Shifters – An evolutionary descendant of humans, the Shifters are possessed of unique biology. Capable of unparalleled control of the body’s functions, they are able to adjust skin colour, hair length and colour, body density and even inflate themselves with air or fluids to create the illusion of muscles. They are only limited by their skeletal structure and gender as to the extents of their transformative skills. The main visible difference to other races they could imitate is their irises which vary between crimson to violet.
The Origin of Species – Morrigan de Bedoine
The city of Bedoine was the jewel in the Nimian crown. Tucked away in the centre of a forest in perpetual autumn the sprawling capital spread across an immense valley, hidden from view. The red and gold of the Nimian buildings helped to create the image of the forest being on fire, and the twisting and turning of the buildings only reinforced that idea. The constant ticking of the gears and clockwork mechanisms in every tower of Bedoine echoed off houses and other structures making a deafening sound for foreigners.
Morrigan was used to these sounds however. She sat in peace in the gardens of Bedoine’s main square and chewed nervously on her pen. The bench she was perched on, although identical to all other public benches in the city, was intricately carved from pine, painted crimson and then finished with gold. An immaculate paving of marble stretched between each of the buildings in the city whilst in the square an immense garden, surrounded by sculpted shrubberies and covered in mowed grass, sprawled across and reached the encroaching pavement.
The loud ticking now associated with Nimia could be heard all around due to the clockwork parts in almost everything; buildings, furniture, even jewellery and clothing had some degree of clockwork to it. There was even something of a trend amongst the amputees and a number of the guards and labourers for using clockwork limbs in place of their previous arms or legs. The superior strength that these new limbs had couldn’t be denied yet many believed them to be vastly inferior in other areas, such as dexterity or speed.
Behind Morrigan was the vast domed Museum of Sundering, a scarlet and ivory building that housed all of the relics from the pre-Sundering civilizations that had been discovered. Flanking it on both sides were the various towers of the foreign delegates; representatives from Luunus, Fenus, Gaer, Boran and even Dant were present. The unique architecture of each civilization was present in their towers, yet to many in Bedoine they proved a blemish upon their Nimian designs. In front of her was the Cathedral of Ra; the great observatory with the largest array of telescopes in the entirety of Nimia, designed to look like a great church of the old order.
And Morrigan knew a lot about the old order. She dipped her pen in a small glass vial of ink and resumed scribbling on her parchment. Yet more tales of the pre-Sundered Earth were taking shape on the paper; she was currently describing the fall of a civilisation that once existed just prior to the Sundering. From what she had gathered the area that was now Nimia was once a number of different nations that had been warring for countless centuries. The immense forests and hills surrounding Bedoine were once, according to her research, a number of islands that once ruled an immense empire spanning a majority of the globe before falling suddenly. The name of many pre-Sundering locations, rulers and events had been lost to history, yet some details had been saved, revealed in varying degrees by the gods themselves. Although she was knowledgeable on these subjects Morrigan took little pleasure in transcribing her thoughts about such matters.
‘Hey! How’s things with you, history girl?’ a nasally voice yelled across the square. Morrigan looked up to see a young thin ork pacing towards her across the lawn. He was dressed in the typical suit of an astronomer; a red shirt obscured by a white waistcoat and cravat, pale trousers, silver shoes and a chrome coloured pair of spectacles. His dark hair had been shaved short to show that he was still an apprentice while the broach on his waistcoat and the crimson tint to his lenses showed that he was specialising in solar studies. His olive coloured skin glistened with sweat in the sunlight and his immaculate, inch long fangs stuck from his upper lip, chewing madly on his lower lip.
‘Hello Ludwig,’ Morrigan replied, smirking mischievously. ‘Do you have any idea how dull it is researching the pre-Sundered world? There’s hardly anything to go by on anything so half of this just ends up being idle speculation! I wish the gods would just tell us all the details here rather than keeping us in the dark.’
The ork stopped just in front of Morrigan and scratched his chin. ‘I’m sure they have their reasons, otherwise they would’ve told us everything in the oral histories. Well, your old pal Ludwig’s done it again. I successfully predicted the orbit of Pluto around Jupiter.’
Morrigan giggled to herself. ‘Ludwig, surely you of all people must know that Pluto orbits both suns!’
‘Just because the orbit of Pluto occasionally includes Sol doesn’t mean it is restricted to that one pattern; the orbit of Pluto was originally though too erratic to predict since it would orbit each sun independently at different times. Luckily for me I just predicted one of its paths.’ Ludwig failed to suppress his smug joy at this and grinned widely, brushing non-existent dirt from his shirt sleeve. ‘I’m surely going to be promoted to Adept for this!’
‘Congratulations!’ Morrigan chuckled as Ludwig continued his attempts at appearing modest yet failing. ‘I’m sure Adept Ludwig de Rostand would have no objections with hanging around with a mere historian.’
‘Of course not, Archivist Morrigan,’ Ludwig smiled back. ‘What are you actually writing there?’
Morrigan frowned at the sheets of parchment before her. ‘The Museum asked me to research into events just prior to the Sundering. So far, from what I can tell, it took place just when the gods first appeared and the second sun ignited. I don’t know if they’re related at all but it could be one hell of a coincidence if they aren’t.’
‘Well, isn’t that the discovery of the century!’ Ludwig said in a sarcastic tone.
Morrigan scowled and stuck her tongue out in defiance. ‘It can’t be anymore controversial than my last paper I wrote for them.’
‘Oh yes, I remember that one,’ Ludwig sat down beside her and smirked. ‘They were certainly unhappy about that one.’
Morrigan slammed down her quill and brushed her hair back as casually as possible. ‘I mean, these scholars were told specifically by Ra that we were supposed to be a secular society. No religion, but the Gods were to guide us. They’re too set in the old ways though! They refuse to accept any other theories other than the Gods creating the different races! They refuse to believe that each of the sentient races could have come about from one common ancestor that survived the Sundering! They even refuse to admit evolution as a credible theory!’
