This page contains excerpts from the the Vaultbound Campaign and the Keybound Chronicle, two narratives taking place in the world of Aeldos. Currently much of it may not make sense as it was written for participants in an ongoing game and lacks context. My intent is to add, clarify, and build this out into a full narrative account.
Strafer checked his chains. One chain remained solid, but the chain on his right hand had been worn ragged by the dozens, perhaps hundreds of prisoners that it had been used to contain. The time had arrived. He spared a brief moment to pray to Oto, god of warriors, that Haevian would honour the deal. Strafer was a good judge of character but the years between Strafer’s last encounter with the legionary and his current state indicated a man who had undergone much, and it was Strafer’s experience that people do indeed change. Sometimes too much.
The gentleman bandit put those thoughts aside and focused, waiting for the lone guard who patrolled the cells to pass by his area.
“Osser” Strafer called, using the, generally pejorative term for an Ossandrian.
The guard turned to look at him, his eyes narrow but his demeanour bored and clearly well weathered by insults.
“I need to piss.”Strafer chirped.
The guard laughed.
“That’s what the hays for.”
“I thought it was for your wife.”
The guard grinned.
“I see what you’re doing here.” the guard said.
“And yet you’re still going to fall for it.”
The guard laughed.
“You must think me an idiot.”
“Well I don’t think you’re a genius.”
The guards grin dimmed slightly.
“You’re clever but I’m not coming in there.”
Strafer smiled his winning smile for a moment and then began to hum, a strange hum.
The guards face flushed red at the sound. An unconscious growl rose from him and his fists clenched and unclenched as he reached for the key on his belt and opened the cell door.
Strafer crouched over the unconscious guard, a profusion of cursing emanating from his crouched form. None of the keys fit his manacles. His right hand was free, though tethered by several feet of chain, but the other chain was well mortared and unlikely to come loose in the next few minutes. The lock was a complex thing that would take much longer than he had to pick with the tools available. He could not afford to delay. Once the guard awoke his escape would be ended. Strafer searched the chain for any weak point, any flaw. His eyes drifted to the only weak point he could see. He cursed and searched the guard again. When the second search turned up no keys Strafer steeled himself, pulling off the guards scabbard. The bandit looped the scabbard around his already entrapped arm and unsheathed the guards sword,lifting it high above his head. He picked the exact point of weakness, bringing the blade down with all his strength.
“How much longer are we going to keep at this Vaius?” First Spear Quintus Iunius leaned against his shovel, shielding his eyes from the beating sun. Vaius grinned at Iunius, shaking his head.
“Not what you imagined when joining the legion, eh Quintus?”
Quintus chuckled. “Not exactly sir. We’ve been at this for three months with nothing to show. Surely this is a job for slaves, not soldiers.”
“Oh I’m not sure the Emperor makes that distinction Quintus.” Vaius smiled. The Praefect motioned to another legionary to take his shovel and headed away from the dig site. It was the 48th such site. Kolok selected a direction at random and began walking into the ruins. Quintus snapped his fingers and two legionaries accompanied them as Vaius wandered. The Praefect ran one hand along the wall of the ruin, fingers finding the grooves of seams untouched for centuries.
Quintus chimed from a step behind “Sir, I don’t see the point of all this. It’s clearly empty.”
“Is it?” Vaius was tired of the place but still astonished by it. Millenia of silence dominated the sound of the legionaries working to uncover this place. For all the absence, the emptyness of the ruin, there was also a ghost that lingered here. Some presence that demanded Kolok’s attention.
“Don’t you feel that Quintus. There’s something here. We’ve only scratched a small portion of the surface. We must continue.”
“Sir…” Quintus hesitated.
“What about your father Sir? We can’t continue to ignore his orders.”
Vaius stopped, turning to his first spear. His eyes narrowed and he loomed above the man. Quintus shrunk into the shadow of the Praefects muscular form.
“What orders Quintus?”
Quintus remained silent, locking his eyes on Kolok’s sandals. He was no coward but the Praefect sometimes made him feel like one.
“Precisely. Now tell the men to;” Kolok heard the sound far to late to react, the groan of stone and orick, a snap and suddenly he and Quintus were falling. He felt his head bounce off rock and he tumbled, rolling into darkness, his senses briefly dashed from his head. When he awoke he peered up. He was several dozen feet below the surface, a single beam of daylight illuminating the stagnant ruin. To his left were the corpses of Quintus and the one of the guards, crushed beneath the fallen ruins. His own leg was broken and his hair and face wet with blood. For a moment he could see only darkness and death, but his eyes adjusted, and when they did, when the shadows took readable shape, he peered at the ground below, tracing the form of a great circular door. He pushed dust and dirt away, revealing first age symbols that washed all thought of his dead friend from his mind.
