Evil plans to destroy Etias. The king, known as the Reaper, must save the realms.
Sir Casimir Armond walked upright with his wide-set shoulders rolled back, the torches perched in their sconces reflecting small flickers of light against his black glinting armor. His right palm rested against the hilt of his broadsword strapped to his hip. His gray eyes narrowed forward as he stepped through the labyrinth of Castle Haerton. Here, the king of Etias, the Reaper, lived with his family and closest allies.
The human paladin glanced at the small figure alongside him, Lady Aneira Bevan, who grew agitated the closer they approached the bedroom door of the one they came to summon. Her deep orange dress swirled around her heels with every step she took. The lights of the torches mirrored brilliant colors on the prayer beads hanging on her slender neck. In the center of the largest bead was a rich emerald in the shape of a tear-drop, the faucets within the precious stone lighting fires in its depths.
"You need not be here if you're uncomfortable," said Casimir as he lifted his gaze.
"I won't leave you alone to speak with that barbarian," Aneira replied as she pushed her light blonde hair out of her green eyes. Her vision thinned at the approaching door.
"I am not sure if you could do much if he attacked."
"I'm more capable than you give me credit for, Sir Casimir."
He conceded her point with a nod as they stopped before the threshold. The knight raised a gauntlet covered hand to rap his knuckles against the wooden frame.
Burgundy curtains draped over the large windows, stretching to their whole length, they swayed and brushed the floor as a gentle breeze wafted in. Beams of dawn flowed into the darkened place, cascading across the rolls of parchment scattered over the desk that rested nearby.
A man lay asleep against the wooden surface of the counter, his face buried in his arms. His dark gray skin blended against his ruffled, shoulder-length black hair. The sunlight crept over his countenance, disrupting his sleep as he grunted in annoyance. His eyes opened, revealing the solid inky blackness behind his eyelids. He growled at the dawn as he shifted to sit up, his back stiff from sleeping in the awkward position most of the night.
He glanced at the various sketches of Castle Haerton's underground channels before him. Fatigue drifted from his mind as he smiled at the book. The time came for him to flee from this wretched place and begin his journey to real power. For months, the man had been planning this outbreak to travel to the mysterious regions of the west - the lands where Madame Medri resided. Until now, only one piece of the puzzle was missing before he could withdraw from the Reaper's side.
The Book of Kothar.
A knock broke his concentration as he frowned at the entrance to his chamber. Moving fast, he snatched up the book to place it out of sight. He pulled open the door, unsurprised to find Sir Casimir standing before him. He suppressed a scowl as he straightened.
"Yes... sir?" the gray-skinned man said, allowing a tone of anger to escape in his words.
"Astiroth, the king demands an audience with you. Now," said the knight, his rich voice distinct and firm. The knight's grip lingered on the hilt of his sword, though his grasp remained relaxed to show no signs of a threat.
"And may I ask the reason?" Astiroth asked with a lifted brow.
"I know not. Come," said Casimir as he stepped back to accommodate the man into the corridor.
Noticing another being before him, Astiroth turned his black eyes to the woman that stood beside the knight. The corner of his mouth twitched at the sight of Lady Aneira. The qheilae's glare narrowed in a warning to the gray-skinned man. She maintained her silence, her full lips a thin line from the tightness of her clenched jaw. Astiroth understood Aneira's distaste for him, which only drove him to toy with her further. It amused him every time he looked at those green eyes burn ablaze at his semblance. He buried his snicker at her as he gestured back to Sir Casimir.
"Will she be joining us?" asked Astiroth, not granting Aneira any consideration by giving her a proper title.
"I suggest you watch how you address Lady Aneira," Casimir said.
Astiroth bowed in apology before retreating to his chamber to dawn his armor of the royal guard. Unbeknownst to the duo, the daemon slipped the book under his uniform, concealing it from view. His senses told him he should prepare for this to be the last time he came to this place. He returned a moment later before Casimir, gesturing for them to lead the way.
Soon, the three entered the throne chamber. Tremendous braziers attached to one part of each of the twelve onyx columns lit up the lower levels, and their light covered the enclosure in a warm radiance. The marble rock of the embowed ceiling danced in the flickering luminescence while memorials peered upon the mosaic floor.
