2020-11-04 16:37:00

Chapter I: The Prize

 “Stormheim” certainly lived up to it’s name. I don’t just mean in it’s weather, but in it’s spirit, and I mean “spirit” in both senses of the word.

Where Northrend was a solemn, dead place, a frigid frost-scape where the living struggled constantly against the symbolic and literal creeping death of winter, where at it’s heart sat the seat of power for all undeath on Azeroth. Stormheim was alive.

It was alive with old magic, thunderstorms, and raging battles fought between the dead, the living, the near-dead, and the eternally damned.

Rain pelted down around me as I rode towards Haustvald, the patter of the heavy rain hammering my cowl down in front of my eyes. Each hoof-beat that the horse-shaped pile of bones under me took felt slower than the last, as cold dry earth turned to sloughing mud. Lightning flashed, thunder cracked, and my senses were alive with things that roared past the veil of the corporeal, refusing to be silenced by death, refusing to be forgotten and unheard by the living.

I could hear the din of combat, I could see the shades of warriors long-dead, locked in fruitless eternal combat, struggling in vain against a capricious god’s cruel hubris. Raging against an afterlife for an ascension of spirit that will never come. What absolute fucking suckers, to think they could win a rigged game by playing by the rules. You eat gods, you don’t play their games.

Thunder swallowed the sound of my laughter as I rode on.

Haustvald was vast, and it opened up to the road like a mountain valley, all great stone mausoleums and ritual circles, shrouded in a lingering fog. It was dotted by torchlight, patrols and cultists, those who had broken their vows and perverted the holy site into something profane. And for the vacationing sorcerer, it really did feel home-y.

I opted to descend down the side, where the patrols were fewer and the entrance less obvious, choosing to scale the granite monoliths and mossy walls in lieu of hard combat with zealous vrykul. It was less fun, sure, but no one wants to be spent in the first ten minutes of the orgy.

My charger snorted with a huff of fiery hoarfrost, its eyes alive with the Ebon magic I’d taken to during my time with the Scourge. It stood, dutifully, on the precipice of Haustvald as I dismounted it with a flourish of rippling black felcloth. I conjured my staff to my hands, drawing it from the aether; a gnarled, stained, oaken thing, with sigils and runes that looked like horrific scars on its surface that bled with the unmistakable purple haze of necromantic arcana. It was a sturdy, familiar weight in my hands that thrummed with power.

It whinnied, perhaps in relief, as I ended the spell that animated it with a wave of my hand. It fell apart in a clacking pile of bone and dust and cold mist.

There were times, in my life, where I dreamed of being someone else, just so I could see how effortless and fashionable I made magic look. I was good.

I looked around, then down to my belt. Even in the pitch-dark of the ungodly hours, even with the moon obscured by coal-black storm clouds laden with torrential rain and violent lightning, my eyes were able to see, and I found the ring of small felcloth pouches on my belt, each one stitched with spellthread sigils that flashed with magical auras to my senses, each one a collection of dessicated flesh, shards of bone and bonemeal, teeth, and blood.

One of my claws clipped it from my belt, and I casually tossed it to the ground and spoke a word in the Language of Death.

“Thrall-in-a-bag”, was the colloquial term for a ritual I had created early on in my career. Recruiting for the Cult of the Damned often had me in urban areas, magi colleges, places far from old earth or full graveyards. And while I am an immensely talented and powerful ectomancer, even the spirit world was sometimes just a bit too sparse for my liking when I found trouble.

Magic is often about extrapolation. A spell is a painting, where one takes fundamental, symbolic reagents, and uses them like pigments in a base of mana to paint something with depth and color and complexity. Creativity, ego, willpower, lateral thinking, and cunning are essential to any great magi, and without them, you will only ever achieve mediocrity in magic, and mediocrity is an offense to Magic, itself. That simple cocktail of necromantic reagents and my own power was enough to create a thrall to my design and liking. Geists, skeletons, ghouls, zombies, abominations, gargoyles, whatever I needed at the time, I could conjure wholesale from those pouches.

