Drawn to the call of her mother, the Death Goddess, the fell archangel Sarynael traversed the veins of the underworld, pumped through the arteries of the shadow planes on currents of akasha by the beating engine of the cycle of life and death. In a million places and none, the deathless one was obligated to respond to the summons, a condition of her permission to stalk the mortal realm at her leisure. The oily channels expelled her into the audience of one of the Nine. Zauun, the Death Goddess, the Mistress of Darkness. And She was irked…
Sarynael, on Zauun’s orders, flew on ghostly wings through the sea of the damned. Souls bound here were refused passage, refused the release of Unmaking through which their lifeforce could be remade into new souls. Any of the Nine could intercept a soul before it passed, but Zauun had complete mastery over death, so She always had first refusal. Unless the Pendulum was swinging towards Her, it was rarely to Her advantage to intercept a soul that another of the Nine had laid claim to. Polite and respectful cooperation amongst the Nine led to a harmonious Outer Plane. But the stakes were so high now...
Sarynael expected to be called up to serve again soon, as the gods became more agitated. She was not aggrieved by the prospect. Sarynael herself was closer to the ages of the Nine than she was any soul she’d met so far. Even the lesser gods that she’d met had only Ascended after her. But she’d heard that others of the Nine had their own champions that predated her, and secretly she hoped beyond measure to meet one, so she served willingly, eagerly, and uncompromisingly.
There they were! Sarynael dove through the cascade of translucent figures, each misshapen pulse of energy bearing the approximate visage of the physical manifestation it had in life. Two moving slowly together, a minotaur and an elf, were Sarynael’s targets. Clutching each soul in a cloven, taloned hand, she unfurled her wings to their maximum span and channelled her unique power. Her ethereal wings folded around the three of them, enveloping them in a spectral green glow. And then, the rush: a threefold defiance of nature wherein the deathless angel briefly pinched together the material world and the underworld and punched through the boundaries between planes.
Nzaario had been raised from the dead before. He and his life partner would perform experiments on each other using their mastery of Her gift. Wait, "Her"? What was Her name? He could never remember long after waking up. The people of his religion called Her Noico, but after each resurrection, Nzaario could never shake the feeling that She had another name that he wasn’t allowed to know in life. It was like an addiction, sending him back to the underworld again and again, only to wake with this nagging splinter of knowledge forever on the tip of his tongue.
Forgetting Her real name was the only recognisable part of this particular resurrection experience. Instead of a rush of light and sharply intaken air as his own body was reanimated, Nzaario and Khoroldar had been dumped exactly on the site of their death, but in duplicate bodies.
Time had passed since his death, and since then, he could sense that allies had died nearby. The deaths of friends always left a mark on a place. But to be any more specific than that, he needed power. The holy tome he was holding at death was lost now, given as a parting gift to the wizard Valorin, along with his spell components and the legendary Darkskull. If it was safe, there was a chance he could repair and empower his Bonehouse and reunite the two parts required to erect a mobile castle of undeath from which to command a dread legion powerful enough to drive out and destroy his murderers.
Khoroldar stood up, a little shaky. His weapons and clothes were gone and he was standing in a darkened forest in the middle of the night as naked as the day he was birthed, or the day Lendrick Heraldstone and Cyrrienne found him, delirious with fever and with no recollection of where he was or how he got there, smashing his skull against the stone wall of a ruined temple. They’d talked him out of his confusion and magicked open the door, finding within a rare edition of Halestar’s holy book, the Enneagrammaton, and a bottle full of white-painted pennies.
Within this book was an appendix no longer included in published copies. Named the Ybrean Codex, the section was mixture of metaphorical and literal predictions. Len, a former scholar from a quiet country abbey, had interpreted a fatalistic prophecy that, in its more plainly-worded sections, mentioned Khoroldar by name, and described that very event as it was happening. After Len and Cyrrienne had tended to his wounds and nursed him back to health, the three pledged themselves to the mysteries of the prophecy and founded the Order of the White Coin together.
Casting a faint glow in the darkened night stood a nine-foot-tall skeletal figure with enormous leathery wings fanned out behind it. The reek of decay emanated softly from the body that looked too frail to hold together, strips of brittle skin stretched tightly across a shallow ribcage and just a hollow space for an abdomen. Incandescent mist softly poured from the eyesockets of a jawless skull mounted in a nest of shredded ligaments and tendons. It turned its gaze towards first the minotaur and then the cleric, fixing them with an intense hollow stare. Seemingly satisfied, it spread its wings fully and swept them downwards, propelling its body up into the sky in an improbably high bound. As the thing flew off into the night, the minotaur snorted with relief and the elf hummed with curiosity.
