The stack of decrepit, dusty, leather-bound books sat unassumingly on the ornate wooden table. The table was a gift from the Cyrenian Lumeni, who had some craftsmen among their ranks. While it couldn’t hold a candle to Phaestean handiwork, it wasn’t half bad, and at any rate, it was the thought that counted. Any gift that solidified the Citadel’s relationship with its Vashnari cousins was valued, though this one was relatively simple. The books were more interesting; they held the power to destroy the world.
Though it was a cool autumnal day and the waning sun was bathing Sol’s city in a beautiful glow, the air in the council chamber felt stale and the atmosphere stifling. Halos tugged at his high collar, cursing his priest’s robes. He sat in silence for a few minutes, staring at an empty space on the table.
Sighing, he finally reached for the nearest tome, pulling close and flipping it open. His physical discomfort was matched by a profound spiritual disquiet. There, in plain sight, among the countless pages documenting seemingly innocuous tales from El’Jaziran history and folklore, were the telltale eldritch markings and scribbled notes describing the steps of forbidden rituals. He had examined the books dozens of times now, half-expecting, half-hoping to open them and find everything gone. He fervently wished this whole ordeal was just an unpleasant nightmare, the fruits of a failure to offer proper thanks to Valnurana. But the notes persisted, same as every other time he had examined the book. As he flipped through, the pages faintly glowed with the mesmerizing colors of the rainbow…the hallmark of karma.
Karma. Lifeblood of a people once diverse, wild, and free-spirited, dancing in the orbit of the rainbow-eyed deceiver, now a people as serious and mindless as clockwork automatons. Wound up and released to march and titter, they were united in lockstep and forced to walk over the edge of the abyss. There was no group that Halos hated and pitied more than occultists.
But their shepherds were a strange and fascinating lot. One could not call them mindless, for they displayed the cunning tactics of wolves when fighting, spoke with tongues like serpents while preaching, wove complex rituals to call forth magicks the lesser users of the occult arts could only parody. The Nihilists were incredibly dangerous, and dangerously capable. Any blow struck against them was a cherished victory...and the Shallamese were about to strike a grave one.
The books were acquired after a Dawnstrider tip led to a Templar raid on a residence in El’Jazira rumored to be privy to occult activity. The owners had obviously left in a hurry shortly before the Templars arrived. Ashes in a fire pit spoke to the destruction of correspondence, and overturned furniture created the impression of a hasty flight.
One young human girl had not fled in time, and this was the dilemma. The books would be burned; that was simple and certain enough. The girl was young, perhaps only sixteen or seventeen…but she bore the profane Mark of the Twin, II - the sign of the Chosen of Babel Himself. And she had obviously studied of the enormous stockpile of books, and was well initiated in the chaotic arts. Would she burn as well? This was the question that weighed heavy on the mind of Caliph Halos Vorondil.
He had narrowly won an election to replace the frail and aging dwarven lorekeeper Bahtell Del’Strata, whose energy and vituperance had been sapped by an unproductive quarter-century on the throne. He had eeked out an exceedingly narrow electoral mandate, but the Te’Serra had expressed their confidence in him, and their desire for a stronger response to Nihilist activity. Already progress was being made, as with the recent conversion and return of Sothantos de l’Evanoir to the Jewel. Progress, yes, but with a terrible foreboding attached. Halos feared the man. He had always been a quiet being, but after his time in the service of the Mad God, his silence was disturbing and even horrific. Coupled with his repulsive appearance, a curse born of Babel’s wrath, that gloomy demeanor served to engender a deep and potent mistrust. But the girl, that was what was important now, Sothantos could wait.
Or could he? What if he was in fact sent by Babel, as Beatrice had forcefully argued during the last meeting of Viziers? What if it was all an elaborate ruse? He had served among Shallamese before, and would be a natural spy for the Nihilists if they needed an insider before the execution of an important plan…and so many great ones had already fallen. Halos remembered Ellodin’s gauntlet, and wondered what form his own ruin would take. Perhaps the girl was a trap? Or perhaps she was a trap in other ways. During interrogation, the only thing she had said was that the Babelonians left their Mark by force. The Sentaari reading her mind determined the statement was not entirely true…but who knew what dark magics Mordanyconus wove in the black Caverns. Could the high priest of Ruin twist mortal minds as Chaos twisted Creation, such that even memories could be distorted?
