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Empire of Lynn-Naraksh


Strakhte Cathedral, the Imperial Demesne

Day 45


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.

Abyssal


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.

Also?

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.
With all foes and valuables, or at least what he considered as such, being accounted for, Ulor hobbled back through the subterranean passages without, it seemed, a care in the visible world. This was not to say that he appeared to be without a care at all, for his distractedly frowning expression was proof enough that something was brewing between his head and that of the octopus. Indeed, at one point he almost slipped over the remains of the gelatinous ooze, and only a rapid thrust of the staff allowed him to regain his balance to the benefit of what remained of the tiefling and her hungry captor. His expression seemed to brighten ever so slightly in the cathedral proper, as he glanced at various details he could, for all he remembered, have overlooked before.

And still, his visage was ready to change to one of puzzlement once the party stepped outside to be confronted by the guards. While he did not deign the latter with more than a single look, despite the apparent insistence of the hovering octopus that he at least take stock of their weapons, his perplexity had found its focus on the manacled and humbled Lex. When the latter spoke, the mage went so far as to scratch his head with an utterly lost look on his face. He did not pride himself of being finely knowledgeable of matters of the mind, but had someone placed an enchantment while he was not looking?

Then again, he is a paladin, he obeys the law...

Ulor returned his attention on what was effectively happening just in time to hear the final segment of the guard-captain's speech. Were they to be bound as well now? Well, it had never happened to him in Bourgund, of all places.

"If you must." he rasped, without, however, making any motion to ease his manacling should the officer have proceeded with it. Instead, he twirled his hands in some bizarre fashion, whereupon fluid bolts of pale-green lightning danced around his wrists for a moment, as a low crackling sound reverberated through the air, followed by a slight, yet unpleasant stench of dust and brimstone.

"For all it makes you feel safer."


Empire of Lynn-Naraksh


A Dungeon


Dark.

Almost.

It was nearing dark now. Too long for it to be a passing shadow. Night. She had once counted the time of days and nights, and known when one would succeed the other without needing to see the light and darkness. It was when she thought that the sun would blind her with its stings, one every day, and had sought to shelter her eyes from it. That had ceased to matter long ago, but also long afterwards. When something still mattered.

Had it ever mattered, however? Had anything? Had she truly ever measured the span of light and darkness? She often found herself remembering things that had never happened, for it was all long ago, and it was not important. She knew this all the better because, of late, she had not remembered them so often any longer. The strain of memory to decease itself had become obvious for the hollow, senseless artifice that it was, ad so it had faded away like all that had truly happened before.

It was not even important when was long ago, and in sooth, though she could not have known it, it had never been. She had not come into the vault to await the date of a sentence, but to do something else, something that did not matter because it had already happened. All to do with it ha gone the way of oblivion. The many eyes of raging flame, the blood upon the swords, the breath of molten iron were less real than in a folk-tale about the things that hunt in the night and punish the disobedient, for their blood reeks sweetly.

She had also seen the things, when they had come before the door and cast the shadow of unborn night. They were frightening, because that was what they had to be, and they thought much of their duty. Some of them shone when it was still light, and they were the worst, because they promised one thing and then gave another. The others did not mask themselves, but revealed their darkness as it was. That might have been even more fearsome once, for reasons that had been somewhere for someone, but not here, nor for what remained of what had been her.

The fear, however, was not fully gone. It was nothing like what she, or anyone who believed there to be entities of importance, once could have felt. Where that was a keen glimmer in the shadows of thought, this was a sinking, quivering reflection on the waters of a torpid lake. Perhaps she did not feel it at all. She had sought to think of whether she did, now and again in the past, but it flowed between her fingers rather than cutting and piercing them. In the occasional moment of indolent lucidity, it occurred to her that this was the only way her memory could entertain itself after its simulacra were gone. Drawing something from oblivion itself was beyond its reach, and thus it captured the reflecting waters in a sieve and let them roil, gently, silently.

But those moments passed soon.

The last one had been many lights before (many? Many. No more). She had thought, then, that it was well they did not come more often, for else memory's games would no longer have sufficed, either for it or for her. It was just as well the lapse had come before the realisation of what they ought to have sufficed for. She dimly suspected - even as everything was dim - that she might have realised that many times before, and always it had receded back into oblivion. As it all did, in the end. One thing she did not seem to lose, and that were the thoughts. Thoughts - hers, for the most part, or of memory. Sometimes one appeared which she did not recognise as belonging to either. Like the fear, which passed through both but did not stand still. Thoughts of what was old, older than her and her time here, in the darkness and light, however much it might have been and for whichever reason.

They did not reveal any more than this and went by, most often forgotten before the cycle was finished, and left unmourned. For what mattered it how old a thought was?

No more than anything.

Not that the light was soon to be over, and its hue - how was it named? She might have seen it before - was growing darkened as it failed to fulfil its oath. The light was not unlike those things outside the door that had gleaming faces. It promised more, but instead of delivering its radiance it dived in blackness and pallor, however bright that might have been.

But what good to praise or lament, now?

Idleness.

Vacuity.

...

Night.

...

Clang.

Fall
into

abyssal

How

Why ask
when

it is

Fall

That matters
Something

for once

at last

And again?
No

It does not

Still nothing

Why else be here
Finally

cold pain

IN ITS TIME


And this is all.

The soil was not truly painful. It was something, for certain, and that was enough of a blow, but her skin had held, weathered as it was by winding breezes and dripping ropes to life. There was nothing else in her that could yield. It was a relief that her bones had endured, however. Had but it been higher, who knew...

It did not immediately reach her that her position had changed. She was no longer upright, with the inking light before her eyes. Instead, there was only cold stone, and blackness deeper than the palely lit night. It was almost amusing, after a fashion. There it went - entirely unlike everything that had been before. What would she have thought if it had been her, in that position? Did anyone else in the world ever assume it, for that matter? Did they know how entertaining it was, to be like this? Not frightening, no. Fear was something else. But it seemed to her that she remembered the upright position being the more natural, for reasons beyond the simple one. Now?

She sought to ensure that her fingers still moved. She could not turn here head like so, for there was hard stone in its way, but-

She could see her fingers. It had moved.

The arm had moved.

She had willed for it, and it had moved.

The hand was before the eyes. Was this not unusual?

It tired her. The change, which had been passive. The motion, which had been slight. The very facts that were happening, for facts were happening.

