The Dark Path (essay)

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Note: This essay should not be interpreted as fully accurate, and was never intended to be by the in-character author regardless. It treats a subject that is older than the modern lore of GemStone IV.

Title: The Dark Path
Author: Lord Xorus Kul'shin

"The author of the text was believed to be the Xorus Kul'shin, the ecclesiastical iron fist of a dark elven Ur-Daemon cult that has hidden deep below the Southron Wastes for many years. These cultists believe they are 'divine reincarnations who are enlightened upon rebirth to the untold horrors beyond the veil.' The story was clearly influenced by their theology, and the true purpose behind it remains unknown.

Few know of their dark religion, save its faith in the spiritual purity of the scorch. Whenever dark elven children go missing, mothers will be heard screaming it is the work of demon worship. Perhaps, then, a grain of truth exists. They seem to desire the collapse of valences, and 'ascension' to demonic form. If we have feared how far the Faendryl have fallen into the madness of the dark arts, then the nightmare of what they will eventually become in their wasteland is manifest in these harbingers of the Abyss."

- Val Lys'aen'fel Illistim
"The Dark Elven Cults"
Scribe, Library of Biblia


In the subtle legends known now only by the prelates of dark gods and the keepers of forbidden knowledge, it was said that "the servants of the Shadow created the first of the Great Demons." These were the followers of the Empress Kadaena, of whom only the most rare texts have spoken. It was the time of the first cataclysm, and a story very different from prevailing wisdom regarding the First Age. Of those undying eons and the forgotten dead --- before the runes of dwarves and Elven myth, perhaps before there were Elves at all --- we know very little, save the mere idea that there were great powers who wielded the forces of Essaence as though the staffs of mages were but the baubles of fools.

The dark ages are known now only in the secrets of primordial beings, or reliquaries which are hidden away in the guarded vaults of Biblia and the hordes of dragon lords. The wisdom of civilized races tells us nothing else. There were the great demons who were banished back unto the Abyss, and beings of pure will whom the scribes now call gods with indifference and irony. These were not races in any meaningful sense, a pretense that owes nothing more to truth than the point that our early history was written by the Elves, and for the Elves history itself is nothing other than the struggle of races.

I. Archaic Theology

The theological absurdity of race has long been pierced by even the youngest children without the least effort. The Drakes were dragons, but not mere dragons. The Ur-Daemon were demons, but not merely demons. The dragons are the descendants of the dragons, but why are they not mightier than the gods? Is it possible for them to fly upon wings to the moons and banish them? And the First Daemons? Dread lords of darkness have been fled from upon ethereal planes of existence, ruling over vast, bizarre realms with a malice that is cruel beyond hate. And yet, whatever meddling has been done with the veil over the many centuries, no conjurer has yet to find such a thing as "the race of Ur-Daemon." It is, in fact, extraordinarily difficult to forge a gate so stable that a single greater entity will be able to traverse to our realm without being stranded, as the tear will collapse under the immensity of their power.

Those powers whom we call "gods" are deities in the most arcane sense of the word. Conscious manifestations of the Essaence, their avatars are power given physical form. Worshippers channel upon their auras from great distances at will, and they, too, channel the power of others. Where a lesser entity will cast spells with crafted languages which resonate their own aura upon the flows of essence, a deity merely wills the same effect upon reality. And as the flows of essence themselves only manipulate our material world by originating in other planes of existence with incompatible laws of nature, the "race" of gods who stay near the moons undoubtedly first wandered there from beyond over untold eons.

There is no essential difference between "dark gods" and the greatest demonic. While this might sound like the highest blasphemy, those who wield the black arts know it must be true. The cosmogonic premise that these gods are a race, that they spawn only of themselves, is useless for understanding the more subtle features of esoteric knowledge. There have been ascensions from our corporeal form to the deity mode of wielding power, and avatars have been struck down by the most powerful mages. Sever the mage from his body, and his spirit has no intrinsic might at all. It is in this context of transcendence and incorporation that we make sense of archaic theologies regarding "the servants of the Shadow."

~

The Servants of the Shadow were the minions who obeyed the Unlife, but as a narrow reference to the old followers of the Empress. To say they "fashioned the Great Demons", who we associate with the cataclysm --- "Ordainers" who rip souls from bodies, feed upon their essence, and rule as kings --- is to suggest that there was a race who had the audacity to give consciousness and physical form to the Dark Essaence, a corruption rooted in what was known as "anti-mana" since the Vvrael insurgency. It was once believed by a few loremasters, such as Uthex Kathiasas, that the dark gods themselves were the results of such experiments. And yet, if not a god race, what was the origin of flesh and bone?

The most often told story falling just short of creation myth is that the first age was ruled by the Drakes, and that a spiritual race was spawned as an offshoot of their own power. The dragon kin have the might to strike down such an avatar, but the truth is that any material being lacks the intrinsic power of even minor deities. It is in this lowly sense of mere disincorporation that the drakes may have damaged the fell incarnations of the demon lords, but would have proved utterly unable to destroy the core of their being, which emanated from beyond. Thus, masters of the magnus arcane believe the Dark Lord Marlu must expand his power by loosening portals between ourselves and the higher realities, as he has now become trapped incarnum. Since they are not more powerful than the gods, the gods did not really care about the lesser races in their subjugation. It might well be that they never aided the mortal races at all, and that these elaborate stories of "the Arkati" are all excuses for wanton indifference.

The power relation would have been rather the opposite. The dragons were free to rule the lands as the gods held no interest in the matter, or worse, that in a time of deep ignorance and fear there was nothing better for furthering faith in religions. There is no question that there was a time before the rise of Elves when dragons spread terror and pure domination amongst mortals, but to say that they ruled as a single empire until a war with the demon lords --- tens of millennia before the earliest civilizations --- is to place an impossible faith in oral traditions. It might just as well have been some scattered swathes of draconic empires in the power vacuum that followed the cataclysm, thus bringing themselves to near extinction with only rivalry and warfare amongst themselves. In the memory of those lesser races there would be no difference, stories of dragons mixing with much older relics that speak of a great war with the demonic. Who knows? We may have it backwards, perhaps the cataclysm itself was what allowed Demon Lords to walk into our realm, and the Great Drakes were all that remained to oppose them.

~

In the forgotten lore pursued by dark mages such as Bandur Etrevion, there was an apocalyptic war some hundred millennia ago followed by a vast interregnum of chaos. These years were plagued by trolls, orcish hordes, and worse, an endless night of warlords. But where the "Age of Chaos" which followed Despana was a curse that humbled only a single continent, in the Interregnum the very world was wracked, torn asunder, and plunged into the depths of shadow. Speculations claim that prior to the Great War there was only a single humanoid race in the world, similar to what we often call "common" men, and the vast diversity we know are the aberrations of transmogrification rituals and foul breeding. It has hardly escaped the notice of many that humans are able to spawn with everything upon two legs, which is absurd if we imagine instead that hounds could be crossed with thraks without artifice.

Among these primordial men were tremendously powerful mages, an imperial line often dubbed "the Lords of Essaence" that shattered the world in their warfare. Kadaena itself is the Iruaric word for "Empress" and "slayer." It is, perhaps, for this reason that many mortals seem to believe that the Arkati are a god race who appear to be humanoid in their natural form. The ancient cave paintings that depict such figures would, under this interpretation, simply be scholars confusing two sets of identities. It will be readily apparent to anyone who reflects upon this point that it is the silver bolt that cuts through and disentangles every theological confusion. There is a grain of truth in the idea of "spirits born of death", ascension to the gods, and the great paradox of non-corporeal entities breeding with mortal women.

There have been the births of dragons and their deaths for countless millennia, but where are the corresponding Arkati? Nonsense. The pretense of racial dominion is the great lie misdirecting the Elves from the wisdom of Amasalen. Assuming these existed as a hidden element simplifies everything. If the gods did not interfere with the thousand year war, then they certainly played a hand in taming what had become a volcanic wasteland. The very fabric of reality was riddled with random tears and flow storms. But it is purely ridiculous to believe that civilization required hundreds of centuries of divine guidance. It is the notion of a previously mortal race wielding such might, and eventually ascending both in form and power to demonic gods, that had entranced a morbid young human who was haunted by death.

II. The Early Years

In the early years of the Wars of Dominion, the spirit of an age spawned many who were born to wanderlust. For more than three hundred years a great struggle raged between forces of darkness and civilizations on the other continents. Subtle priests would bring societies to naught from within for no purpose other than pure destruction. Great demons walked the lands, along hosts of unspeakable monstrosities. Dark gods of the lesser pantheons assaulted other realms to expand their domains. Dragon lords waged their armies of mortal thralls; a world amok, grave concerns for those who do not suffer from the isolationist vice. But where war wages, and great powers struggle, fame and fortune quickly follows to the cunning few who survive the vagaries of fate. These were the conditions under which the humans Bandur and Kestrel Etrevion were blessed. Better to usurp the old guard, they thought, and become the masters.

