Somewhere in the Arcosi Hinterlands
Early Spring, 315 P.F.
A fresh wave of pain pulsed through the warlock’s fevered head. Hanuzeth clutched at the stinking bandage wrapped about his gouged navel with his left hand, while the right tightened into a fist so hard that it hurt as he grimaced from the searing throb of his headache. No, no, the feeling in his fist was just a phantom, for the abomination had knocked off his whole right arm just as it’d burnt out his eye...and he’d been one of the ones with better luck. The thought of that one human, the one called Faculus, and his grisly end of being incinerated was enough to make even the hardened orc spit up a glob of bloody phlegm in revulsion.
Memories of the abomination that’d taken Kalitra’s shape thrust their way into his mind unwanted, and even just the memories of the being’s blinding radiance made the pupil of his remaining eye shrink, and the heat in his head grow that much more unbearable. With a gasp, the warlock fell to his knees and doused his head in the cool water underfoot. He could only hope that trudging upstream through this creek would be enough to throw off his scent for the hounds. The going was hard; only an orc like him was sturdy enough to trudge on like this for days, half-starved and crippled, but his pursuers were relentless.
And yet even orcs felt fatigue and pain, and his endurance was rapidly waning. It wasn’t just a question of willpower, for he had enough of that and he knew that he ran now for his very life, but one of his body’s limits. Death was near; an orc’s nose was sharp, but anyone would have been able to smell the reek of his gut-wound and know that the bowels were festering. It was a slow and horrid and sure way to die.
Mercifully, a rocky outcrop rose from the wooded side of the creek. Sour sweat was already burning and blurring his one good eye again, but he still was able to make out a small and shadowy recess in the stone face. He staggered closer, and much to his relief the hole indeed was the entrance to a damp and muddy cavity. He crawled into the darkness within, letting it wrap and hide him like the ragged cloak he wore. His first thoughts were of slumber and rest, but his hunger gnawed and his belly screamed and his head thrummed like a fiery anvil... in that state, perhaps he was only hallucinating when he heard what sounded like distant shouting. Or perhaps that really was his pursuers, the sounds of their voices carrying over the water of the creek. Hanuzeth spat again. He was in no shape to fight, but he still had one weapon left.
He tore off the filthy cloak that he’d stolen from Lucion’s mountain estate -- the thing had once been lavish and supple, but was now ragged and crusty from the blood and mud that caked it -- and cast it aside that the one arm left to him could fumble at the pouches about his belt and in his pants. He’d had the foresight to seize some reagents before his own flight, and a warlock was wise to always carry a few things besides. He had everything -- except perhaps for time -- to work a ritual yet.
His eye was only half-adjusted to the cave’s gloom, but he tore through the pouches with burning purpose and urgency, working as much by feel and smell as by sight. He sought a pouch of salt: the quintessence of earth and purity, worldly power made crystal. He poured the precious grains out of the pouch and formed a rough circle of them to contain the magic. This was the first thing that he had learned long ago -- a warlock who failed to take such precautions was not wont to live long. Now, in his situation, such precaution and worry seemed trivial and pointless -- but of habit if not intent, he’d made the salt circle anyhow. He procured the chalks and other things, and began to array them about the circle and draw the glyphs of power. His shaking hand tore into the earth underfoot in the center of the circle, digging out a depression that he filled with strange herbs and rocks the color of bile and blood that burnt and reeked of infernal power -- the stuffs of Hell, made manifest. This was as close to a ritual brazier as he could get. Hanuzeth fumbled and struggled striking flintstones for far too long before he got a spark that caught, but then a flame was suddenly alight inside the middle of the circle.
One more thing.
Procuring another rock, a razor-sharp chunk of black glass gathered from the foot of the Basalt Tower in Arugoth, Hanuzeth moved to cut his other palm...only the other hand was gone. Cursing, the orc could only clench his one fist about the rock and squeeze until its cold edge bit into his palm. Only when the obsidian’s kiss gave way to the warm and sticky feel of blood did the fevered warlock drop the makeshift ritual knife. He outstretched his arm above the brazier, and then let his foul blood drip into the fire. He began chanting the words as smoke and heat filled the cave.