She did not know how long she lay in place. Hours. Days. Maybe more, but not less. It was not sleep, it was a night of the body that came only once in a lifetime, only after events like this.

Still, she could move her arm, though all else might as well have been made of the same stone as the floor.

How long had passed? Weeks. Years. She did not feel hunger. Only exhaustion. Her head swam as waves on which there floated revolving iron rings. They struck every part of it within, in turn. The echoes were respite.

She rose when it was dark again. How many times had it grown light, then shadowed again? Many. None.

It still did not matter.

For what did this change, in the end?

She rose, her body crumbling behind her, and saw that the darkness was all. There was no door beyond which things could pass. It stood, open, like her eyes and arms.

Like her arms.

She did not know they had such strength. One lunge forward, and they clutched at the edges of the cutting floor, and pulled. All that was behind followed. Lunge, pull, it followed. Was it indeed so insignificant that even swollen, enfeebled palms whose fingers could not move could bear it?

It could not have been the fingers, for there was only inflexible bone in them. It was the arms that moved. They had held so that they could support all else, and now they carried it.

Was this amusing?

Did it matter? she asked no one, whose were the old thoughts. No, it did not, answered no one, but she knew this well enough anyway.

Beyond the door that was no longer, darkness reigned still. To all sides, not as before. She did not stay to appreciate the contradiction.

They lunged, pulled, dragged. Not once did it occur to her where.

Simply, they lunged, pulled and dragged. That was what they did.

And this was what she would do.

Onwards. Nowhere, for - where else?

Where at all. Why. What for.

Each question was worth the others.

That was to say, nothing.

Nothing.

Abyssal


Naraksh. Lynnde.

?

It had slept.

It had died, and it had slept.

Long.

It remembered, faintly.

Reaching to the tainted skies with its many arms, snatching foes out of flight and crushing them.

Looming over the celebration of the creatures of flesh. They were minuscule. Little more than the specks of dirt beneath them. But they gave it blood to sate its hunger.

The hunger. It had slept, and it had not fed.

Long.

It could feel now. It was not in pain from the killing wound anymore. Instead, there was emptiness around it.

It tugged, faintly, below, out of sight.

Its hind claws scraped rock. They could not budge more.

It was bound.

And yet, the hunger.

The strength.

Where were they?

It reached out with immaterial tendrils, smelling, tasting, probing.

The thoughts of one slipped, cold and slimy, fast below the surface.

The thoughts of the other churned like molten flame and ground ponderously like mountains of black stone.

They lived. They slept.

It would wake them.

Now that it had awoken itself.


Deep beneath the earth, past dread and flame and bone and metal, in chambers of sweltering desolation, it stirred.

The Beast of Iron opened its eyes.
Keeping to tradition, another post precedes another two-week disappearance.

I swear this isn't an attempt to escape the exponentially growing creation sheet debt.


Hair rustled and creaked as it crumpled, the tangled mass shrinking in abrupt pulses as it was drawn into itself and beyond. Another fiberling collapsed into a limp, disorderly heap, the force animating it dissolving to nothing, and a grey tide of darting tendrils and pincers swept over it. A third one darted aside and lunged with woven pseudopods, only for them to spasm and fall as it found the immaterial part of its body irretrievably gone and writhed in surprise. The crawling shapes on the ground pressed their advantage, and the creature drew back with several gaping holes in its bulk. The other two did not wait to see what would happen to them, rolling and slithering away from the gnashing ranks.

They did not go far. One stopped as it began to fold upon itself, clearly despite its best efforts. The rest flaked, then crumbled to dust, as if shredded by something within them.

Osveril swept a finger through the air, and the shrubs and bushes before it were sliced across by a line of sinking space. The hollowborn drifted forward and swarmed around it like moths around a light, vision bending around their nonexistent edges. It was gone in less than any amount of time, but most of them had already dived through it more than once. As branches and leaves fell, supported by nothing, the hovering folds scattered, assembling back together over their unmaker.

It was no use, this was clear. The taint fought against the purging, and it had had all time to prepare. All the wealth of matter and the span of extension was at its disposal, and it used them like a single, vicious mind. Hair, stone, size - everything was on its side. Osveril could not be everywhere and nowhere at once, and its heralds could be overpowered without its guidance even before they met those mortals.

Reach out with more arms.

A grey finger pressed a sequence of buttons, and spiral forms flashed in Transgenesis’s glassy eye. Everything that life could do, it could do also, and more. Better. Impurity would devour itself.

One step, and Osveril was no longer there. If better vessels were needed, it would build them, out of the best pieces the world had to seize.

The hollowborn trailed in its wake, as fast as nothing could be.

***


Dash, some moments of trotting, dash. Trot, trot some more, dash again. The smell was still there. Dash.

It bent its tail to one side, swerving so fast its legs became a blur, then straightened it and ran on. Into a patch of tall grass. Another swerve. Through the stream. The one that smelled of sand and rot had already kept its track past water once, but it might lose it now.

No. The scent was still there. Trot. Dash. Swerve. Dash.

This thing was something strange. They had followed the same herd for days, but the one with the dead scent had not waited for a straggler to fall off. It had run at them and hit them with its sting. Like a tall hunter. Even they waited for the cattle to stray first. And they did not hit them all.

And they did not hunt manglers.

Dash. Swerve. Trot. Dash-

The thing was by its side. Where it had been about to turn. It almost tumbled in an effort to avoid the dead-smelling body. Its tail swung aside, and it recovered. But it could not avoid the sting.

The point caught it where the plates of the hind leg met those of the body, and its limb twitched with pain. It passed quickly. It waited, trotting. Many stings had a poison that bit long after the spike was gone.

This one did not. It did not bite when the dead scent went away at last, or at night, or the next day. The spot was numb with pain, nothing else. Not even the weakness of a leech bite.

Something strange. Avoid the dead smell.

Hunt.

***


Something moved through the undergrowth with little regard for being heard. Its steps were silent, but stems and small trunks staggered and fell where it passed, raising clouds of thin grey dust. Startled animals darted in all directions, and birds rose with alarmed cries. A warbler shot up, headed for a clearing in the treetops, only to be seized in mid-flight by a slimy green tentacle that lashed out from the foliage close by. A second, longer appendage stretched out to reach into the center of the confusion, clutching for richer prey, only to suddenly coil back, empty, as if struck.

