The Wight Warden
Like a grave that lay untouched for aeons, the dark, sprawling castle stood grim and silent upon the hill. Around the hill lay the foggy, murky Dedjin Swamp, which slowly bubbled and stank of innumerable years of rotting vegetation; a narrow path of slimy stones winding through the dark waters. Riek had said that the stronghold had stood empty for only a decade, but its decrepit, ruinous appearance chilled Tannin to her core.
Beyond three enormous statues of cloaked, skeletal figures of crumbling stone that would have made the King himself shudder, there lay a wide path that wound its way to the top of the hill, carved into the solid rock. Like spindly, bony hands desperately reaching toward the gloom-ceiled sky, slender spires and towers high over Tannin’s head sprouted from the massive body of the fortress, rising high above the black stones of the ramparts that were cracked and crumbling as if this place had once suffered a grand assault by a massive army. Enormous holes appeared to have been blasted through the outer walls and shattered guard towers, the portcullis had been smashed and twisted, leaving an opening easy to crawl under, and several smaller buildings within the main courtyard and been razed to the ground, leaving behind only corpses of wood and rock.
And then there were the bodies…
Tannin walked noiselessly through the remains of the castle’s main courtyard, the wizard Riek following closely behind her. Dozens, or perhaps hundreds, of grime-covered bodies littered the ground in heaps of morbidity, the flesh on their twisted, skeletonized faces having rotted off long ago. As the ever-present clouds shifted slightly on their eternal perch above the Western land, feeble rays of sunlight managed to filter through and illuminate the details of the anonymous inanimate bodies. Many of the dead were still clothed in tattered black cloaks and robes. The rest were clad in what was once-shining armor, that now reflected the light with sullen resentment. Through the myriad rents, dirt, and rust, Tannin could still tell that the armor had once been pure white, and had once proudly displayed the royal symbol of a blazing sun on each chest piece.
“By the Mother of Light,” Tannin whispered in surprised horror, stopping suddenly in her tracks amid the lifeless audience. Involuntarily, her dark, pine-green eyes flicked down at her own, worn armor—a dingy, but still recognizable white with a fading sun emblazoned upon the chest denoting her as, or at least someone who had once been, a Sun Knight. She wondered where in the Mother’s name the wizard had brought them, but by now knew better than to ask, even though the question gnawed at her mind like a rat desperate to escape a burning house.
Tannin had met the wizard in Sel’Mirid, which she had found to be a surprisingly big place for a city located so close to the border. Tannin had ended up in the Sel’Mirid gutters after having served with the Sun Guard in the capital city of Nos Erimoor for a number of years. She had made the ranks quickly in her short career. But in an unfortunate turn of events, she was tried and convicted for the accidental death of a minor noble, despite the fact that it had been her commander who had committed the horrendous deed in a fit of drunken rage. Fortunately, she had only been discharged and put out in the streets. Making her way across the six lands, offering her blade to those in need of muscle, she had eventually ended up in Sel’Mirid. Not many cared to hire a disgraced ex-Sun Knight, so she often spent her nights hungry in a dank alley that reeked of rotting garbage and human filth.
Her finger absentmindedly traced the symbol of a broken sun-shield that had been crudely carved into her left cheek with her own sword at her mockery of a trial, forever branding her as dishonorable.
When the wizard had approached her one night with the offer of a job and several purses of gold drenn, she had agreed immediately. He had given his name as Riek, and told her that they would be venturing into Western Ravvinoth to an abandoned castle in search of something, but that was all the information the bald, squat man was willing to impart. When she pressed him for more answers, he threatened to cut her loose and pay her not a single coin.
So, she kept quiet.
The days and weeks on horseback were rough, but, to her surprise, somewhat enjoyable after becoming reacquainted with riding. She was thankful to bid farewell to the city, with its overwhelming fetid odors, indefinable shrieking noises, and dreadful criminal elements. But when they crossed the border into the Western lands, however, Tannin’s sense of adventure and peace evaporated. The lands of Western Ravvinoth seemed to exist in a constant state of cloud-ceiled gloom, frequent rains, and chill winds. The blessed sun could hardly ever penetrate the roof of ever present gray. All manner of unholy creatures were rumored to dwell in the shadowed corners of these lands. She knew this was where many mages resided as well, forced out of the Eastern kingdom. Magical folk were an affront to the holy Mother of Light, which is why the King had ordered their persecution and imprisonment.
