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Part Four: Scourge of the Taint

20

Hallifax Minutes: Emergency Meeting Re: Cosmic Hope Disaster

MINUTES OF THE HALLIFAX BOARD OF GOVERNORS

I. MEETING - CALL TO ORDER:
The emergency meeting was called to order by the Vice Chair on the 14th of Gorgani, on the 543rd Year of the Imperial Empire at 9:00 a.m.

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

MEMBERS ABSENT:
Professor En’oonki Lars, Member
Minister Tooli Goldfeather, Member
Minister Chia Cloudwalker, Member

INVITEES PRESENT:
Closed Session

III. EMERGENCY SESSION:
Subject: Crisis in Magnagora; Failure of Cosmic Hope Expedition

Discussion: Chair Adom summarised recent events surrounding the debacle of the Cosmic Hope Expedition. When the expedition attempted to channel cosmic energy into the nexus of power known as the Stone of Truth, a backlash of unknown origins infected the Stone of Truth in all of its multidimensional manifestations, including the Higher Plane of Shallamar, the Elemental Plane of Earth, and Magnagora itself. The expedition was apparently lost, which included Professor En’oonki Lars, a member of this Board. A black cloud subsequently appeared over and in Magnagora. Calls for help were sent through the aether broadcast network. Minister Tooli Goldfeather and Chia Cloudwalker, both members of this Board, flew to Magnagora with a delegation of rescue volunteers to offer assistance. They have not been heard from since.

Minister Shevat reported that subsequent observations indicate the black cloud is growing and spreading in all directions, notably west into the Crystal Sea, south towards the Gloriana Forest, north towards the Shallach River. To the east, the cloud seems to have been stopped by Avechna's Teeth (including the Angkrag mines), generating the theory that the cloud can be physically contained. Unverified reports of the cloud infecting plants, animals and minerals with accelerated mutagenic properties are causing widespread panic.

Board Decision: Minister Sunfar moved that aeromantic countermeasures be immediately employed to raise winds to push the cloud away from its northerly thrust, which threatens Hallifax and the Isle of Celest in the Crystal Sea. Theoretically, a strong pressure of aeromantic force could completely disperse the cloud. Minister Oolin advocated further observation, though Minister Sunfar pointed out that hesitating even for objective analysis may prove fatal. Vice Chair Goldfeather seconded by the motion, and the motion passed with 4 yeas and 2 nays.

IV. ADJOURNMENT:
There being no further business to come before the Board at that time, the Board meeting was adjourned at 1:23 p.m.

Approved this 14th day of Gorgani in the 543rd Year of the Imperial Empire.
By: Lilali Skysoarer, Chair Secretary

21

Memoirs of Lolly Pringle: Journey Into Nightmare

There were four orclach and myself left standing, and I was resigned to the inevitability that the Fates had chosen a most horrible death for me. I recall I even shut my eyes tight in preparation for certain doom, but it did not come. I slowly opened my eyes and gazed around me in amazement as the hideous beasts, those terrible metallic goats, did not attack us but simply stared at us with their glowing red eyes. Dozens surrounded us but none came near. I looked at the orclach ur’Guard and they were as confused as me. The river of darkness was still pumping into the Stone of Truth, and the Emperor was dead at our feet. The other expedition members still violently twitched on the ground, and it was then I saw their terrible transformation. Their skin was bubbling and turning red, their wide open eyes were foggy and yellow, their bones were lengthening and skeletons twisting upon themselves. They were turning into monsters, more hideous for the fact that their features were recognisable, though barely, of who they once were.

We were frozen with indecision. I knew the orclach would have preferred the metal beasts to attack us for it would at least give them some action to focus on, but there was nothing we could do but watch. Then, the Emperor’s dead and smoking body began to twitch and violently flop about on the ground. Slowly, the spasms subsided and the Emperor opened his eyes, which glowed the same ominous red as the metal beasts. He stood up and gazed at us. The orclach fell to their knees and prostrated themselves before him.

