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|Beloved of Basth||
Posted: Aug 6 2008, 11:42 AM
A bug in the Swarm
Member No.: 1,750
Joined: 3-July 07
Second chapter starts here...
Chapter 2: The Sands Of Time
It was early morning, the sun just winking over the horizon, and the Bitter Sea was anything but. Its waves were calm, not their usual malevolent selves but pitifully weak, as though afraid to attract the attention of that which sailed their waters.
A shape slipped smoothly through the rising mist, quiet as the dead. The barque was of Nehekharan design, but was far from typical of any other to be found in the ports of the Great Kingdom. Huge chunks of gristly bone served as the mast pole, and adorned the rigging. Tendon, rubbery and dry with age, bound the macabre ship together, and moth-eaten banners hung, resplendent nonetheless, from the sides of the soundless vessel. Their insignia was unmistakable.
The sleek ship cut through the water as true and straight as an arrow, although the deck was deserted. Gone were the bustling sailors, heaving, sweating, at the oars. Gone were the slaves, who drenched the deck in salt water, and fed the hungry belly of the ship with cargo. Gone was the Sea Master, his bellowing voice replaced by the sighs of the wind.
The living had no place aboard this monstrous vessel.
Uneven ruins rose into sight on the distant shore. They stood, black and jagged, against the fiery red of the rising sun, a deathly silhouette, serving as a reminder for all foolish enough to sail these waters of the evil that once festered there, corrupt and corpulent. Only those with a death-wish made port at that cursed place now. Only those who sought to die, mad and alone, amidst the haunted ruins of Lahmia, walked those bloody sands.
The ship sailed closer, as softly as a dead man’s sigh. Wreathes of mist snaked out, keeping pace with the rotting barque, never seeming to move but always behind it, trailing. Once they almost caught up, threatening to swallow the wood and bone, and envelop it in their chilling coldness, but the ship slid smoothly, unscathed, from their grasp.
Waves lapped pitifully against the hull of the ship, as though loathe to touch it, yet desperate to encourage it on its way. Had they known what dwelled within, waiting patiently to dock, and rejoin with land once more, they would have left the ship to its own devices. Even the wind was quelled, reduced to a whisper on the air, quiet and impotent.
Passing through the ruined sea-gates and into the Lahmian bay, the graceful ship began to slow. As the broken heights of the Lahmian docks rose up, cracked and burned, around it, the ship became two, then three, then a dozen, as more and more of the macabre vessels slipped from out of the concealing mist and into the bay.
A score, then two dozen, then three, the mist regurgitated the unnatural barques. The slim, decaying vessels slid into port alongside each other, directed by some greater will. Freed from the horror that had transfixed it, the Bitter Sea slapped ineffectually at the now creaking hulls of the ships. Stay away, it seemed to say, do not take to my seas again.
The first figures staggered from out of the gloom below deck, stepping awkwardly onto the wooden boards. Their bleached bones clicked, and empty eye-sockets stared unseeing at the carcass of once mighty Lahmia.
The fleet of Nagash emptied itself onto the bloodied flagstones of the cursed city.
Time. It had done little to ease the anguish that poisoned Maatmeses’ heart. As she stood in the blackened ruins of the Temple of Blood, the revenant shades of men long dead met her gaze. She watched them as they strode across the temple antechamber, their insubstantial figures wavering in and out of consistency, trapped in a re-enactment their final moments for all eternity. They were like shadows, wisps of memory given some semblance of form. Their lips moved silently as they walked through toppled statues and flame-charred walls. She could not tell whether they were products of her imagination, shades called back from the grave to haunt Lahmia’s broken streets, or a mixture of both. Her ancient eyes glistened.
The time for vengeance was upon them. Now, at long last, the Nehekharans would pay for their war crimes. Maatmeses had learned much in the dripping, stagnant bowels of Nagashizzar, their dark god himself teaching the surviving vampire masters the twisted intricacies of necromancy. It had been difficult beyond comprehension, and she had been slow to learn, but every day she had devoted to practice was a grain of sand in the right direction, and now her arcane knowledge was more than a match for anything she could remember the priests of the Great Kingdom being capable of.
