Airs felt Bane's presence moving west as she knelt upon the raven alter. Each Reaver's heart was a pulse in the back of her mind. She could stand and point to each of them like the needle on a compass. Though this awareness each other didn't bestow the Reavers with telepathy, it allowed them a vague sense of one another. A handy thing at times when someone was in distress. Except for Grim. How Airs wished she could simply banish that dark, lustful nature from her mind. There was an old rivalry between the races of Elfer and Feahe.
Taking more time than brash Bane had to recover, when Airs rose it was with steadiness and dignity. She gave a quirky smile at the perfect circle of cleanliness around her slim frame. With dainty feet clasped in high steel boots - heeled of course - she went through the only entrance and exit of her tomb. Unlike the hallways in Bane's Epitaph - she had ventured to Niinheim once some centuries back to make comparisons - hers were narrow and confining. Probably because I'm such a delicate and precious flower, Airs mused cynically.
The first bodies she encountered were of two women robed in acolyte brown, cleaning rags gripped in death. Airs was disgusted to see their faces creepily frozen in ecstasy. The Elfer wrinkled her nose at the slumped figures, whose flesh was already turning to gray as it ossified to stone. The blood had been drained through their pores to feed her soul, leaving a husk as pale as her sympathy. This was what the Devout dedicated their lives to; the preservation of the Reavers, and when the time came, to give their lives for them.
"I commend your effort," Airs told the women as she swept past. Will they never learn that only one believer's life force would have been enough?
The rest of Nobielheim's Epitaph was much the same. The hallways littered with bodies as lank as dolls, now having become Death's playthings. Those few that remained alive had been men and women of doubt; those who had not worshipped the Reavers with absolute certitude. They hadn't performed the last, most vital of ceremonies. The only one that mattered; their oath to the Omnistone. The dreaded, behemothic of living stone that stirred every thousand years.
"Sing to me of the Reavers, who died upon the Stone," Airs intoned in an eerily jaunty voice. "Sing not to me of the nonbelievers, I've left them all alone." The word Reaver had never been her term. It was something derived recently over the last couple millenium by the general populace. Battlesworn is what the five of them had been named, and what Airs still thought of herself as. For that was the core of what she and her companions were. From each race, one person had been nominated to spend the following 12,000 years battling the Dreadlords. To Awaken and take up arms against the invading armies, who sought to subjugate all of Mevrule.
The first moving body that Airs found was kneeling half hidden in a prayer alcove. It was a priest dressed pristine white robes belted with gold. He middle-aged and stout by Elfer standards. Airs came to a halt, studying the pathetic husk of the man. Like herself, he had the drooping, elongated ears their race was noted for, and the fabled skin the color of burnished copper. Of the five, the Elfer were the wisest and longest lived.
Yet, a life for this man from the moment his Reaver awoke, would only be a torturous one. The soul was ensnared in a bag of decaying flesh. Already the tips of the man's fingers had turned black. He snarled and shook his head like a mad dog, trembling under the weight of his own insanity.
Airs cleared her throat and when the priest looked at her, she saw that he had gouged deep grooves into his face. The man's oval eyes had become as red as the murder in his heart. With surprising speed he leapt to his feed and lunged for her. Airs twirled to avoid him, and when she came to face him again there were two long, thin swords in her nimble hands. The man was stumbling to his feet when she buried twin lengths of three foot steel through his shoulders. The Mindless hung there for several moments before Airs put a heel to his back and pushed him off. The man fell face first, snarling even as he choked on his own blood.
Wiping her blades on the man's soiled robes, Airs turned in search of further Mindless to purge.
As Airs' swords slid effortlessly into the Mindless' flesh, Shade's eyes snapped open with the same suddeness of the blow. Always the third, Shade grumbled to himself. The third to die, the third to Awaken. Always the middle man. Every thousand years when Pandemonium fell to Earth, heedless Bane would die first, and once lovesick Airs followed him, there was no one left to protect poor, little Shade. Shade, who was the youngest to become a Reaver, and twelve thousand years later, was still the youngest. The Gnomte's other two companions felt no responsibility for the ageless adolescent.
Shade was aware the instant his feet were free and he leapt from the alter with the nimbleness of a rogue. Not as brutal as Bane or as merciless as Airs, Shade had always felt his skills went unappreciated. With grappling hook in hand, he could scale any wall, penetrate the implausibly thick hides of the Trolls, and trip a rushing unit of Goblins.
