Tales Foretold: The Reign of Cenaster
Just beyond the Red Gate of Etwersbrot, a candle shone in a frosty second story window. The people that gathered there did so against the will of the demon lord, Tremoda. The street below was busy with the denizens of the capital going about their business. No one knew or cared about the conspiracies going on in the shadows. They were all living in a new age of prosperity. Gone were the formations of soldiers and warring kingdoms. The citizens of Etwersbrot were willing to give up thoughts of free-will for the peace that Tremoda brought, but for some, peace and safety were not enough.
The city of Etwersbrot had been a beacon of civilization for over a thousand years. It had grown to prominence in the time following the first Nightmare Apocalypse. The ancient stones that made up Tremoda's palace, and the Red Gate itself, could be traced back to that time. People from all over the world would come to the densely packed streets looking for refuge, a practice that continues to this day.
Waiting in the dark, the holy man Darma watched the candle and the wind blowing snow beyond the glass. It was a gamble, meeting here in the capital. Darma centered his thoughts and took strength from turning inward. He walked to the window and looked down onto the street. The building was being watched, of course, but Darma had identified the psychic wizards who were in charge and had taken precautions.
At last, the target appeared. A tall woman stepped out into the street, holding a child by the hand. Both figures were wrapped in animal skins, hiding much of their features. Darma wasn't the only one to notice them. Across the street, a man in a dark cloak focused his attention on them. Acting quickly, Darma concentrated his will and focused on the watcher's mind.
The secret police had to recruit from among old souls, those who had lived previous lives on Earth. While this gave the recruit perspective, and granted them psychic powers, it made them more difficult to control. Too many lifetimes and Tremoda would lose his power over them. Darma sensed the strength of the watcher and found him wanting. He blinked and sent the policeman into a trance, asleep on his feet.
Quickly, the woman guided the child across the street and into the building where Darma was waiting. The holy man concentrated, causing his mind to expand and detect the watchers outside. It seemed safe. When the woman knocked on the door, Darma opened it. There, at the top of the stairs, he greeted the woman and child. He knew they were not as they seemed. The little one had the most powerful aura Darma had ever seen.
"Show yourself," said Darma. "You are among friends here."
As Darma closed the door behind them, the little person removed his fur cap revealing a full beard and a tangle of wild hair. He was a dwarf, one of the Original People. Darma bowed low in a show of repect. Tremoda's slaves had really fouled up this time, allowing such a strong psychic force near their master. Filled with the desire to ask the dwarf a thousand questions, Darma noticed the look of disapproval on the woman's face and knew it wasn't the time.
Her name was Kaya, she said, and she had the look of someone of great importance. Though she was young, she took to commanding with ease, ordering Darma to move the light away from the window. She was very tall and had a tangled mane of light brown hair. It couldn't have been easy, escorting the dwarf this far behind enemy lines. Darma could sense the hardness in Kaya's gaze that spoke of true suffering.
"You must be tired after such a journey," said Darma. "Let me pour you a drink."
"Don't bother Master Kogan," said Kaya. "There is no time for such nonsense."
"There is always time for dwarven wine," said Kogan the dwarf, having spied the stuff on Darma's shelf.
"Of course," said Darma, "but in return you must tell us a story of the old times."
Taking a seat by the window, the dwarf smiled broadly as Darma filled his cup. The woman looked out onto the street with concern, but Kogan reassured her. "The time for fighting will come soon enough, Kaya," he said. Turning to Darma, the dwarf sipped his wine and spoke.
"You and I remember the bad times. The Second Nightmare Apocalypse that ended the Dulchari age left scars on this world that will never heal. The tale of those days is one of forbidden knowledge and endless ambition. It is a story about how the current sad state of affairs came to be. We must look back from this waning age of the human race for the clues to our salvation.
Many centuries ago, Etwersbrot was the capital of a different kingdom. The Dulchari ruled then, and it was a different kind of dwarf that had come to learn from them the art of magic. While the rest of the navel-gazing wizards followed the study guides that the Dulchari prepared for them, Maktow was making his own discoveries.
In the center of a giant mosaic pentagram built into the floor, the tiny dwarf Maktow lay his case before his master, Domoran. The pudgy little dwarf had just presented his final magic exhibition. It was a prediction about the coming conjunction of planets. Maktow was of the opinion the world was at the dawn of a new age.
As young and fat as Maktow was, so was Domoran old, tall, and lanky. His face was almost lost amid the mop of dark gray hair and shaggy beard. If anyone spoke of him, however, it was his eyes that were his most distinctive feature. There was no denying the intelligence and intensity there, especially when they focused upon you.
"You have failed all the tests," said Domoran. "Take your toys and leave us."
"I can read the language of the ancients just as you can," said Maktow. "The gods will return."
"Enough," said Domoran. "Your path is a different one than that of the Dulchari."
Had he known how dangerous this dwarf was, Domoran would have had him executed immediately. Before Maktow left the fortress of Ewtersbrot for the last time, he would make one more visit to the library. He collected his things and took one final look at the council chamber. The Dulchari wizards looked ridiculous on their high golden thrones, but they were still the most powerful beings on the planet. Soon that would all change. The door slammed as he left the room.
The only other member of the high council present that day was the sorceress, Namaca. She had long dark hair with pale skin, shot through with blue veins. Her face was creased with lines of worry as she had one of the most stressful jobs in the world, literally tasked with keeping reality from flying apart.
"Domoran," asked Namaca, "could he be right? Does Axolar's Calendar really exist?"
"The planets are now aligned," said Domoran. "We have more pressing matters than chasing after rumors."
The library at Etwersbrot was by far the greatest collection of ancient wisdom the world had ever known. Maktow knew he had to be quick as only Dulchari potentials and their masters were allowed in the library, and his pass had just been revoked. He tried his hand at the door and it opened. They hadn't changed the magic locks yet. The young dwarf took in the sights and smells of the library one last time. He quickly snapped to, as he was on a mission.
"I have been rejected by the Dulchari, as you predicted," wrote Maktow. "Where is the Calendar?"
Taking the hastily marked scroll, Maktow shoved it into one of the bookshelves at random. He then walked through the aisle, letting his spirit guide him. His fingers brushed against one codex that seemed out of place. It was written over five hundred years ago, near the end of the dwarven empire during the so-called Golden Age. It was clear that it hadn't been studied in some time. The subject was that of flower gardening.
As Maktow opened the book to a seemingly random page, a trance came over him. He could see the words dance on the page as one after another, different letters presented themselves to him in a pattern that would be unseen by the casual reader. He was in direct contact with the ancients.
"Go to Assura," read the ancient text, "and wait for instructions."
The manner in which the ancients communicated with Maktow never failed to fill him with a sense of wonder. It was they that helped him come as far as he did in the magic trials, considering that he was not a particularly talented wizard. In exchange for their sacred knowledge, Maktow had promised to help the ancients heal the universe.
Waiting at the Red Gate of Ewtersbrot was Maktow's donkey. He would be leaving for the ruin of the dwarf fortress and completing the quest of a lifetime. Assura was only a day's ride through Apagan Pass. There were times, as during the Nightmare Apocalypse, when such a journey would have been impossible. The Dulchari changed all that. That elite band of men, women, and dwarves used the magic of the demons against them, and with the help of the Beast Maimers, brought the world back to a livable state. It was these heroic deeds that attracted Maktow to the Dulchari cause in the first place. Now he had greater goals than mere peace on Earth.
Snow was fresh on the ground on Apagan pass as Maktow made his way down the well-worn trail. Soon he reached the flaming orbs that stood on tall pedestals on either side of the highway, marking the end of Dulchari lands. Maktow had never been this far from Etwersbrot before. He was clearly not an adventurer, but he thought he could handle himself. He knew the magic language of Cogita and was a master of the elements despite what Domoran and Namaca said. He followed the river down from the mountains and was soon halfway to Assura.
