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Part Five: The Taint Wars

26

Hallifax Minutes: Emergency Meeting Re: Possible Second Taint

MINUTES OF THE HALLIFAX BOARD OF GOVERNORS

I. MEETING - CALL TO ORDER:
The meeting was called to order by the Chair on the 22nd day of Gorgani, in the 542nd Year of the Imperial Empire at 9:00 a.m.

II. RECOGNITION OF MEMBERS PRESENT:
Cririk Adom, Chair of the Board and Chief Executive
Lilali Skysoarer, Secretary
Minister Sweeloh Sunfar, Member
Minister Ieck’co Shevat, Member

MEMBERS ABSENT:
Hieli Goldfeather, Vice Chair
Professor En’oonki Lars, Member
Minister Tooli Goldfeather, Member
Minister Chia Cloudwalker, Member
Minister Ke’kix Oolin, Member

III. EMERGENCY SESSION:
Subject: Cosmic Hope Disaster

Discussion: The aeromantic countermeasures to disperse the Magnagora cloud (colloquially referred to as the ‘Taint’) were generally determined to be a failure by the Board. The Taint continues to move northward, though Minister Shevat pointed out that its progress has been slowed. Regrettably, these same countermeasures appears to have accelerated the Taint’s spread to the south, notably infecting the Gloriana Forest.

Minister Shevat reported on the research team the Board sent to study the alleged mutagenic effects of the Taint. The Board was distressed to learn that Vice Chair Goldfeather and Minister Oolin, who were part of the research team along with Minister Shevat, were presumably casualties of the Taint and are to be considered missing in action. Despite these grave losses to the Board, Minister Shevat was able to produce a detailed report on the Taint.

In summary, there does appear to be mutagenic aspects within the Taint cloud, manifesting in two manners. The first and least common effect of the Taint is to immediately arrest the heartbeat of a victim, resulting in instant death. The body, however, soon animates into what is being described as the “undead”. For those who mutate into the undead, there are reported advantageous side effects, including, but not limited to: increased strength and intelligence, an enhanced constitution, a seeming immunity to pain, and a limited ability to control the Taint.

The second and more common effect of the Taint is a radical restructuring of the victim’s physiology including, but not limited to: an increase in size and weight, a shedding of fur and/or feathers (depending on race), a modification of skin colour tending to red and/or black, and the development of horns, bony plates, barbed tails or other abnormal traits. The exception to this appears to be members of the orclach race whose victims (at least those who do not immediately die and transform into the undead), instead of mutating in the aforementioned manner, seem to devolve into weak, smaller beings with a substandard intellect.

Whatever the transformation, the victims also undergo radical personality changes and are considered extremely hostile and aggressive. They also appear to be organising in large numbers along the borders of the Taint, often abducting individuals and dragging them into the Taint, sometimes retreating into the Taint when met with opposing forces. At least two unsubstantiated reports indicate that a ‘Taint Army’ has attacked the Dwarven Mountain Kingdom, killing King Varrim and dispersing the dwarven defenders.

Though the Taint represents a grave concern to Hallifax, the Board examined an even more alarming development in Gaudiguch. The Board believes that the members of the Cosmic Hope Expedition who were allegedly ‘rescued’ through the Eternal Flame, the nexus of power in Gaudiguch, have been infected by the Taint, including Emperor Ladantine VII. From scattered intelligence the Ministry of Information has been able to gather from Gaudiguch, it appears as though the Emperor is amassing the ur’Guard there. The Board notes that the orclach hold that the ur’Guard were created in honour of the Vernal God Urlach who allegedly brought orclach warriors back from the dead. If, as many of the Board have postulated, members of the Cosmic Hope Expedition were infected by the Taint and mutated into the undead variant, the ur’Guard would be ripe for indoctrination based on the misguided assumption that the Taint undead are somehow a mystic recreation of Urlach’s resurrections. (One Board member hypothesises that Urlach did indeed turn many orclach warriors into undead, but, if true, the Taint undead are obviously a separate variety).

The Board is most concerned that infected members of the failed expedition will influence the Illuminati of Gaudiguch into precipitously dangerous actions, such as allowing further spread of the Taint through their nexus of power.

Board Decision: Chair Adom moved that the Ministry of Defense assemble a company of the Matrix Legion to enter the Elemental Plane of Fire and possibly the Vortex Plane on a reconnaissance mission to determine if any actions of Gaudiguch could potentially unleash another Taint through the Eternal Flame. Minister Shevat seconded the motion and it passed unanimously.

IV. ADJOURNMENT:
There being no further business to come before the Board at that time, the Board meeting was adjourned at 10:05 a.m.

Approved this 22nd day of Gorgani in the 543rd Year of the Imperial Empire.
By: Lilali Skysoarer, Chair Secretary

27

Memoirs of Lolly Pringle: The Return of the Emperor

If I had not just come from the Astral plane and witnessed all its strange horrors, the cosmic plane of the Vortex may have struck me as extraordinarily bizarre. This cosmic plane manifested without the familiar environs of the prime material plane, unlike the beautiful fields or rolling hills of the cosmic planes of Shallamar or Celestia, which I had visited as an aetherwave correspondent. Perhaps it is no wonder that the Illuminati of Gaudiguch kept the Vortex sequestered from the public for their own use - as what would the uninitiated think of the strangely organic, bulbous landscapes that seemed to breathe of its own accord and a sky that pulsated with swirling multicoloured lights?

The Eternal Flame from which we entered the Vortex was certainly not the feeble fire that we found on the Astral plane, but a towering inferno of white fire that flickered with all the colours of the rainbow. We were immediately met by the robed and hooded Illuminati, who were surrounded by strange snuffling creatures that seemed part-dog and part-lizard. Indeed, the entire Vortex seemed populated by an assortment of strangely shaped and peculiar creatures, which might once have frightened me except they were pitifully normal when compared to the abominations of the Astral plane.