"We’d better get back," Nzaario broke the silence to Khoroldar. He grunted in assent.
"Clothes. Weapons." The laconic bull stated his needs.
"My workshop is close but it might be too dangerous to go. I don’t have any of my spells. We can try it if you think you can bash them?"
"Yes. Bash someone. Take his sword. Bash next one, take his clothes," strategised Khoroldar.
Elf and minotaur picked their way quietly through the dark forest back towards Nzaario’s cabin. With no armour or supplies, they were able to make good ground, even taking care to minimise noise. Both the elf and the minotaur had keener senses than the humans they were trying to avoid and they stalked through the darkness without fear.
Nzaario had been gone for days. There were only so many times Cyrrienne could invoke the failing powers of her god to keep the corpses of her goblin prisoners from decomposing. They then made several fruitless attempts to bury the remaining bodies, but there were so many that had been decaying for so long, the task was above even the strongest stomachs. Khoroldar and Nzaario still had not returned. The clearing wherein a blanket of poison fog had descended over two thousand potential fighters was now occluded by a cloud of buzzing flies and a rising aromatic invitation to any carrion-eater in these darkwood forests. The army of bodies they’d hoped to animate to fight the snake cultists was now an army of maggots.
Cyrrienne, Michesavu and Mea were scouting their way west of Rintuban through even more dense forest. The minotaur and death cleric had headed east, but Cyrrienne was wary of heading too far towards areas of higher snakeman concentration. Michesavu kept his eyes on the forest floor, looking for recent traces of numerous bipeds. If the snakepeople were here already trying to flush them out, he wanted to know.
"There’s blood here," he said to Cyrrienne. “A few days old. Someone was hurt, coming through here.”
"Follow it," she ordered. “If there’s a body skewered with a Dashan scimitar at the end of the trail, we’re better knowing than not.” She stumbled on a root trying to spot the tracks Michesavu had noticed. Mea threw out a protective arm to catch her but grazed Cyrrienne’s shiny red left hand, prompting a sharp intake of breath.
"Sorry!" Mea started, but Cyrrienne shook her head don’t worry as she bit her lip to keep from crying out. A tear eked out of one eye. “Is it getting any better?”
Cyrrienne shook her head, loosing another few tears. The hand was unbandaged, exposed to the air, since the touch of even a healing salve felt like a thousand hot needles. She certainly couldn’t bring herself to wrap it in a shred of the rough hemp they’d been using for bandages.
On their way out of Rintuban they had checked the main road for any signs of life and saw the scene of devastation where the snakemen had unloaded spheres of arcane fire at the Bonehouse. It was too valuable a tactical resource to leave exposed; if Nzaario was still alive he would be returning with another unholy artefact to combine with it and boost its power. And although their source bodies for the makings of Nzaario’s undead homeguard were spoiling into maggot soup even as they set out, she’d decided the Order was in no position to forfeit resources where such forfeiture was avoidable. So she’d done what she could to repair and reactivate the Bonehouse and transform it down into its handheld model. She had succeeded, but not without cost.
Since then, Cyrrienne had been gingerly suspending her scalded hand as they walked, the unholy burns streaking out from the balls of her fingers as far as her wrist. She slept with her arm outstretched away from her body, resting in a sling suspended above the ground. It kept her hand from touching anything during the night, and during the day, from her waistband, swung that same sling, wrapped around the black carved hipbone token that could be deployed into the Bonehouse.
Nzaario and Khoroldar stripped the unconscious snakeman down. The clothes were useless. Nzaario’s goddess had the mercy to revive the cleric with his enchanted robes, but bore no such goodwill to the minotaur. They were, however, not far from the log cabin that concealed the entrance to Nzaario’s home. The minotaur also could not comfortably hold the snakeman’s scimitar in his hand, but he seemed happy enough to continue hefting the scavenged cudgel with which he’d just felled their first foe.
"I don’t have the key to get in," Nzaario whispered to the bovine. “We need to find where the snakemen put our things and our bodies. I guess they took them into town... Are you ready for a fight?”
