The Warden Below

It was colder than he was used to, far colder. The warmer lands he had come from held no hope of salvation and it was only through luck that he had found Whitestone.

The giant wolf prowling the forests surrounding the city had bowed its head in wary respect when it had found him, before loping off into the trees. He had watched the magnificent animal as it disappeared and then turned his face to the sky.

The moon above was large and bright, its silvery glow danced over the forest floor as the tree branches waved. He knew he had a few hours before dawn and resumed his work, fashioning a rough shelter from tree branches and fallen boughs. He would wait here for a few days to scout the city out, before making his presence known.

The sun woke him, streaming into his little shelter through the branches above. He stretched, working out the stiffness in his back and tail, and crawled out of the little pocket of warmth that was his bedroll.

“Vala, it’s cold.” He muttered, straightening and looking around. The forest was slowly awakening.

He could hear small animals rummaging in the undergrowth nearby and a flash of movement between the trees drew his eyes. A stag froze as it neared him and then turned and stately walked away.

“Vala, Guardian of the Resting and Bringer of the New Dawn, bring peace to your servant and grant him your gifts.” He murmured, the familiar prayer as much as part of his morning ritual as that first deep breath after waking.

His stump began aching as it usually did in the cold and he sighed wearily, bending to reach into his shelter. The pot of ointment was nearly empty and he closed his eyes momentarily before rubbing a minute amount onto his arm.

Even now, decades after the mutilation, the despair for his people was as strong as ever. Draconia needed to change. The harsh rule of those above needed tempering through experience of the wider world. He thought once more of the bright house and the promising marriage that had awaited him, the familiar heartache bringing with it a twinge of regret.

He shook his head to force himself out of his reverie and gritted his teeth.

“No use thinking about what could have been.” He whispered, unwilling to break the tranquil calm, and stowed the ointment in his pack. He glanced around to fix the location in his mind and then swung the bag onto his back.

Drawing his heavy robes close around him, he set off deeper into the forest, heading towards Whitestone.

The clouds began gathering a few hours later as he made his way to a new vantage point. He had spent an hour watching the city waking up and wondering once more how the dragons hadn’t yet found it. A twinge in his thigh had prompted him to stand and he had heard the quiet murmuring of an approaching patrol as it made its way through the forest.

As he walked, he kept an eye on the clouds, noticing the deepening shades of grey and black with concern. He headed north, aiming for the castle he saw every now and then between the trees. He moved carefully and quietly, praying to Vala for aid in moving silently.

His deity heard him and granted him skill in the thief’s arts. His feet made no sound as they brushed through the fallen leaves and branches. Once or twice, he was forced to duck into a large bush, or behind a wide tree trunk, as a patrol moved past uncomfortably close.

The going was slow, but steady. By mid-morning he was ensconced in small hollow just under the lip of the small hill the castle had been built on. He glanced around and pushed himself slightly further back into the depression, making sure he couldn’t be seen from above or below.

The shade cast by the overhang above hid his robes and dark scales perfectly and he nodded in satisfaction.

He waited there for a few hours, his keen eyes picking out details in the city below. He noted the refugees going about their business, tired and poor but proud. He saw the guards everywhere. He noticed the small huddle of people treated with great respect by the refugees.

He watched as they walked around the outside of the city below for about an hour, conferring and marking things down on a large sheet of parchment.

It was around mid-afternoon when he noticed the cold feeling brushing his soul. A whisper, felt more than heard, drifted across his mind and he closed his eyes.

I hear you, servant of Death. I hear you and I will find you.

He shivered involuntarily. It had been a long time since he had sensed evil of such power. One of the figures he had seen earlier, a small gnome, paused on the path below and looked around as if they too had heard the voice. They took a few slow steps and then hurried back into the town.

“Something is wrong here.” He whispered, his eyes narrowing as he thought. “Something is very wrong.” He looked around carefully and slowly made his way from his hiding place, praying to Vala for aid once more.

