Return of the Blight
A fresh night rises anew over Shadara’s east. The lands of Darkgear awaken under the soft span of Luna’s cool light. Eos Veil, the world’s cloak of stars, renews its flamboyant shroud of shines in an aurora of atmospheric splendor. A natural fit for the period of Umbrafrost as Darkgear dwindles its frigid season’s climax point.
It is the twenty-first night of Bhudde, the third and final month of Umbrafrost. The majestic metropolis of Centra, etched from the titanic mountains of Mt. Nocturnus, radiates in the calm azure of Luna’s great sphere. The sovereign herself, Malice, roams awake in her bastion keep, Darkgear Citadel, its crystal and chiseled stone a beacon of fantastic firelight over Centra’s four districts of leisure and commerce.
Malice has embraced solace in her chambers prior siesta after a long and strenuous span of sleepless protest. Now she takes suitable leisure inside her regal gardens, Jinovia Terrace. Tenderly studious in her favored read while unchained from what she calls ‘crown duty’. She sits under her favorite tree, Darkgear’s largest and eldest wonder, the lavandula. The tree’s hunky mass of lilac leaves and ample blossoms precious to the garden’s voluptuous prim shrubbery.
The book in her possession, Shadara’s Genesis, graces her eyes many times over to a point she can memorize Shadara’s origins by heart. She turns each page by a delicate hand; her dainty fingers in spotless jewels and bracelets tune and adorn her wrist. Her violet glyph-encircled eyes shine with attentive glow; content in the tome’s expansive literature as if new.
Her time of peaceful reading ends as one of her high chamber maidens, Grand Va’Kari Nuzu Onima, approaches her corner sight.
The Grand Va’Kari are high maidens, part of Malice’s royal service. They manage the common level Va’Kari, handmaidens in simple term, and well adept in the forces of magi as they wield their innate abilities under royal decree. Nuzu is a calm woman of unruffled refine and lesser words. She never speaks much, but a voice lives true within as her partial mute behavior adds to her tall and distant manner.
Nuzu comes off impersonal to many, her voice cold and detached, lacking emotion in her every word. Such qualities mistake her as an icy woman. A passionless figure reserved in her regal cloak of gaudy hood and trinkets contrast to her comely appearance daubed in burnt copper—her skin.
She finds her sovereign sitting happily alone under her tree and removes her slack hood in respect. Thick tresses frame her high-cheeked face and join in a plump black braid hanging large in union over her firm bust. Nuzu presses her hand gentle to heart. She bows her figure in esteemed formal greeting before Malice, who in return ends her studies with a warm smile and close of her book.
"Dear Nuzu," says Malice warmly, "unexpected of you."
“I come early,” Nuzu replied, “with news from the northwest.”
Malice puckers slight a brow, mildly impressed in the swiftness of her scouts’ duty. It is too soon of news to her. What awaits her at her throne chambers is not the information she anticipates the most from elsewhere.
"As for the current?" Malice says without having to clarify as Nuzu answers consciously.
“Nothing of recent,” replied Nuzu. “We still await the other party. What we know is safe to assume.”
“Safe to assume, but dangerous if true,” says Malice. She stands up hugging her book to chest, and they both leave Jinovia Terrace. “It is taking too long with the others.” Her voice shifts in worry. “Longer than anticipated.”
“You’re troubled,” Nuzu says to her.
“Naturally,” Malice says delicate enough. “I have the utmost concern in every revolving asset. When things begin to shift in the winds of common conception, it moves me.” She nods to herself on that note. “Sometimes change in the littlest things is… worth a thought.”
“But you have been restless,” Nuzu says. “We worry of your health.”
“Fret not,” Malice says. “I am fine. The earlier siesta is the last I ever suffer from such privations. Besides,” she smiles, “sharp minds never sleep.”
The conversing Malice and Nuzu enter the elegant citadel halls packed with loitering patrons. A group of chatter-happy maidens catches Malice and Nuzu’s attention as a familiar high pitch chuckle draws their eyes. The culprit of laughs is a jovial little woman name Shilieza Kale; a modest sized woman in Grand Va’Kari robes and hair tight tied to the top of her head spilling colorful bead tresses pass her round cutesy face. Her childish voice a famous quirk, comical squeaks of content in a high-spirited twitter heard for miles.
