The lands of Etten are being swallowed by foes who may not exist.
In the wide southern oceans of Ur lie the lands of Etten. Individually smaller then any other major land mass, Etten are a collection of islands that are connected by natural and man-made bridges, some of which were ancient when the first men came to Etten. Low and flat, with rolling hills, the lands are green, plain-covered, and peaceful. Sheep, cows and other beasts roam in great herds, while the vast sea crashes against mighty, crumbling cliffs.
Magic has never been a deep part of the Etten life. Never the powerful force it became in other lands, such as Alteres, magic was treated as a luxury, something indulged in by the few, and ignored by the many. The clan masters kept small enclaves of magic users, but for the common man, magic was little more than another tool. When medicine or conventional tools failed, the Shamans were called to heal the sick, bring the rain, or turn back the rising waters. Life was slow, and calm. However, it was not without peril.
The lands below Etten were a country in and of themselves. Ages ago, some cataclysm of the earth vomited up Etten from the sea bed, and the scars still remain. Great rifts, caves and pits riddle the islands, with tunnels and caves that stretch for miles, all the way to the mainland and beyond. One could walk the caves for a lifetime, and map but a tiny corner of them. Black and gloomy, lit only by rouge fissures leaking sun or the odd, dull-white fungus, the caves are treacherous, but far from uninhabited.
Goblins, orcs, viper-men, and others call these tunnels home. Horrors, the likes of which even the mighty minotaur and ogre avoid, lurk in the deepest depths. Many are related to distant surface-dwelling ancestors, but have grown strange and terrible in their isolation. Bandits, thieves, the lost and the broken also call these chambers home, lurking in stinking warrens, working with and against the demi-human races as well. The surface lands of Etten are content ignoring and being ignored by this nation of the dark, rising only to put down raiders, or to prove the mettle of the young, brave, and untried.
For long ages, this was the way. Etten would live in peace, treated as a backwater by the outside nations, contented with the management of the clans, gossip of the new King or the princes, and the care and feeding of animal and vegetable. Hordes would rise from the depths in the dead of night, and men and women would take up arms, dust off armor, and fight with a fury to protect their lands. Young men, heads filled with heroes, would plunge in to the deep, slaughtering and being slaughtered in the name of glory. The tired, bloody victors would emerge with treasures rare and glorious, lauded as heroes and champions. Older men, fingering their scars, would chuckle at the happy fools, and lean closer around the fire.
The great war touched Etten softly. The New Dawn found few converts among the magic-poor populace, and became just one of many doctrines held by the many tribes and clans. The Shamans became more quiet, and moved a trifle farther from town, but by and large, little changed. The advances in technology, the great steel and clockwork ships and machines were viewed with a bemused awe. For a people who moved and flowed with the seasons, there was little use for great devices and mighty machines. The clan lords, in their forts and settlements, took some in trade, but they were used more for status then their intended purpose. At least, for a time.
The people of Etten realized the world had changed when the tiny town of Golmag vanished. Never a prosperous village, Golmag was near many of the great caves and crags leading to the dark nation, and was populated mainly by the brave, stupid, or exiled. A trader was coming, laden with tools of death and conquest, only to find the way barred. Over the entire town rose a great, black dome. Atop it stretched a chipped, crooked pillar, topped with a roiling, pulsing mass of sickly, golden light. The dome was seamless, the material glossy and steely hard. The silence around it was deafening, as if the world were holding its breath. High atop the dome, thin, sickly figures stirred, pressing and molding masses of the black, cold stone.
Many came to see the dome, only to find it growing. Great tunnels and tubes had emerged from the dome, stretching and driving everywhere. They looked like mad, twisted walkways, some standing on high stilts, some driving in to the earth or the ocean. Many were capped and closed by great walls of steel, but some lay open and unprotected. In to these the brave heroes ventured. Of the host who entered, five returned. Of them, only two remained who could speak.
