by Allan Maki
Turbine Entertainment Software
My travels have allowed me to see nearly all Isparian-occupied territories on Dereth. I have observed sights both beautiful and horrible. I have always considered myself a rational and insightful man, but the events of this day have altered that belief in a way that I never thought possible.
I had taken a portal north to the town of Zaikhal. Reports had reached me that a Virindi installation had been discovered beneath a plateau nearby. It was my intention to enter the installation, observe them, and leave undetected. I reasoned that my expedition would take the greater part of a day, leaving enough time to pay a visit to my friend and colleague, Diyas al-Yat.
The wilderness was teeming with life, harmless and otherwise, so I was swift of foot to avoid needless confrontation. A soft rain fell from the sky, turning the red silt of the plateau into thick and runny clay. More than once I feared I would leave behind one of my sollerets, but the quest for knowledge spurred me onward.
As I crested a small hill, slick from the rain, I spied a green swirl. Exhilarated at the sight, I donned the jewelry I carried for combating the Virindi and their minions. Drawing my sword, I felt its magic flood me, augmenting my strength. I strapped my shield onto my arm and made my way into the portal prepared for whatever lay within.
Opaque windows, like those gracing Sho buildings, greeted me. The floor was soft and slick. The ceiling appeared to be an inverted shingled roof. Everything was surreal, covered in a viscous red ooze.
Each time I shifted my weight the floor made a wet sound. But my trek through the mud-hewn landscape outside was, unfortunately, not the cause of the sound. As I knelt to touch the floor's surface a thin pink mist rose to meet me. My hand pressed the ground and I felt the fleshy material give; I nearly retched.
An uneasy feeling filled me; I searched frantically for the portal from this accursed place. The rising mist concealed the portal from my vision but the humming sound was unmistakable. The portal to the outside rested near the west wall. Opposite the portal, a tunnel beckoned.
Flanked by two braziers emitting blue flame, the tunnel looked like a gaping maw ready to swallow any that ventured too close. The hair on my neck stood on end as I stared into the darkness beyond. Overwhelming fear washed over me, and I shuddered, but the answers I searched for lay somewhere down that foreboding corridor.
The walls shifted as I broached the threshold. Walking through the halls was akin to walking through a living mockery of Isparian architecture. My cautious steps slowed my progress, but keeping my presence veiled was the largest of my concerns. Never had I been so terrified.
The lack of defenses within the structure puzzled me. To this point I had been unhampered by even the lowliest of the Virindi's servitors.
In retrospect, it is very possible that my presence was already known.
After an hour of calculated steps, and cartography, I heard voices echo through the corridors. The voices were joined by the mews of a drudge and a sound like a thousand flies swarming within a jar. An obscured corner ahead drew me closer. Cautiously, I peered around to see what lay beyond.
On an altar some twenty feet away lay a drudge ravener, its head turned toward me at an impossible angle. Its cold, lifeless eyes bored a hole through me. I swallowed hard and watched as a Virindi puppet floated into view, produced two sickles, pierced the thick stone of the altar and pushed it away.
A second puppet maneuvered another altar into its place, this one occupied by a lifeless human corpse. Brown hair framed a thin face. Brown eyes, set deeply within his brow, rested above high cheekbones. Mortis had etched a sick smile on the dead man's face.
The puppet withdrew its sickles and floated down a ramp that lay just out of sight. Seizing the moment I vaulted across the hall into the heavy, looming shadow cast by the corner. Coming to rest against the opposite wall, I watched two more Virindi approach. One who wore robes darker than those of an Executor, moved to the center of the altar, facing me. The other, a Master, moved to the head of the dead man and gestured with a seemingly empty fold of cloth towards the shadowed wall. A brief flash of cerulean light bit nibbled at the darkness, and the room. . . shimmered.
A vague, vaporous curtain of azure-tinted energy rippled slowly down from the ceiling, like thunderclouds rolling in. It surrounded the altar in a perfect circle. The stink of lightning-burnt air pinched my nose. A massive blast of air then slammed into my chest, almost stealing the breath from my lungs. I shook my head to clear it as the odd, sudden wind burst whistled away through distant corridors.
The Master produced its sickles and lifted the corpses head with care. I blinked-- from the space inside the strange energy field, no further sounds came. The eyes of the corpse remained locked on me, as if pleading for assistance. The second Virindi produced a thin bladed knife from beneath the folds of its cloak and carved the head off the corpse with precision. The Master lifted the head and placed it on the corpse's midsection, so that it stared at me. Unnerved, I shifted, dried clay scraping beneath my solleret. Fortune smiled on me as my movement was minimal enough that it went unnoticed even in that strange blue silence.
The "surgeon" floated to the feet of the corpse as the Master returned to its head, slipping within the confines of the evanescent blue energies. I have seen the Virindi remove their masks countless times, but never had I seen what I did today.