He moved swiftly back to his shelter, moving in a wide arc through the forest. He relaxed as he left the patrolled area behind, his pace quickening slightly. The forest seemed lighter away from the city, as if a miasma had lifted. He had sensed the remnants of necromantic energy permeating every building and plant in Whitestone and supposed that the clean air was slowly purifying the land from the outside in.

It was dark when he returned to his shelter and the rain had just begun falling. He sighed and crawled into the small wooden enclosure. He had made it well and, within an hour, he was in the only dry area of the forest for miles.

“Watch over me as I sleep, Vala. Bring me to the Dawn so that I may serve you again.” He whispered, wrapping himself in his ragged blanket. “Guide my dreams and shield my body from the dangers of the world.” His prayer complete, Galen Shadescale, cleric of Vala, slept.

In the end, he sheltered there for a week. He grew to know the wolf that patrolled the wilds around Whitestone. He felt that, like him, the regal beast was tied inextricably to Death. The last night of his stay in the shelter, as if knowing his intention to leave the next day, the wolf loped into the clearing and dropped a stag to the floor.

Galen met its eyes and nodded, quickly skinning and gutting the corpse. The wolf disappeared as he began to cut and returned a while later, pushing a collection of large, flat stones. He smiled and laid down the knife he had just finished cleaning.

He took the stones from the wolf and assembled a crude shelter for the fire. As he worked, the wolf began digging, scratching at the hard earth and expanding the small firepit Galen had made. By the time the two were finished, there was a shelter large enough for a haunch of venison and space for a fire large enough to burn all night.

The wolf stalked a distance away and lay down to rest as Galen butchered the corpse and spitted the choicer cuts over a fire he had built with the remains of the small pile of wood he had dried in his sleeping shelter. The smell of cooking meat swiftly began to fill the area and he noticed the wolf’s eyes fixed hungrily on the meat.

He hadn’t returned to that hollow under the castle since the first day, some sense of unease had steered him clear of it. There was something about that brief moment of chilling contact that was familiar. It was similar in some ways to the feeling of awe and raw power that washed over him when Vala spoke, or when he met one of Vala’s agents. But in other ways, it was a perversion of that feeling, as if whatever had touched his soul was wrong, inimical to everything he knew.

He allowed his eyes to close as he mused over this and woke, sometime later, as a gust of warm, wet air blew into his face. He opened his eyes and watched the wolf turn its head to look pointedly at the now crisped and blackened venison. He nodded and stood, lifting the spit from the fire and halving the hot meat carefully, sliding his portion onto a platter he took from his pack and leaving the wolf’s share on the spit.

The wolf took its share gently and trotted away to lie down and watch him. Galen sat and placed the wooden platter on his knees as he crumbled the last of his salt over it.

The meat was hot and nourishing. He relaxed slightly as he felt it warm his cold limbs. The wolf’s company, although strange and unlooked for, was welcome and he enjoyed the primal atmosphere it leant to their meal. It had been a while since he had a companion to share food with, so long that that he hadn’t realised how lonely he had begun to feel.

The meat was gone all too soon and he stood to find another branch to fashion into a spit. The wolf’s head snapped to the side as he did so, its lips drawing back from its teeth in a warning snarl. A man sauntered casually into the light of their fire.

He was dressed in the manner of a huntsman, but something about the way he held both himself and his bow told Galen that he was no mere ranger out hunting for the Lady of the castle.

“Mind if I share your fire?” He asked, his eyes flickering over Galen. Galen shrugged.

“The heat is there for all to share.” He replied quietly, noticing the twitch of the wolf’s eyes as it glanced around. “Your companions are also welcome.” The newcomer’s smile dropped and his eyes narrowed. He raised one hand in a commanding gesture and a pair of guards entered the firelight.

The two could have been twins. Tall, broad-shouldered and armoured, they rested their hands on their sword hilts and stared at the wolf. Its eyes flickered towards Galen, who shook his head. A puff of steam rolled from its mouth as it rose and stalked away, disappearing among the trees.

The huntsman watched it leave and then turned back to face him.

“We don’t take kindly to strangers hiding in the woods around here.” He said, his voice low and gravelly. “What is your business?” Galen eyed him coolly and stood slowly, ignoring the guards as they tightened their hands around their sword hilts.