Ludwig shifted uneasily on the bench. ‘Okay, before you bite my head off about this, I’m not defending the senior scholars here…’
‘…But…?’ Morrigan began frowning deeply.
‘…But I can understand why it’d be so difficult for them to comprehend it. I mean, look at how different the races are, it must seem difficult for them to think that they could’ve came from one ancestor.’
Morrigan placed her papers into her satchel, stood up and smoothed down her uniform. At first glance it seemed a similar crimson uniform to that of Ludwig’s yet designed for the intellectual elite. A golden shirt was paired with a crimson waistcoat, cravat and a fitted, tailed jacket. A pair of golden breeches, red stockings and shoes were common for both men and women in her profession, as were the gold rimmed spectacles she wore. Her tanned skin and the deep red mane that hid her elongated ears completed her apparently patriotic look; the red and gold of Nimia covering her from head to toe.
‘Well I’ll admit some of them, like say the Wolvyn and Elders are probably from entirely different ancestors since they’re the most different from the other races, but still; we do share some similarities. I mean, all of the races can interbreed and can’t with other creatures.’
‘But it’s still frowned upon by most societies,’ Ludwig agreed, nodding his head slowly.
‘That goes without saying, it’s still possible though, right?’ Morrigan began pacing in front of the bench. ‘But just think for a second about lizards, okay?’
‘Lizards?’ Ludwig frowned in confusion.
‘Bear with me here,’ Morrigan waved her hand at him. ‘A few centuries ago there were only three kinds of lizards around; tanks, gators and common lizards. We went and domesticated the common lizards as pets and now look at them. There are countless different breeds; haired, smooth skinned, gatoids, flying and so on. Now, that was only possible when we bred them together for different traits.’
‘Are you saying we’re the result of some breeding programme?’ Ludwig frowned deeper.
‘I’m not saying that, but if in just a few centuries the lizards could develop so differently when guided, imagine how one race could develop over millennia when left to their own devices without outside involvement,’ Morrigan crossed her arms and stood in front of Ludwig.
A sudden chuckle escaped Ludwig. ‘I wasn’t expecting a lecture on my lunch-break to be honest.’
Morrigan gave a small smile and slumped back onto the chair beside Ludwig. ‘You love it really though, don’t you.’
‘Of course,’ he laughed. ‘Almost as much as you enjoy hearing yourself give those sodding lectures!’
Ludwig stopped chuckling instantly. A secondary lens dropped down in front of his spectacles, magnifying everything as he looked beyond Morrigan.
‘What is it?’ She tilted her head out of the way of Ludwig’s line of sight.
‘Some guard pointing a Luunite in our direction,’ another lens popped down in front of the second as he spoke. ‘Yeah, definitely in this direction and definitely at us two.’
‘Nice spectacles by the way,’ Morrigan smirked.
‘Thanks,’ Ludwig beamed, the magnifying lenses disappearing out of sight once more. ‘Standard issue for astrologers don’t you know. The magnifiers are triggered by muscle tension in the temples. It’s really clever stuff.’
‘Sounds that way,’ Morrigan giggled. She turned to see the Luunite Ludwig had mentioned and her eyebrows arched.
As the Luunite finished talking to the bemused looking guards he headed straight over towards Morrigan and Ludwig. A loud ticking came from Ludwig’s spectacles as the secondary lenses descended from the rims once more and stopped in front of his pupils. ‘He’s fairly well built but doesn’t seem to have any mental impediment… so he may not pose a threat but he could cause damage if he did,’ Ludwig stated, relieved. ‘You know what those religious nutcases are like.’ The magnifying lenses slotted back to their original position just as the Luunite came within range. An albino priest, he seemed completely out of place here. His ceremonial head-dress, shaped like the stag of Artemis with antlers sprouting from the forehead and facing backwards, obscured his head completely. The only clothing he wore was a basic blue robe, covering half of his torso and the entirety of his legs yet leaving his arms exposed. He wore elaborate jewellery around his neck and wrists and carried a rolled-up scroll and a long platinum staff.
‘Pardon me, good Nimians,’ The Luunite said in the typical lyrical tone of one of his people. ‘My name is Brother Malkus, I was wondering if you could help me find someone.’
Ludwig placed his hands in his waistcoat pockets and attempted to look as nonchalant as possible. ‘Oh? Who is it you’re looking for?’
The Luunite’s voice perked up immediately. ‘Ah, I knew at least one person would help me! The guards here are most unhelpful to one such as myself. I’m looking for an Undying girl by the name of Morrigan de Bedoine -’
Morrigan’s jaw dropped. ‘Well, that’s me actually. Why are you looking for me?’
‘Artemis himself came to me, he told me that I was to meet you and a Fenite and speak to Ra, he supposedly has some need for us,’ the priest bowed his head at the mention of his god’s name.
‘Oh? I was unaware of this, why would Ra want to speak to me,’ Morrigan rose to her feet.
‘I believe you may want to ask him yourself since we are to speak with him,’ the Luunite gestured at the cathedral behind him. ‘I believe he wanted to see us in his “Cathedral”, if you could call it such.’
Morrigan turned to Ludwig. ‘Sorry about this Luddy, I’m sure we could have lunch another time?’
‘Of course,’ Ludwig smiled, hiding his dejection. ‘I’m more than happy to take second-place to Ra of all people. I’d hurry if I were you.’
Morrigan smiled and began trudging towards the Cathedral, Luunite in tow. A gentle humming from the priest made Morrigan shake her head in annoyance. Just as they reached the huge doors to the Cathedral a huge figure in a long black calico coat grabbed her arm. Morrigan leapt in fright, faced him and the priest raised his staff. The figure raised his left arm in a defensive gesture only providing a scarred stump to ward them away. His face couldn’t be seen under his tilted tricorne hat and the braided beard he sported.
