Blizzard and Belendale
By R. Krommydas
Valanduil sipped diplomatically at his wine, pretending he was not troubled by the way King Baranwë was snarling to an otherwise-empty room. He understood the words underneath the anger, but any trace of the eloquence of elven nobility was gone from His Majesty's speech. Crudities and loanwords of other tongues spilled out from time to time, shocking Valanduil with their vulgarity.
He could not imagine the pressures of rulership, and wondered if it those were all that had driven the king to this apoplexy. From time to time, it seemed to Valanduil as though that wrathful diatribe was directed for specific ears, as if the outrage contained hidden orders and instructions. A ridiculous notion, for they were still within that most secretive of sanctums.
Valanduil prided himself on his arcane learning, but even he confessed himself beaten when it came to analysis of the magics at work. The elven spellcraft was obvious, in the way an ocean was obvious to a sailor. Yet there was so much more that it was hard to comprehend in its fullness - much as how the movement of wind and tide, or the swell and fall of distant waves, or the dreams of fish, were all mysteries of the ocean that eluded the same sailor's mental grasp.
The runes inscribed to channel the magic were of base dwarven design, possibly. Valanduil could spot three meta-patterning sequences, suggesting celestial influence, but doubtless there were more. Some of the shapes were utterly alien, from a wholly unknown type of magical script, sinuous and somehow disordered, which he had no idea how to begin interpreting, let alone guessing as to its origin. There was even one very disconcerting sigil, masterfully hidden among others, that Valanduil recognized as a deliberate variation upon a fiendish symbol.
This chamber, and its connector back in the palace, were works of supreme magical excellence. Labors of desperate and secretive intent, in preparation of some terrible calamity which might never come. Valanduil was convinced that more than one destination could be reached from here. There was simply too much complexity otherwise. King Baranwë, or one of his predecessors, had not limited themselves to the creation of a permanent teleportation circle, itself an impressive achievement.
Disguising his wandering eyes by tipping back his head and draining the last of his wine in one great gulp, Valanduil inspected his surroundings yet again. He forced himself to avoid looking at those sections he had already considered most intently, and instead focused on those more peculiar segments that yet eluded his full understanding. It did not help much, but in those few seconds, he did reinforce his belief.
I am inside a permanent teleportation sphere, Valanduil told himself. A non-physical portal whose boundaries are marked by magic more advanced than anything I suspected could even exist. A bolt-hole to which, and from which, the ruler of Belendale may evacuate as many as possible in the event of catastrophe.
He wondered at how this magnificence came to be, but that was a secret history even the king did not know...
What little remained of his power would only wane further in the coming millennia, the outcast angel knew, but for now there was just enough to project his presence beyond the confines of his prison. Most would not dream of doing as he did now, but for Zaphkiel, long ago considered damned by the Heavens, it was hardly the most grievous of his supposed sins. And considering some of those with whom he now conspired, it was fair to say that he risked the least of them all.
"I still have some reservations about this," murmured Kheminmir Neldiril. "The war against the Al-Dustriel goes ill. A victory of sorts shall come, but some of that treacherous breed shall escape. They shall retain enough knowledge of our ways to risk what we endeavor here. If it even endures so long..."
"Who are you to doubt my word?" growled terrible Raktabija. "From where I stand, you are as mortalkind. A thousand thousand generations of your people can pass, yet for a thousand thousand times longer my heart will have yet to beat once. I say the magic will last. Accept that, or I shall depart. Remember well that it is purest amusement that drew me to this assembly, not necessity!"
The elflord hastily apologized, even using a bogllasphemous fiendish honorific, and Raktabija seemed adequately mollified, at least for the moment. This was an extremely tenuous alliance between nine great powers that all knew would last only so long. An uneasy balance had been established, highly consequential bargains struck, and all involved required to compromise their integral values to some degree or another. In theory, it was worth it. A great mutual enemy loomed over them all, and equivalently great deeds were needed to resist the influence of the Walker-in-Darkness.
Zaphkiel was not himself the visionary of this effort. That honor belonged to Mhorrn Ironvaults of Liferock, whose mind had touched Zaphkiel's by, as she remained convinced, the will of Khuldul. Neldiril, a lord of Alustel, had been the first to agree to help. Then the mighty Watatsumi, unofficial ruler of the easternmost wilds. He brought with him Ntikuma, a strange arachnid creature from the sweltering southern continent beyond Siriand, who spoke in riddles and prophecies.
Tentative inquiries were made as to who could complete their circle. The pragmatic Belphegor signed a pact first, then proud Raktabija of Carcus became something akin to an ally. Finally, the twisted aberration Gwamurth was bullied into cooperation by Watatsumi. A representative of each of the eight moral perspectives - whether of cosmic Law or Chaos, or Good and Evil - had been assembled, and all progress immediately halted as they argued with each other on finer points. It was oracular Ntikuma, of course, who revealed what they were missing. Namely, a representative of uttermost Neutrality to stand at once with and against them all.
Zaphkiel looked now to the solution, the Octal Fulcrum Kshm. He was not sure exactly what this being was, but Neldiril especially had reacted strangely when it was chosen. Watatsumi breathed the gift of thought into its animal brain, and gave it instruction, perhaps more than was needed. Now, Kshm danced between shapes, mimicking all it saw without care for propriety, and danced between opinions of the Eight even more fluidly. But now, decisions could be reached with Kshm supporting any given position, and the earlier discord plaguing the Eight was reduced to a more manageable level.
It had been a successful innovation, and dozens of works had been completed in the ensuing decades, across every plane of existence. Now, drawing upon the experience gained from one of their previous experiments, they were about to complete one more masterpiece. A new kind of portal, one that would only require a single location to be magically anchored. Entire armies could be moved anywhere in the world with such a portal, and returned to it by means of a simple spell.
The only problem with such a thing was an essential component in the portal's manufacture. Raktabija was adamant that this could not be circumvented, and was dangerously close to discovery due to having sourced the component already. Neldiril was equally adamant that this would result in his own discovery and execution by Queen Celewen. The others were already divided on whether or not this would work at all, and unless Kshm returned from whatever he was doing in Tanis soon, Zaphkiel knew that this might be the last project of the Eight.
As it turned out, he was right, but for a different reason.
Neldiril was not the first to pass the doorway, which saved his life. The serrated blades that spun and whirled in the air did their gory work on the responders in front of him, before dissolving into nothing, the magic of the spell spent alongside the lives of the brave men and women who had charged forward on hearing their queen cry out. Neldiril, seeing the bloodbath that was left behind, ordered his own guards to hold back and secure the rest of the palace.
When he entered the royal chambers of Queen Celewen, her unbodied head greeted him from where it had been perched atop a writing desk. The rest of her was smeared across the far wall, outlining in red the imposing form of the rakshasa jaduraja who had murdered her. Neldiril spat hate and outrage, and was met with a condescending smirk in return.
"Perhaps now there is no risk of your queen executing you," Raktabija commented smugly. "You may complete your part in this nonsense as I have instructed."
Neldiril struck out at Raktabija, but for all its enchantments, his blade shattered against the fiend's primordial hide. The rakshasa laughed, and mockingly bit into its own palms to draw blood. As Neldiril futilely battered it with bare fists, howling like an animal, the rakshasa squeezed its hands tightly and let its foul blood fall. The floor hissed and cracked, stone burning to ash. A pair of smaller rakshasa, each collared with a ring of cold iron, emerged from the acrid smoke.
"You have your scapegoats now," Raktabija said. "Let that suffice. You bore me. There is nothing else I may take from you that is of interest. Accept this humiliation, for you cannot predict my future any longer. Shumbha, Nishumbha, kill this elf and I will release you."
The collared rakshasa hissed angrily at their captor as he faded from view, but their collars immediately flared white-hot and scorched their necks. Obedient again, they lunged at Neldiril, slashing at him with claws like daggers. He fell back under the assault, but the pain only focused his wrath. He reached down and took hold of a sliver of his broken sword, ignoring the sting as it bit into his fingers.
Neldiril had listened to Raktabija mocking his magical learning for decades now. Yet he remembered something that the arrogant rakshasa had apparently forgotten. Magic of such potency as had forged his sword did not vanish immediately. One of its minions, he knew and cared not which it was, sensed his resolve and hesitated a moment. The sword-sliver was buried in its unfeeling heart at once. It stared at the grievous wound, barely able to understand how this had happened. Its collar shrunk, choking and burning it at once.
As it fell dying, Neldiril shrugged off its companion and the screaming agony of the ear that its claws had plucked from his head, and pressed his attack all the harder. Seconds later, the second rakshasa collapsed, its collar also shrinking around the neck - and then melting into it entirely. As the corpses began to twitch and change, but not disappear back to Carcus, Neldiril saw that Raktabija had outsmarted him after all.