An ebony rug ran in a circle around the radius of the chamber, with two paths at the throne and the main entrance, while guiding banners with embellished silhouettes of dragons hung from the walls. Between each flag stood a tall candle, illuminating depictions of heroes and legends above them. Burnished corners and fancy tassels adorned the draperies that covered stained glass windows of mesmerizing mosaics mimicking the same dusky color as the flags.
A grand throne of obsidian sat at the center of a small platform, adjoined on either side by two similar, but less ornate seats for those closest to the royal highness. Layered engravings coated the chair, emphasizing the great textures of the stone. Fixed on the backside was a form of a giant skeletal dragon, its wings outstretched to accentuate its massive frame. Deep rubies sat within the angular shape of the stone dragon's skull, reflecting the dancing flames around it.
A shrouded specter sat on the center chair, dressed in long, pitch-black robes that concealed his full outline. A large hood overshadowed his visage, but two sharp red points of light glowered from underneath the shadow the cowl cast. An arm rested on each armrest, exposing the white-bone of his skeleton hands poking out from beneath the sleeves of his garments.
Astiroth approached the throne, bending on one knee to bow in respect. Though irritated by the summoning, he knew better than to disobey the Reaper. The old lich was of the few creatures in the realms that the daemon admitted could destroy him with ease.
To gain such authority was Astiroth's deepest desire. Every waking minute, the man craved power over the other pathetic weaklings in Etias. There was never enough for him, his lust for control unceasing. However, Astiroth hid this while in the castle, forcing his deranged ideologies to the most posterior part of his mind for the facade of 'weakness.'
"My Lord," he recited in greeting. The salutation felt foreign on his tongue.
The Reaper's gaze bore into the dark gray-skinned individual. Both Aneira and Casimir stayed several yards behind, bending in formal reverence.
"Rise," ordered the Reaper. His voice was coarse, like fragmented stones grinding together. Astiroth stood from his bow, lingering his view below the hood of the lich. He witnessed firsthand what happens when one peers into that being's eyes. He preferred not to be another statistic to that deadly glance.
The king leaned back further into his chair as he placed the tips of his bone fingers together. "An important item belonging to the throne was stolen last night."
The knight and lady glanced at each other from the corner of their eyes before looking at the Reaper and Astiroth.
"Several witnesses report a man snooping around the escape tunnels, and identified you," said the king. The Reaper's gleaming orbs never left the gray-skinned daemon.
Astiroth's posture relaxed as he listened to the king's remarks, aware he was a suspect. "I am baffled of what these people refer to, Your Majesty. They may be mistaken. Care for me to 'interrogate' them?"
The man insinuated to his barbaric interrogation techniques, which left most victims maimed or dead.
There was a long pause before the king spoke again, "Sir Casimir, search him."
The knight did not question the order as he walked behind Astiroth, commanding him to hold his arms up so he may search the various hiding pockets in the man's armor.
Astiroth's emotionless mask cracked, his eyes widening with fury. His nostrils flared as he cried at the king, "You should not meddle in things none of your affair, Your Majesty!"
His voice echoed in the hallway as his hands came out to his sides, the ground splitting beneath him as two long vines of stone slithered into his grasp. Stony spikes erupted in a circular formation around him in defense, forcing Casimir away.
"I sought your guidance, to bask in your strength, hoping to taste it for myself. I played the role of the dutiful guard, yet your training never surmounted to more than a mere pittance." His snarl turned into a perverse smile. "Now, I shall call upon a being that will grant me the capacity I seek!"
The Reaper's flaming eyes narrowed as he rose, lifting his right palm as his scythe appeared in his grip in a wisp of smoke. The weapon towered over him with a sizable, curved, smooth blade crafted of titanium. The razer sat secured at the top of a long unadorned shaft made of obsidian. A swirling mist shifted inside the pole as if it incarcerated the souls the Reaper took within it.
"You are too weak to achieve legitimate power, Astiroth. You will suffer for your crimes against the throne."
The gray-skinned daemon snarled at the Reaper's comments, his grasp tightening as if to lunge towards the lich. Aneira's long pointed ears perked at the noise of the door behind them opening wide. She whirled her head around to look at an adolescent black-haired boy rush into the throne room. He fell to a skidding stop as his pupilless blue eyes widened at the sight of the broken marble flooring and the cruel whips in Astiroth's clutch.