As Apagan pass gave way to the Forest of Blood, Maktow walked along the edge of the river and paused for a moment to scout ahead. The lone dwarf was on his own, walking the King's Highway to Assura. The road was notorious for bandits, especially where it wound through the forest. The dwarf called on the power of Flerufei to draw an animal close to him.
A tiny bird landed on his shoulder. Speaking the ancient language of Cogita, Maktow channeled his magic power. It was dangerous, but the circumstances called for action. When the dwarf had finished, he found his body babbling and flapping its arms before it became still. His soul had switched places with the nuthatch. The animal spirit was overwhelmed by his dwarven body and rested.
Maktow tested his new wings and launched into the sky. The trees rushed by as he flew through the air. He had attempted the magic of Kaiozurdea before, but never on his own. He saw the city of Assura just on the other side of the wood. There didn't appear to be any bandits blocking the way. At the last minute Maktow checked the sky for birds of prey. If he was eaten before he returned to his body that would be it for him.
"Thank you, my friend," said Maktow as he pet the unconscious bird in his hand.
The nuthatch awoke and flew away, frustrated by its unwanted experience. Maktow dusted off his tunic and stepped back on the trail. The Dulchari would be sorry they rejected him.
At this time Assura was the capital of the Akkarites. The Akkarite empire had grown under the leadership of King Lasonus to control the seven city states of the Slusian Plains. The borders to the north and west ended at the Apagan Mountains. To the south, the Akkarites commanded the sea from the port city of Akkadin. To the east lay the wilds of Naronia and the barbarians that lived there.
The city of Assura itself was a fortress built atop an ancient dwarf fortress, from which it dominated the Slusian Plains. Its walls were made of mud brick from the twin rivers that wove through the empire. At the center was a palace, constructed on a great mound of earth thought to be the ruins of a dwarven temple complex. It was here that the crazed King Banatar made his home.
The young Banatar was powerfully built, but looked half starved as there wasn't a bit of fat on his body. His eyes had a sunken look and his face was as a bearded skull with a large hooked nose. He was always filled with energy, always panicking over his next move. Never was there a moment of calm with him.
When wise king Lasonus died, Prince Banatar inherited the empire. The young man was paranoid and superstitious. He constantly surrounded himself with religious cultists and made decisions based on arcane rituals. The day that Maktow arrived was a fortuitous one for him, as the king had just executed his high priest. Banatar considered the dwarves the 'original people,' as it was they who built the ancient city on the ruins of which Assura stood. When news came that a magical dwarf was visiting the city, Banatar had him summoned to the throne room at once.
The palace was filled with crumbling statues of gods the dwarves had carved long ago. It was an impressive collection even if theologically it didn't make much sense. The dwarf god of the underworld, Nadir, was placed next to his archenemy, the goddess of nature, Trigonometra. At the center of the mess was the golden throne on which Banatar sat.
The king of the Akkarites looked like he hadn't slept in weeks. His eyes were bloodshot and laden with dark bags. At his right hand stood one of the red knights of Assura. They were a ruthless force that had subjugated the peoples of the Slusian Plains with little trouble. Maktow knew he had to watch his tongue around these men.
"You come from the Dulchari fortress," said Banatar. "It is said that they saved the world. But where were they at the Battle of Tasan, or Otla Hill?"
"I do not represent the Order," said Maktow. "I serve the gods alone."
"That's good," said Banatar. "Very good. I need to know that the gods are on my side. It is said that this palace was built on the ruin of an ancient dwarf fortress. Once the gods lived among the dwarves in places like this, before the Nightmare Apocalypse, and the Dulchari."
"You know then," said Maktow, "of Axolar's ascension to the universal throne, and the chaos it caused."
"It separated the gods from Earth," said Banatar, "and placed them in Nullset, apart from us."
"Apart," said Maktow, "but not lost. Look here."
Guiding the king to the statue of Nadir, Maktow began to chant in the ancient dwarven tongue. He drew a circle with his hand at the foot of the statue. He would grant the king a glimpse into Nullset using the forbidden magic of Mourkob. With his finger, the dwarf traced a line down the center of the circle and folded back the layers of reality to reveal an extraterrestrial scene.
"Is it real?" exclaimed Banatar. "Is that the land of the gods?"
"Enough," said Maktow, closing the magic portal. "Have I not earned your trust?"
Later that afternoon, Maktow was made high priest in the temple of Nadir, the dwarf god below. Servants brought priest's robes that were tailored to fit his dwarven body. At first Maktow didn't know what to do. There were many rituals to attend to, most of which Maktow faked with ad hoc ceremonies. Banatar appeared with his knights and watched over the proceedings. When the king was satisfied he retired to his bed chamber, leaving Maktow with free rein of the palace.
In the Dulchari capital of Etwersbrot, the members of the high council were just beginning to see the seriousness of the situation.
"Maktow visited the library before he was ejected from the city," said Namaca.
"Show me," said Domoran, sensing the danger for the first time.
Several ancient scrolls were missing or out of order. Handing a crumpled scroll to Domoran, Namaca knew what was at stake. Maktow was in contact with a demonic force. It was an offense worthy of capital punishment, but the Dulchari had been too quick to banish the young dwarf. Domoran collected the scrolls and brought them to his laboratory for further study.
Sitting down with a glass of dwarven wine, Domoran let his eyes wander over the ancient markings on the disturbed scrolls. He wondered what code the ancients had been using and whether the young dwarf wasn't just seeing patterns that weren't really there. He brought his thoughts into focus and touched the mind of Axolar, a secret world that was a crucial source of Dulchari power. He could feel another mind probing from across the vast chasm of time.
"You've been drinking again," said Namaca.
"The conjunction is drawing near," said Domoran, "and we are not prepared for the coming conflict."
"Who can face us, but one of our own?" asked Namaca. "Not the Naronians or the Akkarites, surely?"
"The ancients will not lie still in their graves," said Domoran. "Still they scheme and vye for power."
"Don't look to the East for danger," said Namaca. "I tell you, the traitor is one of ours."
It was the ruins under the city that truly interested Maktow. The priest retraced his steps until he was in the throne room. There he saw the ancient markings of Cogita. He ran through the translation in his mind. It seemed to say something about Axolar's Calendar, indicating a stone in the floor behind the throne that looked out of place. It was something only a dwarf would have noticed, a puzzle common to his people. Maktow felt around the border of the stone with his hands until he felt a click. The stone slid away revealing a secret tunnel.
Despite the dust of five hundred years coating the floor, Maktow could still hear the grinding sound of metal on metal deeper in the darkness. Curiosity overcame all fear and trepidation as Maktow continued further into the buried ruin. At the end of the tunnel was a hidden chamber.
There was an altar at the center of the room, but far more interesting was the wall on the far side. It was a solid metal plate covered with etched runes and moving parts. Maktow recognized it as the legendary Calendar of Axolar. It could only be by divine magic that the machine was still working. Tears welled in Maktow's eyes.
It was filled with spinning globes representing the celestial bodies. It was clear even to the untrained eye that there would be a conjunction soon.
Hunting for answers, Maktow scanned the wall for messages. Then he noticed a smashed rock tablet scattered across the floor. Maktow spent the balance of the evening in a painstaking effort to put it back together.
"I am buried in the mountains near Harea," said the tablet. "Bring my body to the altar in three days time. Know that my remains are guarded by supernatural beasts. You will need the hero, Bram, to protect you."
The words were signed with the name 'Cenaster.' This was the name of a powerful being the Dulchari had defeated time and again only to return when he was least wanted. It was a little disconcerting to learn that he had signed on with the archenemy of the Dulchari, but it was too late to turn back now. The sound of footsteps came from above. Maktow immediately scattered the pieces of the tablet to conceal what he had found.
"Well done," applauded Banatar as he descended the stairs into the altar room. "I knew I could depend on a dwarf to find the holiest of ancient artifacts."
"Do you know what this is?" asked Maktow.
"It is a machine for telling time," said Banatar.
"It tells us how much time we have left," said Maktow. "We have three days."