It was the latter that I needed.

In a torrent of bone shards, blood, ash, and flesh, the pouch tore apart. Its eyes appeared first in that cloud of detritus, glowing and green. Then its fangs, long and stony. Then its skin, ashen and grey, and then its wings flapped, and its shriek echoed into the storm above it.

The saddle bags that had been draped over my charger had fallen into the rich mud as I had dismissed it, and I took them up over my shoulder. I mounted the stony thing, which took to the air less than gracefully, like it was a creature never meant to fly, and lowered me down to the ground below, out of sight of many of the patrols that dotted the fog with their torchlight.

The life of a necromancer and that of a graverobber were differentiated only by a spark of magic, really, and much of my prepatory work and reagent gathering involved digging, plundering, and a healthy disrespect for the sanctity and repose of the dead. My tools of the trade were often shovels, shears, hammers, and pry bars. Though, my kit was often just that little bit more advanced. A certain handful of artifacts and extra-dimensional spaces helped immensely, in those certain… niche situations a necromancer might find themselves in.

Breaking into an ancient vrykul vault certainly took a bit of finesse that a shovel didn’t have.

Haustvald was a holy, heathen site, turned unholy by the wayward. It was a portal to Helheim, an altar for entry, and like many important ritual sites, had reliquaries.

In one of those reliquaries, a particular item I’d heard of had caught my interest, for… practical uses.

It was no world-ending artifact, no battery of souls to fuel my unconquerable, skeletal army, no font of power that would assure my ascension to a higher level of being, no ancient text that might bring forth some ruiner of creation.

It was a drinking horn.

It was an old artifact, some treasure of some long-forgotten conqueror. A drinking horn carved from blessed bones, that when filled with a flagon of ale, would flow endlessly for a day with an ambrosia charged with an emboldening magic. It had been corrupted by the cultists, and apparently now ran only with a deep red blood that was charged with some minor anima.

Thaumaturgy, the discipline of ritualized magic in its simplest, less romantic definition, was a resource-heavy school of magic, and especially troublesome when you specialized in the more alternative flavors of it. Candles, quality chalk, charnel ash, bones, hearts, blood. You needed, just, so much of it, to the point where if you didn’t find a suitable work-around or an easy cache, it could be a full-time job finding suitable viscera and accoutrement unless you delegated to thralls or acolytes, which really just wasn’t my style.

The boon of an ever-flowing supply of blood was too valuable a resource, and entirely wasted on this backwater pagan death-cult.

I ordered the gargoyle to perch nearby after taking the saddle bags from it. On the top of one of the carved stone monoliths, where its ashen skin hardened and crackled into stone, until it looked as if it were part of the stonework itself.

The vault in front of me was sealed by that same masonry, and covered in the runes of the vrykul that spoke of the blood of the devoted. At its center was the carved imprint of a vrykul-sized hand, grooves spiraling outwards from it to the edges of the barrier.

I hovered my own hand above it. Clawed and pallid, and like a child’s compared to it. Welp.

I clipped two more pouches from my belt and patted down the rest, leaving me with three more, counting the last few bullets in my chamber like I was some lawman from Westfall.

With another bit of willpower, and two more swirling torrents of bone and ash, twin geists hunched and gurgled beneath the bloodstained burlap of their cycloptic hoods, their nooses swaying in the wind of the storm. They each skulked over to me like obedient pets, and followed me as I strode towards one of the orange dots of torchlight in the mist.

The vrykul patrol hadn’t been expecting me, much less the geists, much less when his torch was down and his dick was in his hand, taking a piss behind one of the pillars, but he was a guardsman. He knew the risks.

