CHRONICLES OF ESTRIA:  The Battle of Channer’s Glen  [ Part II ]

By Stuart Thaman

  

            Saveus ran from the king’s scrying room in the heart of Chancol, sprinting through the dark corridors at once. When he reached the surface streets, the bright sunlight stung his eyes, but he didn’t have time to stop. Ahead, only several streets away, stood a squat building overgrown with moss and fungus: the legendary Guildhall of the Pestilent, the home of Chancol’s most revered wizards and mages.

             Saveus wasn’t less than a hundred feet from the Guildhall’s entrance before the stench of the place began to overwhelm him. Everything smelled of rot. Long ago, before the mages had uncovered a mystical power source deep beneath the city, there had been businesses and homes surrounding the Guildhall. That had been hundreds of years ago, and nothing had been built near the Guildhall since.

             When Saveus reached the Guildhall’s moss-covered door, he could barely breathe. There was a haze of spores hanging in the air, obscuring his vision and making him nauseous. His fist slammed into the rotting wood of the front door, splintering part of it inward. Another burst of spores rose up from his hand, clinging to his flesh like some vile slime meant to consume him.

             “Come back later!” a voice called from inside a moment later.

             “The city is under attack!” Saveus screamed. He hated opening his mouth and inhaling the strange spores in the air, and he could only hope they were harmless. He heard someone shuffling around on the other side of the door.

             With a grunt, he tore away another huge chunk of the door and stuck his head inside. An old man in a tattered brown robe turned to regard him casually. “So impatient,” the old man muttered, but he did unlatch the door to welcome the new guest.

             “The mages have been summoned,” Saveus said hastily. “Gather your order. War is upon us!”

             The man seemed unaffected by Saveus’ profound assertion. “Epidemius is busy,” the man replied. “As I said before, you must come back later, perhaps next year, or perhaps the year after that.”

             Saveus had to make a conscious effort to resist hitting the man where he stood. “Where is he?” he bellowed, stepping up to tower over the old man as he roared.

             “If you insist upon your own death,” the man smirked. “You may request an audience with Epidemius below, though he has not entertained a visitor in many years.”

             Saveus shouldered past the man toward a decrepit staircase in the back of the hovel. He tested the first stair with his foot, unsure if it would hold his weight. When it survived the strain of his body weight, Saveus flew down the staircase. It spiraled several stories underneath the streets of Chancol where it connected to a labyrinth of tunnels which served as the city’s sanitation system.

             The whole underground compound was easy to navigate, even for someone who had never been there before. A strange mold, something the mages called ‘Witherbite’, grew out in a radial pattern along the edges of the stone sewers. To reach the important areas of the compound, all Saveus had to do was follow the fungus. Luckily, the strange Witherbite gave off a slight aura of luminescence which flickered like distant candlelight.

             It didn’t take long for Saveus to find a wood door he assumed marked the lair of Epidemius. The ancient mage, if he was even human, had been directing the work of the Guildhall of the Pestilent since a time long before even Lord Eladore had been born. As the legends went, Epidemius was as eternal as the glowing Witherbite, though other theories claimed that ‘Epidemius’ was more a title passed from one generation to the next than an actual person.

             Steadying his head against the waves of nausea coming from everywhere around him, Saveus pushed open the vine-covered door before him. In the next chamber, he saw Epidemius apparently asleep in a glistening pool of dark sludge. All around him, men and women in earth-colored robes turned in unison to witness the unwelcomed intrusion.

             Saveus had met Epidemius a handful of times before when his father had met with the strange made to discuss various things the strange mage could influence within Chancol. Living in the literal and metaphorical bowels of the city, Epidemius’ Order of the Pestilent had a strange arrangement with the city’s political officers. Lord Eladore had negotiated a deal with the mages long ago where they still paid their royal taxes and were citizens of Chancol, bound by law. In return, the mages were given unlimited access to Chancol’s sewers, something no one else seemed to want.

             “You disturb my meditations?” Epidemius said slowly, his deep voice resonating throughout the room. The nearby attendants lowered their heads respectfully.

