Gurtlekep returned at the head of a thousand-strong troop of defectors, chained together like sled dogs, pulling a long chain of wheeled supply carts through the difficult debris-strewn path through the thick autumn darkwood forest. Assigning prisoner relocation duty to his subordinates, he peeled away from the procession and covered the few hundred yards through the trees to Rintuban, the now-vacant inn town butted up against the woods on its north side. He threaded his way through the buildings, the empty wooden structures like dessicated insect husks in the quiet dust. Caution was essential; they were effectively inside occupied territory here, but the advance enemy forces were insufficient to provide persistent guards at each locale.
Cyrrienne’s room was in one of the former civic buildings here, a centre of drudging bureaucracy repurposed into the first walled building she’d slept more than a night in, and temporary headquarters of the Order of the White Coin. Gurtlekep tossed off a scaled salute at the door guard, who had to lean down to consult the chevrons on the shoulders of Gurtlekep’s makeshift White Coin uniform, still so unfamiliar with the distinguishing facial features of the Kobold race that he didn’t recognise the organisation’s senior military commander.
Inside, the leaders were deep in conversation.
"I know you don’t like it Cyrrienne. I don’t particularly like it. I’m used to giving life to things, not taking it."
"I wouldn’t exactly call that life, Nzaario," replied Cyrrienne. "Though I see your point."
One evening at the abbey where she was raised, she was gathering wildflowers with the abbess to decorate the table for a feast. It was the Festival of Life, a sacred weekend in the springtime in which worshippers of Halestar celebrated the new life that arose in the gentle season. Birds hatching, baby deer walking, fruit trees blossoming... the abbess explained that all life was precious and to be celebrated, and there was never any justification in taking a life. Though Cyrrienne was never a very attentive youth in the abbey’s schoolhouse, whenever she was physically engaged out in the world, she was at her most receptive. To have any hope of bringing up this child well, the abbess took the time to deliver the crucial lessons when Cyrrienne was separated from that little friend of hers, because whenever Lendrick Heraldstone was in the room, the only subject on the agenda was mischief.
"What about a graveyard? There must be something else we can do?"
"You get what you pay for with necromancy. If you want a column of crispy, calcified bones that will crumple under a stiff breeze, then sure, let’s go grave-robbing. On top of that, they retain their identities, in part, when they’re raised. Any cemetery will be a lottery of talent. But if you want your soldiers, with all their capabilities and none of the insurrection, you need to get them in a state I can work with. I don’t command the minds of the living; I command the bodies of the dead. My power is at your disposal, leader. If you want to tap into that power, you’re going to need to take action."
"Me?" Cyrrienne was taken aback. Throughout the negotiation, she’d not considered that Nzaario wouldn’t carry out his own plan.
"I can’t spare my time or energy spellcasting them to death. I'm running down to the wire on preparation time to put our battle infrastructure together. You’ll all have to take care of it."
Cyrrienne considered it. If she were willing to sign off on the plan, it was as good as murdering them all herself. If. But cognitive dissonance aside, it would be more unpleasant to have blood on her hands than conceptually consenting to that blood being spilled.
"Michesavu, you’ve said nothing. What do you think?"
"Well," the elven ranger began. "I find undead goblins no more distasteful than live goblins. But killing them all? Gods... It’s not what Len would do." Michesavu was a frequent visitor to the abbey. He’d watched Cyrrienne and Lendrick grow up together, a seemingly unchanging constant in their life. By appearance he’d hardly changed, even while they’d watched those in the abbey grow old. He’d taught them about surviving in the wild, and brought them relics and trinkets from far-flung lands. When they left the abbey to pursue Lendrick’s dream of deciphering the Ybrean Codex, Michesavu was the first person they sought for help.
Cyrrienne’s jaw tightened at the sound of Len’s name. "Len’s gone, Miche. He’s gone and we’re left. If he were here, we wouldn’t have a thousand goblins in chains out there, we’d have ten thousand in arms. We need something, something, to give us the edge." And in truth she wasn't sure the elf was right. Len would do this. Len would do anything for the cause.
