A collaborative post by Jeddaven and Terminal.
Over the course of a fortnight, many peculiar changes had transpired across the length of the road that wound into the vale of Nergthron. Where before the road had been largely unguarded and devoid of patrols, now the soldiers of Rixis - casual and mercenary as they were - now regularly stood watch and walked along the approach. Makeshift watchtowers and palisades had been assembled before the titanic cleft in the mountains leading into the vale proper, and wooden walls had been erected to cut off access to the older footpaths leading up across the old winding road abreast the mountain peaks.
Rixis' sentinels were not subtle in their work. Any time a carriage or party bearing the sigils or banners of a Major Revenant approached the entrance to the vale, they were inevitably stopped and their leaders bound and dragged off, sight-unseen. Word of this seemingly brazen violation of the Pax Mortis had already begun to spread, and as it did fewer and fewer official processions were seen to approach Nergthron. Still though, the continuous foot-traffic of tens of thousands of the dead saw their way past the new makeshift emplacements with only cursory scrutiny. Those few lesser Revenants who had worked up the nerve to question the guards as to their activities had received blithe, dismissive answers.
"Our seizures have been in keeping with the Pax Mortis and the will of our true Master Eagoth himself. Be about your business in the vale, and do not make any trouble."
It was evident the magus Rixis was either up to something or else had been set off by some recent incident - resulting either way in heightened security. Though given the nature of the guardians and their lackluster adherance in faith to Rixis' status as ruler of the vale, infiltrating the place initially did not seem as though it would be difficult.
With many of the old footpaths cut off from access, Arane was left with few options - she could attempt to climb the mountains surrounding the vale itself, but she was far from being a sufficiently skilled climber to manage such a journey. As she and her party approached the first of what would no doubt be many such checkpoints along their journey, Arane found herself glad that she was facing a such a band of bumbling fools as Rixis' so-called army - her head hanging low, doing her best to seem as unassuming as possible, she hoped that the nearly eight foot tall slab of walking heavily armoured muscle looming over her shoulders would discourage any meaningful interrogation - or if not, perhaps hefty maul in her hands. The figure's appearance - never mind its sex or gender - was far from obvious, its face hidden behind sackcloth with a pair of holes poked into it for eyes. Much the same had been done with Arane and her Captain, likewise - the Lady hoped that Rixis's undead soldiers wouldn't think too much of their impromptu masks or the tall, peaked hooks that served to obscure the long, pointed ears that most all elves possessed. Still, the guards looked exceedingly bored - perhaps enough to be desperate for a distraction, but Arane had no intention of stopping unless ordered to do so, trudging along the muddy, cobbled road ahead with the sort of aimless purpose one might expect of a walking corpse pursuing faint memories of a life long forgotten.
Thankfully, the guards seemed wholely disinterested in Arane's party as they made passage by the makeshift outposts at the base of the great cleft. They were waved through without comment or challenge, dismissed amidst the churning horde of undead migrating into the vale.
The journey through the cleft itself was one of blind shuffling. Past noon, the sun cast no light whatsoever into the sheer ravine dug out of the mountains by the bare hands of some past horde, and the Warden had done little, if anything, to provide any other form of illumination. Immediately, the purpose of the chains and ropes Arane had observed other groups of the dead utilizing became apparent. They were not strictly for corraling the mindless dead, although they likely were helpful enough for that purpose regardless - they were simply for ensuring each distinct group passing through the cleft was not broken up and scattered by the torrential, thronging pressure of bodies constantly pushing, shoving, and relentlessly advancing through the passage.
And Arane had neglected to prepare either in advance. She had plenty of rope on hand, of course, but time was hardly on her side, and any overt magickal display would risk exposing her far too early. Thinking quickly, Arane grabbed hold of her Captain, grunting as she strained herself to clamber up her giant's back in a brief moment of fatigue - she was forced to kick a wandering ghoul out of the way, but she narrowly manage nonetheless, frantically extracting a bundle of thick, silk rope that she tied around her waist, before doing the same to her captain - and then to loops on Haleth's rucksack. That'd mean they'd be forced to follow along behind her of course, but the constant motion of the mass and Haleth's sheer size made it far too difficult to continue the series of loops around her stocky waist.
Having settled herself on Haleth's shoulders, Arane's perception of the journey through the cleft was one of warbling disorientation as she swayed and jockeyed for position in the depths of the merciless and cloying darkness of the chasm. It was almost familiar, in a way, to the sway of the ships Arane had left behind, though even the sea at its most tumultuous was not quite this loud.
In every direction, the shuffling, grinding onslaught of the advancing dead reverberated across and betwixt the walls of the passage through the mountains, rebounding and redoubling upon itself to in a macabre dirge of tormented moans, tearing flesh and snapping bones.
Time passed - perhaps minutes, or hours - and eventually the party emerged from the cleft and emerged within the vale. Though the light of day was once more evident, the whole of the valley was still cast in a dim pall, a seeming blanket of iridescent-edged shadows smothering the rays of light from above. From here, the challenge would simply be finding the infamous Magus Rixis in the morass. There were a plurality of chasms in the Earth where the trenchwork of the vale emptied into, the black blood of the dead flowing and churning into their depths, all cast in an even deeper darkness than the cleft through the mountains had been. The surface of the vale itself was littered with innumerable shacks, longhouses, and workshops, any of which may have been where the Magister had secluded himself or might be visiting - and of course, here in the vale of Nergthron more than anywhere else, the dead were legion. The causeways and roads choked with untold tens of thousands of the teeming dead as they were herded and guided from place to place, destined either for sublimation or empowerment of the dark sacrament of the Dead Seas, actively congealed in the canyons and trenches. Minor revenants watching from atop makeshift wooden watchtowers made cursory efforts to guide and direct foot-traffic and acted as waystations of respite for patrols of more of Rixis' soldiers, but their distribution seemed arbitrary and haphazard at best - resulting in a twisted pattern of motion amidst the thronging hordes normally only glimpsed in fugue-ridden fever dreams.
