-ed towers built from the same white stone. The city surrounded a citadel of taller walls which housed the grandest structure in Yzen: the White Tower.

Unlike most Lerian cities, Yzen bore no scars from the Conquest. A far cry from cities such as Comiriom - much of which was still in ruins. There was no damage to the ramparts or the buildings inside. There were no rotten remains of siege towers or burnt-out gatehouses. Even the gates had been left wide open. Eagoth had taken this city without a fight.

Three pairs of the levitating waystones stood vigil alongside the road as Theleden and his retinue approached the city’s gates - the closest things to guards that Yzen possessed. Theleden led the procession through the open gates and beheld a city embalmed in mist and frozen in time.

Mist swirled around the hooves of his destrier as Theleden rode down the thoroughfare, carefully scanning the alleys and bystreets now in response to the encounter earlier. Some doors had been left open and creaked in what little breeze there was. Window shutters occasionally clapped against the walls, drawing attention from the horsed revenants as they rode past. But aside from these and the echoing of the hooves and footfalls upon the flagstones, Yzen was silent.

On their way to the center of Yzen, Theleden rode through a plaza that had once served as a market. The merchants and customers were long since gone, but the shops and stalls remained much as they had 45 years ago. Theleden looked down at a stall once operated by a fruit vendor. Dessicated fruits - mummified rock-hard but otherwise untouched even by vermin - still sat in wicker baskets for customers that would never come. Pears and apples - Theleden recognized. They would have been picked in latest summer, right around the Fall of Ludire, perhaps no more than a week before.

“What did Callidus do to this place?” Theleden wondered to himself as he neared the inner walls.

They passed through a second, smaller gate, into the gardens surrounding the foot of the White Tower, from which the sorcerous Kings of Yzen had ruled their little corner of Leria for millenia. It was a tiered structure some three hundred feet from the base to the marble dome that crowned its highest reaches. For many centuries, it had been the tallest edifice in all of Leria, and only in relatively recent history had this honor been usurped by the steeple spires of the most ambitious of the great cathedrals. Even today, it was dwarfed only by the mammoth Spire of Rutile and what few cathedral spires remained standing after the Conquest. Nine flying buttresses went down from the top of the first tier and transitioned into pillars that rose up from the gardens surrounding the foot of the White Tower.

Here, at least, there were signs of unlife. Not just silence and curling mist.

Along the marble pathways that traced their way through the rose briars and willows of the gardens there walked cowled figures, cloaked in robes of black or white. Some carried lanterns, some swung censors of smouldering incense, others walked with gloved hands folded as though in prayer. It reminded Theleden of the ascetics that once inhabited the monastery of Saint Alma in Esteline and the other priories and abbeys of the world before Eagoth.

“The wizard,” Theleden demanded of the nearest passing figure. Languidly, the cowled shade lifted a hand and pointed into the depths of the garden.

“Stay,” Theleden ordered his riders and skeleton guards. He slid out of the saddle of his horse and stood on his own feet for the first time in many days. Wordlessly, he advanced into the mists of the garden in the direction pointed out by the wraith.

Like all other things in this land, the gardens of Yzen had been preserved. The white roses were plentiful here as well, but were contained in neat, orderly bushes confined within stone beds raised above marble pavers, quite unlike the wild brambles that had swallowed almost everything else in the Wizard’s wards. Larger planters housed weeping willows where drooping boughs gave shelter to marble sculptures. Theleden stopped to regard one of the statues: a king of ages past, clad in a billowing robe that terminated in silky folds on the statue’s plinth. A simple diadem rested gently upon tight locks of hair as it stared into the garden with stoic melancholy. Living flesh had all disappeared from Leria, and to even see the graven likeness of it was striking to Theleden. He extended a shriveled finger to caress the statue’s face, perhaps to remind himself what a living person felt like.

