I’m trying something new today, partially driven by necessity (due to my computer being… fritzy), and partially out of a curiosity to see what response it gets. Today, you, my loyal readers, get to read some short fiction I wrote (and for that, I apologize). What follows is a fluff piece designed for a character I will never be able to play, but he lives on in my mind and on my harddrive. Enjoy!
The merciless wind howled incessantly over the icy plain, whipping up clouds of frost and snow that billowed for miles without ever settling. This was a forbidding, inhospitable wasteland, where life and death were held one at the cusp of the other, until they blended into a single, unending haze. No beasts roamed the glacier, no settlements dotted the horizon.
And yet, the frozen waste was not lifeless. A lone figure trudged stoically through the razor winds, cloak billowing behind as he leaned into the teeth of the gale, refusing to let it stop him in his task. He moved purposefully, for only a fool would come this far into the North without reason, and the glacier did not treat well with fools.
The figure was clad head to toe in black, wailing armor, now rimed with the frost of the North. Soulsteel, it was called, forged from the black depths of the Labyrinth and alloyed with the wailing ghosts of the damned. On his back, he bore a massive blade, shaped from the same, horrible material. He was festooned with chains and skulls, his eyes a pair of burning coals beneath his ridged helm. Though he shuddered when the wind tore through him, he made no sound, nor did he ever take his eyes from the single point of crimson light visible on the Northern horizon.
As the hours crept past, the light grew ever clearer, until at last he could see its source: the Fortress of Crimson Ice, the sanctuary of the Lover Clad in the Raiment of Tears. Six weeks he had walked, ceaseless, remorseless, moving ever northward seeking this place and his mistress. Even now, with his goal in sight, he betrayed no emotion, never changed his gait even in the slightest. There was no elation, no sudden burst of speed to close the distance. He walked on, as implacable as before.
As the distance between the figure and his goal steadily shrank, the wind’s wails took on a new tone, a hint of desperation mingling with the savage shrieks of icy rage. The Fortress grew in his vision, seeming to jut up from the wind-swept ice like a scarlet mountain, jagged and merciless as its surroundings. Soon enough, he could make out the ghosts, huddled around the base of the Fortress, their desperate pleas melding almost seamlessly with the wind.
He paid them no heed. The stranger moved purposefully toward the doors, ignoring the damned souls all around him, until they moved like a tide to block his passage. The moonlight shining down through the clear, cloudless night made them wispy and translucent, but he knew that here, in this shadowland, they were as solid as he.
“The first who bars my passage shall die.”
“We are already dead, deathknight. What more torment can you inflict upon us?”
He made no answer, though whether he could not or simply chose not to, he gave no hint. The ghosts moved with him, circling, their numbers ever growing, but he never turned his head, never let his vision leave the gates that were now so close.
One of the throng hissed and leapt at him, its features distorting and stretching into a savage maw. The stranger’s massive weapon seemed simply to materialize in his hands, and the ghost was rent in twain, its shrieks swallowed by the wind. The stranger never broke his stride.
The rest of the ghosts howled in unison, pouring forward like a tide. None approached within so much as an arm’s length of the man before his blade greeted them, and none took more than a single stroke to dispatch. Soon, the tundra was littered with a trail of rapidly dissolving corpuses, and, for a time, the Fortress of Crimson Ice knew silence once more, save for the endless wind.
The gates opened for the stranger with no hand to guide them, and he entered with the same methodical pace that had carried him here from Fort Bear.
– – –
Six weeks before, there had existed a man. He was called Darrion, and he was a guardsman for one of the Guild merchants stationed in Fort Bear, an excessively unpleasant fellow by the name of Orgar. It was the first week of Ascending Air, and the chill in the air had progressed into a wicked frost. Orgar had a shipment of furs to be delivered before the cold settled in, but he had delayed too long. Of course, Orgar was safe and warm behind the walls of Fort Bear. Darrion and his men were on the road, not two days out of Fort Bear, when they were set upon by barbarians.
In the North, life is harsh and unforgiving. Men do what they must to survive. Sometimes, that means taking what they need from others. Sometimes, it means making deals with strange things, Fair Folk or worse, for the power to survive. Sometimes, it means both.
The band of Wyld barbarians rose up from the mist-shrouded ground, and they were on the caravan before Darrion or his men could react. Two men died in as many seconds, jagged, icy talons tearing into soft, warm flesh and spilling crimson life onto the frost-rimed earth. Swords cleared scabbards, and Darrion found himself fighting two of the albino monsters, their glittering red eyes boring into him, unnerving him.
