Dugpa writhed, heels and shoulders pressing the dirt beneath, her back arching, her hands holding the Untwood mask to her face as her head snapped back and forth. Her hair dragged through the dust. Five acolytes sat in a circle around her, between the red candles, watching fearfully. Their vigil had barely begun, and their mistress was making violent animal noises, the sound of her changed voice rising as if from deep in a canyon. She was howling, a stuttering, barking howl…
The Mother of Night towered before Dugpa, wreathed in luminescent fog, living shadows gliding across the great she-wolf’s silver fur, an inky darkness from which pinpoints of light sparked.
“Servant mine,” growled the Old God, the air around Dugpa vibrating, “Thou shalt worship me. Thou art mine own flesh now, and mine forever.”
“Yes!” cried Dugpa. She knew it was suicide to refuse.
“Servant mine. Thou shalt bring the blessing of my Night to Azuhl, as once it was.”
“I will!” she cried again, panting with the effort to contain the God’s words.
“Servant mine. To the Tomb of the Ur-King thou shalt go. Slay my Unsister, servant mine. Do not fail Me.” The massive muzzle of the wolf came closer, house-sized now, teeth bared slightly, each fang as long as a sword. The breath of the God was ice cold, the temperature of the Night itself. Dugpa screamed.
“Seer!” cried her acolytes, “What is it? Speak to us, we beg you!”
Dugpa sat up, and the Krowh shaman let the mask down in a trembling hand. Ice crystals had formed within it, and her breath steamed as her panting slowed. Dugpa’s dark eyes slowly took in the walls of the lodge, rough timber and pale mud, painted in repeating, swirling animal and humanoid motifs: hunters, prey, and slaves. The Tale of the First Age. Her secret. Her burden. And now, the future of her people.
“I have spoken with my Goddess.” The acolytes waited, holding their breath. “We must light the bonefires – now! Gather tribesmen and vargriders. We must cross the Kathrak Kautil, beyond to Guthakka, to the Tombs. We must march there swiftly, for death follows me close now.”
The acolytes looked at each other, each distinct, with their face paint motifs of white and black, each pattern embodying an Ancestor of the Krowh. The eldest spoke. “Yes, Seer. We shall summon the tribes at once!”
She looked across the lodge to a section of the wall, where a stylized wolf was painted in black, stars emanating from its eyes. It sat amidst a swirling sea of black and blue inks, and facing it was something so faded, one had to know the story to make out its form. Dugpa was perhaps the only person in Azuhl who still knew the full story.
All the bonefires were lit, and the hills around Pak Glandris glowed red all night. The Krowh war band gathered. From all over the isles, the tribesmen, deadeyes, vargriders, and even a few trolls came – drawn to the flickering lights in the sky like moths. 1,000 women and men followed Dugpa that night, who led them on a hard march over the frozen sea, right to the gates of Frosthayn. There the accursed Mohyar traded their stolen wares, at the Frosthold pass.
The distant peaks of Kathrak Kauthil, covered with snow and ice, shone in the morning sun. But Dugpa had no time to devote to the impressive spectacle of nature. While part of her mind was occupied with keeping the angry Vargmother in check in the depths of her subconscious, her attention was on the narrow gorge ahead. It was a death trap – and she and her warriors knew it!
Frosthayn had been destroyed, burned by Imperial Legionaries. Dugpa was of two minds – approval that the pirates had been removed from her path, but also apprehension, for she had heard the Empire was in retreat. If Drakorea had forces enough to burn this outpost, what else might they be doing?
What they weren’t doing, clearly, was marching through Kathrak Kauthil. On either side of the narrow path were wooden poles, and staked to these were the helmets of dozens of dead Imperial Legionaries. An impressive warning from the Duerkhar, who jealously guarded this entrance to their homeland. And in the middle of the path, patiently waiting, stood one of the Highlanders, clad in furs, and casually leaning on his warhammer.
“You stay back,” Dupga ordered the chieftains who surrounded her. Restless murmurs spread among their underlings. “But Seer, he is just one…” the bravest among them took the floor.
“SILENCE!” thundered Dugpa, still inwardly wrestling with the angry visage of the Mother of Night. Her chieftains stepped back nervously at her ferocity. “Send me Crow’s Eye, he knows their language. I will find out what they are demanding.”