The oozing ambusher in the branches was not the only one drawn by the commotion. A large shape stalked among the trees, almost without a rustle. Its proboscidal tongue felt for the intruder’s smell, twisting when it found something unpleasant and alien. The occasional rodent that fled its way quickly turned about when it noticed the creature, still much to slow had it not been indifferent to them at that time. Something large and clumsy was near, a far better meal than a wood rat.

The source of the disturbance was near. The great nectar blush slunk to the side of the path of collapsing shrubs, tilted its body backwards, then pounced, stinger stuck towards the lumbering creature in the grass.

It was met by a painful stab to its own abdomen.

The blush thrummed its wings and tore into the bushes, stinger ready for another lunge. But there was nothing - only the heads of fallen saplings, and a trail of grey dust.

***


The ground shook, rumbling like a distant sea, as titanic steps pounded on it in a slow, regular rhythm. It ceased for an instant while a monstrous head bent down to snatch a lone tree with its powerful jaws, uprooting it whole, then resumed its leisurely pace. The beast had nowhere to hurry. It barely even seemed aware of its surroundings, let alone something out of its stolid gaze. Nor did it need to be.

A small grey shape flitted through the air at the corner of its eye. It was too fast to tell where it was going, had the beast cared at all. It was not surprised when it felt something falling onto its back. Birds and gargoyles perched there sometimes. A few tried to nest now and then.

The something pricked the hide on the colossus’s back. Though it barely felt the sting through its thick skin, the creature huffed and stirred its body to shake off the nuisance. It did not think to guess what it could have been - it was enough to know that it was annoying, and it was a relief when the weight, however slight, disappeared.

Whipping its tail for good measure, the beast grunted and continued to chew the tree. The second time the grey shape flew by its head, it passed unseen.

***


All that is born from the touch of Purity must know its cleansing urge.

To end a world like this was coarse work, but this did not mean it would never need finer instruments. Ones better attuned to their function, and their wielder. Foulness that cut itself would regrow, but what withered from the breath of the void was gone forever.

Adapting the devourers had shown this. Born as they were of flesh alone, much of Osveril’s strength had gone into merely completing their design, and it had too little of it to spare. A better tool would have to compensate. One that could fashion life and what was beyond at once. Aid in the bridging of worlds.

It held up Transgenesis, and rifts in the universal weave gaped around it. Dust rose in waves from the ground beneath its feet, mingling with the wavering tendril-shaped clouds its shell breathed out. The hollowborn swarmed overhead, diving past the gaps and curiously swimming towards the glowing spear-tip, only to leap back from the solidity that was deadly to them.

The dust wound its way into the staff, through channels of delivery and cracks that were not there. For the first time, Osveril felt how it was within. Cleverly built, yet all too full, even where it was not. Reaching no further than the physical, even in imitation.

So much to correct.

Sharp grains and bladed shards cut and twisted, severed and welded again, melting and fusing into new conduits. Shaper and shaped became as one.

A hovering void seeped into the harpoon’s funnel, shrinking from the matter that loomed to all sides. It was seized upon and fragmented, mangled and healed, too many times to count. Seeds of emptiness were planted by the myriad hands of the hollow gardener. They took root. They grew. They flourished.

Spirals writhed on Transgenesis’s silent mouth. Angular, broken lines superimposed themselves over them, merged with them, became them.

You relinquished All you had with this, Mother. Now it is mine.

Like moss, a new row of keys crept up from beneath the staff’s surface. The symbols on them were as cryptic as the others.

Mine to foster.

Pink dimmed and faded to grey.

Mine to mold.

***


“What’d you mean, you can’t see them?”

“Just that. Can’t see none. Come here and look yourself.“

“You mean the urts?”

“I mean them all. Look yourself, I tell you.”

Sekkal clambered up the small hill and tilted his beak, straining his eyes in the direction that his companion was pointing. These mounds were a favourite vantage point of travellers approaching the village. From any of them, one could see not only more than half of the huts, but also the small empty space at the center, and anyone who was passing through it. If one knew when to come, or was simply lucky, one could also see the boulder-like forms of the urt herd that stopped there now and again as it went by. They always had useful news from the west, and usually a Jahanite to translate them. From what either of the visitors knew, the herd should have been there now - but it wasn’t.

Nor was the village itself.

“...What the...” Sekkal was finally able to articulate. “What’s this?”

Gettre only threw up his palms in perplexity.

Where a circle of buildings had once stood was a patch of bare soil. Sekkal could even see the grasslands beyond what had been the village’s further edge, something that, while perfectly natural, seemed utterly unreal. The ground itself was neither brown nor green as could have been expected, but chillingly and inexplicably grey. Even more chillingly and inexplicably, no wreckage was in sight. No beheaded walls, no fallen roofs, nothing. All there seemed to be were lumpy shapes scattered about, too small to be urts, but nothing like hain or even human bodies.

“You think it’s - them again? The burning ones?”

“Could be.” Gettre’s voice was as tense as his own. “Doesn’t look like a fire, though.”

Sekkal followed his brother’s finger with his eyes. The grey patch covered roughly the space where he remembered the village to be, but the grass at its rim was untouched. It did not even look dry, at least from that distance.

Nodding to each other, the two hain cautiously made their way down the gentle slope and towards the blasted zone. There was no smell of cinder in the air. In fact, there was no smell at all.

The grey surface crunched softly under their feet as they stepped on it. Gettre bent down to feel it with a hand, then scooped up a fistful of yielding, fluid matter.

“And this doesn’t look like ash.” The substance ran through his fingers like sand until only a few grains remained. He began to open his beak as if to taste it with his tongue, but then thought better of it. His hand instead reached down to pick up something he had just then noticed, half-buried in the dust. An arrow, or rather most of it. The tip was shattered, despite being seemingly made of good bronze - about half of it was missing, as though it had somehow splintered off on hitting something very hard and sharp from an unusual angle.

Gettre let his eyes slide along the ground. For some reason, he felt hesitant to look up at the shapes they had glimpsed from the distance. He had avoided them when approaching, only keeping the closest one in the corner of the back eye in case it was some ambushing beast, but it looked like nothing more than a strange stone, and had not moved. And still…

His brother, less daunted by the vague eeriness about the forms, approached one near the edge of the grey circle, holding his spear pointed at it. From close by, it looked less like a stone. It was like the trunk of a small tree, broad and made of smooth, perfectly chiseled plates. Somehow, their impossible regularity was not what struck Sekkal as the oddest part. The thing’s surface had a sheen that looked oddly familiar, like something he had seen many times before. But not something he could name.