Khoroldar was always ready for a fight. Nzaario’s cabin was in ruins after his most recent escape from snakeman captivity. His rescuers had fought their way out of it to run away, only to immediately get themselves—and Nzaario—killed over nothing. There were no supplies of value to be picked up in the burned-out house, but below it was Nzaario’s secret living space he’d excavated to keep his necromancy—still reviled and feared by most—a secret. There were plenty of supplies in there.
Luckily the only person they’d come across was a single watchman whose eyes were now pressed into the dirt, keeping watch over the worms. Wariness was crucial here. The snakemen were not born with this power, nor did they study to acquire its mysteries. They were granted it by unnatural means, and were largely untested with it in combat. They had extremely itchy trigger fingers and one fiery explosion in the forest in the night would alert others for miles around.
His quaint cabin had fallen victim to that very lack of discipline. Far from the homely little cottage on the fringes of town it once was, the roof and walls had mostly collapsed from the fire damage. The earth around it was scorched beyond recognition, devastating Nzaario’s small herb garden. He’d first come to Thencast when thousands of refugees had fled an overnight massacre by restless spirits. Hoping to restore the ruined city, he’d contained the malicious ghosts and began work on putting his experiments into practice.
His mastery over death was limited in scope. The powers were designed to resurrect one by one, a very personal and intimate spell. But Nzaario eyed more. Using existing societal hierarchical structures—teacher-student, employer-employee, priest-congregant, for instance, he could create a cascading network of resurrection whereby he might sit at the top of an exponentially-expanding tree of undeath. His plans were interrupted by a band of adventurers hired by Cyrrienne to recruit him for the Order. Interpreting this as a sign from above and trusting in his goddess’s providence, he foresaw that an undead army would require military hierarchy that would be even easier to work with than informal social status.
He agreed to join the Order of the White Coin in exchange for Cyrrienne’s adventurers travelling to an outer plane for him. He directed the party to retrieve the Bonehouse, a mobile outpost of undeath, which had been sequestered away by the goddess Tura. While not essential to his plans, it would certainly make them easier, and he was willing to contribute its power towards the White Coin’s efforts beforehand.
But he wouldn’t want to *live *in an oppressive black tower, not in the city he was to build when all was done. Elves are long-lived and elves that study the dark arts are outcasts and outsiders their entire lives. Nzaario built an underground monitoring station where he could keep an eye on the town, with an entrance inside a homely living space built deep enough into the woods to keep the city at arm’s length, where he felt comfortable. Now seeing the damage to his home for the first time, his eyes creased briefly in regret. But the mission demanded his focus. He and Khoroldar crept on.
"Well, it’s not a snakeman," stated Michesavu. The Order stood around a freshly-dug grave in a clearing in the forest. It had a peculiar arrangement of stones heaped across it, with a bare patch of earth over where the chest of the body would be. A taller slab of stone stood at the head, and snaking across the whole thing was a thin mesh of fragile little vines, a glittering trellis holding tiny delicate silver leaves. “I’ve never seen anything like it,” marvelled the ranger as he knelt at the foot of the grave to examine the curious plant.
"Don’t touch it!" urged Cyrrienne.
"I’m not going to touch it; I just want a look."
"It’s beautiful," said Cyrrienne, not taking her eyes off it. If she had, she’d’ve seen Mea’s face reflecting the rapturous wonder upon her own. A zephyr’s breath agitated the net of glinting slivers and sent dots of sunlight dancing across the clearing.
Suddenly the birdsong was stark in her ears. The morning sunshine was warm on her face. A light breeze carried the forest’s fragrance around her. A thousand worries about the Order, the prophecy, Len, Nzaario and Khoroldar seemed to diminish. Not disappear completely — but to take their place as just worries and not an all-consuming permanent fixture of her being. These were all just things, and the world is made up of a lot of things. The fire and the darkness and the death could pass, and there was a world in her future filled with blue skies, open fields, and serenity.
The snakeman’s neck broke with a gut-wrenching pop and Nzaario flinched as his stomach turned. Anything with broken bones or dislocated joints scraped the chalkboard of his soul. Dawn was imminent and they had still not located Nzaario’s equipment or possessions, although Khoroldar was amassing a small hoard from felled snakemen. They were approaching the centre of Thencast; there was a church there that provided the other entrance to Nzaario’s underground fortress, and, should they fail to breach that door too, there were copies of the unholy text Nzaario needed to study each day to prepare his spells.
