Interlude I – Divination of Domination
Azat stood before a fortress built by what he could only define as architecture defying all logic and reason. A fused together amalgamation of lesser strongholds and castles once built in the defense of the Grand Kingdom of Zarna. Infamous for the Dragon’s Maw portcullis chiseled and carved from burnished bronze and granite, the myriad forges that blazed behind the curtain walls lent it the impression of an actual smoke-belching dragon.
Conquest delivered by the God-King of Carth’s own hand had seen the Zarna of Old lost in the annals of the histories many years ago. The Seven Libraries of the State were razed to the very last stone. Grand palaces of unimaginable opulence were ransacked and pillaged, and left in nothing less than a permanent state of ruin. All that remained of Zarna since her golden ages of yore, were the dilapidated remains of Labyrinthine Maze.
Of course, the Dominion of Carth remolded what was once thought lost in their own image.
An Everlasting Fortress.
A Citadel of the Enslaved.
Azat rekindled his fragile memories and re-imagined the fateful night he was dragged through the Dragon’s Maw Gate. He was nothing more than a broken man. A shackled slave granted mercy solely by the God-King’s own hand.
Erasyl himself descended upon that cursed place and pieced Azat back together into some resemblance of his former self. Yet the changes instructed upon him by the hand of God and his legion of sadistic minions—was irrevocable.
Azat gazed upon the unconquerable bulwark, the Fortress of Everlasting Time itself. He watched it blaze and burn from the height of a mountain summit. He watched centuries-old Watchtowers crumble until they toppled upon themselves with catastrophic force. Fountains of blood seeped from battlements overfull with the slain.
The Banners of the Zarquin Guard, the Hollow-Eyed Widow that wept for her lost sons, were broken and burning across many pockets of Zar’Bau’s lesser bastions. Yet in the heart of the Grand Citadel, her cruel fate still billowed defiantly in the breeze.
Warriors of the Brotherhood marched into Zar’bau’s streets in their thousands, covered beneath a constant hail of flaming arrows. They had formed shield walls where the formation would be strongest. Yet the conquered they fought to repress were beyond number, and surged forth from out of the underground from perceptibly every direction.
Both factions clashed across the breadth of the Gates that led into the inner keep. Countless died upon the Zarquin’s wall of shields, but as the fighting raged onward, the formations eventually devolved into chaotic melees where man could scarcely tell friend from foe.
Battle raged, till crimson rivers surged from out of the streets to cascade down the stairwells and storm drains of Zar’bau’s ruins.
Struck by the sight like a spear through his heart, memories of constant bloodshed and violence surged through Azat as never before. The fragile semblance of peace that Aiman had crafted within him, shattered into a million shards.
Yet Azat remained where he stood outside of Zar’bau’s gates. A sickening feeling of confusion borne from where he actually stood in the midst of this conflict welled within his gut. He felt only outrage, that his Zarquin Brothers were being butchered. Yet he felt empathy and kinship with the ragged and torn horde that dared to defy Erasyl’s will with open hatred.
Abruptly, the world beneath Azat’s feet seemed to shift out from under him. Zar’bau visibly shrunk into the distance, until the horizon he witnessed vanished from sight. The ashen sands of the Gorgon Dunes gradually shifted into the arid deserts of the Carrion Valley. Azat recognized the mountain pass of Reaper’s Lantern forming around him, and the scattered Qi villages that he had scorched into ruin.
Once again, Reaper’s Lantern quaked to the march of ten thousand Warriors of the Brotherhood. Ten Thousand nameless faces waded through the thick of the dead left from the previous battle, picked clean by hordes of passing carrion birds.
At their head rode the only man that Azat knew as familiar. The only man that he had once called a true brother. In that moment, realization dawned upon him, and he knew that the fate of thousands was nigh to be decided.
Aslan himself marched in the direction of Zar’bau to crush the insurrection before it truly began.
Once more, the Qi lands shifted and shrunk as Azat was hurled across the world’s length of his dreamscape. Reaper’s Lantern withered until it became only a speck on the horizon from the Dominion’s Heartlands. The labyrinthine architecture of the Capital, Tu’shik, the City of Canals, rapidly materialized until it spread across the breadth of the Seventh River.