             Saveus wasn’t sure how the man, or thing, spoke. Epidemius was humanoid in shape, though that was where his resemblance to a man ended. Instead of flesh and bones, Epidemius was seemingly crafted from some sort of viscous liquid which had been draped over a collection of tree branches. He had no eyes, no mouth, no ears – just sludge continually dripping from his thorny appendages.

             “There is an army in Channer’s Glen,” Saveus said, mimicking the attendants with a bow of his head. “Lord Eladore seeks your assistance. You must rally your order at once.”

             Epidemius turned his head, a terrifying ball of black ooze sitting atop his shoulders, to the side. If he was even capable of emotion, it was impossible to tell. “I must?” the strange mage replied.

             Saveus swallowed hard. He knew the situation he was in. If he angered the mage, he would be killed without hesitation. If he did not secure the mage’s help, perhaps he would die anyways. “There is no time,” he added, trying to keep the fear from showing in his voice.

             “Does Chancol not have an army?” Epidemius asked callously.

             “Yes,” Saveus said, struggling to find an honorific title to add to his answer. When he couldn’t come up with one, he simply remained silent.

             “And?” Epidemius prodded.

             “The force against us is from Estria,” Saveus went on. “They have a young woman leading them, a summoner of sorts.” He looked up from his bow, hoping to catch some glimpse of an expression from the mage, but he saw nothing.

             “The wraith!” Epidemius said. His voice moved like a tendril throughout the room, weaving its way between the humans as a whisper. “I felt it moments ago.”

             As both an officer of Chancol’s military and a high ranking political figure, Saveus had witnessed many horrors in his life. He had seen the corpses of children killed by murders, slaves captured and beaten after battles, and he had seen more than one person burned alive for the crime of vampirism.

             Nothing in his past prepared him to witness the sight of Epidemius unclothed as he rose from his mediation pool.

             The mage’s body was made of congealed slime. Thick strands of rotting liquid fell off of him as he moved, dropping into the pool with little puffs of spores, filling the room with more unbearable stench. His bones were small, made of plant matter, and they protruded all over his shifting body at awkward angles. The whole assembly reeked of pestilence.

             “Take me to the wraith,” Epidemius said with terrifying strength.

             “Indeed,” Saveus replied, happy to turn from some a wretched sight. He made for the door only a few steps behind him.

             “Summon the conclave,” Epidemius commanded his attendants. At once, the robed acolytes scattered throughout the many passages connecting to the central chamber.

             Even without seeing the strange mage, Saveus knew he was staring at him. He could feel the weight of Epidemius’ sludge-visage boring into his back. Cautiously, Saveus turned back. One of the attendants held out a green cloak, the same one Saveus had seen the mage wearing before, but Epidemius rejected it. “You’ve seen much,” the mage stated.

             “I assure you, I do not understand what I have seen,” Saveus replied honestly. He wasn’t sure what secrets Epidemius was trying to conceal.

            For a moment, the chamber was silent. “I should kill you,” Epidemius said flatly.

             “Plea-”

             “Though I believe your life still has purpose,” the mage continued abruptly. “You shall be my ambassador to your father. Do you agree?”

             Saveus didn’t know how to respond. The thought of returning regularly to the Guildhall of the Pestilent filled his body with revulsion. On the other hand, the thought of refusing the mage’s offer was unacceptable.

             “I would be honored,” Saveus said. Before Epidemius began to speak again, he set himself in motion back the way he had come, eager to be rid of the tunnels and their foul stench.

 *****

            Saveus and Epidemius met Lord Eladore atop Chancol’s western wall twenty feet above the streets. The fiery wraith was visible just beyond the troglodyte glen, smashing combatants with its huge fists. “The army will be assembled in another couple hours,” Eladore said to the new arrivals.

            “Yes,” Epidemius muttered, though it was clear he wasn’t speaking to any human. He leaned over the parapet, gazing at the wraith, and his ever-flowing body seemed to accelerate.

            “Can you kill it?” Eladore asked the mage, completely unfazed by the man’s morbid appearance.

            Epidemius turned back to the two humans on the wall. “Send your soldiers back to their homes,” he said forcefully. “Tell everyone in Chancel to take shelter. Tell them to cover their faces. Tell them not to breathe.”