Yet, here she was, traveling with a wizard of unspoken origin and unknown power. She had frequently wondered if he was a registered mage. Or was he some rogue or malefactor hiding in back alleys and hiring desperate folk with nothing to lose for illicit jobs? What was this man really searching for in these accursed Western lands of ubiquitous darkness and shadows? And why did a wizard need to hire muscle anyway?
Tannin had decided that none of it mattered. She had been expelled from the Sun Army, and it was not her job to uphold its laws. For better or worse, she was her own master now, and needed coin, lest she starve to death in the streets like some orphaned urchin. If this strange man in his flowing yellow and red robes wanted to pay for a riding partner, then far be it from her to argue.
Her mind snapped rudely back to her present location as Tannin heard the wizard Riek, already quite a way ahead of her, order her to open the massive, oaken doors of the castle’s main entryway. Picking her way through the carcass-littered courtyard, Tannin managed to reach the wizard without having stepped on any of the scattered remains. Grasping one of the large iron rings with both hands, Tannin leaned her weight back and pulled with a fierce grunt. After a momentary hesitation, the door swung open with a creaking moan, sounding as if a ghost were being pried unwillingly from its sepulcher. A frail gust of phantasmal wind blew forth as the portal opened, and Tannin felt gooseflesh erupt over her arms.
As she peered inside, absently rubbing the joint of her shoulder, the fat wizard stalked past her into the inky blackness beyond the yawning doorway. He stepped several feet in and paused. Performing a complex motion with his right hand, he muttered a series of words in a language that Tannin was unfamiliar with. A green luminescent orb, about the size of her head materialized from the wizard’s outstretched palm, as if coalescing latent energy from their surroundings. It slowly rose into the air before him to rain eerily green light upon the interior, pushing the shadows back into their dark recesses.
Their booted feet echoed loudly, too loudly, Tannin thought, as the warrior and the wizard made their way through the entryway and deeper into the mysterious, sinister castle. Inside, the air was stale, and all around them was deathly silence and stillness. Signs of battle were as present within as they had been without. The lifeless bodies seemed never ending, and more than once, Tannin stumbled when her foot was somehow caught in the skeletal grip of a long-dead hand.
An overwhelming pervasive sadness had begun seeping into her soul as she followed Riek through the castle. By the time they reached the colossal great hall, Tannin’s chest physically ached, as if she had actually been sobbing, while she gazed at all the death and destruction. Here in the great hall, as the wizard Riek’s green orb of illumination cast dancing grotesque shadows about them, Tannin could see furniture that had been tossed aside and broken. Dusty, shattered plates and food that had long since rotted to nothing but black stains, littered the floor as if the castle’s residents had been caught by surprise in the middle of a great feast. Tapestries that adorned the walls were faded, torn, and scorched in places. The pillars and walls showed further signs of being struck with projectiles, and cold sconces and candelabra were draped in cobwebs whose arachnoid occupants had left long ago for a less depressing home. Cracked and broken stained glass windows, covered in years of grime and wind-blown debris, glowed faintly under what feeble rays the sun could send down through the solid roof of gray clouds outside. From what Tannin could see, the glass depicted strange tableau of black-clad figures performing bizarre funerary rites, conversing with corpses, and occasionally wielding what appeared to be weapons comprised of bones.
Everything she saw made Tannin shudder, but the worst were the bodies. Everywhere…more and more remains, all fallen in some monstrous battle…There were those who wore the white armor of the Sun Army, and those clad in black. It seemed obvious to her that the two groups had been fighting one another, but for what purpose? What nightmare had happened here, so awful that it left a palpable stain in the very atmosphere?
Passing the remains of what was once a tall woman with long dark hair, who lay clad in robes that curled around her desiccated corpse like a nest of black serpents, Tannin could have sworn the gaunt, ghastly face turned to gaze mournfully at her. She shook her head, deciding it was only a trick of the green orb’s unnatural light.
On the rear wall of the great hall, she could see three massive wooden doors, spaced about fifty feet from one another. With a chubby finger, the wizard indicated the middle door, and Tannin walked up to it, squinting through the gloom to make out details of the intricate etching of on the portal. Carved into the heavy, dark wood of the door, she could make out the form of a large open tome gripped in a pair of skeletal claws.
Tannin snorted in irritation and odd disappointment. Had this been what Riek was after? A blasted book? Damn sorcerers and their books and parchments and scrolls! She rolled her eyes disdainfully. They had journeyed all this way for some ink and pages. She held her tongue, but did not hide the contempt on her face.