In the citadel, they call Shilieza ‘Miss Giggles’. A name that rings true as Shilieza’s adorable voice squeaks. It is not just her chortle; her favorite style of hair gives her away. Shilieza dons a vivid style of beads and auburn braids streaked in colors.
Shilieza’s rib-tickled conversations with her fellow maidens fade to throat-soothed twitters as Malice pulls Shilieza’s undivided attention. As the other handmaidens take their leave, Shilieza lands an eye-to-eye moment on Malice. With Nuzu’s somber face, she pulls a wild guess from Malice’s precise and cordial facade.
“Well, well, you are becoming mighty winsome again,” Shilieza says perky. “Finally over your thinking spells?”
Malice snorts a quip. “Yes, I have. I thank you for your caring nuisance. Could explain why sleep fails me.”
“Nuzu advised I keep away. Natural for a Khan to find themselves stuck in a brain tizzy,” Shilieza says sarcastic, playful on Nuzu’s solemnity. “But you know me; if you are wide-eyed then so am I.”
“And with your concerns I thank you again,” Malice says, “both of you, but now affairs await.”
“I suspect I am needed?” Shilieza says.
“The vanguard await,” Malice says. “We must go there at once and pray their return is of worth.”
“When are they never of worth?” says Shilieza in a jest, and the fact Malice is not easily offended. Shilieza’s dashes of wit in her retorts are nowhere insulting.
“Activity in the Prime is scarce,” Malice says as the three of them take walk for the awaiting scouts in her throne chambers. “Most of Darkgear’s events stay focus on Centra matters and neighboring regions. There rests fewer infractions within Centra’s populace, and emptier cells within our dungeons. Though nothing is ever perfect, no matter how severed.”
“And every period, suspicious reports turn out to be trivial occurrences resolved by district patrol,” says Shilieza. “If you ask me, I prefer scarcity.”
“It does nothing to ease my concerns,” Malice replied.
Shilieza grunts a brief little hum. “You stress yourself like crazy.” She gestures her hands in a frantic look of half-curled fingers as if stressing in a clutch. “Those annoying visions of yours do nothing but further your break into wildness.” She looks to her. “Since when have you last slept well besides the former?”
Malice twitches a smirk. “I do meditate in place of sleepless nights.”
Her reply just an excuse to Shilieza, which leads Shilieza to shake her head and say “But it does nothing to add any height to your figure.”
The three enter Malice’s elaborate throne hall, an elegant antechamber embedded with eons of Darkgearian heritage and antiquity. Polished pillars of black and vivid violets dazzle the hall with more stoic guards post on each column inches beneath the still hang of the Khan family crest banners.
The throne of Shadara sits timeless and superior upon its lofty, stair-riddled dais that Malice ascends quietly, and her Grand Va’Kari follow behind. Malice takes a moment. She is but a sit-down away upon the impressive seat of obsidian and luminous lavender stone crystals. If it were not for Shilieza clearing her throat, Malice’s frozen state would have continued.
Malice finally sits, and Shilieza and Nuzu take their places, standing beside her.
The vanguards wait below; five masked scouts of murky obsidian tight in body armor take a knee. Their sole purpose is to collect information, survey forces masters of shadows in their practiced scrutiny for Malice throughout the nightrealm.
The vanguard leader kneels ahead of them in a black cloak of leadership over most of his appearance. He alone speaks of their findings once Malice allows, and what they relay is more problems for the pile of sovereign issues. Tedious matters, if not just shock worthy, for Malice’s busy brain to sort out.
"We bear news from the northwest. The Oro abducted the Mahzin. The natives present appear to be of the Mhor’Oka clans, and hold the Mahzin captive at Ravens Glen."
