KICKSTARTER UNLOCKS

The PROPHET OF THORNS

Over the course of our Kickstarter campaign we invite you to join us on this epic adventure to create new and exciting components together that will be added for free to the Core Box!

12 Chapters will progress the story and unlock new components along the way. For each component we will gather your ideas in the comment section and every second day there will be the Backers War Council, where you can vote and choose the best ideas that our creative team will then put into reality!

UNLOCKS SO FAR

  • “The Banished” | Horde | He grows in strength for every revealed Druid.
  • “The Netherwood” | Hex | Explore this to roll dice for unexpected effects. It is also adjacent to Sea Towers.
  • “A New Dawn” | Event card | The Empire falls back to the center of the map, and Chaos to the edge, giving you some breathing room.
  • “Visions from The Old Gods” | Event card | Pay AP to draw or select one of your precious feats.
  • “Release the Kraken!” | Quest card | Let this ancient monster – or god – put Curses to work for you.
  • “Midnight Tower” | Sea Tower Hex | Summon a Legion and a Horde into a combat immediately.
  • “Horn of the Brotherhood” | Item card | Assist other players in combat with your units.
  • “Survivors” | Item card | Every player gains a new opportunity to build units.
  • “A Deal with Demons” | Quest card | Lure a Horde directly onto your enemies.
  • “The Mage Breaker” |  Imperial Legion Rumored to be from the realm of Chaos and enslaved by Aezher the Immortal, he turns your Bolts back on you. Ouch!
  • “The God-Touched” | Event card | The Prophet shows her true face.
  • “Aezher’s Essence” | Event card | The Empire believes that the Prophet is the key to resurrecting the Last Emperor.
  • “The Fanatic” | Druid card | Turn skeletons into allies… at least for the moment.
  • “The Dread Mist” | Druid card | Cancel all Skulls for both sides.
  • “The Urn of Malice” | Item card | Release the demon against both sides.
  • “The Twilight Bow” | Item card | Attack skeletons safely at a distance.
  • “The Imperial Assassin Dagger” | Item card | Poison a Horde or Legion.

CHAPTER 1

Kha’al never thought that he would die like this in this bloody pit! His sword was just a metal shard at this point, and he was sure that his ribs were broken all along one side. The Ironhoof towered over him, ready to deliver that final blow. It had been a shitty day since he woke up. Three matches, which meant his owners were done with him. Those dead birds, falling from the sky in the morning, weirdly crooked and unnaturally deformed. At least he wouldn’t die with an empty stomach.

The crowd roared as the beast raised its giant foot, froth spitting from its fanged mouth – and everything went dark. For a second Kha’al thought he was already in the realm of his ancestors – but he could still hear the people shouting, and this time in confusion and… panic? The Ironhoof was pounding the ground in agony and the air was filled with a foul stench.

Kha’al didn’t hesitate. He jumped up and ran towards the edge of the arena. He measured the distance from his memory and put his last shred of willpower into the jump. One hand just reached the edge and he lifted himself into a mass of swirling bodies – everything still pitch black, but everyone screaming, bumping into each other, trying to escape from… what?

CHAPTER 1I

Kha’al drank from the wineskin. The cold was almost unbearable. The unnatural storm had been raging for days, pelting the land with ice chunks the size of fists. He kept scratching his head. This stinking lizard skin was the best he could find to protect him but obviously brought him some unwanted guests.

He somehow made it. He escaped the pit and survived. Damn Warlock. Releasing his demon in the middle of the crowd. Killing Iri, the closest to what someone would call a friend in the pits. Her bow, now with him, would be her only legacy. After the demon burned out he kept a handful of his remains in a little urn. Didn’t they say demon ash was worth a fortune? He scratched his head again and took another deep sip.

The escape through the sewers was a mess. Filled with dead and rotting bodies of his comrades, thrown away after the fights in the pit. After he got out, he wasn’t sure he could make it any farther. Outside the walls, on the slopes of the extinct volcano, most trees were almost leafless, even the pines.

He collapsed in the snow. The trail of blood must have been easy enough to follow for her. When he awoke, she was just sitting there, a hooded figure in the white. White hair, unnerving eyes staring at him. “You have something I need. Give me the ashes and I’ll take you with me. Or keep it and I’ll take them from your cold body after you die out here on your own.”

Her name was Syndra. One of the Druwhn, a race Kha’al had never met but was told to never trust. Yet this Syndra soon showed him paths through the brush he would never have found, and in less than two days, he was at the foot of the mountain, warming himself by a fire in a cave with her, and the storm was subsiding. Certainly, Syndra treated him better than any Imperial or Mohyar slaver.

She said a friend was coming, a Druid. Whatever that is, he thought. Another Druwhn maybe?

When the Druid came, an uncanny shadow in the falling snow, Kha’al was alarmed. The stranger either wore a skull for a mask or was… skinless. The face was the skull of some animal, antlers and all. Best to take no chances. 