He fought and slashed and gritted his teeth, but his opponents were too much for him. He felt the claws tear into his stomach, felt the strength flee from his limbs. He crashed to the dirt, his eyes staring away from the gruesome spectacle. Life remained in his shell, but he could not move, could not rise to fight. Behind him, he could hear the sounds of his men, his friends, dying on the road. Still, he lay in the mist on the hard-packed ground, feeling his life slowly ebbing from him, feeling the chill seeping into his bones.
And then he saw her, walking across the mist toward him. She was as pale white as the barbarians, but she was beautiful. Her limbs appeared carved of pure alabaster, yet she moved with a supple grace that told him she was flesh, sweet and soft. Her clothing was mourning garb, yet indecently cut, giving tantalizing glimpses of pale, firm thighs, of the swell of her breasts. Her lips were red as the blood that oozed from his body, and as she knelt over him, lifting some of that same blood to her mouth, he shuddered in ecstasy.
“You are dying, mortal.” Her voice was sultry, suggestive, and he felt his body struggling to react. “In truth, you are at the cusp of this world and the next. Should I release my power, you will fall into death, and who knows what awaits you there?”
The sudden, imminent chill of the grave seemed to curl around Darrion like the claws of some great, grasping beast, and he shivered.
“But, there is another option. You do not have to die here, mortal. I can breathe my power into you, fill you with the Last Breath, and you will rise as my deathknight, servant and soldier.”
“I would serve you, Lady, with all my heart!” Darrion meant the words as fervently as he had ever meant anything, but the strange lady placed her fingers on his lips. Even so slight a contact sent a frisson of excitement through him.
“Your eagerness is appreciated, but you must understand. Three prices come with the Last Breath, and you must know them before you pay them. First, your name will be cast into Oblivion, gone forevermore. You must never again answer to it, for that person is dead.”
“I have no keen attachment to my name, Lady. I will answer to whatever name you give me, or nothing at all.”
“Second, your fate will be cast into Oblivion, gone forevermore. You will never again have a destiny, for that person is dead.”
“My destiny is to die, Lady, here in the snow. I gladly sacrifice that for a chance at life!”
“Third, Creation must be cast into Oblivion, gone forevermore. You must work constantly to destroy, to kill, to end. You would be my chosen, the chosen of murder, for this world’s end is the goal for which you will be rebuilt.”
Darrion thought for a moment that seemed a lifetime before responding. “Lady, what care have I for this world? It has treated me poorly. I served a rich man loyally and well, and I found my reward here in the dirt. He sups on roast pig and fine wine, while I bleed out my last protecting his goods. I will not be mourned. I will not be missed. Let this world rot for all I care, for it has let me rot.”
She nodded and stood, extending her hand toward Darrion. “Then rise, and cast away your name, your fate, and your world. I bestow upon you the Black Exaltation, the Second Breath. Rise, nameless deathknight, and know me as the Lover Clad in the Raiment of Tears, your mistress until the sun burns out, the mountains fall, and the seas run dry!”
Black lightning flickered from her hand to Darrion, and he screamed in supreme agony and sublime ecstasy. He felt renewed vigor fill him, spilling over into a black, shadowy radiance that seemed to spring from his soul. New Essence flooded his body, and he felt his flesh rotting and desiccating in the presence of that horrible power, but he also felt it gnawing at the wound in his guts, closing the ragged tears in his flesh and revitalizing his strength.
He pushed himself to his feet, gritting his teeth, as the pain ebbed in waves through his frame, until it vanished and all he felt was refreshed. He saw the world anew, saw the death of every living thing in his gaze, saw the threads of life pulsing as clearly as he could feel his own heartbeat. As the necrotic Essence of his Black Exaltation seeped into his soul, poisoning it, he felt new changes in his outlook. The corpses of his friends no longer repulsed, but instead enticed as monuments to the power of Oblivion.
He looked on his departed friends and felt pity, but not for their deaths. They died afraid of the beyond, terrified of the pain and passing they felt, that he had felt. He had transcended that. He felt a new surge of confidence and superiority, a new freedom from all the terror he had felt while alive. He knew he would never again know that mortal dread, and he relished that knowledge.
The Lover approached him and stroked his cheek, and he felt icy pleasure blossom where her fingertips touched. “Go, now. Follow your master’s caravan and baptize yourself in the blood of your murderers. End them, and be reborn.” She looked to the sky, and two fiery bolts dropped from the heavens, a blade that buried itself tip-first into the ground and a casket that sent up a spray of rock shards where it fell. “Take these tools, killer, and use them to make yourself whole. Once you have done this, travel northeast, until you find my Fortress of Crimson Ice. Come to me when you have murdered, and receive your name.”
He blinked, and she was gone, leaving him standing alone, unshivering on the frosty ground. He went to the casket and opened it, and within he found a suit of screaming armor, which he donned. Lifting his blade aloft, he strode into the mist, seeking his destiny and his first victims.
