Each Demigod has their own background story, known as lore:
Rook Lore Edit
Three generations of open war between the Vlemish in the south and the Plenor in the north had wrecked the once-fertile hills of Belrond. Battle-lines waxed and waned like sea-waves, wiping clean the landscape and driving its inhabitants to seek furtive shelter in cracks and dark places. Nobody could remember how the war had started, nor could anyone imagine that it would ever end. There was no question of allegiance -- neither army attempted to ally with the hill people, who seemed to exist only to raise stunted crops to be eaten, half-grown, by pillagers from one army or another. Food was not all they took -- if the brigands fell upon a Son of Belrond, he was killed for sport. Belrond's captive daughters came to worse fates.
It was in this climate of despair that a man came to offer his services to the Fathers of Belrond. Fifteen hands across at the shoulders, tall enough to fill the garrison's archway, and carrying a mallet the size of a birthday breadloaf, he called himself Mard Hammerhand. He was not a native of Belrond, nor were his features familiar to anyone who had traveled abroad, but his ready smile and booming laugh dissolved all barriers of mistrust. The Fathers were quick to offer the warrior the few things they still possessed in return for his protection. Mard roared with amusement, slapping the nearest Father on the shoulder and nearly bowling him over. "Aye, this whacker will knock helmets into slop-bowls easy enough, but I'd prefer to see something made for once! I'm a quarry-man and a builder by trade, and you're sitting on enough granite to bung up Thrond's arsehole!"
The Fathers were doubtful, but a lull in the fighting had left the younger men and women of the hills in a comparatively energetic mood. Above all, Mard Hammerhand had a plan -- something novel to the Belronders, who had forgotten the future existed. Even better, the plan leveraged the two things Belrond had in abundance: granite and topography.
The entire kingdom (if the tattered remnants of Belrond could still be called such a thing) set to work quarrying stone and constructing a keep upon Greymount, its tallest hill. The keep's bastions rose quickly, not least because of Mard's impressive (some would say impossible) physical strength: in the time it took the strongest man to drag a granite half-stone to the foot of the keep, Mard would sail past five or six times, a whole stone tucked under each arm, hallooing cheerfully or making a ribald joke on each pass. He tossed the stones into place as though they were pillows and kept working into the night, long after the others had dragged themselves home for their thin evening gruel.
By Spring, Greymount Keep was complete. It was a handsome thing, with three crenelated towers, the tallest topped with a trebuchet that had been cobbled together from river-lumber. The fastness was finished just in time for campaigning season, as watches had been set for only a few days when the first army appeared on the horizon. The Belronders retreated to their keep and many wept, for though they were willing to die, they had few illusions about their fighting skills.
Mard looked on them with a raised eyebrow, then hefted his hammer onto his shoulder. "Come on, lads! Think on all the busted thumbs and sprung groins you suffered putting this little castle together last Winter! Surely you won't suffer those pissants to dismantle it so quickly!" The words meant little to the ragged band, but Mard's tone filled them with an otherworldly confidence, and they took up their swords and bows with a shout.
The battle ended quickly, and not in the way the Belronders had expected. Many felt as though it had been a dream. First came the advancing ranks of pikemen, then the boom of war trumpets, and then Mard surging forward with his whirling hammer, mowing his enemies down like wheat. Every son of Belrond was filled with battle-rage, and they made quick work of their enemies (this time, Vlemish), who had grown accustomed to easy prey on the hills of Belrond.
During the celebration that followed, all present called for Mard to be made King of Belrond (which had never before had a king). Mard blushed and declined. "You lot think that was the end of your woes? They'll soon be back with bigger armies and siege engines. No, I'm a captain at best, or maybe a colonel, if you're feeling charitable." The Fathers, visibly relieved at having avoided demotion, insisted on making Mard a general, to which he grudgingly assented, on the condition that if anyone saluted to him, they'd get a hammer-handle up their arse.
In mid-Summer, the armies of Plenor fell upon Greymount Keep. Apparently, no word of the earlier battle had reached them, for in their surprise they were routed even more quickly than the Vlemish. Mard furnished the battle's most memorable feature, throwing his hammer from nearly a league behind the retreating cavalry and completely destroying the enemy general, along with his horse.
Mard Hammerhand had never been officially made a peer of Belrond, but by now every Belronder saw him as their brother, their father, or their son. When harvest time came and the store-rooms were filled with wheat and barley for the first time in human memory, Belronders wept at the plenty and approached Mard at random to hug him and shake his hand.
Meanwhile, the Vlemish and Plenor met under a banner of truce, having each lost an army in Belrond. All agreed that it was necessary to annihilate Belrond's new captain and keep so that they could get back to the business of fighting each other. Plans were drawn up for an allied army to attack Belrond in the following Spring, and special squads were trained to target and kill Mard Hammerhand.
When the battle came, Mard once again marched at the head of his small army. His eyes gave no hint that he was worried by the long rows of advancing siege towers, or the rumbling columns of dragon-faced artillery. He waded into the enemy throng like a child into a pool, towering above his scattering enemies. His companions showed no fear either, and the sight of the Belronder army tearing through ranks of crack soldiers struck fear into the hearts of Vlem and Plenor.
