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BLIGHT ALSO RISES
VOL. 3: IN DARKNESS BOUND
by Douglas Seacat
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 emergence of the Legion of Everblight and the resulting devastation of traditional Nyss tribes happened at the same time as other major upheavals affecting the wilderness peoples in western Immoren. Among the hardest hit groups outside the Shard Spires were the numerous diverse and longstanding trollkin kriels of the Thornwood Forest in northern Cygnar.
These kriels had been living within the forest for centuries, carving out a difficult niche for themselves amid a dangerous wilderness region also inhabited by a number of violent rivals. Alongside the trollkin were several powerful and thriving Tharn tribes. These were bolstered and reinvigorated in recent decades by the support of their formidable allies, the blackclads of the Circle Orboros. In the eastern Thornwood lurked the powerful and increasingly active Blindwater Congregation of gatormen, though at least these tribes seemed content to keep to the swampy territories around Bloodsmeath Marsh and Blindwater Lake. Something of an equilibrium had been reached between these groups, together with the sparsely settled villages and towns of mankind.
But the Llaelese War and its aftermath soon brought warfare directly to the trollkin territories, particularly those dwelling in the northern forest. The great rivals of Khador and Cygnar continued their ongoing conflicts along the border of the Thornwood; these clashes spread far beyond the killing fields between Northguard and Ravensgard. Increasingly, the trollkin lands were invaded or became collateral damage amid the marching platoons of the red and blue armies. Bad as this was, the situation became much worse after the arrival of Cryxians in the region, drawn like carrion birds to old battlefields.
As village after village was preyed upon and torn apart, the kriels turned to the greatest leader of the Thornwood, a chieftain who had risen to unite all lesser chiefs, Madrak Ironhide. His guidance in this time of turmoil proved to be invaluable, and his battlefield prowess proved to be unrivaled. Yet despite his efforts, the kriels found they were fighting a grueling and increasingly futile struggle of attrition. In desperation, Chief Ironhide decided he must claim a weapon mighty enough to give him an advantage over his foes, one set aside in ancient times and believed to carry a powerful curse.
KUAR OF THE WORLD ENDER
Northern Wurmwall Mountains, Late 605 AR
Panting from fatigue and feeling light-headed from blood loss, Madrak mustered the energy to trip his last attacker and then hacked downward to cut deep into the meat of the other trollkin’s left thigh. Had he struck lower, he might have severed the limb at the knee, but he had intentionally directed his swing higher. The champion he fought did not deserve a maiming, and legs could take some time to grow back. Madrak sucked in great gulps of air and saw spots before his vision. It had been one of the more exhausting and drawn-out contests he had fought in recent memory, which was saying something.
An impact to the back of his leg made him stagger. He had lowered his guard too soon. He turned to see another champion he had thought defeated, who had found the energy to recover his club and get back to his feet. He lurched forward into Madrak with an awkward charge, driving the chieftain to the ground. He was bleeding from multiple deep slashes, and his eyes looked glazed, but clearly the fight in him wasn’t gone. Madrak shoved the champion off and swung sideways to deliver the hammer-like back end of his axe into his adversary’s skull, turning him out like a snuffed candle. The crack of his skull had been loud, and Madrak considered he might have fractured bone. Still, nothing time couldn’t mend.
Gritting his teeth, he pushed himself back to his feet and surveyed the scene around him. He was surrounded by groaning and injured warriors, each a skilled veteran who had given the fight their all. Regaining his breath, he deemed he had properly met the requirements stated to him to gain entrance to the ruined village. A fair fight, such as it was.
Now he felt obliged to reach out with his mind to Jor and Bron, his two trolls. He pulled their vitality into himself, something he had refrained from doing during the extended duel. His breathing eased, and the cuts and aches of his body faded. The two trolls bonded to him stood at the edge of the clearing in clear agitation, staring angrily, visibly offended at having been forbidden to join in the fight. They were quite protective of him and did not begrudge him their borrowed strength.