– – –
The stranger entered the Fortress of Crimson Ice, his gaze finally lifting now that he had reached his destination. All around him, rising in baroque splendor, was the manse of the Lover Clad in the Raiment of Tears. She lived in magnificent glory, rich reds and pure whites decorating the fluted spires, gothic columns, and delicate tapestries. Relics and treasures from every corner of the world adorned ornate pedestals throughout the entry hall, enough to ransom any king in Creation.
But the glory and splendor of her home paled before the woman herself. As she swept into the foyer, the stranger, who had not changed his stoic stride across six weeks of tundra, fell to his knees, struggling to breathe. She was ephemerally gorgeous and seductively alluring, voluptuous and ethereal all at once. She was unreal, and yet she seemed more real to the man than anything he had previously known. He felt tears rolling down his cheeks, freezing in the cold, but he could not bring himself to blink, lest he lose sight of her beauty for even a moment.
She touched his chin and bade him rise, and he did so. “You have done well, deathknight, but there are many steps ahead before you truly come into my service. Would you rest and recover yourself before advancing?”
“Not for anything, Lady, save that it please you for me to do so. If you will it, I will continue until I die.”
She laughed, a sound that made his loins swell. “I have invested too much in you for you to die, but I think you have some vitality in you yet. Come… we shall descend, and on the descent, you will learn the Understandings.”
The man followed the Lover through her basalt and crystal palace, down stairs carpeted in crimson velvet, down hallways of granite and marble. Wherever they passed, the man could look into rooms and chambers of every description, and within were always people entwined. Sometimes couples, sometimes many more, every room contained the most flagrant and unabashed rutting the man could have imagined, and more. Simply in passing, he found his knowledge expanding, gaining a sudden and altogether unintended education. Tearing his eyes from one particularly virile individual, he struggled to focus on the words of his mistress as she led him ever downward.
“There are five lessons you must learn, deathknight, before you enter my service. Were you more cerebrally inclined, I would perhaps offer some clever riddles or experiences to sear these Understandings into your mind, but as you are not, I will explain them at length.”
The stranger felt his face burn, his blood run hot with anger at himself. “I have disappointed you, Mistress.”
She laughed again, and his blood ran hot for a new reason. “If I had wanted a thinker, I would have found one. You do not disappoint me… yet.”
He struggled to pay attention as they moved on. “I expect nothing less than full devotion from you, deathknight. Your blade will carve my name across Creation and will drive the entire world into the Abyss. You will please me, and in doing, please my Neverborn master. However, I do not expect you to internalize these Understandings immediately. Doing so takes many mortal lifetimes, which you will have. For now, it is enough that you memorize them.
“The first Understanding is that of Ash. The dead do not forget he who sacrifices for them. When the living sacrifice to the dead, the dead hear, and they know. The entire Underworld economy is founded on the back of this Understanding, which you will learn in time. In return, the dead give the living their boons, and so are welcomed by them. This ties Creation and the Underworld together. Learn how to use this Understanding.
“The second Understanding is that of Bone. It is better to die than to live, better to be free of flesh than saddled with its imperfections. Many deathknights teach this catechism to their victims, who then choose the road of death for themselves. You, I suspect, will simply impart its truths whether or not your victims are willing. Nevertheless, remember it. Life is pain, is struggle, is suffering. Death is none of these things. Life is chaos, while death is pristine stasis. Life is flawed, while death is perfect.
“The third Understanding is that of Pyre Flame. It is written in the stars of the dead that the living shall never triumph over the Neverborn. Our victory is guaranteed, deathknight. The only question is when. Remember this, and remember that a costly victory now is less desirable than a cheap and total victory in a thousand years. Also remember that it is your sword bringing this prophecy to fruition. Every time you slay a mortal, every time you represent the Neverborn, you represent their inevitable victory.
“The fourth Understanding is that of Blood. Mortals propel the downfall of Creation. This is not a victory, but a warning. Mortals do not understand. They propel Creation not into pristine Oblivion, but into formless Wyld. They must be stopped, before all that is eventually unravels into Chaos. You, my deathknight, will be the one to stop them. Better that they die and be freed than live and suffer the world to fall.
“The fifth and final Understanding is that of the Void. There is no escape from the all-consuming mouth of the Void. This is the most important truth, the most critical philosophy you will ever know. You must understand, truly understand, this lesson. The Void is inescapable, it is utter Oblivion, it is Nothing. All will eventually fall to it, inevitably, and once consumed, nothing ever returns. You already know this, deep down in what remains of your soul, or you would not have accepted my offer, but you must truly know this, or you will be lost.”
