The Fire & The Forge - Blight Also Rises 2

 

BLIGHT ALSO RISES

VOL. 2: THE THREAT UNVEILED

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.

THE CIRCLE'S VIGIL

The destruction of the Nyss tribal culture in the Shard Spires after the arrival of Thagrosh as prophet of Everblight was swift and brutal. This resulted in the deaths of thousands, the rise of the Legion of Everblight, and the displacement of all non-blighted Nyss survivors. Despite the severity of this event, it happened in one of the most isolated places in western Immoren, and for that reason it went largely unnoticed by outsiders—at least initially. It would take months before the Khadoran government began to understand something seriously amiss had transpired within its borders, as reports of strange attacks on wilderness towns by blighted elves eventually reached the capital.

The first external organization to detect and investigate what had happened to the Nyss was the Circle Orboros. Their understanding of the true nature of the Legion of Everblight did not occur all at once but did come together quickly, thanks largely to the efforts of numerous mid-ranking blackclads working in the northern theater. A number of violent encounters with blighted Nyss and dragonspawn would take place in the following weeks. These first skirmishes were haphazard and exploratory but soon became tactical, as leading potents and the three ruling omnipotents pieced together a more complete portrait of this foe.

Several powerful beast masters within the Circle Orboros were among the first to encounter both Nyss refugees and their dangerous blighted counterparts. Accustomed to operating independently and covertly in the northern hills, forests, and mountains, these blackclads investigated signs of major changes in the natural order, including the movement of large numbers of Nyss, as well as other creatures. Kaya the Wildborne, Tanith the Feral Song, and Una the Falconer were among those who encountered the Legion of Everblight when its nature still remained unknown.

Potents such as Baldur the Stonecleaver and Vernor the Nightbringer worked closely with subordinate blackclads to investigate and confirm the existence of the Legion of Everblight. It was through their efforts that the omnipotents were convinced they were dealing with a dragon, one that was bodiless and acting through empowered intermediaries. It did not take long to conclude that Everblight represented an unprecedented existential threat, one the Circle Orboros must stop at all costs.

GATHERING THE STRANDS

The Nyschatha Mountains, Late 605 AR

The attack came suddenly and without warning, announced by the howl from a gorax as an arrow sank deep into its flank, followed quickly by two more. Not twenty yards away, a young blackclad warily traversed the cold foothills, endeavoring to remain alert as she patrolled but also distracted by her own thoughts. She was not facing the direction of the attack, but she felt the sharp pain of the gorax’s injuries like a red flare in her mind through her mental connection to the beast. She turned at once to confront the threat, reaching out mentally to summon the pair of winter argus ranging slightly farther out from her position. She was startled their keen senses hadn’t been sufficient to forewarn her.

The gorax howled in rage and lashed out, smashing a nearby evergreen to splinters with its gnarled fist, but more arrows sank into its body. Tanith was already in motion, moving in that direction, drawing on the power of the ley lines beneath her as well as the wounded beast’s molten anger. Its howl was answered by the four heads of her two argus. This sound must have startled the foe—shadowy figures fled from between the trees, moving with speed and grace away from their now-abandoned prey. The gorax wanted to follow them, but she forced it to stay back, knowing just a few more arrows could end it.

Tanith looked through its own eyes at the gorax’s wounds, seeing the slick of blood pouring down its chest and belly. The shafts of the small arrows were distinctive—the sort preferred by the Nyss, which was puzzling. Had they attacked with javelins, she might have thought them Tharn bloodtrackers, given their speed. As she was in a remote area of Khador’s northern wilderness, seeing the Nyss here was not entirely unexpected, though she was still well south of the Shard Spires they traditionally protected. Nothing she had seen until now would have suggested their hunting range extending this far.

She raced in pursuit of the flitting figures, cutting across a rougher section of ground to make up time. They seemed to be following the course of a dried streambed that carved a path through the trees here. The figures she chased were swifter than she, but she trusted she knew this area better. Additionally, she had her winter wolves flanking her, each eager to hunt and kill.

It was at such times that her own self could be lost amid the feelings and instincts of the creatures to which she was bound. Some of her peers savored this sensation and embraced it, but Tanith resisted that pull. Though her heart raced, and she felt the thrill of the hunt, she kept calm and controlled, refusing to give over to wild thoughts. Her instinct told her something was wrong here, something she must learn.

She ducked beneath the cover of a row of stunted trees to obscure her movements and allowed herself a knowing smile as her ears confirmed the enemy had moved where she had anticipated, veering unknowingly directly into her path. They leapt like stags over the ground, moving with an alacrity that astounded her. Still, she had positioned herself where they would pass, and they saw her too late.