But he heard the voice. Not in the hot air of the summer night, but in his skull. His own voice distorted.
“How long?” the voice asked.
“Soon. A month at most.” Kolok said.
The Praetor felt his heart stop, his lungs seize, his breath chill as the face of the creature emerged from the shadows.
“Too long.” the creatures voice echoed inside Koloks head.
“There have been complications. Materials were lost, but I’ll have it sorted shortly.” Kolok said.
“He knows.” The voice said, and Kolok watched its body emerging from the shadows, walking to the balcony to stare out at the moon.
“He won’t be able to get a Legion here in time.” Kolok said, rising from the bed. The creature turned to look at him and Kolok felt far more naked than he ever had.
“They’re already coming.” the creature said.
Kolok’s mind raced but he pulled on his demeanour with the same ease as the robe that he kept by the bed.
“How close?” Kolok asked.
The creatures eyes seemed to stare into the distance, its features momentarily distorting like melting glass.
“The third and sixth legions departed from Aretia two days ago. The fifth legion will depart from Meshana in the week.” it said.
Kolok struggled to maintain his calm. The mere presence of the thing, which he had once dubbed the Prince, made his spine itch and his skin crawl. He’d seen others reduced to grovelling and begging at its whim. Fortune had blessed him with a sterner constitution.
“That gives us several weeks. There is more than just marching for them to do. They’ll need to gather the Auxiliaere and Legate Vitarius is soft; he’ll want his troops in ideal condition for any conflict. It may be close but it should not interfere.” Kolok said with slightly more confidence than he felt.
“Should?” The Prince cocked its head, its eyes narrowing.
“Even if they arrive beforehand they won’t act immediately. To pit legion against legion is no small thing…” Kolok said.
“How civilized… And the Ossator?”
Kolok fought his instinct to look away from the creature, instead locking his eyes on its mouth, the bizarre curvature and glistening teeth, the alien musculature and the seam that ran down its face. The effort to sustain visual contact made the vein in his forehead throb.
“She… she is not an issue. She still doesn’t know… about the…about the…” Kolok stuttered and could feel a wetness on his cheek. He reached up and drew his hand across, pulling it away to reveal a livid red smear in the moonlight. He appeared to be crying blood. The Prince leaned in close and Kolok could taste blood in his mouth.
“Cavete Kolok. There are no sins so dangerous to those in power as pride and overconfidence.” The demonic face lingered for a moment before dissipating like smoke into the air. Kolok felt his body relax slightly, as if released from a giants grip. His hands shook and he rushed to the lavatory to vomit.
“Bring me your victors. I wish to reward them”.
Kolok watched as the ephemeral form that framed the Tyrant’s empty eyes faded to nothing.
Kolok dutifully called one of his bodyguards and directed him to gather the Arena’s grand champions who now stood in the courtyard. The guardsman rushed from the room returning a few minutes later with the arena champions in tow. First to enter was Tai Yua, the Mujin mistwalker and bladeswoman. She bowed before the Praetor and folded her hands, moving to the side as the next victor entered. The surviving Tollam, Illmand, ducked the door frame to enter the room, his enormous shape clad in the same armour he wore in the arena, flecks of blood and all and his face obscured by the great steel mask. Next entered the emperor’s gladiators, the twins clad in their modified imperial guardsmen armour. Finally Kulah entered, bare chested and feral eyed. The Luxi shifter sniffed at the air, his muscles tightening and a frown falling across his face.
Praetor Kolok sat back, almost falling into his chairs, watching the warriors before him. His eyes settled on Kulah who was scanning the room, as if aware of the Tyrants presence.
“Each of you has proven your mettle in the arena. Your rewards have been great. Wealth and fame of course, but it seems a greater reward awaits.”
Mixed looks of confusion, avarice, and suspicion formed on the faces of the unmasked warriors. A few settled their hands on the pommels of their weapons.
A chilling dim fell on the room as the Tyrant took form. Illmand grunted, first to draw his cleavers at the thing that rose from shadow and mist, and the others quickly followed. The Tyrant stood, taller than the Tollam, it’s impossible alien form distorting the air itself. Skin like corded steel rippled as motes of shadow floated from its empty black face. Two horns curled from its head, and its long drifted lazily behind it. Clasped between its two clawed hands was the crowned staff. Illmand shouted and rushed the creature, heedless of its calm demeanour and the Praetor’s grim grin. The blow passed through the Tyrant as if through cloth. As quickly as the blade passed the body reformed. The Tyrant reached out with one hand, grasping the might Tollam by the shoulder and Illmand howled in agony as he dropped to one knee. The twins sprang forward at the sound, their folding spears snapping out as they rushed the Tyrant. With an effortless motion the creature knocked them aside with its great staff, the force of the blow leaving them stunned against a wall. Illmand’s howl turned to a scream, a bitter, agonized bleating as the Tyrant leaned down on him, fingers seeming to pass through his great plate mail unimpeded.
