AN : This story is set in the Age of Sigmar universe. It is a continuation of my earlier work "Servants of the Gods." I have had it in the works for months now, and I finally finished it, so here it is. Enjoy !
It was called the Plain of Whispers.
The tribes of Shyish spoke of it in hushed tones, huddled around campfires as they exchanged tales of their home's many perils. They said that the Plain of Whispers had not always been called thus – that once, it had been just one more expanse of desert, haunted by the winds and wandering dead things.
But years ago, when the Storm of Sigmar had first resounded across the Realm of Death, a vast host of Nighthaunts had arrived from the south, and made the Plain of Whispers their home. They had stopped amidst the desert, and remained there in the decades since, never wandering too far. There was something that kept them trapped there, the shamans and priests claimed – some powerful being that remained within the Plain, silent and immobile. The dead were bound to this slumbering entity, and would not abandon it until it walked the Realm once more. Those who dared venture within the Plain – there were always some, drawn by rumors of the treasure the dead guarded – never returned.
Then came the Shyish necroquake. At the center of Realm of Death, the construction of Nagash's Black Pyramid had been completed – a truly titanic undertaking that had spanned the entire Age of Chaos, as hundreds of thousands of Deathrattle skeletons carried the precious grave-sand from the Realm's edge, one mote at a time. Since the Age of Myth's twilight, Nagash's great design had continued, an aeon-spanning scheme that would slay all the livings of the Realms and raise them anew in the Undying King's service.
And though Nagash's great work had been sabotaged at the last moment, denying him the ultimate power he coveted, the necroquake had still shaken the entire Realms. The currents of Death magic had been reverted, and a tempest of malevolent sorcery had been unleashed across all realities. Hosts of Nighthaunt specters had been risen from their fitful rest, slumbering horrors had broken the seals of their barrows to wander the land, and corpses everywhere had been reanimated to shambling unlife. From Aqshy to Ghur, whether they paid fealty to the God-King Sigmar or the Ruinous Powers, the quick were under attack by the dead.
Wild, uncontrollable energies surged, creating Endless Spells that slipped from their caster's grasp and preyed upon the living, driven by the echoes of the Undying King's malevolent will, imprinted upon all of magic through his failed ritual. Ancient secrets were exposed as Age-old spells of concealment were sundered. Greatest of these antediluvian mysteries were the Stormvaults, built by Sigmar during the Age of Myth to hide relics and beings too dangerous to be let free, yet too powerful or useful to destroy.
But there were other secrets, scattered across the Realms. Other powers and beings, trapped within spells woven by those who claimed the name of gods. And on the Plain of Whispers, surrounded by a court of spirits, was one of them.
The pillar of blue crystal rose three meters high. Fell lights danced within it, casting fey illumination upon the figure that was imprisoned inside. A choir of wailing spirits surrounded it day and night, gently moaning as they uselessly pawed at the crystal, which was proof against even their grudge-sharp claws. For hundreds of years had it been so, since not long after the dawn of the Realmgate Wars, when the crystal's prisoner had been dug out of the ruins under which he had been trapped for an Age. That freedom had been short-lived, but now, this was about to change.
As the Black Pyramid was completed and the necroquake was unleashed, its energies slammed into the pillar, creating a single, minute crack that ran from its base to its top. It was a small thing, but it was enough to break the prison's perfection, and allow Shyish's entropic energies to start eating at the crystal. The Nighthaunts, empowered by the necroquake, pawed at the crack, pouring their eldritch energies into it, making it wider and wider – until, years after Nagash's great work had almost reached its terrible completion, the entire crystal shattered in a million pieces.
The specters howled in pained joy as the prison they had watched over for centuries was finally broken and its captive released.
The first and last king of the City of Tranquility fell to his hands and knees, and took his first breath in many, many years. He did not really need the air, for he was Soulblighted – a vampire lord, turned by the blood of the first of their kind, back during his second mortal life in the Age of Myth. But some instincts were ingrained enough to survive death, resurrection, and damnation as an immortal bloodsucker.
"Aaah," he gasped, standing hesitantly. As his strength returned, his gasps turned into a weak laughter. "Aaah … ah ah ah ah …"
His pale, dry skin was covered in lacerations from the crystal shards. No blood spilled from them – in fact, the influx of necrotic energy from the Winds of Magic was helping them close already.
"More cunning … than I expected," he whispered. He turned his head up, facing the heavens. There, Shyish's pale sun shone, leaving him unburned – he was well past the point such weak sunlight would harm him. "Well played, Tzeentch. But not well enough.