If nothing of value could be discerned from her slight vantage point, Arane was left with few other options - picking out Rixis's presence amid a teeming sea of bodies and foul magics would take immense concentration and time she did not have, especially with the thousands upon thousands of bodies urging her companion forward. That left her with one option, as she saw it - much like one would lure an enemy army into a trap, she needed a lure. Something that, hopefully, even Rixis's soldiers could not ignore.
Suddenly, her eyes widened. An idea came to her, bidden but unexpected. Whirling her neck from side to side, she watched as the walking corpses edged and surged. Picking out one of the taller examples, she worked her illusions; as the body's back was briefly obscured by the horde, she cast her spell, and by the time it was visible once again, a bright, white mask - clearly visible to anyone looking in its direction - appeared on its back. The symbol of the pale king. She would watch, and wait... And if the poor, unfortunate ghoul was spotted, hopefully follow it to Rixis... Or be forced to resort to much more drastic measures. She quickly thought better, though - or worse, more accurately - if Rixis's soldiery was as worthless as it seemed, they'd need a sign they simply couldn't ignore without facing their master's wrath.
Suddenly, the ghoul had the appearance of Callidus in the flesh - from his outfit to his gait, the illusion would be quite convincing - to their simple gaze, at least.
The effect was almost immediate.
Even if Rixis' lackluster soldiery were unable to pick the visage of the Pale KIng himself out of the thronging horde spilling forth from the mountain cleft, the minded undead in the immediate vicinity did not. Almost as one, the dead began to recoil from the glamoured figure in a roiling wave, bodies falling and tumbling against each other as they made efforts to prostrate themselves, flee, or erupted into sheer panicked confusion. Cries and shouts went out, causing rotting heads and ears to turn.
A scant minute after the illusion had been made, the word had begun to spread like wildfire amongst the hordes in the vale.The Pale King Himself, Callidus, had come to Nergthron.
Two minutes later, the rather confused ghoul Arane had glamoured stood in a great clearing twenty meters wide in every direction, surrounded by awestruck ghouls and minor revenants. Rixis' soldiers had finally made an appearance as well, but with entirely unexpected results - rather than issuing challenge to the seeming of the Pale King, many of them were prostrating themselves alongside the other dead - some higher-ranking officers behind the first line of observers even seemed to be forming up into a procession
in order to formally approach the disguised ghoul.
Arane hadn't expected such an extravagant response - but it made some degree of sense that Rixis's soldiers would eagerly bow to any such display of power, especially in such figuratively close proximity to Eagoth. It was a complication, to be sure, but she had no choice but to make this display work.
Closing her eyes, Arane reached out toward the wisps of spellcraft clinging to the ghoul. Shadows, faintly visible, clambered up the unfortunate's limbs, towards his head, slipping into the recesses of his mind. Throwing her mind back to the few times she'd heard Callidus speak, both in life and in death, Arane's lips began to move, though her voice emerged from the false king's lips, his body otherwise rigid.
"I have come to speak to your Master," the puppet said, a convincing --if imperfect-- imitation. "Take me to him."
"Oh Great and Terrible Callidus," One of the officers who had approched spoke in almost reverent tone. "if you have come to finally unseat the craven Rixis, be warned he has taken great pains and measures - sorceries and foul magicks - to thwart direct confrontation. But we are ready to serve you, simply permit us a day or perhaps two to fool that callow upstart into the open-"
"Your foolish master's petty sorceries will do nothing
to stop me, nor you." The puppet said, quietly shaking his head. "Will you not bring me to him, so I may cast him down from his broken throne?"
"I fear our most grievous rebuke if the craven Rixis should peer into our minds and raise the Dead Seas, my lord." The officer replied. "Though we are, of course, at your command, I would caution against such a direct approach."
Days, however - any sort of substantial wait - proved a problem. Arane's party was not part of Rixis's traitorous throng, but... Perhaps it didn't need to be.
"Very well. Nonetheless, where does the fool hide?"
"I am not certain, oh Pale King, for he has been taking most curious and perplexing acts of late. Our Commander would know with certainty, but he likely does not know you are here yet."
"Surely you can bring him to me, then?" The puppet said. Its face, though hidden behind a masked, dipped ever so slightly downward as if in exasperation. "We must act quickly - there is little time to waste!"
Inwardly, Arane smiled - perhaps Rixis would be thankful for the gift of handing his traitors to him on a silver platter, if nothing else. She could only hope that he'd be able to see through her glamours.
"That is our intent, my lord. We must approach the Commander discretely and bring him into our confidences so that he may execute your whims without arousing the craven Rixis' suspicions. We must take care not to rouse the Commander's notice from afar, lest he inform the Magus too soon. It will take some time - " The soldier hesitated. "Might I inquire as to the cause of your urgency in this matter, Master Callidus?"
"You cannot." The false Callidus responded. "There are certain secrets I must keep from the custodian of the Locus."
"Then beyond sending your imperative to act quickly, there is little we can do, a thousand pardons master." The soldier bowed in a placatory fashion. "In the meantime, we should get you out of the open. The longer you are out here, the more of a commotion it will cause. I can have my ghouls establish a suitable suite for you in one of the longhouses nearby. We have few luxeries available, but we can make it clean and secure at least..."
"That will have to do." The doppleganger said, gesturing toward Haleth - and the handful of ghouls clinging to her back. Arane, meanwhile, was busy memorizing the features of these traitors, her familiar, taking the form of a large, bloated fly, hovering high above them. "My bodyguards. They, likewise, are not fully equipped as I would prefer - but they will join me, nonetheless." He said, every word flat, emotionless, as if he were simply stating fact.