The wizard reached out an eager hand and pulled the iron ring, opening the door with an expression of covetous delight and stepped over the threshold. The orb of illumination followed after him, but before Tannin could take a step, she heard a soft skittering noise from behind her, as a frigidness caressed the back of her neck like a finger made of ice.
Swiftly unsheathing her blade, she spun around to confront the molester, and stared with started eyes at the empty shadow-engulfed hall. Nothing moved nor seemed amiss as she scanned the place. Perhaps a drop of water had fallen from some crack in the ceiling, she thought. It had been raining earlier. She chided herself for jumping at imagined spooks and phantasms.
Closing the heavy door quietly, yet firmly behind her, Tannin cautiously followed the wizard through a maze of similarly deserted and thrashed rooms and corridors, until they finally came to a set of worn steps that spiraled up and out of sight like a colossal stone serpent burrowing toward the sky.
Several minutes later, Tannin had lost count of how many steps they had climbed. She found herself rather amazed at the stamina the portly wizard possessed as he continued climbing without pause. They passed landing after landing, until, just as her lungs felt they would collapse upon themselves, the wizard suddenly halted, peering intently into the gloom only partially relieved by the sickly green orb. She followed his gaze and saw that he had spotted a door much larger than others they had recently passed. The strange black wood of the door was covered in runes that had been carved with an expert hand. Tannin had no idea as to what meaning the runes held, however.
“Here it is,” Riek told her, eyes gleaming. He said he could literally smell the fount of knowledge that lay behind this door. The object of his search had must be in there. With a hand that shook slightly, the wizard wiped the beads of sweat that had formed on his brow, and opened the door which swung open with neither noise nor fuss.
As she stepped inside the room after Riek, Tannin’s jaw dropped with astonishment. While she had no fondness for books, she had to admit that what lay before them was a majestic sight like none she had ever witnessed. Shelves stretched infinitely along the walls, some reaching two stories high, lining the titanic room like sentinels standing watch over any readers below. Looking around in wonder, Tannin decided that this place was packed with books too numerous to count. Columns taller than the largest house in Tannin’s hometown rose to the high ceiling like trees of polished black stone. A plethora of enormous leather-bound tomes and pieces of curled parchment lay scattered on the floor, among even more corpses, as if the place had been ransacked after the battle had ended. Chairs were strewn haphazardly about, and gigantic oaken tables were covered with ancient scrolls and books that had clearly, judging by the blanket of dust that covered them, lain opened for many years. Two delicately ornate spiral staircases of iron, one with a bent railing, led up to the wide second-floor balcony that encircled the library.
The sheer volume of arcane knowledge and dark secrets that must lie within the walls of this place sent a chill crawling down Tannin’s spine.
Like some perverse jest, however, the splendor of the mammoth library was overshadowed by the disarray in which it lay, and even more so by the corpses strewn about every which way. They lay upon the floor, almost peaceful in their melancholy rest, like a dressmaker’s mannequins waiting to be righted and posed.
Staring around in continuing wonder, Tannin followed Riek to the center of the library, where he carefully avoided contact with any of the bodies. He stood there a moment, eyes closed, fingers at his temple, the flickering green orb painting his face with preternatural shadows as it pulsed with light.
Was the wizard really going to search this entire place for whatever knowledge he sought? That would take a lifetime, perhaps two…
As Riek opened eyes that reflected the sickly green illumination like mirrors, the entire ground shook violently, as if some slumbering beast had been awakened by their presence and was now coming to meet them. Several books fell to the floor with dull thumps, and the immense stained-glass windows shook in their frames. A quaking of the earth? she wondered. Or perhaps the castle had been built on unstable ground and now left untended for so long was falling to ruin?
The tremors suddenly increased in intensity, throwing the pair to the ground like dolls made of rags. Tannin fell backwards, smacking the back of her head painfully on the floor. Flashes of color and twinkling stars danced before her blurry eyes as she struggled to clear her vision.
Then, as abruptly as it had started, the foundation-shaking seism ceased. Her vision had begun to sharpen, and she started as she felt a meaty hand grip her arm tightly, realizing it was the wizard who had fallen beside her. His face seemed to have drained of color as he gazed, eyes as large as wagon wheels, into the darkness beyond the orb’s sphere of light. Turning her throbbing head slowly, Tannin looked up from where she lay sprawled on the floor.
As her eyes focused, she wished the wizard’s green orb of illumination had been snuffed out, for that would have been more merciful.
