The Versosi forest, midday.
Even with the sun at its brightest, barely any light touched the forest floor. It was the second largest forest in the world, only behind the Izash Forest across the Aixa mountain range. What set them apart, however, was that Versosi was home to ancient, towering trees with foliage that cast deep shadows on the ground.
Perfect for the beast Procrustes and his party hunted.
Its eyes were sensitive to light, but it might as well not have had them in the darkness that enshrouded this place. Procrustes was the only one to require a torch to avoid becoming lost. He was amazed at how his companions and the Vermili bandits who made their bases deep in this labyrinth of wood, leaves and soil, could see.
Vermili banndits were the least of Procrustes' worries.
The researcher surveyed the area carefully, partially in search of signs of the beast but also marvelling at the strategic advantage the forest gave. Deep in the forest, the Vermili would have the advantage of higher ground as the forest transitioned into mountainous cliffs. Lookouts and archers could hide in the treeline, and have clear aim to rain arrows upon trespassers from above. Truly a crook's haven.
Procrustes L Stavros was a Lediren, a man who dabbled in science and philosophy. Intelligence and insight were his people's birthright, whose technology far exceeded the capabilities of other nations in a full decade. Every Lediren was a pioneer in one field of science or another, and they spent their lives seeking knowledge and experimenting in the comfort of their labs.
Procrustes had a more... hands-on approach. He sought something he could only find here.
And so he left Ledire, and came to the mountainous Versosi forest to look for them. The Versosi forest was huge so his success was completely up to chance. He was lucky though, and they found him with no supplies and near death.
Procrustes was interested in their kind as theirs was the only race to retain their magic, and how potent it was! In a world where said commodity was near non-existent with the exception of the Ascendants, Procrustes was eager to find out what kind of people they were. It turns out their magic define their existence and was their very way of life.
It was also why they were the most feared race of them all.
He was of course, referring to his companions at the time: The Kuminai, worshippers of Death.
Procrustes' legs were already giving way, but his allies, with pale skin and black hair, could easily run circles around him as they trekked further uphill. Procrustes had come to learn their ways, and they proved themselves to be more human than the fairy tale monsters most texts depict them to be. They welcomed him with whatever they could offer, and taught (tried to anyway) him their language. They were surprisingly fluent in common, though they spoke slowly and in stuttered between words. In their tongue however they rattled to each other in a flurry of words. Procrustes found it all so intriguing.
Procrustes was pulled out of his thoughts by the repeated whispers directed at him. The party had agreed not speak loudly, lest the ears of their quarry caught them. When they found the beast they wanted to get the first strike in.
Procrustes wheeled around to find the Kuminai named Veser watching him.
"You are winded... I'll call for Thade to stop... and we will rest."
"I'm alright, please continue." Procrustes insisted, he was not confident in his stamina but he did not want to slow his new friends down. They had been acquainted for about a week now.
Veser eyed the Lediren. Procrustes towered over him in height, but Veser, a young man in his prime, intimidated him nonetheless. Full of zeal and love for his people, Veser was the only one who was cautious of Procrustes when he arrived.
"Don't be a fool… When the Shingam comes… You need to run..."
Veser chuckled at his own jest and dashed ahead to relay the message. Soon all of the Kuminai were crowded about the fire, and Procrustes had a good look of them once more.
Their tattered black cloaks differed greatly from Procrustes' khaki one. They kept their weapons on their back, while Procrustes had none. Pale skinned with dark hair, they had a certain twisted beauty.
The party unpacked the dried strips of meat they had prepared. Sometimes they would tell stories, and get Procrustes to share the stories of his travels and research. It was during these times that Procrustes felt most at home. Amongst beings the other races knew only as monsters.
This notion was not without merit, and as comfortable as Procrustes was with the Kuminai, he understood this belief very well. He looked beyond their circle and saw the others in their party. They stood at slacked attention, guarding the area and looking out for the Shingam. They still unnerved Procrustes, but to the Kuminai they were an inseparable aspect of their life. They did not gather by the fire as they were beyond any of the limitations mortal beings had; no interest in the comforts enjoyed by man.
They were Kyonshi. Human bodies raised into undeath by Kuminai magic.
“Stavros! Tell us your story… On the Ascendants… again.”
Nubisa, the youth among them, requested with the enthusiasm not uncommonly found in the children of Ledire.
“I’ve told it in the village gatherings several times already! Did you sleep through all of them?”
Stavros knew he had not, all the Kuminai loved the stories he had told them, particularly that one.
“I wouldn’t put it it… past Nubisa… to sleep through all that…” Veser added. “But I would love to… hear it again.”
“You tell good… stories, Stavros.” Aedd encouraged, the only female in their group. “And this one… relates to our… dear Thade.”