“This look strange to you?” he called.

Gettre shuffled to his side, the broken arrow still in his hand. “Never seen anything like it, for sure.”

“No, I mean this…” he tapped on the growth’s side with the tip of his weapon. It answered with a dull, barely audible sound. “The way it- gleams? Not like iron or anything.”

Gettre turned his beak to the side, looking first at the thing, then at his brother. “Strange.” he echoed, nodding. “Like giant shell.” He glanced at Sekkal again, then added. “Or hain.”

Sekkal tilted his head, clenching his jaw in distaste, and the two moved further into the stain of desolation. The broken arrow proved to be only the first of several signs that whatever fate had come upon the village, it had been met with a fierce struggle. More splintered and notched arrows lay in the dust, near cracked throwing stones. Half of a spear was struck in the ground in one spot. Elsewhere, a glinting shard of amber crystal showed that the urts had been there for the fighting.

And nothing was left after it.

Nothing except the grey-shelled growths. There were more of them than it seemed from afar, almost identical in shape. Some were much smaller than the others, others slightly larger and without the same gloss. More than anything else, they looked like the legs of enormous, alien mushrooms. However bizarre, they gave no sign of being alive, and Sekkal was about to suggest they start searching for signs of the villagers nearby when Gettre motioned for him to look at one of the larger lumps.

Unlike those that surrounded it, the stump was not flawlessly smooth. Some of its plates hung half-detached from the body, jutting outwards as through broken out of shape from within. Out of the gaps streamed a swollen, formless grey mass, bulging over the thing’s height and hanging down to almost reach the ground. From close up, it reminded Sekkal of dried foam. Only, it was riddled with small holes, and felt soft under the spear. So soft that the sharp point cut through it with unexpected ease, cutting off a sizeable piece. The brothers started back in disgust as the severed chunk fell, revealing a veined, fleshy interior crawling with bundles of worms. The vermin writhed sickeningly as they swarmed all over the exposed slice, tumbling down and twitching on the barren soil. Some scampered on half-formed legs and thrummed misshapen wings. One even managed to take flight, only to be hurriedly swatted by a hain hand.

“What is this?” Since he had first spoken that question, its answer had only sunken further into a grey haze.

“I can tell it’s not the burning ones.”

“Do you think it’s…?” He was quiet for a moment. Was that a sound in the distance? Just the wind. “Jah-”

The abhorred name was cut short by a piercing screech too close to be safe. It was not the howl or scream of one of the plain dwellers - it was as loud as one, but it droned and scraped like the song of a cicada. No cicada could be that big.

More answered it. They were further, but, little by little, he could hear them drawing near.

“Let’s go.” Gettre had already caught his meaning without a single word. “We’ll see when we come back with people.”

As they hurried away from the blighted spot, the screeches continued to resound, now closer, now further again, and hounded them even when the grey ruin was out of sight.

***


It was a rare occasion when more than a quarter of the town of Cjejamra gathered at noon to listen to some returning hunter’s tall tales. Its folk were busy people, after all, and idlers who tried to distract them from their activities were summarily told to get lost, no matter how large their pearskin catch was or how many brush rats they had managed to tie together by the tails. As a rule, those who came back so early never brought anything better than rats and sickly pearskins, which firmly condemned them to the unenviable role of “waste of time” for the day.

This, and then some, was all the more true for Immen. For all his being in truth a rather capable tracker, everyone knew him best as the most insufferable braggart in the lands around Gisab, and perhaps in the whole Ring. Scarcely a day went by without his voice being interrupted by shouts to be quiet, and the gods only knew how many of his unimpressive trophies had been confiscated and thrown away (one pond in particular must have been half-full of “giant” mangler skulls). Yet, to everyone’s chagrin, Immen was nothing if not persistent.

And, for once, that persistence had been rewarded. No less than half of Cjejamra’s folk was assembled just outside the town, and more were approaching still, straining to peer over their fellows’ shoulders with curious faces. Artisans dropped their tools, traders picked up their wares, even some slaves eluded the lazy eye of their masters to come and gawk at the thing Immen had caught. For the first time, everyone was agreeing that it was something never seen before, and this alone made it worth shoving past the throng to get a good glimpse of it.

The catch did not disappoint. Lying at Immen’s feet, between him, his grim-faced brother-by-marriage Anlde, who was for some reason holding his right hand hidden in the folds of his tunic, and Oltik the nervous-looking hain trapper, was a carcass so ghastly that many mistook it for a Jahanite at first. Its four legs bent backwards like those of running beasts, but the head, with those rib-like jaws and smattering of dull eyes, was that of a spider dreamed by someone in their second hatching. Pieces of its sharp-angled grey shell were splintered, and the leathery sails of its crest torn; thick dark slime seeped from the wounds. The most unsettling part, many agreed, was what stretched out from the toothless mouth. It must have been a tongue of some sort, but it resembled nothing more than a long, bloated worm whose head was a second pair of mandibles.

“...an’ we saw it pounce,” Immen was narrating, gesturing broadly as was his habit and raising his voice at the least appropriate points. This time, no one seemed to mind. “An’ so I say, this’s going to be fast, ‘cause there’s no way a thing this size makes it against three hairfiends. But then it bites one, an’ a piece of it falls, like that.” He let his arm collapse and dangle for a moment.”Then it starts clawing another, an’ all through it’s screaming like a whole pearskin herd by itself. Well, then the last crawls up an’ rips off the shell on its back, an’ while it’s turning the other gets it in the side over the leg, an’ then we know it’s done for. But it killed one of them an’ tore up half of another, an’ that’s something as none of us have ever seen with our eyes.

“So we look at the hairfiends play with the body, but then they all draw up an’ roll off all sudden, can’t see why. We wait, we wait, an’ then we go closer to see what’s the matter. To be safe, I stick the spear into where the shell got ripped up, an’ it comes out like this…”

He held up what must indeed have been a spear at some point, but was now conspicuously missing its tip. The haft below did not appear splintered. It simply ended where it had once continued in length.

“We were sure it was dead, so Anlde went to look at the head, an’... It looked dead, but it got out its tongue, or what that is, an’ got his hand. Didn’t even bite, but that’s what it did.”