Khoroldar had enhanced his cudgel somewhat, by embedding broken chunks of metal weapons into the bulbous head. He’d take the sword of a felled snakeman and jam the tip into the wood, before twisting the blade to break it and hammering it against something stone to drive the metal in deep. The end result looked like a steel echidna mounted on a skewer. From what Nzaario could see, it didn’t make the consciousness-denying blows to the back of the head any more effective — but it *did *make them more bloody. Their latest kill, however, had been leaning idly against a house. Nzaario and the minotaur had crept inside through the back door and grabbed him through the window. There wasn’t enough space for the minotaur to get a good backswing on his makeshift mace so he simply clamped an enormous furred hand over the man’s face and looped the other arm around his throat. Intending to quietly choke him to sleep, Khoroldar had almost squeezed his head clean off his torso, prompting Nzaario’s disgusted shudder.
The church was close, but getting inside would be problematic. A large ornate carriage was stationed outside the church, and a very loud rumbling snore came from inside. Nzaario had seen this before; inside was some kind of spellcasting ogre or troll, or other large shambling humanoid, that they had trained to unleash an enormous amount of arcane power at their targets. Whatever it was that gave these snakemen their manifest magical powers, it wasn’t innate ability or knowledge, but the source seemed to work better on larger creatures. Nzaario hadn’t got a thorough look at the creature and his knowledge of humanoid monsters was weak. It looked like pictures of trolls he’d seen, but trolls live in the cold, in mountains, and these golden-skinned beasts were clearly native Dashans. The source of their power must be back home, the cleric mentally noted, and wondered if they’d brought any with them.
"We can’t kill that thing, Khoroldar. Not without my spells!"
"Distraction. Go inside the church. I hold them until you are done."
"Khoroldar you are brave but it’ll take fifteen minutes of uninterrupted preparation time. What’s to stop them just coming into the church to kill me, even if you’re out here fighting that thing?"
"Hm. We rush through, block the door from the inside. I hold the door, you take us away."
"A teleport! Before I met you, one time here I enchanted a huge stained glass window, you see right there, that one on the front of the church. It’s a portal to the Lawful Good plane of the nature goddess Tura. If we can get inside the church, there’s a back staircase that will take us up into the roof. The enchantment is still active, it just needs a command word to enable it. But..."
Nzaario had begun speaking before thinking through his plan. There was no way he’d be able to step onto that plane without serious injury or maybe death. He could get Khoroldar out, that much was certain. He could close the portal from this side or the other. But even if he somehow got inside… those were Angels inside. Fearsome holy champions out for justice, seeking reparations for the theft of their goddess’s prize, a heist that he architected.
"Okay, Khoroldar. We’ll try it. Rush them, get inside the church, bar the door. If I can’t get underground, I’ll grab a book and start reading. If we can’t hold the door, we use the portal. Get ready."
"Mea, don’t!" warned Michesavu, glancing deferentially at Cyrrienne. She hadn’t noticed. Mea was kneeling down, her face so close to the silver ivy. “Be careful!” hissed the elf.
"It’s calling me," Mea murmured vacantly, her hands automatically reaching into her pack that she’d placed beside her. She drew forth a cloth-wrapped object and began to open it. It was her ruined sword, melted by a magical fire that blew hot metal fragments into her face. Cyrrienne had tried to repair it, even though its holy powers had been long-since expunged, remotely, without her knowledge or consent, by the head of her Paladin order. A furious mob had descended on King Wethis’s palace to report that immediately after Mea had passed through Thencast, a violent clutch of spirits had massacred all the men in the town and a large minority of women. When rumours spread of her dalliance with the death cleric Nzaario, the Preceptor of the Trilerean Knights had to act with a diplomatic, conciliatory move to preserve relations between Alepia and Trilerey, and prayed to their goddess to have Mea’s powers and nobility revoked.
The silver ivy rustled sweet invitation to the former paladin, and she unwrapped the sword and held it over the grave. It juddered under its own impulse. What? The broken sword vibrated, hard, locking up Mea’s hand around it. She snapped-to from her reverie too late to regain control. One more thunderous shudder from the sword and it plunged itself, broken blade first, deep into the dirt. The silver ivy parted as the ground seemed to swallow Mea’s arm in with the sword. She was stuck fast. Cyrrienne was distracted. Michesavu was stunned immobile. And the first tendril of ivy began crawling its way up Mea’s arm. In alarm she pulled on her hand but it was held fast, buried in the bare patch of earth over the grave. The ivy climbed higher, more aggressively now, enveloping her arm and reaching across her shoulders. Within moments the blanket of silver leaves had consumed her and it began to blaze with a shining white light, knocking Michesavu out of his inactivity. He backed up, grabbing Cyrrienne around the shoulders and pulling her backwards from the light.