Under the cover of night and thunder, the geists at set upon him like wild cats, leaping at him and sinking their claws into his flesh, raking at his neck, at his arms, where his mail hadn’t been protecting him. He had tried to fight back, he did a fairly good job of it. His threw one from his back to the ground, only to find the other leaping into his face. He ripped an arm from one of the geist’s shoulders, only to find it had a second arm with an equally sharp claw. When he found his axe, he managed to liberate the top half of one of the creatures from its legs, only to find it didn’t seem to care.

He struggled against the black, ethereal chains that shot through the air from my splayed fingertips, crackling with unholy energy. They wrapped around his throat and lifted him from his feet, and he dropped his weapon, desperately trying to pull at them, but found his arms rent apart and torn back down by the geists.

Like a length of beef hanging on a chain, he was shredded from top to bottom, his eyes wide and filled with rage, focused on me. He never screamed, he only seethed.

I’m sure he died well. Like a warrior, or something. Whatever the fuck that’s worth.

I harvested his hand from the corpse, taking one of the cleavers I kept in my kit. It came off easily enough. A butcher, a chef, and a necromancer will always extoll the importance of maintaining a sharp edge on your cutting implements.

I slashed open his palm and placed it at the center of the barrier, and it fit like a glove. The blood surged from the open wound and flowed along those spirals until it reached the edges of the barrier. That stone became mist before me and I passed through, leaving the geists to guard the threshold as I moved in.

Inside, I found tapestries, gold, silver, semi-precious stones, ancient armor and ceremonial swords. Shiny trash, kept safe by the material-obsessed. Each of them on their own dais, illuminated by braziers, running along either side of the long hallway down to the reliquary’s actual treasure. There were times, where magic and intuition were one and the same, and perhaps it had been my prolific experience in robbing tombs, but they each thrummed with the certainty of punishment, of a spiked trap or a pressurized plate. Like a test, where the undiscerning thief would meet their end.

At the end, on its own dais, on a small pedestal, was the horn.

It was so unspectacular-looking. Where once, in its age, it might have been pearl white and built with a clean, metal frame, it was now cracked and charred and blackened, as if it had seen fire and refused to be destroyed by it. Its frame was ruddy and brown with rust that looked as if it would flake the moment it moved. It dripped, drop by drop, with blood, and it ran in the thinnest trickle to a small puddle off the side of the pedestal, into the intricately rune-carved floor of the dais that surrounded it.

It was certainly magic, not just intuition, this time. Those runes were burning with magic, each of those droplets of blood like a drop of water hitting a vat of hot oil. I could hear it sizzling with spellwork. The runes of words like “initiate”, “devoted”, “bloodline”, “vyrkul”, “death”, “trespass” were written into the jagged vrykul designs of the floor. It was a language those who worked with the Scourge knew well.

I set my bags on the floor and produced a pair of gloves slipping them on before unfurling a blanket from inside. They were all felcloth, a favorite material, pitch-black and glistening in the torch-lit chamber. Steeped in the blood of a faerie dragon, both the gloves and the blanket had intense anti-magic properties, like the creature itself, immune to all but the most insidious and subversive magics.

I liked to be careful when handling new artifacts. You never wanted to risk a curse. They were a real bitch to cleanse yourself of.

I whipped the blanket out in front of me, laying it down across the runes to the pedestal, and took a step forward onto it.

I felt a surge of magic rush around me like a sudden gust of wind, and all along the dais those runes crackled with an alabaster fire that shrieked with the sounds of the dead. It was a blinding flash and an intense heat that I could feel not on my skin, but on my soul. The blanket under my feet almost lifted with the force of it, but it kept the energy at bay, keeping it from likely incinerating me for being a heathen intruder.

Underneath my feet, the runes were still thrumming, and I could feel my teeth vibrating as I took another step forward towards the drinking horn, gloved hands carefully running under the natural curve of it, to lift it from its pedestal.

The deep bellow of a warning horn sounded behind me, and I heard the barking voices of patrols outside. Apparently, it was a popular pissing spot, and I’d been found out.

