by Lee McLeod
The gates of the redoubt creaked open slowly. Behind the wall of mounded earth and stone ramparts, the tent city wrapped around the black basalt walls and turrets of the Temple of the Cudgel – its weary denizens huddled in dread and expectation as the representatives of Kittering walked through the gates and into the blasted no-man’s land between their walls and the trenches of the invaders. We walked cautiously through the maze of carnage, never taking our eyes from the thronging horde gathered at the opposition’s lines. Slowly, carefully, we made our way through the wreckage and rubble and piles of the rotting dead, marching on to hear what doom awaited our pitiful host. A city of twenty thousand souls, now little more than a smoldering ruin, streets haunted by the living dead, and a bare thousand men, women, and children, hiding behind the earthen mound and the walls of the Citadel.
The siege of Kittering began three month ago. The Horde rose in the east, and swept away everything in its path. We made a fierce stand upon our walls at the first. Our holy men’s blessings and the wizard’s fire held the ravagers at bay – at least until the fell beasts began their foul flights. Dozens of leather winged monstrosities flew over the walls, carrying with them smoldering pots of fire and destruction As the missiles fell on the city, whole neighborhoods were torn to pieces, leaving nothing but ruin, death, and smoke that belched thick, oily, and black into the air, staining the sky over our heads. They breached the outer walls. The flames found purchase in the city, and turn the port into a raging holocaust. The scent of ash, and sulfur, and death filled our nostrils, and was soon join by the rot of our adversaries. On and on they came, legion against our already wearied forces. With the undead at our throats and the inferno at our backs, we began our retreat.
The mages began erecting a rampart or earth and stone at the furthest southern edge of the city. Hemmed in and all sides by the sea, leaving only the narrow road over the lowland isthmus to channel the attackers into a narrow killing field at our doorstep, but sealing ourselves into a final holdfast. A small group of heroes held the forces of Night at bay while the redoubt was completed and the city’s survivors hurried behind its safe walls. And there we held, day and night, as the hordes of the undead flung themselves against our defenses. To the roar of the cannon were added the explosions of spell-fire and the incantations of our priests. The dead fell by the thousands and the tens of thousands in that narrow ground, and still they came.
Like a fetid flood they came on in seemingly endless variations of death and corruption, the isthmus turning into a morass of blood and bile, pus and excrement, the hordes charging onward upon the bodies of the fallen. Driven by the iron wills of their carrion-lords they came on. By night their screams tore at the air, the flames of the burning bodies, set alight by arcane fires, guiding their way. By day, beneath hooded helmed, they charged, their lords shielded from the burning touch of day by the oily-black film that still poured into the air from the craters left by the cauldrons that fell throughout the city in their first assault. A menagerie of horror assaulted our eyes at every glance. The mindless walkers, some little more than skeletons, others the ruined visages of once-neighbors, shambled toward the redoubt, moaning, shambling, and clawing. The phages, eaters with jagged talons, glistening fangs and empty eyes, sprinting and leaping, thirsty for the blood they smelled coursing through our veins. Liches and corpse-herders, carrion brutes and shrieking wraiths, bodies hanged and bodies beheaded – all rushing to join the fray. We saw the entrails of the fallen oozing toward our position only to watch them burst, flinging disease and destruction for yards in every direction, and sat bewildered as an angel descended upon the wall, only to see death dripping from the pestilence gathered upon its feet as it unfurled a grotesque mockery of wings made from the flayed flesh of its own body. There was no end to horrors we witnessed upon those walls.
Yet the wall held. And days became weeks became months, as we exhausted ourselves upon the defenses, holding off sortie after sortie – waiting, watching, searching for some sign of hope. And then we heard of the Horde’s search for an ancient power, buried deep in the south. The bravest among us volunteered for the mission, leaving secretly by night, to begin their journey. If only we had known – if only we had moved more swiftly, perhaps the scourge might have been averted. Weeks passed, and hope flickered. A relief column, holy warriors and grey mercenaries, a strong host, approached from the west. The battle lines of the undead shifted to fight on two fronts. For the briefest moment we thought we would see them break. And then, deep in the south, a fire began to burn.
Flames rolled toward us, not upon the ground, but in the sky – a wall of flames, rushing toward us, fire stained with a deep sickly green of raw eldritch arcana, a poisoned flame that filled the air from horizon to horizon, and carried a scream of desolation on the wind as it came. The Red Lady appeared in our midst, carrying a white branch, which she planted in the midst of the redoubt at the steps of the Citadel. Round her gathered the priests and the mages, weaving their spells together as though to cover our holdfast in a hedge of protection. The flames raged, and the fire rained down on Kittering, the stench of death and decay overwhelming our senses. The Undying Host flung itself upon the Redoubt anew. They brought with them the animated corpses of behemoths, great monsters in the form of men, bent and twisted, and these death-bringers led, the charge. At their head came one of the Lords of Night, a woman garbed in glistening steel plate, her phage-guards circling around her, fangs shining in the fiery twilight. The gate could not hold against their assault.