These were common men of lowly origin, born with undistinguished lineage on the east coast of Jontara. Some humans name this continent "Elanith", but that is improper etymology. Elanith referred originally to its north-western corner at Darkstone Bay, where these brothers ended up ruling a fiefdom. There was a Kingdom of Elanith south of that much later, which was felled only a thousand years ago. In the age they lived, the far east was under the rule of Elves. There was no chance of upward mobility under those circumstances, so if they sought to make anything more of themselves than fishermen they would have to venture off onto less conventional routes to power. These Wars of Dominion have rather more significance to the world at large than Elven historians imply, as they were only a few generations before the slaughter of the Ashrim and seem to them only one of the many brief clashes of the gods.

The younger brother was Kestrel, possessed of highly martial wits and a keenly pragmatic view of "facts on the ground." He was the adventuring spirit that insisted on moving out, pushing beyond the gloomy disposition of his older brother. Where Bandur was gaunt, frail, morbid, obsessive, introspected and prone to jealousy, Kestrel was vital, carefree, highly desired, and able to shrug off the wounds that would torment his brother for months or longer. Kestrel was, in short, the embodiment of everything he was incapable of being. It is not known for certain what brought about the more warped aspects of his mind, but they were almost certainly faced with the death of their relatives at an early age. In his youth Bandur was constantly exposed to the virtual immortality of Elves, whereas he was destined to die an old man before his cohort even reached adulthood. What greater inadequacy is there for a human?

Whatever the true origin of his melancholy, the young Bandur Etrevion became obsessed with the religion of death. For those of undistinguished lineage, as a saying goes, the life of man is solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short. At any moment the wars may turn against these coastal regions, and his own life may be snuffed out in the most arbitrary of violent ways. What use is a society which has only condemned you from birth, denied you all dignity, and served only as a mask for a war of all against all that threatens to reveal itself as a fraud under the slightest glancing blow with reality? But worse than all of that, what is said to lie beyond the turmoil? Oblivion. Eternal and absolute powerlessness.

For the few who are both wealthy enough and of fortunate timing, it is known that priestesses of the goddess of death have the power of resurrection. But these rituals are exceedingly rare, only a very few "clerics" are channels of such power as to perform those miracles. It was a staggering fact that the power of death would be so arbitrary, but that was not the greater injustice for him. He poured through the theology and discovered that the souls are swept along in a current toward Liabo, and ultimately it is the goddess of death who makes the purely arbitrary decision that someone should not be returned to life. It was by her rules that everyone he had lost in life were not deemed worthy of existence, when she is known to return those who have not died in a "significant way" of her own volition. Suddenly, there was a focus for his hatred, a deepening anger and resentment toward this goddess of death who made a mockery of life. Nothing would matter here, he thought, if all that matters becomes nothing there.

Inevitable, inescapable, a relentless struggle against time. Was it all a vain gesture of futility, or were they hiding something which was not to be known? When a body can be incarnated to flesh from pure spirit, clearly any worldly weakness or malady exists only by the whim of indifferent power. Who else has the secret of immortality? Thus began his thirst for forbidden knowledge. It was surely not the charm of his brother that won him over to the adventurer's lot, only the impossibility of learning what must be understood as a pauper who cannot even name that which he does not know. They traveled to the seediest taverns and heard the rumors of pirates, criminals, and crippled soldiers. The way forward, in Kestrel's mind, was to join a naval force and raid the world far beyond, never being bound down to a single fortified position where stone is more valuable to your masters than wasted blood. Bandur had no objection to this way of thinking, for surely there can be no better way to stare into the abyss.

When they found themselves on a warship with a dragon prow, they came to learn that they had thrown their lot in with the Black Sea Drake. The Empress of Lu'horgu was the Dragonlord Ulya Shek who, in the Wars of Dominion, was set upon world conquest with several of her brethren. Her realm is an isle on the far edge of the known world, to the southwest beyond the Forbidden Sea. But where they might have expected to see a black dragon, what they came to find was that they served a woman with fair skin and long blue-black hair. These appearances were the more deceiving, because this illusion is eased with a powerful spectral artifact worn on her head. No one would dare to confuse the reality of a creature such as her, for she would just as quickly eviscerate the fool with the flames of perdition.

In the earliest days there would have been little use for Bandur Etrevion, but presumably he was taken in by the kind of mages often found on war ships. He would have been able to learn much from the texts that they had "acquired", and his was an unusually adept touch with the forces of Essaence. It is rare for mortals to be naturally talented with hybrid magics, whether with multiple spheres of power or fluidly merging them together into a more primal form of energy. Of the major Elven lines, only the Faendryl have such an inborn talent. While his principal value in the beginning would have been to cast incendiary spells at enemy ships, his single-minded thirst for power would never be satisfied with only one breed of magic. There was nothing else in life but the inevitability of death, so why would he waste any moments away from acquiring as much skill and knowledge as possible? The greatest masters were not limited by "disciplines", and the black dragon herself was only too sure with true Arcane power.

In those days he was not fool hardy enough to try to steal artifacts from Kestrel's liege, but to be under the constraints of a martial order was no minor inconvenience. When he grew more powerful and learned the ways of stealth, he was able to slide back into the shadows without having to be bothered by nonsense such as battles. He was able to follow Kestrel from a distance, remaining only a presence in the background while pursuing his true goals. The thunder of evocation spells is gaudy with its blaze of glory, quite at odds with his need for powers of both illusion and pure destruction. In the light of his ultimate desire for the true arcane power, where the three realms are fluidly merged into one and magic flows from the raw Essaence, it is only natural that his focus would have shifted toward sorcery. In the dawn there was no inherent darkness in his arts, only a will to seek the immortality of higher races.

III. The Endless Abyss

While the fleet of the dragonlord was concerned with the conquest of lands, they would travel to many sinister and ominous temples raiding for treasures that were desired by their master. Nothing was sacrosanct, and even less was sacrilege. But where dark religions rule, the gods they worship are rarely content with idle hands. There are terrible places in the world where almost no one dares go, where the boiling seas are safer than isles, for these have been so transformed by greater powers that it is difficult to even imagine all of the possible dangers. Sculptures might come alive, or what was once alive might become sculpture. Hidden portals lead to other pales of existence, walls reveal themselves to be ancient demons, even some idyllic pond may be nothing but the snare of a hideous maw of ravenous teeth.

For someone who has become obsessed with the black arts, however, these ruins and lost keeps are the only possible route to knowledge. These are the secrets which civilizations refuse to know, have never understood, and destroyed to keep forgotten. It is no accident when historians glibly refer to this or that hallowed figure being the first to discover something, when we know only too well this is severe hypocrisy. Those are the polite fictions we tell to young children, so that they may better assimilate our own prejudices. There have always been demons within our world through random tears in the fabric of reality, whenever flow storms or other strains of excessive power provoked backlashes of the Essaence. We have had an awareness of how to summon them since the earliest attempts at gate magic. There are many kinds of undead which have always existed through exposure to dark energies alone, or have we really believed Despana created the first undead by reading a book on the subject of necromancy?

There are dark rituals which have no name, brutal rites in homage of dead gods, soul destroying curses in black sigils older than recorded time. Bandur Etrevion had discovered a whole other world of power, far beyond what could be found in the mold ridden, leather-bound sophistry of scholastic tomes. These were things that no academic would ever know, that were impossible for them to know. Volumes could be written on the nature of the Dark Essaence alone. But more important than all of that, it would have been through these means that he would have learned how to summon and treat with fell entities beyond the limits of our own existence. These malevolent spirits would have pointed him toward those dark masters he would find most useful. What he truly desired was some "direct" knowledge of the first Lords, and especially that dark queen of cruelty we know only by the Iruaric word for "Empress."

~

No one can know now for certain, but when we speak of him as "swearing fealty to the Unlife", this might have been a soul pact or other arrangement with an Ordainer hailing from the First Age. If he had chosen with careful provenance, he might as well have been swearing his oath to "K'daen" herself. One does not simply swear oneself to some abstract concept, even if it is a mystic obfuscation of a kind of voidal energy hidden in the background essence that surrounds all things. And how does one pledge oneself to the Empress, who had her head cut off thousands of years ago? For unless goddesses are the spirits born of death, and he discovered her in a new form, there would only be the Great Demons.

The Empress was known to use them as bodyguards, and his own experience would have made it clear to him that dark gods often reside on lower pales of existence. There are many kinds of demons which are not native to the higher realities, but originate from the corruption or foul transmogrification of souls in our own world. It is the high art of dark gods to fashion races of demons from spirits taken from fallen societies that knew only the ecstasy of terror. There are several contradictory traditions for sorting them, such as "Demons of the Essaence exist on a vast web of realities within our own." On the contrary, it might well be argued that those entities of the Dark Essaence are the only true demons, and any other "extra-dimensional being", however chaotic, is not meaningful beyond the word "Other."

The valence model is often highly misleading. It is very difficult for mortals to imagine how the volumetric spaces may be embedded in higher dimensional realities. Nevertheless, some are "closer" to us than others, and those tend to be the ones most like our own. When there are distinct layers that are progressively more difficult to reach, such as "The Pales" or the "Vvrael Rift", it is perfectly natural to see more powerful entities sinking down toward "deeper levels." A few dark mages call this the "Inner Void"; still of the Essaence, with far more chaotic worlds of pure magic. The metaphors are weak. We will never grasp these realities as they truly are without our minds misconstruing them into something more familiar. But when we speak of "demons", whether from our world or not, what we always mean are spirits of the Essaence which have been deeply transformed by dark energy. When we are speaking of the ones that were natives of other planes, we often call them "of the Pale" regardless of origin.

