In Crows’ Claws: Author’s Notes (Spoiler Alert)

By now I hope everyone who followed In Crows’ Claws has had a chance to finish the story; if not, I urge you to keep from reading this post any further.  I do want to thank all of my readers for your interest in my first serial project and for all the tweets, emails, and messages I received in response.  You have no idea how great it makes me feel to know anyone besides myself cared about the words I wrote and the story I wanted to tell.  So whether you read one issue or the entirety of the story or merely followed my progress on reddit or Twitter, thank you.  I sincerely appreciate your interest and your feedback and absolutely welcome more.

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XXX. Ahri Vestesson to Temmbi Pirrorsdauter (VIII)

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For my love, Temmbi, and our unborn child,

I write this letter to you from Topalii on the eve we are to depart this city. I have just read and responded to your letter which bore such good news – I am to be a father! I still cannot fully grasp the idea. But such news also gives me great worry, for there is the very real possibility I will not return from this Crusade. I know not what I will encounter next on this journey, but there are dangers ahead of me that I may or may not be ready to face. In the event I meet my fate, I have asked Sir Elding to send this letter to you.

Temmbi, I have loved you since I first laid eyes on you in your father’s gardens. We were young then, barely walking as we tottered across the grass under the ever-watchful gaze of our wet nurses, but I knew then that I would never seek to leave your life. We grew together, side-by-side. We held each other up in our dire moments and supported each other through the pains of this world.

I remember when my mother passed. We were but five years old and I did not yet grasp the finality of death. I remember wailing for her throughout the night, wishing for her embrace and the soft, soothing tenderness of her voice, but she never came. We were sitting at your father’s feet as he rocked in that creaky old wooden chair in his solar, a fire roaring in the hearth. The only light in the room was from the crackling flames. My father was away on an errand for your father and did not yet know that my mother had died. I felt lost, but your father put his hand on my head and you, wise beyond your years, as ever, reached out to hug me as I wept.

Years later, after we both understood how quickly life can take a loved one away, I held you as you sobbed into my shoulders before your mother’s own body. I did not tell you then, but I was more fearful in that moment than I have ever been since, for I saw your face in your mother’s and could not think of anything else but losing you. I remember how you held onto me for hours as the priests tended to your mother. Even when you broke the embrace to clasp your slim arms around your father, you returned to me after. In those moments, I silently vowed to always be there for you.

I remember when we took our holiday in the country, just you and I traveling through your father’s land and to the lake. We camped on the beach that night, the gentle splash of the waves against the shore lulling us to sleep. When I woke I saw you standing with your back to me before the most beautiful sunrise I have ever seen, made all the more breathtaking by your silhouette. I have never experienced a more perfect moment than then.

When your father permitted me to ask for your hand in marriage, I beamed with joy, Temmbi. And though I felt you would say yes, a part of me still doubted you would agree to marry me, for what am I? I was a lowborn scribe, son to a servant, with no holdings or wealth or glory. I am all those things still. Every day I wake up I find you still beside me, choosing me over a heroic knight with a chiseled jaw and scars earned in battle, or a wealthy spice merchant who travels about on a gem-studded litter, or a nobleman with ancient blood tied to generations of royalty. I wake up beside the very image of perfection.

And soon you will be bringing our child into this world. Boy or girl, I know the child will be blessed with the best mother I can imagine, a woman so compassionate as to put all of her loved ones ahead of herself. I know that you will look after our baby with a ferocity that would both frighten and calm me. I know you will instill good values and morals into our child so he or she may grow up to do great things.

If you are getting this letter, it means I will not be there for either of you. I have failed in my duties as a husband- and father-to-be. I have failed in my tasks as a Crusader and my goal of gaining glory for our family. I have failed you.

To my child: though I am not there with you in person, know that I have loved you from the moment I heard you were to be born. I am sorry I will not be there to see you enter this world, wide-eyed and amazed at all that is around you. I am sorry I cannot hold you against my chest and protect you against the dangers of this world, to teach you how to live despite the pains of life and how to make the best out of what life gives you. I wish I could see you grow into a young adult and to start a family as your mother and I would have liked to do. Know that your father will look after you in the afterlife. I will linger by the right hand of Operus and watch and protect you as best I can, to guide you to be the incredible person I know you will become.

I will look after you as well, Temmbi, my love, the only one to whom my heart has ever or will ever belong. I would have you not weep for me, though I know you cannot fulfill such a wish. Instead, I hope that you think back to the memories we have shared together as you let the tears run down the soft skin of your beautiful, loving face. Remember the happy times we spent in each other’s arms beneath the warm sun or the cooling rain. Do not forget the way I would smile every time you giggled at the touch of my breath on your neck when I leaned in for a kiss.

Most of all, my love, do not forget to be happy. I wish that for you, most of all. Be happy. Live a full life for me, Temmbi. Let me look upon you from the side of our god and see you smile as you watch our child play by the fountain. Allow me to see your face glow as you surround yourself with love. You have so many dreams. Do not forsake them on my account.

Be happy, Temmbi.

And never forget that I love you and will continue to love you, if not in this life, then in the next.

Ahri

The End.

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XXIX. Sir Elding to Lord General Marqe Vudara (I)

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From Sir Elding of the Lofasaroth contingent of the Tomb of Konia Crusade Army, under mandate of the Order of the Orthodox Knights of Fyrndell, on behalf of the late Knight-Crusader Lora sont Wethers
To Lord General Marqe Vudara, Academy of Feros Dul, Starsight, Forroth, Order of the Orthodox Knights of Fyrndell

Lord General,

I am Sir Elding, lieutenant to Knight-Crusader Lora sont Wethers of the Crusade Army sent to claim the Tomb of Konia in the name of the one true god, Operus. I am aware that you have been receiving copies of the letters written and sent by the army’s chief crowkeeper, Ahri, who has been held captive by the strange foe he reports on. My forward scouts and messengers have not received word from him in a number of days, nor have our Mhedorian “allies” received anything but a single missive from the acting field marshal instructing me that I am to take command of our joint army and initiate a full retreat back to our respective lands.