The sun sank low in the sky, and until the last moment, it looked like the day would belong to Belrond. Preparing to crush a supply train, Mard was caught off guard when one shabby wagon shed its skin to reveal a ballista, crewed by strange men wearing black armor. Mard's brothers screamed for him as the machine fired a salvo of iron missiles into his chest, hurling him to the ground. As his seconds dragged him back to the keep, he spoke his final words: "Let me rest for a while in the highest tower. I want to see the sun rise once more."
During the night, while the invading army made camp beyond the walls of the keep, all of Belrond despaired. A bed was brought up to the tower, and Mard's body was laid upon it and covered with flowers. Families held one another and wept, for they knew that without Mard Hammerhand, the next day would bring oblivion. The Fathers gathered around his deathbed and prayed to the All-Father to intervene in the coming battle. In their exhaustion, they fell asleep at the foot of the bed, covered in tears.
When they awoke, they found that Mard had vanished. Only his bloody armor remained upon the bed. "He has been stolen in the night," they cried. "He has been defiled!" But their lamentations were cut short when they saw that their sons had already taken to the battlefield below, and in the soldiers' shuffling gait was foreshadowed the total defeat of Belrond. The opposing ranks of Vlemish archers unhurriedly nocked their arrows, preparing for a final death-salvo.
Then a deep rumble shuddered the ground. The Belronders within the keep stumbled and fell, for the building had begun to collapse around them. Outside, a cheer went up among the Vlemish and Plenor for the success of their sappers, who had apparently tunneled beneath the Belronders' wall during the night.
Somehow, the keep did not fall. Towers began to rise, bastions uprooted themselves from the ground, and the keep reshaped itself into something taller. Where side towers had once stood, now resolved stony arms, and in the center of the main tower, where Mard Hammerhand's deathbed still lay, now sprouted something like a head. The keep had become a living thing, with trunk-like legs and hands the size of haylofts. With one of these, it reached into the ground and uprooted a monolithic slab of stone. With the other, it uprooted a stand of trees and jammed their trunks clean through the great rock in a single violent motion. Standing behind the bewildered army of Belrond was a stone giant, and in its hand was a hammer.
When the last remnants of the invading army had been stamped out on the other side of the river, the stone goliath strode back to Greymount, turned to face the still-rising sun, and settled back into place. Every stone returned to its proper spot, and all within the keep were safe in their rooms, uninjured.
When the Fathers of Belrond returned to Mard's deathbead, his body once again lay among the heaps of daffodils. On his face, however, there was a wry smile.
In all the years that followed, Mard's body was never moved, and his smile never faded.
Torch Bearer Lore Edit
In the Winter realm of the Vinlings, Hrundel Lightbearer was born to Queen Frythia Fair Frost. Messengers brought word of the birth to King Hungarling, who had been away from his hearth for seven years, adventuring with his army beyond the Northern Frontier. Returning to his kingdom, he drowned his wife in her bath and put the men of her coterie to the sword. The infant, however, was a creature of such purity and beauty that he could not bring himself to kill it, and resolved instead to raise the boy as his own.
As he grew, it became clear that Hrundel Lightbearer was not an ordinary child. His exceeding beauty was itself a sign of his strangeness, but he also showed unnatural proclivities that were seen by some in the Vinling Halls as portents of dark times. Both fire and ice seemed to obey the boy, who could make the flames of the hearth take human shape and dance around the hall or bring a snow-filled wind through his window, to settle on the floor in the shape of a pretty girl's face -- this to impress Thendrya, a particular pretty girl whom Hrundel hoped one day to make his bride.
Hrundel's father looked on him with increasing unease. Though he needed a strong successor, he sometimes wondered if he saw in the boy's eyes the first machinations of a usurper. The boy asked too many questions about his mother (about whom nothing could be related on pain of death), and demonstrated a particular curiosity in the matter of the source of his powers -- a curiosity that could only lead to doubt about his true patrimony. The Priests of the Hall, frightened by the boy's abilities, warned their king that these transgressions would bring evil upon his house if left unpunished.
On his eighteenth birthday, Hrundel was summoned by his father to a special party in his honor, to be held inside a new wooden hall that had been erected to commemorate the occasion. All of Hrundel's friends awaited him there, including Thendrya, blushing in a special dress that she had made for the party. Taking her hand, Hrundel exulted, "Everyone I love has gathered here today to share in my joy! But where is my father, first among my family?"
There was an answering crash as the hall's wooden doors slammed shut and were locked from the outside. Bewildered pleading turned to screams as a distant crackling gave way to the roar of a fast-kindled fire -- the hall had been set aflame with the party-goers inside. Hrundel, clinging to his beloved, tried in vain to keep the flames at bay. At last he could not tame the mounting firestorm, and Hrundel wailed as Thendrya turned to ashes in his arms. As the flames engulfed him, he swore a foul oath.
King Hungarling looked grimly on the column of fire that raged on the Hall Pyre. "So the travesty has ended," he said, and turned to his priests and consorts for comfort. But they looked back on the inferno with terror in their faces, and the king turned to see a blazing figure rising from the collapsing hall. Black within a halo of fire, its flesh burnt completely away, rose a charred corpse, its hollow eyes alight with wordless pain and fury. It seized from the crumbling wreck one of the hall's still-guttering torches and turned to the assembled royal cadre.
Few Vinlings survived the night.