The brisk chill of morning had subsided and given way to the warmer encroachment of noon, and as Sir Luci looked up towards the position of the sun in the sky he closed his eyes to let what few warming rays existed nestle within his fiery mane. His horse whinnied a little, clearly impatient to move, but with a firm hand he steadied it and inhaled deeply through his nose--and immediately his eyes shot towards the creek burbling in the background.
“See if the hounds can catch the scent. I can smell the rot of his wound lingering in the air--they should be able to track him down. Hurry, lad!”
The words left his mouth but his face remained turned towards the light of the sun, and his eyes remained closed. Voices chattered in the background, punctuated by the occasional bark or snarl, and the telltale clambering of scurrying templars and their squires made plain the nature of the chase that was about to unfold: an orc was about to be slain. The question in Sir Luci’s mind was simply how many it would take to fell their quarry, and who precisely those men should be.
With a ponderous sigh Sir Luci climbed off of his horse and hit the ground with a resounding thud, the likes of which only proper armour could provide--and it was this sound that caught the ears of the small contingent of men sent to track down the orc and caused them to swivel on the spot to direct their senses at the man. He raised a gloved hand and beckoned to a shorter man, who quickly rushed his way over with leashed hounds in tow. He pointed in the direction the creek’s waters flowed from and the man loosed his grip on the frayed ropes his knuckles had grown white from gripping. The hounds set immediately to work, sniffing the ground and the air, and as they began their animalistic inspection of the area the knights gathered together to discuss their plan of action.
“He is tiring. Their kind have limits, and from the smell in the air his have been reached. A desperate orc is like a desperate hound--except this hound is a warlock, and his savage magic almost certainly awaits us. Now that death is close, he has no price left to bargain with but his life, and in these moments truly terrible things can be wrought.”
The auburn-haired knight kept his voice strong throughout the speech, but as he continued to observe the men he noticed the squires had turned as pale as milk and that even his fellow knights’ hands were white from squeezing so hard on the pommels of their swords. His speech stopped there and he grunted loudly at the squires, walking towards them and raising their chins with his hand so they were forced to look him in the eye.
“You knew that the Argent Vigil hunts down witches and other monstrosities. You knew that we would be exposing ourselves to this risk. What is it that you’re scared of, lad? Speak up!”
The knight’s voice raised like a crescendo until he was just shy of shouting, and the squire he’d stopped at last began to awkwardly stammer out words just to deflect the heat of his gaze.
“... b-but it’s an orc, sir! An orc warlock, and as d-d-dangerous as they c-come, like you said! W-what do we do if he curses us, o-or…”
But the boy’s words were stopped short by Sir Luci lowering himself down to the lad’s height and bearing down upon him with the full force of his authority.
“Kill him on sight. Do not bargain with him, do not listen to his words. Your body is a blade of our Exalted god, and you must hone your edge to strike him down without mercy or hesitation. The smell of sulfur indicates an appeal to the hells, noxious herbs indicate potency, and blood indicates that you are too late to stop what is happening. I tell you these things not because I expect you to approach this situation with nuance or caution, but because the second that any of these things become known to you you must do as His commandments say and end the threat at any cost, including your own life.”
Sir Luci’s focus was interrupted then by the still-close barking of hounds, and his footsteps away from the group of men were punctuated by the gnashing of teeth and the light clinking of metal.
“To arms, men! The hunt begins!”
The warlock squinted into the brazier in a trance as the long-memorized words tumbled from his listing mouth, the bastard tongue of his distant tribe mixing with words from the Black Tongue of the Chernobog and his Scions of old, and even with queerer and crueler words whose meaning had been forgotten by all save the demons. The orc was soon drenched in sweat. The smoke made his head whirl...perhaps it was sickness from not enough good air, perhaps it was something in the herbs. He heard many strange sounds through the crackling of the flames: there was something like shouting, the braying of dogs, but also something else: the faroff sounds of wailing and screams, but distorted as though by water. Slowly, shapes began to take form within the flames. The warlock looked through the fiery gate and saw into a realm that mortal eyes were not meant to see; there was a fortress nestled upon the shores of an ocean of boiling fire, and in this black fortress there was a throne, and upon it sat a monstrous lord...and this demon saw him, too.
