For more than 3,000 feet, Dwarven craftsmanship and Gnomish ingenuity could be seen along the walls and ceiling of the tunnel. The only thing that broke up the lengthy hallway was the 2 sets of stairs that dropped the traveler an additional 2,000 feet. Clockwork mechanisms, gears and gadgets of every shape and size, were built right into the walls, floor, and ceiling. Things were spinning, turning, flipping, whirling, and clicking to where one felt like they were inside a living a machine. Crystal blue lamps were worked into the machine work every so many feet, casting an azure glow everything.
All in all, the trip down the tunnel would be an amazing thing if it wasn’t for a great heaviness, sadness, a darkness that was cast over everything.
The metal work once shined to the brightest and smoothest of finishes, was now a dull, brash luster that was subdued and cold. The meticulously crafted lamps with their once vibrate blues had lost their life and now glowed in hushed monotones. In the end it could be simply stated that everything had become cold and grey like an old cemetery on a foggy, moonless night. But as Eesakar and his 20 acolytes, chanting a hushed mantra behind him, made their way down the subterranean tunnel, what color was left seeped away under the folds of their robes.
The last staircase ended in a colossal hall that could have fit Eesakar’s full dragon form with room to spare. The ceiling was covered in massive gears that drummed and clanked as they slowly turned in place. Pipes along the base of the walls converged on either side of two towering doors. Made from the purest adamantine, the strongest stuff in all of Anoria, they stood solidly 40 feet above the group. Almost as wide as they are tall, they were protected by five crossbars intersecting at a great 3 layered seal at the center.
There was the faintest sickly green glow across the doors, the only notion that they were magically sealed. The glow that had robbed the doors of their magnificence swirled and pulsated as if coming to life as Eesakar raised his hand toward it. The black robed acolytes fanned out in a semicircle behind him, their leader in green robes at their center. Heads bowed and arms enveloped in the folds of their robes they began chanting in a hushed monotone. Their mantra weaved back and forth through the air like an invisible serpent as it floated back up through the tunnel. Any who came to hear it quickly shrank in fear, balling themselves into the fetal position on the floor and whimpering long after it moved on.
With his other hand Eesakar raised his scepter, pointing it at the door. The glow began to wash away in ripples like a stone dropping into a placid pool. When the light had receded, Eesakar turned his hand in a series of rotations. A lock mechanism within the seal began to move, clicks, whirls, and groans began to breathe out of the sealed doors. Gears and gizmos came to life as a combination of bolts slid back into their respective alcoves.
After the last bolt slid into place, the doors swung open of their own accord, a low fog rolled out of the doorway filling the room just below their knees. Groaning like a great beast, the doors came to rest against the walls as the robed figures stood in silence. Engulfed in darkness, a great cavern stretched out beyond the doors. Though the walls and ceiling spoke of a natural cave setting, the floor had been crafted into 5 precise tiers rising before the group as they stepped up into darkness.
As Eesakar stepped into the cavern he turned toward a rectangular shelf that ran along the base of the cavern walls. He blew into the flame adorning the top of his staff, causing a miniature fireball to fly into the shelf, igniting the amber liquid inside. Green flames raced along the perimeter with their purple fringes did little to brighten the massive chamber.
But what it did light was something else altogether.
Each statue held a thousand statues, metal sentinels arrayed in shadow. The metal facades, blackened and changed by dark magic, seemed to suck the meager light into them. Not a single flicker mirrored or reflected off the surfaces as Eesakar moved toward a circular depression in the center of the floor in front of the first tier. Again the acolytes fanned out into a semicircle behind him with their leader behind Eesakar. They waited silently, hood covered heads bowed, for their master to proceed.
Eesakar placed his staff into a hole at the center of the depression.
“Let us begin…”
If one were to stand outside in the foyer and looked in; it wouldn’t be the chanting or the magical fire, or the darkness that sent chills down your spine.
It would be the eyes…
Thousands of eyes began to light up in the inky black before Eesakar. Like the flames befitting his magic, they eyes glowed a sickly green with purple highlighting their sockets. Green and purple lines began to crawl along the surfaces of each statue. Runes and incantations inscribed into the metalwork lit up one by one, answering Eesakar’s call. As the last one lights up with dark energy, Eesakar takes his staff in hand once more and walks over to the first tier.
