Roads to the North
Once shining with the light of Sól, the vaunted halls of Caer Sól have grown dark. Where priests once chanted sacred hymns, where knights in shining armor once clashed blades in training, eldritch invocations and fiendish howls now resound through the ancient city, their voices like a rising cacophony, the thunder of a bleak storm.
Three priests stepped quietly through the gallery, each robed in black, each with a necklace around their withered necks. A white-haired, aging priest wore a necklace of a four-horned goat head. A dark-haired, youthful priest wore a necklace of a demonic face, surrounded by slithering snakes. The third, their leader, a sickly, horned woman, wore the symbol of a pair of bloody wings.
“The lore within these halls could fill our archives tenfold,” began the older priest, motioning to the tall bookshelves, surrounding him at every side. “We have only just begun, yet our plans are already nearing fruition.”
“Yes,” whispered the young priest in a shrill voice. “Thank the Master of Final Incantation,” he said, caressing the symbol around his neck.
The old priest stifled a laugh. “Thank the Prince of Undeath. Thank him for allowing the Shadowmaker to ascend to the black throne. And thank the old lich that he has allowed us to prosper here, rather than throwing us to the Abyss. We are fortunate it is us allowed, and not one of his… pupils.”
“Enough,” said the priestess. “There are specters here who would hear us.”
“Specters? The sun god has no power here. Look around you,” answered the young priest. He was right. The world had not seen the sunrise in centuries.
“Not of the sun god,” she answered, and the boy was quiet.
The priests entered a circular hall, with a great stone table. Seven stone chairs surrounded the slab.
The priestess held her symbol in her hand. “Las sra kim krema em srek rorr, ku sros va koae roc sra ki’k kacrask,” she whispered, and the floor moved beneath them.
Stones shifted from the black chasm that had formed, and a staircase fell into place as the priests continued, down, below Caer Sól. “The final piece is here. And then we shall sunder Frey.”
They entered into a great, stone area. Tapestries lined the walls, now defaced with the symbols of their dark gods. A great noise, like the beating of a drum, filled their ears, louder than the whispers of the gathered congregation. At the center of the room was a bloodied, stone table. The bleeding body of a man dressed in the garb of a priest laid upon the slab, and sat upon his form was a book.
The priests took their place at the center of the room.
“Let us begin,” said the priestess, and the beating stopped.
First came the sound of a screech, more like a dragon’s roar than an eagle’s cry. Then came the sound of breaking. Like stone tumbling, great pieces of something were being torn away. The cry came again, louder, muffled before.
Then it was as if the whole city was quaking, as though Frey itself was shaking, nervously preparing to accept whatever came next. The floor fell out around the congregation, disintegrating into tiny pieces as though stone was being burned away. The three priests were standing on an island above an ocean of light, a blinding white chasm.
Then came the noise of beating wings, and the thing came up to greet the intruders. The phoenix, like a bird forged from fire. And then it unveiled its burning talons, and all was white.
Under the bright light of Sól, three amulets fell to the cracked ground.
Swords fell on swords in the dark as night came to the ruins of Bregate. Beneath banners bearing red roses and black skulls was a flurry of chainmail and steel, of shield and weapon, of men and orcs. “For House Gardner!” cried the kingdom’s defenders. “For the kingdom of Bregate!”
The orcs pushed back. “For Ghamorz.” And the men fell beneath their bloodied axes, green grass stained red with their innards.
In the ruins above the battlefield, a scarred orc with a steel, horned greathelm pressed a meaty, green finger to his mouth. The sky above was lit with flaming arrows, like burning stars reflected in the water of Lake Loinnir. Beneath him, the air was alive with the cries of men. “For every orc that dies for King Ghamorz, ten men die for King Aeron.”
The orc smirked as he stood tall on the ramparts. “King Aeron will never retake this city. This is orc land now!” shouted the warlord, and the ten thousand orcs beneath him cried out victory.
The warlord leapt from the ramparts, landing amongst his hordes with a sound like the crack of thunder. His plated boots sounded like the footsteps of a thousand as he pushed through the field.