With the flicker of a thought, the grappling hook fell into his hands. It sat inside heavy cylinder casing, with a ten foot chain that appeared wrapped around the Reaver's waist. When he desired, Shade could willfully lengthen the chain. The launcher clasped to his forearm, with a lever release mechanism. It was a useful tool, but an impractical melee weapon, so Shade had a cluster of knives also. As he thought of them, they came to settle in various hiding spots on his person. Up his sleeves, down his shirt, in his boots, and even in pockets on his gray breeches. Unlike his fellow Reavers Bane and Airs, he preferred loose, flowing cothing. It hid his small stature. Grim and Rage preferred to wear almost nothing at all.
Shade didn't linger in his confinement. With the speed that had made him an agile thief before he was ever Battlesworn, he sped through the halls of his prison. Whenever he encountered a corpse or a Mindless, he leapt over it or sped along the wall around it. His short legs pumped with a thousand years' of bridled energy.
It wasn't until he had reached the foreboding gate of the Epitaph that Shade came to a halt. The boyish Reaver stood panting in the entrance's shadow, and stared in wonder at the streets of Shurheim. When had it gotten so warm again? He remembered vaguely Awakening once in the midst of a Winter that shrouded the entire world in ice. It had always been warmer in Shurheim; it may have snowed here once a decade. It was thrilling to wake and breathe the wonderfully humid air of the desert again. Four days' travel to Vorstheim would see a dramatic change in geography. Each provincial capitals of Mevrule reflected the nature of the its race. The Gnomte were small creatures that mainly dwelled beneath the earth, where they harvested ore for the Gientun to shapen. Small, round buildings stood sparesely throughout Shurheim, bearing entrances into the underground city.
Gnomte who had experienced the effects of Pandemonium's arrival, were lying curled on the hard, packed earth. Thick fat flakes of ash fell from the sky like dying stars. Pleas of help and mercy was all that disturbed the stagnancy. A Gnomte woman fallen near the gate glimpsed the Reaver through eyes glazed with pain. Unable to see him, the woman must have felt his dictatorial presence. People had described it to him as a force that compressed their chest and soul.
Reaching out a trembling arm, the woman cried weakly, "Dear Reaver, p-please...m-my child..."
There was a foreign tightening in Shade's chest, like the time Bane had wrapped his whip around him. This woman expected him to save her, for that's what she had been taught he would do. She was short (even for a Gnomte), with a roundish head and a nose meant for a larger, narrower face. Airs and Grim no doubt wouldn't have found her beautiful, but Shade had always thought them both incredibly vain.
Shade moved closer and that's when he saw the baby beneath the woman's furs. It was fussing quietly, and he thought if the child knew the words, he would be praying for help too. Kneeling beside the pair, Shade rested a hand on the woman's shoulder in what he hoped was a comforting manner. He had never possessed the instinctive kindness Grim displayed.
"Let me look." Shade winced at the sound of his own childish voice. Yet when he looked down into the baby's face, his heart dropped into his stomach, heavy as a stone. The child was blind as well, and his ears were already turning from olive to black.
'Heed the wind with no sound, for it brings with it the Rot. Heed the cries of the unsound, love and touch them not.' The second stanza of an old rhyme; a mantra and a warning. Always when Pandemonium landed, it released a foreign biochemical substance. Whether an intentional or unintentional asault from the Dreardlords, it nevertheless proved to be an effective weapon. Anyone directly exposed to the greasy substance, contracted terrible a disease that caused rapid necrosis. The infected areas would first turn numb as muscle shriveled and skin blackened to the shade of a raven's wings. Then it would begin to slough away, exposing muscle and tissue as feeling returned. It as a harrowing death, and the only mercy the Infected could hope for was that their kin would slay their throats for them. Never had the Reavers found a cure, and never did they have time to.
Three days is not enough, Shade thought sadly.
Resting a hand on the Gnomte woman's forehead, Shade whispered, "Hush now. The Father and Mother will grant you and your boy a place in their home." The woman relaxed visibly and lay back down with her baby.
With a grimness tainted by a mild thirst for fresh blood, Shade served them both mercy with a flick of his wrists. Standing, he slipped the knives back up his sleeves once he had cleaned them on his pants.
Gazing beyond the sparse buildings and walls of Shurheim, Shade glared hatred into the alien form of Pandemonium. He may have been duty-bound to enter that structure and fight the Dreadlords, but he was moral-bound to grant his kin the clemency of swift death first.
Reavers can be more than killers...can't we?