In any event, the Emperor, still under the glamour that hid his undead form, immediately began thundering commands and benevolently praising the Illuminati, promising rewards and positions of power in the “New Empire” that would arise. I tried to cry out and warn them, but whatever power the Emperor had over me kept me nodding in agreement to everything he said and smiling like a village idiot.

The black robed members of the Illuminati bowed deferentially to the Emperor, whispered amongst themselves, and one scurried off and disappeared through the Eternal Flame. Meanwhile, Chum, back in his role as Grand Cipher, practically gloated over Lars, Ghani and Shellma, as he ordered fresh robes to be brought for all of them. They were immediately given voluminous black robes with deep cowls, which thankfully covered their mutated forms, though Chum complained loudly when no fresh golden robes could be found for himself.

However, both Chum and the Emperor were becoming restless as we continued to be kept waiting, however politely. Finally, the Eternal Flame flared and out stepped the entire ruling council of Gaudiguch: His Wisdom Bhodifucius Xiim, the spiritual leader and nominal head of Gaudiguch; High Flame Scuchidira Tliwx, Archmage of the Pyramid of Pyromancers; General Gorab Iborchi, a massive dracnari in charge of Gaudiguch’s militia; and another dracnari in the golden robes of the Grand Cipher of the Illuminati.

Chum immediately fell silent as he spotted this latter member in the robes of his office. I heard Shellma snort contemptuously, but she quickly fell silent at a glare from the Emperor. The Gaudiguch council stopped several paces before us, and it was High Flame Scuchidira Tliwx who finally stepped forward. She quickly bowed to the Emperor, though her eyes never left his face.

“What is the meaning of that,” demanded Chum immediately, pointing to the golden robed dracnari. “Have I been replaced as Grand Cipher of the Illuminati?”

“Always quick to figure things out, eh?” High Flame Tliwx asked. “Of course, you’ve been replaced. We thought you were dead.”

“I am back now,” said Chum. “I take it I shall be reinstated immediately?”

“That’s the business of the Illuminati,” shrugged the High Flame, then turned to the golden robed dracnari. “Grand Cipher Dith? Will you be stepping down so that the remarkably resilient Tlochaka Chum can return to the office of Grand Cipher?”

“With respect, ex-Grand Cipher Chum,” said the soft feminine voice of Dith, shuffling forward, “the Illuminati cannot at this unfortunate time accept you in this position of leadership.”

“Drortaka Dith,” muttered Chum. “I never realised you had your eyes set on the golden robes.”

“Don’t be a worm, Chum!” boomed General Iborchi. “You disappeared for weeks. There’s a crisis that threatens all of the Basin of Life. And you think you can waltz back and take up your old position, without knowing what’s been going on, what we’re facing, or that we might just have reasons, just possibly might have very good reasons to suspect you are not quite what you say you are? This is the Gaudiguch Council, Chum, not some desert camp for whelps!”

“Thank goodness the Illuminati are broadminded concerning ‘physical transformations’, isn’t it,” whispered Shellma nastily to Chum.

Shellma apparently didn’t quite realise that dracarni have hearing almost as good as furrikin, for she was shocked when the general rushed towards her and ripped the cowl from her face. Her bulbous eyes bulged as he grabbed her foul, bloated cheeks and turned her head from side to side, as though studying a piece of meat. He then pushed her towards the newly appointed Grand Cipher Dith.

“The Illuminati are experts on physical transformations,” said General Iborchi, and then pointed at Shellma. “ Well, Dith? What’s your analysis of that?”

“Holy Mother Shellma Natharian appears to be Tainted,” said the Grand Cipher, her voice soft yet clear. “Though she does not appear part of the…group mind…of the other Tainted.”

Though my body was controlled by the Emperor, my mind was still my own, and hope sprang up within me. This was not the welcome that the Undead Emperor and his Dark Council had expected. Though the reputation of Gaudiguch may have been that of a circus of frivolous and capricious creatures by the rest of the Empire, they obviously were much more intelligent, perceptive and wise than they were usually given credit.

But the Emperor must have come to the same conclusion, for, though he was changed into a monstrous undead creature, he still had the memories and skills of the diplomat and ruler and knew how to use them. He clapped his hands and got the attention of everyone. Then he smiled sadly, compassion and sorrow in his eyes, and he gestured to Shellma and the others.

“I do not know what you mean by ‘Tainted’,” he said in a moderate, reasonable tone, “but Holy Mother Shellma, Grand Cipher - excuse me, ex-Grand Cipher - Chum and the others suffered a horrible accident upon the Astral plane. But, bless the Light, they survived, their minds and spirits intact if not their bodies. I can only guess what must be happening here, but we have vital knowledge and information which may be of some use. Now is not the time to bicker amongst ourselves. The Empire must remain united and pure. Only then can we face perhaps our greatest challenge!”

How reasonable he sounded, how noble he looked. Even I, who knew what he was behind his glamour, felt drawn by his charisma, wanted to believe him. But, of course, it wasn’t I he needed to convince. By the looks on the faces of the dracnari, it appeared that they were convinced, heads nodding in agreement, even General Iborchi stroking his chin thoughtfully. But then the Wisdom of Gaudiguch, Bhodifucius Xiim, coughed softly and the rest of the dracnari froze, their eyes reverentially upon the tubby little dracnari who was little bigger than me.

“Most Gracious Emperor,” said Bhodifucius with a comic bow. “I humbly honour your wise words and truth indeed is in your words. With respect, you have changed since last I saw you, and, as we say, ‘Always bow to the winds of change or be driven to the ground by the gales of inevitability.’ We have another saying too, and that is, ‘When the winds of change blow, never shut your eyes for what was once your house may be about to fall upon your head. It is the wise dracnari who knows when to leap out of the way.’”