Malice raises her head out of composure and right into dread-felt sensations cooking up a miniscule boil inside her gentle gut. Such instincts are too small to ignore. The bad news of the Mahzin triggers slight unease. In the face of this surprising predicament, her fingers benignly tap upon the crystal throne’s rest.
“That’s… rather shocking,” Shilieza says.
“The Mahzin are nomads originating from Murkshroud. Most are traveling artistes. They never settle in one place.”
“But Ravens Glen?” questioned Shilieza. “Treading Azzani soil there… no one worth their sense ever roams their roads given how dangerous they’ve become.”
“Ravens Glen is no stranger to Mhor’Oka activity. It is a shared dominion after all, though very mutual," says Malice. She calmly ponders the subject in hopes of a few things in particular not showing up in this urgency. "Their giant kin are not so hospital. As for the Mahzin, this is quite unordinary. They tend to travel paths less jeopardous."
"We’ve discovered something else,” the vanguard leader adds, and Malice’s brows twitch a tiny bit. “Prime Elder Gerodima Odin is present in the troupe.”
No. It cannot be, thought Malice. It is, as she feared.
The prime elder himself is among them. Malice ceases the nice little tap of her fingers on worried cue, and her two Grand Va’Kari change face with her. The name hits Malice’s heart and explodes her gut in flips of soundless panic, a sign not good to Nuzu and Shilieza.
The vanguard continues. “The captives remain unharmed; however, the Oro savages appear task in sending them back to their compound.”
“This supports the rumors surrounding the numerous caravan losses miles off Ravens Glen," Malice says.
“It couldn’t be the Oro clans, could it?” says Shilieza.
“Several goods have failed to reach their destination here in Centra, and several patrols have come back without an answer,” says Malice leaning in her throne contemplating the conclusions drawn. “Caravans have been disappearing and nothing is to blame for it. If the Oro are involved, the Mhor’Oka especially, then finding this group holding the Mahzin could expose the missing convoys.”
“The Mhor’Oka have grown bold… very bold,” Shilieza says.
“Amazing I did not suspect this sooner,” says Malice, “on the Oro raiding supply routes. Perhaps a readjustment of itineraries is in order.”
Still surprised at the prime elder's presence so close, Malice’s inner being is stuck in an invisible unnerved frenzy. It is proper to hide emotion behind strength. She never thought Gerodima would venture from Murkshroud. Such a notion blew away, for an unnerving nightmare manifests into unwanted reality.
There is more than one group of Mahzin after all, the entirety of them originate from the southern lands in Darkgearian control. The more stationary of Mahzin stuck to their native homeland with Gerodima, one of the oldest and wisest of his kind, and all of Shadara.
His mobility is very rare… this is of great importance, Malice thought again, and continues to do so throughout the vanguard's report.
In the midst of this undesirable news, something good comes of it. Gerodima still lives, and his sudden presence in Darkgear points to her. He is on the way to visit. She knows this now.
A notice in advance could have better sufficed.
She looks to Shilieza and Nuzu. The two just as touched by the vanguard’s news as Malice. How she cannot wait to see him again, but a fearful realization continues to boil her guts. Gerodima is in Mhor’Oka detainment.
What would they want with a prime elder is baffling enough to her.
"Gerodima..." Malice says to herself in a lax stunned tone. “Are they unharmed?” she says to the lead vanguard.
"Nothing of harm,” says the lead vanguard. “Their previous route entails their destination before abduction was Fort Lojos.”
“The distance does not merit the lack of response,” says Malice a little flustered. “Odd, I received no alerts of his coming in advance.”
“Surprise, maybe?” Shilieza assumed, and more than likely right on the dot about it. “The old man’s playful when perked.”
Malice nods. “Tis a good reason, obviously.” She looks to the vanguard scouts again, preferably the one speaking. “Fort Lojos would deliver word if otherwise.”
“They were overwhelmed before contact,” the vanguard leader says. “For the Mhor’Oka, the Mahzin will not stay long. Their shamanic members, the sha’jaka, guard the site.”
“Then they know I am coming for the Mahzin,” Malice says wittingly as she shifts in her throne. “To assume them ignorant to a prime elder is fruitless to take for granted. Gerodima and his people will be enslaved if we are not swift.”