This had been a ruse to force Neldiril into using the key component of the unique portal. By slaying these two rakshasa, Neldiril had just performed the blood sacrifice needed. Their bodies were already becoming those of ordinary elves, binding the magics of the portal to that race thereafter - as well as hiding the truth of what had happened here. All it had taken was the assassination of the elven queen during peacetime, exploiting an instant of vulnerability. Eventually, Neldiril stopped his raging.
Coldly, he saw what awaited in the future, and knew he would have to prepare. The Great Houses would need to meet and decide how the line of succession would progress, but before he obligatorily added his name to the list of royal prospects - not doing so would only arouse suspicion and weaken the influence of his House for centuries to come - he would need to be revenged for this insult. The entire elven race needed revenge. And of course, he would complete the portal as best he could on his own, for this atrocity proved to him its need now more than ever.
Watatsumi was resting, nearly asleep within his many coils, when Neldiril stormed into the cave. The elflord had no patience for a slow awakening of the eastern dragon-serpent, and bellowed a demand for an explanation. On the way here, he had surmised the reason for Raktabija's complacency. What he could not understand was how it had been allowed, for surely such a thing had been itself foreseen.
Watatsumi let the impetuous little mammal squeak at his scales for some time. They were unbalanced creatures, prone to wild swings of emotion, much like all the children of Tal-Allustiel. Watatsumi felt sorry for them, for such disharmony could only lead them to suffering. This one had done great things, however, and so deserved some measure of peace. Watatsumi uncoiled himself at last, and stared into the eyes of his accuser. Neldiril was silenced immediately, the immense weight of that ancient stare too much to bear, as were the many and terrible wounds until now hidden.
"Ntikuma foresaw her death and accepted it as only an oracle can," the exhausted Watatsumi said. "She said it was for a greater good, but I was chosen to stand for raw Chaos. So I fought for my friend when they came for her. You see the result. Our circle is ended, Neldiril. It could not have endured forever."
"It might have for some years yet!" Neldiril protested. "We could have established heirs, lines of succession, if something happened to one of us. It did not have to end this way."
"Zaphkiel is bound until the end of time," Watatsumi reminded him gently. "Less and less he will be able to reach beyond his prison. Mhorrn and Kshm are wholly mortal and shall be claimed by age within the century. In less than a millennium, your wearied soul shall leave Núrion, and so in time shall I pass from this world. Our contract with Belphegor has ended with the circle. Ntikuma would not have lived forever even if Raktabija and Gwamurth had not betrayed us."
"Gwamurth!" exclaimed Neldiril. "It aided Raktabija? Of course it did, Khenenmir you fool, why would not take such an opportunity? Where is it now then? Where is that monster?! Tell me you at least slew that horror!"
Watatsumi shook his great head, and sank down into his coils again. "When it presented the opportunity, I tore out its primary eye in the struggle. My magic is not of the arcane leavings filtered through the Maelstrom. I did not realize that removing the eye was integral to a perverse ritual. Gwamurth was empowered by its loss and so withstood me. I had barely enough strength to seal it away beneath the earth. It is shameful for me to admit that the bindings will not last forever, but that is a problem for the future."
Neldiril was stunned into silence. This was a series of catastrophes beyond anything he had ever suspected might happen. Beyond anything, if he was being honest, that he suspected could happen. His thoughts raced, and he fought to regain control, but to no avail. Then from behind him, he heard one voice he had never expected (or even wanted) to hear again. He turned to see the devil Belphegor standing there, and more than just that, in the flesh and no mere projection, vast black wings spread wide.
"A breach of contract necessitates penalties," Belphegor said, sounding a little put-out. "Under the terms of our agreement, I am Lawfully obligated to present my cosignatory parties with a solution to our mutually offensive circumstances."
The devil folded his wings to reveal Kshm, at long last back from Tanis.
"Transplanar conditions being what they are at the present time, the rakshasa Raktabija is beyond your reach, as may be reasonably understood. As a resident of the Hell commonly identified as Barathus, I am more able (and as established in initial negotiations, subject to certain provisos and exceptions, commensurately more qualified) than yourselves to pursue a course of recompense in this regard."
"However, it must be acknowledged that the reverse is equally valid. Therefore, I propose delegation of this duty goes to one with a permanent vested interest in preserving the balance of Núrion. Under my own initiative, I have discussed this with the proposed party, hereby identified as the Octal Fulcrum Kshm, who has agreed to take on this task."
Neldiril looked at Kshm, and his doubts from so long ago finally vanished. Though the rest of the race were still little more than animals, this one had shown what they could do when the gift of thought was awoken in them. Those scholars he had mocked, as had so many others, for their prophecies...how they would have laughed if they had seen themselves proven right. A human acting to maintain the balance in place of elfkind! What a notion.
"He can change his shape, but not his lifespan," Neldiril warned. "We may have left it too late for him to train replacements should he fail in slaying Gwamurth."
"There are still four dutiful members of the circle with the power to change that," Belphegor said. "I will channel Evil. Zaphkiel can channel Good. Watatsumi can channel Chaos. You, Neldiril, can channel Law. It will not be flawless. But we can make it so that as long as Gwamurth lives, Kshm will be eternally reborn to challenge it."
Neldiril agreed to this plan, as did Watatsumi. Whatever the future held, neither would be around to see it. Those that did would never know of what transpired in these early days of the world.
Ikit moved unseen through the garden, trailing the target of his curiosity. The halfling woman had done better than he had expected, brazenly using her connections with House Al-Dustriel to simultaneously disgust, intimidate, and bluff her way past the outer guards and through the front door itself. Now she was walking among the flowers, talking about any subject except the one she was here for. And the Lady Valaromra Tarniel still had no idea how much she was giving away to this ingenious little spy.
"You know those lands intimately," she was saying now. "Obviously, once they are all reclaimed, no elf could rule them as well as yourselves, and nor should we!"
The halfling flirted with understanding, her pretense of naivety a masterwork such that even Ikit had briefly been taken in. But as the talks went on, the eagerness with which the elf offered more and more information to her interrogator revealed the ruse to him. Some of what he heard was new even to him, and Ikit was again impressed by the halfling.
"These gardens would be nothing without my very own miracle-worker," Lady Valaromra boasted shamelessly. "The very finest in all Gloralion, and I daresay beyond. You should see what she can do with a sturdy rod and some strong rope. In fact, here she is, and you can see very well what she can do. Just look at those melons! Might you spare us one or two?"
The gardener laughed cheerfully, as if expecting this. She reached for two of the largest bulbs on the vine, showing her adherence to the principles of hospitality. One bulb was slightly overripe, and it burst in her hand. The gardener threw the splattered remains aside, then held out her hand towards Lady Valaromra, letting the juice drip down her wrist. The expectant look she wore was obvious by its absence.
Ikit paused, watching intently to see if the halfling spotted what was happening. The way she stood almost totally still and relaxed, not turning her head to look more closely at the strangeness, told him that she had. After a second, the gardener wiped her dripping hand on her jerkin as any normal laborer might. She handed the remaining bulb to the halfling, humbly waved away the gratitude, was excused by her mistress, and wished the pair a good evening as they moved on.
"Such a masterful woman," Lady Valaromra said admiringly. "I rely on her very heavily. One should always listen to the experts. If everyone just followed that simple rule, the world would be a much better place. That's what they always say, so obviously it must be right."
Under normal circumstances, even he would give into temptation, but Ikit was bound by a stronger contract and could not break it. He had worked through the entirety of his mental list, crossing every name off bar one, and this was not that one. No matter how certain he was, there was nothing he could do as yet. Worse still, there was nothing he could do to resolve the issue of that remaining name.
The flaw in the contract was that it had been drawn up with incomplete information. Ikit was compelled to three courses of action, each of a different priority. Firstly, he was required to defend and obey his master in all things. Secondly, he was prohibited from causing any harm to certain individuals. Finally, he was charged with assassinating certain other individuals as he uncovered their identities. Unfortunately, it had transpired that one of those he was forbidden to harm was actually one of those he had to murder. He had naturally tried to tell his master of this, but as that would have caused harm, Ikit was silenced against both their wills.
Now he drew back as they stopped again, this time to speak with two others that were hurrying up from the gates. He did not know one of them, though both had the Salpheran crest on their shoulders. It was the one he did know that Ikit wished to avoid, even if it meant being too far away to hear what was being discussed.
The Ular-Penipu, here to meet with one of its pawns, he thought to himself. Maybe it will choose to fling itself and all its followers into the depths of Malor tonight. O Great Neltak, Giftgiver, Calmbringer, Master of Laws, I again offer my life and soul, as tainted as they both are, in exchange for just one chance to rid the world of that fiend.
Neltak gave no sign of having heard the prayer, and Ikit was neither surprised nor disappointed. He deserved no such chance for redemption. Not after all he had done. His chest itched, and the hateful ghosts, only just kept at bay by what was sewn into his flesh there, glared at him from all around. He had become very skilled at ignoring them, but there were so many of them now.