The ancient vampire pulled at the straps of her breastplate, tightening it, and stalked from the despondent temple. She had been much changed by the time spent in Nagashizzar. They all had.
For one, Neferata had been stripped of her rank. The cunning bitch was no more a queen than Maatmeses was now, and instead her husband Vashanesh had risen as their captain. Nagash himself had appointed the Lahmian king as their master, and against his incomparable will not even the Queen of Lahmia could contest. That alone had brought her deep-seated satisfaction, in the early years of their arrival. She had found nothing quite as rewarding as watching their once glorious queen rant and rave her displeasure.
Neferata was as powerless against the Great Necromancer as the mortals were against her.
A grin split Maatmeses’ face, the expression all the more daemonic for her years in the company of Nagash and his ilk. Her mouth was a mesh of needle-like fangs, and her once bronze flesh had faded slightly in the absence of the Nehekharan sun. Her cheeks had become sunken, giving a strained, feral turn to the once High Justice’s face.
Perhaps it was the years of exposure to the Great Necromancer’s precious warpstone, she mused as she strode from the shattered maw of the Temple of Blood and into the light of day. It had certainly corrupted the visage of their lord, transforming him beyond all recognition, turning him into a reeking, rotting horror the likes of which she had never before seen. It was no stretch of the imagination to believe that the corrupt substance had affected her own appearance in some way.
Her delving into the necromantic arts was another possible explanation. W’soran was a walking example of what prolonged use of Dhar could do to one’s body. The previously malnourished vampire had grown ever more emaciated since his extensive experiments into death and necromancy. He rarely left Nagash’s side, like some Khemrian hound, eager for any scraps of ancient lore or prophecy that was tossed his way by their master. That his extensive efforts had proved fruitful, she could not deny; the scholarly vampire was by far the most proficient of their number at spell casting. The innermost secrets of necromancy were at his discretion and he gave little away, jealously hording what macabre knowledge he accumulated and sharing only a little of that with his own priests.
He had also paid the highest price for his potent skills. With leathery flesh and skeletal limbs, his withered corpse of a body said it all: toy with the wind of Dhar, and suffer the consequences.
Outside it was still morning, but already the sun’s heat was intense, searing the vampire to her core and cooking her insides. She walked down the long flight of cracked stairs, to join the rest of Nagash’s lieutenants, her bronze armour winking in the sunlight. This is what is must have felt like to be condemned to the desert, she thought. It was a punishment she had frequently heaped upon the murderers and thieves of Lahmia, driving long spears through their limbs and pinning them to the desert sands. The lucky ones were devoured by carrion, their innards ripped out and consumed by the ravenous birds. Those less fortunate were left there, driven mad by the heat, until their desiccated corpses were removed and replaced with fresh criminals.
Grim nostalgia drew laughter from the vampire, a dusty hiss escaping her throat.
She missed the old days. She missed the authority and satisfaction that came with being High Justice. Now she was a Dark Lord. A lieutenant of Nagash, captain of his unholy legions. Rewarding, yes, but it was not the same.
She needed her vengeance. It was a long time coming, and the years had done nothing to diminish it. If anything, the desire for retribution had taken root in her, unmoveable, revenge as much a part of the woman as her blood-thirst, or her very name.
“You are finished in the temple, Maatmeses?” It was W’soran. She nodded, and his lips split into a tight smile. “Then we are ready. We have taken Lahmia uncontested, but the rest of Nehekhara still awaits our attention! From the eastern shores to the furthermost reaches of the Great Desert, the mortals cower in their petty kingdoms. Lybaras, Mahrak, Quatar, Zandri, Numas and Khemri, all are soft and weak and afraid. They must die.” Vashanesh interrupted, his own voice belying an aura of majesty and authority that W’soran could never hope to achieve.
