The Fire & The Forge

BLIGHT ALSO RISES

VOL. 1: THE BETRAYER

The Fire & the Forge is an ongoing series of features that examine key moments in the recent history of western Immoren and its groups battling for supremacy or survival. It is intended to allow newer readers to become familiar with what has come before and to serve as an engaging reminder to older readers.

In “Blight Also Rises,” we explore the pivotal events surrounding the unexpected emergence of the dragon Everblight as a major player in the conflicts of western Immoren. From the outset of the dragon attaining freedom from imprisonment, it defied all expectations and predictions and was soon perceived as a unique threat to the region.

SEEDS OF CORRUPTION

While 605 AR would prove to be a momentous year for the mortal kingdoms of western Immoren, one of the most important events in this span of months passed all but unnoticed by the great powers. This time was marked first and foremost by the Llaelese War, which would occupy the first half of the year. So preoccupied with this conflict were the Iron Kingdoms that they had no idea a new and uniquely perilous force was reinventing itself in the frozen north. It would be months before the ripples of this would be felt by major governments, let alone recognized for what it was. Even when the threat was acknowledged, it is fair to say that none of these governing bodies understood what they faced.

While the emergence of Everblight’s legion seemed unfathomably fast—an army that arose literally from nowhere—this was in truth the germination of a deeply planted seed. The previously obscure dragon Everblight perished in 390 AR after a clash with the defending forces of Ios in Issyrah, a once thriving and vibrant city that would become an abandoned ruin. Thousands perished in this battle, but Everblight’s body was eventually overcome and cut down. The Iosans knew that the dragon was not truly destroyed so long as its athanc—its heartstone—endured. The obliteration of such a thing was beyond their power, and so the surviving elves sealed the athanc away, creating a mystically warded repository to serve as Everblight’s prison. Eventually this was sent away from Ios, taken high in the mountain peaks near the Shard Spires where it would hopefully never be found.

There it rested for more than two centuries, and during this time the Iosans seemed to have succeeded in their goal. Yet Everblight seethed, still mentally active and planning for the eventuality of regaining his freedom. Even before his imprisonment, Everblight had mastered capabilities unknown to the other progeny of the Dragonfather, including the ability to create deliberately sculpted dragonspawn to serve as minions and weapons. Despite the best efforts of the Iosans, his mind was able to extend beyond the confines of his prison, reaching out to lesser minds nearby. Unknown to his captors, he had influenced those deciding on his resting place to orchestrate his proximity to their northern cousins, the Nyss. Everblight believed his knowledge of applying his blight to elves, practiced in the centuries while lurking below Issyrah, could also avail him to corrupt the elves who served the god of winter.

Everblight was extremely limited in what he could do while sealed away; he could extend his awareness to view the world nearest him, sometimes sneaking into the dreams of the Nyss, but he was unable to do more. It was not until 605 AR that an opportunity presented itself. A starving ogrun, once enslaved and now fleeing his captors, came close enough for the dragon to enter his dreams and apply pressure, enticing him to climb the mountain and then to break open the sealed container in which his athanc had been secured. This was Thagrosh, who would become the Prophet of Everblight. His transformation would be the beginning of a new era and represented a drastic shift in the methods of the dragon whose athanc he had discovered. This was a dragon who refused to become corporeal and chose instead to use proxies to bear fragments of his being within them. In this way, Everblight succeeded in multiplying his power beyond all of his siblings and rivals.

While Thagrosh’s arrival facilitated Everblight’s freedom, it was the voluntary enlistment of Vayl Hallyr that had an even more profound impact on shaping the dragon’s legion. It was she who became the architect of the obliteration of the Nyss and one of the first among their blighted inheritors.

WINTER’S QUEEN


Shard Spires, 605 AR

A pair of ulk raced ahead in the night, hauling her sleigh behind them, relying on their strength and speed as well as their uncanny ability to find purchase on even the slickest surface. Vayl Hallyr guided these antlered and hooved animals with her will. She had foreseen the path ahead, but it remained to be seen whether she would be allowed to reach her destination. Her face was serene, but within her chest her heart beat in a swift rhythm, its urgency reflective of both excitement and fear.