It had been long since he had fought without the advantages given him by his bond to the full-blood trolls. The fight had been only narrowly won. Had there been even one more champion left standing, Madrak knew he would have lost. What he would have done then? Snuck in under the cover of darkness and stolen the ancient axe, like a bandit? Perhaps. His need was dire. He could not return empty-handed.
The ranking kithkar of the champion was rousing himself, and Madrak clasped his hand to help the warrior back to his feet. They shared a look of mutual respect. The kithkar’s armor was battered and washed with fresh blood, though already his bleeding had slowed. The kin did not stay down long, and several of the others were regaining their feet as well.
Madrak asked formally, “Hodos of Urdonar, you are satisfied?”
“Yes, Chief Ironhide,” Hodos said in a pained voice. “You have bested us by the terms. You may pass on and speak to the kuar-keeper.” He gave a small smile. “You will find him a greater barrier than we were, I fear.”
“You fought well and have done your kriel proud,” Madrak said with a deeper inclination of his head. The kithkar accepted the praise and turned to see to his wounded brothers.
Madrak adjusted his armor and weapons, wiping off most of the blood, then ensured his quitari sashes were in as good of order as they could be, given the fight he’d had. He looked at the axe in his hand, considering how long he had held this simple but effective weapon. He thought of how many enemies had been ended by its carefully maintained edge. His father had passed it to him when he gained his earned name; it bore the runes of his kriel. A fine axe, by any standards. But not enough to keep their enemies at bay.
Knowing that to give them any more attention would shame them, Madrak turned his back on the champions and walked through the old gate of the crumbling outer wall to enter the larger main courtyard of the ancient ruined village. This was a place where the kin no longer lived, had not lived in centuries, but where they had kept a careful presence. The Urdonar kriel lived very close by and considered it their sacred charge to watch over this place, to protect it from interlopers. Not many even knew where this place was—it was hidden away amid the countless valleys and lesser hills between the towering Wurmwall Mountains. A sacred site for the kin, but not one dedicated, at least overtly, to Dhunia. Those who protected it were faithful Dhunians, but they knew the stones laid here had been placed by those who revered the Wurm. From a time when their wild and destructive divine father had held more sway than the Great Mother.
The krielstones here were old, older than any Madrak had laid eyes on before, even with the age of some of those preserved among the longest standing villages of the Thornwood. Even their runes looked strange; some of them were of a shape and mark either forgotten or deliberately avoided. Close to the outer wall and ringing the village were what remained of the old dwellings that had once served the kriels who lived here. Most were now just collapsed heaps of stone, though some retained their shape, grown over with moss and vines. He saw evidence of life only in one small hut adjacent to the path he strode—the glow of a fire and smoke rising from a hole in its roof. It looked to have been rebuilt and repaired but still seemed aged, its walls precarious.
The doorway of this hut creaked open to reveal a stooped and craggy elder, an ancient runebearer from the look of him. He did not seem surprised to see the Thornwood chieftain. He nodded to him in greeting as if Madrak had arrived just in time. Likely the elder had heard the fighting beyond the ringed outer wall and knew exactly what it meant.
“You are the kuar-keeper?” Madrak asked.
“Welcome, Chief Madrak Ironhide.” The elder’s voice was gravelly and low. “Your arrival was expected.” He did not offer his name, and Madrak sensed his position had become one with his identity.
That the isolated runebearer knew Madrak’s own name was surprising, though Madrak assumed word of his efforts to unify the Thornwood kriels could have spread even here. He had to wonder how often anyone like himself had come to this place. There could not have been many. Few enough knew of this place, and its ominous reputation would have been enough to keep most away. Sacred as this ground might be, it was still avoided, and those who guarded it had become shunned by association. Respected for their inherited obligation but rarely welcomed. Yet Madrak had to believe some must have come before seeking the legendary axe of Horfar Grimmr. All had been turned aside, if not driven away.
“If you know me,” he said, “then you know why I am here.”