With only a little reflection, it is clear that these branches of the black arts regarding the undead and the demonic are not really as separate as often believed. But where "necromancy" is meaningful as "the black art of manipulating and creating the undead", we are left with no word for dark soul magics such as "giving birth through death." And just as there exist ambiguous undead only brought forth with methods of conjuration, such as shadow assassins, there are demons which can only exist by deliberate acts of creation. What most distinguishes them from the undead are two features: they have an intrinsic antagonism with existence itself, and the darkness cannot be cleansed without destroying the spirit. It is a difference of orientation; demons strike upon the essence, and the undead are channels of Unlife. The malevolence of the demonic is intrinsic defiance, but the undead always obey their own bondage. They never turn upon each other, or their master, whether it is a higher power or the fine print of their curse. For them there is only the will to destroy life. But violence to all things, that is the lust of the demonic.

~

Beyond this rule we do not regard "chaos demons" as true demonic. The Faendryl beg to differ, of course, but to say that it begs the question speaks only to their lack of imagination. We often tell our young initiates the parable of the Illustrious Conclave: "There was a time," or so the tale goes, "when the great scholars gathered together to 'catalog the valences.' The first scholar traveled to some random plane he etched out with runes in a circle, for they seem to believe such things are important, but sadly his colleagues were so distracted with their books that they did not even notice he was gone. Seeing the summoning circle upon the floor, the next mage conjured him back and said, 'A ha! I have discovered a new race of demons! Now, back into the void!' Thus, they followed each other, one by one, until at last they finished a most illustrious phylogeny of doppelgangers. They were never heard from again."

It would be supreme irony if those exalted librarians of House Faendryl were to one day conjure a demon that revealed itself as their own ancestry. What would be so terrible with such fate? They will be able to gloat that they were the first people in history to master themselves, turning their Enchiridion Valentia into a work of genealogy written in autobiographical form. It would be achieving immortality, to be sure, but quite a bit more literally than they intended. These discoveries that Bandur Etrevion had made, such as the wards of the Black Hel, revealed to him the secret of true immortality. The ideal was not to cling to life, but to defy Death herself. The border between the dark gods and great demons was weakly defined to begin with, and now the line between demons and the undead was blurry as well. He had witnessed the great chains of being, the very hierarchy of existence: salvation from oblivion in the bondage of eternal slavery, up through ever higher power until the autonomy of pure domination.

He called it "power through thralldom."

IV. Intrigues of Lesser and Greater Kinds

It was said by some sage that when a man has an ideal to live for, he can suffer with almost any other detail. What of men who have chosen a set of ideals which most violate their own character? It is the great paradox of this strange warlock that he had chosen death to defy Death, to idolize those which were infamous for destroying idols, seeking freedom in the slavery of Unlife. A sensitive, introverted soul, serious and repressed, an ascetic more tempted by books than unbridled flesh. He was making an idol of, what, exactly? The Empress was a force beyond nature, the destroyer of worlds, the very lust of being the supreme goddess of reality. The demonic were wild beasts of prey, chaos incarnate, or powers so hideous that he would not have been able to stand before them without shattering his own mind.

These were the things that he wished not to emulate, but become through an act of will. He was not merely trying to survive without losing all power. He was overcoming himself by transforming into his opposite, with most extreme methods. The morbid sexual frustrations he was suppressing, perhaps for his long dead mother, were sublimated in the dark mirror he held between the goddess of death and his dead goddess of Unlife. He would later make grotesque statues of the Empress standing beside this lonely fetish of his own mortality: one an exemplar of stagnation and decay, the other as transformation beyond the singularity of existence. The Guardian of Oblivion was set in unspeakable contrast with his own "Guardian of the Forbidden", where the Void was to replace the eternal prison of her Gates. It is a widely missed point regarding The Dark Path that this is a highly blasphemous inversion of roles.

For the worlds of fire and shadow, where nightmares walk without laws and dominate all things, and the treachery of warfare has scales beyond mortal reckoning, there can be no difference in survival from rising in power. The only options that exist are to usurp the master, or be destroyed by those with higher ambitions. These were struggles that could unfold over centuries or thousands of years, the time of immortals that humans could never understand. What chance would he have, unless he first learned how to be the master manipulator? To wield wars to his own designs, twisting the workings of internal politics, to be one thing and appear its precise opposite, the subtlety of subterfuge, the misdirections in making others conform to your will without ever having to reveal what you desired. To play god, to be a god. He would need to deceive not just the cunning, brilliant, or learned, but all of them at once.

~

Kestrel was charismatic, a natural leader of men. But his temperament was bereft of lordship. It is not terribly surprising that he would lack the refinement for rule, given their lowly origins. He was a warlord who thrived on the thrill of battle, throwing himself recklessly into the melee with his men; the kind of victor who is triumphant by virtue of having not been killed yet. It was not so much that he was fearless before the eyes of death, but rather like all men of his kind he was blind to death entirely. There is no bravery when you do not have to stare into the abyss, actions become freed from all apprehension. Bandur had previously taken it upon himself to make sure arrows kept missing his brother, marring his battle throne rather than his flesh. It seemed only appropriate that he should go one step further, making sure the opposing sides were sabotaged from within to make Kestrel seem the master of stratagem.

Nor was his brother the sort of mind that cared for the subtleties of politics, he would feel that it is only merit in battle that warrants advancement of rank. Such men make the best soldiers, and terrible generals. The ruse would only last as long as its fraud was not pierced under the gaze of higher minds, but perhaps he could reach a level where he was no longer under immediate danger. If his rivals in the game for promotion should happen to meet misfortune along the way, well, things happen in wars. But to accomplish this goal, Kestrel would have to believe it was truly all the result of his own efforts. And if that meant not thinking twice about skeletons being melted out of their bodies into warped statues, or their bones suddenly shattering into shrapnel and spontaneously bursting into black flames, so be it.

Tricking the commanders who acted under the watch of a dragon would be intrigue enough, but Bandur had other problems. He had no access to many powerful artifacts or rare relics which belonged to various scholarly institutions or others across the world. Nor was he in the possession of contacts, as he had no academic standing. But he knew many things that they did not, so if he were to pretend to be a scholar whose research was critical toward fighting these forces of darkness, he would make himself famous as a prodigy among geniuses. Suppose he were humble and devoted to the death goddess, along with her wish to save souls and all of that insipid nonsense, surely his willingness to seek out the devil was only a testament to his religious conviction. And so it was, for Bandur proceeded to write volumes on the powers of darkness. He revealed all of their foul secrets, from the First Age until the last age.

His most famous work was "Servants of the Shadow: Power through Thralldom", where he has described how the former followers of the Empress had made great demons by giving power a physical form. The thesis discussed the hierarchy that was inherent in the forces of domination, the relation with dark gods, and much that was not known about the Essence Lords. It was a staggering coup. The world of scholars was so blown back by the force of its revelations that Bandur was granted unlimited access to the most guarded vaults of the Great Library. It was unheard of to be granted such privilege, and it is even more implausible now. Bandur was eventually caught absconding ancient artifacts from its special collection, and he was banned from there ever after. Such insult would be terrible enough. But it was all the more injurious considering he had been the only person in the world in a position to steal them. His thieves would find it easier to lift the crown jewels off a dwarven overking than break into Biblia.

V. Darkstone Castle

With the aid of black arts and warped intelligence, Kestrel rose rapidly up the ranks of the fleet. What else would Bandur do with himself between his expeditions but mastermind Kestrel's promotion? But there was only so far his brother could aid him in secret, especially when he was increasingly more distracted by his own concerns. Thus, Kestrel found himself in a position which he had been ill-trained for in the crucible of his own mettle, with authority more suited to higher races. When given tasks such as deciding who was ripe for conquest --- possibly against powers wielding centuries more experience with grand strategy, much less convince the dragonlord herself --- there was only so much interference Bandur would have been able to provide his brother, even if he had nothing else to occupy his time.

It was around this time that he constructed what has been called an "Amulet of Summoning", so that Kestrel would be able to use his brother as a channel for unleashing a small cadre of minor demons if he should find himself against impossible odds. It was a device that Kestrel held no interest in using, obviously. It was the esoteric nonsense his impractical brother had more interest in than life itself, what possible use could it be in war? Why should such need ever arise? The amulet would be useless today if it were found somewhere, being that its power was directly tied to Bandur rather than imbedded within it. But the scale of the demonic force unleashed would be as formidable as Bandur himself was capable of channeling, which was growing much more potent as the years progressed. It was a simple matter of insurance, and Bandur insisted upon it. No one has the power to be everywhere at the same time.

~

In time the weakness of Kestrel as a Lord Commander would be revealed. He met those fateful days when trying to assault the north-western coast of Jontara. The history of the western lands beyond the Dragonspine during the "Age of Chaos" is poorly known, for surely the reason the Elves decided to call the era by that name at all was simply a reference to those lands. But it was an age when warlords would occasionally rise to power, and some stability would temporarily halt its total anarchy. From the perspective of immortal time scales, this is why Turamzyrr has never been taken seriously by Elves. If it is something that rises and dies in only a few centuries, it was nothing worth wasting ink over. What interest could feudal manors ever hold for a race struggling with the limits of its own immortality?