“Please, put down your sword Kha’al! She will help us.” said Syndra, her deep voice echoing in the cave. It held the sound of the wind. Kha’al frowned, and lowered his sword, but did not put it away. He narrowed his eyes.

“My disciples” began the Druid. Her voice carried as if through a tunnel, echoing. Kha’al wasn’t sure what a disciple was, but he’d been called worse. He and Syndra glanced at each other, and the Druid went on. “I am the First of The Watchers. Know this: your world has died, and the seas are now frozen. Across them comes our doom. If you want to survive, we demand your aid. The Old Gods are stirring, but are not awakened. But they must be. They are our only hope.”

CHAPTER 1II

Kha’al wiped his sword off on the cloak of the Imperial. He nodded to the tall Duerkhar before him, whose own weapon, a great hammer, was also dripping. Baranth the Wall, he named himself. They had met him the day prior, Baranth accompanied by several tall Duerkhar soldiers, clad in furs and carrying wooden shields. They had come from the mountains, also allied with these Druids. 

Kha’al was even beginning to make some sense of his own Druid’s plan, who told them that they sought someone called The Prophet of Thorns. Apparently this Prophet had some serious mojo. Kha’al wouldn’t mind some magic – on his side. Killing Imperials was hard work, he didn’t want to die doing it. Better if some wizard took them out at a distance, he thought.  

The Duerkhar had brought moss beer and bread, and later, Syndra sang them an eerie, mournful melody that she said was an ancient tale from her people. Weird, but not bad. Between the hailstorms battering trees into splinters, or the series of visions that plagued him, it was a welcome relief for Kha’al to share a fire and warm food, and the music, even if it wasn’t exactly his thing.  

It was at dawn that everything went to shit.  Syndra let out a sharp whistle, and Kha’al was rolling, an arrow going right through his pillow. The shots of the Marksmen were flying everywhere, killing the Duerkhar as they stood. It reminded Kha’al of when he was captured, years ago – one minute, silence, the next, slavers running through his village. Some horrible magic brought them here suddenly, no doubt. 

Kha’al charged his enemies, swatting aside the arrows and hacking through the Imperials in a red rage. Baranth was within sight, ordering his surviving companions into formation. A masked Imperial – why always the masks? he wondered – was spinning through the camp, her double-blade making a whistling sound that caused his hairs to stand up, the unnatural glow of it illuminating the combat.   

And then the Imperials were leaving, melting away and firing their arrows as they disappeared. Kha’al ran back to the center of camp. There was the Druid… cut nearly in half. Syndra was holding her head, the mask fallen away, to show a young woman. Blood bubbled from her mouth as she tried to speak one last time, but could not finish the words. She looked to the side.   

Kha’al looked around – only Syndra and Baranth still drew breath.

CHAPTER 1V

Ronja peered out the window of the shop, the screen slid just an inch open, no lights behind her. Spy stuff made her nervous. This was supposed to be that damnable Hanzo’s job, but again he had somehow managed to convince the clans that he was too well-known, so here she was, in a fishing town on O-Meido crawling with Legionairies, near the heart of the Empire. Well, what was left of the Empire. From what she heard, the mainland was gone. Fire and ash. And so Hanzo sold their services to some religious fanatics. But they needed the food, and they needed it badly. Mjornfalheim was starving.

Ronja heard the signal, one then two sharp taps, and her contacts came in.The shopkeeper smiled nervousaly then ran back through the door he brought them in through. Hopefully he wasn’t an Imperial informant.

“I’m Ronja, your guide. I know a way to bring you into O-Meido. Which one of you is known as the First of The Watchers?” It took the three strangers a moment to answer. “She’s dead”, replied the Druwhn with the unnerving eyes, sorrow in her voice, “we’re the only ones left.”

“No Druid, no deal”, said Ronja, and got up. They should have never trusted these fanatics. Damn you, Hanzo. The Krowh took one step forward, a hand on his sword. “What is your price, Mohyar? You all have one. What’s yours?” 

“Even if I told you – I wouldn’t trust a Krowh. You bring too much trouble.”

“We bring trouble? You pirates dare?” spit Kha’al. “YOU brought The Empire upon us! At least when your kind weren’t here we had lands we could call home.”

“We, too, were slaves. At least we fight now for our freedom! Can you say the same?” Kha’al’s eyes went wide.

“What did the Druids promise you?” asked Baranth, like Kha’al, a full head taller than the Moyhar bard before them, and now at his side, one hand on the shoulder of the massive warrior to halt him. “The elders of Kathrak Khautil have taken the Druids’ side. As you can see”, he put the other hand on one of the runestones around his neck, “I’m one of them. If you don’t trust a Krowh – maybe you trust an elder. My clan warrants that the Druids will pay their promised debt.”