From afar, the golems before him looked just like Hudmo’s war machine. But on closer inspection one could see the demonic incantations, dark symbols, and black magic pouring through every cog and wire of each machine. Power emanated from their heart crystals that could turn a man’s blood to ice in his veins just by looking at them.
Eesakar smiled as he took in the 5,000 machines before him.
“You have done well, Kilkoresh,” he didn’t turn around as the green robed mage stepped forward.
It was hard to call his robes green for they were so dark they were almost black and you could only tell the difference when he was with the other acolytes. A limp in his right leg and the unbearable stench of death were the only other notable things about his outward appearance. In truth it was the deathly stench that gave away what he was, for it forever would cover him. Kilkoresh was a lich, an undead black magus, created by Eesakar himself. In dragon form, Eesakar engulfed him in the magical fires of his breath for defying the dragon lord. After the flesh had been melted off his bones and he was no more, the black dragon raised Kilkoresh, creating the undead lich as punishment.
Kilkoresh’s empty sockets looked up toward Eesakar’s army as he moved to stand beside his master. Within the shadowy folds of his robes was a twisted and rotten corpse mixed with machine. Where bloated pale flesh or ash grey bone ended, clockwork mechanisms, metal plating, and inscribed incantations began and held his crippled body together.
“Thank you, Lord Eesakar,” he never looked at his master, never giving him the satisfaction, and instead seemed to stare through the army toward something else.
A void of magic and shadow was between him and something he most coveted above all else. There was an artifact in Eesakar’s possession that contained the key to the lich’s freedom. With his life force tied to that relic, but out of reach, he couldn’t destroy it and thus end his servitude. He silently growled as he gazed upon the relic in Eesakar’s layer. A phylactery it was called, created by dark magic; old magic. It was something beyond his own powers to create but was easily enough destroyed, if he could reach it. He sighed; alas it was Eesakar’s portal, covered in layers of magic that was the only way in and out of that place.
Bringing his thoughts and view back to the chamber, he noticed Eesakar watching him, deep in thought. It felt as if the dragon was staring through his heart.
If he still had one.
“With the final incantations in place and the ritual complete,” Kilkoresh indicated the golems, “We are ready to move forward, my lord.”
Eesakar stared at him a moment longer before turning back to inspect the golems once more.
“Begin immediately,” he looked deeply into the eye sockets of one golem, marveling at the mixture of machine and magic. “I want the gnome city obliterated quickly so that our forces from Feyraven can combine with yours at Uruk.”
The gnomes won’t be a match for us,” Kilkoresh moved toward the end of the first row of golems, farthest from Eesakar.
“3 Dola’Rex are already chewing their way toward the city. Two for your war machines and one for myself and the other magi with the goblin and orc fodder you provided to protect us.”
Eesakar turned toward him, his eyes gleaming, “Good, with you in the north and Daemonas in the south, we will control the Southern Reach and the Gulwren Plains. The cities to the east will have to go by sea or the Greymist Pass in the North through Helmcross. The Whispering Sands desert in the southwest is still cut off by land and once we control the region then not a single airship will make it through either.” He crushed his clawed fingers into a fist for emphasis.
Kilkoresh visualized the region for a moment before speaking, “What of the Khardazaun Dwarves of the Firestone Range?”
“On the western border of the plains? Bah!” Eesakar spat, “They enslave a bunch of fire elementals to fuel their forges and they think that makes them superior in power? Please,” He shook his staff in the direction the stronghold would be if they were on the surface.
“They will be dealt with last, the Firestone Range already provides a natural barrier and no one dares go south around the range and traverse the Wasteland!” Eesakar scoffed, “They are an afterthought, nothing more!”
He moved back toward the doors as the magi gathered around the lich. Sensing that Kilkoresh was watching he smiled and turned around, “Don’t fail in your task, lich. Or your punishment will be far more severe than undeath.”
With that, the monster made his way down the long tunnel once more, the tapping of his staff echoing around him. The lich with empty sockets bore its malice into Eesakar’s back as he walked away. The pure hatred manifested around Kilkoresh, causing the acolytes around him to shrink back and shudder.