If the Feahe needed to take deep breaths, Grim supposed that's she would have done once her mouth had become flesh again. The Feahe's bodies were built specifically so that bodies could sustain themselves in higher alitudes. So instead air moist with the deliciously tangy taste and smell of blood, just swirled idly in her lungs.
Grim had sensed the others' Awakening with the sensation of breaking forth from the icy depths of the ocean. There was no such feeling for her though, and instead the transformation was simply a tedious and irritating.
Possessing the natural balance and grace of the Feahe, Grim merely stood upon her podium as the tingling subsided from her limbs. The way Bane had collapsed earlier, you might have thought this was his first Awakening. With a haughty sigh, Grim unfurled her translucent blue and black wings, flapping them a few times to stretch the muscles. They fluttered so quickly as to be invisible to the negligent eye.
Satisfied, Grim let her wings carry her towards the exit, hovering a few inches above the floor. Interesting that the Devout's blood still shied away from her even though she wasn't touching the floor. The hallways of the Feahe Epitaph were the highest so that Grim could fly through unhindered. She gazed mournfully down at the corpses of her brethren; their skin once as fine as silver now darkening to a deep, ugly gray. The shambling forms of the Mindless she rejected quickly. Those were the men and women who hadn't had enough faith in their saviors to be willing to give their lives for salvation.
They don't matter, Grim thought with indifference. The Mother and Father will judge them. It's not my place.
The Epitaph's twenty-foot gate had risen when the shower of blood creeping between the temple's stones washed over them. The wave of blood was thinning no, and just as in the Chamber, it parted to give her clean passage. When Grim emerged, she couldn't help but gasp at the sight of Pandemonium sitting in the distance, lodged into its rightful place. Those mountains were the portal between two worlds, and every thousand years the Dreadlords came to wage war upon Mevrule.
Grim frowned, and the tiny hope that they had finally won last time, died. Alighting upon the nearest rooftop of a set of stables, Grim inspected the frosty beauty of Vorstheim. The ice and snow had always been a part of the northernmost metropolis, and Grim was happy to see that the small mounds of snow meant that it had been a mild winter. During her last Awakening, a terrible ice age had gripped the entirety of Mevrule, and Grim had feared even the Feahe could not withstand it.
Pandemonium was the center of all things; of faith and religion, of dread and hope. The five capitals of Mevrule were built to converge upon that one spot. Walls erected by the Gientun enclosed each city and the land surrounding it. From atop the Twinpeaks, Grim had seen that the walls formed the outline of a five-pointed star with the world's portal in its center. Had the dull-minded Gientun done that purposefully, or had it been the will of the Father and Mother?
Several sparkling points on the distant alien structure caught Grim's attention. With breathtaking speed the lights whistled straight towards Vorstheim. With the heavy thud of a hammer hitting anvil, each spark landed within the city. Earth, stone, and snow mingled together in a maelstrom. Trees were uprooted, buildings capsized, walls crumbled. With just a thought, Grim summoned her seven-foot long scythe. With surprising strength for one her size, the Reaver slammed the point firmly into the rooftop of the building she stood upon. On her knees, gripping the staff of her weapon, Grim steadfastly withstood the assault of blown debris. Masonry shattered in bursts all throughout the city.
The concussion was over quickly. When Grim looked at the street below, she saw that several large, scaly pods had created enormous craters where they landed; effectively destroying the beauty of the Feahe's ingenuity Several bodies of the Feahe Infected had been tossed against the buildings, some now just bloody mulch.
The Reaver's heart skipped a beat as realization dawned. Freeing her weapon with a mighty pull, Grim leapt to the street below and dashed towards the closest pod. She had just swung her fabled weapon over her shoulder for a strike when the pod burst apart in a spray of deadly missiles. A scale as large as her hand embedded itself flew into her forearm. Another barely missed her eye, slicing open her cheek. Grim quickly removed the one from her arm, ignoring the blood pumping forth. Before the dust and snow cleared, a hairy form was already launching itself at her.
Grim swiftly backpedaled, unfurling her wings. But she couldn't pause long enough to launch herself into the air. The creature that attacked her was vaguely Human in appearance, but with larger muscles, and covered in a thin pelt of brown fur. Its eyes gleamed like two golden suns as it fixed the Feahe as its prey.
It was a Skinchanger, one of the more savage of the Dreadlords' soldiers. With yellow claws the size of daggers, the beast-man lashed out at her in rapid succession. Grim was forced backwards along the street, closer to another pod. The Skinchanger was too close for her to swing the scythe properly. Should have relieved Shade of some of his knives, Grim thought distantly.