“You come for Rathrok, the World Ender.” The elder’s voice sounded weary, as if speaking the words drained him. “Those who placed it here vowed it should not be taken up again. Its power is dark and dangerous.”
After a respectful pause, Madrak frowned and said softly but firmly, “What I know of it is somewhat different. It is a great weapon saved for a time when the kin face a destruction they could not otherwise avert. This is where my people stand today.”
“It may be as you say, but your people are not all the kin. Things are not yet as dire as they might be.”
Madrak shook his head. “They can only get worse. My people are being driven from their lands. Soon there will be no kin in the Thornwood, and the roots of its trees will be enriched by our blood. The time the axe was set aside for is here. I have dreamed of the axe. I have felt the spirit of my ancestors in this. The human wars have torn through the forest, leaving us vulnerable, and now the dead rise to assail us. Each day there are fewer of us to stand against them, and their numbers only grow.”
Now it was the elder’s turn to shake his head. “You do not know what you seek. This is not some weapon to serve you for a few battles and then be discarded. It will adhere to you, to your very soul. Its curse and its burden will be yours until death takes you. Turn back and seek some other weapon, some other solution.”
The Thornwood chieftain looked past the elder to the heart of the ancient ruined village, where a large elevated platform still stood, though its stones were also crumbling. Beneath that ancient dueling platform, where warriors who revered the Wurm had called one another out for bloody battle to resolve their conflicts, lay Rathrok. He could almost feel it there, awaiting him. He could see it in his mind’s eye, as he had seen it in his dreams. The runes of its blade, the haft that he could already feel in his hand.
He took his old axe from where it hung on his back. It had served him ably in the last fight and many others before that. He held it a moment, remembering its history, and the moment it had been given to him. The elder watched him without comment, showing no fear, only a look of resignation. Then Madrak tossed the axe to the side, letting it clatter to the dirt and stones beside the path. He had intended to give it to his own son one day, but there needed to be sacrifices, and he felt the need to demonstrate his resolve.
“I will not turn back,” he said, raising his head to meet the elder’s eyes.
The kuar-keeper sighed heavily. “Come to me, and show me your mind.”
Madrak hesitated, taken aback by the request. More often undertaken to seal agreements between longstanding enemies or to formalize an alliance, the Tohmaak Mahkheiri was a rite one did not employ with a stranger. Elders and shamans with strong wills were said to be able to use the trance like a weapon, to force submission in the form of a mental duel. But he did not think this old runebearer was one to employ such an underhanded deception.
He stepped forward. The two came face to face, their heads almost touching as they stared fiercely into the eyes of the other. There could be no wavering in the Tohmaak Mahkheiri, no deceptions or untruths. Madrak’s mind turned to the turmoil his people had gone through, the bloodshed and the carnage, the feelings of sorrow and loss as homes were abandoned, as kith were buried and returned to Dhunia. Kriels were torn apart and survivors taken in by others to form new ragtag bands united by grief. Then Cryx erupted from beneath the soil to assail them anew, bringing with them fresh horrors. Bonejacks and thralls wrapped in shadows. He let the elder feel the resolution that had come to him, the certainty that his destiny was bound to Rathrok.
In return, he felt from the elder the fear and reverence he held for that weapon and its legacy from Horfar Grimmr, the great ancient chief who had fought and died before the human priest-king Golivant. Somehow, though the elder had not been there, he saw and felt Grimmr’s last moments, dying under torment while shouting defiance at the Menites. The runebearer had studied the old legends so long, lived with them, so much so that they had become real in his mind, as vivid as his own memories.
As they pulled apart and he came back to himself, Madrak considered all the rage and darkness bound within the axe he sought. He did not believe in the curse. Such things were a superstition, a remnant of dread tied to old strife and a nearly forgotten time of suffering. Still, it was hard to dismiss the feelings he had received from the elder while their minds were locked.
The kuar-keeper said, “I sense your commitment to your people, and I believe the sincerity of your need. I will not stand in your way. Perhaps it is Rathrok’s time. I am terrified for the future if this is so. You may enter the kuar, if you must.” He spoke as though inviting a member of his kith to his own funeral.