Though perhaps not clear to me at the time, it was then that the first glimmer of understanding slowly began to dawn in me. It was common knowledge that in the orclachi tongue ‘ur’Guard’ means the Death Guard, in honour of the Vernal God Urlach, Master of Death, who legend said brought orclach warriors back to life to fight again in the Vernal Wars. But it wasn’t life that Urlach granted but undeath. And so the legends of conflict between Urlach and several of the other Vernal Gods came to make sense. But the orclach never forgot and religiously felt that becoming undead was a singular honour - a mark of Urlach, if you will - and here was the Emperor brought back as one of the undead, sometimes called the ur'dead. Of course, I did not come to fully understand all of this at the time, but the Emperor seemed to grasp that they were his willingly obedient servants.

At first the Emperor tried to open a gate through the Stone of Truth, but the river of darkness that still flowed into it prevented him from even making the attempt. Cursing, he ordered the orclach pick up the mutating members of the expedition and we went in searching of another way to leave the Astral Plane. But, as I said, we were on a small island that floated in this astral space, and it didn’t take long to realise there was no hope of escape if we stayed here. Other strange, spherical islands floated nearby, and we could do nothing but wait and hope that one of them would come close enough so that we could leap onto it.

And I slowly began to wonder if the Fates had a more terrible destiny in store for me than I had first imagined.

22

Diary of Rowena Nightshade: Meeting Destiny

Final Entry, Year 543: Mother Night, has there ever been a greater fool than the one who wrote these prior entries? How blind and stupid are these scribblings! How pathetic! What a waste of ink and paper. But perhaps not an utter waste, for I suppose it could be an amusing epitaph to the old ways of Gloriana.

Oh, the Night Coven did raise a cone of power over Gloriana, and the druids of the Raven Circle did meld their spirits to the forest, and all the while the tainted cloud of Magnagora rose higher into the sky, a swath of darkness across the drab blue bowl of the heavens. And I, Rowena Nightshade, High Priestess of the Night Coven, stood proud and tall next to the Great Ravenwood Tree, certain in the powers of the Great Spirits that oversaw the Gloriana Woods. “Mother Night and Wise Raven shall protect us,” I said to my brothers and sisters of the forest. “While our hearts are true and our spirits bright, we shall overcome even this great struggle.” On and on I went in this manner.

But then the great winds rose. Like a tumbling wall did the tainted cloud fall upon the Gloriana, its great, stinking mass bearing down under the weight of hate and fury. As one, the druidic circle gasped as the oily darkness soaked into the soil of the earth. We watched helplessly as Brennan and his brothers swayed upon their feet like the trunk of a rotted tree in a storm. As the earth became tainted, so did they, fine cancerous green lines spreading through their flesh as skin flaked away like old parchment. The voice of the Great Spirit of Wise Raven cawed throughout Gloriana, his vast cries stabbing like a knife deep into the forest’s soul. An enormous bolt of black lightning sundered the Great Ravenwood Tree and the forest trembled until we thought we were doomed.

In desperation, the Night Coven focused the cone of power upon me, and I raised my consciousness to the heavens and embraced the Great Spirit of Mother Night to come to our aide and deliverance. The rushing of her power flowed into me and we became one. And thus did I finally, truly see.

This roiling cloud that just drank Gloriana’s essence like a thirsty bat upon a starving doe, this sentient hunger was but a tiny fragment of something larger, greater and more glorious than ever could be imagined. It held Mother Night in its embrace, changing her and Wise Raven too, becoming more powerful than all the other Great Spirits of Nature combined. As Mother Night and I were one, we laughed together as Sister Moon fled before us, as Sister Lake cried out in sorrow, as White Hart fled before the might of Raven whose eyes now glowed as red as embers and who moulted his feathers and became Crow. Powerful Crow! Dark Crow! Together, Mother Night and Brother Crow would rule the forests, ushering forth a new age of rot and ruin, darkness and despair. Only those of us chosen few will be allowed obeisance to the glorious master, who shall consume us and make us part of him!