I didn’t hurry. One didn’t rush the care of an old artifact like this, but I did send a magical impetus to the geists outside the door to stall, and I felt them skulk off towards the oncoming vrykul under cover of stormy night.

Once I’d retrieved my blanket, I carefully wrapped the horn in it, and placed it in the saddlebags, along with my gloves, and headed outside, to the stone pillar where my gargoyle had perched.

I felt my geists die. Maintaining a thrall felt almost like a tense muscle, and when that little bit of magic I needed to impose my will on them was dismissed, I felt the cords of my magic grow slack with relief.

It was then, that I rushed. As accomplished as I am, as powerful I am, as resource-rich this profane site was, it was always a gamble to fight fair, and it was even more of a gamble to fight an organized militia on their own turf. Preparation, subversion, and ambush were key to my battle strategy, and I have always subscribed to retreat as a very valid tactic in the absence of those key principles.

Survival was paramount, the long-game always takes precedence.

I ran through the mud, weighed down by the weight of my supplies, scanning the misty darkness on either side of me for any anchorites. I gripped my staff, readying myself for whatever ad hoc sorcery I was going to need as I panted, a physical reflex from my time when I actually needed to breath. The mind was stubborn, sometimes, and it those old habits tend to spring up in times of heightened stress.

There was a splash of mud on my face, as the glassy, singular eye of a geist stared up at me from the ground, still leaking with blackish-green ichor.

“You have a made a grave and last mistake, coming here, outlander!”

The voice was deep, masculine, and amused. And it was punctuated by equally gruff grunts of concurrence all around, and I saw them around me torches held aloft.

I slowed my pace and set the base of my staff in the rich mud beneath me, there was no sense trying to outrun trained warriors twice your size. My hand slid behind me, under my cloak, claws ready to clip the last pouches I head.

I barked out a laugh, that metallic timbre of the some of that borrowed Ebon might giving it some gravitas above the thunder and patter of heavy rain, “Gods, if I had a copper for every last mistake I’ve made, I’d have… Ugh, several coppers, I guess. Honestly, you lot aren’t worth the fucking quips.”

I drew my claw across my belt, and freed the pouches from it, tossing them outwards, to cover my flanks.

And one by one, blood spraying from their necks, eyes wide with surprise, the vrykul began falling in muscled heaps to their knees and then thudding to the floor. What warriors that survived the first assault flailed with their weapons, barking orders and warnings in their native tongue, and then fell to the second wave of attack, their torches all falling into the mud and snuffing themselves out in the rain.

It would all have been so impressive if I’d actually animated my thralls.

It would have been so impressive if I had seen what had killed them.

And in the darkness, even with what piercing, magical vision I had in it, I saw nothing, and heard the squelch of leather, and the sound of metal sliding along a scabbard.

And then I saw it, and I heard it. A flash, and the sharp slicing of something in the air. And then I felt it.

I felt the blade in my shoulder, and it burned with a pain I hadn’t felt in a long time. A sharp, white-hot pain that made my eyes water, and made me shriek. It was an indescribable pain that buckled me to my knee, it felt as if the knife and my skin were made of two things that could not exist together, two antithetical vibrations that were violently trying to shake themselves apart.

The Light. The Holy fucking Light.

I wrenched the knife from my shoulder and threw it as hard as I could away from me, and I could feel the wound sizzling, and I could smell burning rot.

I clasped my hand to my shoulder and flooded the wound with shadows and cold dark death, feeling my flesh weaving itself closed, still lingering with the intense, white-hot pain of the Light.

I did my best to chuckle, another harsh laugh. You never let your enemies know when they’ve rattled you, “You know, I never really got the appeal of magical throwing weapons… It’s like you’re just throwing time and money at people, especially when you don’t actually kill them…”

In the darkness, I heard the sliding of metal from a scabbard, again. And then again.


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