It is with a heavy heart and under the burden of defeat that I am forced to give such a momentous command. Even as I write, our forward base camp is being dismantled within the shadow of this cursed tomb. Its doors have long since shut to us, trapping our captured friends and a good number of Crusade and Mhedorian scouts and messengers within. The burbling cascade of blood dripping from the tomb’s steps tells me all I need to know in regard to the fate of the captive and trapped. The doors and, indeed, the tomb itself are impervious to attempts to breach it, whether by mundane or magical means.

I plan to fall back to our defensive camp on the ridge to regroup and resupply. I warn you now that I fully intend to split rations evenly with our Mhedorian counterparts; they were staunch enemies and even better allies, and I will not see them starve or die of thirst on their return to their country. Operus would expect such generosity from His believers, at any rate, and it is to Him I ultimately answer.

It is also Operus who I shall question, when my day comes, as to why so many of my friends have died for naught. The loss of Ahri especially tears my heart to pieces.

I have lived a long and rewarding life. I have seen cities adorned with glittering jewels and people in robes of colors I cannot even hope to name. I have witnessed massacres of innocents, of villages set alight and townfolk slaughtered like livestock before winter. I have helped a woman deliver a child into this world and had the good fortune to see that girl grow to be a beautiful and kind healer. I have held many women in my arms on cold nights and forgotten my troubles for a night.

All that pales in comparison to what I witnessed here, in this endless desert of torment. An ancient pyramid rose from the depths before my very eyes, reluctant still to betray any of its secrets. Foul magics swirled before me and prevented me from walking where I would. A woman of legend, one of the strongest and most fierce knights I have ever had the honor of knowing, was cut down in the midst of her elite warriors in the depths of a heathen tomb. And now I stare at a scarlet waterfall splashing down the steps of the very tomb I was sent here to claim.

Now I must walk away from the place that is not the tomb of a goddess, but of my friends. Of my comrades, of my fellow faithful, of the boy I sought to take under my wing and look after as if he were a son. My hand trembles as I write. I have never been filled with such anger at the twists of life. There is no degree of fairness in what happened to my fellow soldiers, most of all Ahri. I know not his true fate, and it is best it stays that way, for knowing he is lost causes me sorrow enough. When I go to meet my maker, I will not be the one singing for absolution. No, Operus needs to seek my forgiveness for the fate that has befallen this damned Crusade.

Upon my return and the army’s regrouping at our defensive camp, I will lead it to the Mhedorian oasis garrison where the two armies will split to go its separate ways. I will take the Crusade contingent to Topalii and from there return each and every one of these soldiers to their homes. That will be my last task in contract to the Order and then I am done.

When the last of my soldiers returns to their families, to their homes, I will return not to mine, but to Ahri’s. The lad entrusted me with a letter to hand to his would-be wife in the event of his death. I struggled with him, telling him he would have no need of such a letter, but alas, that was not a promise I could make. I will endeavor to watch over and aid his family in whatever ways I can. That is my final calling in life, my final war. Perhaps the most noble war I will ever participate in.

I urge you to prepare for whatever “justice” your new enemies wish to dispense. Do not forget that the Order’s chief mission is to protect Operus’s faithful. Do not allow another failure like the Trythian War. Do not let sont Wethers’s, Qadim’s, Ahri’s, and countless others’ deaths to be in vain, even if you must be made humble in your service to your people.

Evil has been unleashed into this world and I stand at its epicenter. Do not allow it to triumph, nor allow it any headway, for in doing so you will forsake the sacrifices made in defense of our faith.

And I will not allow that, Lord General.

Sir Elding of Lofasaroth

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XXVIII. Justiciar Wyett Desitane to Field Marshal Mexis Sigride (VIII)

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For Field Marshal Mexis Sigride, Arm of the Empire
In Eternal Service to Her Majesty Empress Aureia Culperio
From Justiciar Wyett Desitane, Acting Marshal, Mhedorian Expeditionary Force, Tomb of Konia

Field Marshal,

Archbishop Qadim has finally died. I hope he finds peace in the embrace of his god, for he suffered greatly at the hands of our captors. When the last of his power was stolen from him, Qadim violently thrashed despite his chains and then passed from this world. A visible wave of energy then shot out in a circle with Qadim’s body at its epicenter. It tore through the rows of prisoners closest to the altar, cutting them down without ceremony. I could feel the pain of such a sudden and wanton destruction of life and had to fight to keep down my bile. I failed.

It was then that I saw Ahri beside me, trembling on the ground, his chains rattling as he struggled. Until that moment, I had never realized just how young the Crusader’s crowkeeper was. Out of all things I have thus far witnessed, realizing that someone barely out of boyhood was suffering so greatly beside me is what has impacted me the most on this expedition. Ahri could not have known the potential cost for the Crusade he volunteered for, but I fear he will pay the ultimate price. I pity him, for this is no fit ending for anyone, chained to the floor in the middle of a desert, least of all for a boy who has not yet known twenty years.

I looked at Qadim’s still-twitching corpse and could rationalize the man’s death. He was an Archbishop of the Order of the Orthodox Knights of Fyrndell, with graying hair on a balding pate, and life experience to boast about. He lived, and he lived well. Priest or not, he had experienced the things life has to offer. He was tortured in such a way because of the power he spent his life attaining and honing, a strange testament to his having lived life fully. Ahri is but a boy shivering on the ground in a pool of his own blood in a land that is not his own.

Ahri went still as energy crackled in the air. I could see he continued to breathe despite the rapidity with which his shivering ended, so I turned my attention to what was transpiring. The bindings around the resurrected Tavradyss constricted further until his shadowy form dissipated. An orb of light burst as the chains fell to the ground and I closed my eyes to shield them from the light’s brightness. I felt a wave of cold batter over me and then opened my eyes to see the priestess standing before the altar with her arms outstretched and her head craned back. Her eyes were shut tight and a strong beam of green-tinted mist flowed towards her from where Tavradyss had just been.