While I lingered with Mother Night, I felt that Presence, that Almighty Presence, push forth further into the world, making more of it his as should be his right. And, no, this great and powerful Presence did not just transform the body, but transformed the spirit too! Already, he transformed the Higher Plane of Shallamar into an image pleasing to himself. Even the Holy Emanations of Shallamar were remade into reflections of the Presence, more powerful and magnificent than before. The elemental plane of earth was his, and through Gloriana, the Presence reached into the Faethorn Realm.

The fae, however, are resistant to the Almighty Presence, and we travel through the rent in the earth that once was the Great Ravenwood, and pass into the ethereal realm, claiming all that the Almighty touches. As I squeeze the essence from the pixies and willowisps, from the sylphs and wood nymphs, and feed my ravenous Master, I cannot help but feel bemused that once I protected these weak and pathetic beings. They cry at me, “D’or glom! D’or glom!” That means “have mercy upon us” in the tongue of the fae. I answer back, “F’ai glomdoring!” That means “I have no mercy.”

Soon all will be under the Presence. And I? I shall be a Queen in this new order. All shall bow and serve me - for am I not as beautiful as I am terrible? Am I not as powerful as I am glorious? Am I not Rowena Nightshade, Mistress of All She Surveys! I will spread a twisted forest that will choke the Basin of Life. It will be called the Glomdoring Forest - the Forest without Mercy!

Enough prattling in this diary. The time for weakness is over. Let the forests fall under the sway of Mother Night and Brother Crow, newly born into something greater than they were. I too am remade and I shall go forth and all who see my beauty will love me or be destroyed. But who could not love me? My beauty is now beyond compare.

Even though my heart no longer beats.

23

Memoirs of Lolly Pringle: Dark Conversations

With the ur’Guard practically worshipping the undead Emperor Ladantine as though he were the second coming of Urlach, and the other members of the expedition mutated beyond recognition, I felt isolated in my horror at what had happened. Fortunately, as furrikin are easily overlooked by the larger races, the others took little notice of me. Thus, it was in this position that I was able to learn so much about the Emperor and his plans.

Unlike the Emperor, who was an animated corpse, the only way to describe the mutated members of the expedition - that is Lars, Chum, Ghani and Shellma - was as monstrosities. Lars grew to be a third larger than he was, his crystalline lucidian skin replaced by a shiny blood red carapace, and his mouth distended to reveal thousands of sharpened teeth. It’s hard to tell what was different with Chum, who was hidden and hooded as he always was in the golden robes of the Grand Cipher of the Illuminati, but surely his hands never had such talons on them. Ghani, who was trill, looked like a winged demon out of a cub’s storybook. And Shellma, who was an elderly merian, looked the worse of the lot, her body bloated and blackened beyond recognition, bulbous eyes bulging out of their sockets on stalks.

There was a brief power struggle when the others began to regain consciousness, but the Emperor easily subdued them, certainly helped by the fact that the ur’Guard were clearly loyal only to the Emperor. We had to find another way to exit the Astral plane, which was a matter of waiting for one of the neighbouring floating spheres to come close enough to jump onto it. While we waited, the Undead Emperor and his Dark Council (what I came to call them) would plot together and discuss what was happening. Though they whispered together so that the ur’Guard couldn’t hear them, they didn’t seem to know (or at least care) that my furrikin ears could pick up their conversation.

“I agree,” whispered Shellma. “The force we released must have been Almighty Kethuru. You felt how easily it corrupted Shallamar and the Plane of Earth. He’s trying to free himself. What do we know of Kethuru?”

“We know he was the mightiest of Soulless Gods,” said Chum. “And we know he led the Soulless to defeat the Elder Gods. We know he decimated the Vernal Gods when they arose. And we know, if it wasn’t for the Sacrifice of the Nine, he would have consumed all worlds.”