Panicked, the king ordered that Maktow read the signs again.
"It is useless to resist. Unless the gods are appeased there will be a second Nightmare Apocalypse," said Maktow.
"The bogeymen will get us," stammered the king.
"Bogeymen will be the least of your worries," said Maktow. "I must leave now. There is much to prepare for."
Leaving the king at the altar, with plenty to think about, Maktow walked from the shrine and the palace proper. The knights watched him with suspicion. They knew he was taking advantage of the feeble-minded Banatar. As he was now the high priest, there was nothing they could do but wait. All Maktow had to do was make one mistake that betrayed his true nature. Then the Akkarites would have their way with him.
A master of the magic of Zuhai, Namaca muttered in the language of the ancients as she glided up the hundreds of steps of the high tower. She went to call on Domoran who had been remiss in his duties for a whole day. The top room of the tower was lit by a single glowing orb that floated over Domoran's desk. He had passed out reading the pile of ancient scrolls and had laid his hairy gray head down.
"Time is running out," said Namaca, "have you learned anything from the stolen scrolls?"
"Maktow certainly hasn't gone through the trouble of hiding his tracks," said Domoran, wiping his eyes. "The ancients are pointing him to our neighbors in Assura."
"Those barbarians of the twin rivers were never a match for our magic," said Namaca. "The new king is a fool, a slave to the cultists that control his mind."
"You were right about the traitor. The renegade wizard, Maktow, is up to something," said Domoran. "Why did the Dulchari never investigate the ruins under Assura?"
"There are ruined fortresses everywhere," said Namaca, "Even with every Dulchari wizard searching, we still couldn't search them all."
"The ancients are helping Maktow," said Domoran. "Could it be that they thwarted our earlier attempts to find it?"
"To find what?" asked Namaca.
"The universal throne," said Domoran, "on which holy Axolar himself presides."
The legend of mighty Bram had come up many times in Maktow's studies at the Dulchari capital of Etwersbrot. He was the most storied Beast Maimer of the age. He had killed more monster demons than Maktow had even read or heard of. Standing outside the palace, Maktow was at a loss as to where to search for him, or even if he still lived. Like a true Dulchari wizard, he fell back on his magical training. He folded his palms together beneath the sleeves of his robe and began to concentrate, muttering in the ancient tongue.
The gods created the souls of all thinking beings to have free will, as Dulchari teachings demonstrate. They have control over the strands of fate that pull us forward into the future. While it is possible to change the direction of your fate, it is also possible to follow a chosen strand to view a possible outcome. The great beings of Basamort use this power to find food and water on their endless desert wanderings. Now it was Maktow's turn.
Seeing his future self skipping along the street, Maktow waited a few heartbeats and followed behind. The denizens of the city steered clear of the strange dwarven priest and he paid them no mind. He followed the phantom under the crumbling Arch of Domon to a district of town where the buildings were dilapidated, and the streets dirty and neglected. There was a crowd up ahead, near the entrance to a ruined temple. Maktow watched himself make his way through the crowd and walk inside, ending his magic trance.
The Brass Lantern was known as a slaughter house among the poor people of Assura. The venue itself was built into the ruin of a dwarven temple. Statues of the gods were painted to look like clowns or prostitutes. Toughs of all stripes lined up to get inside. It seemed that if there was a place to find the greatest fighter of the age, this was it. The crowd parted for the dwarf priest, as they were superstitious about such people.
There was a rowdy bunch inside the tavern. Maktow looked around and the toughest customers were those wearing colorful rags that seemed to be torn from the tunics he had seen on the Akkarite knights. One of them noticed the dwarven priest and made her way toward him. She wore a red scarf across her forehead, holding back her raven colored hair. Maktow could instantly feel that their destinies were entwined.
"I seek Bram," said Maktow, "the Beast Maimer."
"Did Banatar send you?" asked the woman. "There is a price on Bram's head, reward enough for anyone, save maybe a dwarf priest of Nadir."
The rogue's name was Rose, famous in her own right as a master thief and the right hand of Bram and the Redband Bandits. Over the course of a few drinks, Rose explained that the bandits were the only thing keeping Banatar from seizing complete control over the seven cities of the Slusian Plains. The Bandits ruled their illegal fiefdom from the Forest of Blood.
"We must go to the forest and seek out Bram," said Maktow. "There is no time to waste."
The Redbands were not bandits, but freedom fighters, Rose explained as they walked out of the city gates and into the woods. That was not to say that they didn't personally profit from their exploits. She flashed a smile enhanced with a shiny golden tooth. The forest creatures followed them along in the trees above, sensing the importance of the meeting to come. Maktow muttered a spell, calling on the power of Flerufei to protect him. Now even the trees seemed to take notice. Rose stopped her monologue and stared at the dwarf.
"You know I wouldn't harm you," said Rose. "The ransom of a high priest is pretty tempting I must say, but there is more to you than meets the eye. Isn't there?"
Emerging from the trees, Maktow could now see what he had expected all along, that they were not alone. Smiling bandits guided Maktow into the camp which was built under a grove of ancient trees. The Redbands came from all parts of the empire, and the world. There were men and women, elves and goblins, all wearing improvised armor and armed to the teeth with homemade weapons. They had all gathered there because of one cause, and one man.
Observing the tall, powerfully built fighter engaged in a drinking game with three goblins, Maktow was impressed. The blade passed between his fingers with the speed of a hummingbird's wing. There was a yelp as the last of the goblins failed and faded back into the crowd while Bram collected his winnings. As the crowd closed in to congratulate the hero, Maktow stepped to the front.
"What do you want, priest?" asked mighty Bram.
"Why waste your skill in a place like this?" answered Maktow. "You were once a Beast Maimer."
"You are no priest of Nadir," said Bram. "You are Dulchari. Tell me, are there still monsters to be slain?"
Keeping the stickier theological details to himself, Maktow described the mission. The planets were now aligned and the pull of Fate was strong. They were to seek out a treasure protected by supernatural beasts. Only then could they stop the conjunction and prevent a second Nightmare Apocalypse. Bram accepted the mission and the Redbands erupted into applause.
That very night, the adventurers set out for the mountains of Harea. The ruins they sought were said to be somewhere near the mining outpost. Bram had urged Maktow to accepted Rose's help on the quest as she was an expert treasure hunter, well-versed in dwarven traps. Maktow saw more in the thief than that. There was something about her that betrayed a dwarven heritage, even if it was just the joy she took in a job well-done.
As they neared the village, the weather worsened. There was a downpour the likes of which hadn't been seen in years. Rivers of mud flowed down the foothills slowing the adventurers' advance. There was the clear danger of a rock slide and Maktow was about to call off the hunt when Rose spied what they were looking for.
The opening was invisible except for those with keen dwarven eyes. The entrance was covered by a rock door that was meant to look like an ordinary boulder. Rose and Bram ran ahead in the driving rain. Maktow had reminded them about the warning of supernatural beasts, but this didn't seem to concern the heroes as they pried open the door.
"Which world does the beast come from?" asked Bram.
Not expecting to have his Dulchari knowledge tested by a Beast Maimer, Maktow had to admit that he did not know. The cave dungeon let out a sigh as the adventurers moved the boulder to the side. Inside it was black and foreboding. Please, thought Maktow, let it not be from Breputog. Then the smell hit him. There was no question. Bram grimaced as Rose lit the torch.
The thing writhed in the dark corner as light shone into the abandoned mine for the first time in centuries. It was not sunlight that attracted the beast, for it had no eyes. It was the life's blood flowing through the heroes' bodies. The monster could smell them and was driven to a ravenous hunger.
"What is it?" asked Rose.
"A worm," said Bram. "A demon from Breputog."
"It is from a place that turns all matter to rot," said Maktow. "Beware its poison. If enough touches exposed flesh, it can lead to paralysis and death."
"At last," said Bram, "a beast worthy of my skills."