They told of vast, black chambers built of the black stone. Pillars of the same material, capped with the glowing masses. Wide, shallow pools of still, stagnant water, channels of the same moving with geologic slowness below the walkways. Temples of arching, horrid dimensions, leading down to alters and chambers of unknown, gore-soaked gods. Over all hung a stillness, a silence that left even the bravest jumpy and uneasy. Sealed doorways, once broken, led to deep halls lined with doorways, all leading to sealed, inaccessible tombs.
It was as they searched these tombs, and found them laden with treasures both valuable and strange, that the hordes attacked. Waves of men, beasts and monsters poured upon the heroes, attacking with a crazed furor that left them reeling and struggling to stem the tide. Even normally cowardly beasts threw themselves against the heroes like suicidal zealots, screaming oaths to the “tomb lords” as they beat against the glistening armor of the heroes with picks, hammers and files. It was after the first wave, during a brief pause, that the men realized that the horde was not equipped for battle, but for building.
Each of them carried the tools of builders and engineers. Each seemed exhausted, thin, and wounded by activity. The men fought their way free, against hordes who seemed to boil from every doorway, every pool, falling from the ceiling. They were hollow eyed, driven, and covered in dust, muck, and shavings. The heroes dropped their treasure, their shields, and fled. Falling back in to the harsh light of day, then few men panted, turning around to make a final stand. The horde, however, stayed inside the tunnel. Glaring at the men, they quickly sealed the tunnel, the new wall joining seamlessly with the sides.
Few knew what to do. The black walls repelled the strongest rams, the sharpest swords. Even the new “Null Cannons” from across the sea did little but mar the glossy sheen of the stone. The tunnels spread, tainting the waters, killing grass and trees near where they grew, slowly swallowing town after town. In the withered, blasted lands, great monoliths and ziggarats grew, the sick golden light atop their spires burning and withering the flesh of any living thing near them. The days were filled with stony silence, the nights with the sound of chattering and building.
The people appealed to the king, begging for release from this nameless, faceless horror. King Harper set out with his men, and delved in to the nation of the dark. They butchered and hacked a blood-soaked trail through the dark, proclaiming a end only when the under dwellers revealed the cause for the slow devouring of the surface. Again and again they found refusal. Torture and bribery did nothing, no man or beast would speak a word, seeming frozen by fear, even unto death. It seemed a fruitless crusade, until they found the old man.
He was ancient, in a world where the old were unknown or slaughtered for their weakness. The king came to him, as asked about the horrors growing on the surface. The old man laughed, blind eyes staring to the ceiling, and beckoned him closer. His voice was a thin as mist, slurred and dull with disuse.
“Come, young one, and I will tell you of the doom of your world.”
The ancient spoke of a time long passed. In the age of Making, there were beings who balked at death's kiss, who refused to go quietly in to the land beyond the veil. In truth, it was said they could not pass on, that their spirits of rage and hate would simply…evaporate. Their hatred and frustration led them to seek a prolonging of life, ever clinging to existence, even as the body crumbled and collapsed. They sought out every magic, ever scheme to live beyond life…but were thwarted. One by one, they passed to the unhappy land, each leaving behind monoliths of rage, betrayal, and hatred. They retired to their tomb-castles, brooding and hating everything that lived.
They were forgotten, the sands of time wearing away their legacy, their mad campaigns hazing in to myth and story. The coming of the age of magic sealed them in their chambers, the ravaging energies too great for their delicate bodies, even the sun becoming a savaging horror to them. They used the few, deathless slaves left to them to carve and create more and more splendid chambers, more lavish decorations…all a pointless monument to a life they could no longer grasp.
Their old chambers and highways abandoned, other being moved in, claiming them as their own, ever ignorant of their true owners. They found the sealed vaults, pulsing with a cloying evil, and turned away, shunning them as cursed. Things went on this way for eons, until a uprising started to unbalance the flows of magic. The cycle and flow of energy grew unbalanced. It flowed to the surface…never to return. It grew horded, channeled and dissipated. The seals grew thin, then cracked…then crumbled.
The under dark grew strange. Great beasts were found gibbering and whispering in corners. Wicked men spoke of black stones, of tablets engraved with contracts, promising wealth beyond measure for obedience, and punishments that would outlast the life-age of the universe for betrayal. Being immune to fear awoke from nightmares, finding their meager beds soiled, a coy voice compelling them to pick up hammer and chisel.