As if on cue, Anlde drew out his right hand and raised it for all to see. It had only three fingers; everything left of the middle one had vanished, like after a clean, abnormally bloodless cut. Recent though the mutilation was, it seemed to be already covered by smooth, slightly grey-tinged skin.

“Didn’t even feel it.” he commented in a flat tone of voice. “Still don’t. I just had half my hand, and then I didn’t.”

“After that we stabbed it some more, but then it was dead for sure.” Immen continued. “An’ so we took it up to see if any knows what’s it for a beast, an’ if any can make something of it. Got a hard shell, sharp jaws, who knows what more inside.”

“I’ll fetch Attanet.” someone called from the crowd.

“You asked anyone on the way?” another voice inquired.

“We went past the grove where the monk lives, the one with the head that looks like two,” came the answer, “An’ we went to see if it knew. Said it hadn’t ever seen any like this, too, and it’s not of Jahan-”

“That’s good already!” Oltik quietly interjected.

“It’s not that, but the monk said it’d known of more things suchlike, down south. There’s many in great packs, it said, an’ that whole villages disappear where they go.”

Mutters, both dubious and uneasy, ran through the audience.

“Nobody’s heard from Sappria in two weeks.”

“Doesn’t mean a thing. You can’t listen to all a monk says.”

“It is to the south…”

“Did you hear of what happened near Taril? That some of them went to talk to the urts, and they say they saw…”

“We’ll have to go a while in the city and take a party to go check, just in case…”

The discussion continued even as the crowd briefly parted to make way for Attanet the chipper and the handful of skinners that followed him to inspect the carcass. Somehow, the fact that Immen had brought the day’s news was the last concern on anyone’s mind.

***


A balance of vectors ensures the proliferation of impurity. To every force corresponds an equal opposite.

Without mutual annihilation.

It perverts its own laws.


A swollen gestator burst open with a wrench that would have sickened mortal stomachs, and a newborn shrieker clambered out of the tattered sac with a triumphant howl. A wave of crawlers was already moving to sweep up the remains while the hunter busied itself with the meaty stem.

Something that had once walked on two legs, and now skittered on four, ran by, avoiding the blind advance of the insatiable creatures. Its own grotesquely inflated abdomen made movement difficult, but somehow it had still enough determination to drag it ahead regardless of its content.

The solution is to answer every force with a greater negation.

Osveril swept its senses over the surrounding zone. What had not so long ago been a forest had been converted into an otherworldly, monochromatic landscape of withered earth and malformed life. Colossal spongy growths towered to all sides, having completely engulfed the trees (and not only) they had parasitised. Swarms of winged pests buzzed in and out of them, coalescing into clouds and disappearing into the as yet untouched distance with their infectious load. Among the living pillars, short, robust trunks rose from tangles of vein-like roots, surmounted by disproportionately large bulbous growths. They pulsed and writhed, shook and breathed.

Each of them was the incubator of a new ravenous life.

Where life proves incapable even as a foundation, it is my duty to improve.

The mortals had, as anticipated, proved uncooperative so far. It was inconsequential. If their minds did not accept purification willingly, their bodies would serve it by force.

The Absolute felt a superior strength of life burgeon nearby. It did not turn - its hollowborn saw for it.
The colossal simulacrum womb that had consumed the tallest mound in the wood whole quivered and burst open, yielding to the pressure of the gargantuan claws within. A vast shape, rivalling the greatest of the devoured trees, unfolded amid the gory ruin, splaying and stretching its segmented limbs and blinking to focus its unsettlingly intelligent, hain-like six eyes. The lower side of its bulky spined head split open along a straight line in the middle, and a dozen tongues - or tentacles - emerged to scoop up what remained of its birthing chamber.

It would feed. It would grow.

There would be more.

The negation will always surpass the force.




Empire of Lynn-Naraksh


The Risen Host, Demesne of Urvetschin


They always said the ash in the south smelled worse than elsewhere. There was a shade of iron in it that made inhaling it akin to breathing in the fumes of a battlefield or charnel-house - as though blood were seeping from the air itself. Grey blood. It was said that it was indeed the ichor of a fallen Divine that had coalesced into the many metal veins that lay beneath the mountains, and permeated the earth and skies above. None could say if this were true, and indeed many doubted whether the blood of an old god would have tasted and smelled the same as that of men, but now Relin was inclined to believe it. He had never breathed the southern air without at least a rag to cleanse it, and for decades now had enjoyed the privilege of helm padding and good ash-masks. The poor defense afforded against the grisly stench by his loose-knit convict's hood stung almost as much the rope that bound his wrists and the manacles on his feet. He could only imagine the others felt the same.

There were seven of them lined up on the scaffold, all shrouded in the grey of those condemned. He was last, standing behind them all, yet he could see well into the distance if he craned his neck and brought his eye-holes over the shoulders before him. Close by, to the fore of the platform, was a headsman's chopping-block. t its side the immobile form of a Deathless Guard, clad in the colours of the Narakshi flag and inhuman in its gridded faceguard, leaned on an axe with a disproportionally large blade. The Emperor had been merciful - grievous though their lapse might have been, albeit Relin himself could not in good conscience come to blame himself for it, they had been spared the savagery of the High Executioner and the jeering of the Throne's denizens. The blow would at least be quick, and the spectators silent.

While this was a relief, he could not but feel he was much more unnerved by the still presence of the etched ranks, as heavy as any of the monolithic soldiers, than he would have been by the scorn of a living throng. This was the first time he saw the army with his own eyes, and the macabre circumstances of the occasion did little to ease the oppressive sensation of grim majesty that radiated from it. Even from the height of the scaffold, he could not glimpse an end to the black files, and though he was too far to properly discern any fine details, the mere obvious fact that these could not be crude approximations was unsettling. The priests had said that this could not be the work of the Old Ones, and who could know why better than him? - yet the thought of an unknown force being capable of so much was of no reassurance. A part of him was almost glad that he would not have to dread it for much longer.

The voice of a herald standing off to the other side of the row, where he could not seen him, had meanwhile finished calling out their names.

"...Tebarras, Darovk Oglobni, Relin Sumnieme. Armigers of the Imperial Throne, first select maniple, adjoined to the Sanctum Guards. For the faults of mortal negligence, inadequacy in fulfilling the most vital of duties, and inability to maintain justification of the trust placed in you by the one power that holds the world, His Imperial Sanctity of Lynn-Naraksh, it is decreed that you be put to death, with the honours due to your rank. That your condemnation may be an example to those who would be content with the possibility of failure, and you thus may render service in death for your failings in life. That weakness may be excised from the Inheritors of the Old Gods, for it may not be forgiven.