Drawing his broadsword with a flourish, Bram stepped inside, Rose following with the torch. The floor of the cave was slippery. Bram's sandals began to steam as the leather reacted with the filth the worm excreted. The beast was at least ten spans long. Its skin was pink and glistening with moisture. It raised one end of its body and revealed a mouth ringed with pointed teeth. Knowing what was coming next, Bram leaped to the side as the worm vomited up a stream of black bile. The liquid splattered across the floor. Drops steamed as they touched the fabric of Rose's cloak.
"Now!" cried Bram.
There was a flash of light as Rose tossed the torch at the giant worm. The cavern was lit up like daylight as the pools of slime burned. The beast itself was on fire and it thrashed around spraying burning matter through the air. Bram stepped in with the skill of a dancer and slashed with his sword. The monster came undone, spilling its guts onto the cavern floor. Bram swung the sword over his head, flinging the pieces of intestine away.
"Excellent maiming," said Maktow. "This way."
Stepping gingerly over the twitching pieces of worm, Maktow made his way deeper into the mine. Rose was right behind him with the torch, scanning for traps. Down into the cavern the adventurers delved, Bram bringing up the rear. At last they reached the inner sanctum. The smell of Breputog gave way to a different atmosphere, one charged with mysterious magic.
"What is this place?" asked Bram. "This is not Dulchari magic."
There was a tiny casket laying in the center of the room. Ancient servants of Cenaster had obviously placed it there and summoned the worm from Breputog as a guardian. Maktow advanced into the room once Rose gave the signal that it was clear. She warned Maktow against opening the box. There wasn't a more obvious place for the dwarves to booby trap. He did so anyway and was surprised by what he found.
Inside the tiny sarcophagus was a dead body, no larger than a squirrel. It was wrapped in cloth and was stiff as a stone when Maktow lifted it up. He quickly unwrapped the head and revealed a decayed, skeletal face. It was his master's face, just as in the illustrations of the ancient texts. He waited for a sign, any kind of message, but it did not come. He slipped the body into the folds of his robe and led the adventurers out of the room.
"You got what you came for," said Rose. "Where is our reward?"
"Maiming beasts is its own reward," laughed Bram.
Making his way back down the mountain, Maktow was beaming with joy. Once they reached the King's Highway the adventurers went their separate ways. Bram bid the mischievous priest farewell and trotted back into the woods.
"I'm not finished with you yet," said Maktow.
"You have a job for a thief?" asked Rose.
"I want you to break into the king's inner sanctum at Assura," said Maktow.
"Sure, no problem," said Rose. "Is there anything particular you want me to steal?"
"On the contrary," said Maktow, reaching into his robe, "I want you to leave something behind."
"Take this," said Maktow as he tossed a small object in Rose's direction.
Rose caught it delicately. It appeared to be a doll wrapped in cloth. Rose had done jobs for the cults before, but nothing this strange.
"In three days time," said Maktow, "the planets will be aligned and the demon god Cenaster will return. That doll represents his body. It must be placed on the altar when the time is right."
"Sounds easy enough," said Rose. "When will I receive my reward? I'm not so generous as Bram."
Suddenly amused, Maktow reached down onto the ground and selected an acorn that had fallen from a nearby tree. It was funny what people would do for the right form of currency. Holding the acorn between his finger and thumb, Maktow called on the power of Eroaus. There was a flash of light and the acorn was replaced by a nugget of gold. The magic dwarf tossed the treasure into the rogue's hands.
"There will be a new king of Assura when you are finished," said Maktow. "My master is generous to those who do his bidding."
The pair shook hands on the deal and Rose jogged back down the road leaving Maktow to meditate on the situation. He waited a few hours before following her. He wanted to be close when the master returned, but not that close. The girl would almost certainly not survive. The astral event that coincided with the master's return would be powerful. He would take Axolar's place on the universal throne and all the magical forces in the universe would pass through his body. The Age of the Dulchari would be at an end.
In the heart of the citadel at Etwersbrot, Domoran sat on one of the five golden thrones encircling the great pentagram built into into the floor of the hall.
"Banatar has seen the Shrine of Axolar and the Calendar," said Namaca. "We must intervene before it's too late."
"To interfere with the government of men is against our charter," said Domoran. "We can protect them against the supernatural, but that is all we can do."
"The planets are aligned," said Namaca. "If the ancients are meddling in our world, we must meddle also in order to save it!"
No longer able to deny the truth that Namaca had spoken, Domoran turned to the secrets of the Dulchari to stop Maktow, Banatar, and the ancient conspirators. There were only two wizards left on the council as the others had passed on over the years, having no longer any interest in the things on Earth. It was up to Domoran and Namaca, as the last of the Dulchari in Etwersbrot, to marshal their full powers to stop Banatar's red knights.
Muttering to himself in the ancient tongue, the old wizard struggled to remember the sequence of his combination lock. At last the lock box opened and revealed Domoran's prized possession, a magic staff from the world of Kalista. It was forged in an inhuman way, sporting a glowing crystal which shined with a life all its own.
"What do you think, Dabis?" asked Domoran.
"The end is nigh," said the staff, in the ancient language of Cogita. "You may have need of me before the end."
Mounting her black mare, Namaca reviewed the troops. The knights of Etwersbrot hadn't seen as much action as the Akkarite knights of Assura. Nonetheless, they stood bravely before the Red Gate. Namaca praised them, reminding them that they and the Dulchari were all that separated the Earth from the chaos that followed the first Nightmare Apocalypse. Now they faced the forces of evil once more.
"Your souls might belong to Apexus," shouted Namaca, "but your blood, bones, and sinew belong to the Dulchari!"
The city of Assura was on edge. Victories in the Slusian Plains had not brought the peace that the king had promised, not since he died and left his wicked son in charge. Rose slipped in and out of the excited crowds. There would be a revolution soon. The planets were aligned and every fool knew it. The city guard and the red knights were just itching to use their truncheons.
Ending up with a group of protesters outside the palace, Rose looked to the sky. The sun was almost directly overhead. She was almost out of time. The conjunction was only minutes away. There was a disturbance at the gate. Rose used the opportunity to break away and slip over the wall with an acrobatic leap. More knights emerged from the building to meet the increasing threat from outside. Waiting for them to rush by, Rose smiled at the ease with which she was earning her pay.
The insane ranting of the king echoed throughout hall. Rose kept to the shadows, avoiding the knights as they ran toward the entrance, weapons drawn. Cautiously, she approached the throne room. There, on the golden throne, sat King Banatar himself. He was clearly at his wit's end. He was talking to himself about gods and demons. Rose could see the secret entrance to the altar room. It was on the other side of the throne. She would have to confront Banatar to gain access to it.
"Can I be of assistance, your Mightiness?" said Rose as she stepped into the light.
"The dwarf priest said that time is running out," babbled the king, "and then he left me."
"I just saw him," said Rose. "He is waiting for you outside."
The king seemed to see Rose for the first time. He was alone, as all of his bodyguards had left to confront the rioters at the gate. If it ever occurred to him that he could be assassinated, he didn't show it. He thanked Rose for her service to the crown and walked toward the exit. Rose said a silent prayer to Trigonometra and stepped toward the empty throne.
The puzzle door was easy enough to figure out. It slid away and revealed a stairway down into the dusty darkness. There was a frantic grinding sound coming from below. Wasting no time, Rose drew her blade and descended the steps. When she saw the machine and the altar, she knew she was in the right place. She reached into her pocket and found that the doll was warm to the touch. She pulled it out and saw that the tiny figure was glowing with its own light.
"I believe the king is looking for me," said Maktow, standing at the gates of Assura.
The Akkarites seized Maktow at once and brought him to the door of the palace. King Banatar was there and had a disheveled look about him.
"What are you doing here, traitor dwarf?" asked King Banatar.
"The master is returning tonight," said Maktow. "He will assume the throne of the universe."
"Nonsense," said Banatar. "The title of 'ruler' is mine alone."