The Praetor looked on, a cold grimace spreading to his face. He had seen this before and though he had hoped not to see it again, he knew the price for his cooperation was to stay silent in this or risk becoming like the poor fools before him. He was however, surprised by what happened next.
Kulah growled. Not a human growl, but something from a beast. A chilling sound that accompanied a chilling sight as the luxi warriors skin crawled and bent around his shifting skeleton. In seconds Kulah was no longer a human. His neck and limbs lengthened, and grew with powerful muscles as his face distorted to that of some horrific canine. His glowing white eyes fixed on the Tyrant, Kulah unsheathed vicious avian talons and leapt at the creature, shredding its form into smoke and dust. Illmand’s cries dulled as the Praetor watched on in amazement. Kulah snapped and growled at the air, his eyes darting at the rooms long shadows. A long moment passed and the Praetor looked on, frozen in his seat as the shifter advanced on him, his thick neck hair bristling and his enormous canines bared.
And then it reappeared. The Tyrant grasped Kulah by the back of the neck with one hand, like a disobedient whelp, and with the other it resumed its grasp on Illmand. The room swelled with the sound of terrible pain and swirling shadows, Illmands voice accompanied by Kulahs now inhuman howl.
Kolok closed his eyes until the screaming stopped.
When he arrived the Tyrant was waiting for him. He paused, momentarily startled by its physical presence, but only for a moment. Kolok moved to the locking mechanism, touching the strange sigil etched in the floor and causing a small tapered pillar to rise in the centre of the door. The sides of the pillar were wrought with a spiral pattern, intended to feed the blood down to the door. Kolok began to uncork the skin and yelped when the Tyrant grasped his wrist. He looked to the things face; its hollow eyes, its curled horns, its mouth and nose a single recessed slit shaped like an inverted T. When it spoke the folds of flesh moved around this orifice revealing it to be its mouth.
“What do you mean not yet? I’ve done my part. We have the blood.”
“Not. All. Of. It.” each word was like a drum and Kolok could feel his heart seize.
“Wait. We made a deal.” The Praetor struggled against the creatures grasp and fell backwards as it let go. The Tyrant stepped forward, looming over him. The Praetor cried out for his guards but they stood stock still, watching like statues. The Tyrant leaned down, its lips uncurling as it began to make a sound that could only distantly be called a laugh. It stepped back from the Praetor and straightened up.
Kolok stared at the creature in confusion
Kolok only consciously understood what it had said after the creature had picked Celia up by the throat and impaled her on the pillar. It was a motion so quick and efficient that she did not have time to scream. Celia kicked and gasped, blood bubbling from her as the Tyrant snatched the blood-skin from Kolok’s hand and uncorked it on top of the dying girl. The sound of ancient machinery coming to life filled the pit as the great door beneath them began to open. Kolok rushed to his daughter, his voice both a scream and a whimper as he vainly tried to extract her from the pillar. The light in her green eyes faded to grey as he heard the Tyrant emit a chuckling hum and head down the stairs now revealed by the open vault door. Kolok closed his daughters eyes and kissed her, tears streaming down his face, his fists clenching and unclenching. He howled as he stood and drew his gladius, chasing the Tyrant down the stairs.
At the bottom he found himself in a corridor lit by blue lights. Every dozen meters a great door was situated but the Tyrant strode down the corridor and each barrier fell at the wave of his hand. Kolok rushed the creature his steel biting deep into its back. The Tyrant continued, seemingly unaware of the attack. Each wound the Praetor inflicted simply stitched itself together before the next one would be opened. Kolok slashed again and again, the Tyrant paying him no heed as it opened the last door. Kolok gained a distant and sudden awareness of a persistent and growing drone which became a sudden rush of sound and light, filling the vault as the final door opened. Kolok was thrown to his knees, deaf and blind. When sight and sound returned he looked on as the Tyrant approached a pedestal atop which sat a fist sized shard of crystal, bright as the sun and humming in a tone that made his heart ache and his bones freeze. The Praetor struggled to get up but his whole body was numbed by whatever force was emanating from the podium. Even the Tyrant seemed to struggle to approach it. Seconds elongated, time froze, and suddenly the Tyrant’s finger touched the shard and all was dark in the vault.
