Empire of Lynn-Naraksh
Strakhte Cathedral, the Imperial Demesne
Since the days of the synod, the first to be formally called in decades, the venerable Cathedral seemed to have found new life. The strategically central position which had marked it as an ideal place for the gathering had thrust it into the role of staging point of all deliberation pertaining to the carven host in the south, and black and green throngs of masked figures had flowed to it from the four corners of Naraksh. The upper chambers of the great turreted building, once a place no less spectral than the catacombs under the Imperial Throne, had become haunted by a new army of rustling, faceless spectres who flitted from one shelf to another, gathering up crumbling tomes and old, yellowed scrolls and dropping them demonstratively on tables before each other. The corridors running parallel to the nave, until a few weeks before the domain of wardens and officiants, were rivers of activity, the almost constant flow of adjuncts hurrying up the spires' stairways and down into the subterranean vaults being only occasionally interrupted by the shrinking and receding that heralded the loping passage of a draped Kuraxxi. It seemed a miracle rivalling the appearance of the fateful sculptures that this swarming cauldron of activity managed to remain almost entirely silent save for the whispered, though no less spirited for it, debates among the hoary parchments.
Alone amid it, the high priests were not inconvenienced in the slightest by this surging activity. The Exarch of the Throne seemed to have taken up permanent residence in one of the towers, occasionally summoning acolyte overseers or sending out for some manuscript or the other. Raziemir, while not quartered at or even near the Cathedral, was a frequent visitor, though he spent as much time in the capital as he did there. The other three made occasional appearances with some regularity, which was itself something unheard of for more than a century to that side. Exarchs seldom left their domains for occasions less momentous than the crowning of a new Emperor, but this curious miracle was tacitly and unanimously agreed to be worthy of continued attention. The recent voices of strangely frequent tremors in the lands over one of the tombs of old did little to assuage their restlessness, though none had been able to confirm them fully to that time.
Nevertheless, it was not all of the Exarchs that were assembled in Nezhiten's turret-chamber as that day turned to evening, and it was not of dim rumours that they spoke. Only two figures stood over the low round table in the center of the small room; one had the burning eyes of the Southerner, while the sword and throne emblem on the other's robes denoted him as the archcleric of the lands around the Imperial Demesne. Raziemir was half-leaning upon the wooden surface, holding down, as he did, an unfolded parchment sparsely covered in writing and bearing a single, rusty seal near its bottom.
“You did it, after all.” Nezhiten’s voice was toneless and impassive as sinisterly as could have been expected of a chosen of the Emperor personally. “And you are certain that it will be safe, as an” he stretched out the word, whether deliberately or seeking an appropriate continuation, “offering?”
“Not certain.” By force of contrast, the southerner’s words seemed even more cutting than wont. “But that is indifferent now. After those who died outside Nergerad, the Sanguines’ excesses, those miners at Dyria, caution has become useless. Already, we have ceased the breaking of victims. I would have had the High Executioner dispatched south to perform its duty, but His Sanctity would not have acquiesced.”
“If this shadow continues to grow, you will not need to petition for that. All Naraksh might be covered by it. You know I still hold it would be safer to let it run its course that way.”
“We have an opportunity, Nezhiten, and, whether we be heirs or regents, it would be foolishness unfit for our station to waste it. The true faith has been rotting for centuries. This may not be a blessing of the Old Ones, but what matters it if only we know the truth? To preserve their strength, we must also show their wrath.”
“Be it as you say, then. The order is sealed anyway. When will you begin?”
“I already have.”
The Exarch of the Throne inclined his head to one side, his posture conveying the frown of disbelief that his vestments concealed.
“Before you had the Emperor’s approval?”
“I did not need it to call out for willing sacrifices. Even if I was denied, I would have had separated the loyal from the putrid, and that would have had some use.”
“But you did not order the razing of the towns they had left yet.”