For a moment, Arane's party was abruptly subjected to the intense scrutiny of the gathering of officers that had come before the illusion of Callidus.
"Are those elves, mi'lord?" One of them asked. The faintest hint of suspicion edged his words. "How is it that they do not bear your mark?"
"It is hidden." The doppleganger said, a hand abruptly jolting upwards, forming the runes of a spell in mid-air. "There is no time to explain further - do you wish to act, or shall we instead dawdle while Rixis grows ever closer to uncovering us?"
"Of course. Everyone, for-" One of the officers began, before being interrupted by a cry from behind the assembled crowd.
Shoving their way through the back of the mob was a contingent of guards - a group of them that Arane recognized as having come from the makeshift fortifications at the base of the mountains. They must have been relieved of their shift shortly after her party had begun their journey through the passage.
"Do you not recognize the noble countenance of the Pale King?!?" Exclaimed the officer that had originally approached Arane's glamored ghoul. "This is Lord Callidus, the right hand of Eagoth himself! He has come to deliver the vale from the petty tyranny of Rixis-"
"Then how is it we did not see him pass us by or announce himself?" The revenant sergeant of the squad demanded. "We would have sent word had he done so. This is deceit! Callidus would not slink through the front watch like some base scofflaw just to reveal himself past the threshold!" The sergeant pointed a mail-clad and accusatory finger at Arane's puppeted ghoul. "Take off your mask! You will answer for this affront..."
"You dare question me?! You presume that I would be unable to keep myself hidden?!
" The doppleganger boomed, the air about its finger twisting with invisible heat. An illusion, much like the glamour itself. "You are making demands of me
, and when I come to rescue you from your Lord, no less? The insolence!"
"I am a true servant of the Emperor of all of Leria, Eagoth the Magnificent, and if you were truly his vassal such subterfuge would be well within your means, but unnecessary.
Show us the instrument of your office and writ of your orders here or be struck down!" The Sergeant barked in retort. "The Pax Mortis demands it!"
The band of officers that had assembled before the disguised ghoul were anxiously glancing between the image of Callidus and the Sergeant, hands on their weapons but unwilling to draw them quite
yet. The surrounding mob of thronging undead was finally beginning to pick up motion again as the current of undead streaming through the cleft flowed around the disruption and began carrying foot-traffic back along its intended route. If the situation was not resolved quickly, word of the irregularity was certainly going to spread further into the vale.This
was a problem. Arane could simply silence the sergeant, of course, but to do so meant risking her destruction should the rest of the ghouls fail to fall in line. The alternative, however, was even worse; she simply couldn't afford to give up the ruse so early, even if maintaining it risked alerting Rixis.
Arane breathed deeply, Haleth's muscles tightening as she prepared to drop into a sprint.
Suddenly, a staff - another illusion - appeared in his hand, a blast of force lancing out toward the sergeant with enough power to shatter bone. His body launched backwards, narrowly missing the rest of the soldiers, only to collide with the ground with such force that it shattered into a wet, grisly heap.
For a split instant all of the observing parties simply stood or staggered back in dazed awe from the display of power. Shortly thereafter, one of the surviving members of the Sergeant's party bellowed.
"This fiend has just violated the Pax Mortis!"
"Oh, like you wretches at the base of the cleft have been doing for the past few weeks?" The Officer behind the illusion of Callidus quipped.
"You fools! The Sergeant was right, the true Callidus-"
Evidently the party of Officers that had, at this point, effectively bought themselves fully into Arane's staged insurrection lost patience with the direction of the conversation and drew their weapons, marching forward even in the face of the squad's protestations.
Not quickly enough, it would seem, for even as they drew close to cut the unexpectedly adament watchers down, one of them drew a horned trumpet and managed to raise a deep, resonant bellow that careened across the vale, turning an ocean of undead heads their way.
Arane had to act - and quickly. Still clinging to Haleth's back, she directed her doppleganger to turn toward those officers that had dared to defy it. Once again, it weaved its hands through the air, once again forming inscrutable arcane symbols. the Captain, meanwhile, dismounted, charging headlong towards the group of officers behind 'Callidus' alongside Haleth. All it took was a single swing of her maul to pulverise their aged bones, wide, sweeping swings knocking heads from shoulders with inhuman ease. Alaras's weapons, designed primarily for cutting, gave the Captain a much harder time - though she was nonetheless able to cleave bone, albeit with far more effort than the giant at her side. Callidus, all the while, remained deathly still, utterly unmoving, jaw completely slack.
"Sincerest apologies!" Arane grunted, knocking herself out of her stupor. She made certain to bring her voice a register lower, just enough that it wouldn't be readily identifiable by the teeming masses surrounding them. Haleth, meanwhile, was busy smashing her way through the traitorous officers, smiling beneath her mask at the challenge they offered. Still, they weren't expecting her, and Haleth was an absolutely gigantic slab of muscle with a penchant for crushing bone - combined with Alaras's unmatched precision, she was able to slaughter her foes in relatively short order.
As if on cue, the moment the last of the traitorous soldiers fell, so did the masquerading ghoul, the glamour over him fading away into silvery mist before disappating entirely. Haleth wasted no time in smashing his bones to bits, even as Arane spoke from her position on the giant's back. "I had intended to offer these traitors as a gift to your Master, but it seems I miscalculated." She explain, hoping that she could now resolve this issue amicably, though she had no doubts about the very real possibility that Rixis's toadies would promptly turn on her and either try to take the credit for themselves or put her in chains regardless.