Recalling his lessons with Domoran, Maktow moved his hands in the manner of the Dance of Axolar. Banatar stopped to watch, the magic taking hold. The priest reached out with his power and snatched the swords from the knights' hands. The blades began to swirl in a deadly cyclone around Maktow's body as he danced.
A shadow passed over the sun as the planets were now aligned. A beam of energy shot down from the sky and penetrated the roof of the palace. The ground began to shake and Maktow found he could no longer control the flying weapons which went spinning in all directions. All around, buildings began to crumble.
"Are you doing this?" cried Banatar. "Stop it!"
"I...," stammered Maktow, "I'm trying."
Raising his voice up in song, Maktow found that the language of Cogita had lost its power. The sun was now a black disk in a glowing red sky. Maktow turned his thought inward as Domoran had once taught him, to touch the soul of Axolar, but the presence wasn't there. It had been replaced by something else.
"The master has returned," said Maktow.
Stepping back from the priest, Banatar ran back into the palace. The Akkarite knights followed their king, leaving Maktow to ponder his fate.
The ground shook and lightning arched across the machine. Deep in the inner sanctum, the doll began to shake and grow, bursting through its mummy wrappings revealing layers of lavender muscles and bone. Rose dropped the nasty thing and it barked with a mouth full of shark-like teeth.
"Since when have the people of Cogita grown so tall?" asked the monster.
The creature was now the size of a child and growing. It attacked Rose, but she held it at bay with a hand on its forehead. Overhead, she could hear the Akkarite guards rushing toward the inner sanctum. She took her cloak from her shoulders and wrapped it around the creature's head.
"No one is allowed in the altar room," said one of the guards, "under pain of death."
The creature barked, but Rose drew the cloak around its neck and choked out the call. She pulled the convulsing monster back into a darkened corner.
"You see," said the guard, "there is no one here."
"Where is the master?" said Banatar. "I would call his name."
Pulling the cloak tight around Cenaster's neck, Rose strained until the creature went limp. Banatar ranted and raved, threatening to have the high priest impaled. At last he stormed out of the room and up the stairs. Rose released her grip on Cenaster's body and the thing slumped to the floor, dead.
After hiding the body as best she could, Rose waited until the guards were distracted and climbed up the stairs and out of the inner sanctum. Banatar was on a tear, searching for the high priest and demanding his head upon a pole. While all eyes were on the mad king, Rose slipped through the corridors and out of the citadel.
Fleeing in terror with the rest of the denizens of Assura, Maktow was helpless and could do nothing but witness the horror that he had helped unleash. Cenaster had taken Axolar's place at the center of reality and the result was nothing less than a second Nightmare Apocalypse. The clear blue sky was tearing apart. Cenaster used his power to open Mourkob portals to the worst parts of the multiverse. In some ways it was worse than the first time, as the dwarven monk, Axolar, had started the calamity by accident, where Cenaster operated solely from malice.
Rushing this way and that, the Akkarites did battle with supernatural beasts while Maktow attempted to flee the city. He dodged out of the way of a glowing Lumoi demon and ran back into an alley only to run straight into Rose. The rogue was furious and grabbed Maktow by the beard.
"What have we done?" asked Rose. "None of these cult ceremonies worked before. You never told me about all of this!"
Gesturing at the chaos all around them, Rose knew it was Maktow's fault, but she couldn't bring herself to slay him. Clearly he didn't expect this either. Maybe he could help fix this mess. She agreed to take him to the Forest of Blood. Together they ran, dodging Akkarites and demons. When they got to the edge of the wood, Rose spoke up.
"You must go to Bram," said Rose. "He is our only hope now. I must atone for my part in this in my own way. Go now."
"You," said a voice in the dark. "Come here."
Slowly, Banatar advanced into the altar room. He could hear wheezing and tortured breath coming from the shadows. An Akkarite knight drew his sword and stayed close to his master. Banatar froze when he saw the body. It was the size of dwarf but had purplish skin covered with thorn-like spikes. Its lidless eyes jumped between Banatar and the royal guard. A black tongue darted in and out of its mouth tracing its pointed teeth.
"I think she broke my neck," said Cenaster.
"Tell me of the afterlife!" blurted Banatar. "Tell me of my reward!"
"Let go of me," shouted Cenaster, his head lolling as the king lifted him up.
An electric current passed through Banatar's body and he released the monster, which fell to the ground like a stringless puppet. The black eyes followed the Akkarite king, piercing his soul. The room reverberated with a series of shockwaves, knocking the king to the ground. Pain wracked his body, and soon Banatar began to see the gravity of the situation.
"Please, my master," said Banatar, "command me!"
"The Dulchari must be destroyed," said Cenaster.
"Believe it or not," said a Redband bandit, "it's the high priest of Assura."
"What are you doing here?" asked Bram.
"I need your help to defeat the Akkarites," said Maktow.
"Then maybe they will reward us when we turn you over to them," mused Bram.
"You don't understand," said Maktow. "Cenaster has returned."
Bram grew silent and the other bandits ceased laughing. Cenaster's name was famous among demon hunters. Where most demons cared nothing for human life, Cenaster thought of nothing else but returning to Earth to cause trouble.
"I fear there will be another Nightmare Apocalypse," said Maktow. "As a Beast Maimer, you know what happened when Axolar ascended to the universal throne. Monsters from every world in creation spilled onto the Earth. Imagine what will happen now that Cenaster has that power. Instead of a humble monk from Cogita, a demon will sit on the throne."
"The world is adrift," said Namaca. "Axolar no longer sits on the universal throne."
"Without his presence," said Domoran, "our magic charms are powerless. We must rely on other tools."
Striking the stone floor of the council chamber with his staff, Domoran punctuated his remark with a little lightning show from his Kalista gemstone. The demon inside, Dabis, complained loudly.
"You are right, master," said Dabis, the gemstone. "You will need me in the end, and her as well."
"Who?" asked Domoran, unfamiliar at being caught unaware.
A pair of Dulchari soldiers entered the council chamber carrying Rose, the thief, between them. Domoran seemed not to notice her until they dropped her at his feet. Her aura was stronger than any he had seen before. They had captured her as she crossed into Apagan Pass from Akkarite territory. She was dressed like some sort of Akkarite commando, her tunic and belt bristling with weapons. The guards thought she was some sort of assassin, but the wizards knew this wasn't true.
"Tell us what happened," said Domoran. "You can trust us."
"Yes," said Namaca. "You are among friends here."
There was something in the woman's voice that reminded Rose of her own mother. She didn't know why she had fled into Dulchari country. It seemed the right thing to do after the sacrilege she had committed. The Dulchari were the ones that mended the world after the Nightmare Apocalypse. Maybe they could still save her soul.
"I put the dwarf thing on the altar," said Rose, "like the priest said. But then I killed it."
"The priest," asked Domoran, "can you describe him?"
"He was a dwarf too," said Rose, "but younger, and less monstrous."
"Maktow," said Namaca.
"It must be him," said Domoran, grimly.
The sinking feeling of terror and guilt was all that Rose could endure as she watched the Dulchari, mighty Bram's companions, flail helplessly in the wake of the evil Rose herself had wrought.
"The words no longer have power," said Namaca. "It's as though the universe has gone deaf."
"It's the machine," said Domoran. "We no longer command the connections between worlds."
"Then who does?" asked Namaca.
"They said his name was Cenaster," said Rose from where she had been forgotten in the corner.
A grim pall descended over the company. It had been many centuries since the evil one had broken through the barrier between worlds.
"Maktow has betrayed us totally," said Domoran.
"If we truly face the demon god," said Namaca, "there can be no chance of victory."
"I killed him," said Rose, "I'm sure of it."
"The demon still lives," said Namaca. "We can sense his power."
"Then for the sake of my own soul," said Rose, "I shall slay him again."
"Stay close to my side," said Namaca.
"How much time do we have left?" asked Bram.