Behind the altar, King Abbabalair entered the chamber. The column of priests before him parted and knelt as he passed them. He carried a silk robe of pine green and held it open in front of the priestess. After many long moments, she opened her eyes and turned to him, allowing him to wrap the garment around her. She pulled it on and Abbabalair knelt before her, bowing his head deeply. From somewhere deep within the chamber, a cool breeze buffeted against me, but it was not one that made me brace myself against it. Instead, it was the soft embrace of a spring breeze that heralds the passing of winter and the coming of warmer weather. I felt myself oddly comforted by the sensation and only then did I realize the priestess was staring directly at me.

She approached me slowly. I watched as she took small, ginger steps through the rows of chained prisoners and stopped in front of me. I looked up at her and saw her previous pallor and unhealthy aura had faded away to be replaced by smooth, almost glowing skin and lively eyes. She gave me the briefest of smiles before turning her gaze to Ahri and kneeling before him. With a wave of her hand his chains exploded off of him and he rose as if in a stupor. Two priests appeared from behind the priestess and took hold of either of Ahri’s arms, leading him off through the door behind the altar. The priestess granted me one last smile before turning and following Ahri and her priests, leaving King Abbabalair and his soldiers alone in the chamber with myself and my fellow surviving captives.

From atop the altar, Qadim’s slouching corpse seemed to preside over us all.

Abbabalair walked up to me and stood before me, looking down at me with pity. His eyes held the glint of an elf’s but I knew he was not our kin. I had the suspicion that he has lived for many centuries; though his face did not betray his age, his eyes did. Abbabalair has seen the withering of loved ones, the culmination and totality of war, the way disease steals away the health of family and friends. I saw this all in the depth of his glowering eyes and knew that, in some way, vengeance would be paid upon this world. I could not guess what specific wrongs had been dealt to King Abbabalair, but I could tell with certainty that he was a man pained.

“Tell your folk what has happened here. Inform them that justice shall visit them soon,” he told me before he turned and left in the wake of the priestess. And so I inform you, Field Marshal, that the justice of this old being will fall upon our people somehow.

I sense that my time here is limited, for what further use could I be? More, what is being done to Ahri? I do not think it matters, to me at least, for my time is about to expire. I wish you could have seen what I have seen, sir, for the images replay in my mind but I can make no sense of them. I am unsure as to whether or not Tavradyss died or was simply imprisoned, or what my captors seek to do with their stolen power. I am not sure I would want to know if the option was presented to me.

There are many kinds of brutality. As a Justiciar of the Mhedorian Empire, I know all too well the art of torture and the result of calculated violence. This, however, is unlike anything I have ever employed or seen employed in my time.

If possible, please impart the following orders to Sir Elding as my last orders as acting commander of our alliance and this expedition: Take command of your Crusader contingent and retreat from the hell of this desert. Inform my subordinates that they are to return to Mhedor and report to Field Marshal Mexis Sigride. Curse this tomb and prepare for its evils to spill out into our world, whatever they may be.

On my personal behalf, please beg the Empress’s forgiveness, sir. I have lost her her prize and, moreover, allowed strange and ancient powers into the fabric of this world. I am shamed.

Wyett Desitane

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XXVII. Justiciar Wyett Desitane to Field Marshal Mexis Sigride (VII)

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For Field Marshal Mexis Sigride, Arm of the Empire
In Eternal Service to Her Majesty Empress Aureia Culperio
From Justiciar Wyett Desitane, Acting Marshal, Mhedorian Expeditionary Force, Tomb of Konia
Field Marshal,

The world in which I now live is fraught with insanity and things I have a hard time writing about. I cannot tell when each day passes, for my captors deliver meals intermittently and without any sort of structure. I am well-fed but not on anything resembling a strict schedule. I am made to sleep when my exhaustion overcomes me, but my captors wake me soon, sometimes after mere moments, or what I perceive to be hours. They do the same to my fellow prisoners. I watch as they stalk through the rows of bodies, slapping one awake and shaking another, kicking any who hunched over in their sleep.

About an hour ago, it feels, we were all woken by the echoing of a large gong dragged into the chamber at some point and placed behind the petrified bark altar. A column of robed figures – priests, I surmise – entered from a recessed door in the rear of the chamber. In the wake followed the thinnest woman I have ever seen. She looked more similar to an elf than any of her ilk, but with total frailty. In the near-blinding light of this magical orb above us all, I saw that she had a young face, with no wrinkles or aging lines, nor the thin straw-like hair of our elders. Her body, though, was as thin as a branch of the sickest tree and looked as if she had neither the strength nor the energy to walk. Long, lustruous dark hair hung almost to the floor. She wore thin, roughspun fabric of a quality even less than what we could garb our slaves in, yet seemed to lead the priests that entered ahead of her.

She pointed one slender finger at Archbishop Qadim and two of the priests lifted him to his feet, dragging him to the altar. As they did so, I felt a strong grip on my shoulder and turned to see King Abbabalair behind me, looking down at me as if I were worth nothing. “Watch this, for it is history in the making,” he commanded of me, and grabbed the top of my head in his grip, turning my gaze back to the proceedings below. From my peripheral vision I could see the crowkeeper Ahri shaking uncontrollably, a tendril of blood dripping from each of his eyes and nostrils. His breathing was labored. Hours earlier he had been complaining of fever. I do believe he is dying.

Qadim was made to sit upon the altar. He looked hollow, drained. One of the priests must have spoken to him, for he lifted his arms above him. His movements were slow and weak. To see a man who had been so strong days ago, someone who I had feared somewhat, reduced to such a shell of his former self was enough to make my guts wrench in empathetic pain. My senses were beginning to grow overwhelmed and all I wanted to do was cry out. The Archbishop was suffering far more pain than I could witness, pain that was not solely physical. My senses told me that his spirit, his very being was under some sort of assault. My dalanas vol was threatening to drown me in shared agony. I felt glimpses of a spiritual war being waged within Qadim and closed my eyes.