Procrustes met Thade’s glance, the last Kuminai of their party. Reserved and polite, Thade was the son of their chieftain Arciron. Gifted in creating and controlling Kyonshi, expectations that he would lead the Kuminai to greater heights were high.
Especially because he was one of only twenty-two Ascendants in the world.
“I don’t mind… if you tell us again.” Came Thade’s reply, with a small smile.
Procrustes met all of their eager, waiting eyes. They truly were like children, but they also reminded him of something else… Something he had not felt in a while.
With a resigned sigh, Procrustes straightened up and reached into the pool of knowledge that was his mind, and began his tale.
There were once a time the universe was governed by gods numbered one to twenty-one. With the spirit of artists, and divine powers to fulfil their cause, they went about their business creating the world.
Each god was left to his own devices in regards to what he wanted to create or destroy, but any serious decision they made they called to a vote, and with twenty-one of them, one side would always be favoured.
Of these serious decisions, they created Humanity and Civilisation.
Humanity differed from other creations, they thought and believed. It was then the gods felt lonely amongst the brothers and sisters they had known for millennia, and One, the Magus, reached out and spoke to the mortals.
The concept of Religion was born, a serious decision that went through without a vote.
It was not a bad concept, and it was harmless at first. Soon the other gods reached out and spoke to any mortals that would listen. The humans would show them acts of services, and in exchange the gods gave them power over some of their magic.
But power corrupts, and the concept of War was born.
The fighting manifested in the mortal world, and its corrupting influence affected the gods, who began to become more human with every interaction. They had human emotions and humour, and they waged war with one another.
The chance of salvation came when the gods realised how far they descended, and it was called to a vote, whether the gods would exterminate humanity and be free of the main source of their undoing or not.
The vote was close, too close. Eleven to ten. Then, a single, unknown voice, cast his vote.
The Jester, a spirit of the mysteries and manifestation of human archetypes, cast a vote to save humanity, and the scales were evened for the first time of their existence.
The gods could not explain the origins of The Jester, who was numbered Zero. Yet they could not deny that this new power was indeed, one of them. A god in his birthright.
Unable to find a compromise, the gods heeded the human cries of war.
There are many theories to what happened in this era, but they all end the same. The Jester had enough of the violence, both in their plane of existence and the mortal world, and sacrificed himself to end all conflict in the only feasible way he knew: He brought destruction upon the Twenty-Two.
With the death of the gods came the death of humanity's religious leaders. The masses lost their magic, their leaders and their will to fight. Wars came to a standstill, and eventually new leaders were elected. Leaders who would preach peace instead of war. Armies came home, and for a while things seemed well.
Then the Ascendants came.
The most prominent theory pertaining to their arrival speaks of the legacy left behind by the gods. With the death of the gods, there was nobody to control their magic, and it trickled into the mortal world. Except it only trickled to twenty-two chosen mortals.
What made matters worse was that the conflict of the gods lives on in these “chosen ones”. They were forced to fight one another, willing or not, their fates intertwined. They monopolised the magic in the world, and held the most sway in combat. With the conflict revived, mortals went to war once more. This time, the conflict seemed endless, for when one Ascendant died, the power trickled to a successor, and each side of the conflict always had eleven. There may be pauses between each war, but they would always come.
These conflicts would be known as the Ascendant Wars.
Procrustes waited for a response, but the Kuminai relished in the ending of his story. From their expressions discerned a mixture of awe and... Hope?
It was Aedd who broke the silence, as she hooked her arm around Thade's neck, to hold his head to her chest.
"Who would have... Thought our dear... Thade would be... Such a monster." Aedd teased.
For a moment Thade's pale face coloured. Nubisa nudged Veser, and both of them broke out in large grins at the sight.
Procrustes saw these high spirits as his chance to uncover the answers he had been looking for. Not delaying on the topic further, he asked bluntly.
"Assuming this story to be true, why have you Kuminai retained your magic when the mages of other nations lost all of theirs?"
The Kuminai looked to one another and it appeared their grins broadened further.
"Your story... Answers your question... Stavros" Veser said.
Procrustes was bewildered as the Kuminai nodded knowingly, only Thade seemed to emphasize with his confusion and gave Procrustes a friendly smile.
They were teasing him...
"But that doesn't explain anything..."
Nubisa leapt to his feet, and with the excitement of a child he so resembled, he exclaimed loudly.
"The conflict proves... We won!... We've won... Stavros! The Kuminai ha-"
The earth shook with a roar that left the party covering their ears. Nubisa tumbled to the side, completely taken aback at the ferocity of the cry.
"There goes... Our element of surprise..."
Aedd was the first on her feet, her black scythe drawn in a swift fluid motion. Veser was next to respond, crouched with his large black broadsword drawn. Nubisa had only just sat up as Thade and Procrustes were at the ready. The two were surprisingly calm.