‘Are you Morrigan de Bedoine?’ he grunted, his voice like that of an angered bear.
‘Yes,’ she replied, her voice quivering slightly. The priest strode beside her and shoved the figure off her. ‘Why?’
‘I believe you were meant to meet a Luunite and a Fenite.’
Malkus felt uneasy being in Nimia; this was a nation that was the exact opposite of his home of Luunus in every way. Whereas Nimia was a forested country with great technological advances, constant sunlight and surrounded on all sides by the other nations of that continent, the great island of Luunus was placed on the opposite end of the Broken Earth, stuck in perpetual darkness thereby making it an immense desert trapped in a never-ending night. The society there was completely different as a result; stuck in a rigid caste structure with a majority of people surviving as nomads and unable to gain as much technology compared to the Nimiens. ‘At least we Luunites don’t hide behind pretention and gears,’ Malkus thought. ‘We only hide ourselves behind obvious masks rather than the Nimian bureaucracy and technology.’
The interior of the Cathedral of Ra seemed blasphemous to Malkus. As a priest himself, religion was essential to Malkus, yet this was like no church he had ever come across. This cathedral, if it could be called such, was laid out more like an observatory; there were countless rooms branching from the corridor he walked along and each was filled with telescopes and various other pieces of scientific equipment whose purpose Malkus could only guess at. There were laboratories, lecture theatres and the occasional darkroom for studying the stars in greater detail. All of these rooms were situated in this huge gothic-appearing building; every wall and the floor were made of marble bricks which blended seamlessly with each other, whilst gargoyles in the image of the other gods and busts of famous former attendants of the cathedral adorned the ceiling. The contrast in these small statues was astonishing; the busts were complimentary, showing the alumni to be wise old men and women, yet the gargoyles were twisted mockeries of the gods, obviously propaganda to benefit Ra’s image amongst his own people.
He was also uneasy with his current company. The girl Morrigan was shorter than most Undying yet shared their typical aloof yet mischievous demeanour. Dressed in a typical Nimian uniform she was the epitome of everything he stood against; the so called ‘intellectual elite’ that scoffed at the old ways, preferring to bury their heads in books or look at the stars than focus on important matters such as society and tradition.
The Fenite had Malkus especially on guard. This shadowy figure had some kind of aura that made the priest queasy, some air of death and defiance surrounded him. He wore a dark tricorne hat, black calico jacket and breeches. His waistcoat, shirt, stockings, gloves and boots were also black. Was this in mourning or for secrecy? His face had an intricate Fenite battalion tattoo across it, a tattoo that would no doubt cover his body and tally his kills for the army or navy. The Fenite’s lime-green eyes were sunken in their dark sockets and his hawk-like nose appeared to have been broken at some point. His long dark beard had a streak of white starting at his lower lip and his facial hair, along with that on his head, were braided and tied off with steel rings but it was the man’s missing hand that had him particularly uneasy. The original wound that severed the hand was old, Malkus could see from the scar tissue, yet newer scars were among that, suggesting he’d suffered more injuries to it.
‘You know where you’re going?’ the Fenite grumbled.
‘We’re going to the Chamber of the Sun God,’ the girl stated. ‘It’s just down this corridor. You should be proud; very few are allowed an audience with Ra.’
Malkus spoke out immediately. ‘I do not take pride in meeting any god other than my own. This is a travesty of a church; your holy places are devoted to science rather than worship.’
Morrigan laughed and smirked at that comment. ‘Well, I think you should make that point to Ra when we see him, I’m sure he’ll have something to say on that matter.’
The Fenite glared ahead, his dark face looked far too old for his body; ravaged by years of combat and training. He could have been no more than thirty five years old yet his face was that of a man nearly twice that age. This was fairly common among the nomads of Luunite society too yet it was somewhat limited by his people’s tradition of wearing masks that covered the entire head. It was not only a sign of humility to Artemis but also a practical way of shielding themselves from the desert winds.
Before long they reached the thick oak doors to the Chamber of the Sun God. The doors themselves were inscribed with countless Nimien runes and images describing the various theories of the Sundering. Half a dozen red clad guards flanked the doors and as the group approached them, they tugged on the immense golden handles. The guards grimaced and groaned as they pulled the heavy doors open but eventually they were ajar before Ra’s intended audience reached the entrance. They hadn’t even walked through the doorway before the guards began pushing the doors closed once again.
As the doors slammed shut behind them the four companions stared around the chamber in awe. It was the single most lavishly furnished room Malkus had ever seen; there wasn’t a single inch of wall or furniture that wasn’t covered in gold. There were exquisite paintings over most of the walls, innumerable bookcases packed with leather-bound tomes and a gargantuan telescope at the back of the room. There were four golden chairs, padded with scarlet silk, pulled out in front of a circular oak desk covered in papers. Another, more modest pine seat was on the opposite side of the desk, yet remained empty.
‘Ah, so nice of you to join me here,’ the deep voice boomed across the room. ‘I would’ve invited you all here earlier but, unfortunately, we were missing the scholar.’ Malkus and the others searched around the room for the source of the voice.
‘What are we doing here, Ra? Where are you?’ The Fenite yelled with irritation clear in his voice.
The voice laughed loudly. ‘I see there’s no need for formalities with you then. But for the benefit of the others allow me to introduce myself.’ From behind the telescope a tall, pale, thin man emerged, arms outstretched in greetings. He seemed deceptively young, despite his completely bald head, and was wearing a more elegant form of the typical astronomer uniform to express his rank as the head of that order. His sleeves were rolled up to the elbow, revealing a golden wristwatch, a fairly recent invention in Nimia, and a long, intricate, glowing red tattoo which appeared to be a string of runes stretching from both hands and up his arms. Another tattoo, possibly the same one in fact, covered his neck and the back of his hairless head. This didn’t appear to be a divine being to Malkus. ‘I am Ra, one of the gods of Nimia.’