When next I opened them, Qadim’s risen arms had been shackled to chains that hung from the ceiling, his ankles strapped to the altar. He was half-sitting, half-standing now, his focus ahead lazy. The priests left him then and turned to the Eye of the God-Prince, Nextiarc. From him I sensed nothing but great hate and the rage one grasps when faced with obstacles one cannot overcome. I watched as the priests lifted him to his feet without effort, dragging him to the base of the altar.

The howl of hatred and pain and anger I heard when they tore his eye out was unlike anything I have ever heard in my decades of service and experience in countless battles and wars. A priest brought Nextiarc’s one eye to the lead priestess, dropping the bloody thing in her bony, out-stretched hand.

She chanted then, in a voice not of this world. Ahri joined the cacophony, shouting out as if pained, grumbling and gurgling as if he were being tortured. The orb above us moved. The light that filled the chamber dimmed and focused solely on the priestess and Qadim. With Nextiarc’s eye in one hand, she reached into the gory mess of his ravaged eye slit and coated her free hand in his blood and viscera. She splashed Qadim with the droplets of blood but he did not seem to care. Were it not for him rolling his head, I would believe he was unconcious or dead.

Still chanting, the priestess placed the eye almost reverently in front of the shackled Qadim and stepped back, gesturing madly with her bony arms. I could not discern if she was making patterns in the air or simply taken by the moment. My gaze did not linger long, for I was soon distracted by a beam of green light that shot up from Nextiarc’s eye and between Qadim’s own. He jerked his head back and looked as if he gasped. His tongue lolled out from his mouth and he looked up at the great orb which now glowed the same color as the beam.

If you take a magnifying glass and hold it over a twig on a day where the sun is bright and unobscured, you will not need to wait long before smoke begins to rise up from the kindling, mist-like and faint. Such was the way a green-tinged fog hovered mere inches from Qadim’s face, wafting slowly up to the orb. My guts clenched with such fury as I watched and I knew then that Qadim was suffering a thousandfold. He was being killed for a cause I could not guess at. More, his essence, or as the Order would claim, his very soul, was being drained. I knew this for certain.

Hovering high in the air, I saw the orb begin to take shape. Its outline was hazy and shadows danced across it, but the form of a humanoid was certainly within. As more and more of the green mist reached it, the figure inside took more substance until, at last, I could see with relative clarity a man bristling with so much power as to make my eyes weep. Ahri crumpled beside me in a pool of his own blood.

Qadim convulsed and took his last breath as he died on the altar. Nextiarc bled out on the floor in front of him.

And I witnessed the return of a god.

Tavradyss turned his gaze to the priestess and I could sense the immense hatred filling the room as if we were drowning beneath it. Power welled up before the newborn god. It was met by incorporeal chains that shot from the palms of the waiting priests. The massive links of the glowing shackles wrapped themselves around Tavradyss, cutting through the shadows and haze and fog and wrapping themselves around his spectral form.

All the while, the priestess chanted. Still she chants, droning on and on, as the shackles tighten around Tavradyss. I tremble as I write, for I know not what comes next, but to see a being of such power so easily captured and chained . . .

Curse this place, Field Marshal. Prepare for the worst.

If I survive what this woman is doing, I will write once more should my captors allow it. I will try my best to tell you what their goal is. I must admit that I fear for the world if they succeed at it, regardless of what it is.

Justiciar Wyett Desitane
Acting Marshal
Mhedorian Expeditionary Force, Tomb of Konia

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XXVI. Ahri Vestesson to Temmbi Pirrorsdauter (XII)

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My love Temmbi,

I and many others of our cursed allied army have been taken captive by a race of brutes. Sont Wethers and many others are dead. We survivors have been shackled to one another, and to the floor of a large and dank antechamber, for days now, fed a strange foul-smelling gruel. Despite the abhorrent odor and strange taste, none of us have been made ill from the food.

We have been arrayed in rows through this large chamber and made to watch the captured and prostrate forms of Archbishop Qadim and Nextiarc. They are chained to a large altar at which one calling himself King Abbabalair, “First of Konia,” gives us sermons seemingly every day. He accuses us of following false ideals and worshipping a traitorous god and openly mocks and blasphemes Operus. The Mhedorians seem unphased by that particular stage of his speech, until he begins to insult their decadence and zeal with which they serve their empress.

Justiciar Desitane and I are made to record these sermons. Then Abbabalair retreats and we are done transcribing his words to parchment, the papers are taken from us and delivered to a courier. I believe that these Konia worshipers have coerced our own messengers into sending these letters to both the Order’s leaders as well as Desitane’s superiors. It almost seems as if Abbabalair seeks to instigate both factions into a future conflict. He and his ilk are unlike any of those we have met that proclaim to worship Konia. Whereas such cults are generally peaceful and tolerant of those around them, Abbabalair and his cultists look down upon us as one would consider an ant underfoot.

Indeed, these cultists posess some sort of real power. When they first captured us, we were encamped in a massive hall somewhere in this structure. Most of our force was asleep on their bedrolls. Those still awake crowded some of the few fires still burning, stoking the flames and keeping warm in the damp, cool air of the night. The catacombs did nothing to prevent the day’s heat, but the air turned frigid by night.

Sont Wethers had been driving us at an insane pace. Most of us fell asleep within moments of being given the order to make camp. I wager I was one of the few still awake before the attackers descended upon us. I sorely wish I could return to that point in time, as I had such a sense of dread in my belly but chose not to act upon it, deeming it anxiety for the terrible dream I was sure would visit me that night. That was until I heard the gurgles and screams of men and women dying in the onslaught of our cultist attackers.

Sont Wethers and her paladins were some of the few to resist the initial attack. They were cut down without regard or a chance to yield with honor. When I saw the Knight-Crusader run through by one of the petrified wooden swords our enemy wields, I felt as if time stood still. With the blood pouring out of our leader spilled all our hopes of success and our motivation for this mission. She held our army together and kept us focused on our goal in spite of all the obstacles we encountered. She kept us safe and sacrificed what was necessary in the pursuit of faithfulness to Operus. He repaid her by taking her life. I only hope she is now by His side. Damn Him if she is not given the glorious reward she so deserves, for there are few truer servants of Operus than Lora sont Wethers.