The Grand Canals of Tu’shik seemed quiet in the midst of night. Yet the metropolis clustered along its length seemed unsettled. Fires did not blaze behind its manned battlements. The skies were not filled with the myriad screams of the dying and frightened.
Yet the clamor and chaos of open battle raged on all the same. Azat attempted to read the events happening behind Tu’shik’s walls, but could vaguely sketch out any details as the night sky began to fade into endless, all-consuming black.
Yet one light blazed bright in the darkness. A light that radiated from the heart of the great palace that overlooked the rest of the city. Azat knew who this brilliance belonged to.
As Azat awoke within the cold dark of his tent, a cold feeling of abandonment seized him. He had sacrificed so much for a chance to earn back some form of his previous life. He had labored so arduously, even when vengeance was nothing more than an afterthought locked away in the back of his mind.
A thought surfaced to the forefront of Azat’s mind. He would not abandon his brother Aslan, when he was needed most. For once, he would serve a purpose greater than his own needs.
Cast the thought of vengeance aside, Azat thought, he would drag Aslan from out death’s clutches by his skin of his ankles, if he must.[/i] [/font]
Post Merge: April 20, 2020, 11:09:10 PM
In the future, please use the modify button. Double posting is against the forum rules, and for that reason, the system merged your posts.
Black PactsLeagues beneath the Garden Palaces of Tu’shik, below the subterranean crypts of the Royal Tombs, Tabia felt an unsettling sense of uncertainty. An oppressive dark cloaked the tunnel walls and the sand beneath her feet. A dozen torches scattered farther down the caravan’s length, now smoldering from extended use, held back the darkness with their flickering flames.
“Tabia.” Adofo waved his torch ahead of the caravan, a dim light in the darkness. “Come quick, I’ve found something!”
“Out of the way.” Tabia hurried to his side and shouldered the burly warrior from her path. “Don’t touch anything.”
“Sorrows of hell.” Adofo shrugged. Tabia could envision the sneer on his lips. “What is this?”
Tabia inspected the great stone slab of a door blocking the path forward. She quickly ran her torch over the dusty surface, unveiling ancient scripture and symbols chiseled into the stone until they became recesses in a greater framework.
Tabia deigned not spare Adofo a glance. “Warriors of the Zarquin Guard do not ask such questions. Just keep your sword ready.”
“You’re expecting something behind this door?” Adofo stared at the scripture in amazement. “What could possibly be living down here. Giant rats?”
“Found it!” Tabia placed her gloved fingers on a hidden lever and forced it down until it clicked softly into place. “I would advise, Adofo, that you keep your torches nearby. The God-King has commanded us to enter, but not even he has entered this place for many decades.”
The grinding noise of stone ground upon stone deafened Tabia’s ears. Adofo planted one step back and readied his hand on the hilt of his sheathed sword. A quiet chorus of hesitant murmurs and disagreements rumbled from the caravan behind them.
“Silence!” Adofo commanded. “Zarquin, attend your charge!”
“Yes, yes.” Faki, one of Adofo’s lieutenants, spurred his warriors on. “Make sure these archaeologists don’t fall on their scrolls and ink feathers!”
A dozen men garbed in robes of cream and crimson, chain-mail glistening softly in the flickering light, approached the schism opening between the stone slabs barring the path. They held their bucklers tight across their chests. They readied their swords to cleave through even passing shadows.
Adofo nodded approvingly as they formed a wall of flesh and steel before the chasm yawning open before them.
“You first.” Adofo gestured to Tabia as the granite slabs jarred to a sudden halt. “I don’t think we’ll be using our blades, but we remain ever at your back.”
“Step carefully.” Tabia sneered at Adofo’s confident grin before she stepped into the abyss. “Gods know what’s become of this sacred sanctum.”
“Crumbling artifacts.” Faki hawked and spat, quickly dogging Tabia’s footsteps. “Toppled ruins. That is all that remains here.”
Tabia waved her torch back and forth across the widening chamber into which they had entered. Faki had spoken the truth, she realized, as the remnants of a great reliquary became unveiled before the cautious caravan.