"Well, we’ve come this far. We’ve been walking in the morally grey for some time now. We’ve had no help from the gods that you or I worship. If you can do what you claim, Nzaario, you will be the most powerful man I’ve ever met, in all my decades of walking the land. If this is the only higher power willing to send some of that power down the line to us, we should seize it, regardless of the source." Michesavu conceded. "But how do you reliably and quickly kill a thousand people?"
"Poison," Gurtlekep prompted. "March them to a small village with a single, tainted well. We used to raid farming hamlets by sneaking some belladonna extract into the water. The next day when everyone was laid up in bed, the storerooms were unwatched. A light dose will just make them sick, but a few times when the plant was particularly potent or the cleric was away from town… some of those people stayed in bed for the rest of their lives."
Cyrrienne excused herself into the next room and slumped to the ground against the wall, suddenly lightheaded. She put her head in her clammy hands and took a deep breath. Even when Len had been with them, there were times when she’d come up against her conscience in the pursuit of the Order’s ends. Len had interpreted those passages in the Enneagrammaton as part prophecy, part guide. But what if this whole time it had been a test? What if she was meant to decline the help of a death cleric, and refuse to host an army of goblins, and kill the kobold that she’d instead promoted? It was never simple, even in the beginning, but Len had a way of making everything work out. When they first found Khoroldar, her instincts were to flee, then to fight. Lendrick talked her into helping the minotaur despite their legendary ill-tempers and distrust of others, and Khoroldar had turned into one of her most trusted allies and closest friends.
It had always been like that with Len. Tiny incremental steps at first into unfamiliar ground and testy bovosapien friends, then into the murk of alliances with goblins and stealing from innocent peasants. He’d had a way of overriding her objections with his clarity of vision, his certainty in the endgame of a redeemed and safe world. After they left the abbey together, both of their powers had started to wane. Why didn't she see it for the warning sign it was? Because it had only shored up Len's beliefs that the world was in danger and this was a symptom. While they were together, it was easy to follow him.
But their army was in ruins, and its founder missing, mad and maybe dead. Cyrrienne had spent the afternoon giving serious consideration to cold-bloodedly poisoning ten hundred people whose only real transgression was indulging the instinct to self-preserve, instincts they'd not had suppressed by years of travelling with Lendrick Heraldstone. She’d be following the advice of a kobold assassin, to serve the needs of a death cleric who stood for the opposite of everything she was raised to believe. Sunday school at the abbey taught that Noiço was just a metaphor, that Hell was a state of separation from Halestar, not a real place. But here was a cleric to Noiço, Nzaario, a man of more power than she’d ever seen from any force of good. Even Mea, a former Holy Paladin of Tura, acknowledged Nzaario’s power, though she insisted the Preceptor of the Trilerean Knights surpassed him in capability.
Sometimes on a journey, the point of no return passes unnoticed. Only with hindsight does a person identify the moment at which redemption ceases to be an option. There are other times when that point looms in perfect clarity ahead, and the justification to cross the line is not eased into over time, but starkly and suddenly adopted as any delusions of a pure cause are discarded for good. Cyrrienne hooked a finger into the chain of the nine-pointed star medallion she wore, and lifted it over her head to look at it one last time.
A crash shook the building and Nzaario immediately started. The others jumped to attention as well. Cyrrienne dashed back into the meeting room, her jaw once again set and a steely look in her eyes.
"They’ve found us."
Khoroldar, who’d sat quietly through the meeting idly thumbing the hilt of his broken greatsword, now gripped it with a will. He ducked his head to fit through the doorway and ran towards the building's exit. Michesavu, Mea and Gurtlekep followed, while Nzaario began patting down the pockets of his robes for spell components with one hand and leafing through a black-bound prayerbook with the other. Cyrrienne began hastily rolling up the parchments they’d been studying, maps of strategic locations and rough sketches of the territory the snakemen already controlled. She crammed them into a bag with such haste that a small red copy of the Ennea slipped out of the bundle and slid under a desk. It was one of Len’s copies, a concise version without all the hymns, rites and codeces, just containing the story of scripture. Cursing the delay, she knelt down to retrieve it.