The Torch Bearer's screams, like tearing metal, echoed across the vale. The creature rode on a spreading carpet of unquenchable fire and gutted every town from the foot of the Skalendar Range to the frozen Harbors of the Green Sea. Wearing the king's crest and horned helmet, the monster vomited fire in waves that spread across the ground, summoned it in avalanches from the sky, spat searing bolts from the head of its staff. All things burned.
When the Halls of the Vinlings were no more and every field was razed to dust, the creature moved on to colder places.
Regulus Lore Edit
If ever a place existed where the birth of a half-god might go unnoticed, it was among the aeries of the Thelara. Amorous liaisons were commonplace among the frolicsome air-nymphs -- if a child should ever wonder about the identity of her father (which never happened), she would have dozens of candidates from whom to choose. And in the matter of divinity, a part-god would contrast little with her nest-mates, since the winged Thelara were angelic by default.
Regulus, therefore, stood out only in the degree of his perfection: he flew higher and faster than the others, was more voracious in his appetites, and had a keen, curious mind. This last quality was perhaps the most conspicuous, and the most inexplicable to his fellows, as he showed an odd preoccupation with the conditions of his existence. While the others gamboled among the clouds, Regulus flew as high as he could, to the edge of space, and strained to make out patterns among the stars.
More distressingly to his friends, he also descended to low dirty places and observed the motions and machinations of the earth-bound Grofflings. The Thelara never, ever touched the ground -- even when they died, they were carried to high places. The only time they came into contact with groundfolk was when naughty nestlings flew down to within hailing distance and teased the hapless cripples below.
Regulus was disinclined to dismiss the Grofflings so easily. He saw that they compensated for their physical shortcomings with complicated devices that they made with their hands (the Thelara made nothing because they required nothing, not even clothing). Some of the Grofflings' machines helped them to move about, or to see invisible things. Many more of them were used for killing, which was a thing that the unsavory ground dwellers seemed to do to one another with some relish. It was all very grotesque, but also fascinating. He wondered if with their tools the Grofflings had discovered things unknown to his own people.
Regulus somehow failed to notice that the Grofflings had taken a particular interest in him, as well. He also did not know how deeply despised his people were, for all their care-free sporting among the clouds, and for all their mockery of the Grofflings, who had long memories. One of these, called Skel, conspired to lure Regulus closer by offering to share what he had learned about the history of the world and its place in the cosmos. When Regulus dipped lower to hear what Skel had to say, he fell into a trap.
Harpoons shot from hidden places and pierced his wings. Great gears turned, chains tightened, and Regulus was pulled to the ground, where a cage was lowered around him. Helpless, still reasoning with his captor, he could not grasp that he had passed from a world of play into a world of dark consequences. Skel's underlings closed around the Thelaran, jeering, laughing. Regulus was ill-equipped to withstand the trial, as he had never before felt pain -- and this was a pain that beggared what passed for pain among mortals. He pleaded, he screamed, he screamed louder, and still Skel cut. First one wing, then the other fell in a bloody heap, to be hung as trophies in the depths of Skel's grotto.
Regulus' disfigurement was more than just physical. He heard the helpless sobs of his nest-mates, far above, but knew they would not come down to rescue him. Nor would he have been able to return home had they broken him free, since he would never fly again. Held as a living trophy in the market square, he was for a time the subject of much gawking and ridicule. Soon, however, even the Grofflings lost interest in the pathetic figure. He was left to rot in his cage, alone in a field of mud. He was forgotten.
The Grofflings had not yet shown all the things of which they were capable, however. On a rainy night, when the market was empty, an elderly Groffling, more wrinkled than the others of his kind, came to the cage. "Unsavory, unconscionable," mumbled the Groffling, producing a hinged set of steel cutters. Bending back the bars of the cage, he put his arm around Regulus and dragged him to the back of his dog-cart. From there, Regulus was carried, jouncing along a rutted road, to the old Groffling's home. This Groffling was called Kerrott.
Kerrott nursed Regulus back to health, even when in lucid moments Regulus begged for death. Kerrott was also an outcast, too pacifistic to amount to anything in the violent world of the Grofflings. Instead of weapons, Kerrott busied himself making trinkets -- among them, tiny figurines of flying Thelara. Regulus and Kerrott had loneliness in common, and Kerrott did his best to teach Regulus what he knew about making things with his hands. Kerrott was an average fabricator by Groffling standards, but he had the usual metalworking equipment and Regulus proved to be at first an able student, then a savant. As he came to befriend Kerrott, so his strength returned and continued to grow.
Working night and day, with an intensity that Kerrott could not fathom, Regulus forged armor of an uncommon strength and strange beauty. Then he set to work constructing an elaborate device of such size that when Kerrott found it leaned upon his prized trinket-shelf, he could not budge it with all his might. When complete, its terrible purpose became clear: it was a crossbow of absurd dimensions, longer than two Grofflings end-to-end. In its notch was placed a javelin half again as long as the weapon itself.
Though Kerrott hoped beyond hope that his new companion would stay with him, the inevitable moment of departure came even before the anvil had cooled. "These were the last of my living days, Kerrott. You have shown me a world of love, but I cannot seem to touch it. I see now that my path leads to a place of death. Please forgive me." Without looking back, Regulus donned his armor and stalked into the night.