‘…You are only one of the Nimian gods? I thought you were the only one,’ the Fenite said, feigning shock.
‘Tyr clearly doesn’t educate your people much, does he?’ Ra chuckled, oblivious to the Fenite’s sarcasm, his rumbling voice seeming unnatural for such a wiry man. ‘There are many of us, as is the case with all of the different nation’s deities; I am merely one of the more prominent gods. We each founded Nimia and as a result we each rule over a different province. I lead Bedoine, Osiris leads Renoit, Anubis lords over Amun, Horus has Barcel, so on and so forth. It just so happens that, as this is the capital city of Nimia, I’ve been given a position of elevated power over the other Nimian deities.’
‘Osiris, huh?’ The Fenite snorted. ‘Last time I heard that name was on a ship I sacked.’
‘Ah yes, I do remember hearing reports on that attack,’ Ra scratched at his chin. ‘I remember being quite displeased when I heard a ship only a quarter the Osiris’ size had destroyed it.’
The Fenite nodded and laughed yet the other two stared on at Ra. This man looked nothing like any form of deity or divine being; in fact he looked more like a young tribesman, placed into clothing he is unfamiliar with. Simply the informality with which he wore the astronomer uniform suggested he was unfamiliar with their society. Ra picked up on this immediately and chuckled once again.
‘Yes, I do realise I look nothing like the preconception of a god, yet here I stand before you; one of the final remnants of the pre-Sundered Earth. The things I have seen in all these long years, it would boil your brain to know what I do, Morrigan.’
Morrigan appeared surprised. ‘You know my name?’
‘Of course I do, girl,’ Ra smiled warmly as he walked over to Morrigan and placed a hand on her shoulder. ‘Why do you think I had the Museum involve you in the Sundering research despite all your controversial studies? Because you were the best candidate for the task I am to lie before you, before all of you here.’
‘What task might that be?’ the Fenite asked. He was an extremely inquisitive one, uncommon for his people Malkus thought.
‘I shall move on to that in a moment, before that I believe some introductions are in order amongst this motley crew.’ Ra walked around the desk and sat in his pine seat, indicating at the group to sit at the other chairs. The Nimian sat immediately whilst Malkus stood behind them and the Fenite leaned himself on the back of one of the chairs. ‘This is Morrigan de Bedoine, Archivist of the Museum of Sundering and an expert on Nimien history. The Luunite, I know, is Brother Cregg Malkus, a priest of Artemis who was sent to me by his god to aid this endeavour. Similarly the Fenite is Captain Rogan Darkmoor, a man I recruited personally with Tyr’s recommendation due to his ability to survive impossible situations. There would have been a fourth representative from Dant, Vepar Palemaw however the message didn’t seem to reach Belial.’
‘How do you know who we are?’ Malkus demanded immediately.
‘Malkus, you must realise, your cultures have a stake in this too; Artemis and Tyr demanded representatives from your nations present and they selected you both personally.’ Ra smiled warmly once again. ‘I’m sure that would make you especially proud.’
He had to admit he was now feeling a great sense of pride; that Artemis himself picked Malkus to join this group. Yet it was still unclear what he was sent to do, and why a priest of all people was necessary. Before he could ask that question the young Undying spoke for him.
‘You are being sent to find a certain treasure from before the Sundering. There is a contraption somewhere deep in the Northern Wastes that was called the Godmaker; it was a device so powerful it could grant an ordinary mortal divine power. I am sending you to find it and destroy it before it falls into the wrong hands.’ Ra stated, his expression becoming colder and grimmer and his eyes, now staring directly and Malkus, revealed his great age. ‘The Fenite is here to hopefully provide passage for you, guide you and defend you from those that would try to stop you, whilst the priest here should apply his knowledge of the divine in case the Godmaker has been used and should serve as something of a survival expert and scout, as he was one of the warrior-priests of Luunus. And Morrigan, your importance in this goes without saying; you’re the only one that can actually find the location of this Godmaker and work out how to destroy it.’
‘What do you care about the divine?’ Malkus found himself yelling. ‘You go under the guise of a divine being yet you devote your people to a religion based on science! I have read enough of the tales to recognise that foul blemish!’
Immediately Ra warmed again and smiled fatherly at Malkus. ‘I do love priests so. What you see here is not science; it is merely the pursuit of knowledge. Science was outlawed by me and the fellow gods as it was a symptom of the problems with pre-Sundered civilisation; people had lost faith and became a cynical collection of cultures. I have not reintroduced science, I have merely side-tracked my worshippers to increasing their own intellect.’
The Fenite straightened and smiled at the god. ‘Well, I’d be more than happy to help but I have a few conditions.’
‘Oh? And what would those be Captain?’ Ra smiled bemusedly.
‘First I’ll need a ship,’ the Fenite counted his terms off on his good hand. ‘Something small’d do, they’re usually faster anyway. Secondly I’ll need a crew hand-picked by me. Thirdly, I’ll need some sort of payment. These two here may be more than happy to do this from the goodness of their heart but the rest of us need something to live on. And Finally…’ He slammed his ruined stump on Ra’s desk. ‘I’ll need something for this.’
‘Don’t worry my boy, I’ll give you everything you need,’ Ra beamed. ‘And your payment shall be substantial, as should be expected.’
The Fenite straightened once more and smiled. ‘Then I’m sold. Let’s be off!’
‘Wait,’ Morrigan raised her hands. ‘Where do I begin? I have no idea where this thing is!’
‘I have a rough idea, but I can only relate that knowledge to pre-Sundered geography,’ Ra stated. ‘Consult the maps and records for the Tyne region; it should be under records for the United Kingdom.’ Morrigan nodded and stood to leave. ‘I advise you all start your search as soon as possible, time is of dire importance here. Good day gentlemen.’