A possibility which became all the more realized when additional horn-bellows sounded from nearby, aired by those patrols nearest to the site of the original call. Arane could even see the descending groups of soldiers converging on the area through the teeming hordes. For the moment, the sheer, tumultuous number of the dead moving through the area down was keeping their progress at a stagnant crawl - but as each patrol shouted at those they neared, their weapons unsheathed as they also began to light torches and raise the banner of the Warden, the surging crowds began to impossibly grind to a halt and, in irregular waves, to kneel where they stood, leaving only the coward Magus' guards standing. Soon, all traffic in the area would cease and every head for a league would be bowed while soldiers prowed amongst them like wolves.
"Not keeping the traitors alive so they could sound a belay for you was your second mistake." The grievously maimed corporal - the same one who had spoken out after the visage of Callidus had smote his superior officer - commently blithely, the severity of his injury and the fresh absence of his right arm lessened in their intensity through undeath. "You will soon be at our mercy."
Arane quietly cursed herself for having been so brash - useful as a flair for grandiose display was in noble courts, it was of little use when one was attempting to stay unnoticed. Still, as long as she was brought to Rixis in perfect condition... "Ah, I see, I see... He plays two bands of his traitors against each other, does he? I am not the most familiar with how your Master maintains his control over you, but-Ah, there I go rambling again!" Arane laughed, shaking her head. "I will cut to the chase, then. If you do not take me to Rixis, quite simply, things will end quite poorly for you. You could try to kill me, of course, but it would be an incredibly simple matter for me to escape. Perhaps you could kidnap me, do whatever you do to the rest of Rixis's victims... But then I would have no reason not to simply slaughter the lot of you with me!" Arane laughed, legs wrapping around Haleth's waist as she holds her arms out wide in mock-embrace.
"I've got no stake in whatever nonsense you're up to, wench, so I suppose we had better just kill you for the second time if you're really such a huge risk." The corporal drawled. "You have absolutely no leverage and a lot of bluster, you knife-eared quim. Never send a woman to do a man-"
"Silence!" Arane hissed, abruptly dismounting from her bodyguard's back.
The fleshed sloughed away from the fallen ghoul's corpse, racing toward the corporal, wrapping around his limbs af if to bind him. Jabbing a finger at the Corporal, she slowly advanced toward him, step by step, only to stop halfway, her lips peeled back in a snarl beneath her mask. The sheer, unadulterated rage on her lips was nearly palpable, even if none of the ghouls could see her face, an animalistic growl filling the air. "You will bring me to Rixis. You will gain nothing in return, except the knowledge that you have avoided a fate so nightmarish that Eagoth would seem like a saint in comparison. The next words out of your mouth will be words of accession, or I will show you that my so-called bluster pales
in comparison to what I am capable of doing to insolent little wretches that think they are allowed to insult me." She seethed, Alaras casting a worried glance between Arane and the corporal. Perhaps she should stop Arane - but she knew how dangerous a spoiled princess could be when she was handed the power of a master wizard and given plenty of reason to unleash hell.
As if to punctuate her point, Arane wove a handful of runes into the air - but instead of a blast of raw force, the corporal found himself assailed by all manner of nightmarish visions. Twitching, writhing faces screamed into his thoughts, begging for death, their muscles jerking violently in ways that were utterly impossible.Their limbs, rotten and gangrenous much like the living dead, flailed wildly, clawing at eyes and pulling on jawbones as if in a vain strugle to kill themselves by pulling their own bodies apart. Some were men, others women, some eerily similar to the corporal himself in both appearance and tone, aside perhaps their obvious ability to feel incredible pain. Others simply ripped and clawed at their own skin, flesh peeling away beneath fingernails in bloody ribbons, their increasingly hoarse voices senselessly begging forgiveness for their unspecified sins.
In the distance, atop a nearby hill, was the corporal's broken, shattered body, many-eyed golden beings dancing joyously about him as they clawed at, clubbed, and whipped him, so horrifically wounded that scarcely any flesh remained on his body. Nearby, others laughed as they drank his vital fluids out of bejeweled wine goblets as a glowing golden orb watched over the entire scene, its every surface dotted with millions of eyes of all manner of colours, a handful directed at the corporal. An old woman, her body covered in gnashing teeth, busied herself knitting a blanket out of screaming, still-living faces, occasionally glancing the Corporal's way with a rictus grin. Then, mercifully, the fog lifted, though it only took mere moments to transpire in reality, leaving the corporal staring at Arane, her arms outstretched. An illusion, perhaps, it was, but the sensations - the pain all those people felt from beyond the vale - was visited upon the undead corporal's mind as he awoke.
However gratifying the corporal's tormented screams and writhing on the ground were to Arane, or the particularly acrid stench of his dead and rotten bowels uncontrollably loosening from the sheer terror visited upon him, all else it did for her was to draw the notice of the descending squads of soldiers who had already been converging on her position. Already, the most proximal captains were barking distant and still incoherent demands in her direction over fields of putrid heads as their bands shoved and kicked their way through the kneeling hordes.
"I believe I have made my point, wretch." Arane sneered, so caught up in her gloating that she would've failed to notice the soldiers converging on her if not for Haleth's strong, steadying hand grasping her by the soldier. She was wasting time - and drawing ever more attention. Perhaps that would eventually include Rixis himself, but, by then, word of her escapades would've been spread too far to be stopped, and that was already looking like a distinct possiblity.
She threw up her hands, as if frustration, then left them held high above her head in mock surrender. "Take me to Rixis, if you must!" She shouted, quietly weaving magic through the Corporal's shattered mind. In such a state, he would surely be vulnerable, she thought. Invisible tendrils of illusory magic wormed their way into his mind, turning his vision blank - and in their wake, they subtly twisted and pulled at the Corporal's thoughts, persuading him that, indeed, to bring her to Rixis was the best option. This mage was clearly not worth the trouble of struggling to draw away to process, and, at worst, she might actually succeed in slaying the bastard.