With a swift turn of his warhammer, a knight was knocked from his horse. Ghamorz bludgeoned the man’s chest, denting his armor. A weakened cry escaped from the knight’s lips. Ghamorz knelt down, pulled the helmet from the human’s head, and spat. “Where is your king?” He shouted. “Where does the coward hide?”
His hordes swept through another line of ironclad men, and he knew now that the humans were desperate. The end of a year-long siege with the simple mistake of meeting Ghamorz’s ten thousand orcs in the open field.
A cacophony of horns rang through the air. Cavalry appeared from the west, knights wearing gold, holding swords and lances. In the front, blade outstretched, stood their leader. A crown was affixed to his greathelm, molded to the gold-plated steel. A lonely red rose was drawn on his green tabard.
“My quarry!” shouted the orc as he rushed through the battlefield to meet the royal guest. “The coward reveals himself at last.”
With a single swing of his warhammer, Ghamorz struck the king’s horse. The mount fell to the ground, and the king screamed, his plated legs crushed, his body stuck beneath his mount as the hulking orc warlord stood above him. “This ends now!” The orc screamed, and slammed his warhammer into the king’s golden chestplate nine times, denting the plate each time, breaking bones and pounding his ribs into dust, and the king grew motionless.
Grinning, the orc lifted the king’s helm. He snapped the crown and threw it to the ground, and let his steel sabatons crush the helmet underfoot. And he looked to the king’s face and saw that it was not Aeron. And then his face came alight like with fire, and pain ran through his body from his forehead. A pain unknown before now. Ghamorz screamed.
The field, then, was full of cries of agony. Foe and friend fell to the ground, blood running from their eyes and their skin falling from their bones like sand. Ten thousand orcs were dying, and a thousand men were trying to run, and dying, too.
King Ghamorz lifted a shaking hand to his face, and the pain stung a thousand times worse. He choked as he attempted to breathe in, his mouth filling with blood. Slumped over the false King Aeron’s corpse, he looked at the human’s face, and saw a star with nine points in a circle branded crudely and callously into the dead doppleganger’s forehead. King Ghamorz felt the same outline on his forehead with his fingers as his flesh dripped to the ground and his eyes melted away. “By Gruumsh…”
He screamed again, and the night’s wind blew his face away like a sheet of sand, his bones scattering to the ground in a battlefield-turned-graveyard.
The blackened crown sat upon the monarch’s brow like demon’s horns, heavy yet weightless upon the desiccated corpse of the usurper-lich, Theseus the Sable. Flecks of gold glittered under the blackened crown, in the lining of the sapphires that decorated it. Elric’s crown. The crown of House Thrussell, of Chalusset, of the Kingdom of Agrawel. No longer.
The throne room was wretched, adorned now with wicked chains and cages from which hung the corpses of the noblemen who had refused to bow down to the arch-lich. In place of its tapestries and heraldry it bore wicked demonic symbols, the iconography of Orcus, Prince of Undeath scrawled in blood and ash, graffiti desecrating Chalusset, once a holy throne, now the darkest in Frey. The lich himself wore ancient armor, gold and black, the plate of Umbral princes and the walking dead of Shadowthrone. Beneath its plates, a thick tangle of discolored entrails clung to his torso, winding upwards to loll from his jaw like a clawed tongue.
Below him was chained Elric IV, the Last King of Men. An iron choker clung tightly to his throat; no longer a king but a broken man, his skin heavy and distended, his muscles weak. What remained of fallen House Thrussell was left in Chalusset’s own dungeons, prisoners to the blackest monarch.
The iron doors of Chalusset’s long throne room opened, and the corpse wagons rolled in, each filled with the dead clad in the white plate of knights of the White Rose. The great undead ogres languished under their weight, dragging them past Theseus. Behind the throne, he had hollowed out a great ever-growing mass grave, an octagonal room flanked by eight serrated, bloodied pillars, each holding a barely-living man brought to the edge of death and then back again. The ogres brought the corpse wagons to the grave, where their bodies finally broke and gave out. Blood ran in rivers through the throne room, met by four ironclad boots.
“WHAT IS THIS?” cried out the wretched lich. The wretch below him tried to speak but could only gurgle; he had no tongue.