Madrak inclined his head deeply in respect and strode past, feeling none of the relief he should have that this test was negotiated. After the bloody clash with the outer guardians, he had steeled himself. It seemed this trial had been more mental than physical, taking its own toll.
There was a weight to this place, and to the runebearer’s words, that he could not deny. A smell to the air struck him as the scent before a breaking storm. He could feel an electric tension in the air. Never before had he walked on sanctified soil that he felt so certain was hostile toward him. It was as though Dhunia and prayers to her could not exist here. Looking up to the towering kuar, which seemed akin to a stepped pyramid, he saw the shapes of serpents and other beasts inscribed along its sides, all clawing and rending one another.
The path he walked extended directly to the edge of the dueling platform, but this kuar was different from most others he had seen—there was a narrow opening in its side, with steps leading down into a space below its interior. It had become a shrine and a vault…or a tomb.
His introspective mood was shattered by a sudden clap of thunder and a flash of bright light, as though the ground ahead were struck by lightning. He held up his hand too late to shield his eyes, and then as he blinked past the blinding streaks across his vision, he saw a black-cowled figure stood before him. Instinctively, his hand went to where his axe had been but found nothing. In the time it took for this realization, he recognized the human who stood before him, leaning on an iron-shod staff.
“Omnipotent Ergonus,” Madrak said flatly, warily.
Ordinarily, he might be inclined to address this person with politeness, as was certainly Ergonus’ due as one of the three most powerful members of his enigmatic order. Madrak had met Ergonus before but only briefly, and that meeting had unsettled him. In general, Madrak’s dealings with the druids had made him wary, though there were many other kin who were on friendly terms with them and appreciated their assistance or loaned wisdom. The kin of the Gnarls in particular seemed to hold them in high regard, but in the Thornwood, they had given Madrak little reason to welcome them.
“Chief Madrak Ironhide,” the druid returned in kind. He spoke Molgur-Trul quite well for a human.
Ergonus pulled back his hood to reveal his lined features and wispy hair, a face that suggested age as humans experienced it. Madrak knew the druids did not suffer the ravages of time like others of their kind, so this meant he was quite old indeed, though he was allegedly not the eldest of the three who ruled his order. He was very unassuming in appearance—a frail-seeming man wearing the black attire so many druids preferred, adorned in a few places with adornments of bronze, his staff simple and unremarkable. But there was about him an aura of power. The sense that a storm was about to break had become stronger. A white light in his eyes was not natural, little flickers of lightning crackled through his hair, and the skin on his arms seemed to glow a dim orange, as though molten lava instead of blood flowed through his veins. Behind him, the rectangular stones making up the kuar vibrated and shimmered in his presence, as though itching to come alive and assemble into a spontaneous wold.
His presence here seemed profoundly wrong. He intruded in this sacred place without having endured the trials Madrak had passed. Simply being powerful did not excuse his being here uninvited. Madrak governed his temper and said, “You come at a bad time. We can talk later, when I have completed my task. Please, step aside.”
“It is no coincidence,” Ergonus said, unmoving. “We have watched this place for centuries. Before you continue on this path, I come to offer an alternative. Our interests align, and we can each benefit the other.”
Madrak’s eyes narrowed as he considered these words. “I will listen, but speak plainly and to the point. If you thought I would be cowed by your position or reputation, you are mistaken.”
The druid drew himself up, a small twitch to his lips betraying his indignation at not being addressed with greater care. Madrak knew he was taking a chance, but his pride would not allow him to debase himself. Yet as it stood, if he provoked Ergonus to violence, his own death seemed certain. Madrak was unarmed, Jor and Bron were too far away for him to summon them swiftly or to draw upon their strength, and his own sorcery was no match for the magic of an omnipotent.
“I am aware of the grave troubles affecting the Thornwood kriels,” Ergonus said. “And I am here to offer a solution, one which will not require taking up Grimmr’s Bane.”