Ronja glared at the angered Krowh and calculated her chances.

“Whatever the sins of our ancestors, it is us here now, and we face common enemies,” said Baranth, becoming impatient. “Not just the Empire, but also something worse, that which killed them! If we don’t free the Prophet – maybe there is no hope for you to find a better deal anyway.”

Ronja took a deep breath. He wasn’t wrong and the Duerkhar would be a more trustworthy partner than those Druids anyway. She nodded slowly. “Your clan will guarantee my people enough food for the next four moons. I don’t care if Mjornfalheim will receive it from you or the Druids, who seem to die by the dozens by the hands of the Inquisition these days. If you accept that, I’ll help you get into O-Meido Prison.”

Syndra, who had leaned quiet against the wall in a darker corner of the room left the shadows, a waterfall of white hair appearing from the darkness. “There are walls, traps, guards and who knows what. O-Meido is a death trap. How do you propose we free the Prophet?”

CHAPTER V

Ronja slid along the ice, slowly, barely making a noise, her leather armor wrapped in furs, her breathing slow and even. Just a little closer, she thinks. She was almost within range of the Imperial scouts.

The extraction was quite literally a mess, hiding in the crab-cart of her ship-brother to get in. But they were still alive – the Prophet at their side. Ronja was glad that she could leave them behind for a bit, while scouting ahead. They had made good time once they left the island, and begun crossing the frozen wasteland, that was once a swirling ocean she had sailed many times. The stolen riding lizards didn’t mind the slippery ice underfoot. They weren’t the most comfortable way to travel, but if you kept them fed, they were very fast.

Still, it felt good to be alone for a while. The Prophet was eerie and unnerving, thorns and leaves growing out of her face, arms and hands. Her aura of pure godly power made Ronja’s skin crawl. The Krowh didn’t seem to mind. He hadn’t left her side for a moment since they found her. Same with Baranth.

When they had found the Prophet in her cell, she was chained and gagged. Even when she was freed from her shackles, it took an eternity before she was responsive – drugged senseless by the Inquisition. They had been prepared for that, though, and the herbs did their work. When Ronja heard the voice of the Prophet in her head for the first time, she trembled: “It is not too late. They are calling me. They are looking for me. We must go south. Wandering. Gliding. Crawling. Reaching. Southwards.” Agony wrapped her voice. “Please! I’m dying!”

From the expression on the faces of her companions, she could tell that she was not the only one who had heard these words, even though the Prophet didn’t move her lips at all. They looked at each other dumbstruck. “We will have… to carry her …”, began Ronja. Kha’al bent over willingly. “Wait!” hissed Syndra. “In half a bell this place will be swarming with legionaries! We need a plan!”

Suddenly the temperature in the cell dropped and in their heads the voice of the Prophet resounded again. “I have called them. They are coming. They are coming ALL! It is too late. They are here already. Now we must go!” They looked at each other uncertainly. From far above them, screaming started. Lots of screaming.

Their flight was a terror. The entire fortress turned into a madhouse. She did not know whom the Prophet had called, but from the sounds of the upper floors, Ronja would rather never find out. They avoided the legionaries, which wasn’t too hard, considering how panicked most of them were. More difficult to bypass were the strange manifestations that were suddenly everywhere. A foul stench in the air. Howls of strange animals, never seen, echoed. Darkness enveloped corridors that they turned away from, the fear radiating from them. They ran, fast, and they made good time. After ambushing a patrol of riders, they had their mounts and were into the vastness of the Fog Grave, O-Meido flickering with a ghostly light behind them, the sea a plain of pale ice ahead.

But now there was another, larger problem – there was a Legion right here in their way, in the middle of the ice, and if they caught Ronja and her new allies, they would all be… well, maybe it wasn’t worth thinking that one through. This Legion had a new standard, one she had never seen. The Prophet had said The Empress was coming.

Ronja slid along the ice, slowly. There. Just right. Syndra must have sensed her readiness, somehow, with that witchsight, because she just appears behind the second scout, and speaks a word into his ear. As the first one turns to the sound, Ronja uncoils like a spring, covering the distance in less than a second. Her staff crunches satisfyingly on the Imperials neck, just under his helmet, and he drops with a thud. The other sentry is staring blankly ahead, eyes pinpricks, drool forming on his lip. Ronja smiles approvingly, and Syndra pulls her mouth into what looks like she might be trying to smile. Pretty awkward, but at least she’s trying. Time to find out what this Legion is about.

CHAPTER VI

Ronja lifted her head as she walked through the front door of the tavern, smelling the roasting joists of meat, and the fat blaze of the great central hearth, and she eyed the drunken clientele. If she wasn’t mistaken, that was a keg of Iziri wine behind the bar, and that was a rare vintage in Azuhl.  