Begin."

The first of the manacled figures shuffled forward, with only the slightest stagger. The interrogators had not been harsh on them, seeing clearly enough that they knew no more of the intrusion into the Emperor's chambers than anyone else and having no reason to ply their trade on them any further. Unenviable though his lot might have been, Relin knew well enough that it was immeasurably better than that of so many other wretches. All things considered, he had lived well. Not one thing, it seemed to him, he would have done otherwise. Forces beyond the ken of the Blood Lords themselves had toyed with him, that was all. Everything came and went, sooner or later, and this might even have spared him the afflictions and pains of age. He would go out of life having quaffed of it strongly, before the taste was soured by the dregs. It was-

Crack.

The Deathless's axe had fallen, digging into the wood of the block as though the victim's neck had not even been there. And, indeed, it was not there, as Relin saw with amazement. There was no blood, nor even a limp headless body. Where it should have been lay only a heap of dust, spread beneath the now empty grey cloak. He thought he saw a red glimmer somewhere among the stone warriors.

Before he knew it, the next in line had stepped forward.

Crack.

Crack.

Crack.

Crack.

Crack.

It was unreally fast. Although each of them had to walk further to reach the block, it seemed as though the distance decreased whenever one stepped forward. He did not even notice when the view before him became clear with Darovk's back gone. The sea of dark shapes had always been before his eyes since he had walked up to the scaffold.

Something prodded him in the back, and he dragged himself forward. He did not feel the manacles, but his feet were heavy, as in a dream where he himself had become of stone. The Deathless waited, impassive and motionless. He had crossed the scaffold before he knew it, and his body knelt on its own. His arms twisted in one last struggle, if he could but slip one hand free it would not happen, he would be-

Not with that horned shadow over him. Not with the eyeless ranks waiting below, as hungry as any crowd on an execution day.

It did not matter. It was nothing, after all. A few more moments, and it would be done, he would stand up and go. Like in the temple, when as a child he wanted to stand up and go, but the shadows would not let him. They always did in the end, though, and they would now.

"Emperor lives." he managed to whisper hoarsely. The iron head without a face nodded slightly. "He accepts all in death." it replied, in a voice that was not human.

Relin closed his eyes and smelled the blood of the earth. It was the first time he did. In the blood is the power.

Crack.

***


Nergerad


It was not clear why an inn in such a small, forlorn town as Nergerad had such a large cellar. It had been almost entirely empty when the Order had seized it, with only dust, some rotten, empty barrels crumbling in a corner, and cobwebs inhabited by prodigiously large vermin to occupy it. There had not even been anywhere to hang a torch on the wall. Presumably, if anyone ever needed to descend there, which ought to have been no more often than once a century, they had done so by lantern-light. It was owing only to the dryness of the ash-lands that the earthen floor was not crawling with worms and worse foulness, and that foetid lichens did not flourish about it.

Since then, little had changed, yet the cellar was unrecognisable. Where had once been musty darkness there crackled the fire of braziers; where had been bare soil there stood racks and blazed coals to warm blades and pincers; where had been silence there resounded the groans and creaking of cunning devices, the cracking of bone and the low, almost spectral sounds of torment.

At the very middle of the chamber stood a great contraption of wood and iron. It was shaped as a rack of supplice, yet far longer and broader than customary for such an instrument. Such was its size that several prisoners could have lain upon it at once, and, indeed, an entire row of bodies was chained upon it. The tormentors seemed to have taken care in their choice, for none was by far taller or shorter than the others. Had even any been, however, a skilfully built mechanism was in place to lengthen the chains as required. Two hulking Vurogg stood at the ends of the device, ready to turn its twin handles in unison at a sign from the masked figures that paced before the rack, now and then sweeping a whip over this or that painfully stretched breathing carcass.

A robed cleric stood before one of the captives, leaning forth and gazing into darkened eye-sockets with the red sparks in the depths of its hood. A shrouded hand held a ritual kris under its victim's chin, scratching it with its point.

"Who are you?!" snarled an altered voice from beneath the mask. There was no impatience or curiosity in it; its vicious tone was itself perfunctory, almost bored.

The prisoner's scarred lips twitched - they could speak, but only a faint moan came from between them.

"What is your name?!"

The lips opened and grasped futilely at something, as those of a fish pulled out of water.

"Who are you?!"

A feeble gurgling rose at last from the throat, marked with a light, seemingly clumsy firebrand. "I... a... I..."

The cleric waited, slowly sliding its weapon towards the captive's neck. Yet no more came from the latter than broken, incoherent sounds.

The hood dipped in a satisfied nod, and the undulant blade abruptly plunged between the prisoner's ribs. A moment, and the body was gone.

The priest shook the ash from its arm, then stepped aside, nearing the next victim of the rack like a bird of prey.

"Who are you?!"
Motioning for the others to remain where they stood, or perhaps simply giving an inadvertent twitch of the fingers, Ulor advanced into the small chamber, eyes darting aside now and then, but mostly focused upon the flames at its center. The octopus had floated up to the ceiling and begun to slowly rotate in what might have been its equivalent of its master's inspection. Neither paid much attention to the coins; Ulor briefly shifted his gaze among the sapphires, tracing a line between them in the air with his finger (a line which rapidly devolved into some sort of abstruse scrambled sign), but soon lost interest when he ascertained that they were not lying in any particular order or shape, and began to circle the brazier with irregular paces, occasionally stopping to lean in and either smell or pass his hand over the flames.

There was an odd sensation about the fire. It could have contained traces of magic, and at one point Ulor was certain he could feel it in there, but it immediately occurred to him that it might have simply been the heat. Indeed, it could not be anything else than the heat. Or was this actually an illusion of heat due to the spells that lay on it? Yes, it must be this- He shook his head in irritation and began to examine the brazier itself. Though it was unclear if the flames had at arcane emanations, their smell, it seemed to him, was certainly unusual. He thought he recognised the smell of certain vaguely familiar ritual components, and, if this was true, the brazier itself was bound to yield further clues. Its shape was the correct one, as far as he knew, and were those symbols etched on its sides? Whether by accident or design, they appeared to match the rest.