The battle was over within a few heartbeats. In an accented and guttural tongue, we were commanded to surrender even as our attackers swarmed and surrounded us. With Desitane nowhere to be found, the Mhedorian Councilor Forens ordered us to follow the instructions of our attackers. We surrendered and were chained together to be led to this chamber we now sit in, waiting whatever is to come.

I have never been sensitive to the power of those who can wield magic or any of the Ancient Arts, but there is a strange sensation in the air of this chamber. It is similar to the way one’s hair stands on edge moments before a thunderstorm rolls in across the plains. I have been jumpy, waiting for the crackle of lightning I feel is to come at any moment. I feel a rush of breath cascading over my body frequently, ominous and cold but fleeting, ever fleeting, careful not to linger for too long. I shiver while writing of it.

I know I am being toyed with in being allowed to write to the Order’s leaders and yourself. This is a game our captors are playing. A game that is altogether too political for a low-born scribe like myself, untrained in the matters of war or politics or battle or anything that I am experiencing at the moment. By Operus, what have I gotten myself into, Temmbi? Folly and foolishness all around, my volunteering for this Crusade. I am never going to see you again.

I am going to die here, in this cursed pit consecrated in the name of a traitorous goddess.

I am never going to see our child, or the quiver of your lips as I lean in for a kiss.

I am instead going to see the deaths of men and women I have grown to call friends. I stare at Archbishop Qadim, bruised and beaten, chained and silenced at the foot of a heathen altar. Sont Wethers is dead, a woman whose ferocity and determination I admired and tried to echo in the times I doubted myself. Indeed, even the Mhedorian Justiciar, whose logic and reason and pragmatism I have started to admire. Councilor Forens has been missing since we first surrendered, so I assume he is dead, by now.

There are preparations for some ritual, I think. Over the past few hours I have seen some of our captors drag in large wooden chests and the gnarled branches of some strange tree. They are directed by others wearing steel cages over their heads, their otherwise cat-like eyes blindfolded as they wave twigs to and fro in front of them.

If I stare too long at the priests, as I have taken to considering them, my mind is flooded by the images I have seen in dreams. I am made to witness the flowing and bulging river of blood I have seen so many times before, but this time the shapeless figure stands before me, stretching forth an arm of smoke. I close my eyes, both in reality and in my mind, and am assaulted by a headache that forces tears from my eyes. After many long moments, I am given relief. When I open my eyes, I find that it is only a result of the priests having vacated the chamber.

I do not know what to think anymore. I feel as if Operus has indeed abandoned us. Seeing the Archbishop lay meekly by the altar, his arms spread and gaunt, face pale and sickly, makes me want to weep. To see one so powerful made so powerless is a sobering feeling, and I was never a quarter as powerful as Qadim. I fear my fate will be much worse.

Whatever happens here, Temmbi, know that I will always love you, in this life and the next. Should I pass from here, as I fear I soon will, I will always look after you, whether such a thing is part of Operus’s plan or not.

I love you, Temmbi. I wish only to return to you, and nothing else.

Ahri

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XXV. Justiciar Wyett Desitane to Field Marshal Mexis Sigride (VI)

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For Field Marshal Mexis Sigride, Arm of the Empire
In Eternal Service to Her Majesty Empress Aureia Culperio
From Justiciar Wyett Desitane, Acting Marshal, Mhedorian Expeditionary Force, Tomb of Konia

Field Marshal,

We have found Archbishop Qadim. More importantly, we have found the denizens of this tomb. They are our captors.

And Lora sont Wethers is dead.

Our host bids me to write to you, under their supervision, of course, to send you a warning of what is to come. I suppose I shall start at the beginning and how we have ended up in this embarrassing predicament.

Sont Wethers’s headlong rush through this structure was the deciding factor in our current fate. Had we employed forward scouts and slowed our pace some, we would have discovered that life other than our own or that of our Vrokath enemies had made this tomb home. We would have possibly surmised that we were playing into the grandiose plans of those whose home we invaded, fulfilling exactly what they desired us to. At the least, we would have been able to mount a solid defense when we fell into the ambush laid out for us.

They attacked after we made camp for the night, or whatever we deemed to be night in these dark halls. A few soldiers were made to stay awake for the first watch as the rest of our force slept and recuperated. Sont Wethers’s pace had been brutal and was affecting even the elves under my command. She would barely allow us time to stop and rest after hours of steady marching through these ancient corridors. It was only after I threatened to retire from this altogether and take my force back outside that she allowed us the briefest of respites.

The reaction time of the soldiers of the entire force was slow when the creatures attacked from all angles of the catacombs. They swung mighty, massive broadswords and clubs made of the same petrified bark as the walls. Brutish and strong, yet possessive of keen tactical minds, our new enemy surged into our weary ranks. Sont Wethers and her paladins were the first to respond, and were struck down as if they were mere unarmored peasants. I felt time slow as I saw sont Wethers crumple before me, half of her head missing. A club struck me soon thereafter.

When I awoke, I was in the enormous chamber I am still in, surrounded by the Crusader and Mhedorian survivors. Chained one-and-all, we languished there for hours in dim light, unable to see more than a yard or so ahead of ourselves. I heard wailing and the screams of pain alongside strange howling that reminded me of the Vrokath when first we ran into them. My emotions were frayed and I felt wracked by guilt and the foul taste of treachery.

Some time later, a sudden, dominating orb took shape above us and cast its light throughout the chamber. After my eyes adjusted I saw I was in some sort of amphitheater, similar to the ones in our capital but much larger and more primitive. I surveyed my compatriots and saw little more than half our number had survived and been taken captive. Most of us were bloodied and bruised in some way, and all of us had been stripped of our armor and weapons. It appeared we were all chained together and shackled to iron rings in the floor.