“I wait for that day, ‘Master’, I wait for that day…” He wheezed through dusty husks that once were his lungs. Like his other organs, they had been desiccated and bled dry long ago. Without looking he raised a skeletal hand, pointing toward the doors, “Noc tor Vanas.”
As one cohesive harmony the golems marched down the tiers, settling into rows of 5 behind the magi. The great column snaked through lower levels to the staging area. The Dola’Rex were already deep into the roots of the mountains as they chewed through the rocks, leaving large tunnels in their wake.
Kilkoresh admired their work as they tore voraciously through the rock and sediment, like a moorhound through flesh. “First the gnomes of Meknor, and then the Dwarven capital…” He cackled at the thought of the doom that they would bring.
• • •
At the Highest balcony on the tallest most powerful tower in Anoria, stood a man broken, and lost. His beautiful Feyraven Tower was no longer powerful; its outer walls had come crashing down because of betrayal. For more than a thousand years the walls have stood against every kind of assault, storm, and catastrophe, and in the end it was someone on the inside.
General Pyrhus had worked with that man for years. He didn’t like his personality but he did his job well enough that the general had put his trust in him.
A trust that cost the lives of thousands, including a close friend.
He gripped the stone crenellations before as he looked down upon the army encampment stretching for miles around Feyraven Tower. The buildings and grounds between the outer wall and the tower had been picked clean and torn down. Now only stone debris and soldiers filled the cracked and torn courtyard.
Screams, both human and animal, floated up to him on banshee winds as the storms continued around the fortress. Strange that it wasn’t raining directly on the fortress but just outside the crumbled walls. Below, soldiers rallied around the tower screaming obscenities and cheering on the trolls as they bashed away at the doors. With clubs, hammers, and rams, they persistently smashed away at the doors around the ground level but to no avail after a week. The magical paintings in the magi’s quarters could transport people to far away locations or store items. Thanks to those artifacts the civilians and wounded were already through to the Dwarven capital of Uruk as well as ambassadors sent to the Royal City of Othar where the Grand Council presided. Alas, the magic was fading from so much use and Leonidas said he couldn’t get away to grab the things needed to restore it.
Thankfully, 2,000 Dwarven soldiers from Uruk and 2,000 soldiers from Othar had come back through the portals. The defenses had been bolstered, his own men now refreshed and back on duty with the new troops. The horses were being kept in one of the halls as a makeshift stables and the 1st floor had been loaded with rock and debris. Only the foyer for the central stairwell was still free of debris. Here defensive positions had been set up with soldiers rotating in groups to guard each point.
It had become a war of attrition now; he hated the concept but there was little else he could do. 9,000 troops guarded Feyraven Tower against well over 100,000 soldiers, trolls, demons, and all manner of chaos.
“It’s only a matter of time,” he whispered as he watched the troops far below.
Eventually the doors would be broken down and torn away.
Eventually the rocks and debris would be cleared away.
Eventually the stairwell would be taken.
Eventually Feyraven would fall…
“Eventually,” he said aloud, “but how long is that?”
The magic was almost spent on the magi’s paintings. Those portals had been a godsend. Using them to get the wounded and the civilians far from here and at the same time bringing in what troops they could to bolster the defenses. But all magic doesn’t last forever without attending to it, and there was no way of getting away to get the special items needed. The Eschrehim, known to him for years as Leonidas the Magus, said they had one more use. A plan had been proposed, one who dreaded with every fiber of his being. The magical portals could use the power of the last transport to in essence self-destruct. When General Pyrhus had asked how large of an explosion, Leonidas had bowed his head in sadness.
The color had drained from his face when the realization of the truth hit him, “NOoo…”
Sorrow and confusion were quickly replaced with anger and pain. “This fortress has stood for centuries and you want me to be known as the general who singlehandedly destroyed it?” His fists clenched at his sides as he tried to keep calm.
Right then as the situation unfolded before him and the truth was laid bare, his shoulders sank.
He knew Leonidas was correct.
Feyraven would fall but it would take as many of the enemy with it as they could hope for. The dwarves vowed that when this war was over another army would come back here. An army of Uruk Dwarves would come back and rebuild the tower once more. They assured him it would be bigger and better. But Pyrhus didn’t want that, he knew it was selfish, but, he didn’t care. Feyraven Tower had been his charge and his home for as long as he could remember. He knew every board and stone, every nook and cranny.