"The hellspawn came from here." he called out to the group. "And might come again." He looked back at the fire. If it was still burning, there was a chance that the link to the nether planes might still have been open. The only way to be certain was by testing it - if only he knew how.

Asmod- Demog- Is that even the right one?

The octopus pirouetted in midair as if to shrug. The ones beyond had not told Ulor much about fiends, though he suspected they could if they wanted to. With these creatures afoot, knowledge of their invocations might soon become useful, or even necessary. He noted to himself that the matter was worth memorising for when They would speak again. Surely They would understand.

>Arcana roll of 6 to check if the fire is magical.
>Religion roll of 16 to get a feeling of its purpose and try to recall some definitely safe diabolic conjurations.
Empire of Lynn-Naraksh


Strakhte Cathedral, the Imperial Demesne


Lurid, misshapen shadows and shreds of mangled light danced from torches affixed behind casings of cunningly wrought stained glass. Inhuman effigies and fragmented emblems were brought to flickering life, manifold eyes flaring up with a forgotten cruel intent for brief moments before being left once more to shadow. Their gaze, as hasty as their life was transient, ran over tremendously old, yet unblemished stone walls, adorned with exquisitely etched yet grotesque and repellent reliefs. Eikons of monstrous divines of times past leapt through the luminous tatters, and behind them a blur of scenes of grim worship by faceless congregations and armoured figures standing in triumph amid desolate vistas, interrupted by the recurrence of the eyes upon the columns in the room’s walls. Having the fires lit at that time would have seemed strange even in lands as blighted as Naraksh, but it was not so in the pale rays that filtered through the tall, narrow windows, grey and dusky despite it being high noon.

Between the contrasting lights, around a long wooden table strewn with thick volumes, scrolls and other, more curious items, sat and crouched a circle of hooded shades not unlike those depicted in the carvings. The colours of their robes were those of the Order of the Divines, and the clerical heraldry upon them showed that none was lower in rank than an Episcope. Indeed, almost all of the priests gathered there bore the mark of the Eyes enclosed in a triangle of spiralling threads on their vestments, with the exception of five, whose ample and intricate patterns of symbology surpassed even the ornaments of their fellows. Of those there could not have been more, for they were the mark of the Exarchs themselves. Though these were the only variations in their insignias, the cut of their raiment was not identical – the group of bog-folk squatting at one end of the table, whose bodies were unfit to wear clothing woven for men, were covered in hanging drapes and strips of fabric, and had no masks to conceal their bestial countenances.

Behind them, in the unlighted far end of the chamber, shadow reigned, broken only by the glimmer of a pair of burning red eyes.

One of the high clerics was speaking, his body bent forward as though he were about to rise from his seat. With one hand he leaned on the table, while the other pressed upon one of the larger, older tomes. Alone among his fellows, sanguine lights akin to those that observed from the darkness shimmered under his hood.

“…that it is the mark of the One interred in ash, and a sign of wrath. Those blades point against the rot in our midst, and its hunger for death is that of a living host. The power of the Great Ones stirs, and they sent the heralds of their displeasure to warn us. Heed them! or their anger shall turn against you when they rise!”

“Their testament has no words on inner rot, and you know this all too well.” Another of the adorned priests, seated opposite the one who had spoken first, replied. “Do I need to repeat how tired we are of this?” “No.” Someone interjected. “Or how insistence does you no good, Raziemir? You lost a cause to it once, and your words will not align with the Ones’ will any better because you repeat them. How is an army a sign of wrath when it does not march to raze the enemy? Had we angered the Divines, I would not be speaking now.”

He seemed to be about to continue, but the second decorated shape on Raziemir’s side of the table interrupted him with a sharp gesture. “Unlike you, the Divines have a breadth of wisdom. Would they smite the loyal, though inept, when they could warn them instead? Sow death instead of fear? You have good memory for your admonishments, it seems, but not for the Dictates. Second book…” The speaker seized upon one of the tomes and began to hastily leaf through it. Before he could find whatever citation he was seeking, however, the second Exarch spoke up again.

“I remember the Dictates without reading, and this is what they say. ‘Those who are as worms or writhe as worms, and struggle and sting against the reaching hand, are taken and unmade in cinder’. Had we been this verminous rot you gibber of, and had the Divines arisen, this would have happened, but has it then? No!”

“And in cinder you will be unmade if you persevere!” Raziemir seethed. “What do you think is the reaching hand? The stone-host is its shadow, and it stretches over heretics like you and your fellow the butcher! Struggle on, then, and-“

“The butcher our fellow! The Great Ones never made invective their weapon.” The third Exarch seemed to have a taste for cutting into the speech of his peers. “Save for in your warped mythos, they struck fast and true, and what they willed was open and manifest. To condemn with an omen as oblique as that host in not their mark. Their displeasure with us-“

“Second book, first proclamation!” The fourth speaker had finally – and abruptly – emerged from the worn pages of his tome. “’The screecher that culls the herd without need will needs raven and waste, for it withers the spring of blood it drinks’. By your words, the Divines would have acted as this animal, or as the gutterblooded yard-kings of the east. Or the north.” He added in a venomous tone.

The eyes in shadow seemed to flinch with a touch of irritation.

“You take up the knife by the blade, and cut your hand with it.” The third Exarch raised a hand in a triumphant gesture. “If the herd is not culled without need, then, since we are not culled, there would not be any need to, would it? That is, if your legless creed were true at all.”

“The fumes of your alembics have eaten your wit, clearly, for this is the truth of the matter: there is need to cull you, and I know what it is, though you have forgotten everything that is not written in your profane signs. Will I tell you?”

“Tell us!” Raziemir’s ally rejoindered.

“Tell us.” Came a dripping echo from the further end of the table. The Kuraxxi Exarch had remained silent until then, but the Southerner’s provocation, obvious as it was to anyone with the least eye for politic, had drawn the curiosity of the bog-dweller.

The other two prelates did not answer, but rustled their defiant wordless assent.

“This it is, then. That prime relic of their magnificence, something that depraved necrophages like you should revere above all by your own gnarled doctrine, that is the highest blood coursing on this forsaken soil these days, you have instigated to be tainted with foreign grime! Look here at this.” One of the Episcopes seated next to Raziemir proffered him a bundle of small embroidered banners. “Nor even with what could have been masked, weakly, as worthy ichor, no! With the sludge of some grime-dwelling slattern, home of bog fleas and all other pox and filth! Your blasphemy could not have been more grievous if you tried to make it! Look here.”