"Prince Kyvan, you must go!" Aneira shouted at him.
Aneira's cries of retreat caught Astiroth's attention, his rage dissipating as a sadistic grin spread across his face. He whipped his wild gaze to study the young boy, examining the distance between him and the adolescent. Astiroth turned his eyes back to the Reaper.
"You may have avoided this longer if you stayed away from my business… no matter."
A soft chuckle rippled from his throat as he raised his fists, still grasping the vines between his fingers. With remarkable speed, the stone whips flew backward to coil around Aneira and Casimir's ankles. Slate thorns sunk into their flesh as Astiroth flung his arms forward to jerk their foothold out from under them.
They collided with the hard floor under them with a grunt, their skulls bouncing off the marble, knocking Aneira unconscious as her staff a few yards aside from her limp form. The gray-skinned daemon swung, darting for the boy as both whips returned to his grip. He hurled one at the prince, wrapping him in it as thorns pushed against the lad's torso. The sturdy stone rope pinned his arms to his sides, preventing escape.
"Let go of me!" the youth yelled as he struggled against his bindings.
"Do as I say, or I shall cut the boy's life short," Astiroth roared as he remained behind Prince Kyvan, his long-clawed fingers twisting in the prince's black hair. He sneered at the Reaper.
"If anyone takes another step, I will paint this entire throne room with his blood."
Kyvan continued to thrash, crying out for his grandfather's help. The temperature in the chamber turned to an icy coldness as rage burned in the king's beady red eyes. Casimir shifted to one knee, his now visible breath blocking his vision as his skull throbbed.
"Release him at once!" the Reaper roared, an uncharacteristic angry timbre in his voice.
"You're not in charge, you rotted pile of bones... I am!" Astiroth tugged on the handle of the whip wrapped around the teenager's frame, causing the thorns to dig deeper into his flesh. "I will leave with the tome, and I will spare the boy."
Astiroth's smirk remained stretched across his thin lips. His black eyes darted, always vigilant to his surroundings. The Reaper's bone grip twisted further against the scythe.
"What do you want with the tome?" the Reaper growled at him.
"That is my prerogative," he said as he raised the youth further in front of him as if displaying him as a trophy. "You are running out of time, lich. Now, let me go free, and the prince lives."
"Surrender the boy first."
"Do you take me for a simpleton, Reaper?" Astiroth scoffed. "I shall free him when that book is in my hands and prove to be the real work. You and I both recognize that if I released him any sooner, you would kill me. I intend to avoid that."
Casimir shifted as if to stand. Astiroth's eyes flashed as he turned towards his former superior, barking his charge, "Don't test me, Knight. You realize I will slice his throat without hesitation."
The Reaper lifted a hand to hold Casimir in place, glaring at Astiroth all the while. Astiroth loosened his grasp on the whip, the stone thorns sliding from the boy's body. He shoved the prince to the ground as he spun on his heel, sprinting out of the throne chamber. A blockade of stone erupted from the earth, creating a barrier between himself and the others to slow any pursuit. The Reaper raised his robed arms, and the castle groaned and rumbled around them.
In the corridor, the floor lurched beneath Astiroth's feet, slamming him into the opposite wall. Before he re-orientated himself, the room inverted, smashing him against the ceiling. Astiroth shifted as the stone twisted and wrapped the evil man to sink him into its depths. The daemon cursed under his breath as he collected himself. He popped one whip forward, the stone length coiling the nearest protruding wooden beam. He hauled himself ahead and out of the swallowing wall, crawling on the ceiling as the now living castle kept up its pursuit. The man grew excited to see the threshold to the high balcony come into view. Astiroth snapped the second lash once again, pulling himself along the disorienting place.
He reached his destination, throwing wide the exits. The daemon ran to the end of the terrace before he clambered up onto the banister and leaped. His freedom appeared within sight as he stared at the ever-nearing earth. The glint of the deadly blade came before he dodged it. The mighty scythe of the Reaper sliced across the man's back, tearing through flesh and bone without slowing, missing Astiroth's spine. Though the old lich did not grab the man, his lethal weapon performed its job as the gaping wound blackened with decay.