As he walked towards the rising Tyrant he consoled himself with the grim thought that at least he was not likely to die old and in bed.
The old man with the young face reached out with hidden senses to feel the Shifter, the Spy, the Soldier, and the Smith. They were outside the walls, heading south. Anekitos maintained his grip on the Cambion, the corrupted Tollam and Luxi that had tried to stop the group, just in case they had been sent on purpose. He doubted the Tyrant knew, but it was unwise to underestimate gods, even the broken ones. He traced the shapes in his mind, the threads that governed mass and force, pulling the strugging monstrosities towards the heart of Aeldos. He could not kill them; indeed he was not certain they could die, but he poured as much force as was necessary into delaying them, all the while continuing his own journey, towards arena, and the wall between Old Kerv and new. The Cythralls of the corrupted legion, the Tyrant’s toys, lunged towards them, but it was simple to cast them aside. Simple but tiring. Every mote the Tyrant cast in his direction diminished the old Shaper, and keeping the Cambions chained even more so. He cursed his frailty but tried to focus.
A small part of his mind took some comfort in knowing that he’d done what he could. The die was cast. Anekitos had taken the auspices, and the great tome had spoken. Now he had entrusted everything to the five.
The old Shaper reached the wall between old Kerv and New and stopped. He looked up towards the vast tower of light and heat that lunged up from the bones of Kerv and knew then that his end was near. He cleared his mind, releasing his shapings, and felt his will refreshed. He took a moment, closing his eyes and steadying his breathing. The heat near the wall was unbearable but he offered himself some comfort by stilling the area around him. He placed his his palms together and started a new shaping, calling up all the knowledge of his thousand years of life. He’d had more than any could ask for, and now he would do what should be done with it.
Praetor Kolok dashed down the burning side streets of Kerv Oss, his right arm dangling limply and blood coursing from a gash on his brow. His skin burned, as if he’d sat in the sun for a week, but he swallowed the pain and continued on. His mind retraced the last few minutes as he continued towards his only hope of escape…
The blast and the light caused by the Tyrant touching the crystal had thrown him a dozen meters, back to the base of the stairwell that led to the vault. He had struggled up, past the body of his daughter, only to be set upon by the Decia brothers in their new and twisted forms. He should have died there. Indeed he had been trapped. In that moment, with their spears at his throat, he had even embraced his fate, his guilt. He had taken Celia’s cooling hand and readied himself for the end.
But the world seemed to have had other plans.
In the space of a heartbeat the area around the vault had quaked, and then erupted into chaos. The old orick walls surrounding the vault entrance, impervious to most everything, glowed white and then vanished in an incinerating blast, and then the lesser walls of the old city seemed to do the same. The twisted gladiators had been cast from their feet by some invisible force, as if they were childrens dolls, their bodies rising into the sky like kites, thrown into crosswinds that sent them careening into the distance. Kolok found himself pulled into the air, and he would have shared the DEcia’s fate, had it not been for his daughter. He gripped her dead hand, her impaled body an anchor, for the few moments needed before the world seemed to right itself. When he fell back to earth, dazed and unsteady, he saw the source of the power. The wall between Old Kerv and New was gone, and a path, directly from the Arena to the Vault had been carved, and struggling along it was an old man, crooked and grey looking, with milky eyes and one blackened hand. A silver nimbus seemed to frame the old man and Kolok stood and crossed the charred ground towards the hunched figure.
“Vaius Kolok” the old man’s voice was hoarse and startling and Kolok could think of no response. His mind jostled for an identity for the man; he had saved him… was he a god? The Voice perhaps? Was it the…
“Emperor?” Kolok mumbled
The old man scoffed as he stopped before Kolok “No. I am not your emperor. And if I were I would think you should be more fearful.” The old man said
“Then… who are you?”
“Just another casualty to your foolish ambition. One who won’t be a pawn for a broken god.”
“I did not know.” Kolok said
“Of course you did. You just didn’t believe.” The old man said, “And because you did not believe, many will suffer in ways they have not since the first age.”
“It wasn’t part of the deal. She wasn’t…” Kolok mumbled, feeling stupid as soon as he said it. He could only think of Celia.
The Old Man looked past him, towards Celia’s corpse and a sadness seemed to rise in the milky white eyes. Kolok futilely stepped in front of the man, as if to block sight of his shame.
“Violence to empower him, Loyalty to revive him, and Hearts-blood to break the seal.” Said the old man, as if reciting some recipe. Kolok felt his heart chill. He had nothing he could say. The Old Man started towards the now exposed entrance to the vault and Kolok clenched his fists in rage and guilt and indignity at the Old Man’s impertinence and disregard.