There stood a man with long black hair and a thick beard and dark eyes; a heavy axe was slung over his side, and he held a kite shield in his right hand, decorated simply with a griffin. He wore old armor of burnished steel. Next to him was a taller man, with golden hair and blue eyes, a great warhammer in his hands. A white cloak blew past his white armor. His glittering eyes were cut with determination.
“CADOGAN… CADOGAN…” the lich breathed. “SO YOU HAVE COME TO MEET YOUR DEATH, DRAGONSLAYER…”
Ardal could only step back in fear at the hideous mockery of life; the wicked crown upon his head, and the great evil that permeated the black lord and his baneful hall. He could only reach out uselessly into the air as Cadogan ran forward to meet death himself.
“I have come to set things right!”
Cadogan charging ahead with his warhammer, Theseus casually stood up from the royal seat and reached out with spindly, skeletal fingers. “THERE IS NO RIGHT. NO WRONG. ONLY DEATH, AND THE DARKNESS EVER AFTER.”
“SHALL I SHOW YOU?” The archlich collapsed his fingers around the open air.
Cadogan stopped suddenly. Dracafond clanged to the ground beside him. He clutched at his heart as Theseus traipsed closer to the fallen hero.
“NECROMANCY IS THE ART OF DEATH, AND I AM ONE OF ITS GREATEST PRACTICIONERS… THE GREAT SHADE HIMSELF, YOUR STEWARD OF THE DAMNED, MY TEACHER.”
Theseus stood there, above Cadogan, his wicked tongue-like entrails writhing beneath his ribs. He was too late to realize that the paladin had expected this. Dracafond suddenly in his hands, the hammer swung through the air and bashed Theseus’s side, cracking his armor and ribs. Already whispering words of power, Theseus suddenly took into the air, groaning as he began to levitate above the Knight-Commander.
“ARDAL, NOW!” cried the knight. A bowstring snapped, and three burning arrows flew through the air, two landing in the lich’s torso. The force and surprise sent him hurtling back to the stone ground in a plume of dust. Ardal dropped the bow and rushed forward to meet Cadogan.
The knight stood there, above his defeated foe, like the romantic heroes of old. He was like Sir Sigfrid over Asmundur of Umbria, King Islwyn over Aldebrand of Pyrrhus. His golden hair reminded Ardal of the Phoenix, but in truth, Ardal thought he looked the most like a king. A true monarch, with grace, dignity, nobility, and beauty.
Cadogan turned, and grinned. Behind him, Theseus slowly began to stand.
Black tentacles of entropy wreathed through the air unnaturally, draining the life and color from the room. A door had opened up in front of Theseus. A storm of oblivion awaited beyond, its ravages enveloping the Dragonslayer. In front of Ardal, his oldest friend began to age and wane away, the determination in his eyes fading as time wore Cadogan down to dust.
Ardal did all he could to rush forward, only distracting Theseus from finishing off the knight. The enervated Cadogan fell to the floor, no longer holding the strength to pick himself up or even move. The lich merely extended a finger in Ardal’s direction, and a red ray flashed through the hall. The hero fell back, attempting to protect himself from the blast with his shield.
“YOU CAN SEE NOW THAT DARKNESS IS INEVITABLE. JUST AS THE SHADOWMAKER ONCE BLACKED OUT THE SUN, SO SHALL I.”
Ardal could barely breathe. He could only see the rising and falling of Cadogan’s chest, and the terrible lich turning to finish the job. The end of the White Rose. The end of the dream of peace, and life, and hope.
Ardal stood. He closed his eyes, and opened them again, and suddenly everything was clear, in a single moment; he understood.
The lich stepped back. Radiance poured from Ardal’s eyes; it enveloped the hero as though he was lightness itself. Fire and life coalesced behind him in bright, feathered wings. With a mailed hand, he pulled Aeledfyr from his back, his shield clattering to the ground as he hefted the axe above his head.
The hero stepped forward. Black tentacles lurched out from Theseus’s extended hands, each cut in twain by a single swing from Ardal’s axe. His burning eyes offered no hesitation or opportunity.
“WHO ARE YOU?”