Much of Skel's body was later found in and around the cage in which Regulus had been held. The bodies of his henchmen turned up in improbable places, pinned to rafters, hung from arches, impaled upon statuary in the marketplace. Not a single Groffling had heard any commotion during the night. Being Grofflings, the deaths went unmourned, though some added that there was probably a lesson here about angering the Thelara.
Regulus was never again seen by Groffling or Thelaran.
Unclean Beast Lore Edit
It was after a sandstorm, while the survivors of the caravan searched the dunes for signs of their camp, that Saam-el Harra came upon a strange book in the sand. Nothing was written upon its black cover, and when he knelt to pick it up, it felt many times heavier than it looked. The book's pages were brittle with age and bore a strange hand-written script in a language he had never before seen. He wondered if it might be worth some gold or barter at the bazaar, and then asked himself how much he would pay for a book full of gibberish. Whatever its worth, it certainly didn't merit the waste of water-strength needed to get it to the next oasis on foot.
He walked away from the spot, only realizing after several steps that he had not discarded the tome. What a strange thing! Looking again upon it, he decided that it might be wise to take it at least as far as Men-Solond, the home of his newest wife. Stuffing the book into the lining of his wind-robe, he staggered onward in pursuit of the departing caravan.
When he showed the book to his wife, Hem-Shal, she slapped him twice. Between slaps, she begged to know how he had lost his dowry-chest, the reason for his trip, and wondered aloud if her father would instead accept a moldy book as delayed payment for her hand in marriage. Saam-el Harra slunk away to the spring and washed his hands, shaking his head at his own reflection and cursing himself for a fool. When he returned home, the book still lay on the table, untouched. His wife had already retreated to her bed, and he followed, giving the troublesome tome a departing sneer.
In the night, the book spoke to him. It spoke in a thousand voices as one, and in a thousand languages, none known to him. Still, he understood the words, and understood the offering it made. He looked over at his wife, who still slept at his side. The book told him Names of Power, Names which could invoke and banish servants from beyond the Veil. Names that unmade living things and other Names that summoned the Oldest and Deepest. The book offered him dominion over all, over the twenty-four tribes, even over places beyond the shores of the desert sea. It told of a Way, and it offered him a Minion. Without thinking, he assented.
Some weeks later, his wife told him she was pregnant. This made her livid, as the couple had not been with one another since his return. She assumed her husband had taken liberties while she slept, and threatened to tell her father. "Tell him what?" asked Saam-el. "That you have got yourself with child, without the participation of your husband?" Hem-Shal ran away, crying. She returned home during the night, and neither spoke again of the matter. As time went on, her belly swelled.
Hem-Shal died during the birth. The midwives fled from her tent, shrieking, covered in blood. Saam-el, who had been waiting outside, stumbled forward, numbly drawing open the curtain and blinking at the darkness within. The child had not exited Hem-Shal's body in the usual way. The interior of the tent was drenched with blood, and the air was acrid with a stench that made Saam-el gag. There was a wet, ragged sound from the back of the tent, and he moved forward to see what it was. Hunched in the darkness was a thing that looked a like a demon hedgehog with razors for quills. The creature seemed to be inside-out -- its black skeleton loosely embraced organs that pulsed and oozed beneath the cage of its ribs. Its face was nothing but teeth. It looked at him. He screamed and ran. Bursting from the tent, he was briefly pursued by the loping monster. It stopped, gave him a final stare, and then galloped beyond the edge of the tent-circle and over the top of the nearest dune. It was gone.
Saam-el went home, seized the book, and tossed it onto the fire. It did not burn. He fished it from the dying embers with a stick, then took it to the edge of the camp and buried it as deep as he could. As he shoveled sand over it, it whispered Names to him. He shouted to block out the noise, but still the Names rang clear in his mind, as though a mouth had grown in the center of his brain. He ran home and drank wine until he passed out.
The next morning, Saam-el awoke to shouts from outside his tent. The entire clan had assembled to confront him, with Hem-Shal's father at the rabble's head. Many of those present had heard the midwives' description of the unholy terror that had sprung out of the poor girl, and all suspected that Saam-el was somehow to blame. Rough hands seized him by his wrists and pinned him to the ground on all fours. His father-in-law kicked him in the teeth. His mouth quickly filled with hot, salty fluid. Another man, one of his own cousins, stepped forward and hefted a great rock above his head. Saam-el curled into a ball and squeezed his eyes shut, awaiting the blow. Instead, there was a loud, wet crunch above him. Peeking upward, he saw only the bottom half of his cousin, teetering backward with a tuft of bone sprouting from its waist.
Rolling onto his feet, Saam-el stood at the center of a whirlwind of screaming commotion. The creature had returned, but it was much bigger now. Big enough to swallow large chunks of his clan-mates, which it did with savage abandon. It did horrible, disgusting things to its prey, vomiting acid upon a man who had climbed up the only palm in the clearing, then slurping up the parts of him that dribbled back down the trunk. It belched poison gases, ripped spines from torsos, tore bodies in half, lengthwise. Its movement was so furious that it took minutes for the dust to settle upon the gory scene. Saam-el still shivered there, blood dribbling from his broken mouth, and before him crouched the Beast, staring benignly into his face. The camp was a charnel-house. Nothing moved.