Lost in the throes of magically-induced delerium the likes of which had been alien to him even when he had been alive, the impulse sank deep into the roots of the corporal's unconscious mind, becoming realized as an unfulfilled ache that then permeated his senses as the anguish of the visions Arane had cursed him with slowly ebbed and faded. They left him lying prone and empty on the ground, staring with a twisted epiphany of rage and stark, harrowing terror.
"This one...is to go directly to the Warden!" He choked out as the first of the approaching patrols finally reached them. "She claims to be one of his slaves, with information for his coward's ears!"
"And what is with all the charnel?" The newly arrived sergeant demanded as his men moved to bind Arane and her crew in irons. "What is the meaning of all this commotion and mayhem?"
"...Spies of the Pale King in our ranks." The corporal spat out. It was remarkable, really, how quick on his feet the ghoul was, contriving the perfect excuse to have Arane thrown before Rixis' heap of a corse. He was probably moved by unadulterated rage and a desire to strike back at Arane for the torment she had just cut him, his hatred cutting through the snarl of the surrounding circumstances in short order.
"So should we even be-" One of the soldiers hesitated, halting in their movement to grasp for Arane's arms.
"She brought them here!
" The corporal spat. "She is a magus herself. Bind, gag, and blind her!"Too
wrathful, even, it would seem. The guards resumed their motions to subdue Arane and her party.
Arane made a show of shifting nervously, casting a cautious glance back at Haleth and Aralas - but her companions were familiar enough to recognize the ruse, likewise discarding their weapons. Hopefully, her spell would keep hold, barring unexpected mental fortitude on the corporal's part - and hopefully before Rixis simply chose to execute her on the spot.
The soldiers clapped her in her irons, stuffed her mouth with a wad of cloth soaked in tar and tied out and around the back of her head, and then took the sky away from her, reducing her world to the confines of a burlap sack - presumably doing the same to her companions.
From there, Arane was bundled onto a cart, and over the course of two agonizing hours was slowly trundled across the vale, the sound of countless seething, mindless undead the only thing she heard the whole of the way.
Eventually, the cart came to a halt. Arane was hoisted out from it with all the ceremony of laborers hauling a sack of potatoes, and carried by her chained feet and head...somewhere. The ceaseless sound of the mulling undead in the vale became subdued and dampened, and the telltall sound of echoing torchflame flickering danced through her ears - they were indoors somewhere now. The treatment she suffered was indignant, to say the least - far beneath an Elf of such high birth, in Arane's opinion - but such brief indignance was worth avoiding whatever fate befell those revenants kidnapped on Rixis's orders, she supposed. She hoped.
"And who are these?" An unfamiliar voice demanded.
"Evidently, one of the Warden's spies - one he failed to sufficiently ensorcel. They came and tried to introduce agents of the Pale King amongst the guard." Another unfamiliar voice, closer and to the side, answered.
"And they failed?"
"A shame." The first unseen speaker announced wistfully. "And so these others would be some of the Pale King's people?"
"You'd have to ask them."
can ask, there is not enough time in the day to torture answers from the dead." The first speaker said irritably. "Though there's no way he'll want to meet with all of them. Wait here a moment, I'll go inquire
about how to handle this."
There followed a brief interlude interpersed with the sound of retreating, armored footsteps on stone followed by the relative respite of being bodily tossed into a corner. Time passed.
Eventually, the footsteps returned.
"The Warden will see that one."
"And the others?"
"He wants them thrown into the Black Blood canals. The Sea is to claim them."
Arane felt herself being hauled to her feet, along with the sound of the others the soldiers had brought with them likewise being strongarmed to rise.
She shook her head vigorously, in hopes of catching the attention of the guards, shouting into her gag. Perhaps Arane and Aralas would find some way to escape, but the risk simply wasn't worthwhile - and they were her bodyguards, no less. Rixis might have faintly recognized her, but she knew they were likely little more than objects in the background to him.
That thought, however, promptly brought to mind how little Rixis's men seemed to care about much of anything. Once again weaving her fingers in complex patterns, she summoned up yet another spell, this one far more simple - hardly even a true illusion."The giant woman, the other elf - they are my bodyguards, you fools!"
A voice echoed as if from everywhere at once. "Destroy them and I will be extraordinarily displeased."
The men hauling Arane between them paused. A moment of silent lapsed as some unseen number of people considered the message.
"Whatever. I can hardly even be arsed." An unknown third speaker equipped. "Just drop them down the tower stairs, we can deal with them after the Warden makes up his mind about this one."
This commentary was pucntuated by the sound of a heavy object sliding against stone the the external din of the howling dead briefly heightening, alongside the dull thuds of padded objects being thrown out the door while Arane's entire body slanted, presumably as she was carried up a flight of stairs.
Several moments later, after several heavy doors were presumably opened and shut, the tell-tale stench of particularly wet and putrescent liquefaction assaulted Arane's nose, and the slick, squirming sound of molten bodily ruminants sliding across masonry filled her ears. That could only be one thing.
"On the table." A gurgling, muffled voice saturated the air. Moments later she was dumped onto a solid stone surface. A series of metallic clicks echoed through the unseen chamber, and Arane felt a number of sturdy metal bars fall into place around her. The implication was evident - she had just been fastened onto a torture slab."High Magister Rixis."
Arane's voice echoed, though her body remained motionless. For the best, she thought, less she gag herself into unconsciousness at the stench invading her nostrils.