“Your king.” Ardal’s axe burned as it separated Theseus in two halves, snapping bone and breaking his spine in twain.
The lich’s head flung across the room, falling at the feet of his wicked throne. The chained tongueless wretch reached his spindly hands towards his former crown.
He was met with Ardal’s clanging, booming footsteps. Elric could only look up with hollow, languished eyes as Ardal grasped the blackened crown in a gauntleted fist, contemplating its weight before placing it on his brow and looking down on the king who gave up his throne. As he turned, his fiery eyes lingered on his fallen friend, but they could only stare ahead, full of stoic determination as he took his seat upon the throne of Chalusset, his phoenix wings folding away, leaving the king in burnished steel.
“And from this day hence, in the name of the Holy Church of Solism and the Seven Cardinals, you are anointed Ardal of the Royal House Arvendon, First of His Name, King of Noslith, Acheiris, and Valen, Lord of Agrawel and Bregate and the Warden of God’s Kingdom,” uttered the Archbishop five long years later, as he placed the gilded Griffin Crown upon the conqueror’s head in the great chapel. “May you wear this crown with grace and dignify the earth with your reign, may you give your people an ideal to strive towards, an example of nobility and beauty to raise them from the turmoil. The crown calls to you now, as does Sol himself. Hail, Ardal, King of Men. LONG LIVE THE KING!”
Ardal slowly rose and looked around at his subjects as he felt the weight of the crown upon his brow. The Archbishop turned to Ardal and knelt low before the hero. Before him, the cardinals, the lords, the priests, and the common men all knelt low, recognizing their sovereign.
“HAIL, ARDAL, KING OF MEN! LONG LIVE THE KING!”
DREAMS OF WAR
As the party sleeps, prophetic dreams and visions marked by premonition arrive in the night. In the dark and dismal forgotten chapel beneath Lagarde, the former lair of Quirelle Moridhel, the former altar of the Florists, a line of light cracks and widens and white pours forth from beneath the stone, beneath the tangled sun design. And Celestial whispers pour forth, out into the air, burning light emerging in wisps through the night to bring awakening to those who slumber. And even in the Tower of the Wyvern are visions received by the Dawn’s Herald.
On the eve of the 16th, in the fragile frame of the ruined village of River’s Edge, the King rested with his gathered two thousand men at arms, soldiers from the garrisons at Agrawel, Ryfall, Westmoor, militia embarked from across the Hinterlands to face the Iron Regent. The knights, footmen, infantry, noble lords and squires all gathered around burning campfires, fire burning to illuminate their eyes, reflecting their faces worn from the road, their forms hunched beneath ghostly buildings abandoned after a months-old carnage. Around a stony, dry fountain not far from the river, from the meeting hall and the shipping house, the King and his council spoke of battle. Beside him was Donovan Norwood, his squire and herald, and Sir Conleth, Sir Eadric, and Sir Aneirin of the noble royal guard, alongside Caelan Fox, their former brother, recovered and brought along by his own father, Domnall Fox, the red-haired, bearlike Viscount and lord of Westmoor. The drunkard Master Lochlainn was there too, the Lord High Constable of the Royal Army, and even Earl Piaras Rayne of Ryfall had appeared with much of the Argent Guard, and his steward, the sword-dancer Lady Natalya Boros. Simon Florian was there, for King Richard could not deny the rumors that Jae Florian had turned to darkness once and for all. And alongside him was Lord Hudson Rayne, who had departed Agrawel when his wife departed the estate herself, when he had no one else to follow but his Lord while his daughter sat miles away in an unfamiliar place. The Earl of Maycott had responded to the King’s summons, but he was late. And the other knights and lords were all but unwilling to travel into plagued territory, ruled by bandits and strange priestesses.
Tegwen was in Agrawel, or perhaps elsewhere. And the Dawn’s Herald could not be counted on. They needed time to prepare themselves. So the royal enchantress said to the King. So when the Iron Regent struck Westmoor, the King marched. He marched because he did not know what else to do but to fight to protect his people.