The three rose to their feet and began filing out the door. ‘There’s something he wasn’t telling us,’ Malkus thought. ‘He knows more about this than he’s letting on.’
Vepar was nervous. He was a worrier by nature but this occasion made him particularly anxious. Belial wished to speak with him. The lord of Malebolge himself wished to speak with Vepar; a humble servant, the son of a baker.
The journey from Dis to the fortress city of Malebolge was a fatal one; it was often used as a form of torture by Leviathan due to the physical and mental stamina needed. Countless people had died travelling that same route, on foot or otherwise, from one cause or another. Either the searing volcanic wastes with their unpredictable eruptions and earthquakes, the terrifying predators of the savannah, the poisonous waters of the swamps or sheer exhaustion would eventually kill most travellers. But not Vepar; he was different.
As one of the few remaining Wolvyn left in Dant Vepar had a unique advantage over all others that tried the journey to Malebolge; his people evolved to cope with that environment. Even though he was only a half-breed, he was still excellent at crossing the varying terrain. That was the advantage to half-breed Wolvyn; they had the bestial strength and stamina of one of the wolf-folk and the intelligence and civility of a human. Of course a union between those two races was always a taboo, even in Dant.
Vepar finally reached the keep of Malebolge a week after he had set off; seven days of constant running. The fortress was built into the side of one of the tallest peaks in Dant, a mountain that despite its immense height still lacked the white blanket of snow that all others outside of that nation had. Many people suspected that Mount Malebolge was yet another of Dant’s volcanoes and was merely dormant, yet if this was the case surely Belial, a god in his own right, wouldn’t choose that location to build his capital.
The obsidian walls of the keep blended in seamlessly with the dark surface of the mountain, the damage from centuries of weather and siege warfare making Malebolge seem like a natural structure. Several towers loomed over the walls, their surfaces covered in patches of rusted iron to hide any of the holes and craters from the last battle staged at the castle. The parapets of the palace could be seen off in the distance, creeping up the side of the mountain, and the smoke from the continuously burning pyres in the main square choked anything living in the nearby area and blackened the sky for miles around. The wasteland that stretched from the keep was completely devoid of life; the ground appeared to be made of slate as it was so dark and unforgiving. Vepar walked across the iron-paved Path of Leviathan up to the castle gates; a portcullis crafted from a darkened iron, covered in patches of rust, which was wide enough to allow a dozen Taurs to pass through without any difficulty.
As Vepar approached the portcullis creaked open and a pair of crudely dressed orkish guards flanked him as he took the iron path that lead towards the palace. Vepar slowed his pace as he walked up the path, taking in as much of Malebolge in as he could. The numerous pyres were being tended to by burly Taurs throwing wood and bones into the fire, the various workshops across the keep echoed with the sounds of metal being hammered and a number of lanky demons skittered across the courtyard, carrying unidentifiable animal corpses. There wasn’t a single building that wasn’t in some state of disrepair and the inhabitants of the keep were haggard, some of whom appeared to have gone without food or sleep for weeks. Still, this was a paradise compared to most of the other towns of Dant.
The snorting breath and the clattering of improvised armour (salvaged from scraps of other culture’s armours no doubt) from the guards at his side alerted Vepar that he was approaching the Palace of Belial. The dark, circular building was covered in parapets, piercing it through the centre of its pitted surface and giving it the appearance of a speared beast or an immense porcupine. There was no door or gate, just a huge hole blown into the front of the palace which was heavily guarded. As Vepar approached the entrance the half-dozen guards that barricaded it stepped aside, kneeling in respect for him. This was something Vepar was unused to; he had always had a humble upbringing. The entire palace was carved from a single immense shard of solid obsidian which absorbed all light, so when Vepar passed through the entrance he was caught off guard by the darkness that surrounded him.
After a few seconds spent waiting for his eyes to become accustomed to the light Vepar continued down the dark, candlelit corridor leading to Belial’s throne room. The walls were decorated with tapestries commemorating infamous battles in Dant and tales of legend. Belial’s personal honour-guards patrolled the corridor, their armours personally crafted by the great Hephaestus, the gods’ personal blacksmith in the old times, before the war began. Their black breastplates still looked freshly made though the weapons the carried with them, vicious looking spears, appeared to have seen decades of use. These guards were the most distinguished in Malebolge, having served Belial for the longest of all his soldiers, in both guard and frontline duties.
A brightly lit mirror hung just beside the doors to the throne room; it seemed to give off its own light source behind the reflective surface. Vepar examined himself, making sure he looked his best for the demon lord. The Wolvyn half-breed lacked many of the features that distinguished his father’s race; he had a short muzzle as opposed to the long snout of the wolf-folk, his nose was that of a human (albeit smaller than most humans’) and was slightly dark, making it appear canine in nature, he lacked the tail and padded palms all true Wolvyn had and he regularly shaved his fur, revealing his pale skin covered in a dark stubble on every exposed patch. His ears were pointed and lay higher up on his head than those of a human, his canine teeth were over-developed and his iris was larger than that of the other humanoid races, making his eyes appear far darker. Sharp, talon like claws extended from the ends of his fingers although they had been trimmed short, his naked feet were human-like in appearance yet had the dark padding of a canine and the black tufts of hair on his head were stuck bolt upright, regardless of how hard he tried he was unable to flatten it. Although he had what many would consider to be a bestial visage he was dressed in the finest silks that a servant of Leviathan could wear, a slate grey uniform lined with a faux-silver trim around the edges of the material.