“Not before today. I sent a courier to the wurm-masters as I left the Throne with this.” He tapped the parchment with the fingers that held it in place. “They are waiting in place. If the message makes good time, Vitcheni, Svanekholm and Ushelo will be no more by tonight.”
Nezhiten nodded, slightly enough that anyone but another cleric would have mistaken it for an involuntary motion. Though he and Raziemir might have been divided on doctrinal positions and there certainly was no sympathy lost between them, he had to agree with most of the Order that the southern Exarch’s devotion was of a sort thought to have been lost to the world along with the Old Empire. This made him, in some ways, invaluable to the faith, and at other times a liability with his gambles. Yet never had it been as outrageous as this time: meddling with the Sanguine Brotherhood was one thing, and the sacrifice of entire three towns, save for a handful of fanatics from each, to these shadowy artefacts was another.
On the one hand, Nezhiten was not inclined to argue against it. However crude, this was a more thorough solution than any inquisition raid, and one was bound to more apostates and subversives than anything whichever way one swung. The disappearance of hundreds, if not even thousands – he did not remember hearing of those places before, and could only assume the towns were not large ones – in ash was also the best way imaginable to put the fear of the gods into the people at large; the rumours of groundquakes around the tombs would fan the fire brighter than ever. Besides, Raziemir had obtained a dispensation from the Emperor himself. And still, no one knew what those statues were, where they came from, and what they did with the claimed dead. The letter found in the Throne was no more than words, and even those from sources just as mysterious. Raziemir, obviously, did not care about it, which was probably worse yet.
Times were growing strange, and this called for more caution than ever, whatever his colleague might have said. Caution and preparation.
“As the Emperor wills.” Nezhiten replied finally. “I will send word to the others that they may be ready for this spark. The fires of the deep will sing again.”
Uzresk, Demesne of Yazvogne
Every Narakshi knew about the underworld. Few could properly guess at what was below their feet, but none that was born of the ashlands rested unaware that they walked on hollow ground, often without even being aware of it. Folk legends, acolytes’ sermons and scraps of tales from the tremendously rare few who ventured into the depths and returned painted images of it as nightmarish as they were discordant. Seas of darkness clashed with mountains of living fire; some imagined entire worlds, with their forests, lakes and further underworlds within it. And, lurking in the corners of some of these stories, was the suspicion that, were one to truly behold the abyss, they would be disappointed by it a sight far less striking than those imagined.
Inma had often caught this doubt, and at length come to agree with its whispers. No horror the underworld held could possibly measure up to those conjured by the mind, and, when descending through the forgotten entrance outside town that Brother Svierav had shown her, she had been ready to internally nod to her predictions.
She had been wrong.
Their party had not encountered a single living thing in the journey down the twisting stone ramp and through the barren chambers beyond, but the oppressive silence and the eerie sights had been fearsome enough. Clambering down the roughly hewn, distressingly worn stone steps, a blank wall of live rock to one side and an immense, blind chasm to the other had been an experience incomparable to even the thrill of the most desperate struggles she had faced before. More than the fear of slipping or stumbling, which nonetheless was very solid, it was the sheer size of the abyss that chilled the travellers. The darkness was such that they could not see much beyond their own masks, but they could feel it there, ancient, vast and unfathomable like the Sanguinary One itself. How many unwary seekers had it claimed to the somber amusement of its maker?
The vaults they had stepped into through were little better. The danger was lesser there, and flames lit the way, baring their hoary walls to the sight. Yet the fires were silent, and their red hearts blinked like eyes that should not have been. The twisting pillars, never touched by a chisel, and spines of grown stone were akin to grinning teeth. In the mouth of a storyteller, these details would have seemed trite and unthreatening alongside the wilder fancies of what lay in the deep, but their sight was another matter altogether.
The final chamber was the smallest, and the most choking in the chest, for the Prophet was there.
Though far at the further wall, facing away from them and towards what seemed to be a roughly carven fount in the rock, the armoured figure seemed enormous. Perhaps it was the spikes on its helm and shoulders, or the fact that the ceiling sank lower the further it stretched away from the entrance. It seemed to fill half of the chamber with its bulk, even as it stood still, though its cuirass was little thicker than that of a Scourge.