The Reaver knew that the Skinchanger was driving her towards the other pods so that him and his pack could converge upon her. It had yet to transform into its monstrous wolf form because a Skinchanger was most vulnerable during transition. Grim had to kill it before the other Skinchangers freed themselves. Then she could take to the safety of the air.
The beast-man produced more snarls than words, but Grim caught snippets such as "winged bitch", "tight-assed wench", and several other base insults. Skinchangers may have been excellent predators, but they certainly weren't imaginative offenders.
Grim drew up her right leg, feeling the passing of clawed hands. Suddenly those long, wide jaws filled with sharp rotting teeth were ripping at the belly of her plated leotard. Gripping the shaft of the scythe tighter, Grim drove the butt of it between the Skinchanger's eyes. The thick metal rod dove several inches into the beast-man's head. The Skinchanger jarred to a halt, its eyes roving wildly, not yet realizing it was dead.
With adrenaline-fueled strength, Grim yanked her weapon free. The beast-man's head split apart, spraying bits of brain and globs of blood across the snow. Righteous fury built inside the Reaver's chest. The Dreadlords had sent Skinchangers to Vorstheim as their first assault on the Feahe. Skinchangers were trained to steal children to bring back to Pandemonium and their viles lords, to torture and transform into baser beings. Above all else, the Feahe treasured their children.
Not this time, Grim thought determinedly. She swung around as the pod behind her began to shudder. With a scream of rage, the Reaver swung the scythe two-handed over her head. The blue-straighted black steel sliced downwards in a blur. It cut through the scales as easily as flesh, embedding itself in the head of a second Skinchanger.
Vague impressions of first pain, disgust, sadness, and then rage swept into Ruin's mind like overlapping waves hitting the shore. Each had been brief, but Grim's had been the most intense. Watching the giant muscles of his broad body turn from gray to a dusky red, Ruin felt like each of comrades was trying to rip off one of his limbs. Even before the Gientun had Awakened, the Reavers were separating.
It was not entirely unusual of them to do, and Ruin didn't care much anyways. They were not Gientun, and had grown weak while they slept. Ruin didn't need to practice against the Lords' mice first. He would head to the mountains, simple as that. That was what he promised to do, so very long ago.
Ruin's brow furrowed in consternation as he tried to remember just how many times this had happened. How many times had he died? His last death had been at the viperous hands of three Dreadlords. The serrated edges along the whips' thongs had torn apart even his rough, leathery hide.
When the transformation was complete, Ruin was so surprised he toppled to his knees. Nine feet of over 40 stone collapsed atop the raven pillar. With a crack like lightning, the podium collapsed beneath him. His head struck the floor, almost too quickly for the Devout's congealed blood to shift away from him.
For several moments, Ruin laid there and groaned as a pounding formed behind his bulbous forehead. During that time he became aware of Bane's heartbeat rapidly increasing. The boy-man was not one prone to panic. Had he already reached the Fallen Stone? It was difficult to gauge the others' distance sometimes. It would be just like the tiny man to rush off to face the Lords alone. The Human's brashness was the reason he was often the first one slain.
Ruin had to roll awkwardly onto his side before using his meaty arms to push himself into a sitting position. The Gientun had famously short legs wider than a tree trunk, and arms so long the knuckles nearly brushed the ground. With hands the size of lambs, Ruin shuffled and grunted his way to his feet.
Ignoring the blood around him, the giant stomped out of the chamber. Every step rumbled like a drumbeat, pushing the great pool of blood against the walls in ripples. The ceilings of the Gientun Epitaph were vastly wide and tall to accomodate the race's colossal size. To Ruin, everything was at perfect scale, and it was the rest of the world that was too small.
Each body he passed honored Ruin rather than saddened him. These were his kin, who had rightfully placed their trus in his strong hands. That was how he had been chosen. A great brawl had been announced all those years ago, and Ruin had won against all 143 opponents. It had been the proudest day of his life. Atop of being showered with gifts of food and alcohol, pelts and daggers (all of which went to his family), sixteen women had come to him that night and Ruin had granted all of them his seed.
Yes, it was pride not sorrow that filled him right then. That was, right up until he came upon the first Mindless. The Gientun by nature were quick to anger, slow of wit, and prone to frustration. A Mindless Gientun was almost as dangerous as a Lord himself. In a way he didn't understand, Ruin summoned forth the greatest gift he had received when he became a Reaver.