"Two days," said Maktow. "Maybe three. It is a wonder we are not already dead. The summoning must have been bungled somehow. Without the gods to guide it, the world will return to chaos."
"Then we must slay Cenaster and take up the reins of the world ourselves," said Bram.
This seemed to make sense in a barbaric kind of way. Maktow wondered if it was still possible to kill his master. His physical form would be vulnerable enough. But if he sat on the cosmic throne his power would be limitless. Maybe they could simply re-enter the capital and put an end to the demon god.
The riders left the forest with a vanguard of the bravest of the Redbands. Between the rivers the capital of Assura squatted behind its thick walls like a toad. Bram and Maktow watched as the gates opened and disgorged an army of Akkarite knights that seemed to take forever to leave the city. Maktow thought they were lucky. With so many knights sent to invade the Dulchari lands there would be few soldiers left to defend their evil master. The gates were still open when the bandits entered the city. There were only a few dozen Redbands, but they quickly overwhelmed the city guard and rode on to the palace.
The red banners of the Akkarites could be seen on the far side of the river. This is where Domoran chose to fight, just at the entrance of the Apagan Pass. Namaca was with him, and though the power of the word was gone thanks to Axolar's machine, Domoran counted on their combined strength to win the day.
What the wizards could do was limited to this world. Domoran studied the banners of the Akkarites and saw that they were led by Prince Banatar himself, now the king of Assura. Domoran felt that he could sense what the upstart would do before he decided it himself. However, having studied every ancient scroll dealing with the art of war and its tactics, Domoran knew that the odds of winning were grim.
"That's Banatar out there, leading the way," said Rose. "I can nail him from here. Just give the word."
"I can no longer trace the strands of Fate with the power of Basamort," said Namaca, "but it is obvious that there is no chance of victory."
"You see? You said yourself that your magic is failing," said Rose. "Give me a shot at him."
"That's the spirit," said Dabis, the magic staff.
"Silence," said Domoran. "We will let this upstart make the first move."
The people of Assura were terrified and it was easy to see why. There was an impaled corpse on every street corner. Those doors which had not been smashed open were marked with red paint and the symbol of Cenaster. Finally, Maktow spotted an Akkarite knight. He was wandering in the middle of the street as if in a trance. Red paint had been poured over his armor.
"Where is the master?" demanded Maktow.
"It's too late for you," said the knight. "Cenaster sits on Axolar's throne."
Bram brought the hilt of his sword down onto the knight head, knocking him unconscious. "That was foolish," said Bram. "Cenaster can see through the eyes of his slaves. Now he knows we are coming."
Shouting and pointing toward the palace, Maktow saw the enemy first. They were naked from the waist up, covered in red paint, and wielding long swords. They charged wildly, howling like wounded beasts. Bram stepped between Maktow and the berserkers. With a swing and a thrust, the first few were undone. Then, when Bram cut into an enemy's chest, the blade became stuck.
"They are demons from Gewuel!" shouted Bram. "You must help me slay them!"
Desperately trying to remember his Dulchari training, Maktow snatched up one of the dropped long swords and began hacking into the twitching bodies. The native beings of Gewuel are immune to normal forms of violence. The only way to stop them for sure was complete dismemberment. When they were finished, Bram and Maktow entered the palace.
Inside, Akkarite knights dropped their weapons at their feet and bowed their heads as Bram and Maktow made their way to the inner sanctum. Maktow was uncertain. Had they really won, or was it a trap? All his hopes lay with Bram, the ultimate Beast Maimer. The brave fighter and champion moved onward relentlessly, the dwarf catching up behind. When they reached the throne room, the secret door was open. Bram led the way down.
His body propped up against the altar with a pillow, Cenaster didn't look like much of a threat. A pair of Akkarite knights stood by his side, drawing their weapons as the hero approached.
"The world is mine," said the corpse-like monstrosity. "Strike me down and there will be no salvation."
The gears of the mechanical calendar ground on as Bram faced down the two Akkarite champions. Magic passed through the device and infused Cenaster's body with power. Maktow stepped before Cenaster, made a Dulchari sign with his left hand and asked for the intervention of the gods in the ancient language of Cogita.
"You want to see the gods?" asked Cenaster.
"What have you done?" screamed Maktow.
"Do you want to see them?" repeated Cenaster.
"No!" cried Bram, as Maktow stepped forward. "Don't do it!"
One of the Akkarites held out his secondary weapon to Maktow, a short stabbing sword. His hand shook as he tried to resist Cenaster's power. The evil being blinked his eyes and there was a flash of light as Maktow threw himself onto the sword. There was the feeling of weightlessness as Maktow found himself falling through the darkness. Below was a bright red light. The crimson orb grew and the confused dwarf passed through its shining outer surface. He was temporarily blinded and when his vision cleared he found that he was staring at his own body, lying in a pool of blood on the floor. He tried to move but found that his limbs wouldn't respond. He was inside Cenaster, staring out of his eyes!
Watching helplessly as Bram fought the Akkarite knights, Maktow could feel Cenaster's evil soul draining his life force. There was no hope for Bram. Not unless Maktow could distract him. The dwarf tried to resist as Cenaster probed his spirit, stripping away all that was magical. All his talents and gifts now belonged to the demon god. In a flash of blood and steel, Bram beheaded one of the Akkarites. Maktow needed to maintain Cenaster's attention just a little while longer. Suddenly, the floor gave way and Maktow felt himself falling again.
Bram held still as he glanced at Maktow's body. Without a Dulchari wizard, Cenaster would be nearly impossible to overcome. The beast maimer willed himself to strike, but his body would not obey the commands of his soul. More Akkarites entered the room, clearing away the bodies and placing Bram in shackles.
"By noon this day," said Cenaster, his black tongue tracing over his shark's teeth, "the world will be mine. Look on the pathetic Dulchari. They know they are about to die."
Restrained by the Akkarite guards, Bram was wracked by a series of visions. Banatar's red knights had entered Apagan Pass and were facing off against the Dulchari forces. Without the magic of their leadership, the Dulchari were doomed and Bram knew it, but he could do nothing as Cenaster sat, limply on his throne, muttering magic spells as Banatar acted as his avatar. Calling down fire from the heavens, Banatar delighted in the new powers Cenaster had granted him. Meteors fell from the sky and ripped holes in the Dulchari lines. Seeing that total victory was within his grasp, Banatar unleashed his red knights.
"Come with me," said Namaca, "the battle is lost. We must flee to fight another day."
"Not a chance," said Rose, "my place is here."
"Domoran will not be able to protect you," said Namaca.
"It is Cenaster who will need protection," said Rose.
As the majority of the Dulchari army retreated to Etwersbrot, Domoran stayed behind on his white stallion, leading the remaining troops in a desperate ploy to give Namaca more time to escape. The Akkarites advanced up the hill, preceded by balls of fire. Domoran was muttering language of Cogita in a vain attempt to conjure magic when a deadly missile struck him. Rose ran to him, but it was too late.
The great wizard Domoran had been struck through the chest with an arrow. Namaca and the surviving Dulchari were retreating into the mountains. Rose stayed by the wizard's side. There was little chance that Domoran would be taken alive. As for Rose, that was just what she planned.
"Take this," whispered Domoran, "You will need it."
It seemed that with his final act, Domoran had destroyed his magic staff. The crystal at the head of the staff now rested in the wizard's hand. Now that it was loose it resembled a blade, made in the old way by striking two stones together. It still glowed with its own light. She carefully folded the blade into the fabric of her tunic.
"Be careful," whispered Domoran. "Cenaster sits on the cosmic throne, where once the great being Axolar dwelt. His heartbeat keeps the planets aligned. Slay him and I fear what could happen to the Earth."
"It is unlike the Dulchari to find hopelessness in the apocalypse," said Rose.
Domoran died with a smile on his lips.
Fiery blasts exploded all around as the Akkarites advanced. Rose sat down by Domoran's body and awaited her fate. She could see King Banatar marching at the head of his army. His face was a mask of insanity. He noticed her and a pair of knights approached.
