Upon a great hill, overlooking the aftermath of a terrible slaughter, the last of the Mir Rothai was brought forth to die.
Aisha was thrown to the hard earth. Her body was chained and she had been beaten savagely. Her face was bruised and bloody. She had been shaved as well. One of the soldiers who had dragged her from the battlefield below had taken his dirk to her scalp. His blade had left a series of deep lacerations all across her skull. Streaks of red rained down the front of Aisha’s face, but throughout the entirety of her vile mistreatment she had remained silent; she had weathered the storm - the humiliation - for such things mattered little to her. She had been broken already, broken and reforged by a power greater than any man...greater even than the monster that stood before her now.
“You have seen better days, my lady,” spoke a figure standing separate from all the rest atop the hill.
He was the Crimson King, and he waited beneath the red and black banners that were his alone. He was clad in blood-colored robes that hung loosely from his thin, decrepit, form. Atop his head he wore a stag’s bleached-white skull as a helm. The bone was tainted by spots of yellow rot. Dark words and ancient symbols were etched into the surface of the grisly mask, its antlers as well. The many tips of its multiple tines were dipped in silverite. From either side of the skull extended elongated, pointed and slender ears. From beneath his mask the Crimson King smiled. His teeth were filed, his tongue was as black as his decayed heart. His eyes burned brightly with malevolent intent within the hollow voids of his skull-mask.
Elsewhere his vile minions chortled together. They were Alethians. Their uniforms were blue tabards, trimmed with snow-white, and beneath that they wore polished plate, mail, and dark, boiled-leathers. Much of their armor and clothes were splattered with the gore of their victory.
Aisha ignored their laughter. She struggled to rise, and ultimately found that she could not. A thin groan escaped from between her lips, followed closely by a fresh trail of blood, leaking from the corner of her mouth. I am dying, she realized. No, I am dead already...my body has simply yet to realize it...
“A corpse or alive, I told them it did not matter,” the Crimson King spoke. He drew closer to Aisha, seeming to almost float through the air, his movements were so graceful. It served as a strange counterbalance to the raw and brutal horror of his appearance. “But I am glad to see that you still live. Truly I am.”
Aisha remained where she knelt. Her head was lowered.
The Crimson King made a sound.
“Bring her up. I wish to look her in the eyes before she dies,” he commanded.
“You assume I wish to look into yours,” Aisha grunted through clenched teeth.
There was no laughter for her petty jape.
Two of the Alethians slung their rifles over their shoulders and came for her. They forced Aisha up, holding her in place by either arm so she would not fall again.
The Crimson King tilted his head to one side as he studied her. From within the black voids of his skull helm, two orbs of red, lidless, watched unblinking. His gaze was baleful, an unwelcome glimpse into the hell that was his soul. Nothing qbeyond his eyes was discernible, but they were terrible things, those eyes, and there was much evil promised within that dark and unblinking evil.
“You are dying,” the Crimson King stated.
She was. Aisha had known it from the moment she’d been wounded. It was a killing blow, though slow in its work.
“I have...moments...no more,” Aisha wheezed. She refused to look at the wound in her side where a rifle’s bullet had found her. She could feel the bullet inside of her; feel her life leaking from the hole it had punched through her body. “But I am thankful for it. You are a hideous creature, Varithrax - Lich Lord. You have made yourself every bit…” She had to stifle her voice to steady her breath. “...You have become an embodiment of evil. I am ashamed to think....” No, she then thought, I will not say it….
“Words,” Varithrax whispered from beneath his mask. His voice was cold and contemptuous. “All that you have left are words, nothing more.”
Despite everything, Aisha allowed herself the satisfaction of a smile. “I have something more,” she told him, defiance filling her voice. “A final bit of understanding I would impart to you, before what comes next...”
“Games, is that how it shall be? You were always so fond of them. Is that truly how you would end this? With a poor attempt at humor, even as the corpses of your people rot on the field below? Shall we trade jokes as the crows come to feast on their carrion?”
Varithrax gazed out over the battlefield and all the ruin that his machinations had wrought. Aisha could not see it, but beneath his helm he was smiling. He turned back towards Aisha, leaned down to bring his face within mere inches of hers.