The king looked around, and saw the host of Nighthaunts on their spectral knees, driven by half-forgotten memories of their lives to abase themselves before him. A sad smile stretched his cadaverous lips.
"You waited for me," he said softly. "Thank you, my friends. I will not …"
He froze. There it was – the old, familiar pull. Like a hook biting deep into his soul, compelling him to continue the journey during which the curse of the Changing God had overcome him and petrified him in place. The only mercy of his captivity had been that his crystal prison, whose shards now surrounded him, had blocked the call of his dread master from reaching him. Being unable to answer that summon for however much time had passed would have been … unpleasant.
"I am coming," he whispered, turning toward the center of Shyish, from where he could sense something new and incredibly powerful. "I am coming, Nagash."
Later, the king and his spectral followers finally reached Nagashizzar, completing a journey that had first begun hundreds of years ago. The king wondered if Nagash had even noticed his long absence – certainly the Undying King had made no effort to release him from his prison until his latest scheme had inadvertently sundered it.
"But you know I am here now, don't you, old monster ?" whispered the king to himself, as he beheld the dark majesty of Nagash's stronghold.
It was a monstrosity of black stone, surrounded by howling magic winds and so many dead souls that his own army seemed like a paltry honor guard in comparison. It was huge, built to host hundreds of thousands of undead soldiers. He had never been to Nagashizzar before the Age of Chaos, when it had been razed by the forces of Archaon, but he suspected that this new iteration was even greater than the previous one. It would fit Nagash's character. 'If at first you don't succeed, try something bigger next time' was a fair description of the Undying King … especially considering the inverted Black Pyramid that loomed at the Shyish nadir. Nagash's tendency for grand gestures and rituals was older than the Realms themselves.
He moved inside, leaving his Nighthaunt host at the edge of the buildings. They wailed and moaned in distress, but would not advance further. In this, he mused as he walked through corridors lit by pale torches, they were smarter than him.
There were guards, of course. Skeletons clad in the armor of heroes and wielding weapons imbued with such potent magics, a single scratch would turn a mortal man to dust. Wraiths that had once been the daughters and sons of kings, condemned to suffer and serve for their sires' defiance of Nagash. Once, facing a single one of these would have been the culmination of a quest – even now, should they attack him together, he had little chance of victory. But the king was awaited, and none bared his path.
He did not know the way, but he did not need to. The pull had grown stronger, and it guided him through the labyrinthine fortress until he came before a great arch through which radiated the same presence he had felt once, when he had knelt beyond the walls of the City of Tranquility.
A figure stood between him and the arch, one that he knew well. The memory of blood in his mouth and fangs in his neck rose from the depths of his mind, and he paused, forcing the remembrance back down with an effort of will – for with it came fury, red and mindless, and he had sworn never to surrender to it again after that first awful night.
"Hello, my child," said Neferata with a smile on her lips that had brought kingdoms to ruin. Men had betrayed their fathers and murdered their brothers for but a glimpse of that smile, just so that she would gaze upon them again. "It has been a long time since our last meeting."
Her unnatural beauty and inhuman majesty did not affect him. They would have, once – but he was so much more, and so much less, than he had been. Gods, if the man he had been, Ages ago, on a world they had all failed to save, could see him now … He would probably cut his own throat rather than risk becoming him. Not that it would change anything – he had died in the end, just as all of them had. Well … almost all of them.
It was more than immunity to Neferata's charms, though, that made him look at her with cold eyes. He hated her, and not just for what she had turned him into. His hatred was rooted deeper than that, in sins she herself had long since forgotten. But he had not. It was his oath, his curse, to remember what had been, even as the turning of the celestial spheres ground it all to dust, and less than dust.
Rememberer, he heard a gruff voice call out from the deeps of his memory. He ignored it, lest nostalgia and sorrow drag him under and drown him.
"I could speak a name," he said softly, refusing to extend even the smallest of courtesies to the monster disguised as the most beautiful woman in the Realms that stood before him. "A name you have forgotten, along with so much more. But I think you would remember it, should I speak it aloud. I think … I think it would break you."
What would the Queen's uncounted servants, her network of spies and killers scattered across all the Realms, think if they could see her now, he wondered. Her pleasant facade fell away, discarded like the mask it always was, and the king smiled without mirth at the truth of her nature being revealed.
They hated him, the Mortarchs who had walked the World-that-was. Because even if they had forgotten, even if they had been remade by the hand of Nagash, some part of them, deep beneath the hunger and the ambition and the cruelty, remembered. They remembered that they had lost something, a past that still haunted them and shaped their thoughts to these nights.