"This is the one the master requested by name," said Banatar, "the thief. Tell me, why didn't you flee with the rest of the witches?"
"I want to see what's left of your pathetic runt of a god," said Rose.
Staring out the window at the black sky with its single red star, Maktow wondered at his condition. He was a guest of the gods at Axolar's tower in Nullset. The spirits of the dead were everywhere. They all spoke the magical language of Cogita as if it was the common tongue. There were many dwarves there. Some said they had lived in the godlands since before the Nightmare Apocalypse. The tower was filled with books and scrolls of all kinds. There was much in the afterlife to distract Maktow from the red star and final judgment.
"You have a visitor," said the ancient dwarf who called himself "Nadir."
"Domoran?" asked Maktow.
Though the wizard's spirit was dressed for battle, and a hole was torn in his chest, Domoran seemed pleased to see his old student. Nadir left the two wizards in the library and closed the door behind him. Red light from the window made Domoran's appearance seem all the more ghostly.
"What happened to you?" asked Maktow.
"Cenaster killed me," said Domoran, "just as he did you."
"But..." started Maktow.
"Silence," said Domoran, "Nadir kept you here for one reason. By all rights you should have been reforged as a slug."
Guiding Maktow to the window, Domoran pointed to the sky. The red star was already as big as the sun. As Cenaster's power grew, the connections between worlds would be sustained by his spirit as the power of Axolar faded. Even Nullset itself would be consumed by Cenaster's spirit.
"Why don't the gods do something?" asked Maktow.
"That time passed," said Nadir, reentering the room, "when the monk, Axolar, put his mark on all of reality. Cenaster now sits on the universal throne. After you kill him, the Earth and Nullset will be separated forever."
"Kill him?" asked Maktow.
"You and I don't belong here," said Domoran. "We are needed on Earth in its time of peril."
Extending his hand to the spirit of the young dwarf, Domoran beckoned to him. Maktow took the wizard's hand and they began to float up and out the window toward the lonely red star.
"Bring him closer," growled Cenaster.
Losing the battle of wills with the demon, Bram looked pale and sickly. He had been forced to endure the defeat of the Dulchari at the hands of Banatar and now Cenaster had more personal tortures planned for the Beast Maimer. The knights lifted his exhausted body and dragged him close to their master. Cenaster opened and snapped his mouth shut several times, waiting to rip into the hero's face.
"Master," said Banatar as he entered the room, "we have brought the prisoner you requested."
Looking at the door of the sanctum, Bram watched as the knights brought the girl inside. Rose had been defiant ever since she was captured among Namaca's fleeing troops. What the demon didn't know was that Rose had been chosen to be Cenaster's assassin. She kept the Kalista blade in the folds of her clothing. Bram sensed what was going to happen and looked back at Cenaster with disgust.
"You think you have crippled me," shouted Cenaster. "You shall see that with enough power, anything is possible."
One by one, the monster flexed its fingers. It sucked in a breath and leaned forward, rising to its feet. The shark teeth flashed as the creature smiled its wicked smile. Rose looked away, letting the blade drop into her palm. The guards backed away as Cenaster came closer.
It was over in seconds. Rose slid back across the stone floor, holding a gaping wound at the side of her neck. The Kalista blade lay in a smear of blood next to Cenaster's severed nose. Bram slipped his restraints and attacked. Banatar was taken completely by surprise as the beast maimer seized him by the throat and executed a hip toss. The wicked king hit the ground head first, dashing out his brains against the stones.
Bram was up in an instant, wielding Banatar's sword. By twos and threes, the Akkarite knights were undone, limbs and head sailing through the air and landing in pools of gore. Cenaster clutched his bleeding face while raising a palm to his enemy. Bram was frozen in mid-swing. The lidless eyes stared wildly around.
"This can't be!" cried Cenaster.
"Now!" shouted Domoran.
The ghosts launched up into the red sun, calling on all the power they could muster. As Cenaster's evil soul rushed inward to meet them, his eyes went blank, and his body shuddered. No longer under the demon's spell, Bram sprang to life and lobbed off Cenaster's head.
An explosion reverberated throughout the hall. All around the world, stones shook and castles crumbled. As the black blood formed a pool around Cenaster's body, Bram found that he was not alone in the chamber. Two ghosts floated over the corpse of the evil one. Bram recognized them as Maktow and his master, Domoran.
"You are dead," said Bram. "Your souls are required in Nullset."
"There is a price that must be paid," said the shade of Maktow. "Cenaster's body was the last bridge to Nullset. Now all souls are doomed to wander the Earth."
There was a muffled sound from the corner, where Rose lay. Bram went to her and took her outstretched hand. The earth began to quake again and Bram slung the rogue over his shoulder, knowing that he had to escape before they were both buried alive. He left the ghosts as they stared at the crumbling calendar machine, soon to be lost and forgotten once more.
Outside was a scene of complete chaos. Demons from Gewuel were on a rampage, now released from Cenaster's control. The only bright spot in the catastrophe was that with the death of the evil one, no more demons would appear. Bram steeled his soul. It was like the Nightmare Apocalypse all over again. All the beasts would have to be hunted down.
"Let me stand," said Rose.
Setting the rogue on her feet, Bram saw that she still held the crystal blade. The demons took notice and began to gather around. They looked human, but were covered in blood. Rose held the Kalista stone high and the monsters were fascinated. Perhaps they were drawn to the otherworldliness of the thing, as they were now trapped on Earth. Bram would have none of it. He tore into them, slicing and hacking with his sword.
"How did you do that?" asked Bram, once he was finished with the hypnotized demons.
"Domoran's crystal still has power," said Rose.
"We must find what is left of the Dulchari," said Bram. "It is our only hope."
"Namaca led the survivors into the mountains after I was captured," said Rose.
The pair of heroes set out on the King's Highway, choked with refugees, and headed toward Apagan Pass. The bite on Rose's neck was infected, but the rogue held on, knowing that her only hope was to reach Etwersbrot alive. Some of the surviving Redband Bandits had organized a resistance against the demon invasion. They were defending the refugees from Gewuel berserkers.
Charging ahead, Bram undid the berserkers with a slash and thrust. The demons from Gewuel would not stay dead. Severed limbs began to regrow from their emaciated bodies. Rose knew she could control them with the Kalista stone, but Bram didn't trust its power. To him all that mattered was flesh and steel. Slowly, the Redbands got the upper hand, reducing the berserkers to a twitching mass of body parts.
"Just like the old times," said an aging bandit, "is it not, Beast Maimer?"
Rose watched from horseback as Bram embraced his friend. How old was Bram? He had the look of one of the ageless marble statues in the temple back home. She had always admired Bram for his bravery in his fight against tyranny and chaos. She almost felt that things would work out as long as Bram lived, even if the world was now separated from the gods.
The battle was over, but the horror was just beginning. Shades of the dead began to rise from the berserkers' victims. The ghosts of the bandits and refugees looked lost and confused. If they could sense her staring at them they showed no sign. They clustered around their grieving comrades. Rose closed her eyes but the images just became clearer. The dead were everywhere.
The bite mark on her neck shot through with pain when one of ghosts noticed her. It was Maktow, the Dulchari priest.
"You look none the worse for being a dead man," said Rose.
"I may be separated from Nullset," said the shade of Maktow, "but I know my place in this world. You seek the Dulchari. I can help you! There is an Ongulo demon up ahead."
"Who are you talking to?" asked Bram. "You have a fever."
Not willing to leave the saddle, Rose forced Bram to journey onward. She was clutching the Kalista stone in her right hand, the other clutching the stinking bandage against her neck. She repeated Maktow's warning about the Ongulo demon. Though she didn't understand, Bram seemed to know the Dulchari classification.
Ongulo was a world of death and madness. The native beings there twisted the webs of Fate that cradled the souls of all living things. Bram knew how dangerous the creature was. One's own senses could not be trusted around the spider-like monsters. He looked back at Rose, listing in the saddle as she held her neck. There was no time to waste. Demon or not, they must traverse Apagan pass. There was no other way.