Saam-el waited to die, but the Beast only squatted there. He then remembered something: the book had spoken of a Minion. The whole massacre suddenly made sense. The creature had not come to kill him at all -- this Unclean Beast was his servant! The Voice began to whisper once more inside him.
Over the next year, it became clear to the traders at the edge of the Desert Sea that the Eastern Caravans had ceased to wind their way out of the dunelands. No-one came, nor were there rumors of what had caused their disappearance. Many speculated that a great sandstorm must have buried all twenty-four tribes.
Emperor Saam-el Harra the Merciless stood atop a dune and looked across the white wastes, toward the distant trees at the edge of his domain. The Unclean Beast crouched obediently by his side, slavering at the coming feast. It had been months since the last of Master's conquests, and it was hungry. Saam-el was now King of All the Dunelands -- self proclaimed, as no living thing remained to crown him. It was the Voice, of course. He had gained a Minion, but he had also become an Instrument. Sometimes he wondered if the Unclean Beast was his Master, if the Night Whispers issued from the jagged grill of the creature's mouth or if both of them obeyed some distant Master.
"I am spent," Saam-el said at last. "Let us go back into the desert." The Beast looked to its master, then devoured him. Turning back to the distant green land, the creature sped onward, leaving a trail of effluent in its path.
Oak Lore Edit
Thanos the Immortal was King Nimoth XII's favorite captain, as he had been for his father and his father's father. Thanos was renowned for his loyalty, his leadership, his skill with an axe, and above all his very great age. Leading several generations of soldiers in the wars of the Nimoth Dynasties, Thanos had received countless death-blows, but none had killed him. His men had rallied many times at the sight of Thanos rising again after being stricken down by his enemy.
Thanos, who wore his armor and helm at all times, was rumored to have been been horribly disfigured by the centuries of battle-scars he had received in the service of the Nimoth Kings. At court, he was a stoic, monolithic presence, only speaking when addressed.
It was therefore a great shock when Thanos refused his Lord's command to fight at the Battle of Rond. The usually-noisy court fell immediately silent when Thanos' voice boomed from within his helmet: "this cannot rightly be called 'a battle,' my Lord. The Rondish folk may be resistant to taxation, some may even be treacherous, but they are not warriors. Most of their men are away at harvest. Our army will only find women and children at Rond."
"All the better," replied the king. "Let us purge these undesirables now and never again suffer their insolence."
Thanos' helmet turned toward the king. "Your fathers were also vexed by the proud Rondish, but they used other methods. They would never have ordered a massacre of innocents."
The king stood, his cheeks crimson with rage. "I am not my father, and you will do as I say! Disobey me now, and I will banish you for a thousand years!"
Thanos' black visor looked for a moment upon the king, and then he spoke. "As you wish. I will go."
It was thus that Thanos and the five hundred vassals of his house found themselves in exile among the Writh-tal, the Canyons of the Dead. The Canyons cut through a blighted, broken land, and were inhabited by terrible Dead Things. These would not abide the living, and the king's proclamation had almost certainly meant death for Thanos' servants.
Nevertheless, the remnants of the House of Thanos survived long enough to build a fortress upon a great, tortured rock. When the walls were complete, Thanos stood watch at the gate, guarding the stronghold's only approach. Undead things sometimes made attempts upon the fortress, but he vanquished them all. As gatekeeper to a sumptuous island of life amidst a hungry sea of death, he came into contact with many Dead Things from the other side, some of which had once also been alive. The Undead Things saw that they shared with Thanos both exile and lonely immortality, and some did not hate him.
Nine hundred years later, Thanos still kept his station, rooted to the spot like a great dark tree. As generations passed and Thanos' vassals looked down upon his unmoving figure beneath the parapet, they gave him a new name: The Oak.
Attacks by Dead Things had abated in recent times, and some of the youngest children had never seen the Oak move. They doubted the stories told to them by their parents, suspecting instead that the great armored statue beyond the gate was some kind of scarecrow for ghosts.
Then one grey morning a new and dreadful Dead Thing, a Dark Servant from beyond the Veil, fell upon the stronghold. The Oak took up his axe and rushed out to meet the abomination. Though he landed many blows upon the thing, the Oak could not bring it down. The giant attacker had many arms and many weapons, and the Oak could not break through its defenses. In the end, the Dark Servant raised a great hooked club above its head and brought the weapon down upon the Oak, shattering him. His horrified vassals saw his armor scatter, and also saw that it contained no body.
Satisfied that the Oak was no more, The Dark Servant turned to the undefended stronghold, licking its many lips in anticipation of the succulent souls within.
Wisps of blue fog formed among the scattered remnants of the Oak's armor, and slowly each part moved across the ground, reconnecting to its neighbors. When at last the Oak's form was restored, he rose to his feet and took up his axe. For the first time in centuries, he spoke aloud:
"Warrior spirits, fellow exiles, hear me! Remember the fragility of those you loved, remember the noble causes for which you fought! Here is a worthy battle and a formidable foe! Rise with me now!"
From the ground around the Oak rose floating, spectral forms, growing in number until they flew in great swarms towards the Dark Servant. Screaming, the many-armed demon lashed out in all directions, but could not repel the clouds of angry spirits that engulfed it. Distracted by the onslaught, the Dark Servant did not see the Oak running towards him, picking up speed and raising his axe. The Oak leaped into the air and sank his weapon into the demon's chest, revealing its withered black heart. He reached inside and ripped it free, throwing it over the precipice. The Dark Servant bellowed one last time, then sank to the ground and moved no more.