“This day we mark the beginning of the end for the priest kings and their subjects. They will fall before our limitless hordes and deadly magics and like a plague of locusts we will descend on them and devour them, in the name of Lahmia, and Nagash!” The six master vampires snarled and laughed, their hearts swelled with confidence and hunger. The deserts will run red with the blood of mortals. Their corpses will turn the seas themselves crimson and stagnant. All of Nehekhara will be theirs, and the glory of Lahmia restored!
“We have waited so long…” said Harakhte, his ruby eyes turned skyward. Ushoran laughed, a cold, hard sound, devoid of human emotion.
“Too long, my brothers and sisters. But now we are set free, unleashed upon Nehekhara to do our lord’s bidding, and none shall stand against us! The blood, just think of the blood!”
“For Nagash!” shouted Vashanesh, his bestial rage carrying far into the sky. The Great Necromancer had taught them the ways of necromancy. He had promised them their Lahmia, resurrected to its former glory. He had shown them the light in their time of darkness. As one, the vampires began to chant.
Their tongues spat corruption; venomous words that had no right to be spoken aloud filling the air and turning it thick with dark magic. A fierce wind raced through the decaying city, unsettling ruins and scattering sand to the skies.
Above all their voices, one sounded stronger and more powerful, harnessing the winds of magic and bending them to his will as slaves to a king. W’soran screamed and chanted, incantations flying fast from split, bloody lips. He raised his hands, long black robes buffeting his frail form.
And all across the desert graveyard that was Lahmia, the dead stirred. Skeletons that had sailed down from Nagashizzar with their undying masters stood side by side with the brittle bones of those long buried beneath the shifting sands. Generations of ancient nobles woke in their mausoleums, reborn as wights - fathers, sons and grandfathers, they strode slowly from their tombs, enchanted blades clutched in mailed fists. Even the ghouls, degenerate men that on Nagash’s command had accompanied the vampires, crouched and leapt and howled their fury at the dark winds as they swept the city.
Thick grey clouds converged on the clear blue sky, concealing the blasphemy that was wrought below from the eyes of the sun, and the creatures of the night, the ghouls and ghosts and ghasts, screamed with triumph.
Then the vampire lords themselves stirred, breaking from the casting of their unnatural magics to lead their armies across the golden desert and into battle.
Maatmeses flushed with decades old excitement. Anticipation flooded her ancient veins. The time for vengeance had come. It was now. It was here! A thousand bitter memories came swarming back into her mind: of her murdered children, Gehb, Eshe, Khait and the others, of friends lost, Abhorash first and foremost, of her laws flaunted and disgraced, and of her home - her city - torn down from around her. Desperation welled up like a desert spring inside the vampire, soulful and earnest.
“Beware, men of Nehekhara,” she screamed aloud, “for I am Maatmeses, and I come to claim my blood debt!”
|Beloved of Basth||
Posted: Aug 8 2008, 10:52 AM
A bug in the Swarm
Member No.: 1,750
Joined: 3-July 07
His chest burned. His vision blurred. Something splattered against his face and he smeared it away, crimson staining his forearm. Fear enveloped him and the Nehekharan captain stumbled back, slipping in the sand.
Another orc charged, its yellowing teeth rotten and slick with the blood of his regiment. As the green behemoth bore down on him, he hurled his sword arm forward. Words escaped his lips, tearing his throat raw. Everything seemed to slow down.
The orc grimaced, its tiny red eyes glinting furiously. It swung back its arms, great green ham fists clutched around enormous cleavers. The weapons were brutal in their simplicity: They were no more designed to cut flesh as they were to mash it to pulp.
A flurry of white-fletched arrows smacked into the monster and it stumbled forwards. Green-black blood spurted from its eye where two of the wooden shafts had entered, boring into its brain.
With an unintelligible gurgle the orc fell and died.
All around him, Captain Ammon’s men fought for their lives. Spears lashed out, impaling the thick-skinned monsters and drawing their unnatural blood even as their axes and cleavers wrenched the Khemrians apart. They were only men. Thin-skinned. Lean. They were like children stood next to the massive bulk of the orcs.