Yet in that moment, as the gate fell and with it our hopes of survival, and strange calmness seemed to fill the Red Lady. She turned, facing the Night-lord, and strode toward her, calmly yet with a purpose. The guards at the wall moved to strike down the phage-guard, as the two women crossed the field. The Vampire queen raised a blade high to strike, and in that moment the Red Lady held out her own hand and placed it against the enemy’s breastplate. There was a pulse of raw power and a calm flash of light – and in that light I saw a gleaming brilliance, as of the dawn, pulse through the form of the invader, and as it passed through, I thought I saw a shadow pass as well. The vampire fell to the ground, and uttering a final word known only to the Red Lady herself, she breathed out and the ravages of stolen ages passed over her, leaving nothing but hollow armor and dust.
The White Tree held the ravages of that infernal fire at bay, and seeing the Light of Creation, the lux aeterna, in the hands of the Red Lady, the Hordes of Night drew back, away from our walls, and waited. Days passed with no further attacks, as we drew the survivors of the relief column into our holdfast. We tended our wounded, repaired our gate, prepared our weapons, and waited. Then came the clarion call of a horn, sounding to us from across the no-man’s land. We all held our breath, watching. Soon we saw a small party of the enemy, no more than six, moving to the center of the isthmus, carrying a white flag, calling out to us for a parley. Their lord was prepared to offer us terms for the surrender of Kittering.
And now I, marshal of the city, find myself walking across the narrow deadly expanse. With me are the Ladies of Kittering, both Red and Gold, and the captains of the relief columns. We walk cautiously, watching for any sign of treachery. Our nerves are all on-edge, our senses keen, yet the enemy offers not so much as a snarl at our approach. We cross through the carnage, and begin the walk from the low hollow of the isthmus up the slight incline to the fortifications of the Host of Night. We have seen so many thousands of these abominations fall, and yet, standing here in the midst of their camp, it is impossible to count the number that remain. They press in tight order, yet give way to our party, as we walk to the pavilion erected in sight of our redoubt.
A woman greets us, another of the Lord of Night, and beckons us to await the arrival of their master. No less than four of the Lords of Night stand within arm’s-reach of our party, close enough to smell the blood on them, and see the glistening blood that still lingers on their lips and fangs as the talk quietly amongst themselves. And then the press of the Horde begins to give way to a growing shadow, as the air around us grows palpably cold. The crowd begins to part, and a chill sweeps up my back. Coming toward us is a jet-black throne, crafted from bone and adorned with gold, mounted upon a wheeled dais, ringed with runes and carvings depicting scenes of conquest and bloodletting. The profane carocchio is pulled by six dragonkin, their black scales glinting in the last lights of the setting set.
Yet it is not this spectacle, but the figure reclining on the throne that threatens to stop my heart within my chest. A hissing whisper of despair and doom rises within my heart as he draws near. The cold emanating from his presence turns hope to ice in my soul. Dressed in black robes that seem to hide and devour all light, he sits, regal and relaxed as a monarch in a palace, not a warchief on a battlefield. A twisted crown wrought of pale green silver and black gold twines round his head, and a cruel-edged sword rests at his side. At his feet are the crowns of a dozen kings, their ornaments rest upon his dais. A shadow, in waves and wispy smoke seems to roil before him, reaching and grasping, absorbing and killing every shred of light in its path, and filling the undead around it with a surge of vigor and strength.
Mercifully the cart comes to a halt just before the shadow reaches the pavilion where we stand – the faintest edges of its tendrils seeming to reach for us, the stroke the ground, to the caress the on-lookers. The sickly-sweet scent of death hangs in the air. The Vampire Queen turns to her lord, and it is as though I can hear them speak, though a heavy silence rests over the whole of the assembly. At last she turns, and begins to address us.
“My lords and captains, and you, Marshal – I greet in the name of my liege. I am his voice. We come to you with terms. We applaud your courage and tenacity in the defense of your city. No other township has so withstood our hosts…
“Hosts?” I think to myself, “then this is but a part of the whole? What fell power has been brewing for so long in the East?”