So many great ones had fallen. Mathonwy, Azor, Quoren…the first to Nihilism, the second to Baelgrim, and if the rumors were true, Darkness had taken the third ere the end. Was the brutal act of executing this young occultist the beginning of his own moral downfall? No, that couldn’t be, those three had set themselves in opposition to the Te’Serra, had tried to take on the mantle of gods. Halos was Their hand. He knew what he had to do. He merely needed the willpower to see it through to the end.
The Caliph rose from his seat and paced near the doors to the chamber. Outside the room, muffled by the thick wooden door, the voices of two of his councilors rose and fell with their passions. He opened the door and watched quietly. The councilors debated on, unaware that their leader was watching.
“There is something deeply unsettling about this. She is only a child!” argued the froglike Veldrin Crescent, Lord of the Nexus.
“She serves Babel, and deceives us. She is old enough.”
“You traitorous bastard! This is preposterous, Ellodin’s gauntlet all over again. And to think you let the Dawnstriders torture her, and had the Sentaari invade her mind! The poor girl needed refuge!”
“Refuge, hah! If she will not cast off those black arts, then her only refuge will be fire!”
“You could do with a little bit of Compassion. Perhaps if you had governed with a bit more of it, you’d have not turned to necromancy and gods-know-what-else in your quest for the ultimate Good!” Veldrin said in a mocking tone.
Silas snarled but said nothing, and Veldrin continued.
“This is an outrage, an absolute outrage, Bahtell would never have allowed this-”
“But I am Caliph now, Veldrin.” Halos let his sonorous voice ring out clearly, an air of finality in his tone. “Step aside.”
Veldrin was unmoved. “I must formally register my protest regarding this action…this is pure barbarism, we are not better than Mhaldorians now.”
“Step aside, Baelgrim tortures for cruelty’s sake, to appease the Suffering One, or else to inflict Vengeance. We, we are merely agents of Justice. And though the girl claims not to serve our great Enemy, neither has she forsaken her powers.”
The Caliph raised his voice. “Wronic! Get Wronic in here for the books. Tell him to keep the efreeti away, I’d rather not have the noxious smoke in my office. Bring them down to the pyre.” Halos reflected for a moment. “And have the girl brought there too.”
As Halos descended the staircases of the Citadel, the words of the primary resounded in his mind, as though spoken by a soothing and yet unyielding speaker. “The mad nihilists of Ashtan practice obscenities against Creation itself when they deal with the devouring court of Emperor Gologtha and subvert the natural orders of fate by karmic manipulation.” As he walked down Viziers Street, a djinni saluted. He absentmindedly nodded back his approval. “Whether they seek the end of the world or simply refuse to abstain from the occult, these abominations are to be destroyed without mercy or truce.”
Halos came to the pyre, and his entourage of advisors and bodyguards halted as he stopped and stared. “Do not be deceived by kindness or honesty or good intentions in such a person; their actions imperil all that is innocent and good in the world,” the voice reminded him. A large crowd of adventurers and guards milled about the pyre. News of the decision had spread quickly.
“Do not be deceived by kindness or honesty or good intentions in such a person,” Halos whispered to himself. “Their actions imperil all that is innocent and good in the world.” And that was that. The girl would burn.
She was a young thing, quite beautiful, and he felt a none-too-innocent ache as he saw her brought out and treated roughly by the Templar escorts. Maybe he should pardon her, take her under his personal tutelage…maybe then she would repent…no, that wasn’t right. Her ashes would be stuffed into a letter and sent to the Overseer. That was the only course.
She was human, like him, and when she spoke to beg for mercy it was in their shared tongue. He hated using it. The Occultists had adopted it, claiming that humans were the offspring of Chaos, nonsense based on a ridiculous reading of the mythology. She begged and begged, and finally he acquiesced to her pleas for clemency enough to give her a final chance.
