Pit of Eildem-Ald, Hattavori Desert.
The Immortal Scourge.
Sand and dust drifted by in lazy clouds, crashing and breaking against the worn teeth of an ancient caldera. Gahris Ghal could hear agony on the wind, drifing up in fetid bellows from far within the earth. The immortal had descended into a sacred place of defilement; a place that reeked of rotten flesh and blood. He had been called here by his patron, a being that drove dread into even the Black Stone Wielder. It was here that he knelt, in the middle of a festering wound carved into the earth, his knee resting on the edge of a yawning abyss; a place where malice permeated a sun-kissed wasteland.
From beneath him came a harsh utterance, the ground rumbling in time with each spoken word. Loose rocks rolled from above, dull thumps heralding their chaotic descent. These words carried with them a ponderous tone, each slow drag of harsh, atonal syllable conveying meanings that Gahris still had difficulty comprehending. They produced crude images in his mind; harsh outlines of black sweeping over a shining pillar, reaching out with elongated hands to tear away pieces of the swirling light. Crimson pouring from every new scrape and gash; leaking onto the landscape at their feet. He grinned at the prospect, suddenly understanding what his Lord had imparted.
"Your will be done."
His words mingled with the lazy whispering of the wind, kissed with the scraping of sand and then became nothing; consumed by the quiet. Moments passed as he remained low, straining his eyes to see beyond the churning veil of darkness that filled his vision. For a long moment, he stared, trying to bore through that layer of unknowing. As he stood, gathering his cloak, a great thrashing bid him to turn back. Massive drops of viscus black liquid splashed down all around him; sizzling and twisting in the sun before dissipating altogether.
It was a slender head, smooth and nearly featureless; great pieces of skull exposed between the deeply ashen stretches of half formed flesh. Teeth and muscle exposed, the creature worked its mouth; gnashing down over and over on nothing, pools of black ooze flooding from the holes present in its form, dribbling down to pool at the unrefined flesh hanging loosely from a finely crafted collar bone. A deep rumble emanated from the thing, as it rotated on the long arms of dripping umbrage; emitting a long, spittle choked hiss.
The dead God looked down with empty sockets, tendrils of darkness surging from the seething caldera of corruption beneath, casting down a withering, writhing shadow that tugged at The Black Stone Wielder's chest; turning him as it adjusting the pulses of the horrid relic to the growing aura of the incomplete monster. It bore its self into Gharis' mind, forcing him to his knees, flooding his thoughts with a shattering roar.
Gahris Ghal, you will never know my will. Only my command and the power I impart to you. Return to your keep and gather the armies cultivated in your absence...begin the Bloodstar Ritual...
During the instant of disconnection from his patron, Gahris watched the bizarre swooning of the Dead God's form before it was plunged, again, into the depths of darkness. He watched the surface pooling around the curve of the creature's head, a slow ripple spreading across the reflective surface. The thrumming in his chest slowed, as he stared on, to the constant dull pulse he had become accustomed to. Overhead, the sun beat down, charring the black ooze that had remained behind. Gahris drew a slow breath, turning away from the pit and lifted his hand; becoming ethereal, then disappearing after a brief moment.
The Wretched Hour; Same day.
Cruelthorn Keep, World’s Maw.
The Immortal Scourge, The Banshee of Wailing Sand Rock.
"It begins," thundered the unseen voice, "the Bloodstar Ritual begins!"
Gahris Ghal took slow strides from the emanation of his throne room, embracing the fetid air with a deep inhalation, met with a monstrous host. The midnight sky was aglow with a crimson sickness, thick with the raucous cries of gathering crows and unbridled shouts of twisted joy. The stars themselves had vacated their perch at the onslaught of beating wings; drowned by the approaching murder, leaving only dense clouds to shroud their domain from the sight below. Stones rattled beneath his feet with the force of the combined noise and the battering of distant war drums lent their strength to his approach. Though his assembly could not see him, yet, the Black Stone Wielder knew that each creature present had sensed his arrival.