“I am a traveller. That is all.” The huntsman laughed.

“A traveller? You expect me to believe that a black-scaled dragonborn is a mere traveller in times such as these?” Galen stared back at him and the man shook his head. “I’m sorry, but you’re going to have to do better than that if you want me to believe you.”

“We are all travellers.” He said. “There are merely some with more purpose than others.” He fell silent again.

“And what is your purpose? We know you’ve been spying on the city. Who are you working for? Which one of the damned drakes do you call master?” Galen ground his teeth together and felt his fingers curl into a fist.

“I call no thing master, save Vala. As for my purpose, I seek truth and knowledge so that I may return home and correct matters there.” The huntsman noticed the fist and reached for the dagger at his waist.

“Vala? Which dragon is that? I would hazard a guess at it being the black-scaled one.”

Galen shook his head.

“Vala is the guider of my path. It is Vala who protects me and supports me when I falter. It is Vala who gives me the power to help others.” He paused and shook his head. “Vala is the Dawn Dragon, the Goddess of Death. She is no chromatic monster.”

Silence rolled through the clearing. The huntsman looked at the two guards and shrugged.

“Regardless of your professed innocence, we are here to take you to the Lady of the castle. She will decide your fate. You had better hope she finds you more convincing than I have.” Galen stared at him and then looked around at the guards as they slowly drew their weapons.

“May I collect my possessions?” He asked quietly, his head high. The huntsman nodded and he moved to pick up his pack from within his shelter. “Would someone put the fire out? I would hate to burn down part of the forest.” He heard one of the guards kicking earth onto the flames behind him and straightened again. He looked around the clearing, sighed and nodded. “Shall we?”

*/*

The Lady Cassandra de Rolo sat behind her desk. Papers covered the top of it and she dragged a hand through her hair.

Galen stood quietly, watching her impassively. He sensed the guards standing just behind him. Their swords were sheathed once more, but he knew they would not hesitate to strike him down if he made any threatening moves.

The huntsman finished his report and stepped backwards respectfully. Cassandra’s eyes moved smoothly from him the dragonborn in front of her. Galen felt her gaze as it scoured him. Her eyes lingered on the stump of his left arm before moving on.

“Is my guard’s report accurate, dragonborn? Are you here to spy on us for a chromatic overlord?” The Lady’s voice was quiet and wavered slightly with fatigue.

Galen shook his head.

“As I told your guard, I am merely a traveller. I seek knowledge. That is all.”

“For what purpose?”

Galen was silent for a few moments, thinking carefully about his answer. She opened her mouth to speak again and he met her eyes.

“To bring revolution to Draconia.” She closed her mouth and raised an eyebrow in silent question. “There are practices and traditions there that are abhorrent to me. I left to learn how best to change that.” Her eyes glanced at the stump of his arm and he nodded. “I raised my hand against my sister in defence of a slave.”

“And the scarring? It is an unusual pattern.” She mused quietly, half to herself. He recognised the curiousity in her eyes. It was a feeling that had fuelled him for many years.

“I was forced to seal the wound myself when I was cast from my house.” He shrugged. “I used the only thing I could, the acid I have been gifted with thanks to my heritage.” He fell silent again. Cassandra nodded to herself and made an imperious gesture with one hand. The huntsman opened his mouth and then shut it again. He bowed and left the room, taking the guards with him.

“Here.” She said, pulling a key from a drawer. “For the manacles. My name is Cassandra de Rolo. Did my guard get your name correct when he ushered you in?” Galen nodded and stepped forwards as she put the key on the desk and stood.

She arched her back, working out a few kinks with her knuckles.

“What about the other matter? That of your deity?” She asked, walking over to a low table next to a window. “Very few people would profess to follow a deity of Death.” She poured a golden liquid into a glass and turned to look at him.

“What of my deity? Vala fulfils a similar function to that of the Raven Queen.” Galen shrugged. “She brings souls into the world after this one. After the dusk of this world, it is she who brings the New Dawn.” He stared out of the window behind her. “Do you know what my people believe about death?”