He endured it nonetheless. There was every chance that this mere mortal torment would end in a matter of days, and his eternal spiritual suffering could begin. Every fiend in the Hells was entitled to some time punishing Ikit for his sins, and trying to delay it was a wasted effort in his opinion. With that cheerful thought in mind, he left the garden, sensing he could get no more details on anything tonight.
The morning of the winter solstice was at last upon them, and Valanduil was ready to ride out of the city on his king's command. He had listened carefully as the importance of this mission was explained to him, and though he had not understood the specifics of why this was necessary, he trusted his king to know better than he did. Valanduil shuddered to recall the way King Baranwë had sounded towards the end of their meeting.
It was not the voice of a man who believed his death was near. That, though horrific to consider, was something that Valanduil had heard often enough in the battles which liberated the western nations of Farland. He could not mistake what he heard for something so prosaic.
"This is the Summervale, Valanduil," the king had said to him. "Yet by tonight, it must forget all the peace and calm it has ever known if it is to survive. As a people, we shall be forever changed by what happens here this evening. I must have every possible ally. Even if they are enemies to each other."
Valanduil took one long, contemplative look around him at the wonder that was Gloralion before he left. For all that he had seen, heard, learned over the years, the thought that this pure jewel of civilization was under genuine threat was a concept he did not wish to grasp. Yet despite this, the heavy fate-filled tones of his king told him otherwise. The grim but faltering stoicism on the face of the Warden Iorannor, himself arrived in the city only the night before, served to reinforce the precariousness of the situation.
For whatever reason, still unknown to Valanduil, King Baranwë was convinced the death of something far more important than his own self was imminent. The death of his country and of his people, the death of the very idea of resistance against the Dark Walker and the Wintervale. That many of his closest advisors seemed to share this belief was what truly convinced Valanduil that some kind of end was upon the elven race.
So be it, Valanduil told himself, and spurred his horse to movement. If this must be an end, let those who will take up our mantle in the eras to come claim their duty from our noble corpses.
He rode hard and fast through the gates of Gloralion into the forest of Belendale. None gave him pause, though by all rights such hasty egress from the city, especially on a day such as this, should have elicited some questions. In truth, many unseen eyes watched him pass, but did not challenge him, for the Shadow Warriors had some knowledge of his purpose. They had already cleared the way for him, and no common guard would gainsay them.
On the empty road beyond the walls, Valanduil fell in with several other riders shortly before noon, when his horse was too tired to maintain its swift pace. When he slowed, they greeted him with a lack of deference that would have alerted him earlier had he not become accustomed to the ways of the adventurer, and had he not been so humble a man. He did notice that they all bore the same House crest, and were somewhat too heavily armed to be ordinary couriers, but his suspicion came too late.
The first swordstrike opened the throat of his steed, and with a gurgling scream, it fell with Valanduil still in the saddle. He gave a pained grunt as he hit the ground, the dead horse pinning him to the chill earth. The riders around him had broken apart, so that it would be harder for him to retaliate against them all had the ambush not succeeded. Valanduil struggled to free himself as the riders closed in again. He cried out once in pain, and again elven blood fed the soil of Belendale.
"Tommal, explain to me why is that thing still here," Lord Salpheran said testily, waving his hand at the raven perched at the end of his writing desk. "I took it to the meeting as suggested, and ever since then it has done nothing but insist on the most ludicrous action. I don't even like real birds, less still this mockery of one. Can't you get rid of it?"
His squire, as professionally immaculate and straight-faced as ever, answered. "Regrettably milord, my hands are tied in this regard. I am very much aware of what will transpire if a society's patron is defied, and as your position is that of First Speaker, there is nothing that can be done. If I may be so bold, what ludicrous action is being insisted upon?"
The raven squawked in annoyance and replied for itself, its voice harsher: "This inbred idiot brought a paladin to his pathetic society meeting, and not just any paladin! One that has disrupted a considerable number of plans that have been in the works for decades or longer. He must be disposed of at once, along with the rest of his troupe. I don't care how you do it, but it must be swiftly, before it all goes wrong again in some unforeseen way."
"There has been an unusual amount of murder already this year, Master Marchosias," Tommal said primly. "Adding to it at this point would threaten many other plans also. One paladin and a few other ragtag outcasts cannot possibly do anything of note."
"As tempting as it may be, do not speak for me, squire," Salpheran cautioned him. "Not even to spare me the irritation of having to deal with this wretch. I do not know why I tolerate it so much. By all rights I should cast it out."
The raven, Marchosias, made a distinct chittering noise that no true bird could manage, and the hideous sound sent shivers down Salpheran's spine. He did not know why or how this petty little familiar dared so much, or what obscene incompetencies had been responsible for its current condition, but that was all irrelevant next to his realization that he was almost fully accustomed to it now.
It hopped from one ugly foot to another, clacking its beak in a way that seemed thoughtful but predatory. Salpheran could not understand how it had gotten to this point. Not even so far back as the summer, he would have simply slain this creature on general principle. Yet in a matter of weeks he had given it such incredible leeway. Whatever the root cause of this, Salpheran decided that this was the end of the affair. He would steel himself and do what he should have done immediately. As if reading his thoughts, the not-raven gave a disgustingly smug chuckle.
"Then let us strike a pact to guarantee this," inveigled Marchosias. "When you prove me false, I shall not resist or attempt to evade you in my expulsion from this plane. Dress in white again, and hurry to the glade of the Swan's altar. As if you had urgent news that needed to be shared at once. I say that you will be followed. Capture and slay the spy, if you wish to avoid the same fate!"
Salpheran smiled coldly, knowing that he had won. A brisk walk before the evening's festivities would prepare him for the long and dull affair splendidly, and as a further incentive, he could banish this flying insult before attending. The raven chuckled again and flew out of the window into the oncoming evening, on whatever unsightly mission preoccupied its foul little mind next. Salpheran also stood and walked to the door, thinking it best to get this over and done with now.
"One final matter before you depart, milord," Tommal said hastily. "Regarding the absentee Barwael. He appears to have vanished entirely, in such a complete way that, considering his usual competence in most things, I suspect foul play. All evidence, such as there is, points to an assassin. In the unlikely event of you meeting anyone at the glade, I would strongly recommend killing in self-defense."
Salpheran paused and looked back at his squire in annoyance, then nodded. The presumptuousness of the advice was overshadowed by the sincerity in his voice, and Salpheran was secretly proud of the accomplishments that his House had achieved due to the efficiency of such loyal servants. On his way out of his home, he detoured to the armory for a very special piece of equipment, just in case.
These wrist-chains were not enchanted, strictly speaking, but they were endowed with the quality of being quite inescapable. A mighty celestial had gifted them to his House following the Expurgation of Morclaenthur, when a high lord of that abominable city had been captured and taken for questioning. Salpheran did not know it yet, but he was going to be binding the one already stalking him...and very, very soon.
The streets and plazas of Gloralion were overflowing with merriment as the elves celebrated, simultaneously and symbolically mourning the death of the old year as well as the impending birth of the new. This was one of the few days of the year that the palace itself, and its sacred gardens beyond, could be walked by all and sundry, and though most would only visit once or twice in a lifetime to show their respects, certain individuals were encouraged to attend the most important gathering of all every year without fail.
Embla had expected to wait longer, but the Shadow Walker came for her as all others were distracted by the festivities. Her friends were moving among the small crowd with some level of unease, wondering where Isolde was and why the king had yet to make his appearance. These things did not matter to Embla, for she had her own suspicions. She took the Shadow Walker's hand and stepped with it into the boundaries of the Reflected World, that which many peoples knew by the shared name of Penumbra (and what a meaningless sound to her ears!).
As with Aidan before her, she emerged deep within the palace, in the presence of King Baranwë. Unlike Aidan, however, she was within a larger room that seemed to be a shrine of some kind. Embla did not recognize the heathen design and committed it to memory. From all she knew of the aelfarrir, it seemed plausible that this was their way of honoring their supposed creator Tal-Allustiel.
"I know what you are, Aslaug," said King Baranwë without preamble. "So why are you here, when your true enemy is so much closer to home?"
Embla did not smile. The Shadow Walker that had brought her here had not left them, but slid up to the wall, joining many others of its kind. They were here to witness what happened next, and by their covered blades, she guessed that they had been instructed not to intervene. Without any incentive to be gentle, Embla answered honestly again.
"I passed through the land of the Pretender to reach this one," she said. "I have learned so very much that will help my future sisters. You know these things yourself, do you not?"
The king gave the slightest of nods. "I do. So why do you wish to make things worse for them? We share the same foe, Aslaug. Can we not be allies? Can we not help each other live, and thrive, and accept the differences of our peoples without more evil coming of us?"
"But that is exactly why I am here," Embla said earnestly. "You are all such ignorant people. What sort of friends would the Risarvinnae be if we did not teach you the truth of the world?"