And when they had seen him walk out of the City of Tranquility to surrender to Nagash, they had known, too, that he remembered. That where their own minds had been scoured clean by the apocalypse, his own recollections were intact. To the knowledge he had accumulated in the World-that-was had been added the whispers of the dead, who had spoken their secrets to him when he was king of the City of Tranquility.
And oh, how they despised it, these demigods of night and blood – how they despised the insinuation that they had ever been less than what they were. Nagash was no different – the king suspected that the Great Necromancer's own repressed emotions were part of the reason why his Mortarchs loathed him so. After all, were they not all extensions of the Undying King's will ?
"It would be a supremely foolish thing to do," Neferata said coldly, "to risk earning my enmity. Clearly your time away has diminished your judgement, child. Or have you forgotten what happens to those who feel my hate ?"
He couldn't help it. He laughed, bitterly and without joy.
"You know nothing of hate, queen of cruelty and lies. Only the imitation of it, and the petty evils that protect your fragile ego from the truth of what you are. Shall I speak the name and let us see just how much remains of who you once were beneath the tapestry of deceit ?"
He opened his mouth, forming in his mind the image of another queen, who for all that her body had been little more than bones and dessicated flesh had been more deserving of that title that Neferata would ever be, and began to speak :
"Enough," interrupted a deep, rasping voice. It echoed across the cyclopean antechamber, and the king closed his mouth as he and Neferata turned to look at the arch, neither vampire letting their guard down against one another.
Arkhan the Black, Mortarch of Sacraments, stood there, resplendent in his ornate armor. In his right hand he held his staff, and at his hip hung a curved blade in a scabbard richly decorated with jewels gleaming with the light of captive souls.
The king was all too aware of what a poor figure he cut in comparison to the two Mortarchs, clad in the tattered ruins of the clothes in which he had sallied forth to defend his city from the hordes of Chaos. But he cared naught for it. He glared balefully at the lich-lord as the Mortarch of Sacraments advanced toward the two vampires.
"You forget your place, little king. And you, Neferata – you should know better than this. This one was never your child. He always belonged to Nagash and Nagash only."
"This wretch has insulted me, Arkhan," the Mortarch of Blood all but hissed, her gaze returning to the king. "I demand -"
"You will 'demand' nothing, Neferata. He is here by the will of Nagash, and you will obey. Depart now, queen of Blood. You have your orders."
After a few seconds during which the king dared hope that perhaps he had pushed her too far to back down, Neferata curtsied gracefully before stepping back. The king felt her gaze linger upon him, like daggers gently caressing his spine.
"Little king. Nagash has called you, and you will attend him."
Despite Neferata's backing down, the temptation was there, to simply strike – whether at the lich or at the vampire queen, it did not matter in the end. He was unarmed and alone, and both Arkhan and Neferata were armed and armored, with the countless undead of Nagashizzar ready to heed their commands and move to defend them. Yet what did he have to lose ? The City of Tranquility was no more. It had burned in the Age of Chaos, after Nagash had fallen to Archaon at the Battle of the Black Skies. There were no hostages that could be threatened to force his obedience …
… except there were, weren't there ? The dead waited for him at the entrance of this cyclopean structure, still remembering their old loyalty to him despite everything they had suffered. They would pay the price for his defiance, he knew.
"Very well," he said, and followed Arkhan further into the Black Pyramid.
"Three hundred years, little king," said Arkhan as they walked, in a tone that could almost pass for companionable to one who did not know the depth of the abyss that had become of the lich's soul. "That is how much time passed since our lord was stirred from slumber by the return of the thief Sigmar. Three hundred years since he called you, and only now do you come."
"I was … delayed. A ploy of the Dark Gods saw me trapped not long after I was released from my prison beneath the ruins of the City of Tranquility."
"He knows this, of course. But you are here now, and not a moment too soon. There is much to be done."
The lich and the vampire came into the throneroom at the heart of Nagashizzar, passing throngs of the enslaved dead on their way. Hosts of undead marched in and out of the fortress, summoned from distant territories before being assigned new tasks by the ever-scheming mind of Nagash. All of them parted before the Mortarch of Sacraments, until at last the king stood before the Great Necromancer once again.
Nagash looked much as the vampire lord remembered him. A towering figure of bone and sorcery, clad in armor that gleamed with amethyst light and surrounded by a halo of tormented souls. Nine books floated around him, bound by thick chains – the legendary Books of Nagash, first written by the Great Necromancer in the World-that-was, and created anew at the dawn of the Age of Myth.
"YOU HAVE COME, AS I HAVE COMMANDED," said the Undying King, his voice battering the skull of the Soulblight king like a hammer. "KNEEL."