"Nubisa!... It's because you... Yelled so loud... You idiot."
"We were looking... For Shingam anyway... Just forgive him alright?"
"Alright!... I'm sorry!" Nubisa pleaded. "I'll lead the... Charge, ok?"
"No hard feelings... if you get... killed."
Procrustes was amazed at how the Kuminai could talk so lightly about death as they charged forth. Nubisa sprang from where he sat, drawing his two black blades and dashed towards the beast. Veser rushed to the Shingam’s left, and Aedd to its right.
Procrustes had only seen the creature before in illustrations in his colleagues’ studies of animal life. Procrustes now found these detailed sketches flawed; They did not convey the ferocity and utter fear this monster seemed to embody. Vaguely humanoid, chimera-like, resembling a boar and a lizard. It was twice the height of Procrustes, who was a giant among humans, but even it was dwarfed by the Versosi trees. It had hairless, scaly skin, and beady eyes. A muscular body and long tail lined with spikes supported its gait as it stood on its hindlegs. What drew Procrustes' attention were the razors that lined the Shingam's gaping jaw, which unhinged in a loud roar.
Only Thade and Procrustes remained near the fire, the former was making gestures with his hands like a puppeteer, and the Kyonshi responded in kind, moving as a single unit to engage the Shingam. Soon Kuminai and Kyonshi surrounded the beast, their weapons at the ready.
"Forgive Nubisa... He gets carried away... But his heart... Is in the right... Place."
"I don't understand." Procrustes muttered, as he watched the Kuminai and Kyonshi circle the Shingam. It roared in defiance, and pounced on the nearest Kyonshi, tearing it in half with its sharp front claws. Another Kyonshi took the chance to stab at the creature, and Procrustes watched the creature’s purple blood flow, but also noticed the wisp of vapour that followed. Thade pondered, before asking.
"Have I told you... About the... Kuminai Ambition?" Thade asked, though he made no eye contact. In a swift gesture of his hands he commanded the Kyonshi to attack. The Kyonshi behind the creature dashed forward to stab it. Again, blood and vapour.
"Vaguely, to surpass Death."
Procrustes glanced at the Kyonshi. Another one was crushed under the Shingam's hooved hind leg, the weapon it held snapped in half by the weight as it tried to parry the blow. Thade seemed to know where Procrustes’ eye fell even as he commanded the intricate movements of each Kyonshi.
"The Kyonshi... Were our first... Attempt. But they came back... Puppets, not... People."
Two Kyonshi moved to strike at the beast. This time the weapons struck true, and a large wound opened up. The Kyonshi were quickly batted away like flies, and the creature roared in defiance. It was this time Procrustes realised that the vapour was steam, the large wound was bubbling as if it boiled..
"We are... Kuminai, worshippers of Death... Number Thirteen of... the Twenty-Two. He is the master... We seek to... Become equals with."
Veser and Aedd flanked the Shingam, and made gestures with their hands. A pitch black line, darker than even the surroundings, shot out of their fingertips and found their mark on the beast's arms.
Piercing through the flesh, the Shingam's purple blood spilled onto the surroundings. More steam erupted from its wounds as it roared in pain for what seemed like the first time. More hand gestures, and the strings found their way through the arm and their tips sunk into the ground, anchoring the beast.
This was the Kuminai magic, Shadow Thread they called it. Procrustes had been told this was the means they sewed Kyonshi together. To free the body of rigor mortis and grant them control over the undead body. Now it restrained the Shingam, as the Kyonshi and Kuminai moved in to attack its legs.
"When Nubisa told me the Kuminai had won..."
"He meant... We had outlived... Him." Thade made more hand gestures, and black string shot out of his fingers too. The strings sank into the Shingam's shoulders and into its mouth, before they too found an exit in its chest and anchored the beast further.
"Afterall, we still... use his powers, no?"
Nubisa came from behind the beast, but the Shingam swung its tail in his direction, sweeping him and several Kyonshi off their feet.
"Once we have... Found a way... To steal our people... Back from him..." Thade brought out his weapon, a massive scythe, pure black and decorated with bones. "Only then..."
The Shingam roared once more, and with colossal strength tugged at his bonds. The strings held, the Beast's flesh did not, and the Beast literally tore itself free. More steam, and purple, boiling blood rained upon the Kyonshi. The creature roared in pain but still it fought, and slamming its fists on the ground, sent the Kuminai and Kyonshi near it flying into the large Versosi trees.
Finally, Thade made his move, and slammed his scythe edge into the forest floor. A black miasma rose from it and rushed forward, consuming everything in its path until it struck the Shingam. The plants caught in its path withered and began to decay. The miasa engulfed the beast's body, and it began to bloat. It tried to scream, but it could only writhe with pain as the blood beneath its skin began to bubble. With a gruesome and satisfying pop the head burst into a rotting mass of decayed flesh, the open wound billowed a massive amount of steam.