"It has been two hundred years! Two hundred years since I have tread the world! Long have you awaited me. I come now, from beyond the veil of death, to offer you my power; my legacy. To guide you into the heart of the mortal empire, where you will reap blood and honor in my name!"
Cruelthorn Keep cast down a shadow broken by flames the color of blood; enveloping the snow stained peaks and narrow pass below in a shifting aura of malice. A great, essence-pregnant fire sputtered in the recess carved above his head; the source of the arcane light. Beneath it, tethered to the cracked and battered black stones of the keep, were several limp mortals, their blood defying convention as it sought to join the fire. Crows picked away at them, as they had in hours past, tearing away chunks with no resistance. The birds twitched at his approach, but did not abandon their meal; some merely turning to the immortal with curious eyes. A rhythmic chant erupted from below, an undulating, thunderous hymn from the throats of thousands; scattering the crows into the sky, where they began to circle.
Far beneath him, wreathed in the mist that poured from the open maw of Cruelthorn keep, Garhris Ghal's army stood in barbaric elation. His banner, a broken mask set against a backdrop of myriad crows, twisted and turned with the howling of his people. Some of the grotesqueries stared up at him, their eyes strained against the distance; separated as they were from him by the high rise of Cruelthorn's jagged cliff, straining as he had to see his God, so too did they strain to see their own. Excitement roiled through the blood starved ranks; their chant becoming a cry of joy that shook the very foundation of the keep. It was on a cliff, that the castle had been constructed, a tumor on the face of the once majestic Eldst mountain; a harsh thing, all spires and black stone connected by great obsidian bridges that spanned between nearby sections of the keep.
The immortal scourge stood on the balcony that extended from his throne room, a great semicircle lined with the ancient skulls of his conquered foes; accessible only from his seat of power. Resting his claws on the wretchedly wrought, barbed, railing, he looked beyond the battered trophies and down at the force that his subjects had cultivated for him; during his absence. They were immaculate in their purpose; creatures of various sizes and strengths, all tailored solely to consume and destroy. The Black Stone pulsed in his chest, a wave of vile energy rolling out from the high top of his keep. His subjects flew into a frenzy, lifting their viciously malformed limbs and voices to the sky.
"They will lament in their high towers! We will tear away at them with tooth and claw; rend their flesh and swallow their lamenting souls! The Drasilian curs have gathered their vaunted heroes; their only shield the whelps they've scrounged from the gravedirt of their home! Will they stand against you? They will stand, but, so, too, shall they be consumed by what they face! I have promised you glory and blood! By my will, you shall have it!""
A surge of noise burst forth from them; vehement denial and cries of bloodlust strangling the night, joined quickly by the frantic flapping of wings. Gahris Ghal smiled behind his mask, feeling the flesh of his mouth twist and contort into an unhinged grin; all teeth and hunger.
"Ankou," he said without turning to his general, "it has been some time since we have had the pleasure of conversing." He spoke in syllables colder than the wind, clacking the edges of his claws against stark, blackened steel. "You have heeded my summons with haste; appearing before your lord, eager to serve. This pleases me." With a flourish of his cloak, the Black Stone Wielder faced her; eyes alight with delight, errant trails of infernal energy drifting skyward with each subtle movement of his head. It would be clear to the lich that her patron was pleased; a rare occasion for Gahris. His voice deepened, a blackened tongue running over the jagged edge of veiled teeth, darting out for a moment, smoke rolling from his lips, “You will serve to spread my will to the mortal empire. From this, you will reap your unending glory.”
With a wave of his hand, while the echoes of his horde died away, an ethereal explosion blossomed overhead; pushing away bloated clouds and settled snow, kicking a chill dust into the wind. A great sphere emerged from the distortion, wreathed in the rolling arcane expulsion; the fortress of Illixion the Mad, looming with a low hum. It was a massive thing, bereft of harsh angles, with an ever shifting surface of steel that caught the crimson glow of Cruelthorn Keep and pulled it in; adopting the hue of freshly shed blood as it began to rotate. Gahris turned his eyes upward, closing his open hand, allowing himself a moment of satisfaction. His general would be allowed use of the artifact, to sow the seeds of war, should she see the need.