The swirling spirits circled the Oak, then faded away as dawn broke. The Oak then dragged the demon's corpse to the edge of the canyon and pushed it into the abyss. His vassals cheered from the stronghold, calling out his name.
He gave them neither sign nor word. Once again taking his place by the gate, he planted his axe-handle in the ground and set his shield before him, looking out over the hostile wastes of the Writh-tal.
He did not move.
Queen of Thorns Lore Edit
The faeries of the forest were invisible to men, but were as plain as the sun to small creatures and growing things. They helped maintain order in myriad ways -- by gently reminding the lilies to bloom, by mediating disputes between the mushrooms and beetles, by politely asking the birches if they might move their branches a little so a walnut sapling could have some light. They did not rule the forest, but influenced it in countless ways to help maintain a perfect, delicate balance. They always asked nicely, and were thus always obeyed.
One April morning, a strange faerie-child was born. She had bright red hair, which had never been seen before. She also seemed heavier, more substantial than other faeries. As she grew older, she found that when she walked in the field, her feet crushed the grass while other fairies lilted along without moving a single blade. When her sisters tried to teach her how to waft dandelion seeds to open soil, she blew too hard and sent them tumbling. They tried to show her how to warm a sparrow egg in her hands, but its warmth seemed to flow out of it and it cracked and crumbled before her eyes.
The oldest faeries, in their consternation, finally assigned her to insect duty -- the durable carapaces of centipedes and ladybugs withstood her harsh treatment, and for her part she seemed to have a special affection for things that skittered and stung. Other faeries looked on her ungainliness with pity, but were content that she seemed to have found her place in the order of things. She did her duty and in time became an adult.
She was on her way to meet the Ant Queen when she happened across a man in the forest. She had never seen a human before, and looked at him with great curiosity. He was about her height, but wingless and covered with clothing, which looked terribly uncomfortable. It took her a moment to realize that he was staring at her, as well.
"Who... who are you?" the man stammered.
"You can see me?" The faerie looked confused, but not frightened.
The man indeed saw her nakedness and her wings and could not look away. Faeries are particularly sensitive to subtle signs, and for her part, she could clearly see that she had some particular influence over this man. After only a few minutes with her, he pledged his undying love and swore to bring her anything she wanted. She could not think of anything she could possibly need, but invited him to visit again the next time he happened through the forest. She giggled as he stumbled away and she found, upon reflection, that she enjoyed the sensation of controlling another living thing.
When she told her sisters about the encounter, they flew into an exasperated tizzy. "This is unnatural," they cried. "How is it that you are visible to men? You cannot bring them here, sister! They will destroy the forest!"
Regardless, the man came back to the same spot a day later, and she was there to greet him. Again were his eyes transfixed upon her (less upon her face than on her other parts, she noted), and his breathing became uneven. At last he could not control himself and took her in his arms, pressing his mouth against hers. She had little time to resist, since the color quickly went out of his face and he dropped to the ground, dead. She felt his life force flowing inside her like some drug, and was exhilarated. This was a new and unusual power, and she wanted to explore its limits. She now saw that she had special gifts.
Moving through the forest, she barked commands at everything. She told ferns to turn pink. She told mushrooms to dance. She demanded that the stag-beetles grow as big as wild boars. All obeyed her. She was flushed with the possibilities -- no faerie had ever thought to make demands of the forest-dwellers, and she was suddenly angered by her sisters' naivete and condescension. Thenceforth, she never moved through the forest on her own feet, riding instead upon a rose-chariot that stood upon the backs of four great beetles. She was also the first faerie to give herself a name: The Queen of Thorns.
Over the following weeks, more men came to the forest in search of their lost comrade. She was able to deal with the first dozen or so in the same way she had managed the first, but they eventually grew wise and started showing up in small, well-armed groups. Faced with a party of archers, she commanded the elm trees to uproot themselves and savage the band of humans. This they did, even though by these exertions they brought about their own deaths, for they could not get their roots back into the ground.
Coming upon the piles of dead men and trees, her sisters saw that a monster had grown in their midst. They gave her a choice: she could take her own life or leave the forest forever.
The Queen of Thorns laughed. "If you can't manage to kill me yourselves, I can't think why I should do your dirty work for you!" She snorted. "Besides, there is a greater world -- a world of power -- beyond the forest. I wish you all long winters!"
With that, her insect-chariot carried her away, leaving a crushed swath of fallen flowers in its wake.
Sedna Lore Edit
When Asatchaq held her daughter for the first time, she saw in the infant's blue eyes a calm and endless sea, brimming with life. She named her Sedna, after the old woman of the sea, and told her sisters that the child would one day become the tribe's angakkuq -- its spiritual caretaker. Koomuk, the current angakkuq, smiled outwardly at the suggestion, but was troubled. He, too, saw in the child's face a strange abundance of vitality. Coveting his singular position among the Elders, he resolved to keep an eye on the girl, in case she should one day attempt to take his place.
Koomuk's anxieties fell away almost as soon as Sedna could walk and talk, as the girl quickly proved both mischievous and aloof. Her mother and aunts made every effort to contain her, but inevitable moments of distraction always ended with the frenzied dispatch of a search party, followed some hours later by the return of the girl (on her own, usually from the opposite direction) and lots of lectures about the dangers of the world outside the snow shelter. "Girl, you'll be eaten by a polar bear before you've seen ten summers!"
