The Journey

The freshly-turned grave shuddered and shook from some subterranean stirring. Bony, withered fingers clenched into talons clawed through the blanket of earth to rend the midnight air of the small cemetery. Supposedly consecrated to halt the transformation of corpses into the living dead, either the village priest had merely paid lip service to the Light or been of insufficient faith to restrain the dark power of a soul already consigned to the Shadow.

As she pulled herself free of her binding grave, she shook loose the clods of dirt from her burial shroud. She inspected where the rot had pierced her ivory skin. The decay wasn’t too bad – she would not be hindered in her quest.

Yes, she could feel the call in the distance. It had been so strong that it had called her from the very realm of True Death.

Whispering sibilant chants and entreaties while her hand wove arcane sigils, the amethyst radiance of her magic tore a hole within the darkness; a beacon of otherworldly energy shining across the planes of existence.

“Come and serve, Ralishaz.”

The whirling spirals of amethyst abruptly vanished to reveal a tiny, inhuman form; darkened and wreathed in unholy flames. With a low, respectful bow, the imp greeted her. “What do you require, Mistress Cyiress?”

As her softly-spoken words revealed her plan, the imp’s fanged maw grinned with glee.

In the desert, the graves are often much shallower than in less dry climes, less than the requisite six feet. For a soldier’s grave, it was enough to inter the corpse out of sight, with the name sketched into the sand with the fallen comrade’s sword. That sword buried, point first up to the hilt as a makeshift tombstone.

A desiccated fist shot out, spraying the dry dust into the desert wind. The sand-covered figure arose from the pathetic attempt of entombment and took in the silent night with deep-set glowing eyes. He drew the sword he had wielded in life and it was awkward in his hands, alien to him now. Tossing it into the sand, he watched it sink and be forgotten.

“He who lives by the sword, dies by the sword,” he declared. “But this is my path no longer. Now I know that Death is not the end, but the beginning.”

Dropping to his knees, he prostrated himself upon the sand, crying out unto an entity far beyond the mortal plane. “Our Final Lord, the End of Worlds, the Harvester; please listen to your humble supplicant. Please allow Your darkness to fill me, sustain me as I endure the persecution of the Light upon my journey.”

He could feel the blackness of night detach and infuse him, soaking within him like his life’s blood had soaked into the sand.

“Lord, I embrace Death, and leave the trappings of my former life behind. I am now Nergal: this new name speaks of the decay and dissolution of all things.”

The returned soul called Nergal looked into the distance with a determined gaze. “But Lord, You see within my heart and mind. You know that some things transcend even Death.”

He set forth, one inevitable step after another, rhythmic and regular, the tireless march of the dead.

“I’m not afraid of you!”

Cyiress could hear the lie, in the minute tremors laden within the youthful voice. The guard was afraid of the night, the darkness unknown. The whelp hadn’t even seen her and yet he reeked of panic and terror. She continued onwards towards the graveyard’s sole gate, while Ralishaz ghosted at her heels on darkened wings.

She now could see this mewling servant of the Light, and he could see her – the unnatural state of Cyiress’s existence obvious in her glowing eyes. While he wore his allegiance plainly with his red-rimed clothes – a member of the Crusade.

Cyiress’s lips drew back, baring her teeth in a sardonic rictus. This young, impressionable fellow had been newly recruited, feeling only the rousing religious rhetoric in his blood. Quite ignorant of the hidden politics, the secret power plays and corruption rife within his most-hallowed Crusade.

Yes, ignorant. Unknowing. Clueless. Idealistic.


“Child, you may have your orders to stop me – but if you oppose me, you will die.” Cyiress’s face twisted into a tolerant smile. “Leave. Abandon your post. You can report me to your superiors – I’ll be long gone before they return. There is no reason that you need to die on behalf of the thrice-damned, tainted Crusade.”

His resolve flickered for a moment, then strengthened with stubbornness. With a hackneyed and trite war-cry, he charged her. “By the Light! Die, foul undead fiend!”