"Your truth would end uncountable bloodlines and seek to tear down the very gods," accused King Baranwë. "None would tolerate such presumption, not again after the Wintervale. You would need to wage war on the world itself, and you have seen how much greater it is than your own small understanding. You cannot win such a war. If you try, then not even the greatest of heroes can stop the maddened armies of retribution from slaughtering you to the last."
Embla smiled then, and the Shadow Walkers tensed despite their orders. "There shall come a time when no more Aslaug shall be called to guide Ylsmyr. We are called upon our death. If the last Risarvinni is dead, if no more Aslaug can ever be born, then that only means Ylsmyr has all the guides he needs. At the instant of your supposed triumph, you will instead have delivered to us total and eternal victory. Kill us all, ignorant one. Ylsmyr shall be acknowledged by all as the One True God no matter how many petty pretenders lay claim to such a title between now and then."
"And when you journeyed through the Wintervale, did any suspect your true faith?" King Baranwë asked. "No, I had thought not. Do you know why? Can you understand why? I think you do and I think you can. Aslaug, you sound no different to any follower of the Walker-in-Darkness. Of all the time you spent in their company, have you any memories of those fanatics differing from your people save in the name of the god they worship?"
Embla laughed. She had memories all right, though this king would not thank her for sharing them. Getting to the Wintervale had been the easy part.
She had no interest in the crude cities of Gorug and Haigrog, though they were the only two settlements of note in the entire region known as Ukgoi. Many before her had already investigated them, albeit it through divination mostly, and Embla knew them to be of little account. Certainly, their destruction would be a bloody and glorious affair, but no Risarvinni would die in that dual massacre who would weaken the war effort. That had already been planned long before her time, and as their numbers grew, however slowly, the ease with which they would raze those two insults to the ground and set the ruins themselves ablaze would only increase.
Embla spent nearly the whole rest of the year moving through Ukgoi, sometimes only a few miles each day, avoiding the larger patrols and wiping out the smaller ones as opportunity presented itself. She was hungry for much of the time, even her iron constitution barely able to tolerate the filth that was orc-food, and as summer passed in her time spent foraging was quickly changed into time spent raiding the Kunese paddies and farms that usually fed the cities. This was vastly more efficient. A single ox could keep her going for two weeks at a minimum, longer still if she was able to smoke some of it.
As winter approached, Embla had managed to bypass Gorug completely, and was on the outskirts of Haigrog - the infamous Orchaven itself - deciding how best to proceed. She could turn west towards the ocean, and thus avoid Orchaven as she had turned east to avoid Gorug, but that would delay her mission still further without anything to show for it. Finding a viable route through Ukgoi that avoided the cities had effectively been accomplished, but what awaited beyond was by far the more important goal.
She had heard stories of a Nameless City that the denizens of Ukgoi were enthralled to. At first, she had dismissed the pained curses and threats of vengeance as little more than noise, until their consistency troubled her. So Embla took care to leave one or two alive when she attacked the smaller patrols in the future. The longer they survived her attention afterwards, the more talkative they became - provided they were not hobgoblins, who were possessed of such a magnificent discipline and resilience that Embla felt obligated to reward their loyal silence with a swift death.
After some days in deep thought, Embla turned her feet onto the true road she had been shadowing, and began to move at a more comfortable speed towards the bleak outline on the horizon. Mere hours later, the irzuks yowled their bestial cry and their handlers turned the patrol around to assess the intruder whose scent the red-skinned trackers had picked up.
This close to Haigrog, the patrol captain was an oluk, which Embla later understood was a gift from Ylsmyr. A hobgoblin would have followed protocol absolutely, dooming the plan she had conceived, but the arrogance of the greater orcs made them easy to exploit.
There was no common language in this part of the world, at least not any that Embla knew - or in the case of the Dark Speech, wished to use even if she had known it. Instead she spoke to them in the juddering Ishian tongue, suspecting correctly it was more widely known among the servants of Evil than that of the Cen-Cenlan tribes. She spoke to them nothing but truth, trusting in their own ignorance and gullibility to do much of the work for her.
The oluk listened as his interpreter, a small and (thankfully) intensely perfumed troglodyte, relayed her introduction. He visibly doubted her allegiance to the One God, scoffed at her destination being the Nameless City, and made comments throughout that the troglodyte diplomatically avoided translating back to Embla, though the rest of the patrol laughed at with cruel mirth. She just kept staring at him with the unblinking Risarvinni gaze that so many of the other races found inexplicably disturbing. The laughter abated quickly, and the oluk growled at his men showing so little backbone.
Dealing with the Dark Folk, as it turned out, was little different from dealing with the average chieftain. Without taking her eyes off him, but in truth speaking to his underlings, Embla accused the oluk of heresy, disloyalty, cowardice, incompetence, and a host of other offences that would make him unfit for his position. Even if the troglodyte had not helpfully provided the translation, her tone might have gotten the point across anyway, if with less finesse. It was the accusations of defying the Nameless City and the One God which unsettled the patrol, and offended the oluk, the most.
Then Embla let her sword fall to the ground, disarming herself as one final challenge to his authority, and the oluk lost the last vestiges of his temper. With a feral snarl, he leapt at her, swinging his axe with deadly force and bulling past the hobgoblins that tried too late to intervene. They, unlike their officer, had seen exactly what was about to happen. Even so, they still winced as Embla erupted into fury, somehow ignoring the axe that tore into her arm and slowly ripping the oluk into pieces, all the while bellowing praise to the One God.
"Tell me, does everyone have to wait this long for what they want, or was I a special case of some kind?"
Bruuvaan Bluetongue gargled his apologies, more out of habit than true fear, for his Wrathful Mistress was refreshingly pragmatic in her infliction of punishment. Just the day before, for instance, she had ordered only the kennelmaster fed to his own wargs, pointing out that his apprentices would work significantly harder in the future whilst also saving on the time and expense of replacing them as well. The more conservative had grumbled, of course, but it was widely seen as an inspired economic decision, with the Bone Crackers especially appreciating the administrative simplicity of it (and by extension, the easing of their own workload).
A shame then that it would probably be the last such decision in the foreseeable future, for Bruuvaan had just received the letter of passage that she had been waiting for. It had been necessary to procure this, instead of merely advisable, for Embla was a recruit of the heathen south and therefore far more suspect. The impressively brutal ways in which she had slaughtered those critics who doubted her faith had done much to quell further debate.
Now she had official written permission to complete her pilgrimage north and visit the Nameless City itself, and Bruuvaan was honored to have again been chosen to accompany her as interpreter. His skills had never truly been appreciated before he had been effectively taken into her service, and as one of the very few troglodytes to tolerate surface living, he was so low on the pecking order that he had needed to endure ostracism and contempt from even goblins and kobolds.
Yet now that even the captains of the Red Fangs, not merely petty officers of lesser tribes, wore her armor and carried her weapons, his position as her interpreter accorded him considerable leeway in Haigrog. She had the hobgoblins to thank for her initial success, naturally, for they did not care who made their equipment so long as it had the quality they demanded. Word spread quickly among them, slightly slower among others, and by the spring Embla was leasing her very own smithy.
Standing in its heat now, Bruuvan remembered how the bazok Gromusk had protested this. She had him cut into five pieces, burning them on the steps of the Nalrog as a sacrifice to the One God. In so doing, she gained the rare and invaluable praise of the Maw, who took the opportunity to condemn many others to a similar fate for their lack of religious adherence. That most of them were political or personal enemies of the bugbear high priest was understood to be purely circumstantial.
Bruuvaan had been pleased to witness the resultant emboldening of many of the less represented members of Haigrog, chiefly his own kind, but also humans from Ishia and the Cen-Cenla, and a great many half-breeds who were especially inspired by the presumably ogre-blooded Embla. They were all being far more productive now, and the more intelligent orcs who dominated Haigrog were grudgingly admitting that this was clearly beneficial for the war effort.
The war was something else that interested Embla greatly. She had an insatiable curiosity for much that was mundane to the inhabitants of and visitors to Haigrog, and talk of the distant rebellions in the uttermost West ranked highly on her preferred topics. From the questions she asked, Bruuvaan was certain her real interest was not exactly in the war itself, but in the simple possibility of getting to fight and slay all the different kinds of opponent that the war produced.
With this in mind, and as he explained to her now, he had made special enquiries regarding her upcoming visit to the Nameless City. He had scarcely believed that he would receive a positive response, but when it came, Bruuvaan was certain that it would please his Wrathful Mistress. Her expression, usually so stoic, changed as he gave the details, and though he was not familiar with the faces made by mammals, this one looked like their version of excitement. He could understand that.
"There is nothing to be gained in waiting longer," Embla told him. "We leave tomorrow. Make it happen, Bluetongue, if you have not already."
Bruuvaan bowed low and hurried off to finalize the arrangements he had indeed already begun. It was all very exciting.