“In order to release himself, he’ll have to break through the prime material plane,” said Lars. “But we all felt how his strength was being diluted the further through the planes he spread himself. It will take time before he can loosen the Nine Seals and be freed.”

“Can we appease him?” croaked Shellma. “Does he want to be worshipped? We could create a church to him, and place ourselves as his high priests. If we give in to all his demands, we could be the rulers of Lusternia.”

“Don’t be a fool,” hissed the Emperor. “Remember what it felt like when we were connected to him. It was as if we were a part of him, merely tools to carry out his whims. Once he breaks through the Nine Seals and returns in all his power, he’d absorb us into him and we’d be destroyed.”

“So we’d be mindless slaves and then food,” agreed Ghani. “Well, give him Lusternia then. We can survive here. Find a new world to settle.”

“That would buy us time,” said Chum. “But eventually he’d consume everything, all of creation.”

“We need to awaken Avechna the Avenger,” said the Emperor. “The Avenger was created by the Nine's sacrifice to trap Kethuru behind the Seals.”

“Only a Vernal God can awaken Avechna,” said Shellma, “and there are none left.”

“Not unless we become Vernal Gods,” said the Emperor. “Once we find our way back to Lusternia, we’ll drain the nexuses of power as they did during the Vernal Wars and raise ourselves up as gods. Then, we awaken Avechna who will drive back Kethuru. Afterwards, we can divide Lusternia up among us and be worshipped as the new gods and command all that we survey.”

“Interesting theory,” said Ghani, “but a nexus, assuming it has enough power, can only raise one Vernal God. As far as I know, there are only four nexuses of power, and there are five of us.”

“I’ll obviously take the Eternal Flame,” said Chum. “The Emperor would take the Pool of Stars. Lars will take the Matrix. And Ghani, you get the Stone of Truth.”

“And what about me?” demanded Shellma. “I should get the Pool of Stars!”

“Shall we fight for it, Shellma?” the Emperor asked, smiling coldly. “No? I thought not.”

“And if no one was paying attention,” said Ghani. “The Stone of Truth is subjugated by Kethuru already. How am I supposed to use it?”

“Once Kethuru is driven back, we can worry about you and Shellma,” said the Emperor confidently.

“The other problem,” said Lars, “is how will we convince our people to raise us to be Vernal Gods when we look like...like this!”

“I shouldn’t have a problem in Gaudiguch,” smiled Chum. “The Illuminati are quite used to physical transformations of the body.”

“Once you become Vernal Gods, how can we trust you’ll raise us?” demanded Shellma.

“I agree,” said Ghani. “I do not like drawing the short end of the stick.”

“Silence!” hissed the Emperor. “We can talk about this later. First, we must figure out how to leave the Astral and I do believe there is an island approaching as we speak.”

So we began the long journey through the Astral Plane, hopping from island to island, encountering creatures so warped and terrible that nightmares haunt me to this day.

24

Gaudiguch Gossip: Expedition Recovered!

EXPEDITION RECOVERED BY GAUDIGUCH;
HALLIFAX CAUSES TAINT SPREAD TO 
ACCELERATE

Amid the tears and grief that swept through Gaudiguch in the past week from what the Illuminati are calling the "Taint", a small bud of hope has sprung with the recovery of Expedition Cosmic Hope. All members of the expedition, including Emperor Ladantine and Grand Cipher Tlochaka Chum, were recovered in the Cosmic Plane of the Vortex by the Illuminati.

The Illuminati are keeping the expedition sequestered, and rumours are flying regarding why the Emperor hasn't made an appearance. Officials neither confirm nor deny reports that the Emperor is extremely injured. Princess Marilynth is supposedly on her way, though she must take a circuitous path over the Inner Sea in order to avoid the areas infected by the Taint. She will most likely arrive in Gaudiguch by late tomorrow.