…But surely you must now see that your time is at an end. The water will be no barrier to the goblin-born or the dark elves you, even now, see gathering amongst our ranks. The White Tree has held the scourge-fire at bay in your township. Yet your scouts must have reported the truth of the matter to you. The curse has fallen, and the Kingdom of Shadows now controls every land south of the Brön Mountains. The Empire has fallen. The shreds of your relief forces now gathered within your defenses are all that remains of the Imperial forces. Your have fought valiantly and held your ground, but the time for struggle is at an end. You need not perish here, the memory of your courage lost to the ages. My father offers these terms…”
But her voice drifts off into the background. Instead, my attention is riveted to the figure seated upon the throne. Small, nearly imperceptible movements of his head seem to suggest that the vampire-queen’s words are not her own, but rather narrated through her lips. She dances like a puppet on a string. In the Kingdom of Shadows all wills are his will, and he who sits upon that throne, will court no discussion. These are not terms, these are a proclamation.
And then, as though sensing my own thoughts, his heads shifts again, and I find myself staring into the face of the King of Shadows. His face covered in a pallid mask, etched in runes and whorls, I find myself staring into the blackness within the mask’s eyes – and then the sensation of falling, falling as the darkness hidden behind that mask has swallowed me up entirely. And images begin to flood my consciousness. I see the King, unrobed, naked, floating like me in the black outer darkness. A flood of images – a stillborn godling, malformed, a horrible parody of life, floating, a font of endless un-life. I see fangs flash in the darkness. I see a new godling born in the midst of the chaos, emerging filled with the dying essence of the rotting deity.
Then I am standing behind him at the shores of a great lake. A warm breeze blows, and the tattered yellow hem of his robes flaps, as we stare into the blackness of the night sky. In the distance lies an ancient dying city, beneath the signs of the Hyades and Aldebaran.
Then I am standing facing him, the inky blackness around me alive with the sound of a subterranean world, the cracks, splashes, and haunting echoes of an immense cavern – a world that he has conquered and remade in his own image. A world of blood and terror. A world of vice and pleasure. A world of ecstacy and suffering.
And for a moment I see it – like the golden flash of dawn in my mind’s eye – a world in his own image. A caricature, a mockery, and mirror. But his parody of creation, hides our reality at its core. His hosts of malformed corruption gathered upon this field of battle, are lovingly created by a master artist – a sketch of our world through his eyes, a sketch that leaves us hollowed by the recognition of its accuracy.
I see the city through the eyes of the mask: I see a child trampled to death under the feet of the city’s fleeing denizens. I see the cannibals hanged two weeks ago at their grizzly feast in their tent. I see the dark souls of the men who came to rescue us, burning with hatred and malice, fueled by oaths made to ancient dark powers, oaths of blood and death. I see the poisoned soul of the assassin and betrayer, torn apart with hopelessness and despair as he tore out the throat of our greatest champion while she sat at prayer. I see myself, standing over the body of a heretic, skull crushed beneath my mace, and I see the contentment on my own face as I watch his body twitch lifelessly in the mud. I see the true face of the city, of the world, and suddenly I know the soul behind the pallid mask for who he is.
He comes only to reveal what is already there. Appearing like a Phantom armed only with Truth, the truth about ourselves, the truth of our world, leaving us standing face-to-face with the banal horror of our own existence, shocked by the truth and left with only madness or subservience to turn to.
And suddenly I feel my soul being pulled from my vision back into my mortal form, drawn back through the darkness and horror made manifest by the gilded sigil in the mask’s forehead into my own body. I find myself standing in the assembly again, staring into the empty eyes of that pale formless mask, looking into the not-eyes of a king; of a god – a god-king… the God-King of Night. His emissarie's words catch my attention again.
“All the lands with fifty miles of the walls of Kittering will be held as a protectorate – to be governed as it’s denizens elect. Their annual tribute shall be paid to the Baron la Mierce, who will be the Kingdom’s regent within the Protectorate. Within the Protectorate, five laws will remain sacrosanct – the practice of ‘turning’ and the channeling of the lux aeterna is forbidden, as are the blessing of arms or armors; each year three hostages, one for each month of the siege, shall be delivered to the Kingdom’s regent at his manor at Theira; that all arms are to be bound while in the townships of the Regent, and surrendered upon request of any Regents’ officers, nor may any arms be fitted with any form of true-death magic; that the Trees are to be left untouched, neither watered nor molested, nor may any portion be carried or transported for any reason. Finally, obeisance will everywhere be offered at the arrival of the Dread-Lord and before his Standard, on penalty of death.
So says my Lord. Agree, and this host will depart to the borders on this protectorate. Refuse, and we will erase the name of Kittering from the minds of men. We would have your answer now.”
We looked at one another for a long time. Standing, staring, wondering, watching. We can see the exhaustion of our people reflected in our own faces. We can see the smoldering ruins of our homes. The death of hope, of dreams, of joy. And then one by one, we turn to face the black throne, and fall to one knee, amid the ash and the blood, before the God-King of Night.