“Very interesting, Wisdom Xiim,” said the Emperor - did his voice now have a measure of doubt?

“I ask you this,” continued Bhodifucius, addressing the Gaudiguch Council, with no indication of having heard the emperor. “If you cut off the legs of a chair, is it still a chair? And if you place a sea turtle in the desert, will it turn into a desert tortoise?”

With that, the Wisdom of Gaudiguch grinned widely, waved energetically, and left through the Eternal Flame. No one spoke, and the Emperor’s lips were pressed tightly together, as he had to contain himself. The ur’Guard around him were, of course, unphased and silent, as the Emperor had earlier commanded them to be. Finally, the Emperor laughed and shook his head, waving his hand in the air as though that would clear up some small misunderstanding.”

“I do indeed love the wisdom of your Bhodifucius,” said the Emperor. “But now is not the time for his games for puzzles and paradigms…”

“Perhaps not,” said High Flame Tliwx, her deep voice resonating in the air. “But tell me this, Your Highness, the temperature in the Vortex is many degrees higher than that of the Basin of Life, and much, much drier. How is it that a merian, such as yourself, is not demanding water? Indeed, you seem remarkably refreshed for standing out here for several hours.”

“That is irrelevant!” shouted the Emperor. “It is a time of crisis! We cannot remain idle…!”

“But we have not been idle,” said Grand Cipher Dith. “Before we came here, we sent word to your daughter, who has been acting as head of the Empire while you were...indisposed. She is on her way here as we speak. I am sure she will be most overjoyed to meet with you. And consider turning matters back over to you...as long as your health was not unduly...compromised...during your planar adventures.”

A look of black fury passed briefly over the Emperor’s face, as the meaning was clear. They would not recognise him as head of the Empire until Princess Marilynth said so. But always the consummate diplomat, his expression quickly smoothed over with a smile, and he straightened his back and gestured towards the Eternal Flame.

“Excellent,” said the Emperor. “I am most anxious to see my daughter. Meanwhile, let us go to the Great Pyramids of Gaudiguch where we might rest after our ordeals, and you can fill us in on what has been happening while we were away.”

“And we are most anxious to hear your tales too,” said General Iborchi, then looked directly at me. “All of your tales.”

28

Gaudiguch Gossip: INVASION!

INVASION!

As if the horrors of the Taint weren’t enough, the High Flame revealed that Hallifax has invaded the Elemental Plane of Fire. A declaration of war with Hallifax immediately followed, and speculation mounts as to the motives of Hallifax. Are they infected by the Taint? Are they taking advantage of these uncertain times to settle old grudges? Is this a coup against the Empire itself?

As many of you already know, since Holy Emperor Ladantine was rescued by the Illuminati through the Higher Plane of the Vortex, he has been in residence in the Great Pyramid and apparently been calling the Imperial forces here to form an army to battle the Taint. The ur’Guard have arrived here in great numbers, and many ranks of krokani and taurian warriors have also assembled here in answer to the Emperor’s call. Even a tribe of loboshigaru has been seen awaiting the Emperor outside of the Gaudiguch!

Princess Marilynth arrived early yesterday to meet with her farther but left rather suddenly this afternoon. Word is that the Emperor has given his daughter special instructions on how to deal with the Taint, and she is going back to Celest to coordinate operations at the Pool of Stars. Meanwhile, the Emperor has announced that he would lead the Imperial forces gathered in Guadiguch to battle the Taint spawned mutations, which have been spilling out onto the Grey Moors. Though the new Grand Cipher has assured us that the Empire will support Gaudiguch against the incursions of Hallifax, right now the Emperor’s army is better needed elsewhere.

Perhaps the most amazing news of all, however, is that our spiritual leader, the Most Wise Bhodifucius Xiim has stepped down from the Gaudiguch Council and is making a pilgrimage to the Skarch Desert. “Consider the elderly lizard who thought he was still an egg,” said Bhodi, “he tripped and fell, but his shell did not break and no yolk was spilt. Thus, did he find enlightenment.” Not only are the Bhodi’s disciples following him into the Skarch, but so too are many other dracnari, frightened of the Taint which seems poised to consume the Basin of Life, and Hallifax invading the realms of the Eternal Flame. Perhaps it is time to go back to simpler ways and simpler times, and let these terrible events pass us by.

Well, I don’t know about you, loyal readers, but it doesn’t sound like a bad idea to me. I’m packing my bags and heading south to follow Bhodi where he may lead us.

It was great while it lasted, Gaudiguch, but the Gossip is retiring!

29

Memoirs of Lolly Pringle: The Emperor's Gambit

Whoever said the dead don’t sleep obviously never knew Emperor Ladantine. While we were alone within the lavish suite of rooms in Gaudiguch, the Undead Emperor would sit as motionless as stone for hours, the red light in his eyes dimming and his skeletal body slumping. During that time, he must have placed some spell upon me as I could do nothing but stare at the corpse that was the Emperor and consider the fate of the Basin of Life. There was certainly a lot to consider. We were updated on what happened in Magnagora, and the release of what they called the ‘Taint’. I was appalled to hear that the beautiful forest of Gloriana had been consumed, and the entire commune of the Night Coven and Raven Circle turned into either undead or monstrosities.

When the red light returned to the Emperor’s dead eyes, flaring like sparks of hate, he would get up and rub his hands together, weaving the illusion of health back around him. It was only then that I could finally move again. Perhaps looking back on it, I should have realised the Emperor, adept at so many lost arts, was also a dreamwalker, having mastered that rare and strange magic called dreamweaving - which few mages even knew about and fewer still ever studied. They tell me now that it is a lost art, and if so, one that I will not mourn.