Meanwhile, hostilities are mounting against Hallifax whose aeromantic assault of gale force winds against the Taint has accelerated its spread to the south, which immediately engulfed Gloriana. The Illuminati are concerned that the Southern Mountains will push the Taint to Gaudiguch next. Ironically, Hallifax apparently created the winds to save themselves, but it still creeps forward despite these efforts. It is assumed that Shallach is the latest casualty of the Taint as the ur'Guard have suddenly stopped using the Shallach Portals.

Though the Taint has infected the southern end of the Crystal Sea, the Isle of Celest has raised a bubble of light from the Pool of Stars, protecting the Imperial Capital and much of the northern section of the Crystal Sea.

25

Memoirs of Lolly Pringle: Escape from the Astral

Hope had all but died for me as I was dragged along behind the Undead Emperor and his Dark Council, journeying among the floating spheres of the Astral Plane, encountering horrors so bizarre and horrible that you thought nothing more could surprise you. But then, not having found a way out, we would jump to a another sphere and discover new horrors more repulsive than the last. Even so, I think it was the waiting that was the truly awful experience, when the sphere we were on floated alone and we would hanker down and stare at the shifting sky, waiting, waiting, waiting for another sphere to come close enough for us jump to.

It was finally in one of most hideous places imaginable, what looked like a library run by portly librarians in the distance but up close was smouldering ruins run by obese creatures out of nightmare, that we found a thinning of the aether fabric that would allow us our escape. It was a pile of rotting paper that smouldered on the ground, releasing a foul smelling smoke that hung heavy in the air. We almost walked by it, but Chum stopped in his tracks and crouched down, his burning red eyes glaring at the smoldering pile.

“Feel this!” he hissed in his rasping voice as he placed his hand over smoke. “I know this! I know it!”

The Undead Emperor quickly shoved Chum out of the way and held his rotting hand in the smoke. We paused there for several moments, none of us brave enough to disturb him. Finally, he laughed and clapped Chum on the back. It was a terrible and wicked laugh, but I am ashamed to admit that relief flooded through me, and I whooped and pranced around the ur’Guard, who simply nodded sagely as if they would expect nothing less of their Emperor.

“It’s the Eternal Flame of Gaudiguch,” Chum breathed. “It’s a pale reflection from what it is on the other planes we know, but nonetheless it is connected. Quickly, let us open a gate to the Vortex so I may take control of the Illuminati.”

“Wait,” said the Emperor, thoughtfully looking around at our ragtag party. “I don’t care how broadminded the Illuminati are concerning ‘physical transformations’ as you call it, Chum, but the Illuminati will not be the only ones who see us. Certainly, I will need to address the people and take control.”

With that, the Emperor placed the palms of his hands over his face and a blue light shimmered across his body. When the light vanished and he lowered his hands, a small cry burst forth from my throat as the rotting, undead form was wiped away. Before me stood Holy Emperor Ladantine VII, noble merian worshipped by all civilisation, master mage and planar physicist, untouched by recent events.

Tears filled my eyes as the Emperor looked around himself and his gaze settled upon me. With a gentle smile, he kneeled before me until his face was at the same level as mine. Was all that happened but a nightmare? Was I finally now awake and all the horrors of the past to be swept away to distant memory?

“Do not think that I have forgotten you, loyal Lolly,” the Emperor gently said to me. “When we return to the Empire, I will need your support more than the others.”

Then, he placed a hand on my shoulder, and his touch was as cold as the grave. The Emperor bowed his head and closed his eyes and a fog seeped into my mind, numbing my tongue. Suddenly, his head snapped up and his eyes bore into mine. Deep within his ice blue gaze I saw the crimson glow of cruelty and corruption. The utter evil of the undead was now hidden behind illusion. He laughed and pushed me back.

“Now, I think we’re ready,” said the Emperor. “Let’s open the gate and find out how fares my Empire.”

As Chum began opening the planar gate through the Eternal Flame, the Emperor snapped his fingers in my direction. Against my will, I stood up and marched towards the Emperor. He smiled coldly at me.

So, this is how I escaped the Astral Plane but fell into a new trap…this time as the puppet of the Undead Emperor.