“I did this! I brought all this! And you’re just going to ignore me. Just walk by. If I’m so loathsome, why did you save me? Just end it! “ Kolok screamed after the old man.
The old man stopped and turned, his milky white eyes seeming to burn straight through Vaius Kolok.
“I didn’t save you Kolok. That was the work of Celia and the Ayr. I’ll not cross their wills and put you out of your misery either. I hope the Ayr grant you a long life that you might linger and remember all of this, and see the name Kolok turn to ash and bile in the mouths of men.”
And with that the Old man turned back, and walked towards the pillar and the rising form of the Tyrant.
Kelda had been thrown into a slave cage with other children, most of them crying. She didn’t recognize any of them. They looked at her with terror and she could feel the same black knot rising in her own chest. Looking around she could see the cage was one of many; large wood and steel cages, most filled with adults. The adults seemed so much like large children then; some wore rich clothing while others rags, but they howled and cried like children. Their faces were red and wet with sweat and tears, their voices cracking in terror. A dozen of these large cages filled the area, all packed with people. Kelda picked a spot in the wooden cage, an empty piece of wall, and sat against it, drawing her knees to her chest. When the ground quaked and the sky was broken by shadow then lit with fire the children keened and cried, sputtered and howled but Kelda kept silent. When the soldiers began dragging men and women from the other cages she closed her eyes and sat silent. And when all the adults had been taken and the soldiers came for the children she sat silent.
Dark figures, human in shape only, moved around the cage door their armour so much like the Ossandrian soldiers she had seen guarding the city, but also so different. It was as if they had been dipped in ink and twisted dry. Where their skin was exposed she could see web-like veins of black and their faces were all wrong, all not quite human. The dark soldiers opened the door and several children began to cry. Kelda pressed herself against the wall as the thing reached out for her. When it touched her she fought, with all her might, punching and kicking. The soldier gripped her tight by the hair and dragged her into the street in front of the cage. Kelda screamed with pain but kept fighting. She could see the terror in the eyes of the other children, but she knew the paralysing terror of being taken, and this time she wouldn’t go without a fight. The dark soldier grunted and struggled to maintain his grip on the Kelda but the chunk of hair ripped and she scrambled to her feet and fled down a nearby alleyway. The soldier dashed after her, leaving the other guard to watch the children.
Kelda fled blindly down the alley, aware of the sound of armoured footfalls behind her. She spared a glance over her shoulder and could see the ink soldiers eyes glowing a dull white in the darkness of the alley. Kelda ran harder, ran until all she could hear was her own breath and the pounding of her heart in her ears. She picked corners randomly and soon she was truly lost, but she also seemed to have lost her pursuer. She slowed her pace and crept towards what looked to be an exit to a main street. At the mouth of the ally she peered out and saw that she was right near the main square, the fountain of Kerv Oss rising ahead and flowing a lurid red. The fountain was surrounded by hundreds of people, who were themselves surrounded by dozens of the dark soldiers. Kelda watched as the soldiers forced people to the water where they each drank the bloody water. As they drank they seemed to change like the soldiers, their skin pulsing with black veins. Kelda watched as one man, a well dressed Ossandrian, fought back punching one of the soldiers, but those who had drank simply swarmed him, grabbing his arms and dragging him to the fountain. The swarm pushed his head under the water and he kicked and sputtered. Kelda felt a scream rise in her, an involuntary terror for the man and herself and her instincts kicked in. She turned to dash back down the alleyway, but found herself caught in the grasp of the same dark soldier who had attacked her in the cell. He still clutched her blonde hair in his fist as he slammed the back of his hand against her temple, knocking her to the floor. Kelda curled up as the soldier leaned down to grab her but before his hand could touch her again he was gone, ripped from his feet and into the air with such speed that Kelda almost thought it had been a dream. Kelda pushed herself into the wall and stared into the eaves above the alleyway where a grey shadow emerged. The Bellatori’s black eyes betrayed no emotion as it climbed down the wall. It’s hands were covered in blood and something black and Kelda felt a combination of horror and relief.
Kelda’s Bellator scooped her up without effort and leapt back up the side of the alley. They emerged on a roof overlooking the square and Kelda could see the body of the dark soldier lying in two pieces. The Bellator spared a glance towards the square but Kelda just buried her face in its chest and within moments they were racing across the roofs of Kerv Oss, towards the nearest wall enclosing burning city of Kerv Oss.