It was not the strangest pairing she had ever seen, but even Maeth Vulslan had to admit it was the most unique in the last two hundred years. Possibly not if she included the ettin, but at the end of the day you had to be reasonable when it came to the eccentricities of bards, and right now she was under enough stress to last her the rest of the millennium. Their papers were all in order anyway, so far as she could tell. It was too bright.
"You may pass beyond the gates," Vulslan said. "Know your place, visitors. You are not yet worthy to linger here. Conclude your business and begone that you may better yourself. Forget what you have brought from beyond the walls. There is only one god within the Nameless City. Presume otherwise if you wish to beg for death. The Blood Pits can welcome you as more than guest."
The troglodyte gabbled something that might have been an acknowledgement. By rights, Vulslan should have had it whipped for this impropriety, but there was just so much sunlight. It was not fair that this scaly brute was less hurt by the brightness than she was. Vulslan had been born in Celustel itself, to a matriarch of standing. She was supposed to be better than these lowly creatures.
By contrast, the ogre-woman, if that is what she was, growled at the implication. Vulslan had witnessed such a response often enough by now that it did not surprise her. Mostly the priesthood of the Darkest God were insulted so, but the humans of Ishia were the next most numerous after the clergy to be angered. This particular pilgrim may have only been partly human, but her Ishian heritage was evident enough in her skin and arrogance - and enough of the latter was on show that no amount of sun could keep Vulslan from seeing it.
Vulslan stepped aside, waving them through into the Nameless City proper, to join the other pilgrims that had arrived just before and were now awaiting their assigned escort. None of them were her problem any longer. If they caused trouble, she would not be a part of it. That would become the failing of whoever was guiding them through the city, and Vulslan had the luxury of avoiding having to think about such duties.
Perhaps thankfully, it was the end of her shift, and she could get out of this accursed sun. Vulslan braced herself as she spotted her relief plodding up from the guardhouse, realizing that he must have broken several bones this time and was therefore on an extended punishment detail. She would have to be exposed to him for more than just the one month - though even one minute was too long in her experience. The one time she had shared a full shift with him had given her an overday ulcer.
"Nothing to report and no messages to pass on," Vulslan said hastily, already moving away as the troll approached. "I shall be off-duty until the dawn. If you have any queries, direct them elsewhere. Do you understand?"
"You lot allus think I don't know nuffing," the troll grumbled behind her, and Vulslan nearly broke into a run, her head already aching. "Just cos I 'its the sarge a bit too 'ard and they only go and put me on guard duty. That's right ungratitudal that is. The sarge'll be up again in a month. I oughtta let 'em choke next time, you just sees if'n I don't. I said to chew that mutton, a thousand times I've said it, but nobody ever listens to me round 'ere. I'd go and do some mercing out on the islands but I bet they's just as daft there. And annuver fing..."
O Many-Gloried Salystra, I beg of you, let me endure this hardship, Vulslan prayed desperately as she escaped the troll's complaints. Do not let me fall prey to the insipid whisperings of the Overbearing One, or the contemptible offal that are his unthinking slaves. I beseech that you grant me the grace to abide by your superior wisdom, and again return to the blessed halls wherein your loyal servants prepare to cleanse the world of this heathen filth.
The elven king's back was still to Embla as she considered that time, and that began to irritate her more than it ought. Who was he to stare at his pagan altar instead of giving her his fullest attention? She who had traveled so far, endured so much, to learn of these people that those who came after might better bring them to the correct path? Time and again had Embla seen how little belief they had, no matter how evident the signs all around.
"Your false god telling you anything useful?" she asked now, a hint of uncommon spite creeping into her voice.
"Much less than I wished for," the king admitted solemnly, still facing the shrine. "Tal-Allustiel sent many to aid in what is needed, but I fear for my country and my people more than I dare admit to them. Hence the Shadow Walkers."
Embla sensed the elves surrounding them becoming even more alert, though that hardly seemed possible, for all that they did not appear to change their stance or lose their stoic expression. She did not know the specifics of this kind of warrior, but what she had seen from the elites of other races gave her a simple idea from which to extrapolate. Although the dismal performances she had witnessed from others was not necessarily going to be repeated here, for Embla knew better than to outright dismiss the potential skill of elvendom.
"Did you know that the Shadow Walkers are beholden to no living authority?" the king now asked, rhetorically of course. "I didn't, not until I had claimed the throne. The ruler of Belendale has some small permission to call upon them directly if the need is dire, but even then they have the right to refuse if a greater peril threatens our Summervale."
Embla understood that well enough. Much the same could be said of the nidhgaraf Shades that guarded the deepest reaches of the warrens, or the fiercely independent shamans of the Iswengyulu who recruited from every Sutherland tribe. There was usually a very similar reason, across every culture which used them, for this particular social role. What the king said next confirmed her expectation.
"Their names have been scrubbed from the written histories. The Shadow Walkers only remember them by deed, and our archivists by the vague misnomer of succession crises. Kings and queens have failed the Belendale and Tal-Allustiel before, and were executed before their Sins could spread further. Or so it was thought. In my reign, many shameful legacies of the past have been unearthed, still living."
"Plots, treachery, murders," Embla interrupted him savagely, an inexplicable anger growing in her mind. "We have seen these already. You think to secure your throne by using us outsiders to hunt down your internal enemies. So much for your god or dark-clad assassins here."
The Shadow Walkers now visibly tensed, the hostility in her voice more than their stoicism could stand. Embla did not care and began to circle the elven king like some predatory beast. Thoughts of outrage and violence raced through her, flowing between her and the sword she bore, urging her to repay his arrogant presumption in blood. He all but ignored her, now whispering what was perhaps some futile prayer to his so-called deity.
"You dare draw an Aslaug of Ylsmyr into your pathetic world," Embla snarled, her sword suddenly in hand and quivering with desire to maim and butcher, as a voice much like her own thrust to the back of her mind as it warned against this action. "Seek to use her to further these irrelevancies and your unworthy authority supported by false religion. Greater than you have died for less! Look me in the eye, wretch. Do it! Learn what it means to slight a follower of the True God!"
The king raised his head and looked her in the eye. Embla froze in place. Her sword faltered, even its voice quelled. All the light of the world was wrapped about this delicate elf, and all else was darkness. Any millennium now, the Shadow Walkers might begin to move in defense of their king, but for this eternal instant, it was only the two of them in all the universe.
He had foreseen trouble the moment he looked around and noticed the absence of both Embla and Isolde. Aidan had not foreseen exactly how much trouble, but when he caught Brokk's eye, the two had shared an understanding of impending disaster of some kind. With so many here tonight, from so many walks of life, the tensions in the air were almost thick enough to taste as it was.
The elves were mostly mingling with each other in celebration of the solstice, even accepting the ranarim into their ranks for this occasion, but here and there could be seen small groups of less included folk. There was Arlgand, for instance, still mostly alone due to his ancestry. Then over there were the visiting gnomes, and further along were some of the Anarians, elsewhere more of them.
There was the ranarim blademaster who had been hamstrung and burned by the rat-thing assassin after the ambassador, rightly suspicious of everything and everyone. For the moment he was looking over towards the rising commotion at the other end of the gathering, from the direction of the sacred gardens, and Aidan instinctively followed his gaze.
And that's Lord Salpheran dragging Isolde here in chains, Aidan thought to himself before the realization fully sank in. Wait. Oh. That's Lord Salpheran dragging Isolde here in chains!
His halfling friend wore a bloodied forehead and swollen lips, whilst Salpheran himself had several shallow cuts along his arms that had striped his robes scarlet. On reaching the center of the assembly, he pulled out half a dozen vicious daggers from his belt and threw them accusingly on the ground. Aidan recognized each weapon as one that Isolde had used in some fight or another, depending on the exact enemy she was up against.
"Assaulted in the Egg-Glade of the Sacred Swan itself," Salpheran roared, to a swell of outrage. "Had I not been ready for anything, unbelievable though it might have seemed, my corpse would be cooling now! This murderous little foreign bitch trespasses into our most holy ground and makes an attempt on the life of a Lord of a Great House!"
"And where is our inspired king when this is happening, and when our brothers and sisters are similarly slain? Well?! Where are you, Baranwë the Absent? I shall tell you all precisely where he is! Consorting with other outcasts, other foreigners, instead of his own kin and kind! Always he seeks to understand and conciliate and appease them, whilst we yet languish behind our boughs from which once we ruled!"
From where he was, fighting to reach his friend through the crowd, Aidan could see the Salpheran squire Tommal shaking his head in exasperation, rubbing at his eyes as if resigning himself to whatever foolishness came next, watching his master intently all the while. Something about that disturbed Aidan, but he couldn't quite work out what it was.
"We wuwed vewy poowy, Jewwoth," the unfortunate Lady Valaromra intevened. "I was tewwing that young thing that just wecentwy. Many of us weawize that they have the wight of it. We can take something fwom evewy wace, be they hawfwing or gobwin, unpweasant though you find it to admit. Those we have mocked and dewided for so wong ought wuwe us."
