Chapter One – Stirrings

The land of Morindan was darkness. The days were bleak, sunlight seeming to struggle to reach the barren ground, leaving it gray and shadowed. The nights were a shroud, a cloak of blindness stretched across the land. The ground itself was but dirt and rock, its surface cracked and covered with an endless field of dust. What trees had once dared to grow there were now little more than bare limbs struggling upwards from the dried earth, their tips shattered, their wood long dead. No color lived there, no green of grass or blue of sky. All was gray; shadows or the deepest of blacks.

Morindan was silent. It was a dead land, and the dead claimed it, but now it was empty. Its barren plains were lifeless, its horizon unmarked by movement. Normally, the undead would have called it home. Zombies would have stumbled across it, doing the bidding of whatever dark mind had risen them. Vampires would have flown through the gray skies, watching for any sign of fresh life. But not so now. Now, Morindan was empty, both of the living and the dead.

There was only one place in the land where movement could still be found, the one place where all the vampires, zombies, and other foul creatures of night had gathered: Cyprien’s castle.

The castle jutted from the landscape perpendicularly, defiant of the flatness around it. The grounds about it hummed, not with life, but with an aura of death and decay, for here were gathered all the denizens of Morindan, the undead milling about in one mindless mass, stumbling and staggering blindly. Around the castle, vampires flew, their numbers impossible to count against the black of the night.

The full moon was the only source of light, its rays illuminating the dark castle. The shadowed stones of the citadel seemed to soak up the light, the towers and walls standing against the moon in silhouette, their blackness stark against the moon’s brilliance.

One of these towers, one of the highest in fact, possessed but one window, allowing the moonlight in. The room illuminated by the light was small, only big enough to fit five or six shuffling zombies across. Not that any would be allowed here.

The walls were of dark stone, and no tapestries or other decoration hung upon them. Countless wooden tables, desks, and chests were scattered about the room, but these were all covered in a thick layer of dust.

The center of the room was the only clear space, the chests and dust having been swept aside. Etched in the center of the stone floor was a deeply carved circle – just a plain circle – its outline black with shadow, despite the moonlight which touched it.

Cyprien Essenwein, lord of Morindan, watched as the moonlight began to cover more and more of the circle. He was arrayed in the garb of royalty: a deeply red tunic, shrouded by a black cape. Across from him, separated by the circle, Sonya stood, wearing similar clothing. Only the best raiment for such an occasion.

Cyprien was lord of the night, and rightly feared by all he hunted, but Sonya inspired an entirely different kind of fear. While Cyprien was known for his bloodlust, his unmatched skill in battle, and his ruthlessness, Sonya was feared for her subtlety and ability to plan. The elves feared Cyprien for the battles he had fought against them, but it had been Sonya who had orchestrated some of his greatest victories.

The moonlight now covered half of the circle on the floor. Cyprien watched its slow progress, his excitement growing with each inch the light covered. The time was very close now, very close…

Sonya stepped forward, her black cape shifting as she moved, revealing for a moment the red gown she wore for the occasion. In one graceful stride she was within the circle, feet close together. She looked at Cyprien, and smiled.

Cyprien stepped forward, joining her in the circle. It wasn’t big, large enough only for them to stand comfortably within, about a foot apart. Cyprien could almost feel Sonya’s excitement radiating off of her, his own anticipation mounting with hers. They had waited for this night to come for years, so many years, and now it was nearly upon them…  

The moonlight finally touched the last of the circle, and instantly the room was plunged into blackness. This was no shroud of night, but deep, dark magic. Not even Cyprien could see, a sensation he was unused to, and quickly decided he didn’t like.

He could feel Sonya in front of him, standing still as he was. They waited, and the darkness seemed to thicken, probing them, testing them. And then everything was still, muffled and cut off as if a thick cloth had been cast over the world. It was time.

A sound reached Cyprien, seeming distant at first, but then swelling in volume. It was Sonya: she was singing.

Cyprien had never heard her sing. There was no real tune to the words, but her voice was soft, and the words seemed to flow together. They were in an ancient tongue, and their meaning mostly escaped Cyprien. However, he knew each one of them by heart. He took a breath, and joined Sonya in song, the practice unfamiliar to his tongue.

It couldn’t be said that they made a good duet, but the words they sang were powerful, the darkness about them seeming to quiver as they continued. It wasn’t a long song, and they ended soon after, silence taking the room once more. Still, the thick darkness persisted, blinding Cyprien.

And then he felt… a thing. The darkness between them constricted, and… something appeared. Cyprien couldn’t see it, but he could feel it, like a presence watching him, somehow coming into being between him and Sonya.