A double-headed hammer as tall and wide as himself, made of rare red-veined black stone, appeared between his hands. Already his fists were positioned for a proper blow. He would not strike his own with anything but a deathblow, and the others would be waiting for him at the Fallen Stone. The hammer had barely appeared before Ruin brought all his strength down onto the Mindless' head. The four-inch thick skull at first pushed back against the blow, but Ruin had always been strong, even amongst the Gientun. With the sound of shattering glass, the priest's head caved inwards. The giant's eyes popped from its head and jagged teeth bit straight through thick, wormy lips. The Mindless fell to the ground soundlessly.
Ruin hardly paused before lowering his weapon and continuing down the hall. He dragged the head of the hammer behind him in a single fist, humming an old tune in a voice that of contained thunder. Unlike the others, Ruin didn't deviate from his course to grant mercy to his kin. Instead he only dispatched those that impeded his progress.
When at last he emerged from the blood surging over the temple's entrance, Ruin paused. The buildings here were surprisingly small, simple, and sparse, considering that the Gientun had crafted most of the other capital's buildings and defenses. But the giant-men were a simple people with simple wants; furs for warmth, tools to build, weapons to defend, women to mate with. Over thousands of years of the Gietun's feet walking them, Jutaheim's streets had turned into deep ditches. The buildings were simple structures, crafted of red stone five feet thick. Most were only a single storey and lacked proper windows. There were no fancy signs and no street names. You simply learned where everything was.
Even in agony from the Rot, the Gientun were too proud to beg mercy from gods or their Battlesworn. They sat or laid where they had fallen, grunting and muttering nonsense. Only a few acknowledged Ruin as he passed them. The Reaver averted his gaze so that his kin could keep their dignity.
A series of high-pitched squeals drew Ruin to a slow halt. From where he stood in the street, his head was level with the entrance from a nearby building, where the noises were echoing from. There was something familiar about those voices that tugged at Ruin's memory, but the Reaver remained puzzled. No Gientun ever made such sounds, except perhaps babes. It was not one of his comrades, for his sense of them didn't point in that direction.
Curiosity overcame him and Ruin climbed from the ditch. Still dragging his hammer, Ruin stepped through the doorway. The only light came from the frozen sunset through narrow windows in the one-room home. Squinting into the dimness, the Reaver caught a glimpse of tiny creatures even more spindly and thin than Shade. The intruders were leaping around the simple abode like frogs, opening chests and upturning furniture. One had poked its head into a doorless cabinet, emerging with a Passing Knife; a weapon given when a son first beat his father in a brawl.
The Gientun's two beady eyes burned with the flames of bloodlust. Expanding his chest, straining his six-chambered heart, Ruin bellowed into the house. The spindly creatures shrieked, clasping long-fingered hands over their drooping ears. Goblins, Ruin recognized at last. The primitive creatures were sneaks, cheats, and cowards. They slayed the weak, stole everything, and fought in overwhelmed numbers.
When Ruin swung his hammer over his shoulder it took out a chunk of the wall beside the doorway. Snarling as fiercely as a Skinchanger, the Gientun charged into the house. With heedless abandon, Ruin swung the stone hammer in arcs around him. Goblins were flattened against the floor and walls with the sickening crunch of crushed spines and ribs. One Goblin slipped under the reeling weapon and dashed for the door, its treasure forgotten. Ruin caught the creature on the backswing, sending it screeching into the ditched street.
In moments the room was clear of intruders and Ruin stood breathing heavily; not with exertion, but rather with furor. The cries of their brethren had drawn Goblins from ditches, houses, and rooftops. On two or four legs they hopped towards the source of the noise, clasping shiny red-black blades in little fists. Several paused to examine the motionless Goblin outside the house, hesitant to face the giant-man that crushed half their comrade's body in a single blow.
Hearing the Goblins, Ruin leapt into the trench. The Goblins stood transfixed in horror when they recognized the Reaver. Their sickly green bodies carried them haphazardly between the streets and buildings, panic driving away cognition.
Ruin chased the froggy sneaks a little ways before a tug in his mind drew him up short. Where Bane's panic had been unusual, Grim's fear was even more unsettling. Turning to face the Fallen Stone, Ruin thought, Stoopid. Almost forgot. Almost like them. And with that, the bloodlust melted from him in a single moment. The stone hammer fell to the ground with a jarring thud, and Ruin began again his slow trudge towards his destination.