Her words were not even close to enough, for the grievous insult that Salpheran had apparently suffered was more than enough to sway the majority of the crowd to his side. Isolde was battered on all sides by hateful glares and oaths of retribution, and though she struggled mightily, the chains about her wrists held her tightly. That too was an oddity, for Aidan had never known to Isolde to waste her energy - but then he had never seen her in such a desperate position before.
Salpheran shook her violently for trying anyway, and with one hand held her up to the crowd as he played them. "Our king invites murderers to our realm. Our borders are invaded daily by outsiders. And is not your patience at an end!?"
The bloodthirsty roar was answer enough for him. Hostile eyes turned now to Aidan, and Brokk and Arlgand, and the humans and gnomes, even to the ranarim who had so long ago abandoned Belendale and therefore were obviously as treacherous as any other foreigner if given half the chance. Aidan could see many of the elves were terrified by what was happening, but were swept up by the current of emotion forced upon them by Salpheran and a small number of his very loud (and conveniently strategically located) House supporters.
"Even I nearly fell prey to them, and to the Graysouls that doubtless have orchestrated this all. It is time we abandoned this self-destructive path and turn the flames of purification onto those who sought to subjugate us with lies of pacificism and tolerance! Stand by my side, my true brethren, as I and House Salpheran lead you back to our former glory! First let us be cleansed of this filth, then their puppet king Baranwë!"
From where she dangled, Isolde let out a relieved sigh. She twisted in midair, slipping straight out of the chains to the ground. As if by magic, a pair of beautiful elf-forged blades appeared in her hands, and Aidan heard a high-pitched squeaking voice telling of what their prey had been until then. Salpheran had barely worked out that he was no longer holding her aloft before the halfling spilled his guts with one dagger and pierced his heart with the other.
"Told you," Isolde said to the deceased immortal.
In the shocked silence which followed, the loudest thing was the irritated sigh of the squire Tommal. As Aidan too stood stock still, stunned into immobility by this blatant assassination - for how else could it be described? - the squire made everything even more bewildering by asking Isolde the most unexpected of questions.
"Do you have even the slightest idea how much this could have set me back?"
"I think this should end all you have planned," Isolde smirked and kicked at the corpse, revealing its innards more clearly. "Now all can see the corruption for themselves! Twisted and monstrous, and certainly no work of poison as some gnomes might have me believe. The proof of evil intent, of a would-be usurper and regicide, right there. Right...there? The...wait, what?"
Tommal rolled his eyes as the elves began to murmur angrily among themselves at this. "That pompous prig was not one of us, hositan, nor any of his inbred society brethren. Though your accusations of his ambitions were true enough, I grant you that. Ugh, I will have to accelerate matters now. Barwael, show yourself!"
An elf blinked into view at his side, eliciting startled cries from many - not least Salpheran's supporters who had presumed the man missing or dead by Tommal's own reports - and bowed low to the ostensible squire. No longer needing to hide his affliction, one hand reached to his groin and scratched ferociously, to the sound of cruel laughter rising above the shock of the uninformed crowd. When he straightened back up, a great raven similarly appeared from thin air on his shoulder, and cawed angrily at the general state of affairs.
"Kill the useless, subjugate the rest, let's get this moving," Tommal ordered loudly. "If we're going to be forced into this now, may as well get it over and done with by the morrow. And unless I must do everything myself, will one of you pathetic leprous scum kindly find the king and kill him?"
Lady Valaromra stepped forward, wringing her hands nervously. "Fowgive my intewwuption, gweat one, but-"
Her words were cut off by a mighty slap, splitting her nose and lips open. The noblewoman instantly dropped to her knees in submission, moaning an apology to her superior. With a sneer of disgust, her gardener held out her dripping hand, allowing Valaromra to lick it clean of her own blood. More shouts of pain filled the air as elf turned on elf, revealing hidden weapons that had been forbidden here, with the majority being once-lowly servants now directing their erstwhile masters to kill those that were no longer of value. In short order, most of those who had been riling up the crowd in favor of Salpheran's coup were dead or dying, and panic was spreading rapidly.
Tommal, looking increasingly annoyed by the minute, turned his head slowly from gruesome murder to grisly demise, without so much as a flicker of remorse crossing his face. Isolde, being so close to him still, could just hear his mutterings as he surveyed the carnage, and wondered at their meaning.
"How many more times will the Houses of elvendom fail you, my Queen?"
It was at this moment that the Shadow Walkers burst onto the scene, leaping out of the borderlands of the Penumbra to strike at their foes with deadly accuracy. Heavier steps sounded as the Wardens, less graceful but significantly more numerous, also marched in behind High Captain Iorannor. And in the simple doorway of an apparently unremarkable servant's hallway, King Baranwë himself appeared in full armor and royal regalia, surrounded by several of his closest confidantes - and a very chastised Embla.
"Purge our Belendale of this filth!" his majesty cried, and chaos ensued for real.
So far as Aidan could tell, there were only ten or so who were of actual importance in this strange new faction hiding behind the facade of Salpheran's. The vast majority, astonishingly composed entirely of more usually influential and high-ranking individuals, were utterly in thrall to these few in apparently reverse order of traditional seniority. Tommal himself was perhaps the only exception, as being a squire of a Great House afforded great respect.
Aidan could see the twisted logic behind this arrangement. Valaromra had revealed it, in her urging for the elves to be ruled by others instead of doing the ruling. A kind of aberrant humility, perhaps, had brought about this state of affairs. First some of the nobility might have given greater courtesy to their underlings, then sought their advice on more and more diverse matters, then gradually submitted entirely to their orders whilst maintaining the outward illusion of their normal position.
As they retreated from the lethal onslaught of the Belendale elite, these elves hissed and spat in a manner especially disquieting, and Aidan could not for the life of him bring to mind what it reminded him of. They crowded around Tommal, writhing and leering, to his obvious displeasure. He struck one that came too close, and the pale skin blackened at once under his touch.
"Brighter forces than yours have been gathered here this eve," King Baranwë proclaimed. "We shall not permit even the slightest success of yours to remain in our blessed realm. We oppose any and all schemes that the Walker-in-Darkness may have for us!"
"So do I, you witless dolt," Tommal retorted sharply. "He ruined everything. I spent decades turning Talkana only for him to snatch her out from under me at the last second. Not that any of you will appreciate that, of course. My Dark Queen wishes that upstart dead as much as any of you. Now what are you lot waiting for? Stop shirking and kill these cretins. GO!"
His voice rose to a terrible pitch at that command, lashing out at all who heard it with a physical force. The elves retched and contorted, even Baranwë flinching, but what happened next was worse still. Tommal's servants began to darken, the starlight of Tal-Allustiel infusing their souls finally dying out. Their eyes flared violet and their hair became a pure silver, framing their cold cruelty all the better.
Many grew taller, leaner, shedding centuries of soft living in favor of iron-strong muscles and hoar-sharpened senses. Their nails glinted as they hardened to almost-claws, and their teeth became more akin to fangs. It mattered not whether they had been galan, altarim, or vestarim before then. The change completed, the truth of the souls reflected now in the body, only drow remained by Tommal.
Shrieking madly, they rushed forward, for a moment nearly overwhelming their astonished and disgusted adversaries. The plumes of fire, lightning, and ice that erupted among them immediately after drove them back however. Though as horrified as any other by what they had just witnessed, three of the greats invited here by King Baranwë had the strength of experience on their side. The Sag Zammaz, Loremaster Brokk, and Tapio of the Seal Tribe were already beginning their next incantations, and their more martial companions were advancing to finish things off.
"After all the work I put into you, this is how you repay me?" Tommal growled, looking at the nearest drow, who had retreated the swiftest. "Such a disappointment. You do not deserve that body. Cast it off."
The dark elf wailed miserably and began to spasm with such violence that its spines ought to have broken. Its flesh swelled and burst, revealing lurid purple growths and black scales beneath. Its legs fused together and it hauled itself aloft on what was at much body as it was tail. Tommal turned to another that had especially displeased him, forcing the same transformation, and another and another, until over a dozen towering drasps swayed in dismay at their punishment.
Aidan at last knew what had troubled him. Tommal had not blinked once, and his servants imitated the motions and sounds of snakes. Then he had spoken of his Dark Queen, and forced the infamous change from drow to drasp, and thus was the true mastermind behind all this made plain to see.
"He is a servant of Salystra!" Aidan cried out, uncaring of the blasphemous name. "Tommal is a pawn of the Demon Goddess!"
Tommal shrugged, and despite the hubbub of battle all around him, his voice carried clearly to all ears. "Actually, my name is Altamugh, or Supreme Serpent. I was known as Eltamuel to the earliest of your kind, and I never needed to change it much down through the years. And if you want to describe me with chess, then my role is not of the pawn. I would say queen, but I am subordinate to that position, so..."
