A Blood-soaked Legacy
This forsaken and dying world was not meant for us. Our ancestors, faced with the certainty of utter destruction, fled here out of desperation. This world — the one they ran to with oblivion gnashing at their heels — was savage and barren. Whatever gods that may have existed in this realm had perished from lack of devotion or consumed one another to slake their hunger eons ago.
Despite the odds, our ancestors survived and grew a new land from this barren plane. Life slowly returned to the earth while new gods were breathed into the higher rungs of existence; fed with devotion and the dwindling magicks the first of us brought with them to this world. A beautiful empire was given life within abandoned ruins built by inhuman hands; an empire sustained on blood and maintained by fear of the darkness outside of its walls.
All things, however, from the crumbling surface of this dying world to the edifices of blood-soaked empires must give in to the inevitable pull of entropy. What is built from ruins will eventually fall back to such a state. What was not meant to exist will eventually cease, no matter how hard one fights to preserve it.
Our ancestors fought hard against the tragic crumbling of their society. Wars raged across the land letting loose the dark desires of humanity. Nature rose up in a great fury and stripped flesh from bone beneath scouring winds. The great magicks that our ancestors commanded turned back to bite them, sundering and twisting their very souls. The best of us fought to the last, but like all that had come before, their bodies and efforts were cast like dust upon the maddening winds.
In spite of all that has come before — due to the stubbornness of the human heart — we still exist in this world. Some may call it folly and wish to blow out the guttering flame of our existence, while others exalt in the continued bloody struggle of life. The gods we once created and venerated have turned their backs upon us. The magicks we once commanded are now nothing more than secret whispers tainted by darkness. Those that were once the best of us have lost all of what made them human, becoming corrupted immortals that prey upon us like livestock.
More than ever before, the world has become a cruel and darkened place. Pockets of fallen society cling to the ruins of the past as they struggle to live another day. In the darkness of the world, there are places were mortals should never traverse. There are places of ancient power, whether made by human hands or something else and in these places corrupted power still grows.
Our ancient ancestors came to this world to escape the destruction of our first home, yet they brought that same hungry darkness with them. Here, among the ruins and barren sands, it has grown strong once more. In those places of darkness, decay, and bloody magicks that darkness grows hale while sharpening its teeth upon the bones of the dead.
Do not stray into those darkened places of the world. Stay close to the guttering flames of civilization as the last of your days draws close. Do not tempt the hungry maw of oblivion with the human curse of curiosity. Any knowledge you might gain from the darkness will drive you mad as it enlightens your mind and hollows out your very soul.
- The Journals of Vhaltenesh
A frigid cloud of mist flowed over the sloping floors of the descending passageway as silvery light cut its way through ice-filled fractures in the ceiling. The light from the surface made its way through the rock and ice, to become trapped deep in this subterranean realm. The captured light reflected in distorted shapes off of the slowly flowing pools of water. This stagnant water and trapped light flowed throughout the myriad tunnels and chambers, growing darker as they burrowed below.
Shifting forms made from ephemeral shadow coalesced out of the deeper darkness to flit between swaths of shimmering light. These forms, some clinging to the walls of chambers while others danced to and fro trying to avoid the shifting light coming in from above. These forms of shadow took momentary shelter behind some of the ancient stalagmites before scattering away to other recesses and niches beyond. This eternal dance of light and shadow continued on, as it always had, for the span of hundreds of mortal lifetimes.
This entire realm was bathed in an eerie silence, as it remained removed from the rest of the world and entirely forgotten by those few who might remain upon the surface. It had remained undisturbed for millennia, save for the occasional groan of rock, the slow music of dripping water, or the slow shattering of ice. No mortal eyes had taken in its beauty, and no mortal feet had traversed its depths.
All things, however, from the lives of mortals to the ancient peace of icy caves have their end. The silence of these forgotten chambers had found its own finality in this moment. An eruption made its way through the tunnels followed by a wave of cold air. This unexpected disruption sent the mists and shadows into a whirling frenzy. The energy of this wave shattered some of the more fragile icicles that had held onto their moorings for untold centuries.
For the first time in millennia, fresh air swept its way through the tunnels once more with a new source of light at the mouth of the central passage that erupted forth. Pieces of rock and ice flew through the air and settled upon the darkened ground further into the tunnel. Behind the alien light came the thunderous echo of mortal voices as life returned to these sunken halls and burial chambers.