Immediately, Arane felt a shock run along her body, as if something had grabbed and yanked hard on an invisible cord running along her spine - there was no physical force accompanying the sensation. Just the peculiar sense that some massive, unseen object had passed by her in the dark, the invisible wind of its tremendous force rushing by her as felt only within her mind.
A moment of deathly silence passed.
"You are a Revenant Major." The gargling voice stated flatly."Your soldiers. Are they still in this room?"
Arane's voice replied, her posture abruptly relaxing. She had angered him, perhaps, or he had attempted to exert his oppressive control over her for the simple reason that he assumed her vulnerable."Maybe they are."
The gurgling voice hissed, lurched in intensity. Arane then realized - with the bag over her head, he could not see her evidently pointed ears, and he already seemed to want to bank on the ambiguity of whether there was anybody else present in the room enough that him removing it to see if he recognized her was unlikely. "You are not one of my agents, no matter what the Commander says, and the notion of the Pale King's wretched spies being able to elude my notice is laughable. Are you another disgraced pariah come to try and oust me, tumbling in rage from Eagoth's court?""To oust you? No, certainly not."
Arane said, sucking in deep, calming breaths through her nose - even if she had no need to do so. The motions calmed her regardless, useless leftovers of life as they were. "Eagoth deemed my existence too great a risk. Attempted to dispose of me. I was unwilling to lie down and accept such a disgrace, much like how he has attempted to push you to the wayside. In you, I sought a like mind. Lady Arane Tiedriel, at your service."
"Arane Tiedriel..." The slurred voice slughed. "The Elf. Found your preordained burial at sea not to your taste? I find it more likely you came to usurp me, in hopes Eagoth would be willing to entertain your consignment here, much as he has entertained mine. I cannot control you, so I cannot even trust what I can forcefully wring from your corse. I should probably return you to Eagoth's court in pieces."
"I would hope not, High Magister. I assumed you would think better of me than to come crawling back to the court of worthless wretches that destroyed this continent, then thought so little of me as to think I would die on his behalf. Ha!" The voice laughed.
"You are a powerful magister, Rixis. Surely you can see that you deserve more than this?"
"Destroyed the continent?" Rixis garbled aloud. "Is that what you think, elf? Perhaps the snuffing out of life has clouded your judgement. What little I have seen outside of the vale since Eagoth's conquest is enough to assure me Leria is much the same as it always has been..." The voice came up abruptly and seemed to let out a deflating drag of rushing fluid. After a brief pause, the sodden sound of churning, fleshy pulp began to echo through the chamber.
"He certainly did not improve it." The voice laughed.
"Debatable." Rixis slurred as he continued to move sight unseen in the surrounding chamber. "Though I will concede the whole of Leria remains overrun with imbeciles and useless lackwits who now do not even have the good decency to die of infirmity." The squelching, bubbling turmoil of Rixis moving about the chamber came to a hault, and there was another pause.
Eventually, he spoke again. "I am not entirely unsympathetic to your plight, though the manner in which you have quite literally fallen into my clutches does not endear me to the potential utility of your doubtlessly peerless intellect. For what purpose do you claim you came here for?"
"To ingratiate myself with you, which I have done an exceedingly poor job of so far." She said, a sigh echoing through the room. "I had intended to offer you a scrying orb as a gift, but it is currently with my bodyguards who I believe your guards deposited at the bottom of a nearby staircaise. I... Overestimated their loyalty to you.
"As evidently have I, yet again, insofar as my trust that they can fulfill exceedingly base instruction. I distinctly recall telling them to throw your chattel into the canals." A hint of evident irritation had crept into the gargle of Rixis' voice. "I accept your gift, of course. Now. What else can you offer me in exchange for not letting my guards have their way with you before letting the ghouls gnaw on your bones and tossing what is left to the Dark Sea?"
The cause of the soldiery's exceedingly frayed loyalty seemed evident: Rixis had all the generosity of a funeral pyre.
"The aid of a powerful sorceress, the continued, admittedly meagre existence of your soldiers, and the chance to destroy Eagoth for daring to confine one of the most powerful Magisters of our age to a backwater." The voice offered, though the slightest trace of of anger had crept into her voice. "I do not expect charity from you, by any means. I expect the both of us to profit immensely from this endeavour."
"The continued existence of my soldiers? Was that a threat, elf?" A sharp, burbling twang punctuated Rixis' words. The generosity of a pyre and the tunnel-vision of a masked horse.
"A threat against you? Certainly not, no. I merely mean to imply that I would defend myself against them."
"So I should unmake you on the spot rather than let them come to risk."
...And the diplomatic charm of a pile of manure. It was quickly becoming evident that everything Arane had ever heard of Rixis' odious social graces was not only true: It had all, in fact, been charitably downplayed.
Trying to broker with Rixis this way was doomed to end poorly. He was speaking an entire different language. One spoken by boorish, paranoid, petty tyrant governors and village elders who interpretted standing before them without a slouch as a challenge.
Hopefully he'd be one of those petty tyrants that responded to ego-stroking, then.
"I would hope not. They are beneath you, High Magister - as is Eagoth. He is a wretch. A powerful wretch, but a fool that does not realize the value you hold. He has the foresight of a foetid corpse, the patience of a maniac, and the absurd gall the likes of which I have never before witnessed. You are wasting your time under his thumb." The voice scoffed, and Arane shifted uncomfotably from side to side. "I intend merely to destroy him. I do not intend to rule in Leria, nor do I intend to linger here once I have satisfied this longer than is needed. The continent would be your oyster, should we succeed." She explained, neglecting to mention the child interred in her belly.
"Truer words are scarcely spoken. Though of course, it hardly matters what sort of Wretch Eagoth is, does it? To his will our fallen bodies and spirits are bound, his manifest destiny that is the Pax Mortis. Bold of you to plot his destruction, knowing that all that would be required of him to thwart you would be to think of yours. You have a plan, I trust."