Though the sight of the monstrous being upon the throne was blurred by the orc’s watery eye and the writhing flames and the smoky haze about the dim cave, it was still a bloodcurdling one. The devil’s hulking form was like a mountain, its cruel visage crowned with jet horns, and its torso emblazoned with a glowing scar that wept fiery blood. Despite the brazier’s heat, and icy chill lanced its way into Hanuzeth’s spine, for never before had he chanced to commune with a demon so terrible as this one.
”Hear me, O Lord of Shadow and Flame,” the warlock murmured.
”I hear your quivering voice, worm.”
Sir Luci found himself standing atop a rocky outcropping, flanked by two distinct sources of whimpering on either side. Only slightly further back were the hounds, who were yelping and pawing at their noses frenziedly as if to urge whatever they had smelled back to whence it came--and the green eyes of the knight turned to his squires once each in turn, blazing with disappointment.
“The hounds, I understand. They are base creatures who know not of a higher calling, led by instinct alone--but you are to one day be ordained knights! Sworn followers of the Exalted god! If you cannot stomach the stench of brimstone and rot how will you hunt down the monstrosities that they herald, hmm?” As he spoke he grabbed the two squires by the scruffs of their necks and pulled them in close, his upper lip quivering in barely restrained frustration, and threw them back with enough force that they stumbled to the very edge of the rock upon which they stood.
“Let the others know the beast is here. I shall kill it myself.”
The knight pushed into the small nook, his eyes immediately beginning to water from the acrid smoke, and took a half-second to steel himself before he trudged further in. He heard a voice, and though the tongue was guttural and feverish he knew from its tone that it was one of beseeching. They had been too late to stop the ritual, he knew, but anything that they did manage to conjure was universally easy to put down in the moments immediately proceeding the ritual. He strode forward, not quite breaking into a run, and drew his sword from its sheath as he walked through a billowing cloud that somehow seemed to separate him from the rest of the room--and, indeed, from the world outside.
His eyes scanned more carefully, barely able to see thanks to the blinding smog, but quickly adjusted enough to make out the silhouette of the warlock’s rapidly deteriorating form. He did not make a sound, save for the gentle pats of his footfalls against the rock, and his sword remained poised at his side to strike. He continued further and further towards his prey, sidling against the edge of the rock, until he was just out of range to strike.
Above the dying embers of a small fire there was a gloomy haze that seemed to devour light, yet in the shadow’s heart there was not a void of utter blackness. Instead there was a glassy window that peered into another realm, and through that smoking gate there was the sight of a horror climbing to its feet, rising from its infernal throne. And then the horrific entity began to march forward with purpose, seeming to grow larger with every breath!
Time began to crawl, each heartbeat feeling like an hour. From outside the cave there came a great rush of wind that poured into the cavity, almost as though nature itself sought to cleanse the smoke and fumes and seal shut the gash that had been rendered into the fabric of reality. The portal was akin to some great maelstrom drinking in the very sea and draining it into the belly of the world, only this ravenous maw would not content itself with just the ocean. It sucked and drank with a growing voracity that suggested it would never stop until all had been broken down into nothingness and drained away, all the last crumbles of existence swallowed into that nightmarish realm.
The buffeting winds surging through the portal pushed against the advancing monster, and the fierce resistance reduced its menacing march forward into a slow stagger. The world itself tried to defy this horrific and unnatural magic, to close the portal and drive back the aberration that walked through the brazen path. The flensing wind pushed and tore at the monster, ripping off little chunks of its form and making it bleed smoke and ash from the resulting hemorrhages, but still the demon pressed on. Though the wind seemed to oppose the demon’s form, it did not put out the unholy light emblazoned upon its breast -- that glowing rune carved into its flesh burned brighter with every moment and every step it took down the tunnel. It was as though that flaming glyph was the fire of a forge and the mighty gale was its bellow! The mark grew brighter and brighter until the rest of the demon’s shadowy form was entirely drowned out by its radiant glow, and then that light became so bright that it was painful to look upon.