Kolok continued along, exhausted and famished. He remembered eating eating only a few days ago, but his stomach differed on the assessment. It seemed like an age… his stomach growled and he paused, lodging himself between two thick roots. He scooped a handful of cool water to his mouth, hoping to silence his pangs and as he did he looked at his reflection in the water. He barely recognized himself. His face was pale and dirty, his eyes red. Thick welts had formed on his arms and hands; marks from scrambling in the dirt and destruction of Kerv Oss. He shook off useless, vain thoughts and drew the water up. As he brought the water to his mouth his view shifted; he saw its reflection in the moonlight for only a second before it had scooped him up with a cruel bark.
Kolok did not scream as the beast dragged him up the embankment, its claws buried deep in his shoulder. The power in its arms was immense and Kolok was too tired to offer any meaningful resistance. He lay on the ground as the creature stopped dragging him and settled crouched above him. It was a horror, but perhaps the least of the ones he had experienced of late. Its fur was black and greasy and its eyes hollow black spheres. The only emotions Kolok could see in it were animal emotions. It was a beast doing the bidding of its master. As much as he had fancied himself something more this creature was just his replacement. A new tool for the Tyrant to use.
The beast leaned in low, its thick breath rancid with blood and rage. He turned away as the creature leaned, turned away from the line of spittle that dripped from its jaws and spattered on his cheek. He could feel the end nearing and his empty stomach and broken heart welcomed it once more.
The creatures pained howl pulled him from his stupor and he scrambled back from the gout of blood pouring from the creatures chest as a bloody spear tip emerged from its chest. A long grey hand dug deep into the creatures shoulder from behind. Kolok moved away, sparing a glance to the strange creature that had skewered his pursuer; a grey thing, part bird and part reptile, its face with eyes as black as the Luxis. With natural armour plates, a lipless mouth, and an array of short horns on its crown. Kolok began to run towards the woods but was shocked to notice a small girl, no more than 10, hiding behind a tree. Her eyes were wide in terror, but locked on the struggle between the two monsters. Instinct drove Kolok to rush to her and he tried to scoop her up but she kicked at him and dug her fingers into the bark of the tree she was using as cover. He stood confused and looked back towards the struggle. The grey thing and the Luxi were slashing each other with ripping claws and Kolok’s opportunity to escape was rapidly diminishing. He leaned down and grabbed the girls shoulder and she pushed him off. Suddenly he realized the girl wasn’t watching out of terror, it was concern. In some capacity the grey skinned creature was… hers.
Kolok considered his options; he refused to compound his fate by abandoning the girl and that seemed to leave only two options; wait and watch and be the victim of one of these creatures or act. He certainly wasn’t going to fight alongside the corrupted, but maybe this girl and her guardian could help.
He cursed under his breath and crouched low, grasping a heavy rock that fit his hand. With a roar he lunged into the fray
Perhaps it had been years; In the space between worlds she could survive without food, water, and sleep; she did not exist here as a body but as something else. It was no comfort though. She had always been warned of the things that lurk in the rift. Normally she spent mere moments in the void but the Lordly Ayr had touched her before she could escape and the simple touch had been enough to cast her far off her stride. She had been deposited deep in the rift, lost in way she had not been since childhood.
She clutched the pommel of her sword tightly and focused. She peered into the mist for landmarks, something to guide her. Normally the real world cast shadows here, beacons to follow, but wherever she had been cast it had been far away from any such luxury.
Tai drove forward, one step at a time. She started to count out the steps but abandoned the endeavour when the amounts grew so large as to dull hope. After that she began focusing on her breathing and her heartbeat. Thoughts to tie her to her body and her self. After a time even those sounds grew too depressing; a reminder of hunger and tiredness and the warmth of the real world. She struggled to maintain her focus, as her mother had long taught her, but she had never spent so long in the mist. It had a dulling effect… a maddening effect.
Her thoughts began to slip into the mist; the things that lurked there. She had been in the void so long but had seen none of the threats she knew inhabited this place. It was distressing to think that she had been cast so far out that even the monsters did not tread here.
It was while contemplating this thought that she saw it; a great shadowy spire reaching up in the mist. That she didn’t recognize it might have concerned her had she not been overjoyed by its mere existence and the implications thereof.
Tai Yua emerged from the void into a new sort of darkness. A heavy rain and a pressing night. She took her first breath of Aeldan air and croaked with joy as the rainwater touched her lips and tongue. She looked around and saw that she was standing on a road, a wide and well trodden path that cut through a thick and shadowy forest. She peered down the road and out through the rain, struggling to make out the tower she had seen in the void. She felt weak and weary and turned in either direction to scan the straight road and it was only after a few minutes, when the rain had softened slightly, that she could see it; the source of the shadow in the void. A great mountain looming in the east, with a small silver jewel set n its facing slope. It would be days, perhaps weeks away, but it was there and Tai Yua began walking on real dirt, through real rain, and towards the city of Selene.