Even his own minions, the two men that held Aisha upright, shrunk back at being so close to their cruel master.
Aisha was overwhelmed by the aura of contempt, the malice, that clung to Varithrax like a dread mist. Her head was swimming, her body shivered with an unnatural cold.
“Your people are dead,” he whispered. “Your temple lies in ruins, and your allies have abandoned you. There is no one left to challenge me, no one left to stop what it is now inevitable.”
He reached out to touch her. His slender fingers slid up and across Aisha’s ruined scalp, through the remnants of her once-beautiful hair. He brushed aside a silver lock that remained before two of his fingers slid down to caress the length of one of her elongated ears. She said nothing, but inside her body was filled with utter revulsion.
“You know what it is I still need,” Varithrax said, his voice was almost soft. Almost. “I will have it either way, but were you to give it willingly…” His hand fell from her ear. It moved to hover over the wound in her stomach. “I could spare you from this pain...and others to come. Your death might yet be peaceful, even.”
Aisha forced herself to gaze directly into the blood-orbs that were his eyes. “You know I would never give it to you. Never.”
Varithrax studied her. He did not speak.
Aisha’s head began to fall. Her eyes flickered, fighting to stay open. She groaned. She forced herself to continue.“You cannot win this war, Varithrax. You cannot. There is no changing the way things are, or the way they shall be. You cannot fight nature, you cannot fight the will of God.”
“Your perspective, perhaps, not mine,” he answered her. Varithrax spoke a word then, of a dark and ancient tongue. In that moment his voice became like the bleating of crows. Emerald flame ignited in his hands. It cast a dark glow upon the world. “I must admit that I am already growing tired of this game. You are now wasting my time.”
“And you are fighting a hopeless war,” Aisha replied.
“Some will choose to see it that way, but I have found I possess a talent for changing minds.”
“I weep for Alethia,” Aisha said. “They do not know what you are…”
The men holding her remained stone-faced.
“They know power when they see it,” Varithrax said. “Power unlike anything else in all the realms….”
Varithrax strode toward the edge of the hill and raised his arms over the field of battle.
“You - and all the rest of your damned order. Look at them Aisha, look at what you have been reduced to. Your Mir Rothai sought to challenge me - to deny my power, and look at what your hubris has wrought. Your people are gone, and now only you remain, and not for much longer. Like every enemy that came before you, I have triumphed over all.”
Aisha shook her head. “You always did possess an inflated view of yourself,” she told him. “You are not half the man you’d like to believe you are…”
She surveilled his wretched form, a body twisted by fel-magic and madness in equal measure. “I no longer believe you are a man at all...you have made yourself something far less.”
Varithrax turned.“I have grown tired of this game,” he said. “You will give me what I wish.”
“You will have to take it,” Aisha replied, rising up fully as she spoke to face her death. There was no fear inside of her, only a simple understanding of what was to come, a reserved embracing of what she knew was inevitable. “But know this, Varithrax - you cannot fight the storm. You cannot fight nature. God. You are nothing in comparison, less than nothing.”
She could barely keep her eyes open. Her body was trembling, growing cold. At least she could no longer feel the pain from her wounds. The numbness was surprisingly welcome, even if it was only a temporary relief.
“And…” It was a struggle for Aisha to still speak. Her voice was drifting away with the wind, falling away to the merest of whispers. She forced her head to rise, for her eyes to remain fixed on Varithrax. “...and I am not the last of the Mir Rothai...”
And with that, Aisha allowed herself to die. It was her first death, but not her last.
In another world, in a land far removed from the slaughter of the Mir Rothai, a stranger fled through the uncertain dark of night.
Lucca stumbled through the heavy snow, half-frozen and weary beyond all meaning of the word. His face was smeared with frozen blood. His cloak billowed in the fierce winds that clawed ferociously at his body, his face. Pain and cold were all he felt, intermingling until they became one and the same - but he pressed on. The child he bore in his arms would die if he did not.