Thousands of Carthite warriors, hewn from stone, bronze, and clay, lined many of the open spaces beneath half-collapsed archways. They stood in silent vigil over stranger monuments that watched over them. Tabia attempted to near them, but could only make out the telltale signs of the many limbs that decorated each statue before Adofo tugged her back toward the safety of the caravan.
“Can you read any of this?” Adofo flicked his torch over scripture-etched walls of dusty obsidian. “This is not Carthite. It almost hurts my eyes to read it.”
“A dead language, Adofo.” Tabia whispered. “Nothing more.”
Adofo’s irritable sighing betrayed his mounting impatience. “Will you tell me at least what you’re searching for?”
“Something forbidden.” Tabia confessed. “Trust me, Adofo, you’d be better off not remembering a thing about what you’ve seen here today. For I shall remember.”
“Corpses often fall short on memories.” Adofo forced through clenched teeth.
Tabia whirled around on him, her torch leveled directly in front of his eyes. “I carry the manifestation of the Tyrants’ will with me. Strike me down, and the sorrowful hell you speak of shall swallow you whole!”
“Hell… eh, enough.” Adofo cursed. “Find what you’re searching for and let’s be done with this crumbling heap of stone! The blasphemies hidden in these depths make my skin crawl.”
“Adofo…” Faki cautioned. “Let’s just see this through. Then we can toast to the God King’s generous reward, eh?”
Tabia’s laughter lilted from several meters ahead. “Your friend has the right mind for this sort of thing. Turn back if you’re frightened, Adofo, and give Faki the commander’s badge.”
“Don’t just shy there, Zarquin!” Adofo snapped. “After her. If something happens to Tabia, we’ll be swaying from our necks outside the gates of Tu’shik!”
The Zarquin Guard jostled forward, a caravan of scribes and scholars scrambling not to fall out of their shadow. Tabia glanced behind her, but pressed on all the same. She trod a path interrupted by toppled over statues, all of them of ancient Carthite origin, and waded through the thick of their ruin.
A spark of light in the near distance made Tabia jump with fright the moment she realized its presence. Hesitant, she drew nearer to the light source until she realized that the light of her torch reflected off something glassine in material.
A soft disturbance crept from farther down the chamber halls as Tabia caught her own reflection in a mirror the color of red wine. Gentler than the most imperceptible sighing, within the silent chambers of the reliquary, there was no warrior of the Zarquin Guard or palace attendant who did not freeze at the luring sound.
“Weapons ready.” Adofo whistled sharply, suddenly beside Tabia once again. “Approach with caution. Remember, stay together and fight as one.”
“Are you certain this is a danger?” Tabia’s murmur felt like it resonated off of the reliquary’s walls. “There’s no cause for alarm, yet.”
“I am not paid to take chances.” Adofo gestured for Tabia to fall back into his shadow. “Faki, let us combine our eyes and ears, brother. We lead from the front.”
“Your command is my oath.” Faki acknowledged and made to stand beside his superior. “I’ll keep my torch primed for you. Better that you hand yours to a scribe.”
“Here.” Adofo spun round and shoved the torch into Tabia’s embrace. “Keep your scribes in line, Tabia. No one flees, on the God-King’s command.”
“Stop stalling and move out already!” Tabia made a brief whistle.
Adofo gestured with a point of his chin for Faki to take the lead. He dogged Faki’s footsteps, eyes peeled in any direction that Faki did not directly focus on. The other members of the Zarquin Guard formed a tight phalanx around the caravan and marched in the shadow of their superiors.
Tabia marched behind the safety of the phalanx, surrounded by a gaggle of superstitious and fearful scribes. The caravan pressed forward in ominous silence. Artifacts and relics crafted by Carthite artisans seemed to wane in number and scale, until all that remained before them was only the way forward. Statues of strange mythological beasts gazed upon their progress with lustful eyes. They were spaced evenly through a hall of seemingly endless archways delving off into the reliquary’s most decrepit corners.
“amphetamine parrot!” Faki’s voice shattered the suffocating silence ensnaring the caravan. A forceful impact punctuated his distasteful language. “Another doorway, Tabia! This… this one is scrawled with some scribbling… I cannot read it.”
The phalanx parted to allow Tabia closer inspection. She stepped forward to join Adofo and Faki before a massive slab of alabaster marble inset with the same glassine, wine red material she had glimpsed before. Painstakingly chiseled into the mirror’s surface were hollowed recesses forming more sinister hieroglyphics and scripture.