At the time, though, the Undead Emperor put his arcane skills to good use, dreamwalking unnoticed through Gaudiguch, spying upon the meetings of the Gaudiguch Council, conferring with the Undead Council, and sending messages to the ur’Guard. When Lord General Iborchi summoned me, I was surprised when the Emperor offhandedly dismissed me but when I was in the sitting room alone with the huge dracnari, the Emperor’s presence flowed into me and my spirit was pushed to the side. I had no control of my body and, however much I wanted to scream and warn the Gaudiguch of the threat of the Emperor, I had no control of my tongue which responded only to the Emperor’s will, forcing me to say what the he commanded, spewing the absurd senseless story that the Emperor and his Undead Council concocted. But through the hate and darkness, the foulness of the Emperor’s spirit within my body, I forced myself to try to reach out to Iborchi. I think I may have somewhat succeeded because he paused as though he saw something in my eyes then ended the interview abruptly.

Although we were kept isolated by and treated as though under house arrest, the Gaudiguch Council did not count on the mischievousness of the ur’Guard, those six surviving hulking orclachs who were unaffected by the travails on the astral plane yet unbeknownst to the Gaudiguch Council were now fanatically devoted to the Emperor. Somehow they managed to make their way through the Shallach Portals, and spread word through their ranks. The ur’Guard appeared in thousands, converging at the gates of Gaudiguch, spreading the word to all corners of the Basin of Life that the Emperor was raising an army to defeat the Taint. Throughout the Empire’s history, the more naturally aggressive races were always kept in check by the pure might of the Empire itself. But now with a call to war, they hungrily amassed with the ur’Guard.

The krokani arrived in great numbers, those huge one-eyed giants standing heads above even the tallest orclach. A pack of loboshigaru, the wolf-like beings rarely seen in those days, came howling with glee at the prospect of bloodshed. I must admit they frightened me as every furrikin cub was always warned that if he misbehaved, “The loboshigaru will come and eat you!”. But most distressing of all were the ranks upon ranks of taurians, their great horns glittering in the hot sun, their bovine nostrils flaring in anticipation. Never allowed to gather in such large groups since the Stampede Massacres, now here they were in numbers great enough to ignite their awful group rage. The Gaudiguch Council wouldn’t allow them within the city’s walls, however, and only allowed the Emperor to address from the walls. But it was only a matter of time before their numbers became great enough that Gaudiguch would have no choice but to allow them access to the Emperor.

All this led to the most momentous episode during our confinement in Guadiguch, which was, of course, the meeting between the Emperor and Princess Marilynth. She arrived from the sky carried by the angelic beings of Holy Celestia with a retinue of the elite Celestine Paladins, their armour glowing with light. When she came before the Emperor who was brought out to the Chamber of Flame to meet his daughter, she ran to him and threw her arms around him. For several blissfully unaware moments, Marilynth enjoyed her reunion with her father. But I knew, oh how I knew, that when she stiffened in her father’s embrace, she understood that not all was right with him. Perhaps she did not hear his heartbeat, or perhaps she felt the unnatural chill, or maybe her pure spirit was repulsed by him. Whatever the reason, she slowly removed herself from the Emperor’s arms and stepped back.

“What has happened to you, father?” she asked as everyone fell silent around them.

“I have survived, Marilynth. I have survived,” said the Emperor. “But now is not the time to worry about me. Now is the time to protect the Basin of Life! This Taint is spreading, eating the land. And do you know what the Taint is, daughter? Almighty Kethuru, the Eater of Gods, the Scourge of Existence - the greatest of the Soulless Ones! The Nine Seals of the Sacrifice are coming undone. He must be stopped, Marilynth! He’ll destroy us - nay, he will destroy all of creation! This goes beyond all other concerns. We must come together in this!”

With each word he uttered, his voice booming through the Chamber of Flame, the Emperor advanced on Marilynth who backed further away from him. It wasn’t until several Paladins stepped forward and stood protectively to either side of the Princess that the Emperor stopped. He opened a beseeching arm toward Marilynth, beckoning her into his embrace. When she did not move, he sighed dramatically, sorrow welling up in his eyes. Oh, what an actor was the Undead Emperor. Marilynth was moved to tears, but she did not approach him.

“Father,” she said. “If what you say is true, what can we do?”

“There is only one solution, child,” said the Emperor. “Avechna the Avenger must be awoken by a Vernal God. We must go to Celest, and the Pool of Stars must be used to raise me to godhood. My daughter, my poor daughter, I know I have changed. I know what was unleashed on the astral plane. Sweet Light, don’t you think I know? But let me redeem us. Let me make things right. Marilynth! Help me save the Basin!”

“The Pool of Stars is all that’s protecting Celest, father. If its power is drained, the Taint will claim it.”

“Then use the nexus of power here!” said the Emperor. “The Eternal Flame would work just as well. We must order the Gaudiguch Council to use it to raise me to godhood. They don’t trust me now, I know that. They’re unsure what happened on the astral plane. But they will listen to you, Marilynth! It’s our only chance!”

“No!” screamed Chum. “The Eternal Flame is mine! It was promised to me!”

That outburst broke the spell that the Emperor’s words were weaving. Marilynth, who had taken two steps towards her father, now recoiled in horror. Tears rolled down her cheeks, the gills on her neck shuddering as she sobbed, but still her voice held firm.

“Good-bye, father,” she said, then turned around and left the Chamber of Flame, the Paladins forming around protectively around her.

If looks could kill, Chum would have been ash from the Emperor’s gaze - but the Emperor instead rounded upon Grand Cipher Dith and General Iborchi, the two members of the Gaudiguch Council in attendance. Iborchi seemed mildly amused, the bone ridge on his forehead lifted up questioningly.

“What of the Council of Gaudiguch?” asked the Emperor. “You know what must be done! Use the Eternal Flame! Raise me up! All our people are waiting!”

