The Gilded Gate of Barthselheim, standing five men tall in all its near-obscene splendor, had only been closed once in its centuries of standing, far back in the Old Age. The stories Tolomir had read of this time had impressed upon him the significance of that moment in history, when perhaps the most prosperous city on the mortal plane had to seal itself away from such ancient evils like Craxvalox and the unholy spawn it created. It was this evil that forced the Divines, including his Silena, to descend from their proper place above them and cast the beast down into pits not spoken of in polite tongue.
Now, to see such a massive ingress not only sealed, but tarnish and withered as if the gold had been bled of its radiance, made Tolomir clench his fists. If not for the loving cloak of light that his Divine had blessed him with, he had no doubt that any joy or pleasure felt by a mortal soul would be weeping right now. The very skies are choked in grey, to prevent her Light from touching it. How many now suffer within these walls without her?
Tolomir pressed a hand to the door, and was not surprised to feel it push back against him. “Indeed, there is wickedness here, my Divine, such as I have never seen. Through my body, bring your will to those who need you…” he prayed, and was rewarded to feel the warmth inside him swell. In one fluid motion, Tolomir drove his arm up to the shoulder into the seam of the barrier, dug his fingers into the metal deep at the center, and pulled the Gilded Gate open with the ease of brushing aside a branch. What waited for him beyond that was silence. No traffic of meddlers and merchants from market to market, no swell of travelers seeking coin or goods, no synchronized bootstomps of the city’s militia to keep order. Just the silence of death. Stepping inside the walls of the city, he could feel the already prolific weight and cold of oppression increase, trying to wear him down and break his soul.
Yet Barthselheim was not abandoned or in ruins, as its prestigious buildings were untouched by decay. Forges kissed by the maiden Pyella still burned, waiting for fresh metal. But the crops and livestock Harrophet had sewn into the land were but dust on the bricks at his feet, with only the iron shoes and saddles remaining of long-lost workhorses or steers. Lost piles of fine clothing were crumpled all along the street before him, and full sets of shining armor had fallen clumsily into heaps, swords unsheathed. Behind him, Tolomir traced the clusters of arrows and spears both helplessly on the stone and lodged into the city’s walls. “Whatever happened here did not happen without struggle…may the fallen be judged fairly in Prakesh’s courts.”
With no path but forward, the lone human followed the main market circuit until he reached the Ebony Spire, the central point in all Barthselheim. A shining monument of the finest stone that had no known builder. It’s place here was certainly the work of a Divine, though Tolomir did not concern himself with the particulars, as his Selina had not created it. The scene around him was all the same, emptiness and despair. but he did not buckle at such oppression. My charge is to bring her Light back to these people, so it will be done.
At first, he thought the sound was only the breeze carrying a piece of refuse, or perhaps the lost spirit of a tortured soul had crossed his path. Only on it’s third summon did Tolomir realize he could hear someone calling out. “Stranger! Enter quickly, before it comes!”
Across the marketplace, the door of an inn had cracked open, and the restrained shouts of a man summoned Tolomir to approach. As soon as he was close enough, the voice from the door grabbed his arm and pulled him inside. The voice was attached to a gargantuan man, half-again taller and twice as broad as the traveler. But the man was thinning in places he shouldn’t be, gaunt with hunger and lips cracked from thirst. Nor was the man alone, as Tolomir’s attention quickly picked out the dozens of people crammed in a building not meant to house them. Though their eyes were alert with surprise and shock, only excited breaths greeted him. The emptied meade barrels and decaying remains of foodscraps crammed into a corner told him how desperate they were. “What’s happened here?”
“We don’t know,” the weakened giant began, “in the dark of the night it appeared, weeks ago. The shape of a man, but no mortal could be so evil. It just swept through the city, street by street…killing everything it touched! Not just killing, no…it ate them!”
The lack of ripped robes and shredded armor in the streets spoke volumes about what now plagued Barthselheim. Indeed, no beast would be so methodical, and no man would be so merciless. “How have you stayed alive in here? Surely a wickedness as thorough as this knows you are here.”
The burly man shrugged, “Hand to the Divines, I do not know. When it first appeared, I barred the main door and pulled in everyone I could. It even followed the main road right past us, but it did not bother to look. How it turned a deaf ear to the panic, I could not say.”
¨Listicus!¨, someone whisper-screamed from the windowside, ¨Look, they´re coming back!¨
That announcement made the chatter within the room rise in a positive tone, as many crowded their way to see the once-empty street. Tolomir saw them easily in the shadows, three men carrying large sacks on their backs and more in their arms, and it suddenly dawned on him how these people were surviving in such confined spaces. ¨Where did those men find all that food?¨
¨From anywhere they can,¨ Listicus replied, the goliath pointing across the pavement. ¨Abandoned houses, private greenerys…anything that´s left.¨
Tolomir watched as the scavengers sprinted from alley to alley and doorway to doorway, not spending more than a moment exposed in the street. The men only drew breath when they were in the cover of shadow, as he could see the fog of their fear. One by one, they looked up and down the avenue, then up to the abandoned vistas before racing to the block adjacent to the inn.
The chatter in the room rose dramatically for a moment, before Listicus and a few others ‘hush’ed the energy. Even Tolomir had taken a step forward for a better view, to better understand the collective anticipation. The lead scavenger chanted something silently, a prayer to a Divine that was not Silena, and sprinted with all his spirit across the main road and up the entryway of the Inn. On that cue, the several people gathered at the barricade pulled the rubbish aside so the man could burst through the door to hushed cheers and excited rumblings.
The second man stumbled almost immediately at the start of his run, cutting his hand on the rough stone of the curb, but he was successful at barging his way into the crowd. The third man, now rocking back and forth with nervous energy, took one of his fingers and touched the exposed crimson before frantically retreating back into the block’s shadow and covering his mouth. The quiet jubilation within the crowd hushed and turned to a palpable fear. It was then that Tolomir noticed he could see the breath of everyone in the room, as if the day had just frozen over in that moment.
Still, the final man gave his Divine blessing and started his sprint. And as he crossed the central lane of the tradeway, the scavenger froze mid-step, unable to move or signal. The crowd awaiting their runner began to wail and weep at his loss, which puzzled Silena’s champion, until he saw what approached. A figure that seemed to simply appear from the space between the individual stones of the road. It wore the shape of a man, covered in a deep black robe that hid any limb. But it did not carry itself like one, for indeed it did not touch the ground at all. Hovering a hand’s length above the stones, and casting a wake of violet and red clouds in its wake, the figure approached the stranded man, but stopped well shy of touching range.
The scavenger dropped to the ground and screamed in unmatched agony. Again and again, the man wailed out untranslatable sounds of pain, which Tolomir noticed were growing less and less human. To his horror, this was because the scavenger himself was becoming less and less, as if the ghastly figure were sapping the muscle and bones out from under the skin. The man became flatter and more pliable with each passing second until there was nothing left inside to drain away, only a husk of skin twisted in fear remained. This flimsy shell of human then darted out from under the sack of collected goods, compacted itself into a long grotesque string, and careened itself into the chasm where the hooded figure’s head would be.
I hope you all enjoy.