The force of the blade caused Astiroth to turn in mid-air to look at the lich. Poison of the necromancer's power seeped further into his muscles, his flesh dying rapidly around the wound site. The evil daemon smiled sinisterly up at the Reaper as the ground below him warped into a large hole, preparing to take him. It engulfed his body, concealing him from view before it settled to its solid form once again.
Disembodied voices of long-forgotten souls whispered through the fog that rose from the cracks in the acidic soil of the hardened earth. Heavy air hung still, not even the faintest rustle of a bird blown in the realm of death. The sky held its perpetual blackness, for the sunlight never beamed on these lands of Etias. Instead, a full, blackened moon forever loomed in the eternal night, cascading its evil ambiance over the perished terrain.
Crumbling moss-laden marble pillars acted as wretched guards on either side of the cemetery gateway. Behind the eroded iron fencing stood rows of disheveled tombstones. The hand of time left no stone untouched, the names of those laid to rest long forsaken. In the cemetery's heart sat a captivating likeness of an angel. The endless seasons wore away at the rock of the sculpture's youth, leaving deep crevices in her form.
Despite her gentle countenance, wickedness emanated from the bust. In the dim light provided by the onyx moon, the beams revealed her right hand not carved to represent flesh but of bone. The wings etched to protrude from the figure's back appeared rotted, torn, and bony. Blackened sockets filled the angel's skull. The longer one gazed at the carving, the more horrific it presented.
Faint heavy breathing, broken by slight groans infringed the silence of the graveyard as Astiroth pushed his weakened body along the gravestones. He stumbled past the stone protuberances, grasping them to propel himself forward.
“Halt!” a voice demanded of the injured daemon.
Astiroth stood still, his black eyes scanning the surrounding area to look for the source of the cry. Near the base of the cracked angel statue, the shadows lifted into the air, swirling to form the body of a woman. She stood straight and tall, with silver eyes glaring towards the gray-skinned daemon. Astiroth hid his smirk, recognizing the female.
“Niaris, Faceless Daemoness of the Elemental Plane of Shadow... it has been far too long,” announced the man with a chuckle, which was interrupted with a wince a pain from the seeping injury on his back. “I have returned with a prize for our Mistress.”
The darkness faded from the woman, revealing her pale skin and long silver hair. She wore a heavy black cloak that concealed her petite frame. When she lifted her head, the moonlight gleamed on her face to display her solid silver eyes, and half shadowed features, appearing as though she wore a black mask on the upper part of her visage. Niaris’s strange bright eyes narrowed.
“What is this ‘prize’ that you speak? If this is a trick, I shall flay your flesh from your bones."
Astiroth's grin diminished as he glowered at her, unaccustomed to a woman speaking to him in such a manner. However, he did not argue the point, knowing he soon would die from the wound if left untreated. He gritted his teeth as he waved his hand to bring vines from the soil, resembling a massive pile of snakes intertwined. The creeping plants shifted to show the cover of the Tome of Kothar.
"I come with significant knowledge of the workings of the Reaper and his army," Astiroth hissed before he collapsed to a knee, his legs no longer able to support his weight as the injury on his spine continued to rot. He snapped his head up, his raven hair matted to his face as he scowled at Niaris. "If you continue to waste my time, this wound will kill me, and the tome shall be gone forever."
"Perhaps I should let you suffer longer," she sneered at him. "I love to watch a man grovel."
"Niaris," a voice sounded from behind the statue. Niaris frowned as she peeked over her shoulder to a dark-hooded figure looming in the shadows. "Stop toying with this fool.”
Astiroth lifted his black eyes to peer at the being. The figure moved from behind the cracked marble, stepping forward into the dim light. In its left hand, it carried an enormous shaft that bore a long, slim, barbed blade composed of tachylyte on the top and bottom. Incised in either knife were intricate rune patterns, an eerie purplish glow omitting from the archaic symbols.
The being bore a low cowl over its head, its face invisible by the shadow cast. The robes that draped over its frame outlined its emaciated form.
"Speak," it demanded of Astiroth.