It wasn’t fair.
He would go down in history as the one who lost Feyraven Tower, The Sentinel that has guarded against the Wastelands for centuries. Pyrhus slammed his fist into the stonework; it hurt unlike anything he had felt before. But nothing hurt more than losing the tower. His hand would bother him too if it wasn’t for the situation laid before his feet.
“I am sure friend, that that punch hurt the stone more than you just now,” the voice was calming and friendly, perhaps that’s why the general didn’t spin around, blade in hand. He still had his hand reflexively on the hilt of his sword as he looked over his shoulder. Pyrhus’ posture relaxed as Leonidas stepped forward coming to stand on his left. It was comforting to the general to see the Eschrehim back in human form.
“I am sorry for intruding General Pyrhus,” Leonidas looked haggard which surprised the general given the nature of the being beside him. Reading his expression, Leonidas smiled, “I am sure I look a mess even though you know who I truly am now.” He raised his hands up on either side emphasizing his look. “We are not perfect though we strive to be and many believe we are. You only need to look at who leads the darkness to know that answer.”
“True,” Pyrhus had to concede but it was still strange to him as he remembered the stories of old about the Eschrehim.
“How is Siphidias doing? Has his condition improved?”
“I was able to get him to change back into human form, which helps but only slows the process. The darkness will consume him if I don’t get him more help soon. His condition is beyond my own powers and truly it is his own will that is keeping the darkness at bay.” Leonidas clasped his hands as he leaned on the stone crenellations. He bowed his head for a moment praying silently before looking up once more. The storms raged around the tower but it was deathly quiet around them as if they were in the eye of a hurricane. Weaving in and out of the cloud wall were Daemonas’ drake riders. A sensation washed over him just before he saw them; 2 demons were up among the clouds as well. Leonidas’ brow furrowed; his fingers gripped the stone so hard that it cracked under his power.
“Leonidas,” Pyrhus put a hand on his shoulder, the touch bringing Leonidas back to wherever his anger had taken him.
He looked down at his hands as crushed stone sifted between his fingers. He shook his head as he whispered another prayer. Then bringing his hands down on either side of him he calmed himself once more.
“Forgive me old friend,” he looked into Pyrhus’ eyes seeking that forgiveness.
The general scoffed, “old friend? By your true identity I believe that would be a drop in the proverbial bucket, considering how long you have been around.”
They both chuckled at that before the general continued, “You have your forgiveness friend, though you don’t need it for your actions just then.” He pointed toward the demons and drake riders, “They are responsible for Magus Siphidias’ condition, I understand your emotions and sympathize.”
“It doesn’t make it right, especially for one of my kind,” Leonidas bowed his head and solemnly continued, “Anger is what causes us to fall, just like in the past.”
The general nodded, “True, but righteous anger is not the same kind that sends you down a darker path.”
Leonidas shook his head, refusing to back down his thoughts, “Anger is still anger, general.”
The general sighed, “Think of it this way then,” he moved his right hand out in front of him, open palm up.
I believe the word justice would be of better use. Seek justice not revenge, then and only then will you be in the right.” He raised his left hand in the same manner as he motioned with both, “There is a fine line between justice and vengeance. Many try to blur that line and make it larger to justify their actions.” He pointed toward the chaos around them, “Choose the right path and know that others will stand by you.”
“Again, thank you General Pyrhus. I know the burdens you carry as well, but know it is the right thing to do,” he put a hand on the general’s shoulder, “and the right thing in this case is farthest from being the easiest.”
They both looked back down at the armies below and before them, taking it all in. General Pyrhus grudgingly had to admit it was an impressive sight to see so many soldiers in one place. It was terrifying as well. The time and resources it took to gather, control, and move and army that size was staggering.
And indeed it did scare him.
This wasn’t a mindless force attacking without thought or reason; it wasn’t blunt chaos. If the reports from the Grand Council were true, then this was an entirely new kind of monster. It was methodical, calculating, they knew where and when to hi. Larsa proved that they also had a network of spies throughout the cities as well. Pyrhus had no clue how many there could be or even how high up the infiltration was in the hierarchy of things.
