Snow, always there was snow. Whether raging as a ferocious blizzard or falling so softly that it was hardly noticeable, every day there was snow. Indeed a day without snow would be like a day without sunrise. So it was and had been for generations past here high in the northern mountains.
The fortress had been built long ago in a time when others ruled this icy northern kingdom. Carved deep into the grey and silver rock its proud turrets and spires thrust out from the mountainside defiant against the raging storms and battling elements, an impressive legacy of a long dead civilization.
It was the only place of habitation in this lonely desolate godforsaken place and it stood isolated and defiant. If you climbed to the top of the tallest and highest tower and leaned out across the balustrade straining to see as far as you could, you would be rewarded only with the endless rolling mountains and the harsh white beauty of the snow.
As the greater sun began her slow laborious ascent across the horizon casting her weak golden rays across the glimmering sea of frozen crystals, a solitary figure watched in silence. The High Priestess stood like a sentinel upon her icy balcony, her face hidden behind a plain golden mask that revealed only her eyes. They were eyes that mirrored the cruel bleakness of the untamed landscape below and held no compassion and showed no joy at the beauty of the stunning vista before her. She clasped her hands tightly together while her long white hair cascaded down her shoulders and past her waist, billowing behind her in the stiff breeze. The ivory floor-length robes she wore would have been considered by most to be far too thin in such an inhospitable climate but this ice-queen did not feel the cold. Indeed, she rejoiced in its embrace and revelled in the freezing air that bit and tugged at her skin. Her eyes burned with an intense desire to achieve her goal and there was no place for compassion. As the lesser sun also breached the horizon she sensed that goal inching slowly closer. Years of waiting would soon come to fruition and it was time to begin the next stage of the plan that had been set out for her a generation ago. This day would see a lifetime of preparation finally put into action. Those who had ruled before her had paved the way and now she would at last make their years of preparation and devoted service have meaning.
She sensed the presence of another and turned to find her subordinate standing motionless behind her. The woman also wore ivory robes but her mask was forged in silver and her hair was flame-red, tied in one long plait that hung almost to her waist.
“They are ready,” she announced, her emotionless words whipped away by the wind as they passed her lips. The High Priestess nodded and followed the flame haired woman back into her chamber and then along a maze of tunnels and stairways which ran like a warren within the mountain’s bones. The way was dimly lit with torches set in rusty sconces, flickering feebly in the chill air but the High Priestess never missed a step or tripped on a loose rock or stone, so many times had she walked these pathways.
At length they came to the end of a particularly long and winding passage where a solitary guard stood to attention his face shrouded by a hood. He clasped a long curved scimitar tightly in his hands with its tip resting lightly on the ground.
“We embrace the darkness, our father, our sustenance,” the flame haired woman chanted. The guard nodded, turned and rapped twice on the stone doors with his blade. Slowly, ever so slowly the doors began to swing inwards and a great rush of air swept out and down the passageway but neither figure flinched. They waited patiently until the doors were fully open then walked at a sedate pace each step deliberate and focused into the vast chamber.
The cavern was huge, so big that the ceiling and the far side were lost in the darkness and at the centre was a large chasm, perhaps fifty feet across from which heat and steam and the occasional flame arose. Around this fire-pit burned a score of smaller man-made fires each contained within an iron brazier. Gathered in a circle around the central pit stood a hundred acolytes each dressed in the same long brown robes as the cavern guard their faces also covered by hoods.
As the High Priestess and her subordinate entered the acolytes began a low chant. The incoherent words created a continuous hum that seemed to fill the cavern absorbing all other sound until it reached a climax. The High Priestess moved towards the fire-pit and the circle of acolytes parted to allow her through. The flame-haired priestess followed and the circle closed behind her.
The chant came to an end with the sound reverberating about the cavern for several seconds before there was silence once more. The High Priestess knelt before the fire-pit and murmured a few brief words then stood and addressed the assembly.
“We embrace the darkness, our father, our sustenance,” her voice rang out into the blackness.
“We embrace the darkness, our father, our sustenance,” the acolytes replied reverently.
“The day has come,” the High Priestess announced, “The day we have worked towards all our lives. Let those who have been chosen come forth!”
Twelve of the robed acolytes broke from the circle and approached the High Priestess. They knelt before her in a small semi-circle and threw back their hoods. The shadows cast by the fires in the braziers danced across their faces. No two were alike, the colour of their skin ranging from pale white to darkest ebony and their ages falling between twenty and eighty.
“We embrace the darkness, our father, our sustenance,” they chanted with their eyes fixed on the High Priestess’s golden mask. She nodded in response and continued.
“Today you will go forth and carry out the tasks you have been set. Each of you has been chosen for their devotion to our master and each of you will be rewarded when he returns once more to this land. Are you ready to follow the path set out before you?”
“We are ready,” they replied as one.
“Then all that is required is a gift for our master, a sign of our devotion and our promise to follow him and worship him as befits his greatness.”
There was a pause and then the flame-haired priestess stepped forward. She walked past the kneeling acolytes until she was level with the High Priestess. With great dignity she removed the silver mask and passed it to her mentor. Then she walked purposefully forwards to stand at the edge of the fire-pit. Far, far below, a pool of lava boiled and swirled sending up spouts of sulphurous air and radiating intense heat. Without looking back and pausing for only a moment, the flame-haired priestess lifted up her arms and fell forwards into the pit never uttering a sound.
“It is done,” the High Priestess stated coldly, “Now go and carry out our master’s bidding.”
The twelve chosen filed from the cavern with the rest of those assembled following them. The High Priestess watched them go before turning once more to the steaming pit. Behind the golden mask her eyes were dry and burned only with a desire to serve her master. No compassion there would be no compassion when he at last set foot upon Tyrel once more.