There were lights ahead, small beacons burning brightly in the dim dark of the night. Men carrying torches, Lucca realized. The flames danced wildly with the whims of the storm. The fires were hope, they were the promise of safety, of life. Lucca could barely walk upright, barely even bear the weight of the babe he carried - but he persevered, he struggled on. He was one of the Mir Rothai, one of the last. He alone had escaped from burning Dun Morghe. He would not surrender, he would not give up. That was not the way of the Mir Rothai. He would fight on, until his very last breath.
“Someone’s approaching!” a voice shouted out from ahead. It was carried by the wind to reach Lucca’s ears. More voices followed the first, but their words were lost amidst the cacophony of the storm.
Lucca kept moving forward. Every step was harder than the one before it. He was swaying, struggling to keep his eyes open. Suddenly his foot slid into an unseen crevice, hidden beneath the thick snow. His ankle twisted, his footing fell out from beneath him. He fell, and the child with him. She began to sob, and her small voice rose above even the storm.
Lucca climbed to his knees and did what he could to brush the snow away from the girl. Her blue swaddling - a match for her eyes - was coated in frost, as was the child bundled within. He held her close to give her what warmth his body still could. Her crying continued.
The lights were coming nearer. Lucca counted at least a dozen in all. He was too weak and too tired to rise. All he could do was the hold the girl against himself and wait, wait for whatever would come.
“It’s alright,” Lucca whispered, to himself as much as to the babe. She continued to wail despite his uncertain promise. Lucca held her close, and he prayed that his words would be proven true. “Everything’s going to be alright…”
The first of the torch-bearing men reached Lucca only moments later. He was followed closely by many more dark silhouettes; warriors all. Lucca could tell at once. They wore heavy furs over mail and dark leather, and their faces were hidden beneath scaled helms.
“Who are you?” the leader of the strangers called out. He raised his torch higher in the air, pointing it towards Lucca. In his other hand he carried the unmistakable gleam of steel.
Lucca tried to speak, but his voice failed him. He didn’t know where to begin - what he could possibly say. We’re survivors...we are the last, the last of the Mir Rothai...
Lucca did not even know what world he had come to, where this was or if its people even knew of the Mir Rothai. The child continued to cry in his hands.
The man who had called out to Lucca stepped closer. He put away his sword, and then he pulled his helmet from his head. His face was young and handsome, pale, and the light of his torch was reflected in his emerald eyes. Red hair spilled down around his face, thick and curled.
“I am Beric Cohmwell,” the man spoke. “I am the Prince of Nin. Who are you? What are you doing out here in this storm? Where did you come from?”
“I…” Lucca shuddered. It was so damned hard to speak, even just his own name was a battle. “I am Lucca,” he finally managed. “Lucca Bowen. The child has name no name. We come seeking shelter.”
The Prince studied this man, the child he held in his arms….and most of all, he drank in the features of Lucca’s uniform, the expert craftsmanship of the chainmail, the scaled armor. “I recognize your uniform,” Beric finally spoke. “I know the symbol upon your breast. My father taught me of it long ago.”
“Yes…” Lucca said, his head falling. “I won’t deny...what I am.” His grip on the child tightened. What we are...
The Prince said nothing for a time. “This is no place to speak of such things,” he finally said. “Can you stand?”
“I do not believe I can.”
“Then we will carry you. Give her to me.” He reached out an arm to take Lucca’s burden, his ward.
Lucca was reluctant to surrender her to another. He had carried her so far, so very far, and her survival had meant everything to him, but he gave her over in the end. He was too weak to protect her, whatever was to come.
“She’s half frozen, the poor little thing,” Beric whispered more to himself than anyone else. He wrapped his own cloak around her, keeping his torch close to warm the babe.
The girl had stopped sobbing at last, finding comfort in the Prince’s hold.
“She likes you,” Lucca whispered, as the last of his strength departed him. “Are you a father?” He wasn’t quite sure what had made him ask such a silly question. Perhaps it was merely the work of his own exhausted mind, slowly drifting into a long and bitter sleep. He couldn’t say for sure.
“I am,” Beric answered. “I have a son,” then, “It is a miracle she still lives. Your daughter is a fighter.”