In the rows leading up to a large altar-like table made of the same petrified bark I saw throughout the tomb, I caught sight of the Vrokath enemies. They had been captured, too, and chained in much the same manner as myself. They howled and raged but could not break free from their bonds. I could not help but to find some delicious irony and delight in such a thing.

My vision then completely adjusted to the light and I saw two forms laying prostate before the bark table, wrapped in chains and guarded by a humanoid figure, the same sort of creature that led the attack on our party. Before its taloned feet lay the Vrokath champion Nextiarc, and the battered Archbishop Qadim.

I passed out then, for awhile, until I was lifted to my feet and unshackled, being told in an almost sing-song voice that I must bear witness to what would transpire, and record it for my kin. Thus, this letter to you was prompted.

I was led to the table beside the Crusader crowkeeper Ahri, and made to kneel. We were handed quills and parchment. I looked up to my captor and saw that he stood about as tall as the average elf and had the thin, membranous and pointed ears of our kind. Unlike us, however, he was bulky and brutish and had the gait and stature of the burliest human and skin the color of leaves changing with the passing of autumn. I would not call him a half-breed, for he lacked the more distinguishing features of either elf- or human-kind. This is a unique race, despite the similarities.

Ahri and I waited for awhile before another of our captives entered from the far end behind the bark table. Where his comrades wore armor fashioned from some sort of leather, this one wore a leafy headdress with curved and smooth antlers fastened to it. The antlers were longer than his armspan but he wore the thing as if it did not burden him in the least. He wore loose, flowing silks and a feathered cloak that splayed out behind him as he stood in front of the table.

He addressed us all, his sing-song voice commanding our attention by virtue of its strangeness. He held a taloned hand up before the assembly and introduced himself as King Abbabalair, First of Konia, and warned that justice would be brought to this world.

The air stirred around me, and I imagine us all, as King Abbabalair spoke. His voice carried a queer weight behind it, like it was supported by something stronger than its speaker. Abbabalair spoke at length of the supposed betrayal and trust on Operus’s part of his goddess-wife Konia, making the case for whatever justice Abbabalair hopes to dispense. Though I tried to pay attention to the details, I felt as if I were privy to a sermon more than anything. Were it not for the weight and conviction behind the king’s voice, I would have paid no heed whatsoever to his droning, dismissing him as just another zealot, but there is something inside me that forces me to see there is some truth behind his words. I fear I am soon to be witness to something I would rather not see.

Abbabalair withdrew after his introduction and sermon with the promise that he would return soon. His soldiers, our captors, are now handing out small bowls of some sort of stew to the lot of us, so I would wager I am safe from execution or torture, at least temporarily. My guard has promised that I will be allowed to make a further report after an unexplained and pending ceremony, so I am safe until then, at the least.

I do hope this letter reaches you somehow. I am unsure as to whether or not our supply line and messenger relay system is still in-tact. With any luck, our captors have at least parleyed with Sir Elding and his defenders outside. I do not believe I would be commanded to write this letter in vain, so I have a good feeling that it will make its way into your hands. If so, I ask that, in the event I fall silent, you assure the Empress that I have always been her faithful servant and thank her for the many years of faith she has had in me.

Justiciar Wyett Desitane
Acting Marshal
Mhedorian Expeditionary Force, Tomb of Konia

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XXIV. Ahri Vestesson to Temmbi Pirrorsdauter (XI)

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My beautiful Temmbi,

Knight-Crusader sont Wethers has ordered a large portion of the combined army into the Tomb of Konia on the heels of Archbishop Qadim. As such, I write to you from deep within these cavernous catacombs with walls resembling petrified bark and a smell in the air not unlike funeral incense. Such an odor does naught for the questionable morale of us all, but sont Wethers is like a rushing drover in how she spurs us ever onward. Even the Mhedorian Justiciar has been taken aback and made to follow in her wake. Judging from his developing, widening scowl, I would wager that such an arrangement is beginning to annoy him.

Justiciar Desitane was wise in urging the Knight-Crusader to employ caution on this endeavor. Had she been given her way, we would have entered the tomb earlier, but without a stable supply line. Additionally, Desitane ordered a system of paired messengers and engineers be implemented at specific intervals as we crawl deeper into the tomb. Such a system is why you will, hopefully, receive this and future letters.

There has been no sign of Qadim thus far. According to Elding’s scouts that have been assigned to this mission, we have passed unimpeded beyond the barrier of wind that prevented him from exploring further on his prior expedition. We are now proceeding deeper into the tomb.

With each step I take, I have come to believe that the floor is angled down ever-so-slightly, like the longest elongated ramp possible. I have thought at great length that perhaps my exhausted and heat-stricken mind play tricks on me, but every step forward does seem to decline. I would speak up and ask if anyone around me believes the same if anyone seemed of a mind to answer with more than an ambiguous grunt of acknowledgment. None are happy about this trek.

We walked past the Vrokath corpses hours ago. Bodies were heaped and stacked upon bodies, the blood now dried and caking the strange surface of the floor. The smell was atrocious. I very nearly retched before I made my way out of the room. The sight of the massacre was even worse, by far the most repulsive thing I have witnessed in all my life. I confess that I thought of you in those moments, of how you would twist your lips and crinkle your nose when you smelled something foul. My thoughts, my memories of you transported me from that terrible room and helped guide me out without allowing the scene to impact me as much as I fear it could have. It is obvious that there are others among this army who do not have one as wonderful as you waiting at home for them. I looked around me when we exited that room and saw green faces and dripping vomit, pale and sickly faces and tear-filled eyes.

I was surprised more by the reaction of the elves than anything else. Their “dalanas vol” must have taken quite a toll on them, for none looked better than the worst human. Their demeanor was, however, different and less physical. They looked to be agonizing in a wholly different way, as if someone had laid bare their souls and burned the most tender of spots. Whatever it is the elves felt, they all seemed to withdraw into themselves, dealing with their pain however they are taught to handle it. I was overcome by the eeriness and increased my walking pace until I absentmindedly caught up to sont Wethers.