The battle rapidly became a slaughter, as highly trained soldiers tore through unarmed fanatics, cutting them down with all the ease that could be expected of such an engagement. Even the drasps fell back, horribly wounded or dying, as the varied multitude of mighty allies of King Baranwë pushed forward as one. Just as they did, the elvenking knew this could not last. It was too easy for one, and for another, not all the pieces he had desperately sought to gather were in play. He alone knew that he had been working off of prophecy, not merely intuition, in his choices.
The moment of truth came when half of the transfigured drow lay dead, and only five drasps blocked the way to the servant of Salystra. The abomination raised its hands to the darkening sky, as the solstice twilight trembled on the very edge of nightfall, in a gesture that undeniably indicated exasperation. A disturbing susurrus escaped its lips, causing many to falter in their stride, and then halt upon seeing what evil was being enacted now.
Corpses jerked and twitched like stringless puppets, yet rising to their feet nonetheless, necrotic talons bursting from their fingertips as their debasement was made complete. An overpowering aura of terror swept across the warriors of the Summervale, and those that retained any control of themselves threw down their weapons and fled. Only two truly stood their ground, and neither by choice.
The barbarian Embla had succumbed to the supernatural terror, but her disquieting sword had not, and had plunged itself into the earth to hold her in place, for she seemed incapable of releasing it. The other was the paladin Aidan, and he truly wished that he could flee with the rest - yet the curse of the paladin was to feel fear without ever being able to surrender to it.
Across the bloodstained battleground, across the chaos of the sudden rout, the unblinking malice of Tommal, the Demon Goddess Salystra's 'Supreme Serpent' Altamugh, met the gaze of the elvenking Baranwë. A grim smile, one of long-awaited understanding, came to the king's mouth then, and to his ears the welcome sound of marching soldiers and the disciplinary call of their commanding officer.
"Remember, boys, the dead are still just the dead!" Karl von Lanburg bolstered his men. "These are uglier than the ones back home, but we are Driddaren! Let us show our ancient allies the true worth of Daven!"
Each of the Davonian knights, grim-faced and indomitable, roared their response and charged. Newly-dead limbs flew as they crashed into their prey, and for the second time the dark elves crumbled under the onslaught, dying their second death. Fear had been their greatest weapon and robbed of that, they were once again little more than vermin to be exterminated. The elves began to rally almost at once, many cursing themselves for their weakness.
Behind them, however, the slain drasps were also moving, though not of their own accord. An aura of violet iridescence was dragging them into a pile, melting and fusing them together, as Altamugh hissed and rasped words of power no creature of the mortal world, nor even the greatest of elves, could have survived speaking. This was the power of Malor itself, of the infinite perversions of flesh and soul of true Chaos and unrestrained Evil.
The pulsing heap of scale and meat arranged itself into a vaguely serpentine form, then swiftly refining itself into an immense drasp. Already it was falling apart, its transplanar monstrousness too great to endure in a reality of rules and restrictions. Yet it would survive long enough for its purpose, and it burst through the ranks of Driddaren and elf alike in pursuit of that purpose, crushing dozens in its coils without even meaning to.
"Why are you still not back with them, Valanduil?" Baranwë wearily asked the air as his death approached. "Then so be it. Tennokaze! Ima, kokode! "
The colossal drasp shrieked with bloodthirst as it lunged, already able to taste royal blood. It did not see the king's shadow split apart, let alone understand its death as three simple little cuts stressed its unnatural existence too far. The abomination literally burst apart, its pieces decaying to reeking slime and acrid pus in an instant. Baranwë's last and most secret line of defense flicked the revolting substance from his daggers, and pointed to Altamugh in challenge.
"And after all those lovely talks we had under the cherry trees," sneered Altamugh.
"For Lord Neltak, Ular-Penipu, you shall die," Ikit Gloryshadow declared his intention calmly, and attacked.
Whilst the living halted in surprise at this new combatant, the undead fell back violently as Ikit charged, repelled by some invisibile force surrounding the lethal ratman. Those horrors closest to him as he passed by actually started to fall apart for a few moments, several losing the more damaged parts of their anatomy before he was beyond them. Only now did Altamugh begin to move defensively, weaving and sliding away from Ikit with preternatural grace.
"You do appreciate I numbered among the first to wield the Art Magic on Núrion?" Altamugh inquired rhetorically, and spat a hideous Malorish syllable.
The daggers Ikit held shattered, and the shards swirled around him like a metal blizzard. Impossibly, he dodged each murderous piece and emerged unscathed, breathing heavily and armed once more. His cloak was ripped to shreds and no longer concealed the crystalline lattice woven through his torso. For all the great and the learned gathered there, only the Sag Zammaz recognized the perverse touch of blood sorcery that had gone into its construction, and he shuddered to think of what deals, or what servants, King Baranwë must have used to secure such a creation.
"An amusing shield you have to provide such courage," Altamugh mocked. "Now what happens if I remove it?"
He waved a hand imperiously, snapping his fingers. Ikit screamed in agony and almost vanished in a fountain of fur and blood as the lattice exploded. A sepulchral howling drowned out all other noise, and the temperature dropped instantly. Tens upon tens of ghostly figures manifested, raging and vengeful, each of a victim of Ikit's supreme skill, and no longer held at bay from their murderer.
Altamugh gave a horrid smile as they rushed the fallen ratman, eager to kill him before the mortal wound did. A pair of the Driddaren stepped forward bravely, but their swords passed straight through the incorporeal specters. Their breath froze in their throat at the same instant, and they died choking. Altamugh looked triumphantly over at King Baranwë, who for the first time was visibly shocked.
"Was that your last trick, or do you-"
An arrow whistled its way into his eye before he finished speaking, though it was only just enough to knock him slightly off-balance. He was immediately engulfed by a roiling cloud of smoke and flame, and even as he began to incant once more, a clearer voice and a purer melody quenched whatever foul sorcery he had attempted. Finally the long-awaited, and for most wholly unexpected, reinforcements rode into fray with a pale and bloodied Valanduil at their head, his broken arm lashed to his chest and a expression of cataclysmic fury on his face.
The wordless song of hope and valor that had stymied Altamugh grew even stronger now, as the bardic magic of Malevoxa gave strength to those who needed it most, steeling them for this last exertion. An armored mass of spikes and whirling axes plunged into the melee, Tybalt clearing the way for Hamling to ride in and finish off whatever the tiefling missed. And, because even the finest of things are not without their flaws...
"Worry not, one and all, for The Hero is here!" called Gareth du Rentes, and he let fly another arrow towards Altamugh.
This one, however, simply wilted in midair as Altamugh glared at it. The head rusted and crumbled away instantly, and the shaft rotted to pulp, so that when what had been an arrow actually hit its target, it was no more damaging than the thought of a breeze. Fixing his eyes on the impudent Marquis du Rentes, now clearly insulted by this constant interruption of his triumph, Altamugh began to grow from the inside out, his skin first tightening and then ripping as the Serpent of Twilight shed this ancient disguise one last time, revealing himself in his truest and most appalling glory.
"The Hero is leaving!" Gareth shouted in exactly the same tone as he had used moments earlier.
Valanduil felt a part of his mind break as the Serpent of Twilight uncoiled from its ruined flesh-prison, and knew in his heart that no elf who survived this would ever be quite the same again. Already he could hear the screams and moans from his kin, with several already babbling incoherent prayers or meaningless gibberish. It took all his mental fortitude to strike at his broken arm, summoning pain to focus on and remain rooted in undesirable consciousness.
The sanity-obliterating sight was less harmful to the humans and the other races, but they too were facing their own struggles. Many were retreating hastily, trying to regroup or rally the elves, and the foolish few that approached the Serpent were effortlessly killed. The lucky were crushed to pulp in its coils, or dissolved in a venomous spray. The less fortunate succumbed to its gaze and waited patiently to be rent apart in its maw, their souls food for the beast as their meager flesh could never be.
There was one terrible, bizarre exception to this, however, and Valanduil did not dare contemplate it now. The Anarian brute Embla, carried forward by her sword and her rage, leaped straight at the horror and hacked at its eyes. In the next instant, the pair were several feet away from their position, the brute laughing with the vile glee of a battle-crazed demon, and the Serpent of Twilight was slithering away from her rapidly as if bested in some contest. Names reached Valanduil from within that laughter, names such as Hraghilssh and Viurnnikai and Slaasstrya, that he recognized despite their linguistic corruption.
He shut his mind off from the implications, and raced to his king. Baranwë stood still, a pillar of stability amid the chaos, a cold glare on his face. The crown of Belendale blazed with starlight on his brow, and Valanduil felt the untimely urge to bend the knee in veneration of the great majesty before him. Instead, he did what any loyal subject ought, and placed himself between lord and enemy.
