With their few remaining ships anchored, La’theal Bleakheart slowly and deliberately stepped ashore. The soft sands spread beneath her feet, and the cold waves rushed and ebbed with rippling white foam. After weeks at sea, the grey beach felt lifeless beneath her feet, but she savoured the moment all the same. They had reached the Winterlands.
The Shadowheart gem danced joyously in her hand now, trying to force its way out between her fingers. She held onto it with an iron grip, pacing the sands, and surveying the skyline as the crew watched her intently.
They were more than a hundred leagues from their true landing site, but there was still a chance. She inhaled, hoped, and cast the gem high into the air.
Barrages of coloured light suddenly thundered into the Shadowheart from all around them. It twisted violently, loudly cracking and reforming over and over into ever-larger shapes. Soon an unholy tear in reality hung before them from sky to sand, as if the world were merely a curtain waiting to be pulled back. This was the great Void-gate they had planned for, and to her it was magnificent. The surface of the tear imitated the silky flow of liquid metal, but the reflections it cast were not of the icy northern coast. Within its shifting form was a slow whirlwind of maddening shapes, each dripping with colours that had no names.
The crew averted their gaze, while La’theal stared on in awe, the lights dancing in her wild eyes.
The bridge of sickly light lay stretched before and behind them, cutting an impossible path across the space between realities. The Void swirled among the trespassers, howling at this dangerous new act of control.
The vanguard marched along the strange path. Towering warriors wore flowing cloaks and brutal plate mail, twisted into disturbing mockeries of life. Between them strode smaller elves wearing light armour and leather, their skin glowing eerily in the Void-light. And gliding with improbable grace, they were flanked by a procession of small skiffs pushed along by their triangular sails and unseen currents.
Hot energy swirled around them, luminescent tendrils sparking across armour and prickling their flesh. Ahead of the great column lay a bright tear into reality, a molten curtain swimming with familiar colours that their eyes were made for. They could see shimmering snowy fields, and sharply prickled green trees. Reality beckoned, and though their baser instincts yearned for solid ground and ordered forms, they maintained their careful slow march along the bridge of light.
“Where are they?” the captain asked her. He twitched uncomfortably, the mere sight of the Void bothering him.
“They will come” replied La’theal with a fierce grin. The gate should have been closer to the locus of the Void-cage network, but it was done, and it was here.
The dripping, shifting tear rippled and many of the crew’s neophytes bent double with nausea. Energy washed out of the Void-gate, and they could feel prickling shocks crawling across every inch of their skin. They all moved further up the grey beach, and further still, until the horrifying aura subsided.
First to burst out of the Void rode an enormous armoured elf, mounted on a six-legged flaming steed. Behind him the column of Twilight Kin emerged, marching onto the beach and forming ranks where moments ago there had been only sand and waves.
Dismounting, the newcomer marched over to the assembled shore party across the wet sand, looming over them even without his fearsome mount. Standing in his shadow felt overwhelmingly lethal, as if suspended but a moment from death. La’theal’s confidence in what they had achieved was starting to wash away, like another wave ebbing out into the sea.
“Lord Mikayel” breathed the captain, sinking to his knees in deference. La’theal remained standing, clenching her hands into fists to hide a tremor. The Lord of Nightmares surveyed them both, his armoured helm inscrutable.
“Explain,” he demanded. His stentorian voice reverberated through them and their bodies tensed, blood suddenly running cold. The captain was first to speak.
“My Lord,” he began, “our warship was too damaged. We came as far as we-.” He was interrupted by a large hand rising slowly into the air and knew there was no more to be said. The captain bowed his head.
The fearsome mount came forward slowly, flaming gently, heavy hooves stamping. Where there should have been a face, there was only flesh wrapped around a pair of skeletal jaws. As it came closer, breath stinking, La’theal shut her eyes and clenched her teeth. There was a braying shriek followed by a snapping crunch and a heavy, wet thud.
“Explain,” Mikayel invited once more. Feeling his disappointment, La’theal’s opened her eyes again, red and angry. She did not look down at her fallen captain, nor at the nightmarish steed that hulked to her side, chewing, but straight up into the huge, visored face.
“We survived weeks of combat. We completed our voyage. You are here my Lord, in the North, as planned.”
“As planned?” he thundered. “We planned for an eternal Void-bridge to the Iceblood Fjord, a defensible site for a great fortress, and legions of stalkers waiting there to be bound! That was the plan.” His voice now dropped to a hard whisper, and he gestured slowly around them. “This…is none of those things.” She remained silent.
Reaching into his dark violet cloak, he produced a wrought metal scroll-cylinder. “I will spare you one last time, La’theal. I have a task that needs completing, and it was made for you.” He breathed these last words slowly, and she could hear his menacing smile behind the cold metal. She could feel what was coming.
“I won’t go in there to be banished. I have too much work to do here!”