He bent his head in respect, providing a view of his gruesome injury that traveled the length of his backbone. "Madame Medri, I have returned after all these years, ready and willing to serve you and the mighty Xarsunon.”
The hooded entity raised a withered hand, pulling its cowl to display a thin white mane that tumbled along its back. Half of its lineaments held delicate, bow-shaped lips, silver skin, and other alluring components of a female gray elf. However, on the other side of its face, its flesh blackened and decayed with the undead creature's teeth and saprogenic gums stretching into a permanent grin. Gone was its eyes, leaving behind only two pinpoints of red glowing lights within the sockets.
"It has been many a winter, Astiroth. You have been under the influence of the Reaper for quite some time. How can I know you have not aligned yourself to his cause?”
Excitement burned in Astiroth’s coal-black eyes, sensing the immense power from the being. He struggled to his feet, nodding towards the bundle of vines to his side that displayed the leather cover of the volume.
"I bring this offering to you as proof of my loyalty.”
Madame Medri lifted her free hand, the book shifting to hover into her grasp. She opened the ancient text, skimming its words with her red eyes. Madame Medri did not glance at him while her bone finger ran across the parchment. "Do not be so foolish as to presume this contribution will be enough.”
Astiroth's face contorted into a toothy grin. "I shall serve you and do your bidding without question. I shall earn the power I rightfully deserve."
The tome closed shut with a loud bang as it disappeared in a burst of flames. The Madame lowered her hand by her side. "Niaris... heal him." She spun to leave but halted as she scanned over her shoulder. "But not entirely."
Astiroth's eyebrow raised, understanding her granting him to suffer as a method of control. Tremendous might seeped from this undead monster, and he dared not dispute her. Astiroth turned to Niaris, flashing her a cocky smirk as his eyes scanned her body once over before looking her in the face.
"You heard her."
The daemoness sneered at the man as she neared him. "One wrong move, and I'll kill you."
She walked behind him as her hands glowed with purple energy. She placed her palms against the wound, sending her healing magic into his flesh, the rotting skin returning to its natural gray hue. Though Niaris restored the bones and the deep muscles, she allowed the injury to remain open. Astiroth rolled his shoulders as he straightened once more, his neck popping as he stretched his healed spine.
“Tell me… where are the other Faceless Daemonesses? I am surprised to not find your sisters here,” said Astiroth, turning to the woman.
"They are in various locations throughout the realms. I am searching for one in particular," Niaris reached up to brush a growing vine from the arm of the statue. "Do you remember Azara?”
Astiroth thought on the name for a moment. "Azara, the Faceless Daemoness of the Elemental Plane of Fire.” A sly gleam appeared in his eyes. "She turned her back on Madame Medri to side with the Reaper.”
"Yes," Niaris turned to face him, her white gaze shining from the cast of the onyx moon above them. "She has been defiant against our mistress and has bared children, soiling the bloodline of the Faceless Daemonesses.”
Astiroth stepped over to lean against the statue, his eyes never leaving her. "Why not just slay her and her young?"
Niaris gave him a pointed glance. "It is not that simple. We could murder the offspring, but not Azara.”
Astiroth moved before her, his tall form dwarfing the female. "I'm confident I can track them."
Niaris folded her arms over her chest as she lifted an eyebrow up at him. "I have narrowed down her whereabouts to the south. Azara has been hiding in the mountains, though it would be foolish to attack in her own domain. I have only recently discovered a way to lure her out, through her mate, Etriz Arkan. He is a fire daemon, and can be just as dangerous if one is not cautious.”
"How do you intend to use him to entrap Azara?”
"It is rumored that he oversees a nearby town and views himself as their 'protector.' The pathetic humans believe him to be a god, though he is nothing of the sort. Attack the village... and he'll show himself," Niaris smiled at the thought. "More than likely, Azara will be in tow."
A twisted flicker of excitement lit in Astiroth's eyes as he pushed his black hair out of his face. "I suppose I can offer you assistance on your mission. I must prove my worth to our mistress. I intend to make Etriz, and those villagers, suffer."
A wicked smile spread across her pale face. "Be sure to keep me entertained.”
Unbeknownst of the pair, two glowing red eyes stared at them from inside the blackened sockets of the cracked angel statue.