Vepar finished preening himself before standing before the ebony doors. The ork guards that had flanked him the entire way through Malebolge walked on ahead and pulled the doors open for him, standing in silent salute at either wall of the corridor. Vepar paced silently into the long throne room. The huge cavity in the centre of the palace was largely empty; the walls were bare, there was little furniture (excluding the occasional chair placed against the wall, yet these were all occupied by the judgemental courtesans and ambassadors from other regions of Dant) and the only source of light came from the tiny holes in the ceiling, the damage from the Fenite’s ‘iron rain’ that was used in a siege countless years ago, focusing what little sunlight Dant received into the chamber. On the far side of the room was the throne of Belial itself. The throne was not one in the traditional sense of the word; it was an elevated platform that was completely veiled, yet the silhouettes of the spined, sea-urchin shaped throne and its occupant could be seen.
A loud serpentine voice hissed to life as Vepar neared the throne, echoing around the room. ‘So, this is the servant of Leviathan? I must say I am not impressed.’
‘Indeed, I am one of Leviathan’s court. I assure you, however, that if I fail to meet your standards then the transgression is with you; you requested my presence yourself,’ Vepar grunted, spreading his shoulders and raising his head in a defiant stance.
The voice cackled coldly. ‘Ah, now I see why the Lady Leviathan recommended you! You are one of the few that would dare such a bold speech, and for that I commend you. It is so rare to find any that aren’t completely submissive to the immortal ones such as I.’
‘If I am somewhat more rebellious than my fellow Dantens, then that is part of my racial nature. As a half-breed I admit I am less likely to conform to either of my parent races or the majority population as they are responsible for many acts of racism and prejudice against me.’ Vepar stated.
‘True, although I guess that it is true that your upbringing is a factor too. Being the product of a Wolvyn raping a human commoner must surely have been a cause of grief for your mother, and a source of gossip for the rest of Dis, not to mention that same rapist settling to become a baker!’ the voice replied.
‘I was not aware I was summoned here purely for conversation and psychological speculation,’ Vepar barked.
Another harsh laugh came from behind the veil, now far louder with the hissing diminished. ‘Excellent, straight to business with you. A message has reached us only now of an expedition to the Northern wastes. We were requested to pick a representative from our subjects to join a Nimian scholar, Luunite priest and Fenite pirate. Leviathan was quick to recommend you, however due to the distance you had to travel here it is unlikely that you are to join them from the beginning. Therefore you are to meet with them later in their journey to ensure they succeed in their endeavour.’
‘I hope you don’t mind my asking, but who are these others on this expedition?’ Vepar inquired.
‘It’s fairly clear you don’t care as to whether or not I mind your asking otherwise you would have asked the question after gauging my reaction to a question,’ the voice hissed. ‘But I shall indulge you this once. The Luunite is Brother Cregg Malkus, a warrior-priest, the Nimian is Morrigan de Bedoine, a historian, and the Fenite is Captain Rogan Darkmoor…’
‘Darkmoor? That butcher? By the seven hells, I didn’t realise that the gods were up for taking genocidal maniacs!’ Vepar had heard all about the atrocities that Captain Rogan Darkmoor had committed while serving in the Fenite army. He’d ravaged towns in their dozens, leaving countless orphans and widows. Only the young and ill were spared from his blade.
‘Indeed, we are keen to take in any that can fulfil the tasks we lay before them. Rogan Darkmoor may have become disillusioned with the Gods but there was a time when he would commit any act Tyr Gave to him.’
‘We’re digressing Lord Belial,’ Vepar crossed his arms behind his back. ‘What is the point of this expedition you’re sending me on?’
‘They are searching for an artefact from the Machine Years, before the Sundering; it is called the Godmaker and it holds the power to imbue any mortal with the powers of the gods,’ the voice hissed. ‘It must be destroyed before any others reach it!’
‘…You believe that should be my task?’ Vepar wrinkled his forehead in confusion.
‘No, young one. It is to be the task of all four of you,’ the voice sneered. ‘Do not fail me Wolvyn, or I shall have to call upon the service of my preferred choice.’
Vepar clenched his fists and his jaw. ‘I must correct you in that, I am only half Wolvyn. And I must also ask who this preferred choice of yours may be.’
‘I believe I should introduce you to my trusted hands; Moros and Erebos.’ The figure speaking indicated with a wiry arm as two humans, a young man and woman, stood at either side of the throne. Both of them were dressed in the uniform of an honour-guard sans helm, both had a similar ivory-coloured, sharp face and the same pale hair (‘Twins I guess,’ Vepar thought) and they had an identical aloof expression on their face. The pair had the scarlet runes running across their body that indicated their status as immortals (not quite on par with the greater gods, yet still far above any mortals) and both had their weapons drawn; the male had a wicked, ebony bow whilst the female held a steel claymore that was notched along one side of the blade. ‘The twins have been with me since the beginning, so naturally I should dispatch them on this most essential of tasks.’
‘I don’t believe they would be necessary on such an endeavour, I intend to prove myself to you by succeeding,’ Vepar raised his chin at the throne. The twins scowled back at him.
The figure pointed directly at Vepar. ‘You had better not fail, Vepar. Alot is at stake here and I’d be damned before I allow Dant to be disgraced by your failure. Is that understood?’ the figure rasped.
‘Of course, Lord Belial; I shall head for Nimia immediately.’ Vepar stated and turned before finishing his sentence. He paced quickly for the exit and was flanked within a nanosecond by the twins.
The male leaned in close to him, his eyes burning a deep yellow. ‘I sincerely hope you do fail, little pup.’
‘You’d better hope you don’t see us again, pup,’ the female stated. ‘It’d be the last thing you do.’
Vepar gulped and resumed his journey to the exit. ‘They’ve just given me every excuse I needed to succeed then,’ he thought.
‘Wake up!’ came the harsh grunt from Morrigan’s left. She prized her eyes open, inhaling sharply as she sat up. A small moment of fear had gripped her. She was lying in bed, dressed in her long, plain white nightgown. She looked around her room in worry. Everything was as it should be. The golden furniture ticked away as usual, the drawers and doors ready to open by trigger if she approached, pictures and decorations where she left them. The window was open, allowing the sunlight of both suns to flood in. All appeared normal until she heard a crunch to her left.