Through snow and wind she rode, in comfort, feeling the icy air around her like a blanket of her own design. Her sorcery was rooted in such cold, and she drew strength from the sheets of glacial ice and packed snow, a place that would have evoked loneliness and despair in any of the peoples living south of the Shard Spires. She drew herself up and maintained an expression suggesting regal surety, though her mind was filled with questions. She knew her prophetic vision was not a certainty—only the precipice of a chance for change. She might well be rushing headlong toward her death.

Ahead of her the snow shifted, and several reptilian forms emerged sinuously from the ground, causing the ulks pulling the sled to startle and pull to the side, one of them rearing. Vayl remained calm and exerted her will to control them, allowing her platform to slide to a more controlled stop.

The beasts she faced followed her movements with fixed focus, their eyeless heads tracking while mouths lined with sharp fangs drew open and emitted a slight hissing noise. The nearest stepped swiftly toward her, moving with an even gait on its four lower legs, while another pair of limbs more akin to arms extended claws as if to pluck her from the sleigh. She raised a hand, and gleaming runes flared into existence as a sheet of ice formed before her, stopping the beast’s grasp. A temporary measure, but it was enough to give it pause. Its mouth opened, and a drop of blazing spittle fell from between its teeth, melting the snow at its feet. If it wished, it could obliterate the icy barrier in a moment.

Vayl prided herself on her keen mystical senses, and as she peered at this peculiar form—a dragonspawn, without question—she could feel a stronger will present. This beast had no mind of its own, but within that vacuum of thought was something greater that watched her every move.

“I am here to bargain,” she said aloud, trusting that this greater entity would hear her and understand. “I have much to offer, if you will indulge me. My death will bring you little, my life much more.”

The creature stood still for several long moments, long enough that the ice shielding her shattered and fell to the frozen soil. She did not dare move a muscle until the spawn’s fanged mouth closed and it stepped back. The other also pulled back to make room for her to pass. She saw then that there were more of them. Other smaller dragonspawn had pulled closer to the path, these ones made up entirely of mouths and teeth, each with a tusked horn atop an eyeless skull. Several more had flown down on bat-like wings to perch in the branches of a withered tree upslope of her position.

She swallowed but kept her face like stone as she stepped down regally from the sleigh and walked between them, knowing all the while that any might have torn her limb from limb. She felt confident in her magic and believed she could stop one or two of the smaller ones, but these were no ordinary animals that might be startled when the prey fought back. Each of these creatures moved with an unnatural and orchestrated deliberateness. She sensed the same greater will compelling all of them—a single mind extended across countless living but unnatural bodies.

She did not walk far before arriving at the creature she had seen in her visions. He was hulking and brutish, a thickly muscled being nine feet tall who was stooped over, leaning upon one oversized clawed hand. The other held a broadly swept double-bladed weapon of unfamiliar design. Horns protruded forward from his temples, and multiple other barbed protrusions lined his back and shoulders. His arms were wrapped in strips of leather, but his chest was bare. A series of crude stitches was sewn across a split directly over the center of his ribcage, from which came a strange and baleful light.

Whatever his face may once have looked like, it now resembled a skull, with black eyes that regarded her coldly. He seemed an utterly alien creature, unlike any race she had seen before, though she recognized that many of the unusual aspects of his physiology were a result of a powerful and sudden blight. Dragon blight. It was an almost unknown affliction in the north, but she had read of victims of such changes among the Nyss many centuries ago after warriors of the tribes fought the dragon Halfaug. Many of the survivors of that conflict had been forever changed, and even their children and grandchildren had been born with scaly skin and other deformities.

Vayl was leader of her tribe, and she had ruthlessly seized everything she possessed without regard for the fears or concerns of others. She recognized in herself a right to power and knew her presence to be singular and superior. Never had she quailed before another living thing. She had been gifted with the power of sorcery and had an aptitude for weaving magic beyond that possessed by the simpletons at the Fane of Nyssor who had thought themselves her superior.

Yet as she walked toward this being, she could feel a trembling threatening to overtake her limbs and deprive her of the power to stand. For a moment, spots arose before her eyes and the scene before her seemed to fade, as though enveloped in an all-consuming darkness. She saw a form arise above and beyond the tangible, that of a widening pair of shadow wings extended to encompass everything around them.