Charge broken as quickly as he released a shocked shriek – to feel Ralishaz’s fangs bite deep into his throat and experience the deadening numb of the imp’s poison flooding his blood. Helpless and quivering, he could not even answer as Cyiress addressed him. “None can say I did not give you a chance. But you chose not to accept my generous offer. You were a fool – and fools die a fool’s death.”

Her hand now awash with an ebon illumination, Cyiress plunged those skeletal digits deep within the crusader’s chest. If not for the imp’s poison paralysis, he would have howled in agony as his very life was torn from his flesh.

Holding the glowing blue orb of animus within her hand, the lifeless corpse flopped to the ground like a string-severed shadow-puppet. She gestured to Ralishaz. With a careful talon the imp scratched an eye-twisting geometric pattern on the earth, ripping a portal between this world and his infernal home.

Cyiress dropped the life-sphere into the fiery gateway; as it passed beyond, there was an answering deep rumble. “Ralishaz, thank you for your assistance, but your services are no longer required.”

Looking towards the quaking ground, the imp nodded, then dropped into another low bow. “A pleasure doing business with you, my dark mistress. Another time.” With a snap of clawed fingers he was gone; a small bang as air rushed into the vacant space where he had been.

Now Cyiress had to focus upon the bubbling indigo darkness welling out from the unholy portal. “Come – there are things that need to be destroyed. You like that, don’t you, my pet?” she cajoled the amorphous lump of entropy that was now her willing servant.

The dark, liquid surface of the entropy elemental rippled in anticipation as it followed her.

“Some of you may die today – but know that your sacrifice in this war will have not been in vain – you will have, in some small way, struck a blow to the undead legions that threaten your homes.”

Nergal would have spat in disgust to hear this rousing rhetoric, but he could not – spitting was a pleasure reserved only for the living. Such holy hypocrisy spouted by the priest of the Light, lapped up by the eager, naïve recruits that knew no better than to meekly accept what they were told.

He remembered when he’d been just like them. The horrors of his campaign and the return to the world had opened his eyes to the truth.

Nergal looked down at the dry, mummified flesh of his hands. Through Death, he had found his salvation, his true vocation.

His purpose.

This purpose drew him to confront his opposite number, his adversary; this lie-spewing servant of the Light.

“Oh yes – your sacrifice will not be in vain. The Undead Prince will raise you to bolster his legions; he needs more and more corpses to work his necromancy upon.” Nergal’s words were low and mocking – it took all his control not to just lash out in an orgy of destruction. But that would not serve his aims, the Shadow’s aims.

“Who said that?” shouted the priest into the encroaching darkness, trying to sound brave but failing miserably. While Nergal strode towards the gathering easily, his faith sustaining his courage.

Quavering voice coupled with wavering finger pointed at this approaching undead abomination. “Look, my children – that is our enemy. The plague that scars our land – one of the undead, a minion of the Prince.”

The supposed ‘minion of the Prince’ scoffed loudly, ten paces from the gathered humanity. “The Prince? Hardly.” Nergal sneered. “Only a fool would subsume their individuality and serve that upstart. No, priest – I have turned from the Light -” even saying the word left a bad taste in his mouth “and embraced the Shadow. The Great Cessation, the Star-Bane.”

The fat father needed no more provocation, allowing his rage to replace his weakened faith, anger being far stronger within this pitiful creature who had only mouthed platitudes to his god. Muttering and chanting words of magic, a blast of light scattered forth through the night, striking Nergal true.

He could feel the protective shadow boil away as he intoned mystic syllables in turn – slowly, methodically and calmly. His opponent soon noticed the results of Nergal’s sorcery as the crawling blackness crept up from his feet. Feeling the deathly chill of the Shadow burn his flesh and very soul itself.

Soon the streaming light faltered and the rays were consumed by night as the priest drowned in darkness. The porcine form flopped and twitched like a landed fish while Nergal watched; a furtive interest shining within those dead eyes.

Finally, all was still – the young recruits had not moved an inch within this confrontation, paralyzed by indecision and raw fear. Their resolve almost broke when the splayed corpse of their former leader rose up and clumsily returned to its feet.