With that he gestured to the south where the gathered army was encamped. Though his voice was silken and beseeching, the threat was there. Give him the Eternal Flame or he’ll take it by force. What General Iborchi would have said will never be known, because High Flame Tliwx came running into the chamber, her thick green skin smoking.

“Invasion!” she panted, coming to a stop. “Hallifax has invaded the plane of fire.”

“What!” boomed Iborchi.

“Dozens of lucidian and some trill were seen in the inferno fields,” she said. “It looked like they were scouting around the Eternal Flame. My pyromancers chased them away. We killed a lucidian, I think, but weren’t able to recover the body.”

“Incinerated him you mean?” Iborchi asked dryly.

“You know lucidians and fire,” Tliwx shrugged.

“The question is were they Tainted?”

“We don’t know. But they must have snuck in using a gate we didn’t know about, and most of them escaped. They’ll be back, I know they will. In force this time. I feel it in my bones.”

“Well, Ladantine?” asked Iborchi, turning to the Emperor. “If you’re still our Emperor, we need your help now. Gaudiguch is being invaded. You have an army here. Use it and help us!”

If the situation wasn’t so serious, it would have been comical. The Emperor was speechless. He couldn’t allow himself to be distracted by a war between Gaudiguch and Hallifax, where both cities’ nexuses of power would be locked against each other and useless for his dreams of godhood. Still, it would allow him access to his army. He shook his head.

“You fight among yourselves,” the Emperor said softly, “while Almighty Kethuru is poised to devour all of creation. If you continue this madness, at least let me go to my army. At least give me the chance to stop the Taint.”

For whatever his motives, however twisted the Emperor had become, in this at least he was right. The Gaudiguch Council could not deny it. So they let the Undead Emperor go free as they prepared for war.

And I, of course, had no choice in the matter and went with him.

30

Aetherwave Transcript: Record Of Last Known Transmissions From Gaudiguch (declassified)

This transmission was a secured military aether channel which linked to Gaudiguch, the Elemental Plane of Fire, and the cosmic plane known as the Vortex. The transcript was kept in the libraries of Dairuchi for several centuries before they were released into the historical records.

HIGH FLAME SCUCHIDIRA: The elemental plane of fire is pretty calm here. My pyromancers are spread out and our gateweavers are searching for gates. But so far nothing has turned up.

GENERAL GOROB IBORCHI: Well, here at Gaudiguch its business as usual. They’d be fools to attack the city proper, especially if they saw the Emperor’s army surrounding us. Though he’s pulling out, damn him. Has my Champion arrived yet, Scuchi?

HIGH FLAME SCUCHIDIRA: Yeah, Champion Ketsaco is taking the wyvern riders you sent to make an aerial reconnaissance. How’s the Vortex, Dith? You there?

GRAND CIPHER DITH: Indeed, I am here, High Flame. I take it all is going to your satisfaction?

HIGH FLAME SCUCHIDIRA: So far, so good. All stray gates blocked to the Vortex?

GRAND CIPHER DITH: We’ve placed distortion fields on all known gates, but it is the unknown ones that make me uneasy.

HIGH FLAME SCUCHIDIRA: You and me both. I’d love to know how they’re hiding them. You hear rumours about Hallifax’s spy network but...wait a sec, something is happening in the fireblossom gardens. Gate activity!

GENERAL GOROB IBORCHI: Ha! Champion Ketsaco, can you hear me? Move your green tails into position.

CHAMPION KETSACO: Ok, whelps, you heard the General! Stay together if you can and don’t forget to keep your snouts clean. Remember, these fraggers can fly!

HIGH FLAME SCUCHIDIRA: Ok, I see the wyvern riders now. If things get hot, Ketso, you retreat and I’ll move the pyromancers forward.

CHAMPION KETSACO: They’ve come through! Great Tzarin, there’s a lot of them. Let’s say about two hundred, maybe three hundred lucidians and trill, though there’s still more coming through the gate. Okay, I’m flying in! Let’s go, whelps, and keep your snouts clean!

GENERAL GOROB IBORCHI: Ketso, dismount first! Dismount! Don’t fly in! Frag it! They have aeromancers!

HIGH FLAME SCUCHIDIRA: By the Hand, Ketso’s hit hard! Some type of whirlwind just drove them all to the ground!

GENERAL GOROB IBORCHI: Report, Ketso! Report!

CHAMPION KETSACO: Okay, that was bad. We’ve lost about a dozen riders. Let’s organise and...NO! I TOLD YOU TO KEEP YOUR SNOUTS CLEAN!

GENERAL GOROB IBORCHI: What’s happening? Scuchi, can you see?

HIGH FLAME SCUCHIDIRA: Great fragging enigma! Half of Ketso’s troops have charged. They’re in a battle frenzy, Gorbo. Ketso’s taking the rest forward. Right, I’m going in with the pyromancers. By my tail, this is the plane of fire! Let’s show them what that means!

GENERAL GOROB IBORCHI: Ketso, report, damn your hide!

CHAMPION KETSACO: We’ve taken some losses but Scuchi is moving in, General. By the Hand! She’s burning through the crystal freaks like they’re pieces of coal in a forge! Scuchi Mabuchi rules the flames! Go, Scuchi! Go!

GRAND CIPHER DITH: We have a situation in the Vortex! Gates are opening everywhere! At least five...no, six…nine gates! They’re laid out in a circumference with the Eternal Flame in the centre. I’m sending the Illuminati out but we need assistance! Can anyone hear me?

GENERAL GOROB IBORCHI: I hear you, Dith, for all it’s worth. Damn, it’s a classic misdirection. Scuchi and Ketso, how soon can you get to the Vortex?

HIGH FLAME SCUCHIDIRA: I’m heading back now, but our main forces are tied up. They’re throwing themselves at us like lemmings, those heartless bastards.