Dugpa wondered if this had been a good idea, but in the end, she had no choice. She and Crow’s Eye had left her thousand warriors behind, so she could meet with the leader of the Duerkhar in their village. The tall mountain-dwellers stared at her openly – few Krowh ever made it into these mountains. And most of them were armed, for they, too, had clearly been mustering their forces. Who knew what they might do to a pair of Krowh?
But Dugpa had made herself appear totally at ease. Now her long braids ran down her back, her winter clothes having been set aside for the parley, and she enjoyed the strangely spiced, but warm and filling food that she had been served in a gesture of hospitality.
Yanny served them both from the same pot, and made sure to eat every bite first. No need to unsettle the Krowh seer unnecessarily. She studied her counterpart imperturbably. Years of experience as a diplomat and warrior left no doubt in Yanny’s mind – this was a more than equal opponent.
“The islands are in turmoil.” Yanny began the negotiations after they had consumed the meal in silence. “We haven’t seen the Imps since we ambushed them by Frosthayn, we think they are retreating to Norngaard. I can’t believe the Krowh now want to take their place, and enter our pass, that no enemy has ever crossed alive.” Yanny smiled very slightly.
“We have no intention of spilling the blood of your tribe,” Crow’s Eye translated the words Dugpa spoke. “We must go to Guthakka, and so we ask you for food, and safe conduct. Demand your price.”
Yanny laughed. “Never can I allow such a large warband access to the Highgrounds! Tell your seer that she is free to choose the path through Kylfor, but at the same time be warned, that it drives most of its visitors mad.” She reached into her furs and produced a long clay pipe, and began stuffing aromatic Xyxrit into it.
Dugpa closed her eyes as she tried to keep the Vargmother from taking complete possession of her mind. She spoke to her, in the strange, ancient language of the Krowh. “I know you,” Crow’s Eye translated. “You are Yanny of the Seven Heights. I will now tell you a secret. Guthakka is not our final destination. I will go from there to the Tombs of the Elder Kings to kill a god. I offer you the greatest of adventures, ranger: to share this glory with me.”
Yanny lit her pipe, and looked at Dugpa as contemplatively. After three puffs, she said “I agree,” and with that, offered Dugpa the pipe.
Half a moon later, the army had crossed through Frosthold Pass. Dugpa observed Yanny grow more cheerful the farther they went. She seemed eager for the upcoming quest. What foolishness! Surely, death awaited them both. At least Yanny had brought 1,000 of her best warriors with her.
The Mother of Night’s forces were now doubled with the new Duerkhar allies – 2,000 souls by now – even if the Oathsworn still marched at a suspicious distance from her own warriors. The Krowh, in turn kept well clear of the massive, stamping beasts they called Koloth, whose feet could crush even a Varg.
Ahead of them lay New Winterholm – witness to the new age for the islands of Azuhl that lay ahead. Dugpa marveled at the change. The Duerkhar Elders had granted the various groups of refugees access to the Highground, impossible to imagine – until circumstances had so drastically changed after the Curse.
The settlement that had sprung up here was part refugee camp, part bazaar, part city. The smell of cookfires and sounds of commerce drifted across the ice. Mohyar archers patrolled the wooden pallisade – possible rivals. Well, it was their only opportunity along the way to get rations – and possibly more.
The knucklebones hit the table in their leather cup with a resounding smack and rattle. Yanny looked across the table at the pirate, her eyes narrowed. She slowly tipped back the cup, showing the rough dice within: three triple-skulls and four bolts. The audience gasped. She let a little smile tug the corner of her mouth up.
Dugpa looked at the two gamers, facing off on either side of the main table of the inn. A crowd had gathered. Dugpa wasn’t convinced about this – dice were for divination, not profit. But need salt they did, and they needed it fast. Unless they wanted to risk war with the Mohyar, whose mercenaries manned the walls. Their leader, that damnable Hanzo, basically required a bribe for peace. And Yanny said she could get the salt here, right away. Dugpa sniffed.
The pirate looked cooly up at her, his eyes a piercing green in his dark, handsome features. Yanny saw his luxurious mustache twitch, ever so slightly. “Double or nothing, ranger?” he asked in a far-too-practiced voice. He reminded her of an Imperial spy, but worse, because from what she knew of the Asgari mercenaries, they had even less morals.
Dugpa looked on from the side of the table, with a scowl etching her hawk-like features. She had no idea what the rules were, but certainly everyone was very impressed. She scowled deeper.
“Why not?” said Yanny. It was a trick, of course. She just had to catch him at it.