"No, I won't," she replied calmly. "Polar bear is my friend."
That kind of strange talk, and the girl's increasingly frequent forays beyond the frozen hills, set her completely apart from the rest of the tribe. She would have been a total outcast, were she not also the most beautiful and generous creature in human memory. Nobody, not even the frostbitten searchers who came back to camp to find her sitting happily by the fire, could stay angry at her. She was a pure thing, perfect and blameless, like the fox or the killer whale.
One night, Sedna warmed herself by the cooking-fire and hummed while her mother prepared dinner. Asatchaq skinned a hare and tossed it into the pot to boil. Wiping off her hands, she saw that Sedna's attention was transfixed by the pot and its contents. "Mother, isn't the snow-hare filled with the same anirniq that gives us breath? It seems wrong to preserve our own lives by robbing the snow-people of theirs."
"Snow-people?" Sedna's mother laughed. "Girl, they're animals. They're different from us."
"They're not all that different from us. Some are much nicer, really." Sedna looked thoughtful for a moment. Then she extended her hand above the boiling pot and closed her eyes. Suddenly, a live, fur-covered hare sprung from the vessel and bounded out of the snow shelter. When she was done screaming, Sedna's mother begged her to explain how she had done it. "I don't know," Sedna said, as though her mother were the weird one. "I just gave it some of my extra breath."
Sedna was immediately dragged before Koomuk, the angakkuq, who silently cursed himself and wondered what new trouble the girl had gotten into. Explaining what Sedna had done to the hare, Asatchaq insisted that Koomuk take Sedna under his wing, to teach her the rites and to help her learn some of his great wisdom. Flattered, Koomuk remained hesitant: "Well, the girl may not have the requisite discipline. After all, she--"
"I like Koomuk, but I have nothing to learn from him," interjected Sedna. There was a moment of shocked silence.
"How could you say such a thing before a holy man," cried her mother. "Oh, Koomuk! I am so sorry that I brought this ungrateful--"
"Koomuk isn't holy at all. He wouldn't sacrifice so many of the snow-people if he could really see the anirniit within them." And then Sedna wandered away, following some new thought.
Koomuk's heart filled with undying hatred for the girl.
The years passed, and Sedna grew into a beautiful woman. Able to take care of herself, she sometimes spent weeks in the faraway lands under the Aurorae, beyond the white horizon where monsters were said to dwell. Hunters sometimes crossed paths with her, and they told stories of how she had been seen talking to wolves, walking among the caribou, and once riding upon the back of a great leopard (this last story was universally dismissed as the result of imprudent mushroom sampling on the part of the teller).
Returning from one of her wandering journeys, Sedna came upon one of Koomuk's sacrifices, the great gutted hulk of a killer whale. She wept, for the whale had been dead too long to be revived. Koomuk cut big slices of blubber out of the carcass with a long, curved spear, and looked on Sedna with a contemptuous sneer. "It has been a poor hunting season. The gods demanded a special sacrifice," he explained. The other tribal elders, standing around the angakkuq, nodded in agreement.
"What do you know of the gods?" Sedna could barely contain her grief. "It's one thing to act as if you can hear them, but to say that they demand murder is blasphemous!"
"Blasphemous?" cried Koomuk. "You speak of blasphemy? You, who question the holy rites and practice sorcery?" Looking around at the other elders, his voice rose. "Perhaps the hunt has thinned because of this evil girl's presence among us! Perhaps it is she who should be offered to the gods!"
Koomuk had orchestrated the moment perfectly, having poisoned the elders against Sedna with years of small, dark lies. The elders looked on passively as Koomuk approached Sedna, still brandishing his ceremonial spear. Sedna stared at him with disbelief, shaking her head. "This is beyond even you, Koomuk. You know I have no desire to take your place."
Koomuk reddened at the insinuation, and shouted as he thrust his spear into her breast. The girl made no sound. She dropped to her knees.
A growl came from the snow-fog behind her, and from it burst a gigantic leopard. Twice the size of a bull caribou, it fell upon Koomuk, who shrieked as it clamped its jaws around his skull. The scream ended suddenly with a sound of crunching bone, and the leopard released the shaman, his broken body flopping over in the snow. The elders tried to get behind one another in a mad scramble to escape the great cat, but the beast turned to Sedna, who kneeled in a circle of red snow with the spear still inside her.
She raised her head to look with kindness upon her friend. "Sila, you should not have done that. I will be fine." Wincing, she clutched the handle of the spear and pushed it through her body. When the weapon finally dropped into the snow, her cat approached and licked the gaping wound. A blue aurora-light surrounded her, and waves of warmth radiated from her kneeling form to wash over the elders and the dead angakkuq. When the light finally faded, she stood up slowly. There was no mark on her chest.
She walked over to Koomuk's prone form and held her hand above him. With a start, he breathed once more. Seeing the giant leopard, he squealed and scrambled into the nearest snow shelter. Sedna turned to the elders, who still quaked together in a terrified pile. "When he returns to his senses, tell Koomuk I will not return."
Picking up the spear, Sedna mounted Sila. They never looked back.