She gasped and turned to see Rogan Darkmoor leaning in the doorway, half dressed and chewing an apple. She’d almost forgotten that yesterday had taken place; that she’d met Ra, that she’d been assigned an impossible sounding task and that she’d allowed two complete strangers, a preacher and a rogue, stay in her house. She quickly covered herself with her blanket and blushed.
‘Don’t worry lass, it’s nothing I haven’t seen before,’ Rogan muttered between chews. ‘Besides there’s nothing on show there anyway.’
‘Erm… thanks?’ Morrigan brushed her hair from her face yet kept her blanket tight around her top. ‘What are you doing here?’
‘You invited me, remember?’ Rogan bit into the apple loudly.
‘No, I mean what are you doing in my room?’ she frowned.
‘Oh,’ Rogan swallowed a mouthful of apple and coughed quietly. ‘Just wanted to wake you so we can start getting ready to leave early, and show off my new hand, courtesy of Ra.’ Rogan waved his left hand, displaying the most elaborate clockwork hand she had ever seen. The fingers each worked independently with the correct points of articulation and the number of gears to it were immense. The gears themselves were tiny and the palm, fingers and knuckles were covered in a golden plating. At the flick of his wrist an immense rapier blade slid from the middle finger. ‘Clever isn’t it?’
‘Charming,’ Morrigan faked a smile and clambered out bed and headed to the wardrobe. The doors jerked open automatically and slowly as she approached, revealing a number of identical scholar uniforms. ‘Do you mind?’
‘Of course not,’ Rogan stood in the door way, finishing his apple in immense bites.
‘I mean do you mind leaving? I’m about to get dressed,’ Morrigan raised her voice.
Rogan turned and closed the pine door, shaking his head. ‘You’re overestimating your looks though, I’ve seen better,’ Rogan yelled through the door.
Morrigan frowned as she hurriedly dressed herself, packed a pair of grubby satchels with books and parchment and prised the door open.
She strode out the bedroom into the main room of her home. It was a simple flat in one of the few stationary towers in Bedoine. Only one bedroom, an ensuite bathroom and a kitchen. The rest of the flat was taken up by the main room; her living room-come-office. The walls were adorned with tapestries and pictures of various antiquities. There were several full bookcases taking up the far wall and a pair of intricately carved everwood chairs at a long desk covered in papers. Three long, ornate chaise longue took up the centre of the room, two of which had been draped over with spare blankets.
There was no sign of Rogan anywhere. A sudden knocking at the door caused Morrigan to jump. She ran to the front door and opened it. It was Ludwig, dressed in an identical uniform to the one he sported yesterday.
‘Hello Morrigan,’ he beamed. ‘Are you busy at all?’
‘Oh, Ludwig, sorry but I’m busy packing,’ Morrigan sighed.
Ludwig shifted slightly and stared at his shoes. ‘It’s actually about that. May I come in?’ Morrigan nodded and stepped aside as Ludwig barged his way into the flat.
‘Who’s this?’ Rogan mumbled, still chewing his apple as he rounded the corner from Morrigan’s bedroom.
‘I’m Ludwig,’ the ork beamed, extending his arm for a handshake.
Rogan stared at his hand for a long minute. ‘You’re name’s ridiculous. And I wouldn’t advise that, I’d have to shake with my left hand and I just got a clockwork replacement.’
‘Oh, scared I might damage it?’ Ludwig giggled.
‘No,’ Rogan looked deadly sober. He flicked his wrist again and the rapier blade extended once more, stopping an inch short of Ludwig’s nose. ‘I’m scared I might damaged yours, lad.’
‘What are you here for, Ludwig?’ Morrigan hissed, shoving Rogan’s shoulder.
Ludwig stared at his shoes once more. ‘It’s about this mission or whatever it is Ra sent you on. Everyone’s been talking about it at the Cathedral. I want to come with you.’
‘Well it’s not up to me Ludwig,’ Morrigan stuttered. ‘It’s up to…’
‘No chance, you couldn’t cut it,’ Rogan grunted.
Morrigan placed her hands on her hips and glared at him. ‘I was about to say it’s up to Ra.’
‘I’m the one providing passage, I’m Captain, my word is fucking law here and he wouldn’t survive,’ Rogan took another loud bite of the apple. Malkus emerged from the kitchen, still sporting his stag head-dress and tilted his head at Ludwig.
‘I think he should come with us,’ Malkus sang. ‘He has a good heart and is eager; we could use someone like him.’
‘No fucking chance priest,’ Rogan roared. ‘We’re going to be going on a pretty bloody dark voyage here and I don’t think some eager gobshite is going to be of any help.’
Ludwig clenched his jaw, trying to maintain his calmness. ‘I can help…’
‘What can you do to help us?’ Malkus asked as he paced across the room to the other three.
‘I’m an astronomer, I can help navigate,’ Ludwig scowled.
Rogan laughed unexpectedly and clapped Ludwig on the shoulder. ‘Help navigate, huh? Tell you what; I’ll let you come if you agree to be our snotty.’
Both Morrigan and Ludwig stared at Rogan in confusion. ‘What’s a snotty?’ the ork asked.
‘A midshipman, lad,’ he sighed. ‘It’s nautical slang.’
Ludwig coughed and stared at his feet once more. ‘And what’s a midshipman?’
‘You really have no idea about how a ship is run, do you?’ Rogan removed his hat and rubbed at his temples. ‘It’s the most junior officer on a ship, lad. They do everything the other officers won’t do, like check our speed and help navigate.’
‘Oh,’ Ludwig sounded unenthusiastic. ‘I guess I could do that.’
Rogan patted the ork’s shoulder once more and grinned. ‘Excellent lad, then get packed and meet us outside the city gates in two hours.’