GRAND CIPHER DITH: At each of those nine entry points, they’re setting up some kind of barrier that’s preventing us from entering. They’re up to something. We can see they’re setting up some type of crystal pillar at each point. I have a bad feeling about this.

CHAMPION KETSACO: I’m not going to be able to make it any time soon to the Vortex, these cold lucidian bastards are tying us up pretty badly.

GRAND CIPHER DITH: There’s beams of light now coming out of those crystal pillars, connecting and making geometric patterns overhead. The Eternal Flame is reacting to it! Our power’s dwindling!

GENERAL GOROB IBORCHI: The Eternal Flame is wavering in Gaudiguch too! We need to release Project Paradox!

GRAND CIPHER DITH: Are you insane? It’s never been tested and we haven’t even received Imperial sanction to research the project!

GENERAL GOROB IBORCHI: Frag the Empire! Come on, Dith! The Empire released the Taint - it's not like they have the market on wisdom here. Scuchi, you hearing this?

HIGH FLAME SCUCHIDIRA: Yeah, I’ve just arrived at the Vortex. It doesn’t look good, Gorob. They’re definitely draining the Eternal Flame. I agree with you. Let’s release Project Paradox.

GRAND CIPHER DITH: We don’t know what it’ll do! And this could all be a misunderstanding! The lucidians and trill I see don’t appear Tainted.

GENERAL GOROB IBORCHI: Who the frag cares, Dith! They could be infected with a new type of Taint. You’re the one who’s been saying the Taint’s been mutating ever since its release. Even if they’re not Tainted, we know what cold, merciless bastards the lucidians are.

HIGH FLAME SCUCHIDIRA: Dith, we are sworn to protect the Eternal Flame. I don’t want to be the one known to have been responsible for the Eternal Flame being not so eternal on my watch.

GRAND CIPHER DITH: We need the entire Council to approve this!

GENERAL GOROB IBORCHI: We are the entire council, you fool!

GRAND CIPHER DITH: Bhodifucius isn’t here! And I haven’t been confirmed...

HIGH FLAME SCUCHIDIRA: What do you want a confirmation party, Dith? And Bhodi has resigned. It’s us three. And we need to act quick!

GRAND CIPHER DITH: I’ll agree on one condition. If something goes wrong, we’ll need a back-up plan. We need to send someone to find the Hand of Tzaraziko.

GENERAL GOROB IBORCHI: That’s just a myth!

GRAND CIPHER DITH: No! It’s not! The Illuminati have documents indicating that it’s in the Skarch. General, you must go there and find it. If something goes wrong with Project Paradox, that artefact may be the only thing that could help us. Find Bhodifucius and he’ll tell you what information we know.

GENERAL GOROB IBORCHI: You expect me to abandon Gaudiguch now! To go on this wild wakabi chase? And I’m needed here for Project Paradox. Tell him, Scuchi!

HIGH FLAME SCUCHIDIRA: Once you set the sequence at the Eternal Flame in Gaudiguch, you’ll have time to leave, Gorob. The Illuminati and their damn secrets. Funny, how Bhodi, once the Grand Cipher of the Illuminati, just happens to have retired to the Skarch where now we may need him. I agree with our Grand Cipher, though, a back-up plan is always smart.

GRAND CIPHER DITH: I’ll only agree to start Project Paradox if you agree to search for the Hand in the Skarch, General.

GENERAL GOROB IBORCHI: Damn you both! Fine! I’ll go to the bloody Skarch for all the good it’ll do us. Now, can we start the sequences?

HIGH FLAME SCUCHIDIRA: Yes, and we better hurry. It looks like whatever Hallifax is setting up is almost complete...

31

Memoirs of Lolly Pringle: The Taint

With the enormous army of taurians, loboshigaru, krokani, and of course the orclach ur’Guard, the Undead Emperor and his Dark Council left Gaudiguch as quickly as they could, rushing up the Imperial Road and heading towards the Great Pass into the Basin of Life proper. As we passed between the enormous peaks of the Southern and Razine Mountains, we first were able to see the Taint. Though still far off to the east well past the Grey Moors, we saw the black haze that enveloped the Gloriana Forest. The Emperor was determined to reach the Isle of Celest but there was no way to approach the Crystal Sea from the south without going through the Taint. He called a war council together.

Besides the Dark Council, who were cloaked in their dark robes, and the Emperor, whose monstrous form was still hidden behind the illusory glamour, the council included Captain Galvorg of the ur’Guard, Lord Trogak of the krokani, Packleader Oolit of the loboshigaru, and Meldonia Sher, a matriarch of the Taurian Mercenaries. The Emperor presented the situation simply: they needed to get to Celest at all possible speed.

“What about the Shallach tunnels?” Meldonia asked Captain Galvorg.

“Taint has the tunnels,” he said. “We entered tunnels many times, but orclach never returned. It is closed to us. We should head through Balach Swamp.”

“Balach is at the borders of the Taint last I heard,” said Meldonia. “It's most likely infected by now."

“We can go through the Balach Swamp,” said Lord Trogak, his huge, great eye blinking slowly at the Emperor. “Djarrakh holds back the Taint from moving west. Balach is not infected.”

“What?” said the Emperor sharply, rounding on the krokani. “Castle Djarrakh is holding back the Taint? That is news to me. How have the krokani managed that? No offence, Trogak, but your people are not known for their strength in magic.”

“The cat people have given us use of the Claw of Shanth,” said Lord Trogak. His great eye blazing at the Emperor as he added, “We have our magics. Maybe not as great as yours, but our memory is long and we know perhaps secrets you do not. I tell you we are holding back the Taint at Djarrakh.”

“With the help of an artefact of one of the Vernal Gods,” said the Emperor thoughtfully. “The aslaran, or the cat people as you call them, must have been desperate to give up their holy relic.”