They had been quiet on the approach, but the Prophet saw all.
“Stay and speak.” he said. His voice was a soft murmuring, like the sound of a stream of thick, viscous fluid.
Inma opened her mouth, then closed it again. She glanced at Svierav, at Vasjal and Tresne, who had come with her from Glaazwie to seek the Prophet and spent weeks crawling through Daravžil and Yazvogne, following the sparse leads the local brethren could give. They had been ready and eager to go as they set out, though they knew that the wisdom of the Prophet was dearly bought, but now, when they were alone, beneath lengths of earth, with this creature that did not speak like a thing of flesh, their resolve had frozen and run sluggish. The awareness of close death loomed clearer than when they were over the chasm. But she had to know.
“Bäkhte-kostris,” she rasped through a dry throat. The figure in armour did not budge at the address. “The One’s bounty… It don’t bleed anymore, south. E’en here. They die and it’s like they burn. It’s no bounty, it’s dirt.” She paused, moving her jaw up and down a few times to stave off the rigidity. The Prophet was still. “Does ‘t mean… The One won’t take it? It’s no pleased any longer?”
The Prophet still remained unmoving. Only the dripping and churning of his breath rose from his figure.
Inma staggered, bending forward and clutching her sides. She felt her skin wobble, twist, thrash with its own life. Her insides were spinning, compressing, as though drawn in by a pulling force, then abruptly thrust outwards with searing violence. Her eyelids slid down inadvertently, weighing down liquidly on her sight. There was something welling from within her chest, now here, now there, seeking an escape. With the corner of the eye, she saw the others keeling in silent surprise, saw their clothes fester with wide, dark red stains, saw the saturated fabric drip, flow with them. The stains in the air, over her – she felt them on her own skin now – before her eyes as all grew black. She tried to speak, to scream, but her mouth was already open, and she coughed out blood into her mask.
Through the haze, the murmur of the Prophet’s voice came clearer than ever.
“Everything will be ash in the end. Sooner, later, does it matter?” Through one of the few clear rifts remaining in the curtain of sanguine shade, she saw that the stains at her feet were greying ad shrivelling. Or did they in truth? “Blood is life, not death. If something lives, it’s a bounty, for it has its riches to offer. When it has given that up, there’s no more difference.” Yes, the puddles were wilting. Had wilted. There were already none. Only specks of dust. “The Sanguinary One works as it likes. It made this miracle so that those who exalt their fellow pit fighters will squirm in doubt and fear. Who are you? Do you squirm with them?” Slowly, the haze began to fade, as did the wracking pain. “You know your true calling. You know how it will be better pleased. Do what you do, and never doubt, whatever happens. The world’s purpose is eternal.”
She could breathe again. Her hands were still dripping, but she could feel the slippery, nauseous surface begin to grow dry and dusty in places. At the other end of the chamber, the Prophet had still not moved.
“Go. Kill and celebrate. Do not be delayed by fear. Our lives are short enough as it is.”
With only a passing look at her companions, who were, as her, staggering back into shape, Inma turned and stumbled away, far from that sacred and terrible presence. Back to the surface of light and things that could be fought with courage and a sword.
How did the rock break?
It was free again. To think and to live.
Its mind welled up and flowed slowly, inexorably, like the blood of the mountains.
Its blood. It was intact again.
Its wrath was rising, an ashstorm on the horizon. It would break the world again, as it had done so long ago.
Its arms pulled, but it could not hoist itself out of the pit. Why?
It, --also--, was bound.
Its thoughts spilled out like a few searing droplets, and rebounded from an iron carapace.
It lived as well. –It had freed its flow.—
Two of them. The third was elusive, even in death, hard to reach.
But they would find it.
They would break free, all.
The earth would weep and sunder, for they were its masters.
The Beast of Ash opened its cavernous mouth, and the ground shook with the fury of its roar.