It remained to be seen how long this renewed life would be tolerated in these new moments of disruption, or if it would be quelled like it had been in ancient times. The darkness within began to plot out the fate of these interlopers. Deciding if they would be welcomed by the slumbering inhabitants of these deep and dark places, or if the ancient silence that slept here would stir forth to consume them for their folly.
"Truly remarkable gifts you have Tyverus." A wizened and gravely male voice echoed down the central passage. "It would have taken us days to cut through the ice using traditional means." The voice drifted into contemplation for a few moments and then returned with a renewed sense of focus. "I must admit, that I was hesitant to bring a knight on this expedition. I thought your ilk as hollow-minded and rough-mannered soldiers."
The older male voice gave out a resounding laugh that sounded like yet another burst of thunder. "I'm glad to be proven wrong." The voice was followed by a tall and broad silhouette that stood before the new light at the mouth of the descending passage.
"Bhergom, really?" A softer and younger female voice interjected behind the older male. "Would not a bit of decorum, or at least thanks, be in order for the man who just helped us considerably?" The lighter female voice echoed forth and seemed to resonate with the ice in the caverns.
"No, it's fine. Really." Another male voice, less gravely and haughty than the first, echoed throughout the tunnels below. "Isilda, I know my reputation with oracles and scholars like yourselves. I am simply glad to be of service to your expedition." The voice softened and lowered its volume for its remaining words. "Before I took up the mantle and wards of the Guardian Knights, I was drawn to the ancient mystique and wisdom of your path, Master Bhergom."
"You mean, that of the oracles?" Bhergom gave a breathy chortle and then paused. His large frame eclipsed the light at the mouth of the passage as he pressed forward. He held both sides of the tunnel entrance in his arms and then slowly turned on his heels, letting his right hand fall to his side. "You do have gifts, young man. I do appreciate those gifts, but they are very different than the Haeth arts that we use." Bhergom's voice trailed off into contemplation once more.
"He doesn't think you're sophisticated enough." A new male voice cut in. This voice was deep and low, with a strange accent that set the vowels into a set of trill-like chirps like spring-time birds. "Don't take it hard, lad. You're good enough for the dirty work, like me, but not much else." A phlegm-ridden combination of a laugh and cough followed the man's words.
"Vhoggli, seriously. That's not what Bhergom meant." Isilda's voice set the sunken realm of ice and stone into a harmonious vibration once more.
More shadows began to pile into the mouth of the passageway, causing sharp beams of light to cut through their gaps. The harsh contrast of light gave more furtive movement to the shadows that lurked and scurried all the more. It seemed as if the shadows were feeding off the new energy given from these still-living interlopers.
Somewhere, far off, a deep rumbling made its way through the chambers to dwarf out the echoes of voices for a few moments. The rumbling thunder caused by a chunk of ice or rock breaking free from its crumbling anchors to fall toward some uncertain depth. As the rumbles ceased, the voices returned to their earlier life.
"Well, here we are at last. It's hard to think that before the Cataclysm and before the devastation that tore this land apart, this was the very birthplace of our order." Bhergom mused to himself as his large form pressed downward into the darkened and jagged tunnel ahead. He pushed on the sides of the ice-encrusted walls with his broad hands to keep sturdy. "I'm glad some of these passages survived all the upheaval that ravaged the surface."
"Do you think these are the old catacombs? The ones that existed beneath the city of Neshran; those that are mentioned in the old records back home in Alsira Thaenat?" Isilda pressed in behind the taller and older man. The silhouette of her form was slender, smaller, and partially obfuscated by draping robes. Her voice was frantic with awe and speculation.
"Perhaps so, those few of the catacomb passages and burial chambers that still survive. Although, I highly doubt we'll find any bones or crypts in this area." Bhergom stopped in his tracks to kick a row of sharp icicles clinging to a niche in the rock near his leg. "The shifting ice flows would have destroyed almost everything over the last few millennia. Still, we're here to look, just in case anything survived."
Next, the small and stout shadow of Vhoggli pressed into the passageway behind Isilda's slight frame. Vhoggli's form gave a sharp elbow to the tall, high-collared, and well-armored form of Tyverus still partially obscured by the silvery light beyond. Tyverus took a moment at the lack of decorum of the small fellow and then, shaking off his wounded pride, took up the rear of the expedition. Slowly, the four forms pressed forward and downward into the dark.