Kha’al watched Ronja swagger up to the gamblers, offering them double or nothing on her next roll. The massive Krowh turned to Baranth, who looked straight ahead with his cold eyes. “Gambling,” said Baranth, “is a bad policy.” Kha’al grunted, and walked to the bar, the customers parting with some haste as he waded through them. “Unless you win” said Kha’al. Baranth grunted, perhaps in agreement.  


Kyushi’s Tavern was one of the few places where the Empire had not penetrated. The vast, rickety structure sagged on creaking piles of wood, set amidst a great bog. And Kyushi, its master, was from a strange race called the Tua-Than, who once lived underwater. Frozen seas must make that difficult, thought Kha’al. The tavern was packed with refugees and survivors of the Curse. 


When the party finally left the frozen Fog Grave and came ashore again on the other side, their spirits were…. the opposite of lifted. The Empire was gathering their surviving forces in Norngaard. They barely escaped the The Mage Breaker, and they could see the trail of destruction he left behind, coming from the Hellhound Tower on his way to the new Imperial Capital – whole villages they passed through had been destroyed. The survivors said this wasn’t the only Legion that survived the Curse. The Ironclad were here. The Nameless and others. All of that bad news for the Druids and their planned rebellion.  


Kha’al walked back with his flagons to the secluded alcove Kyushi had arranged for The Prophet. She waited there with Baranth, stern as ever, and also the Tua-Than, Kyushi, his enormous eyes glowing in the lamplight. His beaked mouth sucked on a large, ornate pipe, the smoke filling the air with a sweet incense. Ronja joined them, slapping her winnings onto the table, the artifacts glittering in the light. “Easy pickings” she said with a broad grin, closing the curtain behind her.   


The Prophetess spoke, as they all settled around the table, her powerful voice sounding as if it came from beneath the floorboards, her eyes flashing in the light beneath the hooded cloak thing to hide the thorns and flowers growing from her skin from the other patrons. Her voice gave all of them shivers, but better that than to to hear it directly in their heads.  


“My blooming is near. We must crawl quick. Reach far. Dig deep. The Needle must be close, if my roots can’t entwine it soon, we may be too late, for the conjunction will end.” Baranth frowned. None of them ever heard of a place called the “Needle.” His old friend was their best hope for this weird clue. “Kyushi,” he said, turning to the Tua-Than, “you are a legendary traveler. Have you ever heard of that place?”  


Kyushi puffed deeply on his pipe, leaned back, and blew a thick cloud of smoke into the air. Kha’al would swear he was smiling. “Yooooou have a very special taaaaste in your compaaaanions, Baranth – including me!” His head swayed back and forth in short strokes and a clacking sound escaped his mouth. Then all of a sudden, he leaned over the table, his reptilian eyes wide, turning slowly to muster all of them: “Kyushi knows!” As if this was some sort of theater or performance he waved his three wurstlike fingers before their eyes. “But it’s not here. Not of this world! You have to enter the Nethersea!”

CHAPTER VII

They had left the Isles behind them and once more ventured out into the frozen waste. Ahead was their target, a white monolith in the water, one of the Sea Towers, rising from the waves, the glittering portal to The Nethersea arching before it. Somehow that Curse didn’t freeze the sea around it, as if it was protected from the elements somehow.

A Mohyar Longship was waiting for them, over proudly presented by an Imperial, of all people, now allied with the Mohyar, named Hanzo. Kha’al didn’t trust him and his easy smile one bit.  

The salt stung Kha’al’s eyes as the ship lurched down suddenly, following the giant wave down into the sea. Again, he was sure they were dead, but the creaking sound only meant the longship was flexing in the water. He blinked, holding down his rising gorge. A giant chunk of blue ice the size of a house went sailing past, missing by only a few dozen feet. Kha’al hated the sea, he would have been okay if every last bit of it was frozen over, including this one. He was very happy when the ship finally docked on a crowded quay. it looked as though half the Mainland had evacuated here.  

The lookout was near the top, and had one of the few windows in the monolith’s walls. Few survivors made the effort to come all the way up here. The Prophet was hiding in a warehouse, deep inside the tower below water level, just drawing too much attention to herself. Baranth was guarding her, the priceless Horn of Brotherhood in his hands as well. There must be Imperial Spies around in any case, so splitting the party made sense. 

The rest gathered in the middle of the hall far above, looking at the gigantic map that was carved into the stone at their feet. Once it must have been a brightly colored mosaic, but those details had been long worn away. A couple of stars were carved into it, connected by straight lines. Kyushi pointed with his pipe to one of them. His voice, that strange singsong, filled with trills and the occasional very long vowel.  

“We use the Gate to eeeenter heere.” He stamped his foot on the floor. “We neeeed to be careful of the re-e-e-eefs, her’r’re”, one step forward, “aand her’r’r’re,” one step back. Then Kyushi marched to the south and kneeled down. “The Neeeeedle must be here!” His pipe left a smear of ash on the stone, where Kyushi tapped the stem of his voluminous pipe repeatedly.  