Outside, the front of the building was on fire and the charred human body by the door guarded it no longer. Khoroldar ducked as an arc of lightning shot over his head, hitting Michesavu hard in the chest as he emerged looking to engage the snakemen in the town square. The minotaur roared as the passing beam’s heat scorched his bovine head. Enraged, he charged the abandoned flower shop atop which the spellslinger stood, barrelling through the entryway, scattering dead plants and fragments of door in his wake.
Mea gripped her dagger hard and hacked at the chest of the fire-slinging snakeman she was grappling. His hands grasped hers as he fought to keep the knife at bay. Her holy longsword mostly lay in parts some thirty feet behind her, the blade had splashed into patches of molten liquid when the sword melted to the pommel. Flecks of metal studded her half-scorched face, but the adrenaline kept the pain at bay. The snakeman began mouthing words and the hair on the back of her neck stood on end. The next blast of fire, from this close, would cost her more than just an eye. Bringing all her strength to bear on breaking the sorcerer’s concentration, she kneed the man in the groin and leant into him, knocking him backwards as he doubled over. She flicked the dagger into her free hand and drove it into the bald man’s neck.
When Cyrrienne emerged from the civic building seconds later, the fight was already over. The sun was setting, lighting the sky crimson over the town square. Michesavu was unconscious beside a large stone fountain frothing scarlet with blood. The backs of shaven heads bobbed in the gentle splash of the cascading water feature, a serene aural backdrop to the brutal foreground. Mea was limping towards her, face half burnt and glittering with shrapnel. Khoroldar was leaning over the lip of a flower shop’s roof, confirming the broken-necked body of one of the snakemen on the floor below, and Gurtlekep was nowhere to be— wait, there he was, crouching beside another dead snakeman, pulling a small rapier from the sorcerer’s lower back. None of them noticed the orange flare from the forest where the prisoners were chained. Not until the first tendrils of smoke began to rise from the burning darkwood did any of them realise the forest was on fire.
Cyrrienne hurried to Mea’s side as the former knight knelt in the dirt to pick up the remainder of her sword. With barely a thought, Cyrrienne touched below her neck where the nine-pointed star medallion once hung and whispered the words of a healing prayer. Nothing. She had left medallion back inside! Cyrrienne whipped her head around in time to see one of the walls of their temporary headquarters buckle and belch a cloud of soot and embers into the street. A dark winged figure shot up out of the collapsing office; probably Nzaario fleeing the danger on his cowardly black magic. She began to pat down the pockets of her own robe. She drew out Len’s Enneagrammaton and ran her fingers over the soft leather cover. A nine-pointed star was embossed on the front, faded from years of use.
"Please, Lord," she whispered. "Please. If you’re there—if you haven’t abandoned me—let this work. Father of Life and Lord of Good, Halestar, if there is more good we can do, heal her. If her sacrifice was just, if our cause is certain, by your grace, may she be restored!"
"They’ve found us."
Nzaario knew what was coming. The time was not right, he was not ready to fight these cunning snakemen, and he was not prepared to even fight his way out of this building, either. Thankfully, decades studying the capabilities of his goddess’s gifts left him with other options. He put his hand to each of his pockets in turn, a memory technique he used to recall which spell components were housed where. As Cyrrienne bent down to pick up some papers she’d dropped, he ducked into the next room to prepare a spell.
As he moved towards the table, still fingering through his pockets, a sudden burning sensation burst in his foot. He stumbled and pulled away to see a medallion of the god Halestar lying on the floor, its holy aura potent even through the soles of his boots. This was his lucky day, apparently. There was a spell he could cast that required just such a holy item.
He used a strand of wire from a pocket to lift the medallion up onto the table, and alongside it placed the other required offerings. Invoking the darkest rites, Nzaario called upon his goddess to deliver one of her servants to him. He felt the dark will of his Lady’s presence envelope him and penetrate him and out of the shadows in the corner of the room burst a column of ash, coalescing into a winged figure, a minion of darkness and envoy of the Dark Lady. The figure approached the cleric and, in the language of demons, set out her terms for assisting his escape.