“What have you done to me?” said its voice, hollow and ragged with shock and confusion.

“I have done nothing except show you the way, my child,” answered Nergal, with a warm smile.

“But …” as the walking corpse brought one of its dead hands to its face, the flush of life already drained to reveal stark, white flesh.

“I am no necromancer, my son. You returned because the Shadow has given you another chance. You have been reborn, thanks to my Lord’s will.”

“The Light? Where was the Light in my time of need?”

True concern, understanding and sympathy had replaced Nergal’s earlier sardonic tone. “The Light has forsaken you, my child. The Shadow has brought you back – a gift with no obligation.”

It bore repeating, as the Shadow’s newest convert took the hesitant, stumbling steps of rebirth. It was a time for Nergal to be patient and gentle.

“Now, listen deep within the darkness of your soul – not me, not any doctrine of your former life or one beyond. Only yourself. Listen to the core of Shadow buried within you, has always been within you. Listen, and follow its darkened words.”

The corpse had wandered towards its former comrades, who were at a loss for what to do.

“It tells me …”

“Yes, my son?” Nergal urged carefully.

“… to slay the living.” With this pronouncement, the pale cadaver extended its hands around one of the recruit’s necks with harrowing swiftness. Strength no longer reliant on pitiful muscles neglected from book-study and administration, but drawn from the tenebrous depths of his own soul, the flimsy neck twisted and broke in those cold fingers.

Snatching up the fallen sword, the Shadow-soldier began to lay into the rest, the sharp steel cleaving flesh and bone with shrill, pitiable cries. As the blades sunk into his unliving form, he let loose a death-rattle of merriment and riposted to engender even more screams of terror and torment.

Nergal’s final benediction: “May the Shadow be with you, my son.”

He walked onwards.

“Do you remember me, Captain?”

The captain looked around at Cyiress’s words, unable to see her secluded within the darkness of her alcove. She was sure that only he could hear her over the hubbub of the carousing officers within the feasthall.

“Eh, wha?” The captain was befuddled by drink, officially scorned by the Crusade but generally imbibed by its higher echelons that know their “faith” was mostly used as recruitment inspiration. People were more willing to die for their beliefs than no reason at all.

Good. This would make Cyiress’s plans go all the smoother in their execution.

“Do you remember the village of Silverspring, and what transpired there?”

She could see the murky shadows of memory slide under the dirty cloud of his drunken mind. Recollection stirring slowly, there would be no true revenge unless he was aware, but it was gradual enough that he wouldn’t react immediately. He’d lost his lecherous leer and gained a somewhat thoughtful expression, obviously cudgeling his thoughts to recall details of Silverspring.

“Let me refresh your memory. Silverspring was a small farming village – the land was fertile yet beautiful. What the Crusade saw was its defensible position – it had been too difficult to take by all the forest monsters.”

Cyiress controlled her rage – she needed to unleash her wrath at precisely the right time. She had mastered the demons of the Hells with her self-discipline; she had not broken under their torments – she was not going to let the inferno of her anger consume her.

The captain was confused, but there was a faint tremor of worry disturbing the pool of liquor drowning his mind.

“That was enough reason. You moved in and preached the threat of the Prince’s legions. You conscripted the able-bodied menfolk and sent them away to die on the frontier. When Silverspring was defenseless, you declared the remainder in league with the Shadow. You put innocent women and children to the sword.”

Furtive fear surfaced on his features, a rat caught in torchlight scurrying for a hole.

The living were so predictable. He opened his mouth to call for his men and gagged on the fluid shadow-stuff of Cyiress’s elemental servant. Still hiding in the shade of her alcove, her lips twisted into a sardonic smile. With malevolent satisfaction, she watched as creeping black tendrils of oblivion grew across his helpless form.

“You were right, in part, captain. Although it was just a convenient pretext you used to kill us all, there was at least one witch in the village of Silverspring.”

He writhed in the entropic’s grip but it was too strong, as his own strength bled out every passing moment.