Kha’al glanced down at the beggar plucking at his leg. A small child, from the mainland from the look of his smooth skin and perfect teeth. His eyes were sunken, a sign of starvation. Kha’al remembered being that hungry. He tossed a chunk of dried meat to the kid. “Go!” he barked, and the child scampered away.   

Syndra was talking, her deep voice resonating in the hall. “We must take care to not attract attention once we crossed the Gate. No lights will be a good start. Who here can see in the dark?” Syndra, then Kha’al, and then Kyushi raised their hand. Ronja looked back and forth between them, her face pulling into a frown. “I’ll be fine” she spit out, looking down at the map. “We still need a ship and someone crazy enough to get us to this Needle!”  

Across the hall, the starved child tugged on the hem of a robe so black it drank in the light. It belonged to a man watching the party keenly, all but invisible in the shadows. He looked down, at the child, who had finished his chunk of meat already and was holding out his grimy hand, showing the sack of herbs he had stolen from the witch-woman. The man reached down for the bag, and the child darted away like a bird. The Master of the Tower looked at the herbs – Xyxrit, he guessed – then back at the adventurers, thinking about what to do about his valuable new guests.

CHAPTER VIII

As the huge, ornate catamaran passed under the great stone arch, Kha’al swallowed. This was not just the sea, but The Nethersea. They said this place was weird, but as they crossed through the icy blue membrane, he realized weird wasn’t a good enough word.

 For one thing, the waves didn’t move. Their ship slowly passed up a great wall of dark water, and he could feel himself being pulled across the deck, down now being somewhere behind him. Eyes wide, he looked back. There, through the arch, he could see the Sea Tower shining in its normal, icy ocean, the sunlight of Azuhl spilling through to illuminate the black waters beneath the deck. “The Midnight Tower” they called it, which seemed fitting at the time, considering how dark it got at the lowest levels -106 was it? – but now, as the sun receded, the spire looked more like a friendly beacon of light to him.

 The ship crested the wave, and started sliding sickeningly down. The light behind became a mere halo, and they were surrounded by a deep twilight. Across the waters, very far away, Kha’al thought he could make out some pinpricks of light until he realized it was just a distant reflection of the light of Azuhl. As soon as the ship splashed down into the trough of the wave-hills, Kha’al realized he had absolutely no idea where he was or how to get out of here. Blood and fire, he swore as they shot back up.

 “Hold on”, yelled Hallgrim, their Kap’lan, as they crossed over the tipping point of the next huge wave – a mountain of water frozen in time. Kha’al stumbled and a surge of anger washed over him. Blood and fire! He could hear the cackling laugh of Kyushi, obviously enjoying their ride. Syndra stood next to him on the prow, her hand before her, fingers describing some strange design that only she could see. Baranth stood still as a statue – he had tied himself to the mast. Apparently Duerkhar were no better sailors than the Krowh. Ronja was back with the pirate Kap’lan, quite comfortable with her own kind, it appeared.

 Was Hallgrim working for the Empire? It was certainly way too easy to get him and his ship for their secret mission. To smuggle the Prophet through the Gate without getting Imperial attention would have been a challenge – so they couldn’t say no. “I can’t remember this leaf”, said the Prophet after Hallgrim declared loudly that they knew each other. “There were too many.”

 It didn’t seem to bother the old pirate. “I was your Thorn. I will be once again!” he said with a smile. He was willing to do everything in his power to help her. And his influence apparently included the complete Sea Tower and his bladeship, the “Black Moon,” fitted now for the water, its ice-cutting blades sealed off. With the Third Eye – property of a shadowy figure named Xinxiu, who Kha’al was absolutely certain was a spy – the old pirate said they couldn’t miss The Needle. “Even if it’s in The Underworld!” he shouted.

 Blood and Fire. Kha’al spit into the dark sea as it swept by the hull of the ship. This was madness – there was no land in the Nethersea. None. This at least he knew. But The Prophet was close-lipped about what would meet them here. A sleeping god maybe. Kha’al shook himself. Then he gripped his sword. It was time to find out if this pirate was telling the truth.

CHAPTER IX

As the Prophet took her first step onto the ground, they felt the island quiver beneath her. They had found the Needle after days (or was it nights?) of sailing, assailed by tentacles that emerged from the water the entire way, accompanied by a horrifying, mesmerizing song from the deeps. Most of the crew had been pulled overboard, smiling. When they tried to come to grips with the monster, they could only barely see its misshapen bulk under the black water, and were never able to free themselves from its presence, until now.

The Needle was a great soaring tower of coral, set on a rocky outcrop in the middle of nowhere, stretching like a claw into the sky, not a trace of life on the bare surface. The island looked like it could have just emerged from the Nethersea, or been there one million years – it was impossible to tell. Syndra looked into the water, and the shapes of turtles drifted slowly below. That’s new, she thought.