“Go, with the rising sun, to the city of Grayseal; and show them the despair. I have other tasks to attend.”
Shortly after Day's Break.
Lighthall Keep, Grayseal, Kingdom of Drasil.
Queen Tana, Assembled Heroes.
From overhead, great beams of light struck down on the Queen of Drasil; sitting in her throne, ensorceled by dark thoughts, pressing pristine knuckles against her lips. Her eyes spoke of sorrow, narrowed and reddened with mourning, her face, normally radiant, had gathered a pale luster that belied her woes. She was dressed in the wrappings of her station, a great, voluminous thing that weighed heavily on her back and made her steps into a slow glide. Tana allowed her head to hang low, as she picked idly at the hem of her royal garb; casting her glance from behind heavy lids, tracing where the light was striking. Beside her, Crown Prince Rynph Sielen shifted in the throne; looking as displeased as he always did when forced to sit in the massive chair. She paid little mind to him, her eyes trained solely on a particular patch of colors bathed in the yellow glow.
Where it touched seemed harshly illuminated, garish gold and red carpet catching the vibrancy and becoming brighter. It drove nails into her skull as she stared on; preferring the pain to the rest of the room, which was decorated by portraits of the Sielen family...one of which particularly pained her. So she continued to stare at the lance of light, bearing down to enrich the superfluous colors of House Sielen. Secretly, she thought of death. Death beyond what had befallen her husband; the death of their lineage, of their power, of their pride. Xade's assassination was just the beginning for Drasil, she felt, a dark portent looming over her head. With a start, she lifted her head, eyes widened with surprise. Several nobles echoed her surprise, albeit with murmurs and overt excitement rather than her muted gesture.
She could hear them coming, their steps echoing through the far halls. Straightening in her throne, she adjusted herself; masking the dour expression that had marred her face in the past hours with a subdued scowl more suited for a mourning Queen. Her noble airs returned, she became, again, aware of the dreary nature of the nearly empty throne room. The great dome had been stripped of the ancient tapestries telling the history of Drasil, leaving behind barren curves of marble. The windows above had been cleaned, stained with thick ash as they had been, allowing the light, to again, strike down in a sterile joy. Her husband's throne, empty beside her, drained of the splendor it once seemed to hold.
Beyond the throne, a few guards stood as still stone, near the far windows; their helms polished to perfection, their faces drawn and fearful in the shadowy recess. They averted their eyes from her as she stared, staring ahead to avoid having to meet her gaze. Tana allowed them peace, turning her head to face perfectly forward. Somewhere, outside, she heard a growing murmur. The nobles were conversing quietly, their droning mingled with the mixed tones floating down the hallway.
"A legend in the making," the Queen of Drasil muttered, as she adjusted the heavy crown atop her head, "a tale of struggles and strife...for all ages to remember." Her hazel eyes locked onto the timber portal of the room, watching as long shadows cut through the strong light of the sun; darkening smooth, white stones as they approached. The sound of their footfalls drowning out a muttered curse, as she stood to greet the march.
"Hail, heroes," she offered with an imperious calm, "I welcome you to Lighthall Keep, seat of House Sielen of Drasil. Now is not the time for questioning or idle conversation, so I will be brief." Returning to her gold and velvet throne, the Queen seated herself; staring out at each of the heroes in turn. She recognized a few faces, though some she could not recall, and among them she counted the righteous and the bloodthirsty; barons and bandits, golems and wizards, martyrs and murderers. Her grip tightened as she watched on, digits digging at the throne's golden arm. A pang of regret welled in her heart, though it was not shown on her face; the Queen did allow herself a brief frown, before continuing.
"I want you to kill Gahris Ghal."
She let it linger for a moment, ferocity drowning out her hesitation. Who better to kill the vile cur? Who better, in all of Molundias, to track down and kill an immortal monstrosity? Tana watched their faces, how some contorted with disbelief, some grinning in feral delight, some showing no emotion at all. It disturbed her to see how little some of them were daunted by the prospect, though she felt a tinge of envy as she watched the non-spectacle.