“Since when did the Mhor'Oka keep slaves?” Shilieza says tilting her head, puzzled in the face.
“When they turned savage against me, but no matter, they will come to a disappointment this night,” Malice replied, her soft tone solemn as her stern gaze.
She lowers her head and closes her eyes, chilling her nerves of hot concerns. “The Mhor’Oka, as well as all Oro tribes and their ancient beliefs, are precious. They never concern themselves with new age customs.”
This is not one of her easiest of nights, but she possesses what she believes—although not her best choice in opinion—is definitive solutions to these teething troubles.
Without moving her lips, a man in daunting black pops from a burst of dusky smoke, and kneels close to Malice. His grim mask centered in the obscure of his hood, a mask and presence all knew in this chamber to be one of the Blackguard, the sovereign’s Special Forces.
The blackguard greets the sovereign in an honorable tone, and Malice responds with simple orders.
"Ravens Glen, bring them home."
“As you wish,” says the blackguard. He vanishes in another poof of darkness.
Malice dismisses the presently quiet vanguard. They too disperse to black. She breaks from the throne’s comfort as she leans forward, uncrosses her legs, and settles her nerve-cooled hands on her knees.
It is never a good feeling when those of admiration are in danger.
"He finally arrives," says Malice unable to experience the happiness of shock in full. "Gerodima has been absent from us for a very, very long time."
"Far too long," says Shilieza.
"Still the lively one despite his impressive longevity," Malice replied. Her words should sound happy. Instead, her words are laced with trouble. "Gerodima captured by the Mhor’Oka bothers me. Yet, the feeling shall be fleeting. Gerodima will arrive unscathed and the Oro responsible will meet dire consequence for their actions.” She paused, enough to borrow some silence in pity for a decision she hates despite its need. “The Oro Mhor’Oka are old, primal, and beyond rational thought… as disappointing as it sounds."
Her Grand Va’Kari—Nuzu and Shilieza—silently understood.
“I do wonder,” says Shilieza. She moves forward to the throne stage’s edge and drops her eyes pass the stairs to trace the floor’s architecture with her hands perched to hips. “Just what has made the Mahzin stray from the safety of the main roads? Gerodima could have ordered his presence to be secret.”
A good question indeed, as Malice slants her head in a struggle to answer. She fails. “Maybe he has. Your guess is as considerable as mine,” she says. “This is the Oro sha’jaka’s trickery at work, warping roads by sheer illusions. A sha’jakir is the strongest of their shamans. In fact they rival even our spellbinders.”
Shilieza frowns her lips oddly, her way of finding strangeness in a situation easily avoided. “How foible,” she says, “very, very odd, and here I thought the Mhor’Oka to be a spiritual wolfghar-loving sort. They’ve really turned eager to cause a bit of mischief.”
“The Mhor’Oka are known to be dire and territorial. Like before in the past they have bumped heads with bordering small towns now abandoned. The survivors now live here, safe behind my walls.”
“You comply with their wishes yet they continue to despoil like wild little animals,” says Shilieza. “They do not take you seriously.”
“They will now,” Malice says unhappy. “The Mahzin are free-spirited people and deserve none of the Mhor’Oka terrorizing.”
“And I am sure if one attempted to harm the prime elder, they will be in for a mighty surprise,” says Shilieza.
“Yes, for Gerodima is a clever one,” says Malice heaving a gentle sigh of dismay-swept hope. “He can be very… unsound. Like the rest of us. Such is the nature of Shadaran kind, imperfect perfections flawless yet flawed. I am just thankful his migrant group did not find themselves deep into more troubling of areas as of late.”
“Troubling it is,” agreed Shilieza turning her gaze away to something else catchy to the eyes, like the artsy-drawn ceiling of stone and its hanging globes of calm crystal light bathing the hall in indigo. “These long times of solace near a difficult break, but as usual there always comes a calm, and with it,” she fingers into her, “a storm. Wonder what is coming this time.”