The general sighed as he reached up and rubbed his temples, trying to calm another growing headache. It won’t be long before they break through,” he turned to Leonidas, “I believe it’s time we gathered the others. As much as I don’t want to, we need to be moving on from this place.”
They turned to leave into the safety of the tower, “I will check on Siphidias and then meet you in the war room.”
They crossed the stone balcony in silence, the wind carrying the noises from below up to them.
At the door, Pyrhus allowed the Eschrehim in first, “I will see you soon my friend.”
With that they took different hallways for their destinations.
• • •
Merwenna moved from her hiding spot, Cristiana protesting silently behind her. Bow drawn, she picked her way down toward the edge of the massive chasm.
Cristiana stayed close behind, “My lady, it is too dangerous.”
Merwenna didn’t answer but continued on along the perimeter. They stayed close to a low rock wall as they watched the creature search for Barbossa. Merwenna had seen the man disappear behind the rock mound, but had lost track of him. To their far left, the gnomes and Sir Gavland were loading the massive siege engine.
Adoril held his amulet over the wooden shaft as he mouthed an incantation. The wood began to glow, startling Gavland causing him to almost drop the enormous shaft. Roono did his best to help as Gavland finished loading the contraption. Lebus was near the ledge where the weapon sat. He couldn’t take his eyes off the great beast; watching its every move. An expression of awe and horror was painted across his face as he relieved his childhood over and over again. His lips quivered in a silent prayer as he watched Serovax as it searched the rocky outcropping for Barbossa.
The siege weapon ready, Roono and Gavland lined up the shot as Adoril stood to the side still chanting, his hands creating symbols in front of him.
“Kilcay Gnomesch Ka!” Adoril suddenly shouted as Roono pulled the lever.
3 excruciatingly loud clicks, Merwenna thought, before a loud twang resounded around the cavern. The shaft sliced through the air, glowing, as it raced over the chasm. Serovax snapped around at the sound, screeching in rage. Seeing the shaft racing toward it, it tried to leap out of the way. The move caused the wooden pole to slam into the chest just above where the heart should have been.
Bright light erupted from the wound, filling the cavern and blinding everyone in sight. Serovax roared, causing rock and debris to rain down below on everyone. It reared back scraping at the shaft as gas and flame erupted from its jaws. It slammed into the rock pile rolling back forth along its slopes until it slid down the decline to the cavern floor. Writhing in pain it snapped repeatedly at the shaft, failing to rip it out.
Merwenna and Cristiana had finally caught up to the others just before they charged. Arrow after arrow slammed into the exposed belly; sizzling and burning away leaving only the tips imbedded into the flesh. The light, now faded, seemed to burn from inside the wound, peeling back flesh and burning away at the exposed muscles. Its breathing became ragged as the light surged up through its body, searing lungs and scorching organs. Serovax collapsed on the ground facing the chasm; the endless deep that lead back to its home. Closing its eyes for a moment the creature tried to gather what little strength it had left.
First one clawed foot slid forward; talons scratching lines through rock and dirt. Then the other foot moved as it achingly began to drag itself forward. Inch by inch, step by step, it made its way toward the edge. The eyes were barely visible slits as pain wracked its body causing it to convulse and shudder. The magical light burned its way through every inch of the monster’s body as Serovax continued toward the edge.
The gnomes and humans were only a few hundred yards away, still launching arrows and the occasional magical bolt. Barbossa finally emerged from the rock pile; half sliding, half falling down the uneven slope. Reaching the cave floor he pushed himself faster, “No…you…don’t…,” he growled under his breath as searing pain shot through his chest and ribs.
Serovax seemed to hear him as it turned its serpentine head around as it continued to crawl, letting out a hiss in protest. With one last effort as it reached the edge, Serovax launched one last breath attack. The noxious fumes washed over the ground like flood waters breaking through a dam. The attack itself pushed Serovax across the floor to the lip of the chasm. Its body hung on the edge as if it anticipated going home but was fearful of the fall.
Barbossa screamed in pain as he rushed through the clouds on pure adrenaline and rage. The fumes peeled back skin and broke down the leather he wore, the pieces falling away like leaves. With sword held high he didn’t care, he didn’t feel the poison anymore burning over and through him. Just as Serovax fell over the side, Barbossa burst through the clouds and leapt over the edge. His sword plunging down into the monster’s back as he rode it down into the abyss.