In stark contrast to the depressed and hurting visage of the elves, sont Wethers seemed to use the grisly sight to drive herself onward still. Her face was as hard as stone, lined and weathered but unmoving and determined. She has been quiet save for when she barks an order out at her lieutenants or Desitane. I wonder sometimes why she feels like she must try so hard to succeed on this Crusade. This tomb has, so far, proven to be anything but we expected or were told we would find. I would also consider the Crusade a failure. There is no possible way for us to secure this tomb under the shadow of the Vrokath threat or the more subtle but still very real danger posed by our Mhedorian “allies.” Furthermore, none of us, save for the Vrokath, perhaps, know what else lurks in this tomb.

Were I commanding this Crusade, I would return to our forward garrison and hold our ground, submitting a request for reinforcements. None of sont Wether’s correspondence with the Order has requested reinforcements to be sent, however. I think she well and truly believes we will succeed in our goal of claiming the Tomb of Konia for the Order. Whether she believes that based on her decades of experience and service or on the fitful and temperamental basis of faith alone, I cannot say, but I fear it is the latter. And, as I am discovering after my error in joining this Crusade, making decisions based on faith and faith alone can have catastrophic and unplanned for consequences.

I know I have referred to this place as a tomb, and it is called the Tomb of Konia by all of us, but I am beginning to think that it is not so simple a place as that. I am no architect and my education is simple, but I am sure I would recognize religious imagery if I were to glance at it, and I can see none here. There are no markings save the ridges of the bark’s edge along the walls and ceiling. There are no altars, no coffins or idols or paintings or murals. I would compare this place closer to a cave than a tomb. Indeed, there are not even sconces for torches along the walls. If humans or anything even remotely humanoid built this place or ever took residence here, there is no evidence of such.

There is a strange sort of lurking presence one can feel here, as if this place knows we are here. I almost feel as if it thinks we are trespassing. Such thoughts are enough to make my skin crawl.

The heat has not quite abated despite the distance we have traveled into this tomb. The only positive change has been that the blood-sucking insects have not followed us. I am finding myself unproportionally thankful for such little things.

Though I cannot see stars from this cave, I need only close my eyes to picture you before me, my sole guiding star. I must escape this hellish place and survive if only to see you once more, and once will be enough, because I will never willingly leave your side again.

With unending love,

Ahri

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XXIII. Justiciar Wyett Desitane to Field Marshal Mexis Sigride (V)

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For Field Marshal Mexis Sigride, Arm of the Empire
In Eternal Service to Her Majesty Empress Aureia Culperio
From Justiciar Wyett Desitane, Acting Marshal, Mhedorian Expeditionary Force, Tomb of Konia

Field Marshal,

It appears we shall be entering into the depths of the Tomb of Konia, sir. The Knight-Crusader gave into her wrath and faced me with an ultimatum of either joining her in entering the tomb or losing the support of her army. I am, as such, forced to concede to her will. The possible loss of the Crusaders’ strength would leave my army vulnerable to whatever dangers lie within the tomb, especially the Vrokath, and I will not allow sont Wethers to gain total control of the tomb if luck would take her side. Thus, I stand here, at the foot of the tomb, watching as a batllion of my soldiers filter into the darkness aside an equal number of Crusaders.

The remaining number of Mhedorians and Crusaders alike will remain under command of Sir Elding. Unlike my racist predecessor, I realize the worth of an individual regardless of race, and though he is not a Mhedorian nor loyal to our Empress, the man is a shrewd tactician and skilled warrior. I will not worry about the strength and health of this joint army while I explore the Tomb of Konia beside my Crusader counterpart. Indeed, I daresay I will have much else to worry about that concerns the doom that befell the Vrokath scouts before us, and how to avoid such a fate.

I managed to convince sont Wethers to halt this entry into the tomb long enough to see to the logistics of such a task. We know not what lies within, and so I saw fit to establish supply lines and means of communication for those of us entering the tomb.

Two-thirds of my sappers and a number of the Crusader’s engineers will see to building a system of ropes and pulleys to aid in the transport of supplies. Moreover, we have established a relay system of messengers so I, and the Crusader crowkeeper, may continue dispatching letters. If things go foul in the deep, I would have you know, sir.

The crazed Archbishop Qadim has not been seen or heard from since he abandoned his comrades. Despite the magical conjuration he summoned as a companion, I do not believe the old man’s mind is there anymore. To depart so suddenly, without word nor reason, leads me to believe the heat has taken his aged mind and planted the seed of some delusion within. I am sure we will stumble over his body somewhere in this tomb, probably in the same room in which Elding was hindered from journeying past.

I ordered Councilor Maier to the vanguard of this party. His sorcery will be an immense boon and, with any luck, prevent us from any waiting ambushes or traps. In that vein, I left half of his fellow sorcerers behind with Elding, asking the remaining lot to accompany Maier and the rest of us. I will have one by my side at all times and have dispersed the rest throughout the bulk of this force.

There is a sense of dread about this tomb and the task we now undertake. In the whisper of insect wings in the dead of night, or the million tiny grains of sand that find themselves everywhere, I am surrounded by the pervasive burden that doom is just over the horizon.

There is a quiet falling upon us all like the tranquil foreboding before a thunderstorm. But where rain washes away the filth, the storm before us will stain us with the blood of those around us. This tomb is cursed, whether by the primordial believers of Konia or the foul Vrokath rituals conducted in an effort to summon Tavradyss. I know not what lies deep within this tomb, but there is an ancient power here. Even those mundanes like me can sense it, and I feel as if it is growing stronger with time.

Field Marshal, I formally request reinforcements be sent at the first opportunity. With my fullest experience as testament to my reliability, I would recommend at least a legion’s strength be sent to this location. It is imperative that, if I fail, this tomb is controlled by Imperial forces and none other. Additionally, I feel that intense study of this site would yield many matters of import.