He unfolded one of the banners, holding it by the upper end. It could be seen that an entire scene was woven upon it, with a skilful, if somewhat rigid hand. Two figures were depicted on what seemed to be the bank of a body of water. One, with a distinctive head of dark red hair and apparently disrobed below the waist, crouched near the edge, while a larger, oddly grey-hued shape loomed over it.

“This is her!” Raziemir spat. “A maggot grovelling in the dirt, before this… ape, this animal that they have up there! A harlot to beasts and a laughing-stock to slaves! This all comes from the north, you know.”

A chorus of amused scraping rose from the group of bog-folk clerics. The Exarch was already lifting a second banner.

“Weak and a coward!”

This scene portrayed the same red-headed figure as in the first one precipitously fleeing before an imposing warrior clad in black armour, wielding a spear tipped with some colourful stain. The former’s expression was such that some of the Episcopes on the side of Raziemir’s opponents could not restrain subdued chuckles, upon which their superiors shook their heads, growling something under their breath.

“A vessel of godlike potential, this? Turning heel before a raving wreck armed with a dishrag dug out of some gravepit? This box of wurm food,” he pointed at the knight, “terrorised the wretches who would now conquer the land from shore to shore, led by one who runs fastest. When she can run at all…”

Another cloth was unfurled, and again at least one of the rival prelates could barely stifle a chortle. This time, the protagonist of the portrait was limping out of a shadowed doorway, her form smattered with red and her features seemingly more entertaining yet to the Narakshi than the previous rendition. One of the bog-folk, who had been craning their entire frightfully flexible torsos to better see the embroideries from their position, abruptly pulled back and quietly sibilated something to its compatriots, who shuddered in silent spasms of hilarity.

“The introduction of blood trials in Matathran.” The Exarch proclaimed with mock solemnity. “You see how well their taskmasters fare. And one who crawls out of a desiccated kennel as a pile of rubble on two legs would be an equal for steel molded by the Ashen Crypt and the path of ascension?”

A voice like grinding stone issued from the darkness behind the Kuraxxi party, and even the high priest’s jeering abated for a moment in its wake.

“This already has my blessing, Exarch Raziemir. Tread carefully.”

Raziemir muttered something unintelligible under his mask and did away with the banner. The next one he produced, however, caused more commotion than the other three together. Several Episcopes exhaled loudly through their noses, others ground their teeth in an effort to keep their mouths closed, and even one of the Exarchs could not contain an audible “Ghrm!” One of the Kuraxxi went so far as to point at the cloth with a claw and scrape out something doubtless not very flattering.

“You have quite the collection.” The more restrained of the two adversaries remarked in a forcedly even tone.

“Crumbs from your table.” Raziemir deflected off-handedly. “And a shadow of what you can find across the border. Would a worthy claimant to the least sliver of ancestral might allow this? A worthy bearer of what you have the arrogance to prophesy as a living god? Where in this do you see a semblance of anything worthwhile – I do not say for sacred aims, but even for your heretical enchantments? Tell me. Do you not see all of it here?” A vicious smile could virtually be heard creeping into his words. “And you wonder that the Great Ones should have raised an army of damnation against your blunders? The wonder is that it does not already stand at your gates! It is well for you that they are above your twisting of their words, or your impudence would already have its reward!”

Impudence aside…” the second Exarch demonstratively waved away the still upheld banner from before himself, “…if the Great Ones have indeed arisen, and are wroth with us as you recklessly claim, would they not have bared it before us, rather than hiding it away in the south?”

“An Exarch should know better than to question the wisdom of his greaters – and such greaters.” The prelate to Raziemir’s left interposed sardonically.

His opponent was undeterred. “And you who cling to their ways better than to demean it. The Divines have never spoken in obscure warnings, and their only word against those who displeased them was the call of execution. Do you say that deathly sleep has changed them so? Where is their voice that shatters the earth, where the shadow of their breath?” He half-rose himself, bending towards the Southerner’s head and meeting his burning eyes with a narrowed gaze of his own. “Is this their work at all?

Neither did Raziemir relent. “And who else?” he scoffed. “The mark of ash and iron is clear upon its ranks, and no other force could have wrought such a marvel in so little time. Do you now think that your ‘new gods’ can appear without you even conjuring them?”

“I ask you again, since your mind is buried away in a sarcophagus of the Crypts. Is this the work of the Divines alive?”

“Not dead, certainly! Unto gods is godly death, and no abyss can be deeper than that. Either they rise from it in force, or not at all.”

“And this is their force?! A veiled oracle worthy of that mound of putrid coals? No. But do you put it beyond them to have preordained this portent to happen now? Now that our machinations call for a token of the old power? An army is a sign of strength, and as strength we must receive it. Did you not say yourself that even the most stray filth are rallying around the ancient words?”

“Laughable subterfuge!” Raziemir threw his head back as if to burst into cachinnations. His hood did not even threaten to slide off. “They rally, yes, to the true teachings of rebirth, not your blasphemous delusions. This thought is as inane as your hollow promises of divine successors. Do you compare the Great Ones to a waft of mortal smoke? You who spoke against roundabout signs!”

“What that scum claimed she could do, a true divine could have done thousandfold. What is roundabout about the shadow of a legion at the very time and place it would be found? You could not yourself name a clearer sign that our endeavour will bear a mighty fruit.”

Derisive snorts came from the red-eyed Exarch’s entourage.

“I could not name a clearer sign that your wretched sect is built on lunacy. If I had heard this from a parochian, I would-”

Raziemir’s tirade was interrupted by the entry of a procession of masked attendants bearing fresh ammunition for the doctrinal feud in the guise of several other ponderous, ancient leather-bound texts. The clerics fell upon them with little short of hunger, some almost snatching the manuscripts out of each other’s hands while others began to shout out half-remembered quotes as they fumbled for the conclusions. The Kuraxxi observed the scene silently – whether in amusement or tedium, it was difficult to say.

Behind them, twin thoughtfully narrowed red sparks were briefly blotted out by a wide, wavering outline.
@Arawak Understandable. When you have time, we could write out the Domain delegation's arrival to Iural.
Sorry for the (potentially lethal) inactivity on my part, but various poorly timed obstacles ave delayed me until now. If any of you who are about are still up for keeping this going, I can provide a collaborative effort here or there (@Arawak or @Raylah in particular).
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