Surrounding them, Tannin could see the numerous corpses that had littered the room. Now, however, the dead ones no longer lay peacefully on the ground, motionless, lifeless. Instead, they stood encircling the warrior and the wizard in a slowly closing ghoulish ring. Like marionettes of death, they stood, silently staring with empty eye sockets and fleshless faces, broken teeth snapping as bony jaws clacked open and closed. A wave of nauseous terror flooded Tannin’s veins with ice.
Sounding like a night wind passing through the leafy boughs of a dark forest, a voice suddenly whispered hoarsely. Tannin felt its every frigid word scrape against the fabric of her mind like a nightmare that remained after waking.
“I am the Wight Warden,” it rasped, haunting, sinister. There was no emotion present in that ghastly voice. “I am the guardian of Shadaskar Castle. Who are you, who trespass where you are not welcome?” The voice paused briefly, then continued when they did not answer. “Thieves! Pilferers!” it suddenly barked.
Riek attempted to get to his feet, frantically sputtering as he attempted to plead his case. But in the blink of an eye, dozens of the risen corpses sprang toward him and latched their bony claws onto the wizard, skeletal fingers digging deep into the meaty flesh of his body. Blood began to run down from the gouging claws, quickly saturating his immaculate robes, dripping onto the floor in growing puddles of wet crimson. The wizard tried to form words, but was able to utter no more than a wet gurgle.
“No lies,” came the Wight Warden’s voice, drifting through the chill air. “Only death.”
As if responding to this command, every corpse that grasped Riek’s flesh suddenly pulled. Tannin saw Riek’s face contort in a flash of unbearable agony. She heard him exhale a short gasp, as his body burst in every direction. The dead ones continued to rip him open, rending him asunder into bloody pieces like dogs all fighting over the same hunk of rotten meat.
Tannin sat frozen on the floor, feeling warm blood and viscera splattering her. She felt a scream boil up from her chest, but was unable to escape as horror and repulsion painfully constricted her throat.
In the next moment, empty eyes turned to regard her, and bony hands secured themselves under her arms. The undead creatures hauled her roughly to her feet as if she weighed no more than a bundle of sticks.
“You,” the whispering, phantasmal voice drawled in icy tones.
“Please,” Tannin managed to croak, her erstwhile companion’s blood dripping down her face. “Please don’t…”
A sense of utter despair gripped her heart as she stared into the face of an impending, inevitable obliteration at the hands of profane monsters.
“You wear the armor of the enemy,” the Wight Warden spat hatefully, ignoring her pleas. “The armor of the ones who attacked my masters, and slaughtered them like animals.” Tannin could feel the dark anger, regret, and sorrow clearly in the voice. “Yet…” the Warden went on, its tone softening, “I sense you are not one of them…not anymore. They turned their back on you, and in return, you on them.”
“Yes, it is true,” Tannin uttered as vehemently as she could, unable to tear her eyes away from the horde of dead faces staring back at her.
“Then know the truth of them,” the Warden hissed. “Know the pain of my masters.”
Like a cold, white dagger, the bony finger of one of the risen corpses in front of her was thrust into Tannin’s left eye. She shrieked in excruciating agony as she felt her eye burst and ooze down her cheek. But, she soon discovered that this pain was nothing compared to what was to come.
With a brilliant flash, vivid scenes of bloody, savage battle were thrust into her mind as if she were experiencing them in that very moment. Men, women, and even children, all clad in black, were being massacred. They were fighting back, but clearly, they were losing. Inexplicably, unendurable sadness wracked her body like a physical sickness. Her heart sank into an abyss of despair and hate. New planes of grief and misery she could never have imagined possible were now open to her mind as she flew through the gulf of darkness where no joy or happiness could exist. Sorrow and anguish pulsed through her veins like an infection, tainting her blood with infinite heartbreak.
Tears and blood ran down her cheeks painting her tormented face into the visage of grief itself. She cried for an eternity, as black portals of trauma blossomed within her very being.
The disembodied voice of the Wight Warden began to cackle delightfully, apparently enjoying her suffering, then became a booming laugh that shook the whole room as it had quaked before. Tannin’s tenuous connection with reality told her that each risen corpse had begun to laugh as well, their hissing, clacking laughs resembling a hundred gales whistling at once through a cave.
Tannin’s cries ceased and she felt herself begin to giggle with them. Snickering, guffawing, she joined in the pandemoniac cacophony of laughter, her voice rising above the rest until she screamed like a madwoman.
Yes, she thought gleefully. The King and the Sun Army shall pay for what they did here. Murderers, betrayers, animals. They shall all suffer greatly, for this pain was their doing.
The masters of this place shall be avenged, Tannin swore.
The necromancers would rise again!