“Barbossa! NO!” Right hand outstretched, Merwenna took several steps before falling to her knees in sorrow. Hands covering her face, Merwenna’s cries echoed around the cavern. Her lamenting hushed the others in their own sorrows as they looked upon her trembling form. As her crying quieted, a glow appeared both around her and down in the heart of the chasm.
Out of the corner of her eye peeking between her fingers she noticed the light, but didn’t look up until she heard the others gasp.
“My lady!” Merwenna gasped as she looked upon the Eschrehim Nemalia, in her angelic form.
She wore the lightest ice blue colored armor that shined as if it had been dipped in the sun. Her feathered wings shimmered like pearlesque waters of a perfect sea. Her hair was like the purest form of golden silk as it flowed around her as if she was underwater. Nemalia’s eyes were crystal clear orbs filled with a milky white fog that constantly swirled around. Her lips were the colors of a sunrise as her smile seemed to melt away all sorrow and pain.
“Arise, Greystoke’s daughter,” her voice was a mixture of song and an otherworldly presence.
Cristiana quickly stepped forward and helped her mistress up. She pulled all the strength she had left to try and not stare at the angelic form, but it was almost too much to bear.
The wings lazily flapped behind Nemalia as she turned her attention to Cristiana, “Do not be afraid child, for you all have a long road ahead of you still,” She smiled once more as she spoke, “Take courage in that you have each other to lean on and to trust in.”
Merwenna shook her head, “We lost so many men and…” she choked back another sob, “…Barbossa is…”
Cristiana held her close, trying to comfort Merwenna as much as herself.
“…Not lost yet,” Everyone looked up in shock and confusion.
Nemalia raised a hand, silencing Merwenna as she continued, “There is not much time, know that Barbossa still has a part to in future events.”
Merwenna looked to the chasm to see the glow diminishing.
“Merwenna, daughter of the Light,” Nemalia stepped forward, her wings folding behind her, “There is power in you that has not yet fully awakened, a power that you will need in the times ahead,” The Eschrehim laid a hand on Merwenna’s forehead as she whispered a mantra silently to herself. Miniature twinkling stars of light like sand blowing in the wind wove along Nemalia’s arm and crossed over to Merwenna. Miniature twinkling stars of light, like sand blowing in the wind, wove along Nemalia’s arm and crossed over to Merwenna. The grains of starlight swarmed over her entire body in a whirlwind of light, blinding everyone. The whirlwind continued for a few more heartbeats until all of it was sucked right into Merwenna’s forehead where Nemalia’s hand rested.
Cristiana stood back horrified and amazed at the spectacle before her. She wanted to reach out to Merwenna but was deeply afraid not just of the light but of what the Eschrehim before her. She gasped as she looked toward Merwenna’s eyes as the starlight enveloped her eyes as her mouth opened in a silent scream.
Nemalia turned toward Cristiana, her own eyes glowing now, “Cristiana, help her.”
Cristiana barely registered the command before rushing forward and catching Merwenna’s limp body. Sir Gavland rushed to their side and helped lay Merwenna down. Cristiana cradled her head in her lap as the knight removed his cape and draped it over Merwenna. Cristiana, tears welling up shook her head as she looked up, “What have you done to her?”
Nemalia’s eyes flashed but then softened quickly, causing Cristiana to bite her lip. She shouldn’t have verbally lashed out at an Eschrehim. What was she thinking?
“I understand and feel as you do, child.” Nemalia adjusted her wings, “Know this, when she awakens she will be much more than she is now.”
Cristiana’s eyes narrowed, not sure at what she had done to Lady Merwenna.
“Watch over her until that time, protect her for she will be defenseless until then.” The Eschrehim pulled away from them, her form gliding across the cavern floor until she was out over the chasm’s center.
“Protect her from what?” Cristiana called out angrily as she got up and rushed to the edge.
Nemalia vanished before her eyes as a light shot straight down into the chasm. A disembodied voice called out, as if everywhere and nowhere at the same time, “Protect her…”
A light flashed somewhere far below, “They are coming…”
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