            Eladore shrank back. “What,” he stammered, lifting his hands up defensively. “What are you going to do?”

            If Epidemius’ face was capable of smiling, it certainly seemed like it did in that moment. “Estria’s pet is cute,” the mage whispered. Down below the wall, a contingent of robed mages began filtering out of the city. They turned to face their leader, eagerly awaiting his command.

            Saveus coughed back a fresh wave of vomit when Epidemius lifted his arms above his head.

            “Begin the chant!” the mage bellowed to his supplicants below.

            The noise that rose up in response to the command was unlike anything Saveus or his father had ever heard before. Insect began to buzz around the sludge-being atop the wall, and small rodents started to scurry over the stones, appearing out of nowhere.

            “We need to run!” Eladore said. He could smell the plague rising from the ground like a heavy fog. The air stung his lungs and burned his eyes.

            “The people!” Saveus shouted. “They must be warned!”

            Eladore shook his head as he ran for the stairs which would take him back toward his keep. “They’ll figure it out!” he yelled through a stream of painful coughs.

*****

           When Epidemius was alone atop Chancol’s wall, he threw himself fully into his summoning. Civilians would die, of that he had no doubt, but the collateral damage did not weigh much on his mind. He had been experimenting for decades with the strange power source hidden far beneath the city, and it was time to bring it to the surface.

             After several minutes of chanting, the rodents and insects were joined by other denizens of the sewers. Snakes, giant stinging insects, and a host of unnamed reptiles slithered forth from the ground, drawn to the call of the Pestilent. The ground began to break apart near the acolytes, and hairy black legs the size of ship masts began to emerge from the crumbling earth. Epidemius pointed to several places, and they similarly erupted. Huge spiders, covered in bristles with bulging, red eyes, pulled themselves up into the brilliant daylight.

             One by one, Epidemius began to drain the energy of his servants. He drank every last drop of life he could without killing them, leaving a ring of unconscious followers below him. When the vital force congealed into a shifting orb of life balancing tenuously between his tree-like fingers, he shot it backward, deep into Chancol – where it exploded on the roof of the Guildhall in a shower of rot and disease.

             For the second time that day, the ground began to rumble. This time, the rumbling was not subtle, nor did it pass quickly. It built and built, becoming a violent earthquake. Several buildings near the Guildhall collapsed, and Epidemius saw several large panes of stained glass on the nearby keep shattered.

             “Come to me,” Epidemius whispered to the power he had harnessed beneath the streets. When he had discovered the beast it had nearly consumed him, but a century later he had befriended it, and he knew the creature, the god, was eager for combat.

             “Come, Voktarn,” Epidemius whispered again. At the mention of its name, the knowledge of which Epidemius had spent several decades pursuing, the creature rose up from the ground, utterly destroying the Guildhall in the process. As the creature ascending from the depths where it had lived for millennia, it expelled wave after wave of toxic spores into the air. Where ever the spore clouds touched organic matter they took hold, sprouting into huge tendrils of Witherbite. In the space of a few heartbeats, the city was covered with pulsating, reeking vines.

            “Voktarn!” Epidemius shouted. “Come!”

            The creature continued to rise, growing far taller than the tallest spires of Chancol, taller than the walls, and taller than the fiery wraith beyond. Eventually, Voktarn emerged. The monster was enormous, shattering even Epidemius’ expectations. It shuddered, and an avalanche of dust and rot fell from its many heads. The hydra, an abomination not previously thought to exist, began advancing at once, crushing building and fleeing civilians beneath its four, sludge-encased feet. As it breathed, clouds of poison gas emanated from its maws.

            When Voktarn reached the western wall, it lowered a head down to Epidemius, and the mage climbed on top of it. He let his own shifting body sublimate into the hydra, their ooze masses combining to form one terrible creature of rot and disease.

            In one of the scrolls Epidemius had discovered in his quest to learn more about the magical creature, he had found what the ancient people who worshipped the hydra had called it, and it was a fitting title. With a smile hidden by melting sludge, Epidemius yelled into the air, “Voktarn! The Living Plague!”