“Do not cry, do not fight. Embrace your destiny, rejoice in it – for you are, all of you, saved.” The Crimson King’s voice rose above the butchery surrounding him.
The air was rank with the stink of death, the black, choking fumes of their homes burning. The dead and the dying lay everywhere, so thick the ground beneath them could scarce be seen. The fresh snowfall was a lurid-pink, draped across the oldest of the slain. So many had been killed, yet not all, not yet. Ju’Kall still lived, if only for the moment. He knelt with the other survivors, surrounded by the black-armored servants of their conqueror. Some of the prisoners cried, while others begged for mercy; a betrayal of everything that made them who they were. The majority remained silent, like him, either out of shame or else quiet acceptance of what was to come. There was no stopping what would come next, only the manner of their deaths remained to be decided.
“Rejoice, my children, rejoice for your deliverance is at hand! By my hand shall you be spared the horrors of the coming doom.”
“Rejoice!” the Crimson King’s thralls echoed as one, hundreds of maddened voices, joined together by their unquestioning-devotion. “Rejoice!” They raised their spears, their axes and their swords. “Rejoice!”
The Crimson King stood aloof from all others, his thin arms raised above his head as he chanted the words of his scripture. As his namesake suggested, he was clad in blood-red robes, and upon his head he wore a stag’s skull for a helm. Black horns rose from atop his grisly visage, the tines dipped in silver. Elongated, curved ears slid out from small openings to either side of the skull, while strange markings were etched into the bleached bone. They were ancient words of the Pictish tongue. What little of his flesh was exposed was sickly-pale and blemished with dark spots. His devoted were many, hundreds strong. Some were Men’Kai, traitors to those they now butchered. Others were Picts, like their crimson master himself; tall and gaunt, with slender forms, elongated limbs, and the forked-spears and poisoned arrows they were known for. A number of others were from the Imartii, horned monsters, with ash-grey flesh and bodies hard as stone. There was even a trio of Jotuun standing amongst them, giants ten feet tall, with great clubs, large as some men were tall. Their terrible weapons still dripped with the gore of those they had savaged in the fighting. All wore the white skull of their master, painted upon their chests or their helms. A few carried great banners, decorated with the crowned-skulls of prior enemies vanquished.
Before the gathered survivors, the Crimson King took his place in front the burning long-hall where the last of the defenders had fallen – where an Imartii club had dashed Ju’Kall’s hopes of dying with any shred of glory. Pillars of dark smoke rose up from the burning remains of the building, blotting out the sun’s light. With one hand, the Crimson King gestured beyond the field of battle, to the north, towards the wall of darkness that stood far beyond them all.
The Blight it was called – the Rot. It was known by many names, as many as there were tribes in the north. It came for them all; a blackness that enveloped everything it touched. It corrupted the land, the flesh, the living and the dead both. Everything. All sought to flee its destructive path, Ju’Kall and his people included, but they had not been quick enough. The winter had been hard, and they had not the food for the journey south. Their dalliance had been their doom. The Crimson King and his murderers had poured forth from the woods, slaughtering any they came across. The battle had been short, without glory or possibility of victory. They had been few, and the children of the Crimson King were many.
Ju’Kall watched him now, wishing for but a single chance to rush forward and snap his frail neck – he would die in the act, far before he ever reached him, but what did it matter? He knew that he was as good as dead already. They all were. It was only a matter of how they would die, not if. He scanned the ground, but the Crimson King’s warriors had been thorough. There was nothing left behind upon the ground that might have served as a makeshift blade. His fists were all he would have.
Better to die then as a warrior. Better to die standing and defiant until the bitter end. That has ever been the Men’Kai way; strength over weakness.
Above him stood one of the Crimson King’s servants, a Pict, this one just a boy. He did not hold his spear like a seasoned soldier. His stance was poor, his body lean, even for one of his kind. Ju’Kall did not think it would be a difficult thing to overpower him. Silently, he prepared himself. His moment would come.
One of the others prisoners took notice of Ju’Kall – gleamed, somehow, what it was he intended. The old man crawled across the distance separating them and planted himself beside Ju’Kall. His name was Bash’Hi.
“You can’t,” the old man told him, his voice a hoarse whisper. He was gripping at a bleeding wound in his side, only a minor gash, but perhaps fatal still, for one so old and frail. “They say he can’t die.”
Ju’Kall looked again to the Crimson King. He had heard much the same.
“They say he is a sorcerer as well!”
Maybe, Ju’Kall thought, but I saw no sorcery when they came. I saw only men, killing other men. He was not versed in the arcane arts, few were, especially this far into the frozen Badlands. It was an art for the rich, for the likes of Alethians, not his kind. Perhaps the Crimson King was all that they said, perhaps not. If he is what they say, let him prove it, or else die.
“We will see,” Ju’Kall whispered to the old man. One of the guards momentarily turned to look at them, but his attention quickly went elsewhere. “Now go back to where you were and do not approach me again.”
“If you go, you will die.”
“Possibly,” Ju’Kall only said.
The old man studied him, then, understanding it was hopeless, he crawled away. “Elements help the young,” Ju’Kall heard him mutter.