The ability of the Ascendant of Death was to accelerate decay and inflict it upon his enemies.
Procrustes could not hold back his yell of triumph, but was cut short when the putrid stench wafted towards them, and he quickly covered his nose and mouth, fighting back what had been his meal.
The Shingam’s body staggered and fell forward…
...Before catching itself on its front limbs.
The eyes of the Kuminai and Procrustes (Procrustes in particular) widened in horror as the Shingam’s skin stretched from the bubbling beneath it. Curdled blood poured out of its wounds, which closed rapidly. From where its head had been flesh expanded and stretched, and something grew out of the purple gore. Procrustes caught what appeared to be a miniature head emerging from where its neck had been, as decayed flesh was discarded and replaced with new. The pulsating wound was soon covered as the head ballooned into proportion.
Procrustes was shocked beyond any response, but a wide grin snuck its way onto Thade’s face. It was rare that Thade was this excited
“Truly… This a beast worthy... To overcome... To surpass death.”
Realisation dawned upon Procrustes, and he smiled.
“This creature… guards the secret… to our ambition, Stavros.” Thade confirmed. “I swear upon... my name, Stavros… I will pave the way… to our Ambition.”
Thade readied himself with his scythe. Veser, Aedd and Nubisa did the same, and and in unison they gestured at the fallen Kyonshi, who rose to form ranks immediately. Once again they surrounded the beast. They failed the first try, it was time for the second.
And in a unified cry they charged at the Shingam.
Procrustes failed to learn the Kuminai language, but he did know the meaning of the name of Shingam. It was very clever indeed, this battle was metaphorical as well as literal.
The fight to overcome death, to overcome the Shingam.
Shingam... “Death God”...
Procrustes had always respected the exploits of the Kuminai, but he never thought that he would admire them to the extent that he did then.
Not only as a tribe of brave men and women that laugh in the face of death and seek to overcome it, but the faith they had in their cause was something very few people could muster in their most trying times.
Especially Thade, a natural leader who inspired those who fought alongside him. The ones that lived at least. Procrustes found himself wanting to join the fray too.
He truly hoped that he and Thade were on the same side.
Procrustes gestured to air, and a portal emerged at his bidding. He reached into it, and felt around the familiar surroundings that were his lab in Ledire. He had not told them he was Ascendant number Five. The same reason people feared the Kuminai, they also feared the Ascendants. He thought maybe he could at least tell the Kuminai, but he decided against it.
After all, he had already told them the stories of the Eternal Conflict he had found in his research, he did not know how they would react if they knew he was a potential enemy. There were no definite lines separating the Ascendants into two sides after all. Sometimes Ascendants would switch allegiances, but even then, the end result would still be eleven versus eleven.
With that in mind, Procrustes had to be cautious.
Unable to find what he wanted, he willed the portal to widen, and he stuck his head through to find his lab. He looked around and eventually found what he was looking for: His Journal. He reached out and grabbed it, and in passing saw the limp figure on the bed in the centre of his lab. It was where he once slept, close to his creations.
She had been gone for years, burnt in the Pyre Tower. Procrustes had a near perfect memory, but that was hardly the reason he could never forget her. Over a decade, he recreated her from artificial materials. The reason for his journey, lay on his table.
She had loved his stories, so he kept a record of them he had collected in his travels in his journal. In it he also recorded his findings, magic or otherwise that could help him. The encounter with the Kuminai had progressed his mission further than any of his journey. The journal Procrustes kept at his home here, it was safe and would never be lost here. Besides, he was never far from any of his belongings.
He could almost hear her voice now, he knew he was getting closer.
“Just wait for me, Trivia, just a while longer. When we meet again, I will tell you all the stories I’ve accumulated.”
Procrustes chided himself. Talking to a doll. His loneliness had gotten the better of him.
As he was about to retreat back through the portal and back to Versosi, something caught his attention.
A portable cannon, one of his first inventions. Too heavy to carry along with him, it shot rounds that punctured through walls as if they were nothing. Useful at times. Lediren law forbade the production of weapons, but Procrustes had little regards for rules when he was out of the country so much.
He picked up the weapon, and returned into the Versosi forest. He felt obliged to help the Kuminai with their cause after standing idly for so long.
Besides, their cause was his.
Procrustes had started down a path in search resurrection. It had been his field of study for years. He had researched extensively, and now were learning from the Kuminai.
Procrustes was close to his goal, he could feel it. His encounter with the Shingam had renewed his fervor.
The portal closed behind him, and the doll lay in what was once Trivia's and Procrustes' nuptial bed. Waiting.