"I do not know how you will find him, nor how you will put him to the blade. However, those of you that survive will recieve whatever reward you wish from the Crown." She emphasized her words with an erratic moving of her hands, her voice quiet and tinged with sorrow. Her head tilted forward to accent her words, eyes focused on the ground for a moment before correcting herself.
"I extend this promise to you, heroes of the realm, so that I may have the revenge I seek. What he has taken is not easily replaced, but his death will ease the pain of Mondulias. I, Queen Tana Sielen, beseech this from you. Turn and leave now if my offer does not interest you, flee and prepare for the dark days that are to follow. If your courage fails you now, I do not need you...Drasil does not need you."
She stood from the throne, staring on with imperious disregard for them; making herself the Queen she had become used to being, moving to stand before the assemblage.
There was an abrupt, jarring clanking, the sound of a fully clad kings-guard falling to the smooth marble floor. It lingered in the ears of all those in the court; silently echoed by the stunned quiet. In the wake of the silence stirred a cold wind, condensing above the lifeless body and forming into a white mist. It formed an ear-splitting shriek, deafening the living and calling the undead into action. Stain glass poured down like razor-sharp, chromatic rain. The vapor coalesced into the spirit of the lich, soaring across the room like a wraith. Lords and ladies of Drasil fled in terror, while the Queen leapt to her feet and attempted to gain order.
Her words were drowned out by the banshee’s scream. “Hail heroes,” she screeched, mocking Queen Tana’s words. “I, too, have a promise. I promise you agony and pain; I promise you every step riddled with torment. Come for Gahris Ghal and I promise you death. Try to kill him, mortal fools, and fall right into our hands.” Ankou Badbh swept low, laughing and gliding through a few of the heroes, before stopping in front of the queen. “Your highness,” she sang, adopting a youthful elven smile. “Gahris Ghal…” Her voice grew again into an evil wailing, incorporeal scream. “Seeks your council.” She hurled herself into the queen’s chest, possessing her body. Still, the shrieking persisted. “Kings-guard.” The banshee spoke in an eerie echo of Tana’s voice, a forced high-pitched screaming that sounded like the Queen had eaten every shard of colored broken glass. “Kill them all.”
A knight removed one of his helms, revealing glossy, bluish eyes and an expressionless face; rigor mortis had long since set in, and his visage hung like a mask on rancid meat, clinging to his skull by maggot-infested skin. Many of them followed suit, gurgling a unnatural battle cry and rushing into the fray. Most of them wielded long swords and tower shields, but several used maces, flails and pole arms. They numbered twenty in all, including the body that Ankou herself had possessed—which had risen to its feet once more upon hearing her supernatural cry.
Upon seeing this, the prince recovered from his cowering in time to run away from the undead soldiers and hide behind a towering pillar. The remaining spectators were not nearly as lucky. Some fled, but others felt the cold and brutal sting of steel. Cries for help and clashing metal rang from the vaulted ceiling. Those who died were resurrected by Ankou, who still held the queen prison within her own mortal shell.
“Kill them all, kill them all, KILL THEM ALL.” She screamed, but by now all the remained of sound was white noise. As they clashed, she faded from view, but not before using Queen Tana’s face to offer the heroes a wry smirk.
The Prince shrank into a small ball, two of the creatures approaching him from the back. The boy's face was drained of color, his eyes wide with panic as he clamored to retrieve the blade his father had given him; the heavy clanking of armor closing in. Gahris Ghal watched, laughing from far, far away in his keep, ignoring the decompression of ethereal energies that briefly disrupted his inky scrying portal. The mystical convection rippled and distorted with the force of it, The Black Stone Wielder tilting his head with an absent kind of annoyance. Though his view of the heroes and the Prince were dimmed, he found that the interruption was a welcome one. Queen Tana standing before him, wisps of arcane energy drifting from her slender shoulders. Her eyes were tainted with Ankou's wrath, sorrowful and full of disgust.
"Abandon the Queen. I will have words with her."
Black portion penned by Mammon.