“The stronghold is said to be held by Sir Berwyn Halter, formerly a noble knight of Halter’s Hold, now a gelded cavalier and a traitor to the crown. He and his daughter Rhonwen are to be captured and taken to Agrawel to face the justice of the crown. However, their lives are not a priority above those of Malcolm Stenet, his son, and the other members of his court imprisoned within Stenet Hold. As we approach the town, no doubt these villains will resort to all manner of trickery and dirty fighting to stop us. Let them do so. The siege weaponry shall destroy the gates,” the King’s voice booms as the men around begin to cease their idle chatter and turn to listen. His royal Majesty briefly turns to the Earl of Ryfall, who simply nods beneath his hood. The king continued, “The Iron Regent is said to have near one thousand under his command. We are twice his number. We will take the town and lay siege to the castle. The worst of these villains will scatter, and Berwyn will have no choice but to open the gates to us.”
Edmund Trencavel whispered something prudent into the Viscount’s ear, and he nodded. The Viscount spoke up, and the Earl spoke up in response. From behind, dressed in armor, Lord Hudson sighed. They had argued and repeated themselves over this plan enough. The King’s plan to take the castle in one fell swoop would be costly, anyone could see that. Yet all the same, these men had faced far worse creatures than Hudson ever had. The Half-Moon Heresy forged a generation of veterans, war heroes, great knights. Many of them were here today, although many more were not, for the White Lady had already came for them. Was she here already? Aisling never had much interest in God or Death. Aisling believed in invisible things, things that Hudson could never see, and he even admonished himself for it. And when he refused to even try she threw up her hands and escaped to her study. Once they were close, a family when Eleanor was young, but soon everything was… fractured. But his head was more for numbers and figures, for meetings and contracts, then it ever was for magic or for war. Yet the latter two were constant, and they swallowed up business in the forms of plagues and bandits.
After the meeting, Hudson did not know why, but he walked up to the King, pushing past his lord Earl and slipping by the enormous Viscount. The soldiers and knights turned their heads surprised, and the King did as well, but before he could speak Hudson asked for a word. “A privilege I could not deny to a nobleman nor a freeman. Yes, Lord Hudson, let us speak.” The bearded King, still crowned and clad in gold armor beneath a great red tabard, nodded to his men and walked into an abandoned meeting hall, stepping out to the center of the broken, dusty wooden building, looking at the fractured hearth, the great long table beneath it. Hudson followed him, alone.
“Your Majesty, forgive me for my overreach, but I cannot help but admit that… that I fear for my daughter. That I thought perhaps when we marched, we would march on Lagarde and not Ayles.” Lord Hudson frowned as the King stared silently into the distance, his back to the courtier.
“I can see you are displeased. But not even the Earl has given me permission to seek out Eleanor. If not for the sake of my family, for the sake of our House…” he paused, waiting for a reaction, but again received none.
“And the rumors… the whispers… it cannot really be true that Sir Elric has fallen? And if he has, then surely we need not marry our houses, surely with the Duke dead Sir Elric can choose a bride for himself, one who will not run away into plagued land and ruins…” Hudson looked down at the ground, continuing to think rather than speak, his thoughts a constant train of anxiety. He did not notice the King turn and slowly approach him, wood crunching beneath plate sabatons.
But Richard merely brought a gauntlet to rest upon Hudson’s shoulder. It was comforting, in a way. “Have faith in my daughter. Have faith in Princess Calanthe and in the Dawn’s Herald. The church and the courts of this kingdom will do their best in spite of the corruption that has taken hold of Noslith’s nobles and priests. If they have fallen from justice, then justice shall find them. In the meantime, we must focus on the coming battle. Ayles must be reclaimed if we hope to restore peace to the Hinterlands. And indeed, if Elric does not return a man, then not only is it your duty as a father to withdraw this proposal, it is your duty as a man of God, as a man of the king. And perhaps then we can seek a solution for your family. For your house,” the King said, and Hudson turned to look him in the eyes. He was surprised. Richard almost looked frightened. As if the specter of battle was something he had chased away long ago. Yet nonetheless he was in command of the situation. Things would play out as this man said they would. And at that, Lord Hudson felt at ease.
The adventurer’s son nodded, thanked the King for his time, and returned to his tent. They would march tomorrow.