“You murdered my family, my friends and destroyed my home, just to gain our land, under the guise of righteousness. For the ‘greater good’ of humanity. You may not have wielded the sword that cut them down, but you gave the order – therefore you are responsible for their deaths.”

The flames rising higher in her unbeating heart, pulsing in her stagnant blood. Cyiress could barely control her fury, but she had to, just for a little longer. Approaching her struggling prey, Cyiress revealed to his harrowed eyes her cadaverous visage. “You killed my love, sent him off to die and then you killed me. You sought to separate us in life and death, but you have not the power. For trying, for all your crimes, I will make you pay. You will burn.”

Now Cyiress allowed her rage to escape and explode, channeled into the hapless captain; setting his fast-flowing blood alight in his veins. Flames licking out from the inside set his clothes ablaze, spreading until it met the cold emanations of the entropic. Parts of the captain burnt by frost and flame scattered down to cluster at Cyiress’s feet.

“You thought you had separated us eternally, never more wrong. My love and I walk this world again this very moment, to reclaim what you tried to take away.”

The laugh that fled her deadened lips was gleeful and alien in its dark triumph. Echoing far within the fortress, it even overrode the sounds of merriment and instilled the crusaders with a maddening disquiet. The alarm was raised quickly, but Cyiress had already made her departure.

All the crusaders discovered were the shreds of what was found to be their former captain.

“Did you think you could walk into my domain and be not known? Foolish, foolish, my dear Nergal.”

The voice rang within his head as if a hornet had flown within. It was inevitable that such a meeting would happen.

The Prince, for all his power, could not read Nergal’s mind, as invasive as his influence could be. The Shadow priest had his own will, his spirit – unlike the legion upon legion of the Prince’s undead soldiers. Nergal was an anomaly, so therefore interesting to the powerful necromancer.

The priest steeled his will, and drove out the Prince from his mind, but then Nergal could hear the clumsy march of deadened feet approaching. The leader of the lifeless contingent was a willowy, dark-skinned woman – she would have looked truly beautiful and exotic in life. In death, that exquisite form was merely an effective tool of the Prince, infused with his power and a puppet to his will. When this reanimated ebon angel spoke in a confident baritone, her nature was obvious – merely a vessel for her master’s voice.

“Nergal, you intrigue me. Unlike my servants here- ” the female corpse gestured at the rest of the walking dead “ -you are independent of my control. I did not create you, but as one of our kind, you will be persecuted by the living. Serve me, and you shall have dominion over those who seek your destruction. I can use such as you in my armies, directing my legions against those who would destroy us.”

The priest’s mouth twisted as if he had swallowed something rotten. “Because I am free, you ask for my willing enslavement? Your entreaties fall upon deaf ears, Prince – I will serve no entity, living or undead – I serve only the Final Lord, the Shadow.”

The rich, resonant voice turned snide. “Oh yes, your quaint little death worship. Surely you can comprehend in your current state, that we undead have passed beyond Death? I have faced Death and won – I control Death and Life, its power is mine. Your petty ‘Lord’ could not stop me as I tore free of my burial shroud; I conquered your Lord with my necromancy – your faith is misplaced. You should worship me instead!”

The laughter erupting from that once desirable face was unwholesome, wrong. The demure, doe-eyed visage would have never uttered such a sound in life.

Nergal was not perturbed. “Through your necromancy, and my own return, we have forestalled Death. We have stopped living, but we have not died. The world will decay, a frozen husk remaining, stripped of life. Your legions will rot, your necromancy will erode and you and all your works will fade to nothingness. Everything that you have wrought and have been will be claimed by the Shadow.”

“YOU LIE! I AM ETERNAL, EVER-LIVING! I SHALL NEVER DIE!” The vehemence of the protest blasted through the Prince’s mouthpiece, the corrupt flesh of its jaw tearing with every word.

“Everything dies, Prince. Even the stars will die – do you declare that you will live beyond them?”

Recovered from his earlier tirade, the Prince’s borrowed face turned crafty. “So, you admit also that you will die, that all your work will come to naught. Why even bother? Work with me and enjoy the transient joys of unlife that I can offer.”