From beneath the Master's tattered robes a vibrant, violet tentacle--translucent, almost crystalline, yet moving with the fluidity and suppleness of water--slipped between the corpse's shoulders. The soft light was swallowed by the void within the corpse. There was nothing inside; the corpse was hollow, nothing more than a shell. A loud buzz filled the corridor. Pink light cascaded from the room beyond, bathing the shadow in which I hid in searing rays. The exposed skin of my face burned, cracked, and peeled as I slammed my eyes shut and yelped in pain.
As the hall fell back into darkness, small explosions of violet hampered my vision. Through them I watched the last vestige of another tentacle slip from the Virindi's robe and into the shell.
The robes fell to the floor. The mask clattered off the side of the altar and cracked when it struck the floor. A swirling vortex of light poured from the spot where the head once fit onto the hollow corpse. Suddenly the hands grasped the head and it sat upright.
As it moved, the violet energy within cascaded over its shoulders. It affixed its head on its shoulders, and stared into the shadow where I hid.
No. . .
It stared. . . at me, through me.
"Have you enjoyed what you have witnessed?" The voice thundered inside my head speaking in the Roulean tongue. The blue glow vanished and a sharp crack of thunder lanced my ears, impelling me to clap my hands over them in pain. A low hum began to fill the hall. I turned and ran.
"You cannot escape, meatli--friend. Why can we not converse?" Retracing my steps I slipped on the slick floor and slid hard into the wall. Within my head there came a pain that I shall never forget. Deep within my mind I felt an itch, and then something began to scratch the itch inside my brain. It pulsated and swelled until the pain threatened to shatter my skull.
Struggling to my feet, I chanced a glance back toward the tunnel where the surgeon and master had been. Soaked in sweat, hearing only a hum and the pounding of my heart, I fled on toward the portal. The itching swelled, driving me, stumbling and skidding, to my knees once more. I bellowed in agony. Then all was silent, and the pain ceased.
In the calm that ensued I gasped for air, then retched onto the floor. My body trembled and I felt heavy with the weight of entropic ruin. My vision swam, unconsciousness encroached.
Then the hum returned, closer, accompanied by the sound of boots trudging along the spongy floor. Survival drove me to my feet. I wheeled to face the "surgeon" and the mock human. My knees threatened to buckle and I slammed against the wall behind me for support. Groaning, I adjusted the grip on my sword and began a defensive retreat.
"Where do you intend to go, fellow Isparian, Antius Blackmoor?" The voice asked inside my head.
"How--? How can you know my name?" I sputtered.
"We know all you know, fellow Isparian." The placid, molded smile on the simulacra's face seemed twisted and sinister. Its eyes no longer begged me for aid. They were probing me, sizing me up. "We thank you for your contribution to the New Singularity. Levistras will be pleased."
"I'll. . . kill. . . you. . . " I hissed through clenched teeth. I swung my blade toward the "surgeon," overwhelmed by hatred and rage.
Cleaving the cloak, it struck home and bit solid matter. It felt like hitting gelatin. The simulacra drew forth a quiddity sword and tried to land a blow upon me.
I slid along the wall to my right to avoid it. I parried a swipe from my floating assailant and sent his scalpel spinning onto the floor. My counterattack bit through its cloak once again. The cloak sizzled as if filled with hundreds of glowing flies, then fluttered to the ground, lifeless.
The simulacra scored a blow to my right thigh. Thick blood welled from a grievous wound. I returned the assault with a strike that severed the head from the being. A swarm of buzzing violet lights poured from the wound I opened. It crumpled to the floor in a high-pitched fit of noise. A thin rivulet of light lapped the ground, before it crumbled into a fine white dust.
Searching through the crumpled surgeon's cloak I found a shard of obsidian, etched with Virindi symbols, and the scalpel it once brandished. My head ached but the pain was minor compared to the pain I had felt only moments before.
Mews and Virindi rumblings filled the dungeon behind me. Slipping the scalpel into my belt pouch, I staggered to the portal from that forsaken hall.
Rain washed over me, cooling my head and the burned flesh of my face. Collapsing to the ground, I stared into the sky. After a long moment I applied healing herbs and a poultice to my wounded leg. With the injury abated, I stood and tossed the obsidian shard into the air. Time to visit Diyas, to decipher this thing.
A few moments later I saw my friend walking out of a shop atop a hill in Zaikhal.
"Diyas!" I called to him.
"Antius, good to see you my friend. What can I do for you?" He clapped my shoulder and smiled.
"Well for one, you can tell me what this says." I handed him the shard. He looked it over and a frown fell across his face.
A brisk wind picked up. I placed my hands into my pouch to ward off the chill as I waited for his response.
"Hmm, where did you come by this, Antius?" he asked.
"A Virindi stronghold, not that far from here." He nodded.
"Can you tell me what it says?" I asked.
"I could, Antius." He looked deep within my eyes. "But then--" His hands moved to his head and pressed hard against the sides, lifting. "--I think you already know what it says." His head came off, and violet energy poured from within.
Aghast, I leapt. My hands instinctively clutched the blade of the scalpel in my pouch. The pain and blood that resulted confirmed that this nightmare vision was real. I ran, screaming, and did not stop until I reached my home in Cragstone.