The Nethersea pirate reached across for the cup, his voluminous silk sleeves brushing the table lightly with a swish. He smiled fully, his teeth gleaming bright as he rattled the dice back and forth. “I feel the Red Hand’s favor tonight!” he declared as he arced his arm up and brought it down towards the table.
Snik! The thin dagger shot from Yanny’s fingers right through the mercenary’s sleeve, and as he slammed the cup down, a single knucklebone came bouncing gingerly out from his shirt, skittering across the table in the near-total silence.
He looked at Yanny. Her eyes blazed. The pirate, almost as if he expected this problem, twisted his hip forward into the table, which shot forward and slammed into Yanny’s stomach. She doubled over with a grunt as the wind was knocked out of her.
Dugpa snarled and reached within for the Mother’s power, but felt her feet come flying out from under her, and she hit the ground with a painful thud. She looked down at her ankle, and saw a thin rope leading to the pirate’s hand. He smiled and said “A pleasure doing business with you ladies!” as he swept the bags of pure salt from the table and darted into the crowd like a minnow from a net.
Yanny bounced to her feet, growling with rage, but he was somehow already gone from sight.
“Stop thief! We need that!” she shouted as she ran into the crowd.
Dugpa got up too, her backside already howling in pain from the fall. She was going to skin that bastard pirate Eyvind for this!
Hanzo sat, cross-legged, on a wicker mat, a low table before him. The room was furnished with Imperial paintings, landscapes from the mainland, in delicate brushwork. A record of things that were gone, now. He waited, perfectly still, as the servant girl brought in the pirate. Eyvind looked around appreciatively as he was shown his seat, slightly below Hanzo, who was elevated by the short platform he sat on. Eyvind dropped down like a sack, seemingly without grace, but Hanzo was not fooled by his nonchalance. This was a dangerous customer.
Eyvind looked much the worse for wear. A shining black eye marred his handsome face. One arm was in a sling, and bandages covered different parts of his body. His silk garments were torn, and he smelled of dirt and smoke. Hanzo looked him up and down, sipping his tea.
“Well,” said Hanzo, “you were supposed to rob them, and see their forces off, but instead, they had enough salt to buy the services of, what was it, one thousand of our people? Do you have an explanation?” Hanzo arched a perfectly manicured eyebrow, and set down his teacup, waiting.
Eyvind barked a laugh, and rubbed his hand over his smooth scalp. “That… is a long story! We parted as friends, in the end, and I will stay well clear of those two in the future! You should do the same.”
“Do tell me, mercenary. What exactly happened?”-
Dugpa felt the ice lurch beneath her, and slid away from the fighters in front of her. The closest Krowh Deathsworn was painted black and white from head to toe, and she was trying to bring her sword point down into the strange humanoid beast that was holding the Deathsworn’s arms in a rictus grip. Its white eyes stared dumbly at the blade as it was slowly driven down into its neck with a crunch, and then deeper.
Black blood welled out, and the creature didn’t make a sound as the eyes followed the blade down. The Krowh let go of the blade and kicked the creature away, and it slid back on the ice. Behind, dozens more were coming out of the snowstorm, the Tombs of the Elder Kings disgorging its legendary guardians onto the ice. Many more were surely behind them.
Dugpa finished tying the bandage around her forearm. The ice had stopped cracking for a moment, and she looked around.
The Deathsworn were scattered, and winded, and they could no longer see the rest of their army. Just two days before, Dugpa and Yanna had come to Guthakka, sacred ritual place of the Krowh, where the chosen ones would start their last journey, to become Guardians, of the kings’ tombs, by eternal oath. But the same guardians, cursed and twisted, were returning now as undead, to Guthakka, in unholy violation of their pledge. So reported the surviving shamans, some of them gone mad from the beating heart they could all hear faintly from the ground.
Their army could barely fit behind the walls of Gutthaka, and there was no food. The night before, Dugpa called upon the Mother of Night to gift her guard with the Deathsworn pact, and now half her warriors walked painted in jagged white stripes, their eyes feverish as they looked eagerly to their deaths. Yanny had marshaled her troops, the songs of their oaths being renewed echoed strangely – it was a sound not many heard this close. The Mohyar mercenaries huddled close together, nervously eying the strange races around them, testing their bows and blades.
Then they all of them crossed into the ice wastes the next morning, strengthened by the warriors of that far lodge, while those unfit to fight, from hunger, disease, age or injury, locked the gate as tight as they could.So they crossed the next morning and ventured out towards the distant, cave-littered island, onto the frozen ice which was once an engulfing ocean. The Krowh hated ships and sea.