Elu was in his twenty-fifth year, and it seemed to him he’d spent more than half those years staring out over the the western reaches of Ossandria. He did not identify strongly with the Empire; he was a settler, born of Ossandor but son to the rugged few that sought freedom from the Imperator. His parents and two dozen others had found some semblance of that freedom in the crumbled ruins in the mid-hills of the mountains. Here, amidst peaks, plateaus, and valleys they’d carved out their own domain. A dozen towers guarded their small village, each manned by another cold, bored, young man.
Not that it was always boring. Every now and again some savage beasty or bandit would press their luck; he’d seen his fair share of Grot and Grommen creep along the edge of the cliff, intent on an easy meal. Unfortunately for them Elu had spent his life training with his bow and dagger and, save a few scars, he’d ended each contest the victor. He sifted through his memories for entertainment but found them well worn, all excitement drained from them.
Elu reached the top of the tower and sat on his stool, leaning his bow against the rough wood wall. He pulled his hands up and stared out into the darkness, yawning and shaking his head.
He heard it first. Rocks and metal; the sound of climbing gear. He jerked to attention and peered down at the ledge of the cliff. For a moment he could only hear them, not see them, but then black hands silhouetted against the grey rock and those hands hauling up a human body. Elu stood, his seasoned hands silently lifting the bow and drawing an arrow. The figure stood in the darkness, no doubt surveying the area. Elu thought it peculiar that the man did not light a lantern, but perhaps he was a scout like him, better in the dark than the light. Not that it would help Elu thought; the tower was well hidden, built to blend in with the ridge and the few trees perched atop it. Elu almost felt bad as he knocked the arrow.
Then his heart froze. He could still hear the sound; the shuffling, stilted sound of climbers.
Dozens of hands, hundreds, began to appear on the ridge, each one pulling up another body. It was a legion of figures, all moving in darkness.
Elu felt his breath catch and eased the tension off of his bow. There were more on the ledge than in his entire village. He had to signal them, to blow the warning, the call to flight, and hope that his family was faster than these interlopers. Elu pulled the horn from his belt and crouched, taking a deep breath. But the breath was stolen by an impossible sight… new figures appearing over the ridge; grommen and grots, gultor and atrox… all manner of beast hauling themselves up the cliff alongside the humans. Elu felt his knees weaken and fell back and suddenly he could see a figure drifting in the sky, an impossible, horned silhouette, a silent doom hovering in the chill night sky.
Rishi thought about the travellers she had met earlier. She thought of their interest, their concern; indeed their curiosity. Rishi wondered if she had broken the second oath… at best she’d pushed the boundaries of ‘silence’ by writing with them, but Cowla, leader of her claque had said nothing and she was content not to bring the issue up. The exclusion of her kind from society was not entirely chosen, but she could see it was not entirely self-imposed either.
The sudden dull thud of rocks collapsing nearby caused her and her brethren to start. They stood and peered into the mist. The silence of the the ruin was broken by bestial grunting and chirping.
Rishi’s nose curled at a sudden foul odor, a smell like curdled milk and rotted meat.
Cowla stood, setting his bread down, and pulled back his cloak to arm himself. Rishi stared as Cowla drew the thin black serpents fangs and felt a shiver run up her spine. Cowla motioned for the other Takers to step back as he turned one blade to a downward grip and walked towards the origin of the sound.
Silence and the fog held Rishi’s breath.
Abruptly the mist swirled and coiled as dozens of shadows burst into form.
Those takers who had steel drew it, but combat was not an art widely practised by their kind. Rishi spotted a pile of stones, once the foundation of the settlement and scooped several up. She watched the advancing creatures; they looked to her like some sort of Grot but.. Not quite. Grots were dumb, foul, beasts, no threat to most. These creatures were something else; hunched and foul but decorated in bones and ochre, and bearing sharpened sticks for spears and thick knobbed branches as clubs. A few wore the bloody skins of woodland creatures as crude covering. More frightening, they seemed to coordinate as they surrounded Cowla and the others rushing them simultaneously, screeching and leaping upon the Takers.
Rishi had seen death; had seen the very moment of transition. Echos shared all and she’d even shared the experience of dying at the hands of beasts… but this was something else. The Grots weren’t trying to kill, not quickly anyhow. They cast their crude spears into the ankles and thighs of the defenders and then descended on them, biting at their backs and arms, bleeding them and rendering them prone but not quite taking the killing blow. As one Taker fell a pair of Grots leapt to his shoulders and began clubbing him around the face and neck. Cowla lopped the head off one, and another, and skewered two more, but they were a seemingly endless horde.