The sun scorched their flesh, dazzling off the bronze-gold armour of the Nehekharans, and the slimy red of the orcs’ tusk-like teeth. The battle had been raging for hours, and Ammon’s men were at their wit’s end. They had no energy left. They were spent. The walking dead.
He had to end it, soon.
Another cloud of arrows descended into the fray, the guttural cries of the orcs drawing some small respite from the captain. He had fought their kind before, on many an occasion. They swarmed down from the mountains, the green hordes burning and pillaging all they encountered. More than one tomb had been ransacked by this particular force, and such looting could not be tolerated. The necropolises were sacred, and ancient, and not for the depredations of the green ones.
It had been easy to locate them. Their stench carried far on the desert winds, a mixture of sweat, blood and faeces. It was unmistakable in its nausea, and it had taken only days to track them.
The orcs had been waiting.
Darting forward, Ammon came face to face with another of the beasts. Sweat clung to its green flesh in a translucent sheen, and a myriad of skulls stared vacantly back from around its waist, reminding Ammon of the fate that awaited him, if he so much as slipped. There was no room for mistakes.
“Djaf watch over me,” he muttered, invoking the feral jackal god even as he brought his sword stabbing upwards. It sunk into the orc’s throat and stuck fast there, a stream of unclean blood dripping down its silvery blade.
It was an economical blow, playing to both Ammon’s speed and his enemy’s weakest spot. If the man was anything, he was an efficient killer.
The orc grunted and took Ammon in its mighty arms, crushing him, breaking bones and bruising flesh even as it choked its last. Something snapped inside him and the captain screamed, pain exploding throughout his body. This was not how it was supposed to be. He wouldn’t die at the hands of some green-skinned barbarian! He would not!
Tears of pain stung at his eyes and he gasped desperately for air. Blackness crept over his vision, shadows growing in the corners of his eyes. The sounds of battle stretched out.
Almost instantly the orc’s bear hug loosened and he slipped, helpless as a new-born child, onto the sands. His battered breastplate rose and fell as he gulped great mouthfuls of fresh air. He hated the orcs, he thought bitterly, as though thinking it might banish them all suddenly from the face of the Great Desert. They came, and then died, and a year later they came again. They were as numerous as the tombs of the dead, and like the tombs, there were always more. Always.
Ammon rolled over and struggled to his knees.
“Give me swarms of scarabs any day.” He hawked and spat, to clear his throat. Redness trickled from his lips, and it felt as though the River Vitae itself was rushing through his head.
A keening cry went up, but it was not the scream of a dying soldier. It was the wail of the wounded, the sound that men made when the battle was over and they actually had time to stop and look at the gaping cuts and purple flesh that covered them. He had heard it a hundred times before. It was the sound of realisation, of shock, as the men felt for the first time their ravaged bodies. He scanned his surroundings.
The orcs all lay dead, mounds of green muscle and fat At least three score of the green ones’ corpses covered the sands, limbs askew, their flesh already spoiling in the fierce heat of the sun. He resisted the urge to gag and rose shakily to his feet.
“They are numerous this year. I have not fought against such numbers of the green-skinned ones in living memory, Ammon.” A man strode up behind the ungainly captain, his olive-skinned flesh green with the blood of their enemies. Talamanke had known Ammon since their days as youths, when they had both joined the city guard together. It had not been long before they had risen through the ranks, eventually joining the glorious army of King Alcadizzar. Their affinity with all manner of weapons made them versatile and deadly opponents. Ammon himself had only been made captain over Talamanke on accord of his more affable personality: the man loved to smile, loved to laugh, loved to drink, and it had won him over in the eyes of his comrades. Talamanke was too quick to criticise. He was not a detestable person, but his sharp tongue had earned him more than one black eye.
They were as opposite banks of the River Vitae, both part of the whole, but different sides of it. Ammon nodded to his closest friend.