Moments later, Nzaario was being flown in a rope harness into the sky and away from Rintuban. The cleric had bid the Fury set him down far from the snakemen in exchange for the medallion. They liked to defile the symbols of other religions. She set him down on the Alepian Trade Route some way to the east of town. As she turned to depart, Nzaario spoke.
"My allies are in danger. Might our bargain extend to their safety, too?"
In the voice of a thousand weeping souls, the Fallen Angel replied. "No. The bargain is fulfilled. You must offer something more." The creature licked her lips in anticipation. She wanted Cyrrienne, too, not just her medallion.
It was not a notion Nzaario was prepared to entertain. As much as his leader’s views were opposed to his, since joining up with the party he had overcome his revulsion and, he hoped, she had overcome hers. "What about more trinkets? I can get you trinkets. Or gold? I have gold!"
"The danger is not insignificant. You choose it: cleric or no cleric."
Nzaario wordlessly dismissed the binding spell, and the Fury vanished, passing instantly back to the otherworldly plane from whence she’d come. Nzaario chewed on his lip in indecision, looking to the path east, back to Thencast and his home, or west, back to Rintuban and the White Coin. Sighing to himself and rolling his eyes in resignation, Nzaario struck out on the path.
The healing hadn’t completely taken, but she could see again out of her eye. Mea gingerly put her fingers to the curious smooth droplets of metal now cooled solid into her skin as the leaders of the Order of the White Coin ran through the darkwood forest towards their prisoners. She had taken captives before, but there was something unnerving about there being so many at once. A thousand bodies take up a lot of chains and a lot of space, and there was no way each prisoner could have his or her needs met, even under the care of Gurtlekep's remaining loyal soldiers.
Mea had long since ceased heeding her formerly-rigid moral compass. Just to survive, she'd been forced to make a lot of compromises after her excommunication from the Trilerean Knights. Her disillusionment with the Knights' power structure stemmed from their willingness to take at face value the blame misattributed her by the Alepian government for terrorising the citizens of Thencast. Maybe at the beginning of her career, upon the outcome of a judicial tribunal finding her guilty of oathbreaking or heresy, she'd have accepted her fate, but being hung out to dry by the Knights on the word of some frightened civilians just to preserve diplomatic simplicity was not a cause she was willing to be a martyr for. So she'd stolen to eat, and sold her sword arm to questionable sponsors. By the time she took up with the Order, she was several shades morally darker. In fact, since joining Cyrrienne's group, she'd felt more secure than ever in her path. Nzaario had told her of precedents in history and legend for a Paladin’s expulsion from their holy order to be for a yet-higher purpose, that by leaving the Trilerean Knights who’d trained her, her goddess might have on hand a resource free to bend the rules. If the gods themselves had chosen a dark deity to defend this realm, then Mea’s excommunication was undoubtedly Tura’s way to both commit resources to the cause, and remain distant from the means by which the cause might be served.
Cyrrienne ran alongside her, still clutching the tiny holy book that had, minutes earlier, blossomed into pearlescent flames of healing energy. Some of the worry lines about her face had eased, and her familiar set jaw betokened her resilient determination. The expression broke when the party crashed into the clearing and saw what had befallen their captives.
The remaining tendrils of the poisonous fog cloud reached out from the edge of the treeline like gaunt jaundiced fingers, guiltily pointing at the atrocity before them. With nowhere to run, the chained prisoners had succumbed to the magically-summoned bank of poison mist that had been spread over them by the snakemen. On the far side of the clearing, some of the guards’ corpses bore the hallmarks of fireball ambush and the trees nearby were burned to charcoal stems.
"Damn it!" yelled Michesavu. His initial reaction was a beat behind that of the others, who had already grimly tempered their chagrin with the realisation that they no longer had to poison the defectors themselves. "We need to check on the supply wagons," he stated simply, after a moment’s silence, and edged around the clearing to a path on the other side, ducking under the remaining noxious fumes still clinging to the evening air. He had his bow drawn, and peered through the trees. The path onwards was obscured by the softly rising smoke from the burning living trees, though the fire seemed not to have taken hold of the forest like some of the wildfires he’d seen hiking through Dasha. Khoroldar had kept step with him, and grunted and gestured to indicate he was prepared to continue.