There was nothing for the Black Moon to anchor to underwater, so they had to throw the heavy metal hook directly onto the island, where it landed with a dull clank. Ronja, Kha’al, Baranth, and Kyushi jumped to the bare rock. Syndra simply took a step, and then was on the rock, the intervening space irrelevant to her craft. The land was barely big enough to call an island, and it was impossible to not look at the massive white pinnacle, reaching upwards into the night. They walked forward together, but soon the Prophet held up a hand. Her hand was blooming madly, leaves and thorns raining from her fingers.

“You must leave me now. Do not follow me.” The Prophet turned and walked uphill towards the great stalactite. Where her feet touched the ground, little roots crawled from the ground like snakes. They all watched her, tense. She stood before the Needle, her hands caressing the stone, and slowly sank towards it. “Run!” was the last word they ever heard from her in their heads. The adventurers all cried in unison as the ground leapt beneath their feet, tossing them all down like dolls. It was happening.

From the earth sprouted an oily smoke, congealing across all it touched. The Needle and the ground began cracking apart, new growth bursting forth, deep green leaves twining in helixes. Kha’al jumped back, swatting the vines from him with a curse. “Blood and fire!!!”

The cold gave way immediately to the thick hot stink of a jungle. The vines climbed, trees split and grew in seconds. Darkness covered the air, but a red glow came from beneath, the ground pulsating like an artery. Bones hung in the vines as they lifted ever upwards, revealing a hidden history on this weird island, etched in blood.

Syndra looked to the Prophet. Her silhouette remained, but as Syndra looked closer, she saw only a young willow, stretched into a human shape from one angle, but as soon as she moved the illusion was gone.

The God spoke then. None of them could forget that voice, once heard. It pressed them down like the weight of the earth itself. 

ENTER MY DREAM / AND TASTE AND SEE / WHAT AWAITS MORTAL KIND

They could see everything before them suddenly, from the smallest insect to the quivering droplet, and it was terrifying. Syndra let out a cry of pain from the intensity of the vision, the overwhelming awareness obliterating her sense of self as she became smaller, smaller…

The ground jerked beneath her feet. The island was now decaying, disintegrating beneath them. All they could do was run. They barely made it to the Black Moon, Hallgrim shouting at them frantically from the deck as they clambered aboard. Panicked, they tried to stir the ship away from the sinking island – and then the Needle broke into pieces with a shattering crack, white fragments splashing into the Nethersea all around them. And underneath the coral crust emerged a gigantic root, spiked with thorns and coming to life like a snake. It waved from one side to the other – searching, looking.

And then it dived into the Nethersea and grabbed the hull of their ship, lifting it out of the water with unearthly speed. Higher and higher they went, the black motionless ocean beneath them disappearing. “There!”, screamed Baranth, as everybody on board tried to get a hold of the shaking nightmare. The Duerkhar was pointing above their heads and as Syndra looked up, she saw a perfectly round Sea Gate in midair. “Get the Eye! The Eeeeeeeeeeye!!!!” Kyushi was jumping up and down.

The Black Moon shot through the Sea Gate, and crashed onto a frozen lake, the sun blinding them after their time in the Nethersea. The mast burst into pieces as it collided with the stone arch behind them. The bladeship slid along the ice and rolled over, pushed by the root through the other side as it broke. They gathered themselves, exhausted and bruised, but alive, the Sea Gate still glowing behind them, the blue membrane slowly fading. Here, the gate only was half a circle, the other part covered beneath the ice.

The Prophet, and The Needle, were gone.

CHAPTER X

Baranth looked from the hilltop at the frozen sea before him, stretching off endlessly towards the mainland, or at least, where the mainland used to be. He leaned on his hammer. The black clouds emanating from the horizon did not look in any way good, and they were illuminated from below by a flickering red glow. Between the storm and this weird island they had emerged on, was a truly unexpected sight: a vast herd of animals, aurochs and razorbacks and others, numbering in the tens of thousands. At first he had thought it was a gift from The Old Gods, fresh game to hunt, but then their vanguard came this morning, and amazingly, they walked on two legs and carried weapons. They said that this was “The Last Herd,” traveling across the great ice wastes in search of a new home. Unbelievable.
 
Baranth looked back at the lake they crashed on just 3 days ago, now surrounded by their flocks. This island… how had it happened? There was no snow and ice anymore and the bitter cold was gone. Tall trees were growing in great profusion, clear water, fresh fruit… but it was an unnatural place. “The Netherwood” the Druids had named it. As soon as you stepped off the land near that jungle, it became freezing cold again, the ice hard underfoot.
 