Sonya knelt, reaching out to the presence, and Cyprien knelt with her. Instantly, the shroud of silence about the room lifted, and Cyprien could just make out Sonya’s silhouette before him. The darkness was slowly fading.

He could still see little more than Sonya’s outline, but there seemed to be a patch of extra dark shadow between them, somehow cupped in Sonya’s hands. Cyprien reached out, and felt again that presence, the undeniable feeling that there was another being in the room with them.

He held his hand out to it, and felt a wave of cold as the shadow touched him. Sensations flashed across his mind: curiosity, hunger, drive… he smiled.

“My daughter,” Sonya whispered, bending low over the shadow and blowing gently on it.

Cyprien copied her, bending low and blowing softly on the presence. “My daughter,” he breathed.

The presence seemed to swell as they spoke, but then shrank, somehow condensing further until it was small enough to swim within the bowl of Sonya’s hands.

“My daughter,” she whispered to it, “I name you… Iskra.”

The thing in her hand quivered.

“Sleep now,” Sonya breathed.

The shadow swirled for a moment, and then somehow funneled inside of Sonya, slipping through her skin like water through a cloth. Cyprien could still feel it, the presence, now slumbering within Sonya.

Together they rose, Sonya smiling, Cyprien himself feeling his mouth twitch.

A violent hammering came from the one small door into the room, and the remaining darkness shattered like the shards of a broken mirror. Cyprien’s peace shattered with it, rage instantly taking its place. Who would dare to interrupt this, the most sacred of rituals?

He strode to the door and flung it open, already grasping for his knife.

“My lord,” said the vampire at the door, visibly paling – despite his skin already being as pallid as the moon above – at the sight of Cyprien’s rage. “Aranthar requests an audience.”

Cyprien’s arm froze midway into unsheathing his dagger. His rage stumbled, confusion taking its place. And yes, perhaps a hint of fear. Aranthar? Here? Now?

Cyprien shoved past the vampire without a word, his black cloak billowing behind him as he strode down the hall. The vampire followed, taking the first doorway which presented itself, eager to escape from Cyprien’s wrath.

But Cyprien’s anger had cooled. What could Aranthar be doing here? Cyprien hadn’t expected him for another few months. Had something gone wrong? Had the plan changed? Cyprien frowned. The vampire had been right to alert him about Aranthar’s approach, of course. But still, to interrupt the birth of his daughter, the birth of Iskra…

Iskra. Cyprien’s thoughts cooled at the name. Already the house of Essenwein was feared; she would continue its legacy. Vampires were brought into the world fully formed, having all the knowledge they would ever need to possess. There was only one thing they lacked: a body.

Vampires were pure spirit. They needed the physical body of another to truly interact with the world. This body acted as a shell, a housing for the vampiric spirit, channeling its strength and power. Most of Cyprien’s vampires inhabited the bodies of dead elves or men, slain in combat. But for his daughter… only a live body would do.

Inhabiting a live body was a sign of strength for a vampire. It showed that they possessed the willpower to overcome the mind of another, and having a live body meant that it did not decay and weaken over time, as a dead one would. But not just any body would do. Iskra was an Essenwein, and Cyprien would need to find a special body for her, one which the elves either trusted, or looked up to, or perhaps feared. A symbol. That’s what Iskra needed.

Cyprien finally reached the bottom of a winding staircase, and threw open the door to the courtyard below. There Aranthar stood, at the head of at least a hundred zombies.

Aranthar was an elf. Not a zombie elf, not a vampiric elf, just a plain, living elf. His hair was gray, but he wore armor and carried himself upright. His cloak was tattered, and his sword, devoid of any sheath, was stained black with age. Behind him, the zombies stumbled idly in place, bumping into each other or just standing still, limbs hanging limp.

“Cyprien,” he said calmly.

“Aranthar,” Cyprien replied, not quite able to keep the distaste from his voice. They might be allies, but Aranthar was still an elf, and Cyprien hated elves. The weak, tree-loving, magic-obsessed—

“Perhaps we could speak inside?” Aranthar suggested, cutting Cyprien’s thoughts short.

Cyprien nodded curtly, standing aside for Aranthar. The elf stepped into the hallway, and then waited politely for Cyprien to take the lead. Cyprien did so, keeping up a brisk pace, taking Aranthar through several extra halls and rooms, trying to show off as much of his castle as he reasonably could.

They finally came to a small room, containing a simple table and two wooden chairs. Cyprien offered one to Aranthar, which he did not take.

“The land grows barren, Aranthar,” Cyprien said, choosing to remain standing as well. “All of Morindan is sucked dry, the air as chill as the far north. Why?”

“I had need of the land’s magic,” Aranthar said simply.

