((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.”