In the middle of the forest were the remnants of what must have been a city of some kind, now ferociously overgrown with roots and trees. Who were the people that lived there? After their first exploration, they all kept their distance to that ghost town, for whenever they got close they felt increasingly uneasy. But the people were just gone. Not a trace. As if the island had swallowed them up. They were alone.  
Until the Druids had appeared one by one from the trees, representing their weird pantheon with their various masks and fetishes: The Watcher, The Treemother, The Faceless One, and more. They declared the Awakening had begun, and the Old Gods were returning, and that they would make their first stand here by The Netherwood. Well, thought Baranth, any help would be welcome, even from half-naked mystics.
 
Syndra had made a discovery on the other side of the island the day before. While walking the woods she had found herself being stalked. But she was approached by their leader, Tzadani, who said she was a noblewoman of The Hokqan, and they had come at the urging of a Druid. Baranth had heard of these catlike forest dwellers from Kha’al, who said they were few, but plagued his people almost as cruelly as the Mohyar. Kha’al had told them to keep their distance, and so far, they had. But they were here now.
 
Baranth returned his attention to the great stone table on the hilltop, wrapped in vines. At his side were his allies: Ronja, Syndra, Kha’al and Kyushi. To his left, the leader of the Last Herd, Mjor, a man-beast with muzzle and horns, breath steaming from his huge nostrils, accompanied by several nearly-as-massive Ytuma. To Baranth’s right, Tzadani, tawny-furred and yellow-eyed, armed with bow and sword, a snarling Warg at her side, and several more of her feline band behind her. Across from Baranth, the Druids, each adorned in strange fetshies made of bone, leaf and stone. What an unlikely gathering, he thought, to save Azuhl. Or – what was left of it.
 
“We are the first and the last wall”, said a Druid, forming his fingers into a fist, his dark skin revealing strangely formed tattoos beneath some loosely wrapped skins. They never seem to feel the cold. Baranth was surprised by his own observation. “If we don’t break this first wave of Darkness”, continued the Druid, “a flood will pour over Azuhl and it will end us all.”
 
They are convincing, thought Baranth later, trying again to hide his sorrows behind an expressionless mask. They would form an alliance. It was the right thing to do. It seemed the right thing to do. They would fight The Empire AND whatever was coming over the frozen seas. No matter if he trusted them or not, the Druids at least offered a chance for survival. And freedom. He was of tired running away. Still – he couldn’t shake it. He was spooked. These uncanny Druids frightened him. And he missed the Prophet, but he couldn’t say why…

CHAPTER XI

They left Netherwood behind at first light. The silhouettes of the druids behind them gradually faded in the mist. Baranth took a cautious first step onto the frozen sea, the cold returning abruptly to his body. The herd had set itself in motion, or at least the part of it that was considered for battle. It was an impressive force that Mjor would lead into the field.

  He saw the Ytuma hero, riding a mighty boar, amidst the stomping and seething mass of bodies. Mjor led the banner of the Last Herd. From him, it spanned over dozens of other bearers like a bright red comet strip over their heads. All the names of all the grazing lands of their lost homeland were written there. Baranth hoped that at the end of the day, the name of the island where they were stranded would not be added to the banner.

  Ronja appeared in the corner of his eye. For a few moments they walked silently, side by side. “I wanted to thank you, Baranth. The evening then. I am sorry. I, uh… owe Winterholm everything. My price is the survival of my people.”

  Baranth nodded. The Elders had agreed. Winterholm would receive food for three moons – and an invitation to Kathrak Kauthil. The first refugees from the Deepground would probably already be on their way there.

  “I have given you our word, Ronja. And in the present situation I would rather settle this debt without the interference of the Druids. You and all who are well-meaning to you will have a place in the Highground.”

  They had set up their camp on the edge of the small island that was the last piece of earth for the next few weeks, heading south. In front of them stretched the Howling White, as the survivors called it, both powerful and threatening. Behind it, one moon away on foot, lay the Mainland. And somewhere in this desolation, haunted by blizzards and ice, their enemy was hiding.

  Around noon he had noticed for the first time the faint smell of corruption. For some time the herd had been sounding a nervous stamping and bleating. The further they advanced southwards, the more distinct the stench became.

  As darkness fell over the camp, strangely billowing lights illuminated the sky above the Howling White. And there was howling, too, whether the wind or something else, the sound pulsated across the icy plain. “I don’t like this,” Syndra announced, her head swaying slightly from side to side, as if she were questing for something unheard. Kha’al could not remember the Druwhn ever having displayed so much emotion openly. 

“I also prefer to know who my enemies are,” said Kha’al. The Krowh was much easier for his companions to read. He assessed Ronja angrily, then suddenly he unfolded a stately set of teeth to a broad smile. “At least I’m glad I’m not up against you, Tiny.”

CHAPTER XII

Ronja tried to pull herself up. Blood and sweat ran into her eyes and a stabbing pain and tiredness threatened to overwhelm her. She was suddenly yanked up and only moments later she found herself wading across the ice, half leaning on Kyushi. She wondered for a moment how much strength was in the little Tua Than before reality caught up with her.  