Ludwig grinned and ran out the door. Morrigan stared at him, her mouth fallen open. ‘Wait, you’re letting him come easy as that?’
‘Of course, we need a snotty and a snotty’s what we’ve got now,’ Rogan finished his apple and threw it clumsily into a bin beside the desk. ‘Besides, he’s your friend, thought you’d be pleased about that.’
Morrigan picked up her bags and placed them over her shoulders. ‘He is and I am. Anyway, why are we meeting him in two hours when you said we’re going to leave early?’
‘We’re leaving now so I can meet up with a couple of old friends to help us.’ Rogan stated. ‘You should go help your friend pack, I’m going somewhere not suitable for a lass like you.’
‘I’ll come with you,’ Malkus said, picking up his staff. ‘Just in case you need a hand.’
‘Fine, come along then priest,’ Rogan sighed. ‘We’re going drinking.’
The pub on the outskirts of Bedoine was one of the most foul Malkus had ever seen. It appeared to be of Borani design, one of the more middle-class Borani buildings, and was covered in a moss-drenched mosaic depicting one of the theories of the Sundering. The windows were covered in grime, the door was splintered and a pile of vomit sat outside the entrance. Crude shouting and fiddle music came from inside and a stench of various bodily fluids filled the air. Even the name of the pub, the Rotten Tongue, sounded unpleasant.
‘You’re sure your friends will be here?’ Malkus asked.
Rogan nodded and smacked his lips. ‘Aye, there’s at least one of them here anyway, but he’ll know where to find the other one.’ Rogan strode confidently into the pub and Malkus leapt over the vomit, trying not to touch it with his bare feet.
The interior of the pub was surprisingly well kept despite its outside appearance. The orange walls were covered in portraits with an alcohol or drinking theme, wooden pillars supported the roof and pine tables and chairs scattered the floor. A pair of fiddlers were sat atop the bar, playing a jaunty tune that a number of drunkards danced and mumbled along to. The pub was filled with drunks of all races and statuses; Undying scholars, ork guards, human astronomers and even a few shifters were sat, stood or dancing all around him.
‘You want a drink?’ Rogan bellowed.
Malkus snapped his attention back to the Fenite. ‘No, thank you, I’m fine.’
Rogan surged towards the bar, and slammed his fist in front of the bald barman. ‘Gimme two of your cheapest booze,’ Rogan grinned. ‘Mead, lager, wine, I don’t care.’ The barman nodded and began pouring two mugs of mead.
‘I said I didn’t want anything,’ Malkus stated loudly.
‘I know; I never said one of ’em was yours!’ he laughed. He quickly tossed the barman a pair of gold coins and snatched up his drinks. ‘I see them over there, come on priest.’
Malkus followed the pirate and spotted an unusual pair sat at one of the tables. A Taur half-breed dressed in a Nimian scholar’s uniform was sat with a bearded shifter wearing an eye-patch and rags. The Taur half-breed was completely bald save for a long handlebar moustache and had large, calcified horns sprouting from his forehead. He lacked the musculature and bony face of a true Taur but his immense arms and horns were noticeable hints at his ancestry. The shifter opposite him was small and unassuming, hunched over his drink. His hair and beard were overgrown and a dirty grey, his face was swollen and misshapen and his eye-patch was covered in grime.
Rogan took a seat beside the dirty shifter and placed the drinks in front of him and the Taur. ‘Nice to see you fellas,’ he grinned. The two of them started at him in shock, their eyes revealing they recognised him and their open mouths suggesting it was a pleasant surprise. ‘How long’s it been, Gibralt, five years?’
‘Aye, it has Captain, where the hell have you been?’ the shifter asked eagerly, taking a mouthful of mead.
‘I had business needed taken care of but I’m back now,’ Rogan beamed. ‘You look like shit Gibralt.’
The shifter shrugged and chuckled. ‘I told you I was going to be lying low.’ His eyes moved to Malkus and his expression changed immediately. ‘Who the hell’s the priest?’
‘He’s part of the reason why I’m here actually,’ Rogan pointed at the empty stool beside the Taur. ‘Sit down Malkus. These are Gibralt Mikkelson, my former first mate, and Cottontongue, my former helmsman.’ The Taur nodded at Malkus as he sat down.
‘Cottontongue? How did he get the name?’ Malkus asked.
‘Because he’s mute, priest,’ Cottontongue opened his mouth to show he lacked a tongue as Gibralt explained. ‘He was born without a tongue or vocal chords, and Cottontongue sounds better than Notongue.’ Gibralt turned to face the captain. ‘What’s this about then, Rogan?’
‘I’m not allowed to come see my old crew?’ Rogan inquired, sounding shocked.
Gibralt coughed as he swallowed some mead. ‘You only told us to get in contact if it’s of vital importance, don’t beat around the fucking bush.’
‘Alright, alright,’ Rogan leant in on the table. ‘I need the old crew back together for at least two more journeys. First we got a bounty from Ra himself, going to sabotage some pre-Sundering device and the priest and two Nimians are joining us. After that we’re dropping them off and we’re going to get vengeance on that Malquiss bastard.’
A long silence stretched between them until Cottontongue rasped quietly and raised a thumb. ‘Maybe it’s the booze talking,’ Gibralt spluttered. ‘Or maybe I just miss the old days, but fuck it, I’m in.’
‘Great,’ Rogan smacked his colleagues on the arms and chuckled. ‘Now we just need to get the rest of the crew together so we can get this done right.’
‘I can help you there Cap’n,’ Gibralt muttered. ‘I know where most of ’em are. They’re all scattered across Fenus and Boran.’
‘Alright then,’ Rogan and Malkus rose to their feet. The captain dumped a small bundle of coins in front of the shifter. ‘Get yourself cleaned up and meet us at the city gates in an hour.’