"Quietly. If they’re on the other side of this smoke, we’ll have a chance at surprising them."
Despite being freed of the obligation against her moral grain, Cyrrienne felt worse now, knowing the struggle to quash her conscience had been for nothing, and worst of all that she had been relieved—glad, even—to see ten hundred corpses in this clearing. Even if not by her hand, she was responsible. She’d resolved to commit these acts, and the gods judged hearts as well as actions. The feelings momentarily overcame her, and she staggered dizzily backwards, a few paces into the forest, to throw up.
Gurtlekep was the only one to approach the bodies. He was looking for his men, the guards he had posted over the prison camp. They were some of his most trusted followers and he wanted their bodies untainted by the black arts that would soon be unleashed upon this field of corpses. He threaded his way amongst the rows of the dead, manacled hand and foot and chained in rows to each other and to tree trunks. One by one, he separated and dragged away the loyal soldiers who had died in service from the defectors who, rightly, had been justly rewarded for their betrayal.
Kobolds generally feel a kinship with dragonkind, and their death rites reflect this. Kobold bodies are traditionally cremated to return them to the fire, but in this instance Gurtlekep did not think it appropriate to do further to these bodies what the snakemen did to kill them. As soon as they were safe, he resolved, he would bury them, like the humans did. He saw Khoroldar and Michesavu whip into the smoky treeline, and drew his rapier as he slunk after them.
Michesavu inched forward, the semi-snarling breath of his minotaur companion felt so hot and loud over his shoulder. As a ranger, he was light on his feet and silent-moving through the wilderness; he had to be, to have survived travelling the world this long. The visual cover would be enough, but he still lamented the noise. As they edged deeper, the smoke started to sting his eyes, and he had to stop to wipe away tears. Perhaps Khoroldar’s approach of charging through would have worked better, but they’d come this far now. Miche blearily squinted through the swirling grey, hoping to catch any remaining snakemen off-guard.
Almost straight away, Nzaario regretted not setting out towards his refuge. The southern gate to Rintuban was teeming with snakemen, at least a dozen he could see. If the others were still alive, they wouldn’t be for long. He crouched low in the roadside undergrowth and considered his options. He was outnumbered and outmatched as things stood.
All he’d wanted was a peaceful life with his reanimated dead, tending to the restless spirits of the haunted woods near Thencast, solving their business so they’d re-enter the cycle of life and death and be returned to his Death Goddess’s embrace. But, no, these filthy brutes had shown up, crude men who used death as a tool to further their mortal ambition instead of letting it play out as the natural process it was. Oh how he abhorred the living.
The White Coin had its plan to purge these interlopers and it didn’t involve his death or the deaths of his companions, so he needed to intercede. The snakemen were still reconnoitering; this was the preliminary force sent to assess the military capability of the natives and set the stage for an invasion without the use of brute force. It was possible he’d be able to overstate his power and force the snakemen to exercise caution, allowing him time to get his friends to safety. Nzaario spun the blackened carved bone in his fingers. Perhaps it was time to put on a show.
Khoroldar yanked his broken-off greatsword from the tattooed, shaved head with a crunch. He coolly gave the supply wagons an ocular once-over and vented one hard kick’s worth of frustration into the belly of the snakeman’s corpse at his feet. On balance, the damage hadn’t been too great, but the minotaur’s frustration threshold was easily crossed. It had been easy work for the barbarian and the ranger to dispatch the two saboteurs with the smoke cover.
Being just down to the core now, the Order had more resources than they needed but fewer people than needed to carry them. Their hideout in Rintuban was discovered, and soon Cyrrienne was coordinating the distribution of vital supplies to each of the group.
"We’ll head up into the mountains. Away from population centres or former population centres. We need just one permanent place to set up where we can work and rendezvous. There are goblin tunnels all over the shallower slopes north of here, and I’m pretty sure a sizeable number of their inhabitants are lying poisoned in that clearing back there." Cyrrienne shouldered her oversized backpack and hitched up the handles of a handcart.