"You know what they say about these lands so close to Gehemol..." Vhoggli's voice drifted off. The purpose of such was to add a rhetorical effect more than to wait for any sort of reply from a member of the group. "Do I even have to speak the beast's name?" Another phlegm-filled laugh bubbled up.
"No, you needn't. I would prefer to keep superstition to a minimum. Our journey is dangerous enough. Thank you very much, Vhoggli." Bhergom's voice was filled with disdain and impatience.
"I understand the purpose of avoiding superstition, Master Bhergom, but if there is a beast in these tunnels, I best be aware of it." Tyverus had just taken Vhoggli's bait as he pressed in at the rear of the party. "You stated that there is the chance of danger here, which is why I joined you. What beasts are we speaking of, exactly?"
"Not a beast." Isilda's words twinkled on the ice once again as she spoke over Bhergom's grumbles. "Well, not as quite. Old legends from before the Cataclysm speak of a woman who once lived in these lands. A woman who was an oracle, much like Master Bhergom and myself. A woman who, in a sense, became a beast." Isilda stopped moving to look over the low and scraggled head of Vhoggli and up to Tyverus. "Legends of our order, going back all the way to the days of Vhaltenesh, mention her. It is said she still haunts these lands and it was in her god-like fits of rage and anguish that she tore this land apart."
Tyverus gave a chuckle at the incredulity of Isilda's words. "Surely, not even an oracle has such power. Your kind are far too subtle with your arts. Those of the Guardian Knights, some of the most legendary, have capabilities that could level entire cities or towns, yes, but not an entire island."
"You'd be mistaken, young lad." Bhergom had grumbled and restrained himself from talking on the matter, but the knight's assumptions had eroded his restraint. "She was not a member of the Authrakallin. She was, should she ever have existed, an exemplar of what we should never become. She is why our Haeth arts are so subtle. She was from a time before, when oracles were far more..." Bhergom took a deep breath. "Direct." Bhergom slowed his pace over a large step in the floor of the tunnel and turned his head to look over his shoulder at Tyverus for a moment.
"She sold her very soul to some dark god from beyond. She was given powers that humanity was never meant to earn. She killed the first oracles; then she destroyed this island; now she hunts the oracles again." Vhoggli's voice was flat and his words were curt as he gave a push to the side of Isilda and pressed in behind Bhergom. "Well, some say she only hunts those of her blood; those cursed to be Witchlings; those with blood-red hair."
"Well, then." Tyverus slapped his gloved hands together causing a crack of thunder to echo through the caverns. "Good thing that none of us have red hair. Good thing, as well, that I'm not an oracle." He gave a sly chuckle at his own words and waited for Isilda to turn her head to glare at him.
"Enough talk about old legends told by reactionary and senile oracles. We have enough dangers here and enough difficulty on this expedition. We don't need to be jumping at shadows and muttering about monsters." Bhergom's voice was loud and low as he pressed forward even harder while kicking at some more icicles in front of him. "Vhoggli, part of why we brought you with us is in the power of your eyes. Use them and not your wretched mouth. Is that a chamber ahead and off to the right?"
The shadowed and stout form of Vhoggli pressed in beside that of Bhergom's towering frame. A glint of two gray-green orbs flashed in the dim, reflected light from the water at their feet. A wide mouth opened in a grin filled with far too many tiny and sharp teeth to seem fully human. The smaller man couldn't press ahead of Bhergom, being burdened with too many packs strapped to his back, and the broadness of the old oracle taking up most of the passage.
"Yes, that's a chamber ahead. Off to the right. This passage continues slightly to the left, steeper down, but we'll need the torches for that." Vhoggli's voice was filled with a morbid sense of glee. He began to lick his thick, frog-like lips while inching forward to impatiently press into the back of Bhergom.
"Good, we'll check this chamber first. I want to use as much of the natural light as we can before we start burning torches. Who knows if the heat might melt the ice and cause a cave-in." Bhergom kept his footing despite the small man eagerly riding his heels. He swept forward in one fluid motion and into the chamber ahead.
Each of the party continued after, with Vhoggli on Bhergom's heels until he found enough room to squeeze forward into the chamber while Isilda and Tyverus kept looking at each other expectantly. All of them, save for Vhoggli, seemed hesitant and exceedingly cautious.
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II: A Matter of Runes