“You will, and whether for a moment or an eternity, there you will wait. One day, you will have guests. You will tell them exactly what is written on that scroll, or everything you endure will be for nothing.” Mikayel slowly raised a gauntleted arm, a clawed finger pointing back towards the Void-gate. “Go, while this…thing yet holds”.
La’theal’s head swam with cold fear, and hot anger, but she summoned the energy to move. She strode back towards the portal, between assembled ranks of sinister troops now stood at ease, awaiting their next order. Standing on the threshold of the Void she turned back with fierce, streaming eyes. All were staring expectantly at Lord Mikayel, and although no one would notice if she attempted escape, she knew that this fate had been inescapably crafted for her alone. Looking back into the impossible gateway, she grimaced, and walked straight into the Void.
Moments later the surface great portal began to drip away, fragments of uncanny shapes and colours tumbling into wet, sizzling sand. It diminished faster and faster, until the fabric of reality had completely healed the wound in space and time where it had briefly stood.
Across the high ground of the Ice Mountains the last surviving Void-cages finally fell silent. Though sophisticated, these constructs had reached the limits of the energy they could channel. Their potential exhausted, many collapsed into a mess of splinters and hinges, while others remained frozen upon the mountains, lifeless and empty.
At the Iceblood Fjord, the coloured streams of light converging in the sky began to fade away. Shrieking and howling, the great horde of Nightstalkers that filled the valley clambered over each other in all directions, a gargantuan writhing mass now searching desperately for the familiar energy that had drawn them here. Not finding what they sought, the horde began to surge west up into the hills.
Across the North, allies and expeditionary forces watched as these events occurred. Chill had been spared, the Nightstalkers were gone, the Void-cages closed, and the opportunistic enemies that had also invaded their lands had been defeated. Had it been enough, they asked themselves? Was it truly over? As their uncertainty slowly faded, the mountain air was filled with the sound of raucous cheers and relieved laughter.
At the coast, the Lord of Nightmares surveyed his force. He would have liked more, far more, but they would have to do. Mounted upon his great steed, he slowly rode along the line of troops as he addressed them.
“We,” he boomed, “are the true believers of the world. You believe even though you were broken. Even though you were left twisted, and homeless. Those times,” he raised his mighty shield, “are nearing an end.” The metal jaws adorning it retracted, revealing a blindingly bright surface. As he slowly rode up and down the line, he made sure to fix each unit in turn with his gaze.
“This is a shard of the Fenulian mirror. When it was broken, so was the world you loved. It was our doom then. Now its power has become our hope.” The assembled troops were caught up amid Lord Mikayel’s impassioned rhetoric, pulses raised. Continuing, his deep voice swept over them.
“That same magic is buried here in the North, guarded by no more than a disgraced prince and his rabble. They squander it, locked away beneath ice and stone.” He pointed out over the frozen tundra. “We will take back what is ours. We will restore our home, and the glory of a lost world!”
The cold winter air erupted with shouts and cheering. Lord Mikayel and his steed wheeled around to face out across the icy tundra, their new hunting ground.
As they rode out, he contemplated their situation. No fortress. No harbour. No horde. No reinforcements. They could have ground the Northern Alliance to dust. They should have had staging grounds in both the Mouth of Leith and the Winterlands, linked through the Void.
Now, it was going to be hard. His troops would learn the way of the scalpel, not the hammer. They would need to unpick their enemy’s will to fight stitch by stitch with light raids, assassinations, and sabotage. It was going to be a very different kind of war.
“Talannar,” he breathed into the wind, “we are not yet done.”
Listing badly, the battered Blacksoul-class frigate steamed weakly into the sea cave, a feeble black plume rising from its main chimney. Shimmering fuel spilled into the clear waters in its wake. This place was new, having been constructed at great pace in the weeks since the Abyssal Dwarfs had broken into the Infant Sea. The ruined vessel was a stark contrast to the row of smart Katsuchan Bombards currently being outfitted along the far side of the harbour, almost ready for sea trials.
From inclined tunnels hewn through the rock and down onto black iron jetties, Abyssal Dwarf crews rushed forward to the stricken ship, which was still taking on water.
A line of slave orcs hauled on thick rescue lines, pulling the vessel into dock. Shedding their armour, a team of Abyssal Dwarfs rushed aboard. They began hauling the sodden crew out of the fore and aft access hatches, guiding them back up the slippery deck towards outstretched waiting hands.
Awkwardly clambering onto the jetty, the Iron Captain moved aside to let those behind him up to safety, and stopped to catch his breath. His leg was fixed with a metal brace and his face scarred by a mess of glossy, partially-healed burns. He turned, addressing the Slavedriver sharply.
“Take me to your Overmaster. We must send word to Tragar at once,” he ordered. The whip-bearing smaller dwarf looked him up and down, taking in his ruined uniform and obvious injuries. He smirked, raised a skeptical eyebrow, and was swiftly rewarded with a mailed fist to the face.
“Right now you fool!” the Iron Captain barked at the staggering officer. “We are betrayed.”
Author: Dan Mapleston