“They live in the Grey Moors too,” growled Packleader Oolit. “We have many battles with the aslaran over that land.”

“If the artefact is working against the Taint,” said Lars from behind his robes, “perhaps other artefacts of the Vernal Gods could be useful. Galvorg, don’t the ur’Guard hold an artefact of Urlach?”

“The Horn of Urlach, yes. It is our most holy of artefacts,” said Captain Galvorg.

“Legend says that when it was blown, it would make armies invincible,” nodded Lars. “I have read about it.”

“Only Urlach’s armies of the dead,” said Galvorg, “but it will not help us. The ur’Guard have tried it many times.”

“Armies of the dead!” the Emperor clapped his hands. “Of course! Galvorg, I must have that artefact! I do believe that the time for Urlach’s promises are about to come true!”

“Of course, my Emperor,” said Galvorg, bowing deeply, and with reverence in his voice. “But without access to the Shallach tunnels, we will have to travel by ship through the Inner Sea to retrieve it. It will take long.”

“Yes, of course,” hissed the Emperor in frustration. “I will write orders for the Imperial Ships to give you whatever assistance you need. Take a small force, retrieve the Horn of Urlach, then I’ll meet you in Celest.”

“As my Emperor commands,” said Galvorg, again bowing deeply before departing.

“Balach Swamp, eh?” said the Emperor, looking at those gathered around him. “It is not a hospitable place, especially after the incident with Project Soulforge...well, no matter. With this army, we won’t have any trouble. And I’d like to get a closer look at this Taint. Very well, let’s move out.”

Thus, we headed east directly towards the Taint. The closer we got, the more we saw that it was a living wall of black smoke, roiling and churning with a foul malevolence that even made the Undead Emperor jumpy. But whatever the krokani and the aslaran did at Castle Djarrakh seemed to be working. A rippling web of silvery energy held the Taint from spreading westwards, though it bowed and bulged in places, making us wonder how long it would hold. It was here that the Lord Trogak commanded his krokani forces to break away from the army.

“Where are you going?” demanded the Emperor, seething in anger.

But the krokani didn’t answer, they just trotted south into the Grey Moors, heading towards Castle Djarrakh. It was then I remembered the saying that, though the krokani giants only had one eye, that one eye would always see true. Of course, I thought with glee, their gaze could pierce through the Emperor’s illusion and see him as the undead abomination that he was.

“Traitors! Traitors!” the Undead Emperor screamed in rage.

He was impotent to stop them, though. He couldn’t risk delay from his mad quest, and I’d like to think he was afraid they’d reveal what he was to the taurians and loboshigaru. After cursing them some more, he steered the army north towards the Crystal Sea. We could see already that whatever protection came from Castle Djarrakh was weakening and the Taint was rolling into the sea itself, turning its waters black. But like a beacon of hope, the Isle of Celest cast a large globe around itself, deflecting the Taint.

Just as we were about to head northwest towards Balach Swamp, the world turned inside out. How can I describe what it was like to those who weren’t there? There was no sound, yet it was deafening. There was nothing to see, yet it was blinding. It felt as though for an eternity I was floating and falling, drowning and sleeping. When I came to myself, I was flat on my back screaming, tearing at my eyes. I thought it was some torture the Emperor had inflicted on me, but looking around I saw the entire army was laid low. The Emperor was just as bad off as the rest. Did the Taint overcome us? But it was still to the east!

How long it lasted I do not know. It could have been as fast as the blink of an eye or as long as an age, but it took us several hours to regain our composure. The Emperor and his Dark Council were obviously shaken.

“Could that have come from Castle Djarrakh?” asked Shellma.

“No,” said Lars, adjusting his robes. “Reality was disrupted, as though the fabric of the aether itself was torn asunder.”

“Kethuru!” whispered Chum loudly. “Could he have finally broken the seals?”

“No,” said the Emperor walking towards the Taint, his voice taking on a note of joy. “I don’t know what it was, but it wasn’t Kethuru breaking free! Feel it! There’s no mind in the Taint.”

The others followed in the Emperor’s wake, holding out their hands as though tasting the air with their skin. I must admit that the atmosphere didn’t seem quite so unpleasant, that the lurking madness that pervaded the air was somehow gone. Could it be true? Did whatever we experience also drive Kethuru’s presence out of the Taint? Surely that was what the Emperor thought, but he wasn’t quite sure. He turned around and came towards me, then picked me up by the scruff of my neck as though I were some kitten.

“Well,” said the Emperor merrily. “I wasn’t sure if we’d need the furrikin, but he’ll make an excellent subject. If he mutates or dies, we’ll know the Taint is still controlled by Kethuru’s presence. If he survives, we’ll know it’s safe to enter.”

Just as his words sunk in and I started screaming, I found myself being hurled into the dark clouds of the Taint.

32

Aetherwave Transcript: Record Of Last Known Transmissions From Hallifax (declassified)

Kept for centuries by the Mesa Outpost, these records were finally declassified and released into the historical records. It contains a transcript of an aether transmission among the Hallifax Board of Directors.

MINISTER SWEELOH SUNFAR: What have you got us into, Adom! We knew we couldn’t remain undetected for long on the plane of fire! Not the home of the paranoid pyromancers!

CHAIRMAN CRIRIK ADOM: Let us analyze the situation calmly, Minister Sunfar. Regrettably, our reconnaissance was uncovered, but Intelligence assures me that the entire Cosmic Hope party is confirmed to have been Tainted. We must determine if a second Taint will come through the planar nexus in Gaudiguch. Force Commander Pavok, what is the situation now on the plane of fire?

FORCE COMMANDER SKORI PAVOK: Situation critical, Chairman. After our brief success in a skirmish with the dracnari wyvern riders, we have been taking substantial losses from pyromantic assaults. Our aeromantic support team is not providing adequately support in our subsequent offensive movements.