“You are right, Talamanke. They are stronger too, more desperate. I thought, for a moment then, that I might be walking from the fight down the ways of the underworld.”
“Perhaps you’re getting old, my friend,” said Talamanke, his eyes glittering. Ammon grinned. He was getting old! That did not stop him from outmatching those half his age in kills. With age came skill. Experience, he noted, counted for a lot.
“At least your sense of humour survived the encounter.”
“It would take a lot more than some foul orc to slay that,” said Talamanke, also smiling. It lasted but a moment before his face reverted to its stony self. “Something must be driving them down from the mountains, pushing them into the desert.” It was a disconcerting thought. Anything that could possibly drive the war-mongering orcs out from their lands was a threat to Nehekhara, for sure. The beasts lived to fight, to battle and to die. In that they were as predictable as the rising sun.
What in all the Great Desert could drive an orc to flee, and not fight?
The groans of the wounded had subsided into a low murmur, and as Ammon watched, his men began helping each other to their feet. The injured sagged against the shoulders of their comrades, the battle having taking a vicious toll. Over half of his regiment sported wounds. Their blood stained the sands.
“Come on,” he said, his voice heavy. “Lets head back to Khemri.”
“What’s the hurry, Ammon?” Movement caught the corner of the captain’s eyes, and before he could so much as shout a warning, a bloated vulture had descended from the skies onto the bodies of one of his men. It’s cruel beak rent at the dead man’s flesh, ripping great strips of it away to sate the mangy bird’s hunger. Within seconds two soldiers had seen and run at it, swords waving, and with a hate-filled glare the bird took flight. Ammon frowned.
“I am tired. The men are tired. We need to return, and rest. I will feel much better once we are safe behind Khemri’s walls.” Talamanke did not argue.
Within three days the Khemrian regiment had made it back to their capital, the city rising out of the horizon long before they reached its gates. It was an uneventful trek; this close to the Nehekharans’ city, the only threat was that posed by the punishing heat. Even the deadly scorpions and snakes that concealed themselves beneath rocks and under the very sand were of no concern to the Khemrians. They had grown up in the desert. They knew how best to avoid them.
Despite this, the men were weary. The battle with the orc warband had taken it out of them; the creatures had fought with a ferocity that was rare, even in their green-skinned kind. Fear had driven them into a frenzy, which, coupled with the maddening effect the intense sunlight had on their psyches, and the orcs’ natural tendency toward battle-lust, had made them brutal and monstrous opponents. The manner in which over half of the survivors hobbled and limbed their way across the undulating dunes made this much obvious.
Even before their glorious city rose into view over the golden sands, Ammon saw it. They all did. It’s presence was like a blight on the landscape, unmoveable, impervious to harm, a tumour at the heart of Khemri that none could remove. Its mere sight cast a chill shadow on their souls.
The Black Pyramid of Nagash.
The blasphemous edifice towered over the heights of Khemri, fifty times the size of even the Great Pyramid of Settra. Nothing could compare to its vastness, the sheer magnitude of the pyramid was breathtaking. It was a monument to tyranny, to betrayal, to murder and black magic. Everyone who saw it trembled, for they knew the atrocities that had been committed in the lightless bowels of the ancient structure, far from the blazing heat of the sun.
Far from the eyes of the gods.
It was an eternal testament to the priest Nagash and his immitigable evil, an all encompassing evil that had matured on a diet of fear, hatred, jealousy and loathing. The priest had been mad, and dangerous, and had abused his position in the king’s court to his own ends. The very gods had trembled as the disillusioned liche priest had perverted the secrets of the mortuary cult, warping them into something altogether more horrifying in its sacrilege, or so Ammon had read.
He suppressed a shiver and, with a last, wary glance at the ancient monument, walked off toward Talamanke.
Posted: Aug 9 2008, 04:03 AM
A bug in the Swarm
Member No.: 2,303
Joined: 13-May 08
I'm enjoying this, it is reading well.
It's great to have another viewpoint introduced with couple of new characters who are hopefully going to be developed further.
Keep it going.