“She isn’t mine,” Lucca said, and then he could say no more. He felt himself slipping, falling deep into a dark and cold sleep. She’s not mine, the words repeated in his head. She’s not mine…
“She is dead, my Lord.”
The men holding the corpse of the priestess released her, and she fell without a sound.
Varithrax, the Crimson King, said nothing. He watched Aisha’s corpse, taken aback by her last words. She had claimed that the Mir Rothai endured, yet it was not possible...it could not be possible...but he had heard the certainty in her voice, seen it in her face. She had believed her words - no - she had known them to be true.
“Tartarus,” Varithrax called out to his men. “To me.”
A man stepped forth from the Alethians, tall and broad, clad in dark plate and with a great claymore strapped to his back. His cyclopean-helm was tucked beneath the crook of one arm. He was a harsh man, with a hard face and cold, practically lifeless, eyes. Red markings lined his cheeks, his neck, ancient symbols of his people, the Men’Kai, which stood in stark contrast to the dusky coloring of his skin.
“Lord Varithrax,” Tartarus said. He looked at the dead body of Aisha, the priestess of the Mir Rothai.
Varithrax gestured to the dead woman. “There are survivors of the Mir Rothai. We have failed to stem their bloodline as thoroughly as I had wished. You will find them - all of them, however many, wherever they are. Find them, and kill them all.”
“It shall be done, my Lord,” his champion answered. The butcher nodded his head and turned to go. He was a simple weapon, and relished in the cruelty of his purpose, unburdened by the weight of doubt.
Varithrax watched his weapon take his leave of the hill, and after Tartarus was gone, he turned his mind from the Mir Rothai. His champion would not fail him. It was no longer his concern. The Mir Rothai order was broken, their army was gone. A scattered few were no threat to him now.
“Leave me,” Varithrax commanded what remained of his warriors. They left at that command.
Once he was alone, Varithrax approached the body of the priestess. She looked far older - frailer - in death, but also peaceful. It was not a peace that would last. Varithrax pushed the body over with his foot, rolling Aisha onto her back. He studied her for a moment longer, drank in the soft features of her face. He raised his hands over her, shriveled hands wreathed in green flame.
Varithrax spoke in the black tongue of magic. He channeled power through his body, twisted the very fabric of the universe to his will. The clouds overhead grew darker, the world trembled. The wind rose.
The corpse began to move.
Aisha opened her eyes. Her mouth twisted, forming words that died before ever departing from her lips. Only a thin hiss escaped her lungs. From death she returned, though not entirely as she had been before.
“Rise,” commanded Varithrax. “Rise, and let it begin.”
The thing that had once been Aisha stirred with new animate. One arm rose from her cold and pale form, then another. Her eyes glowed, her chest heaved. New and terrible life flooded into the corpse. The priestess of the Mir Rothai rose again, reborn into terrible existence. It was as Varithrax had spoken; it was begun.
On a distant road -far from the burning visage of Dun Morghe - an old man fled south.
He had born witness to the fall of the Mir Rothai. An army with no markings had come to lay siege to their ancient temple, to slaughter all within - and so they had. The air had been filled with the butchery of the innocent. The old man knew that the tale must spread - but he was only a simple farmer, an old one at that. He was no great hero of song and legend, not as the Mir Rothai…had been. He turned his cart south-west, towards home, for the village elders who ruled justly and properly over his people’s lands would surely know what must be done - but these roads had always been dangerous this far north, and never had that been truer than it was today.
As the old man led his cart along the twisting road that stretched out before him, he failed to notice the shadows that moved with him. They crawled across the faces of the cliffs that flanked either side of the path, looming over the road like the teeth of a great beast. These shadows were inhuman things, spider-like creatures, yet upon closer inspection, one would immediately see that they in fact walked upright, on two legs as men did. Dozens of dark eyes were clustered at the center of their heads, and beneath their malformed skulls protruded jagged tusks. They rarely made a sound, save only for the occasional chittering as their claws scraped against their mouths, flicking globs of putrid saliva to stain the rock they clung to. They watched the old man as he passed unaware of them. Their bellies ached, their minds turned to cruel torture, for these beasts were as evil as they were hungry.