“Morindan’s?” Cyprien repeated. “You’ve already taken the magic from the whole of Annelintia. What could you possibly need that much magic for?” His eyes narrowed. “What manner of curse are you weaving?” he asked.

“That is not your concern,” Aranthar said.

Cyprien yearned to strike the elf down where he stood for that comment, but restrained himself. He needed Aranthar. “Why have you come?” he said instead.

“I have brought you an army,” Aranthar said, his tone as calm as if remarking on the weather. “An army to destroy Eld’rin.”

Cyprien was instantly suspicious. “The undead you were with?” he guessed.

Aranthar nodded.

“And… why not lead them yourself? Why give this army to me?”

“Unfortunately,” Aranthar said, “I cannot yet stray far from Annelintia. My… work is not yet complete there. My control over the undead can only extend so far, but Eld’rin must fall, so I give them to you, to lead in my stead.”

Cyprien nodded. That made sense enough. A reanimated zombie was controlled directly by the mind of the vampire or mage who had reanimated it. A mind’s influence could stretch for miles, but not indefinitely. Annelintia was a long ways from Eld’rin.

However, Cyprien was used to the traps of elves, and he immediately spotted two problems. “I appreciate your offer, Aranthar,” he said, “but I saw only a hundred or so undead with you. Zombies are weak, and easily slain. It would take a force of thousands to overrun Eld’rin.”

Aranthar nodded. “True, but these are no normal undead. I have enchanted them with magic, giving them the strength of twelve men. A single blow from them will crush an elf. Additionally, they possess a shield, a magical barrier around each one of them. This barrier is unbreachable. They are immune to both spell and blade.”

“I – Immune?” Cyprien repeated.

“Immune,” Aranthar confirmed. “Completely.”

Cyprien quickly recovered himself. “Very well,” he said, “but why now? I thought we weren’t to move on the elves for another few months. Are your preparations done already?”

“No,” Aranthar said shortly. “However, I have been forced to begin the attack early. I have learned, from my spies amongst the elves, that one among them intends to lift the Curse.”

Cyprien was no elf, but he knew of the Curse. A piece of magic which determined if the elves won or lost against him? Oh yes, he made it his business to know about such things.

“Lift the Curse?” Cyprien repeated. “Is that even possible?”

Aranthar shrugged. “Certainly it’s possible,” he said. “Anything is possible. Is it likely? No. But it is a threat nonetheless.”

“And this elf,” Cyprien said. “You have… caught him, I assume? Killed him?”

“Unfortunately,” Aranthar said, “my agents can’t even find him. None of the elves can. He is a master of remaining hidden. If I could find him, I would kill him, but sadly that is not an option. Thus, I need to attack Eld’rin.” He continued at Cyprien’s frown. “Eld’rin is the center of the elves’ kingdom,” he explained. “It’s the head. Remove the head, and the remaining villages will be without a unified voice telling them what to do. It will be chaos. And if you are there, leading an unbeatable undead army, that chaos will be even greater.

“If, by chance, the one elf should manage to lift the Curse, he will have no king, no Elvish Council to go to. No one to spread the countercurse for him. He will have to do this himself, and it will be very difficult with all the elves in disarray. By attacking and destroying Eld’rin, I’m buying myself some time, and time is all I need to complete my work. He might lift the Curse on a few elves, but these are of no concern.”

“Why?” Cyprien said. “Surely an elf without the Curse is a danger to us all?”

“Not quite,” Aranthar said, smiling slightly.

Cyprien hated that smile. “Very well,” he said. “I will lead this army for you. And what happens after Eld’rin?”

“By all means,” Aranthar said, moving for the door, “continue rampaging amongst the elves. Just try to keep them contained,” he added. “I wouldn’t want to miss any stragglers when I arrive. Oh,” he added, turning at the door, “one last thing: I have agents in Eld’rin. They will tell you when to attack. If you wait to attack until they say, your victory will be easy.”

Cyprien frowned. “And otherwise?” he asked, tiring of the elf’s mysterious words.

“You’ll still win,” Aranthar assured. “It will just be more… difficult. Trust me. Wait for my agents.”

Cyprien nodded after a moment. He hated Aranthar’s superior ways, but he wouldn’t decline such an offer. “Very well,” he said. “I will lead your army, and I will wait for your… agents.”

“Very good,” Aranthar said. “I must return to Annelintia, but I will join you in a few months’ time. Try to keep some elves alive for me.”

Not likely, Cyprien thought as Aranthar left. He had been at war with the elves for over two centuries. If he had a chance to finally destroy them, he would take it. He strode to the only window set in the wall, and looked out at the darkness of Morindan. A smile flitted across his face.

First Iskra, and now an unbeatable army. The elves didn’t stand a chance.

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