When Kestrel was seeking the conquest of his own continent for the dragons, much of the west was under the yolk of the Dark Elven warlord Lorgalis. The White Mage was rumored to be an Essence Lord by blood . Whatever his origins, his domain was known to extend into the western borders of this realm. Prior to that point in time, there was very little history for this particular coastline. There was an age, many thousands of years before, when the Vaalor controlled it. There were minotaur refugees from the war with Despana hiding inside the mountains, and Castle Anwyn from the Age of Chaos. Not long before the Wars of Dominion, one of the spires became lost in time. There were refugees from Lorgalis, the gnolls of Stonehold, and the eastern forests were held by Elves for the next several thousand years. The only exception was a kingdom past the southern foothills, plagued with its own war problems. It is possible Kestrel was forced back by its powerful crown, but that is still only rivalry with the Mage.

Worded in a slightly different way, Lorgalis was the only true power in the greater region at that time. It was only two centuries before the founding of the lost city-state on the High Plateau, which was sacked by the Ice Krolvin two centuries before the forming of "Wehnimer's Landing." The local people would have provided no great resistance for the fleet, suppressing them was more of a legal matter than anything. It was only the clash between the conquering warlords that made the struggle worthy of note or a matter of great strife. Lorgalis was expanding his two prongs in the west and south, while Kestrel was attempting to exploit the Bay as the weakest point for breaching the continental mainland. What he most desired was a return to his homeland, but only as the master who became "Lord of the West."

Sadly, Ulya Shek has little patience for defeat. When the winds blow ill, she loses her verve for conquest. His strategy was shrewd, but its success was contingent upon success. Two of her brethren, a Red and White, controlled territories in the north. The essential thrust of their agenda was the return of the age when dragons ruled over the round skulls by force, which by right of blood is the natural order of things. It is true that the dragons remain the most powerful and feared beasts in the world, but that is only when accounting individuals. An average dragon is extraordinarily dangerous to powerful mages. For common men, they are gods. While Drakes enjoy hoarding and slumbering, they avoid their former thralls for another reason. Whenever dragons are present without hiding themselves in humanoid form, they are regarded as an existential threat. They are always targets of assault, in the same way that huge lumbering oafs or scantily clad harlots are in taverns when too drunk. They do not live in such numbers that they can overpower, say, the Elves, by sheer force without the aid of a legion that obeys them.

Unfortunately, Kestrel was out of his depth. These were not brigands or glorified pirates Bandur could sabotage on a whim. He had to play a far more aggressive hand with his sorcerous interventions, as the crown of the southern kingdom was a powerful artifact for forming impenetrable walls of force. There was undoubtedly some relationship between Bandur and Lorgalis the White after this early foray, which perhaps speaks to why the conquest was allowed to survive. These rivals are so long forgotten it is fair to ask why we should be mentioning them at all, but the point that he was not merely Dark Elven has critical relevance. Lorgalis was presumed to be one of the former followers of the Empress Bandur was writing about, the "servants of the Shadow" who were wielding demons of their own devising.

The esoterica of these figures can be known, but to little end. It is only for completeness that we have been at all specific with the identity of the Black Sea Drake. As far as Ulya Shek was concerned, Kestrel had shown himself to be a liability. He had emerged victorious in defeat, so the only thing to do was "reward" him with a fiefdom of the land he had conquered. It was but the smallest foothold in what had been envisioned as a campaign for seizing the whole continent. When it was inevitably seized by a rival, the problem would solve itself in the absence of reinforcements. One might have expected Death to come for Kestrel within a few years, but he was forced to linger on under conditions of peace.

~

There was an absence of higher civilization on this coast, both before and after the Etrevions. It was not even settled in a serious way by the city to the north-east, which is the origin of the Quells and Seoltang languages which survive in some parts of the region today. But they were not a feudal society, which had only existed when the lands were a fiefdom under Lord Kestrel. Thus, there is no doubt that what is now called "Darkstone Castle" was built for the Etrevions. There was no other point in history when it could have been constructed. The castle would have been pieced together with granite from the High Plateau by crystal and steel golems. But even it it were there before them, we can be certain they were its masters and no one else, not until a warlock named Estrion mangled it for Sheru. Much of the final years of the Etrevions is now shrouded in mystery, as most of the record has been destroyed.

They were only granted the sliver of western coastline along the Bay. He was not the lord of the islands or the northern peninsula, or the High Plateau, the far west, or the forest realms to the south and further to the east. It is not quite clear now, but there was most surely only that single fiefdom. There is no way Kestrel would have been allowed to later engage as a privateer otherwise, and the surrounding lands would have become a buffer zone. It was a stalemate where their enemy had failed to force them out, but it was impossible to press forward. Bandur was willing to settle down. He immersed himself in his arcane pursuits. No longer having to watch over Kestrel, he dedicated himself more fully to higher intrigues. These lands held a peculiar value to him, because they had been a stronghold of the Empress a hundred thousand years ago. It was only a matter of time before he discovered a Gate from that era in the north --- hidden below ground, as they were wont to do --- leading to another plane of existence.

VI. The Misfortune of Power

In the years that followed the ill-fated campaign for "the West Country", Bandur had shifted the focus of his efforts from "traveling to dark shrines" to "writing about dark shrines." Without the naval fleet to escort him into those places, it was far too dangerous to play his old game. It was by this tactic that he was allowed legitimate access to all sorts of arcane knowledge, eventually culminating with his highly unusual privilege to the special collection under the Isle of Ornath. He met many luminaries and sages, most of whom were centuries older than him. He had not lost his appetite for those true Essaence powers, even if he had chosen to augment himself with the various black arts he had discovered. And it was only by studying whatever could be known of the elder lords or gods that made this possible.

The price of his forbidden knowledge was that he was not a free man. He was bound to serving the whims of whichever dark powers he had specifically appealed to for help. It was a bit like having a sword hanging over your head at all times. It was little comfort to believe it will not fall any time in the immediate future. He would have to become a formidable and lasting power in his own right to escape out from under his own thralldom, playing what is often thought of as the most dangerous game. There are many mortals in the world who will never understand why someone would put themselves into such a precarious position with lasting consequences. In his mind, we can only choose between our masters: life is a masquerade of rotting flesh, your soul was doomed to eternal slavery when you were born.

His obsession made him drift ever further from any grounding in the temporal world of men, his outlook upon existence becoming dominated with his own theological speculations. When they figured out he was stealing artifacts from the Library of Biblia, he was dealt a tremendous blow to his original goals. It was one of the earliest signs that he was slowly losing his judgment under the subtle influence of "the Unlife", because the risks were far greater than the minor inconvenience of travel. It was in this event, perhaps more than any other, that made him descend the spiral toward madness. His actions then became increasingly focused on dark rituals, the black arts, and engaging with foul experiments. Thus, he retreated from his academic persona, and returned exclusively to the sorcerous arts of his youth. The powers of darkness are seductive in the way the sodden feel they are better "with one or two drinks."

~

Lord Kestrel Etrevion was accomplished for his age, having acquired lands and titles while still in his comparative youth. But the restlessness was not spent by his early forays into warfare, for he was not content to be the lord of a castle who sat all day accomplishing nothing more than a status quo. Two things characterize this period of his life: the raising of his sons, and the decision that there was nothing stopping him from being a pirate. He ordered his treasury to construct a fleet of sleek ships for raiding the coastal settlements of Darkstone Bay, later traveling far from home to seize great riches. It was not a purely destructive enterprise, they were also slaying dangerous sea monsters like the bellacorn. And, in a slightly ironic way, they were the corsairs who guarded the local sea lanes from other pirates.

There was little the other residents of the region could do to stop him, and they most likely did not dare to try. Far better to be the victim of some plundering, rather than resume the invasion that had ended only a handful of years before. Patronage went to the dragonlord. There was law and order in the lands, and the borders were sound from what was presumably some detente with Lorgalis. It was a boot holding the backdoor of the continent open, but with nothing passing through to the interior. The capital was where the trading town of the Landing stands today, so all commerce through the river had to pass into their fiefdom. The treasury swelled under the piracy of Kestrel and his elite soldiers, and as long as his focus was on raiding these local regions, the outlying provinces were kept in line through fear.

But there is only so much milk that can be squeezed out of a velnalin before its blood runs sour. Kestrel was forced to send his fleet further out over the years to find prey worth stalking, and that led to a situation where he would be away from his capital for months or even years on end. When he was out at sea, his brother was essentially left in charge of the castle as a regent. But Bandur was slowly losing his mind at the same time, being obsessed with affairs that were anything but human. He was not to be bothered by courtly nonsense. His shadowy web of spies, whisperers, and thieves kept watch on things for him so that he could delegate more interested men to deal with them. Meanwhile, there was no one to stop him from using the treasury to illicitly acquire relics for which he no longer had any access.