Cyrrienne’s attention returned to the present moment. Mea was buried elbow-deep in the grave and the rest of her was shimmering with platelets of silver light, dancing like leaves in the spring breeze. With a thunderous cry, the glowing silhouette rapidly stood, wrenching its arm from the ground. It held aloft a whole sword, glowing brighter than the sun in the the sky against which she held it. With one final triumphant pulse, the glow faded, leaving Salomea standing tall in full plate armour that had appeared from nowhere. The tower shield and breastplate were coated in intricately detailed ivy motifs unused by the Trilerean Knights. And in the centre of the breastplate around which the vine symbols swirled was the relief of a large white coin, stamped with the tree of the Alepian crest.
Remaining on the grave was a bent lump of black iron and remaining on the gravestone was a thumbnail-sized silver disc.
The smell of burning fur floated down the aisle of the church. Nzaario hacked away at the cone of rubble that was packed into the hidden entryway to his underground hideout with a loose flagstone from the church floor. He chanced a look back down the nave. The fur on Khoroldar’s head was still smouldering, but he dare not lift an arm off the front door to bat at the embers on his face. Nzaario gave up quickly; this would take ten men ten days to clear without his spells. He grabbed a candle and struck it alight with a flint. Dawn would break soon, but not soon enough. He opened up a copy of his holy book to the psalms. Every copy of his religion’s text had all of a cleric’s spells encoded in the songs and hymns in the centre pages, for those that knew how to read them. In fact, many holy books did this, so the clerics of their religion would always have access to a way to channel their god’s gifts.
The banging had already begun. Nzaario felt several concussive blasts all the way at the other end of the room as the snakemen pounded the doors with fireballs. They were sturdy, though. The darkwood slabs were thick and well-treated, and the iron rivets conducted the heat and radiated it away. Nzaario began to read.
"Mea?" asked Cyrrienne to the plated, armoured figure standing shining and tall before them. Pushing the shield into the earth to stand freely, a mailed hand reached up to remove the winged helm. Beneath it, Salomea’s face was shining with tears of joy.
"I’m fine," she uttered in a reverent hushed whisper. “I’m fine.”
"You look amazing!"
"I can hear her again. Tura. She walks with us now. When the time comes, Her might will aid us."
All the doubt over her choices, all the distance felt between her and her goddess, all the fears that she had been corrupted from her purpose now had been cleansed. Never in all her time as a Trilerean Knight had Salomea felt this attuned to her goddess. The personal connection sometimes becomes occluded by the bureaucracy and the politics of organised religion, but she was armed now not just with sword and shield but fervour and faith. The dawn had come after her darkest hour, and the sun’s light was more brilliant and nourishing than it had ever been before.
Her armour bore little resemblance to the plates of old. Even the green enamel in the designs was a different, richer shade, truer to the deep hue of summer darkwood foliage. The shadow of the Knights of Trilerey had passed, and Salomea had emerged from the trial elevated even higher than their highest ranks. In the legends, Tura had appeared before the remnants of the dragonriding paladins of an age long past and bestowed upon them the sacred duty to safeguard the righteous and protect the virtuous, but Mea’s purpose was different. No longer a peacekeeper, she had been charged with expunging the evil forces from the land and setting right what had been destroyed.
Mea held the forged helm in her hands and inspected her new armour. The helm’s wings were shining sprigs of laurel leaves. Her gauntlets gnarled tree trunks, rough and sturdy. And the white coin symbol, no longer just a token but a cause endorsed by a deity, was displayed for all to see, with pride: a rallying banner made of legendary mithril.
The words wouldn’t sink in. He read them over and over again but the spell would not come to him. Concentrate, old man! He cursed himself inwardly. He was getting distracted; this was how it always worked. The tune of the hymn he was reading kept forcing itself into his mind, but he had to force it back out; the cadence of the spell’s words was different from the hymn form, that was the trick to keep just anyone from being able to read the spells. He muttered the words under his breath again. Oh! He almost had it. It was coming to him!