“Do you recant? Do you repent? Do you swear off occultism for all the days of your life, and commit your life to ridding the world of this plague, as is our holy mission?”
The girl wept profusely, but shook her head.
“You know what these books are, and you are old enough to realize the arts you practice are ravaging this world. Wherever souls go after they are banished from this world, whatever final judgment awaits…that is not my task. Your moral worth is for the Creator to judge. It is my duty to send you to Him.”
Halos motioned to the guards. A Te’Serran cleric walked over and raised a hand over the girl to bless her and administer the final rites. The acolyte looked familiar to Halos, and was somewhat older, with silver hair and a walking staff. Halos idly wondered if that man hadn’t been an Elysian priest once upon a time. Such distinctions were fading now. A servant of Pentharian was a servant of Miramar was a servant of Lorielan was a servant of Mithraea.
As the cleric’s benediction came to a close, the girl’s face took on a nasty expression, and she uttered a bizarre and alien word which caused all who heard it great pain. Then she turned to one of her captors and uttered his name, followed by a string of incomprehensible sounds. The Templar collapsed to the ground and began to writhe in horrible pain. Acting quickly, the war-clerics Darroth and Kard crippled the young occultist with severe blows to the legs, then tossed her into the pyre. Her cries polluted the air for miles, and it was later said the city had stopped and shaken in fear at the terrible sound.
The priestess Beatrice knelt next to the Te’Serran cleric, laying hands on him, and Halos quietly gazed at the pyre. Having fulfilled its deadly duty, it playfully crackled and popped, mocking the solemnity with which the proceedings had occurred. The Caliph desperately wanted to say something. The Primary had been handed down to encourage this sort of swift Justice, to encourage bolder stances not taken under the old regimes. This was the reason for the birth of the Citadel…and yet it all left a very butter taste in the mouth. To quote the Primary after the girl’s death felt so empty, so Mhaldorian, as though he would be quoting the Seven Truths following a bloody spectacle on the Red Square. But that turned out to be unnecessary.
“Save that which can be saved; destroy that which cannot. Be secure in the knowledge that in Light will all be restored.” The voice of Silas Maynard rang out, harsh and guttural, rattling like a drawn saber.
Halos turned towards Silas curiously, then nodded his approval. Clenching his fist and raising his arm in the air, he gave voice to words not heard in many years. The phrase escaped his lips like a thief in the night, quietly slipping by his mental self-restraint: “May the Light lead, and we never fail to follow!”
Cautious at first, but seeing their leader jubilant, the Royal Guard took up the cry, and the company followed.
Many miles away, in the ruins of the Erisian Pyramid, the Nihilists of Babel held vigil. The priests, shrouded in black robes and darkness itself, were nervous. Lianca’s hands shook more than the rest, a product of her gleam habit, but they were all clearly unsettled, even the normally unflappable Mordanyconus. A raven flew into the cavern and squawked its message, and the reaction was as though a balloon had deflated. Any sort of vitality or spirit that had been present in the room was crushed. The normally indefatigable high priest of Ruin looked tired, so much so that Morro and Talonia rushed to aid him and keep him from collapsing. Leaving the girl had been a risk, a tremendous one, and they had paid a high price for their arrogance.
They had not assumed that Shallam would have grown a backbone so quickly, in so few years. This new Caliph had to be watched, and Maynard as well, for he was more dangerous than ever. But this was fine, all was well. The girl was expendable, as they all were. It was a game, after all, frittering away the months and years before Oblivion. So much the better. The stronger the spine, the more satisfying it would be when the black servants of Nihil crushed it once more.
The rasping voice of their Master groaned in the cave, touching the Babelonians at their core. “Know this…the age of Creation is coming to an end. Take up the Flame-Bright Spear and speak with the voice of the apocalypse, proclaiming this truth, more salient now than ever before. Bring the message of Ruin to the Te’Serra once more, and this time, do not stop until they. Are. Dust.”
Great work, Talonia!
(make butter in the 7th paragraph from the end bitter and you're golden)
The voice of Melantha, Goddess of the Seasons, echoes amid the rustle of leaves, "That's the censored version."