Lord Erebus Lore Edit
Among his fellow Night Walkers, Erebus was called "the Insatiable One." To his servants, he was known as "Erebus the Decadent." His victims called him "Monster," which, though accurate, seemed to him to lack a certain flair. To Lord Erebus, there was something unseemly about forgetting the delicious poetry in things, and he dealt with all matters -- eating, partying, torture (often, the three were the same) -- with an experimental, even artistic, joie de vivre.
The Night Walkers drank blood and moved only in darkness. Erebus was different from the start, and for this he was celebrated: he could move in daylight, he could move about without touching the ground, and he could kill from a distance. All these powers came at a price, however. He was from the beginning possessed by a deep and unappeasable hunger. His mother offered the infant Erebus her jugular, as was customary among Night Walkers, but he nursed beyond her capacity to give, killing her only minutes after his birth. For a time, he was held in a separate cave from the others and fed whole cattle. It was only after he had ranged beyond the buried labyrinth of the Night Walkers and seen the machines of humans that he devised a means of controlling, if not curbing, his appetites.
Lord Erebus built for himself a special suit, its interior lined with syringes, like an iron maiden. These fed his veins continuously, and the suit could be recharged with new blood through valves in its shoulders. Freed from his never-ending preoccupation with eating, the teen-aged Erebus looked on the savage, instinct-driven creature that he had been and was filled with embarrassment. After he had established himself as the uncontested Lord of the Night Walkers, he vowed to refine himself, to learn to appreciate subtleties, to become, as much as it was possible for a blood-drinking creature of the night to be, cultured.
Now that he could drink it for pleasure only, he cultivated a nuanced taste for different kinds of blood. He categorized them not only by species -- even the crudest Night Walker could tell the difference between, say, wolf's blood and fox's blood -- but by the mood of the donor during extraction. "This bottle, for example," he explained to an uncomprehending servant, "was drawn from a girl who was told her parents had just died. Here, taste." The servant detected only that the fluid was, in fact, blood. Erebus continued: "Can you detect the bitter notes of despair, just beneath that slightly fructiform innocence? Ah, magnificent! A jewel of my collection!" His blood cellar was a thing to behold, with thousands of casks of every vintage lining its walls.
Still, Erebus was unsatisfied. He had no peer among his people, no-one with whom to share his aesthetic triumphs. On many nights, he would dissipate himself and travel in mist form to faraway Nordolath, where human aristocrats had raised great halls. He looked upon their paintings, heard the music they played at their great balls, saw their splendid clothing, and was seduced by their sophistication.
As might have been predicted, this longing found its most vivid expression in an obsession with a radiantly beautiful black-haired girl. The awe and desire that he felt while watching her from the shadows of her boudoir were all the keener because he knew he must not touch her. Not because he couldn't -- he could easily have taken her and sucked her dry -- but because her delicacy and intelligence were the things that moved him, and these things would vanish in the tasting. She wrote and recited poems of such beauty that he found himself weeping blood. He dreamed of touching her long black hair, just once.
One evening, while taking his usual bath in a vat of sheep's blood, Erebus realized that he loved the girl. He decided to reveal himself to her, to prove to her that he was capable of appreciating her, and to woo her with poetry of his own. He decided he would wait until after they were married to tell her about the blood cellar.
The following night, he stepped from the shadows of her bedroom and introduced himself. She immediately screamed, which for some reason he hadn't anticipated. He went ahead with the plan, producing a piece of paper.
"Wait, please. I wrote you a poem."
She was still screaming.
"'Look upon the sparrows...'"
Now there was pounding at her door, shouting guards beyond. Also, more screaming from the girl.
"'Alloted few tomorrows...'"
A crash as the guards hit the door with something heavy.
"Wait, I lost my place."
The girl drew in a great, ragged breath, and then went back to screaming.
When the guards finally broke through, they found the girl cowering beneath her bedsheets. A towering, bald-headed creature stood at the foot of her bed, looking confusedly at a piece of paper. They immediately thrust their halberds at Erebus, who easily parried them. Not wishing to unduly frighten the girl, he did not kill the guards, but continued to beseech open-mindedness on her part while swerving and dancing to avoid his attackers.
"I see the beauty that you see, my darling," he said, yanking the weapon of one guard out of his hands and tossing it out the window. "I believe we are meant for each other." She was hoarse from screaming, but still made a hearty go of it. He pleaded with her. "Would you please stop yelling for a moment? Think of your singing voice!"
One guard finally got close to Erebus -- not near enough to harm him, but the blade sliced through one of the exposed hoses on the Night Walker's suit. Blood spilled out onto the floor for a few sickening seconds, and then tapered off as the suit emptied. Erebus looked down with horror. "You have no idea what you've done!"
He turned to the girl. "Run! Run away, my darling!"
Even as he said the words, his red eyes began to whiten. The girl remained where she sat, frozen with fear.
"You... must go...," said Erebus, struggling with his quickly-rising hunger. He could feel his conscious mind shrink beneath an expanding, wordless bloodlust.
"No, wait. Come here, my darling."
After repairing his suit and wasting many months on a period of unseemly mourning, Erebus finally acknowledged that eternal boredom was likely to be his lot in life. Perhaps he could write a poem about the whole thing.
He had to admit, even as he despised himself for it, that the girl had been delicious.