Raising her staff, she sent a wave of sickly energy forth. Old dried roots and twisted abandoned tree limbs animated and grasped at her prey, seizing one and clenching it tightly, twisting its body unnaturally. It was killed outright. The others were slowed as they struggled against the shadowy roots entangling them. Her first argus arrived among them with clashing jaws and freezing breath. It took an arrow to the shoulder but did not even flinch, caught up in a battle frenzy. Her other argus howled as it intercepted two others on the far side of the gulch as they sought the protection of the trees. It tore one’s throat out and managed to trip the other with its body, sending the archer tumbling. Tanith advanced on this last Nyss and ended him with a single thrust of her gnarled staff.

She looked down at the fallen hunter with surprise, her eyes wide.

“Get back,” she commanded, putting her will behind her words. The nearest argus made a whining noise with one head, the other growling in complaint, but both heads bowed in submission. The argus backed away from its kill so she could inspect it. One of the fallen was too torn apart to clearly identify, but the rest were the same as the first.

They may once have been Nyss, but they were now very much something else.

With a frown, she bent down and turned the body over, scanning it from foot to head with focused attention. Its legs were strikingly different, resembling now a hound or a stag. Its skin was strangely mottled, and growths suggested something akin to dragon’s blight. As quickly as this thought came to her, she rejected it; the downed Nyss were all too similar to one another. Blight was random, haphazard. What she saw here conformed to patterns that made no sense. Yet their bows, arrows, and armor all were clearly of Nyss fabrication. She recalled hearing that some disturbance had been rumored to have happened in the Shard Spires. It was outside her territory, however, so she had not paid it much mind.

The appearance of these strangely blighted elves was a matter she knew at once she must bring to her superiors. To Vernor the Nightbringer. The thought gave her a chill that had nothing to do with the cold air. She preferred to avoid him except when summoned, for he had little patience for interruptions. But in this case, she would risk greater punishment by keeping this find to herself. She took the dark cloak from her back and rolled the smallest of the strange Nyss inside it, then lifted it to secure it onto the argus’ back. A gruesome package, but perhaps one her master would be eager to see.

* * *

Una had not needed to be instructed to keep her distance, but neither could she resist the urge to linger and discover more. She was perched high up amid the shadows on a sheer rocky cliff’s face, hunched down and frozen, with just a narrow few inches of a ledge beneath her feet. Heights had never bothered her; she felt entirely at home in such treacherous places, always willing to venture up to inspect the nests of those creatures with which she felt a particular affinity. So great was the height she occupied that the figures below her were nothing but specks, all but indistinguishable from the scattered rocks and scrub of the narrow valley. Her eyesight was keener than most, but she was not relying on her own eyes to see.

Below her, a hawk joined to her mind flew in a wide circling arc before dipping lower and softly winging over to land nimbly on a perch a few dozen yards from the figures that she had followed here. This was the closest she had allowed the bird of prey to get to them—among them were keen-eyed archers who had already proven to be indiscriminate in their choice of targets. Looking through its eyes the world was a very different place, bright and vibrant and full of sharp edges and contrasts. Its vision was far superior to hers, and even when it had been soaring higher, she could observe her chosen subjects with relative clarity. But now they had gathered in a circle with their attention focused on their leader, and she could tell something significant was about to happen.

The composition of the group was itself strange enough to have caught her eye; the strange hulking figure at their center was something she had never seen before. At first, she had thought him an ogrun, but a closer look revealed a being more disfigured and monstrous, with curved horns protruding from his brow and one arms oversized and massively muscled, ending in a massive claw. In his smaller hand he held a bladed weapon of unfamiliar configuration. Surrounding this being were dozens of Nyss, though she could see the signs of blighting that she had been told by Kaya to watch for.

She was too young and low of rank to be expected to gather more information than this, their movements, but she felt stubborn. More than that, she felt the certainty she was in a position to discover something new. The way the Nyss ringed their brutish leader, kneeling before him, suggested a ritual. There was an unnatural taint to the air, something that caused her hawk’s heart to flutter and required her force of will to keep it from taking to wing to flee this place. It did not wish to be here. An instinct like the one they felt before the onset of a storm.