The next days went by as quickly as they could. On the 20th day, the King marched upon Ayles.
Richard and his knights were met in the fields outside Ayles on both sides, met by the mad berserkers, cruel marauders, foul highwaymen and frightened militia of the Iron Regent, while arrows fell from atop the village walls. Yet Donovan stuck by his King’s side as the army briefly fell out of formation, and blew his horn. The royal guard rode through the lines and met their King, who reclaimed his horse and slew the man who knocked him down. And then the siege weapons were in place, trebuchets swinging while the Viscount, his sorcerer, and his son blew through dark, fallen Solist sisters and countless men of the Iron Regent. Stones blasted apart the walls, flinging archers down as the gates began to break. And as the Royal Army held their assault, the Iron Regent could only retreat, falling back to the Castle, bandits flung into the sky by ballista shots as they ran. Hudson heard someone yell “Charge!” and he continued on, following the men dressed in red as they pushed onward through the ruined gates, pursuing their quarry. Everything was falling into place. He saw Simon Florian at his side, and screamed “For House Rayne!” at which the squire raised his sword and shouted in kind. He saw the King’s party pushing ahead of him, and turned to see more knights in red charging on.
It was when he turned back that he saw the abyssal drake flying overhead the king’s party. The wretched dragon fell upon the knights, and Sir Caelan, Sir Aneirin, and Sir Conleth turned to face it. And suddenly the Iron Regent had disappeared, and in his place were countless undead, zombies, skeletons, and wights risen from the dread barrows of the Weald, from the dead of the King’s war with the Iron Regent. The King rose his flaming sword, and Hudson charged forth to meet him. He looked behind to see the Earl’s forces regrouping – but where was Simon?
And at that point ghouls ran atop the roofs, and fell upon the scattered forces of the Earl. Simon was among them. Hudson raised his blade and turned as the King swung his brand at the hulking dragon. He turned and shouted. There was no time for Hudson to look now. Simon Florian was cut off from the Earl’s party. Hudson was his only chance. If he could just get close enough to pull him away from the tongues of the ghoul…
And then Hudson heard a familiar voice. And he stepped forward and turned to see a face he did not hope to see. Viscount Malcolm Stenet, draped in a tattered black cloak, his face a picture of death, with whitened eyes and pale skin, and in his hands an unstable reforged Brionac, brimming with foul blue arcane power, whispering thoughts into the newly made death knight’s head. The Royal Army could not have known that weeks before, on the lunar eclipse, the night hags of Tor Bedivere made an agreement with the Iron Regent’s court sorceress. It did not matter now. Hudson Rayne did not see his last moments, as the fallen Viscount moved too quickly, driving Brionac through the air, swinging through his neck, severing the spine and tendons as blood splashed across the carnage-soaked village. He did not hear Malcolm’s voice call out “Hudson, my foolish friend,” in his last moments. Lord Hudson Rayne merely died thinking he could save Simon Florian. Perhaps he could have. But it was too late. As the undead surged into the King’s army, Malcolm Stenet ran Brionac through the heart of Jae Florian’s son, pulling the blade away as its fell power sapped his very soul. So neither did Simon Florian see the retreat of the King, nor hear the laughter of the Fallen Viscount as the King and the Earl regrouped, as Richard finally slew the foul drake and lead their army back through the gate. And none of them were aware that at the same time, Deminster fell to the Iron Regent’s advance. None of them were aware that Sir Elric was on his way to Westmoor. Nor were any of them aware of who was truly pulling the strings.
Four days later, on the 24th, the King completed his retreat to River’s Edge. Anguished, frustrated, and altogether bereft of hope, the defeated army stared into the pyre. They could not recover Hudson nor Simon, but they would not forget their loss. For the Iron Regent did not know that 4000 more men were gathered at Agrawel, awaiting the King’s call.
Fractured visions came then. The sight of Hudson Rayne awakening. The sight of Simon Florian with sanguine stained fangs. The sight of Thrussell men marching upon Deminster. The sight of Sir Elric breaking the Fallen Viscount. They fade and the dream ends, the inspiration gone. And all that you are left with is the waking silence of midnight.