Cold marble slid under his grayed and shriveled finger; so smooth and unlike the wrinkled, scarred, and mummified dead. But as he felt the statue’s face, Theleden witnessed it moving beneath his hand. The ancient king’s stony gray eyes widened in terror as his stoic frown drew open into a silent, agonized scream. Marble flesh sloughed and ran like molten wax, dripping off the king’s frenzied face in wriggling drops. Globs of marble white flesh fell onto the grass of the planter, now composed of the same gray, jiggling marble. The other statues in the garden were now melting as well, melding into the quick marble that - to Theleden’s shock - comprised everything around him. The whole world was now gray, wriggling flesh, all set to boil under the crepuscular glow of a black sun set above the White Tower.

Theleden blinked, and the world returned to the way it was. The sculpture under his hand was the crowned king of old once again, frowning pensively and perfectly still. The grass beneath his feet, still green and dew-laden. The anemic Lerian sun was once again obfuscated by dense mist. A sigh would have left Theleden’s cracked and scarred lips if his lungs still drew breath. These visions were becoming stranger and more nonsensical by the day.

He hoped that Callidus could make sense of them, or silence them at the very least.

Theleden found the wizard sitting by a reflecting pool, its water black and utterly still. He was clad in robes of white and silver, his downcast face hidden by his hood.

“My old friend,” said Callidus, not looking up from the pool, “I thought you would come. The Sight is a fickle gift, and often lies. But not, it seems, this time.”

In life his voice had been a rich, authoritative bass, cultured and self-possessed. Now, though, Theleden was greeted with a sinuous whisper, as though Callidus himself hesitated to break the silence of his domain.

“Then you know why I am here. Visions…. or memories… I cannot tell which, but they give me no rest. I cannot trust my own mind anymore….a consequence of the Cleansing, necessary though it was, yet....”

Callidus shifted slightly and looked up. His face was hidden behind a silvered mask, expressionless and serene. His eyes were black pits.

“When Eagoth told me what he’d done to you,” he said, “He seemed half ashamed, half proud... like a spoiled prince reporting some sin to his tutor, knowing he could not be punished.”

Callidus was quiet a long moment, “I am not sure that even makes sense to you now, talk of tutors and students and the stuff of normal life. What once was normal.”

Normal,” Theleden repeated. “As if to imply that things were better in the time before the Necromancer. We both know that is not the case. You recognized this on your own… I, of course, needed some persuasion. But in the end, we came to learn in our own way that Eagoth’s rule has been a blessing.”

Callidus looked back at the pool, silent.

“I must confess, Wizard, that I held a terrible hatred for you in my heart for what transpired at Ludire. What you had allowed to happen.” Theleden said, “But, with the clarity that our Master’s Cleansing provided, I understand the reasons for your actions. The Sight showed you a brighter future under Eagoth than any we could achieve as mortal men. But perhaps the Cleansing left some ember of hubris within me...”

“You want to know if Eagoth could have been beaten.”

Theleden remained still for a moment, and gave a single shameful nod.

Callidus neither moved nor spoke. Rather, the water in the pool before him rippled. Theleden saw dim figures moving within the glassy water. Slowly they resolved into images.

In the black water, he saw himself as he was in life, the Lion of Leria, directing the defense at the Sour Bridge: rain in his eyes, blood in his mouth, the swamps burning around him, the claws of ghouls scraping at his dented armor. He saw Callidus too, fighting beside him, black hair streaked with white, robes swirling, gilded armor shining in the gloom, sword burning, his stave spitting pale fire. The wizard was dueling three huge, gangling, fanged abominations that had emerged from the ranks of the dead. Precursors to the monsters of Comiriom.

Heavy knights and cataphracts charged into the undead from behind Theleden and Callidus at full gallop. Ghouls and revenants crumbled into bone and gore under such weight and fury. The undead line was broken - open wide for the many thousands of living warriors charging into battle behind the cavalry. Theleden’s lopped the head off of a mace-wielding ghoul and thrust his dirtied sword into the air, rallying the footsoldiers forward into battle; their combined battlecries building into a great crescendo as they charged valiantly into the broken lines of the dead.