“Lost, Mistress? To what?”
“To my Neverborn master, and the Mouth of the Void.” The Lover stopped before a blackened oak door in the depths of her palace, lit only by the sad, flickering radiance of a single torch. “Your training will continue beyond this moment, should you pass the test of the Neverborn. You and I will walk into the Labyrinth, to the very mouth of the Void, and there you will commune with my Neverborn master. He will look into the depths of your soul, and he will judge you. Should you fail, you will be utterly annihilated. Should you pass, you will be elevated and truly become my deathknight.”
The stranger nodded, summoning all his courage. The Lover put a hand on his chest to slow him, and even so light a touch sent a thrill up his spine. “Leave your weapon and armor here. They will be of no help to you down there… and should you fail, I would pass them on to the next deathknight.”
The stranger removed his armor, slowly and carefully, piling it at the bottom of the steps. Beneath, his features were ragged and rotten, maggot-eaten and desiccated. Still, he unabashedly disrobed, until he stood in nothing more than a stained jerkin and breeches. He laid his blade next to his armor and nodded to the Lover, indicating that he was ready.
Together, the two of them passed through the door at the bottom of her manse and into madness. Beyond the door, there was only a hallway, and darkness. The walls were made of basalt, and they howled and writhed. Runes pressed out of the surface of the walls, crawling and scribbling glossolalia before breaking into mad gibberish. In the seconds when the walls formed words, the stranger felt their meanings clawing at his sanity, as though if he could just make them out, he would understand all the mysteries of Creation, but his mind shuddered away from those truths.
Down, down through hallways and staircases the Lover led the stranger, where every shadow was some eldritch horror, held back by fear of the stranger’s guide. There was almost no light here, in the Labyrinth, but what sense his eyes were denied, his ears compensated. He could hear scrabbling, scratching noises, as of nails on stone, or multi-legged things skittering just out of sight. He could hear screams, always muted and in the distance, as if coming from several passages over. He could hear breathing, a deep, slow breathing, and when he realized it came from the walls themselves, he felt his vision swimming, his pulse grow faint. Still, he closed his eyes and went on, forcing himself through the dank horrors.
Finally, the Lover stopped him, as the pair stood at the runed, stone lip of some yawing chasm, so wide the stranger could not see the other side. He had believed they walked through darkness in the Labyrinth, but standing here on the precipice, he knew Darkness for the first time, a hungering blackness that was deeper than any shadow he had ever known. He felt gnawing fear in his guts, knowing that should he fall, there would be nothing. No afterlife, no reincarnation, not even a ghost. He would be swallowed entirely, and he would never emerge.
The Lover stepped to the lip, and the stranger noticed that even she hesitated a moment. She raised her arms up into the void above them, and called out in a voice that mingled both terror and bliss. “Nameless Master, Born of Murder and Oblivion, hear your servant! I bring a new Exalt to you, that you may approve the Black Exaltation and make of this non-man a true deathknight in the service of your faithful servant, the Lover Clad in the Raiment of Tears, She Who Must Be Obeyed!”
No reply came from the Void. How could it? Nothing escapes the Void. And yet, the stranger felt a consciousness probing his own, a primordial awareness. Even as its tendrils first slipped into his mind, he was recoiling, both psychologically and literally stumbling backward away from the mind-numbing horror of the thing, for in that brief touch, he knew what it was. He could not understand it, any more than a gnat could be said to understand the crushing hand that destroys it, but he knew.
In its touch, he could feel malevolence like nothing else in existence could feel. He felt the touch of a mind older than he could conceive, older than the concept of time. He felt betrayal like an adder’s sting, white-hot rage, and a consciousness that spanned entire cosmologies. The thing he served, the monster down in that pit, he knew was one of the architects of all that was, and that it had been murdered and cast here to rot in this endless, yawing Oblivion, but that it had not fallen entirely within. He knew that was what it wanted more than anything, was to end its endless nightmare dreaming and fall forever through Oblivion.
When the shuddering, probing fingers of the invader pulled from his mind, his vision slowly cleared, and he found himself huddled on the floor, heaving blood from lips so dry they cracked and split. His body shuddered, and he closed his eyes, thankful the ordeal had ended.
He felt the Lover’s touch on his head, and he could feel her satisfaction radiating from her like light from the sun. “You have passed the ordeal, and you will serve me as my deathknight. My Neverborn master has named you the Unrepentant Sovereign of Murder, and so you shall be as you begin your training in my service.”
The stranger stood, rolling the title around in his mind, like savoring the taste of a fine meal. It soothed the scars left by the Neverborn’s intrusion, and he found it fitting, like the piece of a child’s puzzle. He smiled grimly. “Gladly.”