A bestial roar suddenly filled his mind’s ear with white noise. Lamenting the lost time, he snuck another swift glance up at the door. A vertical chunk had been hacked out of the darkwood slab. There was a third of a scimitar blade visible poking through the door—and through Khoroldar. It had bitten deeply into the minotaur’s shoulder and an alarming gush of crimson surged out of the wound and spattered onto the church floor. Read! Read or you’re both dead! Nzaario’s eyes snapped back to the page but it was useless, the letters were overwhelming him and began to look like hieroglyphs. The words no longer carried meaning. His heart was forcing so much blood through his head that his ears were roaring and his eyes had dark spots in front of them.
It’s time to give up. The Mother may yet show mercy. She punishes foolish decisions. But not necessarily selfless ones.
"Khoroldar! Plan B! We’re leaving!" As Nzaario stood up from the apse, a spurt of fire shot through the slit in the door, all the way down the length of the church and blasted Nzaario squarely in the chest. Knocked off his feet by the blow, he slammed backwards into the altar behind him. Khoroldar screamed again and shoved himself away from the door, un-sticking himself from the swordblade. Another jet of hot blood cascaded out of his shoulder as the arm fell limply at his side. Turning towards the fallen cleric, he charged the length of the building and gathered the fallen holy man in his good arm, and veered off to a side door in one smooth sprint. He bashed through it instantly, so hard that it bounced off the wall and slammed shut behind him as he heard the church’s front door blown off its hinges.
Ear-splitting cracks followed the pair up the wooden staircase to the vaulted roof. They ran back along the length of the building from the staircase at the back all the way to the front wall. Right above where their enemies were pouring in downstairs, set into the wall, was a huge octagonal pane of black stained glass. The cracking sounds intensified as something was forcing the structure of the building apart. Cracks appeared in the front wall—this was surely the work of that sleeping giant from the carriage. Nzaario saw the black pane ripple like the disturbed surface of a bowl of water. If it cracked, the spell would not work. If the wall broke and it fell, the slab of silicon might take a few of them out as it landed on them, but there would be no tearing down that Dashan titan. Khoroldar set the cleric down in front of the pane as carefully as he could, the wooden floorboards creaking and splintering. Nzaario felt his ribs grate in his chest. Some were broken. He clenched his jaw against the nausea and reached out to touch the glass. He spoke a single elven command word and the translucent window went suddenly opaque, and then clear. Beyond the threshold lay a shining mercury ocean beneath a peach sky, and a city of slender silver spires stood on the horizon.
Nzaario grabbed Khoroldar and tugged him towards the portal. He commanded a blood-spattered "go!" and shoved the minotaur’s arm away. The flecks of blood out of Nzaario’s mouth smoked and hissed as they hit the boundary between planes. Khoroldar hesitated for just a second, and then lurched wildly as the floor gave out beneath him. Entirely instinctively, the minotaur jumped forward from the collapsing boards and passed smoothly across the rift. Nzaario, however, tumbled down and landed on some already-shattered ribs on the flagstone ground floor of the church amongst support beams and floorboards.
Towering over him was the Dashan giant. He looked at it directly now, no longer distracted by learning his spells. Hmm, it’s only got one eye. His senses were heightened at the moment of his death. Snakemen were swarming outside the front of the church, waiting for the cyclops to batter through the person-sized entrance. Its shoulders were set against the arched stone doorway and its leg muscles were tensed as it physically forced the building apart. With another grunt, it stumbled through, one huge foot coming down hard on Nzaario’s thigh, pulverising the bone. The front wall of the building gave out entirely. Some of the smaller panes of glass rocketed towards Nzaario as the entire stained glass setting fell into the church, not outside on the heads of the snakemen.
More bad luck. In the extended final seconds of consciousness, Nzaario watched the octagonal portal tip forwards, over him. Above him. Over the shoulder of the cyclops as it bent down to grab at him. It’s a nice view. That peach sky and shining metal ocean is a truly beautiful final sight.
While circling her paladin friend to inspect her new gifts, no longer distracted by the curious silver ivy, Cyrrienne had now noticed the single silver chit placed askew on the headstone of the grave. Michesavu and Salomea were talking about the armour and did not notice that Cyrrienne had lost interest. The token was making noise. A whispering. She couldn’t make it out over the babble of her companions or the light breeze whistling gently past her ear. What was it saying?