"A number, yes. Presently, I intend to bind my soul to a suit of blessed armour. This is the more realistic of the options at hand, but... I will admit, I believe there may be a chance I can return myself to life." And my daughter, she thought to herself. "In the absolute worst case, any magic can be broken.
"Ridiculous." The liquefaction of a voice audibly spat. "Resurrection is impossible. But I can already see why you came to me. You have to wrest the Locus from Eagoth's control in order for the plan to bind your soul to armor to work - for were he to turn it on you and all the others you so treat, the Locus would devour your spirits. Hm." The warbling voice paused again. "How would you even animate such a body? Even the most potent Necromancy struggles to animate tissue other than muscle, already singularly optimized for directed motion."
"The enchantments and transmutations necessary are complex, I will admit, but I know that I am capable. I have been granted the instrument by my gods and by the souls of Elven smiths I carry with me." Arane shrugged - or tried to, at least, though her bindings made the movement look more like a spastic jerk of her muscles. Nonetheless, she opted to conveniently leave out her precise methodology.
The room fell utterly silent. With only the dead for inhabitants, none of its occupants so much as drew a breath to fill the void.
Eventually, Rixis spoke again.
"Even all the mighty Knights throughout all of Leria failed to conquer Eagoth's hordes and magicks. I fail to see how such an approach might enable your victory, where it is evident you will be unable to field nearly so many of these suits as the living could field living champions. Their own blessed armor yielded to the tides of the damned. So would yours."
"My champions would be comparatively few, yes. That is why I would likewise intend to subvert Eagoth's enchantments, but these, my first soldiers... There is a soul, yes, but they would lack flesh, High Magister. It is likely that they would need to fight as guerillas, but they would make the resilience of the risen dead look simply puerile in comparison. My armour, no less, if of far better make. I will have an army that is neither living nor dead."
"Remind me what still lives upon all of Leria." Rixis' slurred voice had a deceptively mild intonation to it as he voiced the question.
"Carrion-eaters, perhaps. In the highest mountains and the most hidden of places, a few things still thrive. Leria is a heap of corpses, but that does not mean I cannot take joy in spiting Eagoth and making a hero out of myself and perhaps you."
Arane admitted, sighing once again.
And Rixis laughed.
It was the sound of dribbling mud.
"Allow me to clarify. There is no living thing
that remains in Leria. Every vulture and worm and maggot you have seen - those, too, are stricken with undeath. They continue to act as they would if living, for they are but simple beasts, but make no mistake that every fiber of flesh under, upon, and above the land belongs to Eagoth. And do you have a reckoning of their number, little elf?"
The squelching, popping undulation of Rixis' putrid form rose in intensity as he slid closer to the interrogation table. Arane swore she could hear the birthing of the words in what remained of his jaw as they slid, as whispers, into her ears.
. Do you even know what a Million is, elf? Have you ever heard the numeration before, ever seen it put to parchment? Have you any reckoning of how vast such a summation is?"
He did not await her answer, his inquiry evidently having been rhetorical. He pulled back and carried on.
"Yours is such a typical plan for your kind. Relying on stealth and skirmisher tactics to fight around
the enemy. You can scarcely conceive of what you will be trying. The very soil of the earth itself will betray you. There is nowhere you or your minions will be able to hide or seek respite in all of Leria. Your plan is foolish and doomed..." He paused again briefly.
'...With that sort of strategy, at least.' He finally added.
Inwardly, Arane smiled. "I gather you have thought of an alternative, then? I would prefer not to have to burn the continent to ash, infested as it may be."
"Indeed. It is true that we may be able to mutually benefit
each other with what you are suggesting. However...such discussion is premature. I have not waited this long to throw my lot in with your ilk with so haphazard a plan. My secrecy of your intent, I will provide as a gift, since you may yet prove useful to me. If you desire more - my aid, my assistance, my magicks - I have a condition. You will procure the service, the direction of an accomplished military mind. One who can bring effectiveness to your paltry plan and make it serviceable against Eagoth. He did not conquer all of Leria merely through arcane prowess. He campaigned against the mortal realms for decades on end. For me to demand anything less of you would be to entertain a second deathwish.""Entirely fair,"
the voice admitted. "And a wise precaution, nonetheless. Though I must admit that I intend to seek out the merchant, too - Faustus, I believe he is called. He is not to be trusted, but with sufficient secrecy, I believe be can be bought into acquiring the reagents I need. And then there is the Locus, of course - if I manage to prove my usefulness, perhaps we can uncover a method to its madness. The precise nature of such a flaw in Eagoth's work. You, I imagine, would be key to such an effort."
"Ahahaha. Yes. Which is where we come to the proverbial other boot. And my ultimatum." Rixis' burbling, voice had taken on a particularly snide demeanor. "I will shortly release you and send you back out from the vale to do as you must. But you will be returning to me. If you truly desire to defeat Eagoth, you must
, in fact. Tell me, elf, do you know why Eagoth conquered Leria with Necromancy?""I can make educated guesses, but I would prefer not to waste your time."
"Or you desire not to put your ignorance on display. It is simple. Eagoth was not always a Necromancer. He used to be a sorcerer of many means. He considered many different possible avenues of levying his campaign, and of course attaining immortality. Necromancy was not even his first preference. The reason it is what he used, is because it is the only sort of magic that would work
on the scope he had envisioned. Do you know how many would-be summoners, golem-shapers, devil-binders, and fae lords have attempted to conquer Leria in the past? All of them with their own insurmountable hordes of impervious magical beings, summoned, conjured, constructed or otherwise? Much in the manner of your animated armor
Rixis paused momentarily for effect in the manner of a novice orator before continuing.