Only then did the orc avert his eye’s intense gaze from the gateway and notice the knight standing near the mouth of the cavern, blocking the light from outside. “You come too late,” the warlock laughed in a broken and thickly accented version of the knight’s language. “Demon is almost here!”
Sir Luci of the Argent Verdict did not answer or think or pause, he charged. The warlock narrowed his eye in disbelief for a moment, thinking that this fool of a human meant to run into the salt circle and challenge the demon, but then Hanuzeth realized that the Templar’s blade and footsteps and eyes were all pointed at him. With a start, he twisted his body over and crawled on his belly two or three feet to wrap his hand around the jagged rock of obsidian. The glassy black stone was still wet and slippery with his own blood, but the warlock’s grip was true as he rolled over and hurled it at Luci’s face at the last moment, a mere breath’s time before the paladin was atop him.
Hanuzeth scrambled awkwardly backward as fast as a one-armed cripple could, whilst Luci reeled back and stumbled with a new crimson gash on his cheek to match his fiery head and mane. It wasn’t enough, of course. Hanuzeth had tried to round the salt circle, placing the portal and the incoming demon squarely between him and Luci, but he was too slow. The knight found his footing and closed the distance in two strides, salt grains crunching underfoot as he stepped upon the circle to do it. He slashed at the orc’s throat with his sword, and Hanuzeth’s clumsy attempt to roll away was slow and resulted in the naked steel burying itself into his jaw. The knight wrenched his blade free, cutting as it went back, and a well of blood gushed from the bottom of the orc’s already maimed and hideous visage. Luci raised his sullied blade and made to thrust it down into the warlock’s black heart, but then he was suddenly blind and coughing.
The howling wind that had been pouring into the cave and down into the fiery gate had abruptly stopped, and now there was a blast of air that emanated from the portal. It was broiling hot, like the blast of a furnace or the all-consuming breath of the firedrakes of yore, and on its back it carried soot and ash. A sulfurous haze came next, its reek of brimstone accented by that of blood and burnt flesh.
The demon had clambered into the world of Outremer, and even though the smoke that filled the warlock’s den also served to shroud its formless body of burning darkness, the horror’s profane and utterly wrong presence was palpable. The cave was now lit only by the glowing mark upon the demon’s chest, for the smoke and haze was so thick that it blocked the sunlight that had been filtering in from outside. Sir Luci tried to stumble out towards the mouth of the cavern, where there was light and air and life, but he was horribly disorientated and dizzily collapsed to his knees. The distant shouting of the other men outside wafted into the cave, but any help or salvation was a world away.
An appendage sprung out of the smoke, grasping claws at the end, sharp nails aiming right for Luci’s throat. Yet the demon’s claw never made contact, and instead the blinded knight merely had his head showered with sparks -- the warlock’s glyphs and ring of salt had conjured some sort of barrier, and when the claw had tried to pass over the salt it had been repelled by some unseen force.
Hanuzeth wheezed as he lay prone on the muddy floor, dying from the vicious cut of Luci’s blade even though he was spared from the worst of the portal’s effects; the poisoned air and soot that billowed from the portal was hot, and so it rose and spilled out of the cavern and left him some respite as he lay with his fevered head touching the cool earth. The orc’s mouth was filled with blood, and he spat and coughed up globs of it until he could speak. He peered into the ritual circle and caught the demon’s smoldering gaze, and then slurred out something in an unknowable language. The monster seemed to only scoff at the pleading tone of the warlock’s words, for it didn’t deign to answer. Instead it cast its gaze towards the ring of salt and uttered a single terrible word, and then there was a blast of hellish air that radiated outwards. The infernal wind eroded the circle, though not every grain of salt was blown free from the damp and muddy floor. The circle’s crude shape yet remained, and the demon roared its defiance even as it seemed to pant in exertion and as its rune’s bright glow seemed to dim. But then its carmine eyes, glowing like hot coals, fixated upon a tiny gap in the circle: the place where Sir Luci’s foot had fallen mere moments ago.
Once more it cried out that horrible word and summoned a dark power, ”Chernobog!”
The burning scar upon the demon’s chest faded even more, but a second blast of wind was conjured to blow away the ring of salt. The gap widened around the place where the knight’s foot had fallen, and Kalkoroth Goredrinker passed through.