And as they crossed, the snowstorm came…
The ice buckled again beneath Dugpa’s feet. The Deathsworn staggered back as a crack opened before her, and then a glistening shadow reached out from it, wrapping about her legs like a blanket. She screamed in a rage and began hacking at it with a dagger, as the thing pulled her into the ice.
A strange noise was coming in with the wind now. Dugpa could hear the ice cracking behind her as well as before her, and a ringing noise, too. The ice began shaking again, and from the storm behind her emerged the prow of a ship – but with huge metal blades emerging from its sides, holding it above the ice. The longship shot past her, and Dugpa caught a brief glance of a woman at the bow, swords in her hands, her eyes aglow as the wind whipped her white hair. The pirate queen laughed wickedly as her bladeship shot past Dugpa and her Deathsworn in a spray of ice, the blades ringing loudly as they skated along the frozen sea. A thousand pirates had just joined the fray – racing towards the tombs, hell-bent to plunder what had been guarded for centuries, in the chaos that had erupted around them.
Dugpa snarled, and reached within for more of the Mother’s will. Her eyes turned black as night as she raised her staff, and the skull atop it glowed red, as if of burning metal. A hot wind blew from her, and the snow melted in a widening circle as the wind spun around the sorceress. Her Deathsworn turned to her in the sudden clearing of the storm..
“Brothers! After those ships! We must not let the pirates steal our glory!”
The Deathsworn let out a frightful howl at once, their throats possessed by the same lupine spirit, and they charged forward, after the ships, and into the horde of demonic guardians, who were still advancing from the Tombs of the Elder Kings.
THU-DOOM! THU-DOOM! The echoing sound, like the heartbeat of a giant, came closer as they went deeper and deeper into the tomb. The puddles of water on the stone floor shimmered with the pulses. The cave was illuminated by the red glow of Dugpa’s staff, and between the dark corners on all sides, the moisture dripping from the ceiling, and the terrifyingly large heartbeat, it gave Dugpa the impression of being within a creature’s stomach. Normally she did not feel small, but this place had an effect.
Before her in the cave, Xaidine, leader of the pirates, held up her hand. The party of warriors stopped. They were far fewer than when they had begun their descent into the ancient tombs. Dugpa and Yanny’s forces had arrived at the entrance to the caves, fighting their way through the hordes of undead guardians. There they found a bladeship had been partially submerged in the ice, and was swarming with the monsters. The pirates must have already entered the caves, and their fleet sailed away into the storm.
But once inside the Tombs of the Elder Kings, the odds came up hard against the allies, and their troops were being cut apart piece by piece. By the time they found the pirates, themselves swarmed by ghouls, it was clear they would only get out of here by joining forces.
Now the survivors halted. Xaidine the Nethersea Queen drew her twin curved blades, and the Druwhn looked ahead warily. The troops around her began huddling closer, spears and shields pointed out into the darkness.
Dugpa could feel it more than any of them. The Mother of Night was screaming in her head, and she was losing control. She began growling, then soon, howling.
Yanny looked at her with alarm, and tried to hold her shoulder but Dugpa, wild-eyed, batted the hand away, the whites of her eyes showing now, froth coming from her lips.
She could see nothing but darkness now, the dark where the twin cubs were born at the birth of the world. The one, her master and source of power, the Mother of Night, and the other… the Unsister. She was the most ancient enemy of the Krowh, stories of her told to younglings to keep make them behave. And now Dugpa knew of a certainty, she was truly reborn here in this dark place, and hungry for the life in her body and of all her kin.
Dugpa let out a howl that felt like it would shake the very walls of the cave down upon them. The remaining Deathsworn closed around her defensively, while the other soldiers stepped back. The howl went on far longer than would be possible for a normal person’s lungs, and the sound turned the air to ice.
In the silence that followed, a deep rumble came from the space before them, and two gigantic, malevolent eyes, each bigger than a Koloth’s head, opened, and looked at them all.
Dugpa, panting, hands twitching, looked at the thing and smiled. “YAAHHHHHH!!!!” she cried and leapt forward, her Deathsworn following close behind with swords raised. Yanny and Xaidine looked at each other, nodded quickly, and charged after Dugpa, their soldiers streaming behind them with desperate warcries in their throats. This would be their final battle.