This was not a lackey of the being she sought. The dragon was here, before her, both physical and disembodied at once. Her eyes were drawn to the glowing seams at the being’s heart and understood the surrounding flesh was irrelevant. Within that chest lay the core of the dragon.

“Speak,” the blighted thing said, his voice deep and resonant. She was startled to hear the sound of Aeric, the language of the Nyss, coming effortlessly from such a being. “Know my patience is thin.”

She took in a breath and drew herself up to stand straight and proud. “I am Vayl Hallyr, sorceress and matriarch of my tribe. I have foreseen what you intend. You will walk among my people and shatter those who would raise up arms against you. When they are broken, and the will to fight has left them, you will take those who endure and remake them in your image.”

“Have you come to stop me? Alone?” His tone suggested disbelief and amusement.

“No. Quite the contrary.” Vayl felt the winds stirring around her and encouraged them to flow, for snow to gather in patterns and drifts. “What power I have acquired in my life is substantial and hard-earned. But it has limits, and I have reached them. I know that with you I can transcend mortality and become greater. I am here to offer my assistance, on the condition that you allow me to join you.”

He strode closer to her, and the sense of menace was palpable. The air hazed around him, and the snow melted at his feet as though he emanated heat like a furnace.

“I need the help of no one.”

“Need, no.” She stood her ground and did not falter, though it required some effort. She allowed her icy power to draw up into her body, filling her and fortifying her. “You would march into our lands with your spawn at your side. I have no doubt you would succeed, eventually. But my people are fierce in defense and it will be a costly and slow grind. I know many things that would be of use to you. I know where the patrols are, which routes are best watched and most guarded, and how to gain ingress by the path of least resistance. I know all the shards and families that rule, and which are sworn to defend our most sacred places. There are countless ways I can ease this process and ensure you emerge from this conflict swiftly and with the greatest gains.”

He stared at her, and there was interest in those black eyes. She had reached the greater intelligence that spoke through the brute. There was a greed and hunger in his eyes, one that did not seek after the rewards that would satiate mortal appetites. “Perhaps,” he said, slowly. “There may be a place for you.”

Vayl asked, “When you have seized your slaves, how do you plan to transform them? By what process?” She had seen much in her visions, but some of it had been unclear—scattered images of her people become something other. And, standing among and above them, a few chosen generals who together wielded the dragon’s blighted flame.

He was silent for a time, as if weighing whether there was any reason he should not answer. Then he said, “Blood. My blood. It is the seed of their rebirth. It is the source of my spawn. With but the smallest drop, many will heed my call. My gifts will awaken within them. Not all will embrace this gift, and those who reject what I offer must be culled.”

The winter queen nodded and said, “I will take your blood and bring it among your people. I can walk among them unnoticed and prepare every cistern and well. Before you step among them, before you bring your spawn, they will have been given the gift of your blood. Your legion can rise from within, eager and ready, awaiting only your arrival to put shape to the need they already feel. Let those who embrace the change eliminate those who will not, freeing you from a task that is beneath you.”

He stepped closer, and his mouth split in either a grimace or a smile. “I am Thagrosh, the Prophet of Everblight. I accept your offer and your fealty.”

With his oversized claw, he tore open the stitches on his chest. Howling in pain, he withdrew a gleaming crystal that blazed with silver and blue radiance that hurt her eyes and seared her exposed skin, making her avert her face. She squinted against the brightness and refused to entirely look away.

Thagrosh ran the edge of his weapon against the glowing crystal, and it emitted a piercing and ringing sound. A small, sharpened sliver like a crystal knife fell to the ground between them, sizzling upon the snow. She could not take her eye from it, bright as it was. It called to her, with a music that stirred in her blood. It was the seal of her destiny and marked the extinction of what had once been her people. No, she told herself. It marked their rebirth into something far greater.

She bent down and seized the shard, feeling it sear the flesh of her hand before a shockwave of fire jolted up her arm and into her chest. Whatever pain she felt was occluded as a vast presence rushed into her mind. Everblight’s mind engulfed her own, and it felt as though she fell into the cold waters of a deep and dark well. She could feel the dragon scour through her mind like a ravenous beast, gleaning all she had ever known in an instant. All the while, she mentally tumbled into its labyrinthine depths, surrounded by thousands of years of memories. She exulted, knowing her end of the bargain was by far the greater one.