Rishi found her hands numb, like they had been thrust in ice cold water; she clumsily hurled stones, struggling to keep her wits at the sight. One of her stones struck a Grot in the head and it turned, blood flowing from the wound. She cast another stone which it dodged as it advanced towards her. The cast stone clattered off some rocks, drawing the attention of other Grots.
Rishi turned and fled into the darkness of the forest. She ran hard, driven by a sudden terror, an image of what the Grots might do to the disabled. Rishi’s eyes watered, her heart pounded. She could feel them hounding her as she careened madly into the Rothult. Rishi knew death, but she had never known such fear of it.
A burning pain shot up her leg and she tumbled forward. Looking down she could see the crude spear that had pierced her ankle and ended her flight. She cried out in pain, breaking her oath. The grot that speared her leapt onto her legs and she felt its needle teeth pierce her calf. She kicked it off and saw a second one, and then a third and then a dozen all loping towards her; cold black eyes and sharp teeth were all she saw before she closed her eyes and…
The new pain, the expected torment did not come.
Instead Rishi’s eyes were pried open by an awful squeal, and then another. A dozen awful inhuman shrieks. She could see the Grots standing, howling at the forest floor; they stabbed and scratched at their feet and Rishi could see why; the ground had erupted with worms, thousands of them knotting themselves around the Grots. The impossibly long black worms crawled up the Grots, coiling into their mouths and eyes, exerting some immense force as they dragged her attackers into the loam and dirt. Rishi scrambled back from the scene on her good ankle, dragging her bleeding and broken one until she collided with something.
Rishi turned her body and her hands unconsciously gripped the robe that hung before her. She looked up, and yelped as she saw the faceless alabaster mask, and the long porcelain fingers that reached for her.
He did not know what had happened. He had been sleeping in his bunk, dreaming of his wife, when a scream had awoken him. At first he had thought the scream was part of the dream, but when the others began to move he knew something was wrong. He had been the first to venture to the locked door, and the first to start kicking when he heard the roar. He and the other slaves had broken the lock with a few kicks but they had emerged into a nightmare. The cavern had been dark, lit only by the dull coals of fires and a few pillars of dull moonlight channeled through the crevices above, and the gloom had hid much, but he could see the monster; gigantic, twice the height of a man, and as broad across; a twisting mass of muscles which seemed to slither like eels; thick veins of black pulsing as it was fed on the slavehouse opposite his own. He had been frozen in shock as the creature dragged its victims from the house, its writhing, fleshy, tendrils encircling them. Elu had watched as the creature finished the last of the slaves, turning towards him just in time to reveal its razor maw and amplify the anguished cry of its victim. Elu had fled, but not alone. He had seen a score of others ahead and behind, driven equally by fear and the opportunity for freedom. They had all fled into the night. A cluster of them had gathered at the entrance to the fortress-cave, apparently known to each other, setting off in one direction. Elu had other plans. He had been vindicated hours later when he heard their cries, the bleating of a falling herd. Foolishly he had thought himself safe, slowing his pace but it had taken the creature only minutes to find his next target.
Elu leapt from stone to stone across the thin river. Though his mind was nearly overwhelmed with terror and exhaustion, a single question turned in his head; what had he done to deserve this? He found himself entering thick forest. Spruce and maple crowded close and he angled towards even denser parts. If the creature would take him, it would have to take the trees with it. A sudden bellow, somewhere between a horn and a roar broke the silent night, its origin only minutes behind. The roar spurred him on and he found himself crashing through the branches. Stealth seemed pointless; the creature had his scent. What safety could he find?
The wayhouse perhaps, but it was still a day away, and he had no map, no compass, no sense of his position. If he could just find the…
Elu stumbled through the dense foliage and out onto the clear road. The light of the moons Nyx and Viator, and their position in the sky answered his questions, but they could not give him time.
The sound of timber cracking preceded the creature as it burst blindly from the forest knocking Elu to the ground. He scrambled backwards, seeking his footing, hoping to flee, but the thing was too big, too fast and it snatched him up, dangling him from above. In that last moment, Elu did not scream. He prayed. Not to the Imperator, as his parents had, or the Warrior as his village had. He prayed to the merciful tenth, the Voice. In his last moments as Elu he prayed as his grandmother had taught him to. It did not stop the pain. The agony of his flesh being parted by iron teeth, his bones snapped by grinding muscle. He felt himself break and die, but the Voice had heard.