The disciple of the Final Lord turned thoughtful. “You bring up an interesting point, Prince, and I realize I misspoke.”

“Go on, Nergal.” The Prince’s grin turned feral.

“You are right. All my works shall lead to nothingness and ruin, and I shall die also. But some things never die. My love transcends the death of universes – I shall always have eternity. With that love, I embrace oblivion.”

“You still DARE to DEFY me? Then ready yourself to meet your precious ‘Final Lord’, for oblivion comes NOW!” Incandescent with wrath, the Prince tore gobbets of decayed flesh from his mindless representative. The rest of the unliving host drew closer, weapons drawn.

As the rusty blades chopped deeply into his mummified flesh, Nergal sought communion, connection with his Lord in his time of need. He had followed his faith, stayed strong and resisted temptation. The false power of the Prince meant nothing to the purity of the Shadow. He now knew, as he felt the swords and axes bite deep, that this confrontation had been necessary, his Lord’s plan.

Each word he had spoken to the Prince was absolute truth – Nergal embraced oblivion. But as he spiraled within the void, his love burned bright, chasing away the chill of utter nothingness.

“Please, Lord. For myself, for her, for our love.”

With an expanding explosion of darkness, the Shadow answered his plea. The swords and axes halted in mid-chop as their wielders blinked as if awakening from a dream.

“We are free!” The former spokesperson of the Prince proclaimed these joyful words, her sweet voice heavy with feeling. True sensation gleamed within those putrefied eyes, no longer mindless minions but self-aware of their new existence. The contingent unabashedly embraced each other in happiness, if they would have been able, they would have cried their thankfulness.

The woman addressed Nergal reverently, “Holy one, you have released us from the slavery of the Prince, we are indebted to you. How may we serve?”

Nergal smiled at the recently unchained undead. “My child, after freeing you, why should I seek to cage you once again? However, the Prince will not let you escape his power so easily. Let us leave; and the Shadow, through me, shall aid you.”

Nodding, the leader organized the contingent in formation and surged forward through the milling legions. Unprepared for such fury, the Prince’s lines broke, then attempted to close in and crush the small group within their midst. Drawing upon the deep reserves of faith, Nergal bolstered the strength of his allies, healing darkness spreading across the troops. The soldiers, with maddened zeal, brutally cut their way through the Prince’s undead slaves.

The Prince’s presence wormed into Nergal’s mind once again. “How could you do this? You have NOT the power to oppose me. You are insignificant, you are NOTHING, little priest!”

The embattled cleric replied to this unseen, internal invader. “Prince, yet again, you are right. I do not have the power, and I am insignificant. I am nothing.”

“But I have faith.”

The Prince’s frustrated growl was drowned out by Nergal’s voice, firm and ringing with total conviction. “The Shadow is with us, my children. We cannot help but prevail!”

Lost in bloodless bloodlust, their war cries echoed far across the battlefield.

“For the Shadow!”

Across each side of the shadowed glen, they walked, slowly, hesitantly; anticipation.

“It has been too long, my love.” Nergal’s voice choked, fervent with deep emotion.

Quiet and somehow meek, Cyiress answered in kind. “Too long, indeed, my love. But our journey apart is over.”

“Yes.” Relief and triumph infusing his words. “Now, our journey together begins.”

They could not hold back any longer, he swept her up into his strong, yet gentle embrace. Her lips sought his and then there was only the ecstasy of the kiss.

In their mind’s eye, in the moment they shared in their hearts, they lived again. A hand caressed a face tenderly, soft and warm. The thunder of blood rushing through them, hearts pounding with rapture of communion. Eyes shining with vibrant joy, happiness of joining.

The flesh was dead and cold, the life’s blood gone, the hearts withered and shriveled. But within their eyes still shone that joy; that love which even Death could not plunder.

Still enwrapped after their kiss, they stared at one another. It could have gone on eternally, lost in each other’s eyes but Cyiress finally broke the silence.

“Through blood and darkness …”

Nergal continued. “… terror and pain …”

“… we are now …”

“… and forever.”

The Journey


Adelaide, Australia

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