The black stone poured from the deepest, most forgotten tombs, pressed from wells so forbidden and twisted, only the ritually blinded were allowed entry. None knew from where the orders came, just that the strong would take up whips, and drive the workers with a zealous frenzy. They spoke of deadlines, of projects on timetables written in the powder of those who had failed. Reflecting pools of foul water. Trees planted, then walled in and left to die. Towns sealed, then left to wither and die of dark, starvation, and thirst.
Like greedy children, the masters coveted and hated that which they did not have, taking and breaking life wherever they could. Nobody knew who was leading the charge of death. The masters had been forgotten whispers for ages, their servants vanished before the first question of man. It was only a nameless pull, a force, that drove them. That, and fear. Some would shirk, cut corners, or refuse. They were found, broken, twisted, hollowed, sagging, but still alive, and unable to die. Trapped in shells teetering on the brink of oblivion, not even physical annihilation could ease their suffering.
The horde toiled on, driven past exhaustion by fear, working for masters who may already be long dead. They are promised the riches of all the earth, when the last of life is entombed and tortured for the amusement of their forgotten lords. They spread, slowly but relentlessly, reaching for the heart of life with ghostly, hungry hands. No living thing under their sway will betray the Tomb Lords. None will know, beyond whispered footsteps and half-seen shadows, if these masters exist until the end of their toil. Still, some speak of sights in the lowest chambers. Of shadows cast by searing, golden light, of dripping power shed from stalking wraiths. Of lives twisted, bent and misshapen in to unnatural forms for the amusement of hearts grown icy and small.
The king fled the dark, the old man's laughter on his heels. He drove his people from the slowly corrupting islands in a exodus known as the March of Tears. With a heavy heart, he destroyed bridges that had stood for eons, and set about erecting the largest structure on Etten. Castle Blackguard now towers on the island of Gommarsh, covering nearly all of it, the pitted walls driving from the sea to the highest peaks. The great road runs from its thick gates, leading to lands now broken and twisted, sealed in networks of black chambers and tunnel walkways. The road it kept up, torches lit in the eternal hope of the recovery of their lost homes.
Blackguard keeps a constant vigil, watchful for any expansion, any hint of building by the deluded servants of the Tomb Lords. Endless war now rages on the borders of the free lands of Etten, the gains of the evening pushed back with the dawn, only to be lost again at nightfall. The good king Harper fell shortly after his citadel was completed, lost to a horror seen by nobody but one lonely watchmen. He spoke of the king striding out along the road, armed and armored, to a rift that had opened in a nearby tomb. He entered, never flinching, even as a nauseating light started to spill from the crag. His scream rang out across the ocean, the watchman seeing something vast, thin, coated with dripping gold armor moments before he lost his sight forever.
The mad king Daa'l rules now. Obsessed with the baubles and clockworks from the far lands of Alteres, he dismissed the Tomb Lords as a passing annoyance. The general Cowl commands the legions, and clashes with the mad king, forced to bow and scrape to a man who views his post as silly and unneeded. Heroes still rise, and clash with the dark…but failure is much more then scars and shame. The victors emerge battle hardened, while the failures return in the horde's front lines as broken, hollow shells, chipping at already flagging spirits.
The lands of Etten, once pastoral and gentle, are rapidly turning hard and embittered. Walls and forts rise daily, tunnels are collapsed and broken, and neighbors hunt for spies among their fellows. More and more weapons are imported, in the hopes of discovering some weakness with which to topple the Tomb Lords. They are locked in a siege against a foe bent not on power or wealth, but death. The people are shifting from farmers to warriors, leaving the crook behind for the blade. The people of Etten are finding themselves sought after in the war-torn mainlands, pledging their swords and tireless efforts for promise of supplies and aid in their own war.
Over all, the Tomb Lords laugh, forgotten shadows who may or may not rise and topple the towers of man. The people of Etten are at war with ghosts.
And the ghosts are winning.
License: CC BY:NC:SA 3.0