The scene dissolved, replaced with another. Callidus, on his throne, advisors telling him of the fall of Rhanea to an upstart wizard, a powerful necromancer. The wizard-king laughing, calling necromancy the art of hedge witches and madmen. “Let the northerners clean up the north,” said the king, “I would pay half the worth of the Vale to have necromancers rather than pious fanatics as my enemies… King Gedeyon should have hired a court wizard from Yzen when I offered him one...”

This scene too was dispersed in a flush of ripples and was replaced with yet another series of images. Theleden and Callidus saw their living likenesses, once again at the battlefield of the Sour Bridge. The dead were in full retreat across the burning waters of the marsh; dismembered ghouls dragged their ruined bodies across soot and mud in a desperate bid to rejoin their companions on the north side of the marsh still held by the dead - only to be skewered or their skulls crushed under the armored boots of elated warriors who had been tasked with dispatching the stragglers.

Theleden made his way across the mud, churned thick and heavy by many thousands of boots and hooves, to where Callidus stood. A steaming mound of bone and organs quivered at his feet: the remains of a patchwork monstrosity that the wizard had vanquished. The wizard stared pensively northward across the charred moor to where the bloodied dead gathered.

“My friend, we are victorious!” Theleden exclaimed with a wide smile - his first in a long time indeed. It would be his last.

“The air is rank with magic. He is here. From the midst of the swamp the Necromancer stares back at us.”

“Good,” Theleden snarled. “Let him see the fate that awaits him and is ilk.”

“Why should we wait?” asked Callidus. “We can destroy him today.”

“No,” Theleden replied, “That is precisely what Eagoth wants. He must want so desperately for us to press our advantage and make the same error he did: to commit our forces to trudging through so much water and muck where his dead can bog our army down and destroy them just as we did to his ghouls.”

“The perfect ruse to separate Eagoth from the undead army protecting him,” said Callidus, “You and I surprise him while he observes the battle.”

Theleden’s smile melted away as he heard the wizard’s proposal.

“If we can reach Eagoth we can destroy him.” Callidus closed his eyes and remained silent for several moments. “I do not foresee another opportunity.”

The Lion’s lips quivered in anger as his eyes narrowed into a furious scowl.

“Your Sight has failed you today, Wizard,” Theleden declared as he turned away from Callidus. “I will make another opportunity; one that does not require me to send my men into slaughter. I will not descend to Eagoth’s level.”

With that, the reflecting pool was consumed in a flush of ripples again, leaving only still black water and their reflections.

“There was no other opportunity...” Theleden declared after a long silence. He made no effort to conceal his sorrow.

“And all because I did not want to be a monster like Eagoth. Now look at me…”

Theleden stared into the reflecting pool and regarded his reflection. His face was gaunt and white as Callidus’ robe, his lips frozen into a perpetual grimace from years of torment in the Necromancer’s gaols, drawn so tight that the lips parted and split into weeping gashes. His beard had fallen off, and his tight locks of golden hair were reduced to a few pale, straight strands that hung limply to his scalp.

“No… not monstrous… glorious!” Theleden growled with a twinge, as unnaturally and involuntary as dead flesh being galvanized by spark. “The only monstrous thing left in me is this pining for life, some damnable vestige left behind by the Cleansing.”

Callidus laughed, languid and bitter. “The Cleansing. Eagoth’s propaganda is as crude as his magic. No subtlety, tasteless. You have a simulation of loyalty along with your simulation of life.”

The wizard stood, head cocked to one side. “I thought at first he’d sent you here to spy on me. I should have known better, deception and craft are quite foreign to the Great Necromancer. He has never needed to be very clever. One of the benefits of godlike power.”

“I came here of my own volition, Callidus. Not as a spy, but as a supplicant. I merely wish to know the meaning of these visions, or silence them. For the sake of my sanity.”