"It is because there is no magical entity or construct, no matter how formidible, that can continue to exist when confronted with formidible abjurations. Any golem can be unbound and reduced to a pile of rubble. Any demon can be rebuked and banished. Any fae creature or otherworldly entity can be unmade, their very substance torn apart by abjuration, because inherently the core of their nature is that their existence is sustained wholly by magic. The undead are no different of course, but because of the principle by which they normally operate - the original spirit still bound to the body, or merely anchored to the waking world, and the body not sustained magically and merely driven - evades the deleterious principles of abjuration, rather than acting as a ward against them. Even if your mighty army of enchanted armor could batter their way past Eagoth hordes, it would come to naught. He would wave a hand and your souls would come unbound, your armor falling in worthless heaps of dull, abjured metal. And that is why
you will need
me. Not only for my Locus, which would otherwise then immediately devour any such wayward spirits, severed from their constructed bodies - but because..."
Once again, Rixis' rancid, gurgling voice seemed to whisper directly by Arane's side."I have a method to render all of Eagoth's necromantic magicks null and void. Without which, your victory is impossible."
The burbling voice receded.
For a handful of moments, Arane contemplated launching into another tirade, correcting Rixis on her methodology, how she had anticipated and contemplated methods with which to defy abjuration, until, all of a sudden, her disembodied voice laughed
, as though Rixis had let her in on some utterly hilarious joke. Smugness and ego dripped from his voice, but it was not him she found so humorous - she couldn't help but cackle in delight at the mere possibility that Eagoth could be so thoroughly undone. "That is the other reason I sought you out, Rixis! The rest would call you a coward, but me... Oh no, no. I hoped - I knew - you would not sit idly by and allow Eagoth to so flagrantly mistreat you. I will look forward to seeing the look on the Vwynalyen's face when his army collapses before his very eyes! You most certainly have my loyalty. That much, I can promise on all that I hold dear."
"We will see. Now then. Was there anything else you have a needs to discuss before you depart?" Rixis' slurring speech now had a perfunctory tiredness to it."This military mind - was there one you had in mind? And, further, I would have my agents returned to me - they are far more adept at genuine stealth than I."
"Your lackeys will not be undone, yes yes. As for my condition...my preferences are shaped by my reach. My reach and yours differ. Anybody who can demonstrate sufficient skill, whomsoever you can also coerce or scheme into your service, will do." Arane felt more than heard a lurching shudder as Rixis slid away from the interrogation table."Ah, and one last, for the road - will you be dispatching one of yours to join my own spies?"
She asked, though the question was clearly laden with rhetorical sarcasm.
"...In a manner of speaking. Your frail elven bodyguards doubtlessly leave nearly as much to be desired as my own soldiers. I will arrange for one of my more formidible Dead Seas to accompany you, with a few enchantments for the purposes of maintaining communication." Rixis said off-handedly. Arane then heard a dull thud upon the chamber door, which creaked open. The sound of armored boots clicked across the floor.
"This one and her lackeys are to be sent outside the Southern Cleft. I will arrange for a place to leave them, there will be cargo awaiting them there."
"Very good, Warden. They are to be delivered unspoiled and uninjured, I take it?"
"Hmm." Rixis seemed to mull over the inquiry for a moment. "I suppose your men may have their way with them along the way, though be warned this one has threatened destruction upon any who would make the attempt."
"I'll be sure to take that into consideration, Warden." The voice said.
"Oh, and one of her companions will have an artifact with them - a crystalline sphere of some sort. Secure it from their person on the lower floor, I will examine it later." Rixis added, having evidently remembered the Scrying Orb at the last moment. The unseen soldier seemed to reply with some hand gesture, possibly a salute. Arane then felt the clasps of the table's latches come undone before she was bodily heaved up from its surface and carried off.
"Farewell, little elf." Rixis hissed distantly."Farewell, High Magister."
The trip to the Southern Cleft of the Vale was precisely as distinguished as the trip towards its certain: Not even remotely. Arane and her crew were carted through the Southern passage over the course of several hours, and deposited, still bound, gagged, and hooded, by the makeshift stables of a wooden watchtower.
The guards heaped them all in a pile on the ground adjacent to a second cart, from which a sickening, pulsating thrumm seemed to emanate. The Dead Sea Rixis had promised - though that was scarcely noteworthy in light of the fact that the watchers seemed content to simply abandon the group in the open, still thoroughly clapped in irons.
Truthfully, Arane could not blame them for wanting to be rid of her - she'd wasted no time in shattering the mind of the first ghoul to become too handsy with her. After that, they were mostly quiet, though she opted not to remove her shackles until now, flexing her fingers to free herself with invisible key, then her companions. Almost immediately, Haleth launched into a tirade of Elven curses, stomping and throwing her hands in the air, while Aralas, dutiful as ever, spent her time examining the cart nearby, unwilling to approach it any more than necessary just yet. There was absolutely no space for passengers or any additional cargo, as it carried a massive barrel, fit for a gargantuan wine-cellar and dwarfing even Haleth in height. The indidious, churning impulse thrumming from within could only be the Dead Sea Rixis had promised, though how he expected them to move the cart without undead beasts of burden or an entire labor train of ghouls was not apparent.
Resolving to investigate the stables, and hoping she would find a beast there which Rixis would not particularly mind her making use of, Arane trudged her way over toward the structure, leaving Haleth behind - though Aralas was quick to join her the moment she noticed Arane departing. "Milady, are you sure it is wise to accept Rixis's... Gift?" She asked.
Arane simply shrugged. She would use Rixis's gift, of course, but for now, she was more concerned with his demand.
Fortunately, she had just the person in mind, if she could somehow manage to wrest him free of Eagoth's clutches.