VII. Sinister Cults

Without Kestrel to keep him grounded in the world and no semblance of normality, Bandur was consumed by his neuroses, which were only exacerbated under the influence of dark energies. With the confluence of growing dread of his own mortality and the inferiority complex he had always harbored, his vanity was thus unleashed unto staggering grandiosity. He was more powerful than most who lived ten times his own age, surely he was on the path to being a god among mortals. It was only appropriate that he rule over life and death by acting as the gods, fashioning warped creatures which thrived on the torment of the living. Why should they not be made to worship him? It is the higher order of things.

There was a very long period where Kestrel had not returned at all, and Bandur had completely neglected everything except his own vainglorious pursuits. The royal treasury had no purpose save the theft of rare and powerful relics, or the construction of demented edifices and terrifying monuments in his own homage. The indigenous races were horrified of what this madman was doing, and as nothing was being tended to they grew to resent the restrictions of civilization. Why should they pay taxes to a usurper or his brother, when bands of rogues were able to rape and steal without consequence? What of these wild predatory beasts, which fed upon livestock and slaughtered children in ghastly ways? Why should we feel the pain of their enemies invading the borderlands, testing for weaknesses that are only a prelude to war? The omens speak ill for the land of men, the shadow on the horizon is ominous.

He had worked so much black magic in the region, with so many fell creatures bringing the vile dark power with them, that the very lands began to become corrupted under its influence. Laws became meaningless, ritual slaughter became common place, and many dark religions began springing up with open worship. There were sinister cults that promised to bring some order to a chaotic, horrifying world that had abandoned them. And then, there were the sons of Kestrel, some of whom were with him at sea but with one of the youngest still remaining. He was reaching the age of manhood, but rather than rule the lands as a prince he was left to his own lasciviousness under the reigning decadence. When he was left on his own, he housed a cult of the Soul Taker in a hidden stronghold along the coastal cliffs. Thus, it seems his uncle inspired him with hatred against Death, which makes his fate all the more ironic.

~

There was finally a terrible incident which was said to have been so hideous that royal advisers begged enough to force Bandur to suppress the violence. No one knows for sure what happened, other than the fact that it was gruesome beyond words. Some say that there was a ritual sacrifice in the streets where heretics were mutilated and strangled in elaborate webs of their own entrails. Others say a young child was devoured by some demonic beast, kept "alive" with its screaming heard for several nights. It was once rumored that every virgin in the capital was impaled on stakes of bone, and were violated for weeks after death in the merchant district as a travesty of initiation for a purity cult of necromancy.

Other suggestions have speculated that a massacred church laity was reconfigured into choirs of twisted flesh golems that sang and danced, or offal was strewn together into a huge statue of some high malevolent, or that there was an endless orgy in the bazaar mixing cannibalism with perverse sacrifices. Whatever the truth, it was not the depravity of the kingdom that made Bandur come to his senses. Quite the opposite, who were these peasants to get things so wrong with their misdirected gestures? Without a solid base of taxation, his treasury would not be able to support these necessary projects. He had finally had his epiphany, that crucial insight to the horror separating masters from slaves. There was only one thing to do: ruthlessly eradicate every divergent sect, consolidating everything under his own rule.

His final solution consisted of hired soldiers who were exorbitantly paid to be merciless, and the foul beasts he had conjured or fashioned with dark soul magics. There were his lycanthropic werebears, vile bloodbeasts streaming crimson from the wounds they inflicted, major spiders forged with the long forgotten dark art of arachnomancy, elementals of pure nether, and demonic spirits of his own creation. When he came for his nephew's underground stronghold, he sent his own Demons of the Sixth Pale to slaughter all within the keep. They spiraled through the air with their claws cutting through stone like aether, with the Fifth Pale crushing the royal guards with such force that they were turned to dust.

When the Fifth burst through the door like the wind, the Sixth executed their signature move: in a single swift motion, they swooped down and removed his princely head as a trophy. No one survived their massacre. It was glorious. The perfection, the elegance, the wanton cruelty. Chaos, wild and blind with hatred. For truly now he must have understood the meaning of divine wrath, the purity that strikes terror into the souls of the weak. It was his finest moment. He had thrown off the chains of blood with its hypocrisy of convention, and embraced his destiny by becoming the master over all things. Nothing could now stop his ultimate ascension to true greatness, the way shown before him by the Empress.

VIII. Theocracy

The god king was the ruler of a horde of monstrosities, and now it was time to be the master of Death. With the destruction of all opposition, power was centered under the apparatus of his state cult. It was dedicated to the worship of the Empress, but only in principle. The relationship is not as simple as the religions of deities, since the Last Empress was killed many eons ago. Rather than worship some goddess of death, they were to idolize a dead goddess. It was a mockery of the existing order, with the faithful worshipping Bandur directly as though he were a great Demon Lord. Where the figure head of a Lorminstran temple is called the Lord High Cleric, Bandur named himself "Lord High Sorceror."

The Dark Path was the inversion of the death goddess religion on essentially every point. It was named after the purgatory mythos, where souls which have yet to choose their path are thought to wait in limbo with the options of light and darkness. The irredeemable souls have no choice but to be lost to the demonic, condemned to the pales to be tortured or fed upon by chaotic powers of darkness. If these spirits are somewhere between salvation and damnation, some believe they will be reincarnated in life as lower forms of existence. The blessed will be swept along the "River of Life" to the pool before the Gates of Oblivion, being cleansed of corruption in the sanctified waters. She is said to hold the Keys to these various other worlds, and the Key to the Void is the "forbidden" one that must never be used.

The Empress was illustrated as the dead guardian for higher forms of demonic existence. If the supplicant was insufficiently devout, they would have to suffer with being reincarnated in our world. It would still be a higher existence than true death, but it was eternal bondage in undeath as a mockery of life. It was his critique of the false freedom of life made flesh. Those souls of the most unworthy were annihilated, for in the Death theology that was the most horrible of all possible fates. The heretics were beheaded as the Empress had been, with their souls consumed in dark absolution. It was set in blackest parallel with her staff of doom, which she uses to destroy the most malevolent spirits from all existence entirely. What makes him worse than Death, who only allows her thralls degradation? Where the high priests of her temples are lifegivers who abhor violence upon all, save the undead or the servants of the Unlife, the Lord High Sorceror wields this same power of stripping the living from their own past.

The devotions of the state cult were a mockery of the solemn, quiet prayers of the counter faith. They would dress as black hooded figures chanting the Iylarian phrase "Kadaena Throk Farok." It is an etymological offshoot of Iruaric that was passed down from the infamously aloof High Elves. Holding their rosary beads, they would make a fetish of their own immortality. The lands were haunted with the hideous creatures that Bandur was constructing, transforming the kingdom into a gate world where the demonic were able to freely walk through portals as though it were a higher plane of existence. These were feral subhuman figures, gibbering with madness, the face behind the facade. All the while, he was working on his ultimate goal of giving power physical form, trying to learn the secrets of ascension.

IX. The Return of the King

When Kestrel finally returned after an especially long voyage, he disembarked from his flagship to discover that his fiefdom had been radically changed. His first thought might have been that while he was gone, the lands had been invaded by the dark warlord of the West. But the pale skin and black eyes were missing, as were the orcish hordes, and the locals seemed to remain but in a state of possession. It was a world of suppressed but obvious fear, these people were terrified of deviating in any way from a heinous set of ostentatious devotions. It resembled the nightmares he had not seen since his early youth as a tomb raider, where everything was fantastic and twisted to serve the vanity of dark religions.

It was not long before he discovered that his throne had been usurped by his brother, that these religious rituals were the delusional whims of his warped imagination. Worse, his son had been brutally killed, not only without proper burial but with the utmost desecration. Perhaps his head was on the wall of the castle for a time? It was something of a riddle. There is a fake sarcophagus in a mausoleum along the cliffs which Bandur had made in imitation of the Lord of Essaence style. The body parts were found later in the slaughter chamber, with the skull shoved into a tree as an ironic talisman. Strangely enough, Kestrel was furious about all of this, and they flew into a heated argument over those prior events. One imagines that Kestrel had stormed the empty crypt, discovering no body to match its severed head.

There was nothing that anyone would have been able to do to stop Bandur at that point. He was far too powerful, with his own immense forces of darkness. He was possessed, there was essentially no humanity left in him. It is only too easy to imagine their argument: that Kestrel was an unwitting fraud; that the land was not theirs to do with as they wished; that the son was a heretic, that the dark path was the only true means for power; that Bandur had lost his mind, and so on. Woe to the unfortunate soldier who had to listen to these things, obliged to hold his hand on the hilt of his useless blade. At last, they were interrupted by a messenger, who informed them there was an invasion on the northern borders.

~

To assert his authority of lordship, Kestrel stormed out to command his still loyal troops to fight the barbarians at the gate. There was no great power in the north, it was surely only those peoples who had been the victims of his piracy. They were undoubtedly disturbed by the malevolence and chaos that had taken hold of the fiefdom and, upon seeing his fleet, chose to strike to preempt their own slaughter. Now, it is quite likely that, under usual circumstances, Kestrel would have easily crushed them. But he was brokenhearted by the death of his son, the betrayal by his brother, and the revelations that were just thrown in his face. The confidence of his command failed him, and his elite soldiers fell in disarray.