"Your Majesty, we can hold this beast off for only a short time," Valanduil urged. "You and the Shadow Walkers may still be able to gather a goodly number of the citizenry, and make an escape. That chamber was built for just such an emergency as this, I feel."
Not for one second did Baranwë take his eyes off the Serpent of Twilight, as he gave his grim response: "Gods forbid I be a king without a kingdom."
In his hand then appeared the ancient sword of Gil-Lindan, last of those mighty blades which had broken the hag covens of vanquished Rothnog, and from his throat was loosed a cry that seemed to shake the very heavens. The Serpent of Twilight turned to face him, perhaps sensing an actual threat to itself in this small creature. Unmoved by its crippling stare, Baranwë the Wise strode forth to meet the Bane of Elvendom for himself.
It was only now that Valanduil spotted a certain figure in the shadows, muttering incantations and straining against the bindings of reality, and understood that it was for them for which time needed to be bought, not the king. Sweat and blood leaked from him freely with the effort, as Angallin Swankeeper forced himself to channel every last fragment of magical power he could for this one overriding purpose. And behind the distracted Serpent of Twilight, a minute rift to the realms beyond this world began to grow...
It had killed so many since first arriving on Núrion, from the highest to the lowest, that no single memory of murder or torment was able to stand out from the multitude. Millennia of suffering had been blended into a quiet understanding of how to inflict it, without any specific instance of such actually remaining clear. The Serpent of Twilight was convinced that it would not recall the details of this diversionary little day either. In this regard, it was absolutely incorrect, though it could never have foreseen or believed the reason why.
The elfking moved to attack it, and for a moment, as the sword scraped along its side, cleaving through its arcane defenses more readily than it did any scales, the Serpent of Twilight felt a momentary doubt. This grew marginally when its breath did not melt Baranwë to mulch, repelled by a shimmering aura that sprung up around him, and then as the duel continued with neither party able to secure an advantage over the other, it became a genuine concern when the planar rift became too obvious to ignore.
This was something readily resolvable, however, and with a cunning feint, the Serpent of Twilight placed itself perfectly for the counterattack. Baranwë was hurled backwards, clearing the path to whatever mage or priest was responsible for this contemptibly offensive attempt to exorcise it. A putrescent toxin sprayed forth, covering the distance too swiftly to be evaded. But though the elf withered and died, the rift he had begun to conjure did not, instead swelling and convulsing erratically as the magic became self-sustaining.
Other spells erupted around it, trying to drive the Serpent of Twilight into the unstable portal before it decayed, but they lacked the potency. What mattered now, if only for a few moments more, was the execution of Baranwë and the symbolic death of the Summervale as a whole that this would represent. One small animal, a halfling perhaps, darted briefly into view, flinging aside the daggers it held as it fled, almost as if throwing them at something. Then, of all things, a half-elf with an oversized war hammer presumed an attack.
The Serpent of Twilight ignored the interruption, for the half-breed lacked the strength to hurt it. Or so it thought, for when the hammer came down, a holy radiance burst from its head and scorched the abomination below. In surprise, it paused in its advance and wrapped itself firmly around the annoyance, intending to look this presumptuous paladin in the eye and crush its soul before its body.
Given that the Serpent of Twilight was almost entirely unassailable at this point, and definitively needed no help, it was more than a little upset when an enraged cawing sounded from over its head, and a gangly figure fell from the sky onto its prey. No longer hiding behind its own adopted form, the imp Marchosias scrabbled for purchase, and lunged at the paladin's face, snarling murderously. Then the Serpent of Twilight became especially annoyed to hear that the imp's words were meant for it.
"Of all the stupid, short-sighted, self-obsessed idiots I have ever been forced to serve, you are the worst by a planar league! I told you to kill this paladin, I told you to kill his friends, I told you everything you needed to do to win in a respectable and effective manner, and look at the result! This is so obscenely disorderly! You overgrown slow-worm! You- aargh!"
Marchosias screamed in mixed pain and surprise as the paladin lunged forward unexpectedly, biting into the imp's arm as it was distracted with the insults, and worrying the tiny devil like a dog with a rat. The hellspawn would not normally have been troubled by this, but for the burning light which was spreading across the paladin and searing the devil now caught in its teeth.
And then the Serpent of Twilight felt it, now its turn to be too slow to respond. It tried anyway, turning its great head to spew poison on the five masters that had held themselves back to unite their disparate magical powers into a single overwhelming spell. As it did so, a furry shape passed by its eyes, holding the discarded daggers of the halfling, which now blazed with their own holy light. Ikit Gloryshadow, his wounds sealed by the healing spells of elf-priest and man-druid, flung his weapons into the eyes of the Serpent of Twilight, blinding it at this last crucial moment before the fivefold spell of banishment caught it.
There could be no withstanding such a thing, even for a creature molded by a deity. The Serpent of Twilight fell back into the decaying portal in shock and in agony, feeling both for the first time in its long and awful life. With one final hissing scream, it cast off its physical body and allowed itself to be taken by the roiling planar energies, to slither in defeat and in shame back to its foul mistress. The imp Marchosias, and the paladin in its coils, were similarly instantly disintegrated.
The portal, its power and purpose spent, vanished into nothing immediately afterwards. A few snowflakes began to fall as the solstice passed its zenith, and the blizzard of a dark winter broke against the renewed purity of Belendale.
Aidan wanted nothing more than to lie down and give up. The world was too bleak and tiring to keep fighting like this. He had just been in the grip of a monster that he had always believed was a metaphor, rather than anything real. He had just been awaiting his death, and yet it had been interrupted by some ravening imp that yammered as if it had some personal vendetta against him.
What happened then? he wondered slowly, each thought taking an eternity to appear in his mind. Why does it matter? I am too weary to care. To think, even.
He remained standing in the nebulous glow of the ashen mists nonetheless, leaning heavily on his warhammer and swaying slightly. Something was very wrong, and it was becoming ever more difficult to ascertain exactly what, or even why it was relevant to anything. He turned his head to look at the gangly creature lying motionless on the dusty flagstones beside him, blinking away the suspicion that he knew it from somewhere.
"What why this?" Aidan managed incoherently, barely audible even to himself.
The creature shifted slightly at the sound of his voice, gurgling something in a horrid language that made Aidan want to vomit. When it received no response, it stood up, seemingly without any real effort, and brushed the dust off it with obvious annoyance. It spoke again, this time in the Dark Speech, and though Aidan was scarcely less revolted by this than by the previous language, at least he was able to understand it.
"I want an explanation from you, paladin, as to why a loyal devil of Barathus is here. It has something to do with you, obviously, seeing as how you are responsible for your actions. The details, however, I am displeased to admit that I am quite ignorant of."
Aidan stared at the creature, which a small and distant part of his mind now identified as an imp, and completely failed to muster any answer. It was simply too much effort. There was no point. There was no hope. All that mattered was not mattering. All he had to do was give up. It was what he had earned, and what he deserved, and it would be so very easy to do. A sharp clap, like a crack of thunder, broke him out of the malaise.
Instantly, the exhaustion of soul and body evaporated, and he was ready for anything again. First, the imp in front of him was a very real enemy, having been trying to tear off his face whilst the Serpent of Twilight had him in its grip. Second, his location seemed to be in some kind of abandoned castle, the ash-filled mist floating listlessly through its corridors being somehow lightly illuminated, which did not help him much now, but needed to be kept in mind. Third, the towering bronze man now approaching him with empty hands and a welcoming smile was probably also going to be a threat.
"Oh no, not at all, I just thought you two needed a bit of help adjusting," the man said, and Aidan and imp both stared warily at him. "You can fight if you like, but at this point it's all a little bit too late for that. This isn't Daven. You can't kill the dead here. Even if you are dead yourselves."
"An explanation from you then, spirit," the imp growled, as Aidan struggled to compose himself. "I am Barathean. Why did my discorporation land me in Carcus?"
"No idea and I'm not a spirit," the man answered lightly, his eyes flashing silver in a starburst pattern. "Probably because you were linked to Aidan here at the same instant you both perished, by means of him channeling celestial light to burn you. Speaking of light, if you want more, I suggest you both turn to your left and start walking until the fires are closer. They brought you most of the way here, but I had to drag you further out myself. You should count yourself lucky, I suppose. That sort of gambling doesn't usually end well. Did my wife not warn you?"
Aidan felt his strength trying to depart again, and he slapped himself. Before he lost his focus, he hurled all of his questions at once: "Which fires and why Carcus and what gamble and who is your wife?"
"The Phlegethos, of course," the man answered calmly. "The River responsible for ferrying the souls of those who died in accidents and catastrophes, which the Serpent of Twilight is on both counts. You came to Carcus because that's how you gambled in rolling the dice. And you know my wife, Embla! Oh, my apologies, I never introduced myself. I am Ylsmyr, and I am very pleased to meet you."
Aidan dropped his warhammer, closed his eyes, and being no longer living, collapsed in a literal dead faint.