"Khoroldar, my friend, I need you to go to Thencast and get Nzaario. He always goes to ground there whenever there’s trouble. Tell him it’s safe to come back and that we’ve made all the preparations for his army. You’ll draw less attention travelling by yourself. I’d send Michesavu too but we can’t spare him. Check that cabin he built in the Black Woods. Take this," she handed the minotaur a curious brass device about the size of a brick set with a glowing pink opal, with a vent on its lower half. "It still works, for now. Use it to contact me when you find him."
Khoroldar stowed the device in his bandolier and grabbed a fistful of dried meat from a chest in a supply wagon, stuffing it into his mouth to sate his immediate hunger. He turned away from the party, who were heading north into the mountains, and faced back towards Rintuban. He’d make his way along the road if he could. The snakemen usually kept it clear, having diverted or otherwise stopped Alepian trade traffic as a precursor to the invasion. Interrupting communications was vital to prevent the Alepian government assembling any kind of resistance or summoning aid from neighbouring regions, and with the King and his heir dead, the power vacuum looked set to be filled with snakemen any day.
He hustled through the deserted inn town towards the south gate. On the road leading out of the city, at the point where the path to Rintuban met the Alepian Trade Route, was assembled a small caravan of horse-drawn carts and carriages guarded by about fifteen snakemen. Two of the carts were loaded with large wooden crates peppered with air holes, like they were transporting some kind of livestock. Khoroldar approached with caution, assessing the best route through the woodlands bordering the road so he could cut past without detection.
Before he even had the chance to set out, though, he saw Nzaario approach from the east. The dark cleric began chanting something, drawing the attention of the snakemen. A few of them began clutching their heads, obviously in distress. Others began drawing their weapons and attacking the air in front of them, obviously ensorcelled by the cleric’s spells. Those who resisted incapacitation moved to attack Nzaario, who responded by unleashing the unique weapon recently gifted him.
A thirty-foot-high black tower sprung up in the middle of the road, seeming to grow out of the ground with Nzaario standing atop it, swept up high as the charred bone struts and rotten flesh mortar burst into existence. Immediately from the base, four shambling, bandaged figures detached from the material of the tower and set upon the remaining snakemen. To Khoroldar, it seemed the battle would be easily won.
Nzaario stood atop his Bonehouse, exultant with the power of his dark goddess. He was moments from unleashing the full powers of his unholy tower when one of the snakemen’s carriages’ doors burst violently open. A gigantic humanoid lumbered out of the vehicle, bald-headed and tattooed like the human Dashan sorcerers, but draped in golden chains and manacled hand and foot. With a bestial cry, it hobbled forth and straightened up, easily ten feet tall, and turned its attention towards the Bonehouse. In some incomprehensible tongue, the Giants’ language, perhaps, it raised its cuffed fists towards Nzaario and intoned the rhythmic chanting of a spell. From its fingertips burst a colossal beam of fire, striking the tower with raw magical might. In an explosion even Khoroldar felt, hiding distant in the treeline, the ogre blasted the cleric off the top of the tower.
The shambling servants of the Bonehouse disintegrated as huge pieces of the tower fell away in embers. The enchanted snakemen shook off their conditions as Nzaario’s spells collapsed. Shaken and deafened but still conscious, Nzaario staggered backwards and turned to flee down the road. Some of the snakemen advanced after him, but most returned to the caravan to wrangle the ogre back into his carriage and prepare the caravan for pursuit.
Khoroldar did not know if Nzaario would be safe back at Thencast, but with the snakemen now on the road ahead of him, between him and the cleric, he had no choice but to follow them all the way there to find out. If they could just make it back, he was sure Nzaario could use the familiar ground to his advantage, and it was no secret the cleric kept a cache of dark weapons somewhere in his ghost town. And there was Cyrrienne’s suggestion: Nzaario’s cabin in the haunted forest. The paranoid cleric had the thing locked down under so much dark magic that he claimed unauthorised entrants would go insane from terror before coming anywhere close to his safe room. If all else failed, that’s where he’d fall back to, and where Khoroldar would have to go to get him.