Tabia gently lifted her torch to better see in the light, but found her hand quickly seized in Adofo’s snare.
“I hope you know what you’re doing.” Adofo cautioned. He slackened his grip so that Tabia could achieve her work.
“This door is sealed by rite of blood.” Tabia scrolled her fingers across dimly-lit hieroglyphs. “It cannot be opened without sacrifice. I-I do not understand. I am not certain how to proceed.”
“No soul was ever meant to understand how, Tabia.” A sighing voice crept through the darkness. It was a sinistrous amalgamation of three feminine voices speaking in chorus. “This world is too brief already without prying eyes gleaming such treasured knowledge.
“Woeful have the times grown, that your master now sends gaggles of slavering attendants in his stead. Has he grown so vain? Does his courageous heart wither with fear? Or is it desperation that drives him into the shadows?”
“Your blasphemy shall reap his wrath.” Tabia shouted, torch held out for any sign of the creature. “He would certainly cast you back into the shadow of Hell’s chasms!”
“Enough.” Adofo interrupted. “Find it and bring me the severed wretch’s head!”
“You need not look far, little man.” The enigmatic voice surged over them like a wind from the passage behind them. “I shall not shirk from your gaze.”
A thin sliver of tongue the color of dark blood lolled from out of the shadows and into the flickering warmth of the torchlight. A maw of teeth that curved like the perfect points of a ram’s horns followed suite. The grounded roots of each tooth gleamed in the darkness, fading into burnished browns toward the center and then to oily blacks at the very tips.
They were small enough not to alter the creature’s facial features. A blend reminiscent of an elven crossing with a human maiden.
Yet, an other-worldliness bled into those pristine features that Tabia would have otherwise thought divine. Oppressive eyes of oily crimson and viper’s slits seemed to bubble and writhe from within as if blood boiled from underneath. Lengthy streams of raven hair cascaded from a crown of four curving horns that could rival a Minotaur's.
Beneath her arms were another set of limbs lined with whipcord muscle. She held them cupped in a way that sketched a strange symbol with the intricate positioning of her fingers.
A simple Colchis of deep sapphire laced with filigree of ruby garbed the creature’s deceptively towering height. Tabia figured it stood four heads over the tallest man in the caravan.
The caravan looked on in horror for the briefest moment, before the first terrified scream sent most of the attendants flying in a panic.
The Forbidden One fixated her gaze on Tabi. A coy smiled played on its lips before it laid into the discordant horde attempting to fly past it. The creature scarcely seemed to move either of her four arms, but she caught two scribes by the crown of their heads.
She tracked her upper arms back and forth, an effort that seemed near effortless to Tabia. Bodies flew through the dusty passage. Dull, sickening crunches echoed through the lonesome cavern as corpses impacted against the monuments gazing ever onward.
The Forbidden One tore the two attendants still in her snare messily into halves with a violent pull of her arms.
In the span of a shallow breath, the caravan in Tabia’s charge had been gruesomely murdered.
“Infernal fires.” Adofo cursed from out a mouth too slackened with shock to be considered intimidating.
Tabia craned her head to stare Adofo directly in the eyes. “What are you doing?” She insisted.
Adofo considered Tabia for a long moment, his skepticism slowly eradicated by an expression of grim determination.
“Brothers!” Adofo addressed the thirteen warriors huddled in front of him like a bulwark of flesh and steel. “Our very lives depend on the severing of this blasphemy’s head. Fight well, and may the sun rise for you tomorrow! Charge!”
The Zarquin thundered their war cries and broke ranks in unison. Tabia watched the first and bravest among them cut viciously toward the Forbidden One’s midriff. The creature flicked her wrist at the grizzled warrior and slit his throat with the same gesture.
A second Carthite leapt over the back of his wounded comrade, but Tabia blinked and in the next moment, his arms were hewed from his body.
“Together, you imbeciles!” Adofo encouraged them. “Encircle her! Strike from every angle!”
From the right flank, three of the Zarquin guard charged forward together. They held their shields out before them with their swords readied for a sure thrust. On the left, Adofo, Faki, and another warrior pushed their advantage at the same time.