“It is not something I have had cause to study.” Cassandra gave a tired smile. “Please, enlighten me.”

“Life, this life, is the end of a long journey. That which makes us, us, has travelled far to be formed on this plane. When we die, it is ushered into the New Dawn. In this new day, we begin at the start of our journey once more. In this way, are we purified and readied to reach a state of perfection that is ultimately unattainable, yet we strive for it all the same.” He was quiet for a moment. “Vala, in terms you will understand, is a goddess of Death and a harbinger of change. By striving to learn how I can change my homeland, I do Her work.”

“How does your goddess feel about the undead?” She asked. Something in her voice gave Galen pause and he gave her a searching look.

“If used for a good purpose, the shells of those who have come before can be useful tools. But willingly becoming undead, or binding souls for unfit purposes, are perversions of natural order.” He held her gaze steadily. “Why?”

She stared back and nodded as she seemed to reach a decision.

“No doubt you are aware of the dragon problem?” He nodded. “Whitestone has an undead problem. We’ve kept it quiet but the previous,” her voice faltered, “rulers of the city were involved with dark powers.” He thought back to the cold feeling that had brushed his soul.

“There is something beneath the city, isn’t there? Something powerful that you can’t explain?” She frowned. “Something that no-one can explain? I felt it the other day. Its presence hangs over the city like a shroud.” He paused. “It is as if Death lives here. Not a deity of Death, but the death of the Weave, of the world.” He shook his head. “No. That’s wrong. It feels like it is death from elsewhere. Not this plane.” He fell silent as he noticed Cassandra’s knuckles whiten around the glass.

“Come with me.” She said. The glass clinked as she set it down and then strode past him. He picked up his bag from where it had been dropped by the guards and followed her through the castle.

He looked around curiously, noticing the odd lack of personal decoration. The building was opulently decorated but where he would expect to see towering portraits of the Lady’s family, stretching back generations, there were bare patches of wall. Wire hung uselessly from the picture rails of the corridors they strode swiftly through.

“Fetch Gilmore and Pike.” Cassandra ordered one of the guards they passed. “Tell them to meet me below.” She glanced at Galen. “Tell them someone has arrived who might be able to help.” The guard nodded and strode away. “A wizard and a cleric.” She said. “Out of everyone left in the city, they’re the most likely to know enough to answer your questions.”

She resumed walking swiftly and lead him into an underground section of the castle.

As they walked, Galen felt the cold feeling wrapping slowly around his spirit. He paused to draw his component pouch from his bag and caught up with Cassandra as he hung it from his belt. He reached into his tunic and pulled out the carved symbol of Vala he used to focus his spells.

“You feel it too?” Cassandra whispered, her voice stifled by the still, dead air. He nodded.

“There is something here. An emissary of Death. Something not quite of this world.” He replied, equally quietly. “This is a worrying situation.” He felt her eyes on him momentarily. “Vala will guide me.” She sniffed and they continued forwards.

They walked for an indeterminate period of time before she raised a hand and held it against his chest gently.

“We wait here.”

He nodded and strode to the edge of the platform they stood on.

Below him, in the middle of a large, dark cavern, was an ornately constructed ziggurat. The dimensions of the mighty step-pyramid, shown only through torchlight, beggared belief. He found it hard to reconcile the existence of the temple below with the recovering city above.

The cold feeling surged from somewhere nearby and he shivered, closing his eyes. He focused on his spirit and sent it seeking outwards, his senses straining to follow the chill miasma to its source.

He came back to himself a few minutes later and nodded in satisfaction.

“This is your aide?” A rich, male voice asked quietly behind him. “There is death around him.” Galen turned.

“The wizard, I assume?” He asked. Cassandra nodded.

“Shaun Gilmore, Galen Shadescale. Galen, this is Gilmore, a wizard of no small skill. He has been helping with research and refining the spell to protect us from the dragons and discovery.” Galen inclined his head slightly towards the richly dressed man.

“A pleasure.” Gilmore said, studying the dragonborn carefully. “A necromancer might know more about this than myself.” He admitted.

Galen frowned.