Truism at best, Shilieza's trite words may have been commonplace, but not even Malice can counter her response with a better string of words not so cliché. Even the shallow jargon, overused phrases, retains its weight, and the anticipation of what is next.
Signs of pessimistic views cease in Malice. She just wants Gerodima safe now.
“Bad ambiance. I have no choice but to face it forward and endure with my own devices,” says Malice once again defying her worry for the sake of optimistic results, as well as adding icing to Shilieza's remark. “Everything will get better with time.”
Nuzu keeps her patient eyes on Malice the whole time. More of an observer, Nuzu absorbs the sovereign’s worry and stratagem. Concluding Malice is—as she is known to do—takes the entire burden upon herself.
“May I remind you, this you do not weigh alone, my sovereign,” Nuzu says. She reminds Malice like times before when she thinks of herself as the only one bearing the problems. “We all deal with the actions of our ancestors, even when the fault is not our own.”
Before Malice utters an answer, another poof of darkness springs unexpectedly leading Shilieza to jump back startled as she hops in a tiny yelp in her step, and both Nuzu and Malice fix eyes on the lone vanguard from the nippy shroud.
“My lady sovereign, Onyx Crag is taken by the dreadspawn. Lesser creatures, the nar’ghul, frequent the mining quarry. Their overseer is yet to surface.”
Shilieza narrows her eyes in a hateful spark. Malice straightens her posture in slow alarm.
“I was expecting something of less suspicion,” says Malice taken aback in her soft voice. “Onyx Quarry is barren of resources.”
“Using dreadspawn to mine ore? The damned is going on?” Shilieza says lost as her distaste for dreadspawn is in check.
“Naught to be disregarded,” replied Malice. “I should have taken action on first rumor. I expect a hundreds worth festering there… hundreds more beneath the earth. Return and gather as much as you can,” she orders the vanguard, “Whoever commands them will show. A nar’ghul’s controller is never far.”
The vanguard leaves instantly.
“Dreadspawn… a blight unending,” says Malice.
“Worth the expulsion,” Shilieza replied with little to no remorse, “with extreme prejudice.”
“Caution is must,” says Malice. “Dreadspawn sightings are very few in between.”
“The last they festered was… previous nightharvest season, during the Daevani Festival,” Shilieza says. “My favorite time of the season, minus the repulsive dreadspawn.”
“To the far east,” Malice added. “Frost ghuls. There showed no sign of a controlling figure with them. A long going mystery not even the consortium can solve, but I know this; Onyx Crag has remained intact until now. Never have they assembled so close.”
“The mines are sterile,” Nuzu says. “Their fester is an attempt to set up dwelling.”
“There are many abandon tunnels under Onyx’s terrain; commonplace for creatures to dwell.”
“Perfect for them,” Shilieza says. “Render the quarry asunder and entomb the nar’ghul with it.”
“Sounds effective, but other hidden pockets of dreadspawn dwell,” Malice says. “As Nuzu indicated, it is likely they have taken up habitation.”
“But it is so easy to just end them with a simple fold of the earth above them,” Shilieza says disirably. “All quarries have deep pits, deeper caves,” she sighs giving up, “I reckon a thorough inspection is valid than scrubbing the disease blindly.”
“The dreadspawn are a result of forbidden magi, the spells of diabolist practiced in secret and a crime if exposed,” Malice says. “We know with every cluster of dreadspawn there is a controller, one who reins them all. Whatever is there among them, whoever is commanding them, we will know this time.”
“Then let us hope their master shows face,” says Shilieza. “Since your decree, hiding in Shadara’s shadows proves better strategy in concealing the spite of those who claim to be revolutionists opposing your order.”
“Shadara’s ever-night has its darkness,” Malice says, and she her raises rune-rotary eyes up to the winding scribes littering the chamber dome as she takes the time to appreciate the throne room’s interior, and the thick lore it prides itself in. “Where the light of Luna knows no shine, darkness stirs and so are the evils tainting its sacred shadow. I will not let what we worked so hard for be snatched away, only to be tossed back into the darker than dark times.”