These were the Gurayashi, and long had they despised the world of men and all that it contained. Men were their greatest enemies, and none were more hated and feared than the Mir Rothai; the warriors who rode atop great and unnatural beast, and who fought with strength otherwise unfound in their race. The Mir Rothai had reduced the Gurayashi to a splinter of their former glory. Once, they had ravaged their way across the plains of Midland, traveling in packs numbering in the thousands…but those days were long past. They were only scavengers now, no longer feared, no longer powerful. They were the hunted and they were killed, but today they would become the hunters once again.
The old man did not see them, not until it was far too late. The first sign of their attack came when his pony shrieked. The cart came to a sudden halt, and the old man was nearly thrown from where he was seated. He sensed it then, the danger that was all around him, and only after that did he finally see them. The shadows descended onto the road, and the slaughter began in earnest. The monsters fell upon the cart’s pony in silence, and tore it limb from limb, severing its legs and head with their incredible strength. They drank of the dead animal’s blood, pouring freely from its ruptured veins. The gurayashi began to chortle amongst themselves with hideous, twisted, voices; voices filled with sadistic delight.
Through all of this horror the old man cowered. He hid himself behind his overturned cart - too weak and too old to flee.
The gurayashi paid him little mind. Their attention only turned towards the old man once they had finished with their first meal.
"Man-thing small," one of the gurayashi spoke. Every other of its words was laced with a series of intricate clicks. "Little meat."
"Enough meat," another of their kind rasped. This specimen was the largest of the pack, and it spoke with an authority that signified it was their leader. Size and strength was everything to the gurayashi. It was the way of the world. It stood almost a foot taller than any of the others, and there were jagged scars all across its hide. One of its tusks had been torn from its face in a previous skirmish against a much-hated foe.
"Some better than none."
"Wait - wait!" the old man cried out. He threw up both of his hands to stall his inevitable death. "I know things - things that are important. I can tell you…just…just let me live - let me go!"
The gurayashi laughed. They did not show mercy, as this fool did not understand, but then something surprising occurred. Their leader raised a clawed-hand for silence. He approached the old man.
"What know?" it asked. “Man-thing answer. No answer – man-thing die."
"Yes, o-of course - I will!" the old man cried. He shuddered as he stared into the inhuman face of the monster that towered over him. “And, if I do…you’ll let me go?"
The creature grunted in answer.
Afraid for his life, and seeing little alternative, the old man obeyed. He spoke of all that he had seen. He told them of the army that had encamped itself around the burning ruin of Dun Morghe; he spoke to them of the sounds of butchery that had risen beyond the walls to split the air. All the while the creatures listened to his tale, most not understanding - but not all. Their leader was wise, and it knew some of the man-thing’s tongue. It understood, and when the man’s tale was finished, there was much for it to contemplate.
"What man-thing mean?" one of the pack asked.
The leader of the gurayashi was quiet for a time, contemplative (a rare thing for him or any others of their race, for the gurayashi were single-minded in both purpose and design. They killed, and did not suffer to consider the weight of such acts). "Man-things kill Mir Rothai," When it finally spoke, its eyes were blazing with terrible delight. The leader of the pack turned towards its fellow beasts. Though such things were impossible for their kind, it appeared to be almost smiling. "Mir Rothai dead. Mir Rothai all gone!"
Understanding came slowly to their dull-witted minds, but come it did. When at last they together realized the meaning of this news, the gurayashi began to chatter as one. They all understood what such a thing meant - no longer would they have need of the shadows; no longer would they be forced to content themselves with pitiful scraps for meals. The world of men had become theirs for the taking once more; theirs to feast on as they wished. This was their time come again!
"And...You’ll let me go? I told you everything I know."
The pack leader turned to face the old man again. It reached out with one dark claw and in a single motion it tore the old man’s head free of his shoulders. The corpse did not make for an appetizing meal, for there was little meat clinging to the dead man’s brttle bones, and his flesh was coarse and leathery, his veins all but withered and dried of blood. The gurayashi did not care. They celebrated, they laughed, for their banquet had only just begun. There would be much greater feasts to come.