“About what?” He looked from Gilmore to Cassandra and back. They shared a look before Cassandra started to speak.

“There is a chamber on top of the ziggurat that seems to cancel out magical effects within a wide area. It destroys anything that touches it.” She looked at the floor. “A powerful magic user and a vampire created it.” Her shoulders slumped slightly and Gilmore laid a comforting hand on them. “We have reason to believe that other undead forces are interested in it.” Galen nodded thoughtfully.

“Without examining the chamber, I will not be able to tell you anything about it. But that is not what you asked me to see, is it?”

Gilmore started, his eyes widening in surprise.

“How-?” He began, before falling silent.

“There is another chamber in the ziggurat. At the bottom.” Galen said, turning to gesture. “Something resides within.” He turned back to see both of them looking at him quizzically. “My connection to Vala is… unconventional. She allows me some skills and talents that don’t manifest through manipulation of the Weave.”

Gilmore realised first.

“They aren’t magical, so you can use them.” Galen nodded. Gilmore looked like an excited child for a moment as he eyed the dragonborn with curiousity. He opened his mouth to speak but closed it as Cassandra raised a hand.

“Later, Shaun. When Pike joins us.” He nodded slowly and looked at Galen. “Something has been killing the guards down here.

“At first, it was just one or two disappearing. We assumed they’d stumbled into the sphere or had an accident somewhere out of the way, but then more vanished. We sent out a search party and, well, it wasn’t pretty.”

“They’d been drained, hadn’t they? Not of blood, but of life. A collection of corpses that should be alive but inexplicably weren’t?” She nodded. “I thought so. I don’t know the Common word for them, but in my tongue, they are known as ghrak.

“When things like this ziggurat are built with a purpose in mind, the steering force sometimes sends a servant to look after the process. Sometimes they are an emissary, communicating with the pawns building the structure, sometimes they are completely unknown to all others. Whatever their secondary purpose, they are always a warden sent to protect the dark work.” He fell silent and turned to look out over the ziggurat again.

“Can you deal with it?” Cassandra asked quietly. Galen shrugged.

“I don’t see anyone better qualified to do so. Not even the tiny gnome I saw walking around the city. She is cloaked in power but it is a power of life, light and hope. It is not the death and shadow that these things respond to.” He turned around. “I will go alone. Stay here.” Gilmore glanced at Cassandra.

She gazed searchingly into Galen’s eyes and then nodded.

“Very well.”

He descended into the cavern slowly, preparing himself.

You have entered my domain, servant of Death. The cold voice brushed his mind as he reached the floor of the great cave. You have made a mistake.

He closed his eyes and focused on the voice, feeling the pulsing miasma of death and decay to his left. He followed it, tuning the taunting voice out of his mind. This close, he could feel the weakness behind it, the empty threats of the entity calling this cavern home.

He came upon it far sooner than he expected.

He felt the mental assault strengthen and rounded the corner to come face to face with the ghrak.

A small, spindly creature, it resembled a cross between a decaying corpse and a waterboatman. The thing’s elongated limbs moved silently as it crawled along the ground towards him. Its long torso was clearly emaciated and he could feel the necromantic energy sustaining it ebb away.

“Your purpose is done, warden. Your time is over.” He said. Its head snapped to look at him through its cyclopean eye.

My time may be over, servant of Death. But there will be others. A tide, the likes of which you have never seen, will cover this land. Its bubbling laughter assaulted his ears and his strode forwards, ignoring its feeble attempts to lash out at him.

“Vala’s peace be upon you.” He said, opening his jaws and bathing the thing in acid projected from the reservoirs in his throat. It screamed in pain and he raised a booted foot, wreathed in a corona of energy. “Your time is over.” He repeated and brought his boot down, crushing its fragile skull. The screams ended immediately and he turned to leave.

He felt the miasma in the chamber lessen and fade slowly. It would be a while before it disappeared entirely, but it was a start.

Gilmore and the Lady de Rolo were where he had left them.

“The thing was weaker than I thought. It is done.” He said abruptly. “I will remain to assist with the ziggurat, if you would have my aid.”

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