The herd had torn a huge wedge into the Horde, smashing them under their hooves into the bloody snow. But there were too many of the monsters. The Ytuma were being overwhelmed, hacked to pieces by the tide of chaos pouring forth. The bellows of triumph turned to screams of fear as the herd was slowed, and then halted. Hundreds of creatures were now streaming northwards around the carnage, right towards the Netherwood, and beyond that, her home and people. Their front was simply not wide enough.  

She had seen Kha’al and Baranth fighting, side by side, dealing death around them. The Krowh’s sword whistled as it sliced through his enemies, punctuated by the bone-crushing clank of the Duerkhar’s hammer as it threw his foes back. She had tried to make her way to them, but the tide of battle swept them away. 

She hadn’t seen Syndra since the very beginning, when the ice crackled and burst from the power she unleashed at their enemy. But then she was gone in the fray. Ronja hoped she had slipped away before she was eaten by… whatever those things were.  

Kyushi shook Ronja. “The bat-t-t-tle is lost! Wee-e-e-e must regrooup!” Ronja looked around. There were almost no Ytuma left standing. They had been wiped out. A snarling beast leapt at them, and Ronja cracked it on the head with her staff. She and Kyushi dragged each other along the ice, Ronja gritting her teeth, her breath pluming in great clouds before her as they moved. She looked around for Kha’al. “Damn that stupid oaf!” she cursed. “Now isn’t the time to get lazy! Kha’al!” she cried. But he didn’t answer.  

The sounds of defeat were grim. She had been in fights against The Empire before, but the Legions didn’t eat the dead. The noise sickened her. And the rumbling, that was new. Something worse? She looked for the source of the sound.  

And then the rumble became a deep roar from across  the ice, and as she turned to the noise, her heart froze. An entire Imperial Legion marched towards them from the east. Row after row of closed shields, behind them thousands of legionaries. Over their helmets, she saw the towering outlines of several giant War Lizards, their heads bouncing wildly back and forth and sounding muffled roars in excited anticipation of the coming bloodbath.  

The Legion drew up. Drum beats sounded from afar, causing the ice to tremble, even here, miles away. And war horns sounded – long and deep. The legionaries streamed out on both sides and formed a longer and longer line. Ronja realized that the Legion was forming a wall, wide enough to stop the Horde. The first creatures were already dying on the wall of shields. This Legion had not come hunting rebels – it came to the rescue of them all. 

And then the War Lizards were released from their chains. They stamped wildly, roaring like thunder, directly towards the Horde – and them. The last words of the prophet echoed in her head. “Kyushi – run!!!” echoed Ronja. They ran.  

Later, as the sun was setting over the red snow, T’lak, Warlock of the Thirteenth Legion, stood surrounded by her bodyguard. Before her was the pitiful mob of rebels who had survived the battle. The mighty leader of the Ytuma, a Krowh gladiator, a Mohyar pirate, a Duerkhar savage, and a Tua-Than out of water. What a strange fellowship. Her legionaries formed a tight circle around the group. She had to be careful not to simply grab for answers in the minds of these creatures. No! Not near Enul’Zarath, she admonished herself. Even if the Banished was truly dead, his power would linger on this field of carnage for years. Best to take no risks.  

“Know this, mortals. My name is T’lak, daughter of the moon. I have served the Empire for centuries, but my Emperor is dead. His Empress and her new servant, the Governor of these Isles, are now my enemies. This Legion no longer serves them, but T’lak alone! And the enemies of the Empire… well. They could be my allies. Time may prove that true. But on this day, no one will die who, like us, stands against the darkness that Aezher, the Last Emperor, has brought upon us.”  The Drakh Warlock turned with an imperious sweep of her cape, and called out to her guard. “They are to be treated as my guests. See them fed, and bring them my surgeon.” The Legionaries clashed their swords on shields in response.  

Kha’al shook his head as he sat down beside Baranth at the fire. The world was upside down. Imperials fought against Imperials, he fought alongside Hokqan and Mohyar. Blood and fire! He had a long way to go to Pak Glandris. Their paths would part at dawn. The light would make him see his world through different eyes. So much had changed.  

However, for one night, he thought he would leave his worries behind. They had survived. His eyes wandered over his companions. Kyushi, in animated conversation with Mjor and Ronja, his waving pipe a constant dancing spark in the darkness. Baranth, busy with his haunch of meat, who had been utterly silent all night. And Syndra, opposite him on the other side of the fire, her eyes reflecting the orange glow exactly. He remembered their first encounter, back then, alone in the snow, half dead on the slope of the Umnyscir. It seemed ages ago. Their eyes met.  

Syndra still didn’t seem to know how to smile. But she made an effort.