The battle took place where there is now a bog, in the land Bandur later made into a necropolis; a bog he deliberately flooded with his conjured horde out of spite. When Kestrel felt the battle was lost, he used the Amulet of Summoning that his brother had enchanted many years ago to save the day. This would only lend credence to Bandur's claim, and he sent forth a legion of minor demonic that ruthlessly slaughtered these brigands to the utmost devastation. The violence was so horrific that their souls were condemned to undeath, just from the trauma of their demise and the dark energy corrupting these lands. It was only a brief respite in the hostilities, as Bandur went to the field tent reprising his supremacy.

Kestrel remained defiant, marshaling all of the qualities the elder brother had always envied. He was mocking and condescending, trying to show his superior command, and Kestrel kept striking back at him with his own inadequacies. Finally, Bandur was so enraged and filled with hatred that he willed into instant effect an Absolution Pure. It is a powerful, irrevocable fatal channeling, where the soul of the victim is ripped out of the body and rendered permanently discorporate. It might be possible to bind the soul back into its host body if one had quick access to a high priestess of the goddess of death, but other than that rather unlikely miracle it was the true death. The supreme irony of it all. And so Kestrel came to be ordained into the Dark Path, and Bandur thus assumed his role as the Ordainer. The shock of his own actions brought him back to sobriety, and his immediate reaction was to cover it all up.

~

In the morning he appeared to Kestrel's soldiers, telling them their lord had died from his battle wounds in the night. They returned to their homes without question. Wracked with guilt, Bandur would not have allowed Kestrel's soul to be lost to the death goddess. He would have put it in some container, perhaps even the amulet that Kestrel had just used in combat. Now, he would be responsible for finding the secrets of immortality for both of them, and the object of his guilt would be with him at all times. It was at that time that he decided to build an elaborate burial mound for his brother. It was crafted in the shape of a battleship, supported by an infrastructure of bones, and covered with rare flowers that bloom with toxic pollen that would drop a troll. These kill all of the wildlife in the forests every spring. Thus, he decided to give the task to golems: single-minded obedient slaves, much stronger than corpses.

He went to the battlefield and stripped bodies of their flesh. Very few necromancers know how to weld bone into construct, and infuse the souls of the undead to make them animate. Bone golems are exceedingly rare for this reason. But Bandur had all of the necessary expertise. It is an obvious point of hypocrisy that these various orders for slaying the undead do so on the premise of "releasing" enslaved spirits, when they do not care at all about the poor spirits trapped within ordinary golems. It is not these aspects at all that truly bother their masters, but rather the dark energies and the way the undead feed on and drain their own power. There is now a monastery for the Order of Voln that overlooks this site, and its adherents do not see the absurdity of striking down the same undead over and over again. They truly believe some light show they hallucinate, the soft weeping of what is still a malevolent spirit, when it is so clear that the power and scale of their "favor" flows from the mere presence of its severed bond.

It is always possible to break the curse of the undead, but diamond is not glass. Most of the time it is highly idiosyncratic. It is all too easy to hear the voices of children nagging with the inappropriate questions of theology. "Why has Voln been unable to release all of the undead, when they are so rare?" "Why does Tonis not run all over the world, holding his blade out to kill them all?" It is ridiculous. The enterprise is quite obvious, most of these undead are bound to special haunted places that no one visits. Why not send in the fortune hunters to cut them down, so that their masters have to waste the energy to reincarnate them? Sap the energy from the unliving, in the same way that the Unlife does to us. Those moon gods have their selfish interests served, and it costs them nothing. The Order of Voln, of course, insists that it is only interested in releasing souls for cleansing. Golems and demons be damned.

X. The Broken Lands

It was a most unfortunate mistake to strike at the theocracy and make its master kill his brother. These northmen must have been quite foolish, invoking the wrath of a god. The whole region north of the High Plateau was seemingly but utterly purged of all life, because there is no record of what befell them and it was devoid of inhabitants only a century or two later. Perhaps they still exist, as the pillars and buttresses holding up the chambers within the burial mound. The villages of the region have a long history of being destroyed by marauders, the ultimate reason why it is still a frontier. When Bandur was in control of those lands, he detected the presence of an ancient portal hidden deep below ground.

It was far in the north, where the Krolvin Warfarers now rule. In the very distant past this would have belonged to the Empress, and it turned out to be a gate to another plane of existence in the Lord of Essaence style. It appears to have been crafted by some great power, and then changed more over time. It is difficult to develop the order of precedence, for what is oldest as opposed to what was added later. There was a cliff that was clearly not natural, having been cleanly cut as though with a huge blade. The lands below stretched out with boiling seas of mud, with a bizarre forest of growing crystals. It is wise to avoid making assumptions in the pales, as the strangest things have hidden intelligence. There is now a great staircase carved into a hidden cavern, designed for the fell gait of a dark god thirty feet tall.

What was most striking about this rocky wasteland was the presence of a great crystal dome. It has the ability to steal and concentrate power to great capacities. Greater essence focii, flow storms, or even gods can be trapped by such powerful artifacts. It was precisely what Bandur needed. But he was not omniscient. He sought out a most famous researcher of his acquaintance from the elder days, a sage named Uthex Kathiasas, to help him figure out the ancient secrets of this device. Uthex was adherent to the theory that the servants of the Shadow had created both life and unlife in this way, possibly even to the extent of forging gods as conscious manifestations of Essaence, power given physical form. It was the drive behind trying to make indestructible, non-corporeal beings who were immune to magic.

Bandur had only to retain his composure. He put on the false face of his old gambit: keep Uthex away from the theocracy, pretend these hooded figures were worshippers of the death goddess; corrupt him slowly with the Dark Essaence, and twist his work into more perilous forms. He sweetened the pot by fabricating some evidence, or perhaps he did not? It unambiguously implied that his theory had been correct. The Dark Lords might well be created by the Lords of Essaence, but if we thought of the Great Demons in that way before, what of the Dark Spirits who exist only by their will? Perhaps they would be an intermediate step. And who better to make this theory plausible than the beast we call Marlu?

The implications were far more severe than this admits, for it was not only a lone idea about the demonic and dark gods. It is the grand unification of several theories held by his colleagues. There was the initial premise that the Great Demons were forged as dark demi-gods, and there was the theory that the Dark Gods were the result of foul experiments with making conscious Essaence. But there was also the more conventional theory that the moon gods are only factions of a single group, and that these are ancient beings of power and will. The Dark Spirits would be extensions of their will, which are capable of being dissolved or destroyed by force. Still others believed that the Dark Lords are really Demons of the Essaence, singular and unique entities like the Demon Lords, and not only the blunt case of Marlu. Some who believed the first cataclysm was caused by "the Lords of Essaence" claim that the pantheons on the moons were simply the survivors of those extremely powerful mages masquerading as gods.

What Uthex was led to believe was that the Lords of Essaence invented a method for ascending themselves to deity power, with the Empress being "the first Lord of Liabo" rather than the gods being still more ancient Outsiders. It was the brilliance of Bandur Etrevion that tied all of these loose threads together into a single tapestry. There was no longer any distinction between demons that were native to other planes of existence and those which might be forged from the Essaence. He had dispensed with a long-held belief that there was an intrinsic difference between transcendent and incarnate beings, these were only degrees of power being trapped within physical form. And now he was manipulating Uthex into helping him unlock the secret of ascension, a truth known to all who invoke the name Shar.

~

When we travel to "the Broken Lands" today, we find more than the workshop of Uthex and the still lingering members of The Dark Path. Some time ago these hooded figures visited the necropolis, in fact, changing the prayer to "Shadow bind my soul." There is a Sheruvian monastery that was founded by refugees of the Estrion incident, and a much older dark shrine in homage of Marlu. Locals assumed this meant it was the surface of Lornon, which is wrong for many reasons. Regardless, one might argue that the shrine itself was an elaborate forgery at the expense of Uthex. It would have been a warren for slumbering vruul sepulchres, which would only have inspired the idea. The old legends of the demonic lord say that he often breaks into ancient ruins looking for relics, with a special affinity for the Vruul.

At the top of the colossal staircase, the entrance to the Dark Shrine read:

"Morgu lyxatis kort. Thro dyar K'mur."

It is a riddle in the ancient language of Iruaric. In the modern common tongue, the most literal translation would be something to the effect of: "Marlu, master who is the incarnation of dread. Guard the dark female Lord." The word "lyxatis" means both dread as a presence and the action of causing it, or rather being dread itself. One must be careful with translations of Iruaric. It does not cross cleanly in the meanings of lesser languages. The phrase "dyar K'mur" is a way of rendering "Dark Queen", which is misleading given the dominant theological tradition we hold today. We would misinterpret it to mean that Marlu was a dark spirit who was tasked with guarding Eorgina, a Queen only in her own mind. It is not even the name he would have used for her, since "Eor ail'Giina" descends from other dogma. But it is not so easily dismissed either, because in the archaic tradition her title was "the Lady of Darkness."