“Rejoice!” the Crimson King prattled ever-on. “Rejoice! The Blight comes, but I shall save those of you found worthy. I shall bring you to a new world, a better world than you have ever known. You will want for nothing – you will need nothing. Everything shall be yours!”
“Rejoice!” his servants shouted.
The guard standing over Ju’Kall was not looking at him. His attention was fixed upon his red master. It was an opportunity he could not ignore. He fought through the pain still echoing in his head where the club had struck him. He rose, reached out, and pulled the Pict’s spear free of his hands. There was no time to kill him, so Ju’Kall simply pushed him aside. Already he could hear the voices of his people, and those of the other guards, pressing in upon him. Ju’Kall ignored them all. His eyes were focused entirely upon his quarry. The Crimson King stood before him, arms outstretched as if he welcomed death, his bone mask hiding any and all emotion. Ju’Kall thought of all those dead, friends and family, all those he had claimed to ever love. All dead, all taken away by him.
His aim was true. It covered the distance he could never hope to, and it struck the Crimson King through his chest. The red horror fell, the spear still embedded in his chest. Whether it was from the shock of their own failure, the black soldiers did not approach Ju’Kall. They remained frozen in place, silent at last. Ju’Kall was given one moment to think himself victorious, one singular part in the flow of time, where good could still triumph in the face of evil. His people were avenged, and though still doomed, their oppressor would die with them. Then the Crimson King rose again, and the horrible reality of his power was made certain. He looked down at the weapon still buried within his flesh. With one hand he pulled the spear free of himself and cast it aside as if it were nothing. Then his head turned towards Ju’Kall.
“Bring him to me,” he commanded.
Ju’Kall did not fight them when they came. All fight had left him. He was dragged forward by two of the black-armored warriors, brought to his knees in the violence-drenched snow before the Crimson King’s feet. He looked up, and the Crimson King looked down. Their eyes met, one pair human, the other…
“My child,” the Crimson King whispered. He reached out a white hand to touch Ju’Kall upon his head. There was no warmth in his touch, only bitter cold.
It is like a corpse’s touch, Ju’Kall thought. This man is dead already...
“There is strength in you, a kind few others possess.” The Crimson King’s red eyes burned with fires of malevolent dread. “Do you wish to be spared? I alone have the power to save you. Most of these others will never do. Women and children, elderly and sick...they are not warriors, the fire does not burn in their breasts, as it does in you."
“You would have me become one of yours? Clad myself in black and fanaticism?” Ju’Kall gestured to the dead surrounding them, to the burning remnants of his home. "You would save my life, and turn me into a murderer. What honor is there in that?"
The cold hand slid away from his head.
“It is a mercy,” the Crimson King told him.
“Mercy?” Ju’Kall whispered. “You would dare to name this mercy?”
The Crimson King looked to his work, to that of his butchers. “The Blight is coming. Better to die as men than be claimed by its evil.”
“We might have outrun it.”
“No, you would not.”
The Crimson King knelt, and Ju’Kall was able to glimpse where the spear had punctured his chest. The holes were there, cut through the fabric of his cloth and the flesh beneath. There was no blood. The Crimson King was not mortal, not a living thing. He was something else entirely.
“Ten thousand leagues you could flee, and still the Blight would find you. There is no escaping it, save only one way. Serve me, and you will live."
"Serve you," Ju’Kall spat. "A tyrant, a monster."
"A savior," he replied. "A great battle looms over the horizon. It shall decide all.” The Crimson King pointed with one slender finger towards the nearest of the dead. “It is a mercy for them. They are spared the torment of this world, of what shall happen to it in the coming days of fire and blood. Their deaths are a necessary sacrifice, for what sustenance is left in these lands is little and less. It is for the warriors of the last battle, not for them."
“You are mad,” Ju’Kall spat. “A tyrant that claims his butchery is mercy.”
“Mad?” The Crimson King laughed through his mask, his voice a thin rasp. “I offer you wisdom, not madness. The understanding of what has happened here today, and what must happen next. I give you a chance to save yourself, and to serve in a greater purpose. Is that not a kindness? Is that not merciful?”
“You are cruel, you are pure evil.”
“The wisdom of the cruel is wisdom still,” the Crimson King answered. “But I am growing tired of this conversation. For the strength you possess, I shall offer you a final chance. How will you serve? Through conquest, or through sacrifice?”
“No,” Ju’Kall told him. “I am of the Men’Kai, and we remain unbroken. Our way is strength. I will not play your games - I will not choose.”
The Crimson King sighed. “You already have.”
He rose and stepped back, then gestured to one of his men.
Ju’Kall heard the sound of footsteps approaching from behind.
“May the Blight take you, monster,” Ju’Kall shouted. He raised his voice for them all to hear him. “May it take you all!”
The Crimson King raised a hand to stop the deathblow from falling. He tilted his head to one side. His hands rose to the mask he wore, and he peeled it away from the face that lay beneath. Black ichor dripped from the skull’s interior, from the eyes, ears, and lips of his face.
“It already has.” The Crimson King gave the command. The man standing behind Ju’Kall brought down his blade.