"They are coming," said Rose.
The thralls to the Ongulo demon appeared as ghosts when Rose shut her eyes, but they were different. The souls were trapped inside of the decaying bodies, bound by twisted strains of Fate that the demon had distorted. Bram could see the horror on Rose's face and the panic with which she held the Kalista stone. Blood was seeping through her fingers where they touched the blade.
"Behind you!" she shouted.
Whirling around in a full circle, Bram didn't set eyes on the thrall as his sword beheaded it. Rose called out two more enemies. Bram sprang between them, splitting the walking corpses in two with a hack and swing of his blade. Now only the demon remained.
The blade burned in Rose's hand and the ghosts of the dead gathered around to watch the confrontation. A wise man would have taken a different path, but Bram, and Rose in particular, didn't have that luxury. But, more than that, it was the strands of Fate that brought them here, to Apagan Pass, to face the beast of Ongulo.
There were still burnt corpses littering the field from the previous battle. A bloated white spider, the size of a horse, moved slowly through the blood stained snow. Bram watched from a distance as the Ongulo demon picked through the bodies, looking for one fresh enough to augment with its twisted web of Fate. Rose stood by him, acting as his Dulchari witch. She was his only anchor to reality.
"Listen only to me," said Rose. "Don't trust your senses."
"That's it, Rose," said the ghost of Maktow. "Tell him to aim for the creature's eye."
If it weren't for the Kalista stone, Rose would have succumbed long ago. She felt the life force inside it, giving her the power to fight on. Conversely, the bite on her neck marked her as close to death. The ghosts and visions were beginning to mix and blur. That's when she realized it wasn't her injury. The Ongulo demon was fixated on her, targeting her mind as a threat. The demon stalked the heroes, looming over them and preparing to strike. The eye protruded from the monster's head, an organ of irreversible psychic surgery. The world began to blend with earlier memories and imagined horrors.
"Kill it!" screamed Rose. "The eye!"
Unreality had become a permanent facet of Rose's life. She opened her eyes in a makeshift hospital with no idea of how much time had passed. The spirits of the dead were everywhere. There were hundreds of them now, new and unfamiliar. She guessed that she must be somewhere near Etwersbrot. She asked one of the ghosts and it told her that the city had been ransacked and much of its population murdered by Akkarites and later by demons that Cenaster had released prior to his death. There was a pain in her fist and Rose looked down with horror to see that she still held the Kalista stone. The doctors just wrapped up the fist, stone and all.
"Where is Bram?" asked Rose.
"Are you asking me," said a familiar voice, "or one of your invisible friends?"
"Namaca?" said Rose.
The sorceress lived. She returned from the mountains to fight the demons of the Second Nightmare Apocalypse. She and the remaining Dulchari were powerless when it came to magic and now depended on Bram and his new company of Redbands who were acting the part of the Beast Maimers of old. There was something else. Namaca was with child.
"Is it Domoran's?" asked Rose.
"How do you know this?" said Namaca.
"She knew this," said Kogan, "because Maktow's soul would be reborn as the child of the two Dulchari champions."
"Maktow, the villain?" asked Darma. "How perverse! His soul should be in Nullset for eternal punishment."
"It is not by accident we chose you," said the dwarf. "And it is not an accident that I tell you this story. You, Darma, are the spiritual descendant of that child."
Looking from the dwarf to Kaya, then back out the window to the oblivious policeman, Darma had no reason to doubt their sincerity. Though it was Maktow who brought the demon god Cenaster to Earth, it was his intervention that allowed Bram to finally slay him. Today it was the demon Tremoda that must be overcome, just like super-villains of old. Darma pledged his allegiance to the cause once more.
"Kaya," said Kogan the dwarf, "show him."
Pulling back the sleeve of her robe, the tall woman placed a glowing shard of crystal on the floor. It was unmistakable as the Kalista stone from the dwarf's tale. The demon spirit in the shard flashed as it spoke in a strange language that Darma could not understand.
"It is the ancient and magical tongue of Cogita," said the dwarf. "It says that things must be put right in this world. Tremoda must be stopped."
It was thought that Tremoda came from Ormuro, a world of waste and muck. But his demonic powers resembled those of Kaiozurdea, as he shifted from one body to another. As such it was widely believed that he was one of the last demons to escape Bram after the Second Nightmare Apocalypse. If so, he was a powerful psychic, at least five hundred years old.
If they could be believed, witnesses reported that Tremoda was now in the body of a goblin, stocky and brutish. He lived in a palace, north of the ruined Dulchari castle. Darma didn't think he could get a psychic anywhere near the compound without being detected. They would have to program one of the helpless throw-away people to do the job. This didn't sit well with Darma.
"There are no throw-away people," he said.
"Would you feel better if they volunteered?" asked Kogan.
"I will do it," said Kaya, sitting on the floor before Darma.
"Even if you survive," said Darma, "your mind will be horribly scarred."
"Unlike you," said Kaya, "I have only this life. I want it to count for something."
Observing her young, tenuous aura, Darma placed his fingers on her temples and began to concentrate. He would have to take the spirit of a freedom fighter, willing to stab Tremoda to death with the Kalista stone, and conceal it within the personality of one of the strivers the demon surrounded himself with. With his help, he would hide her true motive deep inside, so deep that even the great psychic Tremoda wouldn't see it until it was too late.
There was something else in the young woman's aura, a strength and power that was not immediately obvious. It was a presence that Darma recognized through the legend that the dwarf spoke of. He would have to hide it along with the rest.
"It's time to go, Master Kogan," said Darma.
"And Kaya?" asked the dwarf.
"We must leave," said Darma. "Tremoda's men will be here soon to collect her."
"So young. So brave," said Kogan, once they left the building. "It seems like the biggest waste in the world, just to end the life of a tyrant."
"Did you tell her," asked Darma, "that she bears the soul of the Rose of old?"
Tales Foretold was an unfinished side project we started back in 2013, initially as Beast Maimers, based on an older unreleased project from 2001 called Fantasy Slaughter. We thought it might be different enough from Dwarf Fortress since it had a fixed setting with a fairly intricate planar and magic system broken into several distinct eras, but it just ended up inspiring the Dwarf Fortress needs system and portions of the myth generation system instead. The original setting didn't have dwarves, but we adapted them here along with other elements for the vanilla DF universe.
One of the aspects of this universe that we wanted to emphasize was the passage between the ages, which is more prominent here than in the last story involving magic (see that story's analysis for more on magic systems and metaphysics, as well as the dev page). There aren't always discrete boundaries -- much like the current DF, the world's balance can change slowly as magical creatures are killed, for example, or as rifts are shut in a multiple-rift/portal apocalypse scenario. Those apocalypse scenarios themselves, on the other hand, set a clear era boundary. The Tales Foretold setting had eight named periods involving two apocalyptic events, and several gradual changes. Sometimes the gradual changes don't involve the fading of magical forces, but rather their growth/flowering through a period of research and stability to the point where the name of the era justifiably changes. The Golden Age and Dulchari period of the Tales Foretold setting worked this way.
We'll save some of the details for a future story, but another aspect of this universe to emphasize is the interconnected mechanics like soul cradles, lines of fate, and material transmutation (in DF, this configuration would be a generated part of one universe). Magical research in the Tales Foretold system involved understanding these building blocks, and then merging them together in new ways. The access to new worlds caused by the first Nightmare Apocalypse allowed additional forms of magic to be incorporated into existing native systems, leading to the more complicated magic used by the Dulchari wizards. When Cenaster separated the world from other planes, certain forms of magic ceased to work, and it also changed the mechanics of the afterlife. In Dwarf Fortress, systematizing the way the basic metaphysical aspects of the world work will cause these effects to happen as consequences of these sorts of disasters, and ideally they'd also be able to adapt to player-led changes in the structure of the universe.