SECRETARY LILALI SKYSOARER: Didn’t I say it was stupid to use aeromancers on an elemental plane that wasn’t air? Did Pavok mention we’ve lost nearly half the aeromancers in Aeromantic Command!

CHAIRMAN CRIRIK ADOM: Thank you for that unsolicited addendum, Secretary Skysoarer. Can we now continue this operation or do you have further addendums to add?

SECRETARY LILALI SKYSOARER: My apologies, Chairman. Many of my friends were in Aeromantic Command.

CHAIRMAN CRIRIK ADOM: This is a stressful time for us all, Secretary Skysoarer. Please accept my condolences for your loss. Professor Eepex, how soon before we can expect gates into the Vortex?

PROFESSOR TAV’K EEPEX: They are opening now, Chairman, and we are sending scouts forward.

CHAIRMAN CRIRIK ADOM: Most excellent news. Force Commander, how long can you keep the Gaudiguch army occupied?

FORCE COMMANDER SKORI PAVOK: I am afraid not long, Chairman.

CHAIRMAN CRIRIK ADOM: I see. Professor Eepex, we do not have the luxury of time for a reconnaissance mission. Please send the full teams forward.

PROFESSOR TAV’K EEPEX: As you say, Chairman. I am entering the Vortex with Team Six. Ministers Shevat and Sunfar are in Teams Three and Seven, respectively.

MINISTER SWEELOH SUNFAR: We’ve been detected by the Illuminati!

MINISTER IECK’CO SHEVAT: Initiating defences.

SECRETARY LILALI SKYSOARER: Swee, is the Vortex under the Taint?

MINISTER SWEELOH SUNFAR: I...I don’t know, Lila. It could be, I guess. It’s very...abnormal. But the Illuminati are so strange, this could be business as usual for them.

FORCE COMMANDER SKORI PAVOK: Apologies for interrupting, but I must report that the situation has almost become untenable on the fire plane.

CHAIRMAN CRIRIK ADOM: Professor Eepex, please begin Operation Crucible.

PROFESSOR TAV’K EEPEX: At once, Chairman.

MINISTER SWEELOH SUNFAR: But we haven’t confirmed if the Vortex has been Tainted!

CHAIRMAN CRIRIK ADOM: I’m afraid we do not have time, Minister Sunfar. The dracnari are extraordinarily unpredictable and have in the past proven that they do not listen to reason. The safest course of action is simply to drain their nexus of power until after the Taint crisis. How is the operation proceeding, Professor Eepex?

PROFESSOR TAV’K EEPEX: The points of confluence are in place, Chairman. We are beginning to set the Crucible pattern. You should be able to read a power surge in the Matrix.

CHAIRMAN CRIRIK ADOM: Yes, the Matrix reservoir is filling rapidly. All appears to be going as planned.

MINISTER SWEELOH SUNFAR: They’re up to something at the Eternal Flame. Woah! It suddenly just increased in size! I thought we were draining it? And there’s some kind of smoke coming out of the Eternal Flame. It looks a bit strange.

CHAIRMAN CRIRIK ADOM: Most curious. The power level of the Matrix is suddenly fluctuating. Opinions, Professor Eepex?

PROFESSOR TAV’K EEPEX: Uncertain, Chairman. The Illuminati have drawn back and are coordinating some type of countermeasure.

SECRETARY LILALI SKYSOARER: I thought you said Operation Crucible was failsafe?

PROFESSOR TAV’K EEPEX: It should be impossible to counter. I will note for the record that the Crucible pattern is holding and appears unaffected by this phenomena. In an abundance of caution, however, I recommend we procure a strong auric field to stabilise any unforeseen temporal reactions.

SECRETARY LILALI SKYSOARER: What in Dynara’s name are unforeseen temporal reactions?

MINISTER SWEELOH SUNFAR: Lila, please don’t provoke him to lecture. Eepex, just tell us exactly what we need!

PROFESSOR TAV’K EEPEX: The strong auric field to which I refer is the Hand of Tzaraziko.

SECRETARY LILALI SKYSOARER: [whistles] By my wings, you don’t think small, do you, Professor?

PROFESSOR TAV’K EEPEX: I’ve been researching the histories, mythologies and legends regarding the Hand of Tzaraziko, and I believe I am confident that there is a very high degree of probability that it has been secreted in the Skarch. In fact, shortly after the Great Battle of Illith...

CHAIRMAN CRIRIK ADOM: Thank you, Professor Eepex. I must report that the Matrix is behaving quite oddly. Please return immediately to the Hallifax, Professor Eepex, and assemble a research team. You are instructed to depart to the Skarch to recover the Hand of Tzaraziko. Minister Skysoarer, you will accompany him.

SECRETARY LILALI SKYSOARER: Me? But...

MINISTER SWEELOH SUNFAR: Just go, Lila. And hurry. This smoke over the Eternal Flame is expanding. It’s flickering with different colours, like a cloud of rainbows.

CHAIRMAN CRIRIK ADOM: Force Commander, what is the situation on the plane of fire?

FORCE COMMANDER SKORI PAVOK: Tremors have started throughout the plane, Chairman. The dracnari appear to be confused and are retreating to the Eternal Flame.

CHAIRMAN CRIRIK ADOM: Very good, Force Commander. Please return to Hallifax immediately then. Minister Skysoarer, Professor Eepex and a research team have just left Hallifax on their mission to the Skarch. The behavior of the Matrix is not stabilising. I repeat, it is not stabilising.

MINISTER SWEELOH SUNFAR: That coloured smoke is getting closer to us...holy Dynara, that’s not smoke we’re seeing. I can’t believe...I don’t understand...

MINISTER IECK’CO SHEVAT: I believe what Minister Sunfar is trying to say is that the Illuminati appear to have released a cloud of...butterflies...