"Shh," she said aloud, but not loud enough to interrupt the others. Did that thing just whisper her name? Was it just the sibilant hissing of wind? No, it was getting louder the closer she got. She could hear it now, a single voice, but the words were still muffled. Perhaps a little closer. Her chin was resting on the headstone now and she tilted her head towards it. Hello?
The disc leapt at her, fixing itself to her forehead with a mind-numbing shooting pain cleaving her brain in two. The voice was there all right, now all too loud, hissing her name over and over.
Cyrrienne! Cyrrienne! Cyrrienne!
But, wait, that’s not a hiss. It’s a whisper. It’s piercing but not with malice, with urgency. It’s the voice of an old man, beckoning her closer. What is it, old man? A halo of white light had burst forth, obscuring all of her vision. But within the light she began to identify shapes. A dragon passed by, a slightly less luminous cutout shimmering in the white field. Then a knight, resolute and unyielding. And now an old man, crippled and bed-ridden. He beckons her closer. She doesn’t approach, the vision itself moves around her. Details appear in the vision now. Spotted and wrinkled hands reach out towards her, holding her head. The vision appears closer still as the man leans over to whisper in her ear.
The pain faded and the vision dissipated along with the light streaming from her head. The silver coin remained held in place, affixed at the crown of a plain mithril circlet that had grown around her brow. In her now-healed hand was a bigger disc, a medallion the diameter of an orange. Its intricate carvings resembled the design on Salomea’s new breastplate.
Her cleric’s robe was whole again and its pockets again filled with spell components. There was no holy book to be found, however. Engraved on the back of the medallion were the instructions of how to call the words of spells she wished to prepare to the surface of the disc, from which she could study, and through which she could focus any divine spell she had the power to cast.
Upon the grave remained the twisted nugget of bad iron.
Cyrrienne, Salomea and Michesavu leapt to battle-ready stances as beside them an apparition blazed into life. A vertical disc of black exploded into view vertically at the edge of the clearing. It roared with a sound like a furnace, a crackling rumbling noise that filled the air with sound. It began to expand until it was the width of an armspan. The surface started to become agitated, like that of boiling water. Huge churning shapes appeared to be pressing from the other side, but when Michesavu edged around it, the disc was invisible from the back. A thin, high-pitched wailing began to sound from within this impossible space, growing louder and changing pitch like it was approaching. Nearer and nearer came the scream and the turbulence intensified still. Huge bulges of the surface would erupt, poking deep into the air before them.
Mea and Cyrrienne were immediately prepared. All of their skills returned readily to memory, but both of them were stayed, calmed by the presence of their gods. Their patience was rewarded, when the surface abruptly split with a crack, and from out of an orange-glowing cleft tumbled Khoroldar and Nzaario, exhausted and barely conscious. The disc rubber-banded shut and blinked out of existence as the death cleric and wounded minotaur lay back on the muddy forest floor.
Cyrrienne stepped forward immediately, her hands wrapped around the medallion, channelling healing energy in a radiating sphere from her point of origin. The minotaur was badly wounded, but Cyrrienne watched in ecstasy as her powers were unleashed at full-strength again, flooding the five people in the area with wellness. Khoroldar’s injured shoulder knitted back together and the burns on his bovine face faded back into the unmarked soft fur. Colour returned to his pale flesh as inside him his blood was replenished with blessings, and consciousness suffused his mind once more as he was brought back to the realm of the waking, blessed with clarity and new life.
Nzaario too received the full benefits of Cyrrienne’s gift. The man always looked pale, she knew that, but when he’d emerged from that portal he’d looked in agony. The fear and pain subsided and his repose became graceful. With an explosive intake of breath, he sat up and shook the confusion from his head, sucking down lungful after lungful of sweet forest air. His spidery elven fingers gingerly touched at his crushed thigh and and grating ribs, but they had been repaired. He climbed to his feet with measured steadiness, not even unstable on the leg that minutes ago was a guaranteed amputation.
"Nzaario, Khoroldar! You made it back! How did you— Khoroldar where are your clothes?!" The moment of reunion was sullied somewhat by Cyrrienne’s understandable distraction at the nude, sweaty beast climbing to his feet before them.
"Lost in hell. Snakemen all so small, couldn’t find new clothes in time. Angel clothes no good either."