He fought against it. It was petty, and it was useless, but he still fought against it, until the weight of Nagash's will was too much to bear and he toppled to his knees before the God of Death. Nagash laughed, and the sound of it made his aura of ghosts wail in abject suffering and despair.
"STILL YOU DEFY ME, HOPING THAT I WILL DESTROY YOU. YOU SHOULD KNOW BY NOW THAT NOTHING WILL FREE YOU FROM MY RULE."
"I do," he said between gritted teeth. "But I must, oh Undying King. I am the only one in this entire fortress who remember what good and evil are, and with that knowledge come certain duties."
"GOOD AND EVIL ARE ILLUSIONS, FIT ONLY FOR LESSER CREATURES. I SEE YOUR SCHEME, LITTLE KING. YOU HOPE TO STOKE MY FURY SO THAT I WILL BREAK YOU, SO THAT EVEN ONCE YOUR DEFIANCE HAS BEEN EXTINGUISHED, YOU WILL BE FOREVER DIMINISHED BY THE BREAKING, AND LESS ABLE TO SERVE MY WILL."
All of this was true, but it changed nothing. He had lost so much of who he had once been, the thought of losing yet more terrified him far more than even the wrath of Nagash.
"BUT I AM NAGASH. I AM DEATH. I AM ETERNITY, THE END OF HOPE AND SUCCOUR. YOUR SCHEME WILL NOT SUCCEED, LITTLE KING."
"And yet," he said, "I will not stop."
There was a sound like the rumble of mountains collapsing into dust. Was Nagash chuckling ?
"YOU WILL ACT IN ACCORDANCE TO YOUR NATURE. THAT IS WHAT I REQUIRE FROM YOU, AND SO YOU WILL DO MY WILL."
Did the Undying King actually believe that ? Perhaps he did. Nagash's mind was unknowable, though that was more because of the cold madness that had consumed the Great Necromancer since his defeat in the End Times and restoration as a true god in the Age of Myth. Always, the Undying King had sought to impose his own divinity upon others – now he believed it himself.
"THE REALMS SHAKE WITH THE ECHOES OF MY POWER," Nagash continued. "MY ARMIES RISE FROM THE HIDDEN PLACES, LED BY MY GREATEST GENERAL. THE BONE TITHE HAS BROUGHT ORDER TO MY KINGDOM'S HEART, AND WILL SOON MARCH UPON THE EIGHTPOINTS, TO TEACH THE EVERCHOSEN WHAT IT COSTS TO CROSS NAGASH."
The Bone Tithe ? That was something the king had never heard of before, though the City of Tranquility had admittedly been isolated from the rest of the Realm of Death. What new horror had Nagash unleashed upon the universe ?
"THE SCHEMES OF THE GOD OF LIES HAVE KEPT YOU HIDDEN FROM MY SIGHT. BUT YOU ARE RETURNED, AND I HAVE A PURPOSE FOR YOU."
The king stiffened where he knelt. This was it. Now he would learn what Nagash wanted, the reason he had been dug out of the ruins of his city and forced to walk across half of Shyish on foot.
"THE WHEEL OF AGES HAS TURNED, AND SO I CALL MY SERVANTS TO ME. SACRAMENT, THE OLDEST AND MOST LOYAL. BLOOD, TO DELIVER INTO MY HANDS THE SECRETS OF MY FOES. NIGHT, TO BRING TERROR TO THEIR WALLS AND CONQUER THEIR PETTY EMPIRES. GRIEF, TO TEACH THE LIVING THAT THE PRICE OF DEFYING ME IS ETERNAL. NECROPOLIS, FORGED FROM MY POWER AND WILL INTO THE BLADE THAT WILL PIERCE THE EVERCHOSEN'S HEART. AND NOW, YOU."
"What," asked the king, forcing the words out between gritted teeth, "would you have me do ?"
Nagash raised a hand, and two spectral figures emerged from the shadows. One carried in its arms a sheathed sword, the other pieces of armor. With another gesture of Nagash, the king was forced to his feet, immobilized in the air while the wraiths placed the armor on him and attached the sword at his hip. When they were done, they retreated back into the darkness from whence they had come, and the king was released, falling back to his knees.
"ARISE, MY OLD ENEMY, MY OLD SERVANT," declared Nagash, and the vampire could hear something like amusement in the sepuchral voice of the God of Death. "ARISE RENEWED, FELIX JAEGER. MY MORTARCH OF WOE. YOU WHO RECORD THE DOOM OF MY FOES SHALL NOW BRING UNTO THEM THE DESPAIR ALL DEFIANCE EARNS."