“We are in no position to turn away assistance,” Madrak said carefully, “but when last I spoke to your minions in the forest, they claimed to be powerless to intercede. What has changed?”
“Many things but one in particular. A dire and unprecedented threat has arisen in the far north, one that threatens us all and which will, in time, entirely eclipse your current enemies. I am seeking allies with whom we can eliminate this threat before it gains its full strength. Should the warriors you have gathered under your banner be willing to join in this cause, we can help ensure they secure new territories in the Scarsfell and its surroundings.” Ergonus’ tone suggested he thought his terms exceedingly generous.
Madrak scowled, finding his temper rousing itself again. “So you would have us trade one enemy for another? One terrible battle to enter into a longer and more difficult campaign? What interest have I in the Scarsfell Forest? There are northern kin there, many of them, with kriels of their own. Tell me—how does this help me reclaim our rightful place in the Thornwood? Our ancestral lands?”
Ergonus’ own temper flared up—he spoke sharply. “The Thornwood is doomed. There is nothing that will save your villages there. You must look to the good of your people. All of them. The kin of Scarsfell, of the Gnarls, and yes, those soon to be driven from the Thornwood, like yourself. All face ultimate destruction should our true enemy gain what it seeks.”
“And who is this true enemy? I tire of your mysteries.”
The druid’s eyes flared. “It is a dragon, one such as the world has never seen, for it is bodiless, and its mind is divided. Its blight empowers it. And it creates a plentitude of spawn, gathering to itself countless warriors and living weapons. Left to its own devices, this dragon will consume all, enacting carnage and horror that would be the envy of the Devourer Wurm.”
“We already fight the armies of the Dragonfather,” Madrak answered. “Yet you would bring another dragon down upon us? No. This is not a bargain I can accept. You offer us lands elsewhere, which are not yours to give. I already have an ally who will give us a place to shelter, when we need it.”
In this he was thinking of King Leto, his adopted blood-brother, whom he had been considering seeking out if Rathrok were insufficient to turn the tide.
“My order and your kin have long been friends and allies,” Ergonus insisted. “This is an extension of that friendship. Let us fight together again. Other chieftains will see your example and follow. The battles will be difficult, but together we can prevail.”
Madrak dismissed this. “We will not serve as your cannon fodder. I know too well how often that has been done in the past. We are in the midst of a terrible struggle. I would have gladly welcomed your help, but as always seems to be the case, you do not offer friendship. Friends do not place conditions on their aid or bargain with future promises they are powerless to fulfill. No. Your fight is not ours.”
Ergonus stared at him for a time, anger in his glowing eyes. Then he said, “Not all the kin believe as you do. Some would accept our friendship. Gladly, even.”
“Then go to them,” Madrak said. “Stand aside.”
For a moment, he thought the omnipotent might call down lightning and flood upon him. He felt his heart pound as thunder sounded again, but when he blinked, the druid was gone. The dark opening that led to Rathrok, the World Ender, awaited him. Before his resolve could be shaken, he walked forward into the darkness, where the axe that had once been gifted to Horfar Grimmr by the Crone awaited.
Aftermath: Sowing Betrayal
When Omnipotent Ergonus was refused by Madrak Ironhide, he immediately hatched a plan to replace him. This was a tactic typical of the Circle Orboros, which had seen countless great chiefs rise and fall among the various kriels of the trollkin. Those which the druids could work with prospered, while those they disliked would find themselves inevitably undermined and betrayed. To most of the higher-ranking druids, it mattered little who led a given village of Tharn, trollkin, farrow, or any other wilderness people they saw as useful fodder.
In this, it could be said that Ergonus greatly underestimated what Madrak Ironhide represented, for the alliance he had begun to form would be something new to the trollkin and unprecedented since the days of the Molgur. And while Ergonus would still find those receptive to his bribes and persuasions, including those very close to Madrak, he would unknowingly create an even greater enemy. The omnipotent’s largest mistake would be in misjudging the mind of one trollkin in particular—the great Shaman of the Gnarls, Hoarluk Doomshaper.