"Hell? Angels? What happened to you?" Cyrrienne’s relief and excitement had somewhat detracted from the sombre ceremonial receipt of gifts that had been undergoing until this interruption. Khoroldar idly began to look around the clearing, hoping Nzaario would do the honour of telling their story. Salomea held out a spare travelling cloak she’d been keeping in her pack, offering it to the minotaur. He moved to collect it and in doing so, stomped ignorantly across the unnamed grave.
The shard of blackened iron snared him. In the instant he’d trodden on it, it had shifted shape into the form of a bear trap and caught his hoofed foot fast, making him stagger. Confused, Khoroldar looked down. He couldn’t feel any pain from it. The trap wasn’t even toothed, it was just tugging on his calf and keeping him from moving. He reached down to pry apart the jaws but the metal dissolved into a fluid form, leaping into the palm of his hand and knocking the arm away. It began to lengthen and glow red hot like a blacksmith’s forge. The long shape began to dart backwards and forwards, sparks flying off of it and metal bangs and clangs sounding from the length, like it was being shaped by invisible hammers. Longer and longer it grew in his hand, coming to a jagged end. Black as charcoal now, the banging ceased and its form was final. Pre-broken to his favoured length, the half-greatsword looked vicious and deadly. As Khoroldar tilted it in the sunlight, he could make out the swirls of the folds in the metal.
Cyrrienne and Nzaario both recognised the sword had some magical properties. Its black veneer was the property of some abjuration enchantment applied to it, though neither of them had the spellcraft skills necessary to identify what. Cyrrienne suggested that, since the other gifts were personalised and appropriate, Khorodar probably need only strike a foe with it to unleash its powers.
Now unadorned, its gifts delivered, the small mound of earth and stones looked somewhat unremarkable.
"But whose grave is it?" asked Nzaario later. A space had been cleared nearby and Salomea and Cyrrienne had erected their tents nearby. They both agreed that whatever magic was in this place would ward off the snake people who were searching through the woods for them.
"You’re the death cleric. You tell us," replied Cyrrienne. But she had a suspicion.
"I really don’t know. I can’t know. In this place I am separated from my goddess. I assume that’s why I didn’t get a gift, even though I too have given everything to this cause." Nzaario too had his suspicions about the contents of that grave, and the protection from evil spells laid on this place only strengthened them.
"I didn’t get anything either," sulked Michesavu.
"Stop." Salomea interjected. “Nzaario, we know where your gifts are. Tura let your friends take that Bonehouse from her possession after She determined your commitment to the cause. I’d say that as far as a goddess of good and life bestowing gifts upon a cleric of darkness and death goes, this is as close as you’re going to get.
"And Michesavu, your gift is out there, buried under a shallow pile of dirt and rocks. This, my friends, is the burial site of Lendrick Heraldstone.
"But it’s more than that. We have power now. Cyrrienne and I aren’t just runaway rebels any more. This is an endorsement from the gods themselves that our cause is worthy. And if Len had to die to bring the Order this power, we all know he would have gone willingly. Anything for the Order."
"We’re still only six. Even with a fully-empowered cleric, paladin and, uh, Minotaur, I don’t have my Bonehouse, Michesavu is using a bow that looks like it could have been strung when my grandmother was a little girl, and Gurtlekep, where even is he?" asked Nzaario.
"He’s north of here. There’s a village called Falcon’s Hollow, where he’s from, nestled up against the mountains. It’s fairly out of the way; I hadn’t even heard of it, but Gurtie used to live there. If the snake men haven’t been there yet, we’re going there next. And as for your stupid Bonehouse," Cyrrienne reached into a pocket and pulled out the cloth-wrapped bone fragment. “Here!”
Nzaario unwrapped the hard-won prize. It was damaged, but not irreparably. A smile crept across his face and fondness creased in his eye folds. Here was his gift, Cyrrienne was right. He had passed through Tura’s outer plane, flown over seas of mercury by dog-headed angels he’d once reviled. Maybe Noico and Tura and Halestar were united against the snake men too. In times of conflict in the outer planes, the balance of power in the cosmos depends on the balance of power on Chorinn. Nzaario believed in his goddess, and he believed in his own duty to influence the game in Her favour. By working together now to overcome a stronger foe, he could leave the game open for his goddess to sweep to victory later.
"You are right, Cyrrienne. I am being childish. The Order of the White Coin is Alepia’s last hope of freedom, and to that end, all the power at my command is at your command, leader." Nzaario held the bone token aloft, and grinned.