It is a failure to grasp the syncretic nature of religion. In the theology we reference, Eorgina was not especially indulgent in Queen imagery. Much as "Gosaena" was a caricature of lady Death, Eorgina is of Kadaena. The question of Iruaric is an odd one when trying to understand these various traditions. It is the language of Arcane magic that survives in the use of arch mages, albeit in highly debased form. It is presumed to be the spoken language of the Lords of Essaence in the one tradition, but elsewhere an assumption holds that "the language of the Arkati" survives in bits and pieces. "Lornon" was the shared word across all major civilizations for the moon of the dark gods, but it is the Iruaric root Loorn, which is "lonely." Lo'nae is "the spirit of the past", Phoen is "the traveler." Lanthea itself is "eternal world." It was especially prone to being preserved in Elven languages, such as "Ta'" cities or the Ilyan Cloud.

In the tradition that Uthex was following, "Orgiana" was a cruel, fiery goddess with an intense hatred of men. The illustrious Dark Queen persona invoked here refers to a much older antecedent, the "Queen of Evil" who was said to be the creator of many foul constructs such as the Vruul. The meaning is essentially "Dark Empress", where "dyar K'mur" is just another way of rendering the word "K'daen", or more commonly, Kadaena. In a more essentialist translation, it is a command: "Marlu, Dread Master. Guard Kadaena." When Uthex saw those words, he was meant to interpret the line in that way. If it was not a forgery, it would be a still more disturbing truth, for the Empress would not be so dead after all. It would mean that "Mother of Darkness" was a poetic reference to Orgiana being Kadaena herself. There was some unknown relationship between them in the distant past regardless, but if this were true, it had deep implications: her focus as a goddess, like many of the undead, was based on the way she died.

What would have truly staggered Uthex was that ancient Iruaric was a hieroglyphic language. It is only much more modern forms that are written phonetically. The phrase "Marlu, Cruel Master. Guard the Dark Queen, Spirit born of death." is a clumsy translation of the poem inscribed in the ruins of the Temple of Darkness, speaking of the cruel gods who exist on the dark moon. The words actually allude to conditions that did not exist until long after Uthex was dead, which means the portal bridges time or that the dark gods really have this esoteric relationship with the Empress. Its verses were mostly boiler-plate, except for the Orgiana and Morgu lines, which broke from tradition. But those words "spirit born of death" served his prejudices nicely, and spoken in Iruaric it acts as the answer to the riddle. There are subtleties around the shrine hinting at both fraud and truth, with a familiar mocking sense of humor. It was no accident that Bandur had chosen Uthex. The Empress was killed by her own cousin, Utha.

~

The work of Uthex was slowly corrupted toward darker forms under the subtle influence of the Dark Path. He was turning into a dark mage who would pursue these goals of his own volition. But he first began by seeking a way to manifest entities of great power to resist them in the Wars of Dominion. The poem might be a sick joke on him; found in the ruins of a temple that was destroyed centuries later, in a time when those very dark powers had been defeated. While he believed he was looking at a thing of arcane origin, if not worse, he may have seen his own irrelevant future. His fellows knew something was wrong, they went to find him in the year 6521 Second Era under the old lunar calendar. There was a terrible massacre earlier that year, the Ordainer Kharuugh had crushed the kingdom to the south with a dark horde serving Lorgalis. What was Uthex thinking, surrounding himself with the malevolent?

It was 71 lunar years after the start of those Wars, which was roughly -950 Modern Era on the solar calendar. When his fellows came for him, they had to fight off his fell beasts and hooded figures. Following Uthex out onto the plane with the crystal sphere, Kulfair smote him by summoning a swarm of meteors. When they investigated the wreckage and discovered how his work had been twisted, they had little choice but to destroy most of his records because they were too dangerous. His beasts were all named in Iruaric, and his shelves filled with books that had no place in any library. These creatures are really extra-planar entities which have been known to summoners by other names. What they all had in common was a notorious penchant for shifting between realities and showing up in unexpected places. These did not spring from his mind out of nothing, he was using them as a foul template for copy. Thus, the great crystal dome reincarnates the dead, much as a mage might duplicate a wand out of thin air.

The gate was sealed with powerful runes of warding to prevent transfer off the plane, and they arranged to have a monastery hidden within the site so that martial monks of Kai would guard against anyone seeking entrance. These plans were ill-conceived. The texts they did not destroy were enough to corrupt the monks over the years. Perhaps it was that the monks of Kai were also seduced by members of the Dark Path. They would have masqueraded as a kindred religion, seeking to aid in the protection of the gate from evil. In any event, they studied texts of necromancy Uthex had kept in the Dark Shrine. They performed the very rare Ritual of Black Eternity, thus removing their own hearts. It is one of the very oldest black arts, few necromancers even know it exists. Some would say it is impossibly old. If it fails to work, the consequences can be severe, to say the least. Of course, those monks still guard their portal, after a fashion. Monastic liches are exquisitely rare, especially if born of that high method.

XI. The Siege of Darkstone

The precise time that Uthex was working with the Dark Path is not clear. It was necessarily after the establishment of the theocracy and the death of Kestrel, or else the portal would not have been part of lands under his control. But when was the war with the sons of Kestrel? There is one specific date in recorded history, the destruction of the kingdom to the south and the death of Uthex were both in 6521 Second Era. It was not possible for the nephews to form some alliance with that southern kingdom, as it was under assault by the White Mage and his terrifying Ordainer. Nor were the lands theirs to form any such alliance, and the whole point of breaching Darkstone Bay had been to continue further south. The Dragonlord was the one being usurped, so without being given her voice they had no claim at all.

Why would the Dragonlord help them, even to retain a foothold on the continent? It was devoid of strategic value, her rivals were far too strong to be defeated. If possible, it is unlikely. They mounted a fleet of Kestrel's loyal forces in the west, trying to siege the castle and usurp their uncle. Whether this was with the aid of some regency agreement with Lorgalis we cannot say, because the historical record was destroyed by Estrion some two decades ago. There are two possibilities: that Lorgalis tried to take down the theocracy with martial force, or that the two conspired to trick those nephews into a trap. The second possibility is plausible, unless they were suicidal, scraping together an infantry out of the local cultists. For all we know, Bandur was secretly a dark horse, acting as Lorgalis' proxy in the north. How could it not be so? He played with strategy on the grand stage while he was ignoring his peasants.

What is perfectly clear were the consequences of their failed attempt. Whatever forces they had brought into the west were wiped from the map. The most terrible legends of the Ashrim Isles, of dread noughts scourged by seas of purifying flame, pales to that holocaust. The dark mage turned his powers upon the mountain once called Rihtoth, and blackened the realm with pure malice. When very mighty wielders of essence have vastly burdened the flows, they are capable of triggering flow storms that act as hurricanes of magical power. Sorcerous "maelstroms" proceed under similar principles, but on a far less grand scale of devastation. When flow storms are unleashed upon the world, they reach through the ground itself and are able to cause furious volcanic upheavals, with great explosions of fire and ash.

The ships were incinerated in the blaze of pyroclastic winds. The skies blackened as sack cloth, fires rained from clouds which had no earthly origin. The fabric of reality ripped under strain. Unstable voids sucked air into vacuum, and portals fell into the burning abyss. There were rivers of lava twisting through the lands, shattered and wracked under the gales of preternatural ferocity. It was the world the Empress had made for herself, a torn wasteland ruled with arbitrary power over form and matter. What difference would it make if all the villages were laid waste and drowned within fire and shadow? There is no question that the destruction of the mountain was magical in origin, for the molten rock was held together by enchantments as their reward, a cruel parody of the castle surrounded by black sands.

XII. Apocalypse

Weeks went into months, years fell into days. The time was out of joint. It was the great paradox of poets and philosophers: to rule oneself, one must be in accord with the higher mind of reason. But if the world itself has gone mad, was not the madman the wisest of all? For surely, if we strike at the great chains of being and defy the gods, are we not inviting upon ourselves all the horror of the Abyss? Koar will sit on his throne with furrowed brows, filled with consternation over all things. What is the king of the gods, but the truest symbol for paralysis of power to subsume the world? The burden of never being able to look away from the infinite chaos of oblivion, that is beyond the prophets and Death herself.

Bandur Etrevion was caught between the heights of apprehension and the abysmal depths of our total blindness. For Kestrel the world had always been only too easy, with roles to obey, paths to follow and masters to serve. There were stories that were believed, values held as sincere, fictions like family and fame that were not merely words on a page. But he would never be able to have any peace of mind, there was always the ineffable shadow lurking in the dark woods. He knew only too well that it was not possible to truly become anything, that the dance of life was a masquerade. His own life was inaction in the pursuit of its endless potential. And he saw those things which no one else notices: the omens in the cauldron we dismiss as superstition, the hidden patterns which we say do not exist at all. But when is a madman only excessively lucid, if not when immersed in the haunting desolation of utter madness?

He was taunted by the demonic powers which had fixated upon him, for who is truly the master is blurred with the ever creeping subversion of dark power. He was paranoid, grandiose with delusions. The high priests were terrified of his wild rages of mood, at any moment he might tear them apart in an instant or threaten to end it all to subdue his sorrows. He would drown himself with nepenthe, seeking out any remedy or concoction of spell and mixture that would be the principle of his absolution. There was with him, at all times, the soul of his brother which vexed him with guilt and hatred. Which was a better fate, blissful oblivion or the endless torment of higher existence? To be truly freed of the flesh, it would be necessary for all that he was to cease, and it would all have been for nothing either way.