As she forced the hawk to settle, the disfigured ogrun knelt, raised his weapon, and cut deeply into his wrist. Several of the Nyss around him made noises of admiration as thick, almost blackish blood flowed from the self-inflicted wound. It steamed in the air and flowed down onto the ground at the center of the gathering. The fluid seemed thick and heavy and did not move as she would have expected. Though she had yet to engage in much violence, Una had seen animals bleed, and it did not look like this. This blood accumulated strangely and seemed almost to move of its own volition. Again, she felt the strong desire of the hawk to fly away as some bitter and unnatural scent reached it.

The air shimmered around the pooling blood, which seemed to spool upon itself like clay. Where the blood had first poured it had changed, become fleshy. Even at a great distance, viewing through an intermediary, Una felt her stomach heave slightly with a queasy sensation as she saw the blood become something else. She saw what seemed to be bones solidifying, then they were coated in meaty and slick muscle, then it seemed as though the blood were drying into scaled, pale skin. A creature wobbled unsteadily to its feet where black ichor had been spilled, an eyeless draconic thing that opened its mouth hungrily and hissed at the air.

She could restrain the hawk no more, and it took to wing in a panic, fluttering up and away. Una felt relieved to lose her connection to it, though it suggested a loss of control in herself. No other beast master of the Circle Orboros was there to see or comment on her failing. She, too, felt the urge to flee from what she had seen but did not want to draw the attention of the blighted Nyss or their strange master. She stood absolutely still and waited, all the while her mind churning as she considered what she had seen and how important it would be to take this matter to more learned and powerful minds.

* * *

These accounts and dozens more were filtered up through the tendrils of the organization, brought from lowly wilder to warder then on to the potents. Together, they formed a tapestry as bewildering as it was compelling, the shape and extent of which was only apparent to a few solitary minds at the apex of the peculiar hierarchy of the Circle Orboros. The sighting of a column of ragged Nyss fleeing the north. Reports of old and revered longhouses in the Shard Spires abandoned and allowed to burn. And there had been strange creatures coming out of the north, those that resembled Nyss but seemed not to be, together with what could only be dragonspawn, in numbers never before seen in one place.

There had always been only three great figures in the Circle to whom all others ultimately answered—the omnipotents. On this day, when Omnipotent Ergonus entered into a private consul with Omnipotent Dahlekhov, it was an occasion of singular significance, as neither had troubled the other directly for several years. Nor did they meet in person on this occasion, for each was hundreds of miles apart, situated at a site of particular power within the greater leyline web. Major rituals had been invoked, siphoning energy stolen from the moon, the stars, the rivers, and the mountains, to bring Dahlekhov as a phantom shaped from smoke that wavered in the air before Ergonus. They spoke of the threads they had gathered, the hints they had heard, and what they all might portend.

“This is something new,” Dahlekov said, brooding. “And I fear it bodes very ill for all of us. It is the Bane of Issyrah, I would bet my life upon it. Yet he has become greater than ever he was before. No longer bound to physical form. To physical limits.”

Ergonus nodded and said, “Such a dragon could become a cancer on Orboros.”

Dahlekov frowned. “We must learn more. There are still many uncertainties and gaps in our awareness. We should reach out to Mohsar.”

Ergonus waved dismissively. “Even this will not pull him from the desert sands. You can inform him if you feel compelled to do so, but I have other plans. We do need to know more, but such knowledge will only come from confrontation. The earlier we strike, the better. I have a plan to battle this foe.”

“Do as you feel you must,” Dahlekov said, “but keep me informed, as this activity seems focused in my region.”

“I believe we can excise this cancer before it spreads too far. It will require certain sacrifices.”

“Such threats always do,” Dahlekov said, and then the smoke making up his form dispersed.

Aftermath: Ergonus’ Folly

Omnipotents Dahlekhov and Ergonus were able to assemble a largely accurate assessment of Everblight and the dragon’s legion from the details of dozens of encounters and reports across northern Khador. The most important piece of the puzzle to them was the realization that Everblight could create dragonspawn through his chosen generals, his warlocks. The exact manner in which this ability was made possible was only poorly understood for some time. But even without comprehending the details, it was an alarming development and suggested Everblight could accumulate an army such as had never been seen in western Immoren before.

Ergonus would take the lead on initial countermeasures against the Legion of Everblight, coordinating information-gathering strikes, relying on key subordinates such as Baldur the Stonecleaver and Krueger Stormwrath. Key to his longer-term strategy was the notion of accumulating a sufficiently powerful group of pawns who could fight in the stead of the blackclads, who were few in number. In his assessment, the most suitable cannon fodder to sacrifice against Everblight was to be found among the trollkin kriels. These efforts did not go as planned and resulted in a botched assassination attempt that would create a vast and irreconcilable rift between the trollkin and the Circle Orboros.