“Silence them? Why do you think he left them in you? Brought you back at all?” asked Callidus, “Watching you lose what is left of your mind is rather his purpose, Theleden. Brooding over past slights and torturing old enemies is one of his very few amusements. Indeed, perhaps it was his only goal all along, unless you count turning the rest of the world into an ugly grey hell. But even that only provides him so much pleasure. In fact, I think what frightens him the most is the prospect of his invasion of the lands beyond Leria succeeding. Of there being no more worlds left to conquer. He will cover the earth in his grey pall and make slaves of every creature, but he will still be Eagoth, whom he hates most of all. That is his secret fear, that though he may become a kind of god, he will never escape from himself."

Theleden stared into the empty voids where the Wizard’s eyes should have been, as if looking for something within.

“If what you say is true, that Eagoth secretly dreads this ultimate victory, then perhaps there remains one chance to rightly punish the Necromancer for what he has done,” Theleden said,

“Perhaps I shall give the world to Eagoth. Kill the men beyond the sea and raise them in Undeath. His grey hell shall encompass the entire world, so that he will have nowhere left to conquer or flee to. And in a thousand years, when all of his ghouls, revenants, and other servants have rotten and withered away, he shall be left alone in this hell he has made. And perhaps then, finally, his fear of death might be overcome by sorrow, that he might cast himself from the top of his black tower.”

The still black waters of the pool vibrated to life again as a new scene manifested within the waters. Shimmering in the pulsing waters was a face Theleden had not seen in half a century. King Eleber of Esteline: Theleden’s father.

The Crown of Esteline sat upon a brow of silver-blonde hair, verging on gray in light of what had then-recently transpired. He was alone in his study, standing above a table upon which a map of central Leria had been laid out. Pieces borrowed from chess sets marked the positions of armies and castles. Marble pawns, rooks, and knights were spread out on the map, casting shadows across Leria against the low light of a nearby hearth. Opposing these was a multitude of black pawns and bishops, clustered around a towering king piece of jet black obsidian planted upon the center of Rhanea.

It was clear that this Necromancer was not satisfied with deposing King Gedeyon; his army of undead had crossed the borders into neighboring kingdoms. Near the city of Narren, a marble knight represented an army of paladins and armored yeomen. It was laid on its side at the foot of a single pawn of black obsidian. Three days earlier, Lord Crake and his Knights of Saint Olms - along with 15,000 men - had marched on Rhanea with the intention of liberating the land from the wicked necromancer. Word had arrived earlier that day that they had been crushed by a force of undead numbering no more than 7,000. Save for those few that escaped the massacre with their lives, Lord Crake and his host now marched with the undead horde. So too would any foe they faced, and so on until all the world fell to Eagoth.

What hope did tiny Esteline have against such horrors? What hope was left for anyone? As far as Eleber was concerned, it would not be long before his own subjects joined Eagoth’s ranks, even Theleden.

Eleber had no desire to see such a day.

The King of Esteline contemplated the severity of the sin to which he had resigned himself as he held a goblet of wine he knew to be laced with finely-ground moonseed. The priesthood had always warned the faithful against taking one’s own life, for it warranted damnation to an eternity of torment. But what would existence as a thrall of the Necromancer be if not unending torment? To see his subjects, his son, enslaved and bound to Eagoth’s will; butchered and risen again as lifeless husks? As miserable as any infernal pit, Eleber reasoned.

Eleber lifted the crown from his brow and laid it upon the table on the margin of the map as he made his way over to a chair beside the fireplace, goblet in hand. A dreadful way to pass on the crown, not that such trappings of royalty would matter for much longer. Eleber regretted that how he would be discovered that next morning, the despair that it would evoke among his subjects already frightened terribly by the Necromancer.

With any luck, it would convince them all to do the same.

Eleber brought the goblet to his lips without so much as a quiver of hesitation, pouring the wine and suspended moonseed grit down his throat with a grimace. He spent his last moments staring into the fire. The shimmering waters of the pool gradually calmed to their glassy calm as the goblet tumbled to the floor from Eleber’s limp hand. Once more, Theleden and Callidus saw only their reflections in the black waters of the pool.

“In life, you refused your father’s cup,” said Callidus, “Now it seems despair, not Eagoth, is your true master.”
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