For a moment, he thought he must have misheard, his mind unable to process the Undying King's words. Then realization dawned, quickly followed by shock. Behind him, he could hear the hisses of surprise and anger coming from the gathered lords of Death – no sound came from Arkhan, though whether that was because he had already known, was better at hiding his reaction, or simply didn't care, the vampire lord did not know.
He, however, could not hide his own stupefaction, and was unable to stop an exclamation of shock from passing his lips :
At a gesture of the Undying King, a pool of blackest shadow formed between the God of Death and his newly appointed Mortarch. From these depths rose a towering creature, clad in bone and shrieking souls. It loomed over Felix, who recognized it. He had seen three of its kind before, on that hateful day where he had sold his existence to spare the City of Tranquility from Nagash's fury.
A Dread Abyssal, the mounts of those Mortarchs with human-sized bodies. It loomed over him, glaring at him with eyes that glowed with eldritch light, and bent its neck in submission.
"THIS IS VERAKOS, DEVOURER OF THE DEFILERS. IT WILL SERVE YOU, AS ITS KINDRED HAVE SERVED YOUR PEERS THROUGHOUT THE AGES."
The king – Felix Jaeger, who had been a poet, an adventurer, a rememberer, a husband, a father and a leader of men – looked upon the God of Death and spoke a single word.
"BECAUSE I HAVE A USE FOR YOU. BECAUSE THERE IS STRENGTH IN YOU THAT I WILL BEND TO MY PURPOSE. BECAUSE IT IS MY WILL. MY FOES ARE LEGION, AND YOU WILL BREAK THEM IN MY NAME. YOU WILL GO WEST, ACROSS THE SEA AND AWAY FROM SHYISH'S PRIME INNERLANDS. MY GREAT WORK HAS REVEALED MUCH THAT WAS PREVIOUSLY HIDDEN, AND I SEE THE RATMEN BURROWING INTO MY REALM THERE."
Felix' hands tightened into fists. The soul-fires in Nagash's eye-sockets flickered as the God of Death caught the motion.
"YES. I REMEMBER YOUR GRUDGE AGAINST THE CHILDREN OF THE HORNED RAT. AND THAT IS WHY I HAVE CHOSEN YOU FOR THIS TASK. YOU WILL BRING MY JUDGMENT TO THEM, AND PURGE THEM FROM MY KINGDOM. SUCH IS MY WILL."
"Uncounted ages have passed since the skavens murdered my father. The ones responsible are long since dead."
"THINK YOU SO ? AND YET … THERE ARE WHISPERS ON THE WIND, MY MORTARCH. THEY SPEAK OF A GREY LORD LEADING THE RATMEN, IN DREAD ALLIANCE WITH THE SLAVES OF THE DARK GODS. ONE WHO PARTICIPATED IN THE SCHEMES THAT DEFILED MY GREAT WORK, AND DELAYED MY INEVITABLE TRIUMPH."
You still don't get it, thought Felix, knowing his thoughts were plain for the God of Death to see. Again and again you try, weaving your grandiose schemes to reach absolute power – and again and again you fail, but you won't stop trying.
If Nagash heard his new Mortarch's thoughts, he gave no sign of it as he went on :
"I CANNOT SEE HIM. IF HE EVEN EXISTS, IF HE IS MORE THAN A NAME USED BY SOME OVER-AMBITIOUS VERMIN, THEN HE IS WELL PROTECTED. BUT YOU HAVE EVER HAD A WAY TO FIND THOSE WHO MEANT YOU HARM, DIDN'T YOU, MY MORTARCH ?"
It was strange. When weighed against Nagash's sins, the crimes of Thanquol paled into insignificance. The Grey Seer had been an almost hilariously incompetent foe, for all that thousands had perished due to its schemes. It had taken decades before they had realized he was even their enemy. Whereas Nagash was … Nagash. There was simply no comparing the two.
And yet, there was no denying that the ancient hatred in his heart had survived the death of the world and the turning of his flesh to undeath. His hatred of the ratmen was personal, and of all the tasks which the Undying King may assign to him, this was the one that was least likely to torment his conscience – except for fighting the hosts of Chaos, and even then the Slaves to Ruin were more pitiable and worthy of compassion than the verminous hordes.
Regardless of where, how or why, killing skavens was always a worthy endeavour. There was no possible way in which killing a creature of the Horned Rat could fail to make the Mortal Realms a better place.
Was this why he had been chosen ? Because, out of all of Nagash's generals, he was the one who held closest to that most human of emotions – anger ?
"It shall be done," said Felix Jaeger, Mortarch of Woe, as he knelt before the Undying King.
Even as he rose, he could not help but hear the distant scream of yet another part of the man he had been as it died.