My spies still within the Crusade Army report that sont Wethers has made a similar request of her superiors. Though this alliance is useful to me, my loyalty first and foremost is to our Empress, and I will not hesitate to betray sont Wethers and her Crusaders if the need is great. I hope it does not come to such a thing, but I could not allow myself to let the tomb fall wholly into the hands of the Orthodox Knights of Fyrndell. The zealots would have not an idea of what to do with it.

The last of the soldiers are now entering the tomb, and so my writing time must come to an end if I am to join them. I have no desire to find myself lost and alone inside such a structure, especially one filled with murderous brutes and ancient powers. I fear my blade will come of use in the coming days; fortunate it is that I have kept it sharp all this time.

I will send you my next report when next I get a chance, hopefully reporting that we have breached past the insurmountable winds that kept Elding from advancing further on his last expedition.

In the name of Empress Aureia Culperio,

Justiciar Wyett Desitane
Acting Marshal
Mhedorian Expeditionary Force, Tomb of Konia

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XXII. Ahri Vestesson to Temmbi Pirrorsdauter (X)

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My dear Temmbi,

I am wont to admit it, but these past few weeks have planted a seed of doubt in Operus within me. I have thought long and hard on this and must confess that my faith is indeed shaken, that these monumental events I bear witness to prove that Operus has abandoned this Crusade, if He was with us at all. All evidence available to me proves my assertion correct.

Operus’s mouth, the chief priest of our country, deserted us without a word. He entered the heretic-controlled tomb alone with nary a word. He crossed our pickets, jointly-manned by Crusader and Mhedorian alike, and stepped into that foul, accursed tomb. Perhaps he means to die in whatever manner the Vrokath did, or is tempted by the power hinted at by the one they proclaim to worship. At any rate, he has left us, and if that is not proof that Operus has done so as well, I do not know what is.

Archbishop Qadim was the religious foundation of this Crusade. He spoke with such passion, such fervor of belief in our faith that it was impossible not to see the truth behind his words. His desertion leaves us without that pillar of support. Knight-Crusader Sont Wethers has ample zeal for us all, but does not inspire us in Operus’s name as Qadim could do. Her faith is personal. Obvious to any untrained eye, yes, but not a zealousness that can be shared, that can spread throughout the army in such a contagious way as to drive us ever onward. No, Qadim leaving us is a sign that Operus has abandoned us Himself.

This Crusade is cursed.

I hope you forgive me for my growing doubt. I have always been the most staunch of believers in our faith, yet this Crusade trials me in ways beyond anything I had ever imagined. I have come to realize that this world is so much bigger than that which contained your lord father’s manor, or the country we swear allegiance to, or even the entirety of the Operan League. There is so much present in this world that I have no understanding of, that we as a people cannot fathom or have not yet encountered or experienced. Running into the Vrokath so many weeks ago shook even sont Wethers to her core. When one is raised within a relatively-contained environment, he grows comfortable with what surrounds him to the point that anything different, anything unexpected, rattles his very core.

The fact that such a violent people as the Vrokath exist, a group of living, sentient beings that thrive on battle and war and death, frightens me entirely. I am not alone in this. Even Sir Elding has made off-the-cuff remarks as to their savagery, and the man is a life-long war veteran. My love, to see a man so shaken by the unexpected would steal away whatever courage you held within.

Worse yet is what remains hidden inside the Tomb of Konia, whatever it was that annihilated a group of Vrokath that Elding encountered inside. He stepped through the much and gore of our enemies, slaughtered wholesale within the catacombs, as if they were nothing but insects to whatever it is they fought. The bulk of the Vrokath army has not been found as of yet, but I feel they will find a similar fate to their comrades.

There are things in this world that exist outside of our own collected knowledge. I begin to question whether this God-Prince of Conflict Tavradyss is truly as false as Qadim claimed. What if Tavradyss is as real and as powerful as Operus, the patron god of the Vrokath? If Operus abandoned us at the same time as Tavradyss blesses his faithful, then we are truly defeated on this Crusade.

And what of the other gods that so many people choose to worship? The Konia cult, or those pale, gaunt travelers with lips sewn shut that requested the hospitality of your father last winter that worshiped the strange stone they carried with them? What of other religions and faiths and beliefs, even, that we have not met yet? Perhaps the gods and goddesses and idols and creatures of such religions are as real as that of ours.

That is quite the sobering thought. To realize this world is much bigger than I ever imagined, filled with strange and different faiths and peoples, fills me with a sense of dread when I feel it would, before this Crusade, leave me in wonderment. Now I wish only to return home, to retire to a corner of the manor and live out the rest of my days with no other disturbances than those dealt with as a husband and a father. I want the world to be small again.

Sont Wethers has been in a rage since learning that Qadim betrayed her orders and set out on his own unknown plan. Long into the night she has argued with Justiciar Desitane demanding we breach the tomb, but the Justiciar is a shrewd elf and will not give in to her emotional and angry pleas. I fear she will order us in after Qadim without the support of the Mhedorians, and know that will end only in our pointless deaths. Whether we like it or not, the Mhedorian support is crucial in the face of the Vrokath threat and whatever else lurks deep within the tomb’s darkness. For better or ill, Qadim must remain on his own for now. If my opinion matters, I think that is best, anyway. He left us without a glance back. I say let the man suffer whatever fate is in store for him.

I would ask that you pray for me, my love, my dear, sweet Temmbi, but I do not think even your most pleading prayers would lift the curse that has befallen me. My dreams continue to plague me, growing worse with each passing night, as the haze fades away little by little with each night’s terror. There is a constant pain tormenting my belly, brought upon me by the knowledge of what it will mean when my dreams at least reveal the figure within the fog.

Do not think that my deepening dread or waning faith means I love you any less than I do. Indeed, I think I have never loved you quite as much as I do now, when the only anchor I have remaining in this world is the thought of returning to your embrace and melting under your gaze.

Please continue to think highly of me despite my increasing flaws. You are all I have left in this world.

Ahri

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