The Forbidden One backpedaled, the ghosting image of swords manifesting between her fingers vanishing and reappearing as she tracked her arms back and forth. A fountain of blood arced from the formation on the left flank. A skull cleaved from someone’s shoulders.
On the right, Adofo parried one of the ghosting blades with a mighty clamor of steel on ethereal steel. Faki sprinted at full tilt and slid into the Forbidden One’s guard. He made a vicious cut behind the creature’s knee.
A keening howl of agony tore through the Zarquin ranks like a sudden gust of wind, but they held firm. More war cries burst from out of the shadows as other Zarquin emerged behind the Forbidden One.
The Forbidden One whirled backward. Her movements were more akin to dance than any battle maneuver. Her arms cut across one another like a labyrinth of blades. Some found their mark and hewing down more of the guard. Others were successfully parried by the trained and practiced eyes of Adofo’s most experienced warriors.
The clamor of battle resonated through the reliquary. The screams of the dying punctuated every several clashes of steel on steel. Diabolic screams were torn from the Forbidden One’s throat as the Zarquin steadily landed a true blow here and there.
Tabia quickly realized that she stood alone by the doorway blocking the clearest route to safety. Only a sprawl of dead warriors, scribes, and thick slathers of blood left in the sand between her and them her only protection.
“Faki!” Adofo shouted over the cries of the last Zarquin Guard to fall on the Forbidden One’s blades. “Save yourself, brothe--” Adofo’s sudden gasp of surprise was torn out of his lungs, impaled on the length of two blades.
Defiant, Adofo scarcely lifted his head as if he made to strike the Forbidden One one last time. Unceremoniously, the Forbidden One cast his corpse into the shadows with a ferocious kick.
Tabia froze in horror. Faki’s shadow receded into the dark as he fled back toward the surface as quickly as he could manage. She wanted to call out to him, but whatever desire she had was quickly robbed by the Forbidden One’s unsettling gaze fixated on her.
The creature, credit to the Zarquin Guard’s martial prowess, knelt unsteadily upon one mightily wounded knee. A thousand cuts marred her once unblemished skin, a few large bruises the tell-tale signs of shields leaving their mark on her.
Beads of sweat and blood dripped down her unnatural body. Her hair was matted and sticky with the blood and viscera of her foes.
In spite of her condition, the Forbidden One lifted her head skyward and laughed in skeptical disbelief.
“That, was not how I expected this fight to go.” The Forbidden One shifted around to gaze at Tabia once more. “But I’d rather them defiant, than meek and soft. Which one would you be, Tabia?”
“Who are you?” Tabia eked out a murmur under her breath. “How do you know of me?”
“Such trivial questions.” The Forbidden One answered. “What need of you of their answers? What need have you of concern? You’re nothing more than meat strung up on strings, like a puppet. You’ll dance to my tune, won’t you, Tabia? You’ve searched my eyes and found your own soul
wailing back in them.
“What need of you such incorporeal beauty? Better that it belongs to me in the end.”
Tabia could avert her gaze from the Forbidden One no longer. Lost in the creature’s eyes, she felt her spiritual defenses crumbling in great heaps. Her defiance guttered. Her faith withered enough to fall from her mind like a rotting fruit from a dead tree.
Tabia glimpsed the Forbidden One’s eyes and felt content in her sudden new enthrallment. A faint spark ignited in the darkest corner of her mind. She understood then that only this creature could ever undo the curse she had woven over her.
“Are you listening, Tabia?” The Forbidden One turned away from her to gaze in the direction that Faki had departed.
“What?” Tabia quipped, impulsive. She felt her sentience returning in foggy, gradual waves. “Gods, what have you done to me?”
“I said that I have need of you.” The Forbidden One beckoned her forward with a curl of her talon-like finger. She spared an intentful glance and haunting smile in Tabia’s direction. “It shall be a monumental task. Are you still listening in that thick skull of yours?”
Tabia sank to her knees in the blood slick sand and prostrated herself, knowing that anything less would spell her demise.
Tabia did not attempt to hide the begrudged loathing embedded in her words. “I swear, nothing but death would keep me from it.”
“Very well.” The creature cooed, oblivious. “Then listen intently…”