~

When he could contain himself no longer, he decided the end was near enough. The vileness of his black power had consumed his body, his flesh was failing in ways that unsettled the appetite. But he wielded true power. Terrible, unspeakable might. It was time to ascend beyond these lowest pales, and embrace his higher destiny. It would no longer be madness that plagued him, for the world will become as will and darkest dream. He would cease to be, in a way, but he would be reborn --- beyond good and evil, fear or regret, compassion or mercy. His wrath would no longer be the wielding of power, but only himself as a being of power incarnate. The very fabric of reality would become extension of will.

What was there in this world worth keeping? The lands? Crowns and titles? Kestrel was a fool. Perhaps he should show ambition, and make something of himself. He would crown himself as a great conqueror of the gnolls, for what greater infamy is there in lording over men? Why not move eastward, slaughter the Elves to show them the true extent of their immortality? Why not go south, and defeat the White Mage? He will wield wight lord upon pale rider, black stalker upon orc. Why not move north by north-east and meet the dragons, waging golems on the alchemist and demons on the summoner? There would be a time for making history, when his trolls had feasted upon the man-flesh of the storytellers. It was all pointless. His kingdom was not of this world, he belonged to the dead, undead, and undying.

And so did the world itself. Thus, he set in motion his own apocalypse: "A necropolis, a purge, and nevermore!" What was the sense in having this capital of the living, when we can have a city of the undead? Why not breach the veils between life and death, bleeding reality through into the Void? It was time to move beyond the irrelevant affairs of mortality, and raise the worthy beyond their imprisonment of flesh. The outlines of a grand design formed in his warped imagination, a kingdom of feudal lords as wights and a lower class of diseased ghouls. The aristocracy would feast in a twisted mockery of higher civilization, and the street urchins would bury themselves in the muck to feed upon slugs and worms. It would be the religion of their society, bringing offerings and sacrifices to their god beyond the pale.

~

The necromancer had directed his conjured hordes to assemble the masterpiece of death. In the land where he had constructed Kestrel's burial mound, great walls would form the barrier surrounding the afterlife. He would have a cursed gate of black metal guarded by a hooded gatekeeper in imitation of the death goddess, who would shake its keys and seal it shut so the unworthy could not enter. There would be a River of Unlife culminating in a pool of consecrated dark power. Phantasmal lost souls who were barely bound to this plane of existence would haunt the inner void, as though they were the spirits who had passed into oblivion. The path would circle around on itself into a black symbol of infinity.

In his circle of the symbol would be a seamless mausoleum of granite, which his demonic horde had brought from the High Plateau through a trilithon portal that resemebled a funerary gate. The burial mound is a warship sailing ever away from it, one of many jokes he made at the expense of his family. The whole surface would be the elaborate lies of the living, which concealed the horrible truths hidden below. These monuments stood as testaments to memory, but on the backdrop of an afterlife where all that was ceases to exist. There were various deceptive eulogies that reflected his mixture of hatred and tragic love, the memories preserved upon stone thus being only warped vestiges of rotting flesh.

His own dedication was cryptic: "In Homage to that which defies Death itself." And yet, how could Bandur be defying Death at all, if he was dead himself? He called himself the beloved brother of Kestrel, and the Lord High Sorceror of the theocracy that usurped him. His nephews were slyly derided as "princes all" who died valiantly in the battle for their "ancestral homeland", when they had no such primogeniture and desired only the reward of their father's failure to that end. He buried their disquiet spirits before a lone obelisk of Liaboan marble, for they were unworthy even of the lesser undead.

Kestrel was given a still more cruel epitaph: "Our Lord and Liege, Ruler of the West Country - Never at peace while he lived, and yet to find peace beyond the grave." His death mask was adorned by a coronet rather than a crown, twisting the blade of his lesser rule. In the adjacent room Bandur placed an ominous set of murals depicting the great heroism of Kestrel, vistas of battles on land and sea where Bandur was a shadowy presence in the background manipulating everything to his advantage. This was inscribed with the condescending words, "The Deeds of Kestrel Etrevion, Lord of the West Country." It was a cutting remark on multiple levels; first the failure of vain ambition that we saw with his nephews, and second a play on the heroic "deeds" which Death trades in, who allows unnatural long life to those reckless souls who serve her as a favor of accrued credit. These were still more dishonest when we turn to the foul lies he had in mind for himself, with dark imitations of the false sarcophagi of Kadaena.

XIII. Ascension

The surface of the necropolis was, in other words, symbolic of the hypocrisy of life and death. It was all an illusion hiding a more terrifying truth. There were labyrinths of magical mazes to reach these places: first mental barriers that sent you in circles through the dark woods which were stripped of life, and then a hidden antechamber leading down into a ghoul infested hell where reality bends backwards into itself. But far below these seeming guards against tomb raiders, there was a chamber symbolizing a version of Purgatory where there were only two choices: true death, and the dark path. There was a pile of corpses who were the souls who could not choose, and a throne room with an adjacent banquet hall. It was initially haunted by somehow binding shadow assassins, who are never bound to our reality. He was only finished when, in the darkest depths, he immolated himself in a shroud of ice as his shrine.

But we could go on endlessly with the subtle details, symbols and allusions of his grand design. His servants bring him sacrifices in the Ice Shrine, which is placed at the center of the infinity symbol. So impressing the fabric of reality, it is still perceived within the temporal rifts. Various spots within the necropolis are dark shrines, places so heavily consecrated with dark energy that they have become cut off from remote powers of magic entirely. His sphere of emanation as a voidal channel is so immense that higher plants such as trees cannot grow there at all for a great distance. The undead draw power of him as though he were their dark god. But that is only his body, the dead shell he had left behind to be worshipped. And why not? Where they worshipped a dead goddess in life, he was now a dead god.

It was said that when his grand design was complete, he appeared before the high priests of his theocracy and told them: "There is a place that calls me, where I must go. My brother awaits me there. Seek me not if you value your lives. Find me not if you value your souls!" A lovely sentiment. But who could possibly have been a witness to record it? One suspects that Bandur would not have allowed his priests to continue in that form without him, and there is no place in the heavens or damnation beyond that would free him of power through thralldom. But what it does suggest is that Bandur waited until he could properly ascend his brother's soul to higher existence before transcending mortality himself.

There was some truth to the claim, as claims so often possess. The Dark Path exists now, after a fashion. But they are not of this world. In the old region it is very often confused with another dark cult that is actually thousands of years older; not immortality seekers, but true servants of the Unlife. There is a subtle relation if the brothers had both served the same master, but that would turn our story on its head. What we can say with certainty is that there could be no such theocracy only a century or so after these events, and that there could be no higher civilization at all. The kingdom only existed then in the haunted castle, and their necropolis which was the gate to eternity. It is said that much debased lines of their family survive and use the graveyard as a death right, perhaps from daughters who fled south.

For all we know now, House Kestrel in the human empire may be distantly related to these more illustrious forbears. In a delightful twist of irony, of the kind that makes it seem as though the history of men were written by the hand of a higher wit, for the past six centuries they have become the ascendant vicars of magic in that empire through the volcanic obliteration of their reckless arcane rival. And as so many other misfortunes, accidents, and coincidences in the imperium, who could be blamed? Such was the true curse of the Wizardwaste: the haunting echoes through time, as history emerges within the ever greater wakefulness of the Old Ones. But what truly became of the brothers Etrevion is a riddle, and we would be standing on much safer shores if we admit the god-king still exists somewhere in the blackest hells of the Abyss. The servant of the Shadow rules there, with his brother, defying Death herself.


Contributor's Note:

(OOC: This was first written in 2002, and slightly tweaked over time. It is only here for posterity. The information on the GS Wiki is more accurate, without any cross-mingling of archaic lore. The essay was never completely de-ICE'd because some details cannot be translated. Kadaena, Ulya Shek, Lorgalis, Kharuugh, and the Wars of Dominion are not part of Elanthian history. However, Eorgina was given Kadaena's role in history, so the core idea really reduces to the theological claim that the Dark Gods were the product of "ascension" or experiments with creating non-corporeal entities out of dark essence. This aspect was treated vaguely enough to be compatible with both timelines in a later lecture about Uthex.

Xorus was making the assumption that the original Claedesbrim Castle was part of the Etrevion storyline, which is reasonable, but for which there is no strong evidence in the absence of logs. It is more likely that the castle belonged to the kingdom Kestrel conquered, perhaps the northern edge of Saralis, and its haunted state was the result of the "sorcerous intervention" used to pull victory from the jaws of defeat. His interpretation of the Black Sands is mostly speculation. The language of the essay was stilted and verbose on purpose. The author was trying to spread dark magic to humans so they would destroy themselves. While it uses an interpretation of Kestrel serving a Dragonlord, it is much more likely that Kestrel was serving Lorgalis under the auspices of the Cult of the Sea Drake. Bandur would have pledged himself through Kadaena's daughter, perhaps even becoming Lorgalis' proxy on the marches of Saralis. - Xorus' player)