Toppled headstones and broken-walled crypts are a silent reminder of the Necromancer Wars, when some powerful Lord of the Undead raised all of the corpses for his or her army. The burst open graves have all since filled in again, and the former hill is now a low island surrounded by swamp. Vines and creepers have wound their way through the old limestone, shifting the rubble around like a green glacier over the decades. One mausoleum at the highest, driest point still stands, even though it too has been emptied of occupants.
Tonight, the mausoleum is not quite empty, although the visitor is uncharacteristically alive. The old stone structure doesn't seem to mind, however. A sarcophagus serves as a makeshift table, upon which is set a surprisingly fine bone-china tea service. An upturned human skull serves as both oil lamp and stove to heat the kettle, which is fashioned from ceramic instead of bone. A black robed Korv jauntily hums a funereal dirge while she dusts off a few blocks of masonry pushed up against the sarcophagus to serve as seats and perches. Like most Reapers, her weapon of choice is a two-handed scythe, which rests against a wall. Hanging from it is a Chronotopian timepiece, which has been specially tuned to tick ominously loud.
Morana checks the water in the kettle, and then glances at the hanging clock. It keeps relatively good time, although the Reaper uses it more for the habit it has of skipping ticks in the presence of powerful magic. Right now she just wants to see what time it is her brother should have gotten her message the other day, and be arriving soon. The Korv has the patience required of a keeper of the dead, but tends to set it aside when dealing with her brother. She clicks her talons on the stone in time with the ticking of the clock.
The expected brother is not far off, for he travels through the gloomy skies on wings of white. His scythe, tied with bone, feather, and other ornaments of the departed, hangs from his foot-talons, leaving his arms free for the flapping needed to keep a Korv aloft. It's been a several hour flight to get here, but he's still in high spirits. He hasn't seen his sister in quite some time, and he always misses her. When the macabre island comes into view, he lowers altitude, letting his scythe blade cut the water as he closes in on his destination …
Inside the Mausoleum, Morana here's the tell-tale slicing of the water, and goes about pouring the tea.
Mortimer, often just called "Mort," impales his scythe into the soft ground before landing. His talons click-clack as they skitter across stone and break his forward movement, and then the bird snatches his weapon up and shoulders it as he heads for the old mausoleum. "Hak, awrk," he wheezes as he clears his throat, then calls out, "What time is it, sister!"
"Time to die, brother," Morana replies, and waves the albino Korv over to the 'table'. "I'm heartened that you received my message. Shadow-sendings have never been my specialty."
Mortimer gives a raucous laugh, his crowing startling several nearby Creens into flight. "Rrk, yes! Yes, that is the answer, my sister." He trudges through the muddy soil, unconcerned with the dirt and grime. Once he enters the mausoleum, he puts his scythe against the wall, next to his sister's. "Shadows and wraiths both, sister. Not if your life depended on it, but you are better with messages than I!" Then, he takes a seat with the soft sound of feathers flattening.
"How have you been, Mort?" Morana asks, as she passes him his cup and some biscuits. "I have some gossip, of sorts."
"I'm a lord's corpse before the viewing," Mortimer replies, before he pushes his hood back. Red eyes, white feathers, and a pale pink beak, Mortimer is an albino, and an almost perfect copy of his sister; his twin. "It's been, rrk, dead in my neck of the woods. You have news sister?" He takes up a cup, then tilts his head well back before sipping. After all, beaks don't grip cups well.
"I've been busy down south," Morana says. "I caught wind of a group of undead moving south out of Draco around Candlemass, and sought out their trail. By the time I caught up to them near Bog Bend, they'd been dealt with. A Gallah there filled me in on what happened, and it looked like the work of a rogue Reaper. I picked up his trail again in Stonebarrow, but then got a call from Reaper Duskwood. A town called Federstadt had been wiped out by the Gallisians, and she needed help dealing with the remains of the townsfolk. I never got back on the scent of the rogue, but Old Charo mentioned meeting him and sending him to Draco. I didn't think about the rogue after that, until that fountain of souls two days ago that split open the sky near here."
"Ahh, yes, that was quite a show, wasn't it? Caught the eye of every Reaper in the country, of that, I'm sure," Mortimer remarks. He takes another sip, then puts his cup down and leans forward. "Am I to understand our rogue Reaper friend has his hand in that, mmm? Rrk?"
"Possibly," Morana notes. "Charo said he was… unusual for a Reaper. Untrained. Traveled with a Yodhgorphat, a Yodhinala, and one of the Dracos."
"And looked like Sunala," the Korvess adds, after a sip of tea. "Name was 'Nightmare' of all things."
"That is unusual," the brother agrees, nodding slightly. "Not the name; Nightmare is a very suitable Reaper name, I think, nor the looks. Old Azrael once mentioned a Reaper Nightstalker that looked like Sunala, but she's gone the way we've all gone, and of course, was a she." The bird cackles quietly, then cocks his head suddenly. "Now, the foreign priestesses are interesting, and one of the Dracos, you say? Is Old Countess Draco up to something?"
Morana splays her wings in a Korv shrug, and notes, "Who can say? It would be unusual indeed for her to be acting outside her borders, but this fellow did not come from Draco county. He has also asked around about gypsies in the places he has stayed."
"Gypsies, gypsies … Why ask about the wandering folk?" Mortimer picks his cup up again, taking another sip as he thinks. "Yes, information, there's that," he considers aloud, tapping a talon against his cup. "Trust the wanderers to be in the know. Not fond of the Arts, gypsies, not usually. Quite superstitious, quite superstitious. And with Draco's kin, and foreign priestesses. Up to something, I think. Very suspicious. They sound as if they are looking for something, and with the Well of Souls, perhaps they have found it."
"You suspect the Light has chosen a new champion, after all this time?" Morana asks, dunking a biscuit with her foot. "That eruption would certainly be fitting then. I have checked, and it was at the ruins of the Necromancer King's fortress. There was activity in the old town to the south of it, but nothing that tugged at my aura."
"The Light, the old artifact. Yes, yes that would be sufficient; but it is unusual that the Light is active when the Shadow is not," Mortimer agrees. "If the Shadow has awakened, then perhaps it, too, has chosen a champion, and what times that will lead us to!" He glances at his sister's clock, beak clicking in apprehension. "And you say the Necromancer King's fortress! Fetid, rotting, twisted fortress is that, calling to those with like minds and yet, an eruption there? Has the Shadow's champion fallen so soon?"
"I saw only a flooded crater, but could not sense the Shadow," Morana declares. "I thought it best to let you know before I tried to interview anyone in the town. I am not certain that I am ready to return to Draco County yet if the trail leads there. Reaper Marcelius still has a crush on me up there, and it would be … awkward."
Mortimer cackles at that, the raucous noise echoing in the small confines. "My sister turns all heads; it is hearts she reaps!" He cackles a little longer, before clacking his beak and nodding. "I will go in your place, sister, for whatever Old Azrael says, it is the duty of a brother to protect his sister's dignity."
The woman whistle-chirps, and says, "My dignity is not in danger. It would just be difficult to operate without drawing his attention. If you pursue this matter, then you should begin in the old town of Gormless, which is seeing new life. If the Champion is back, or this new untutored Reaper is involved, then we of the Order should know about it and do what we can to control the situation."
"This matter must weigh heavily on you, sister, that you are not in your usual good spirits," Mortimer observes, head tilting. "Awrk, no matter! I will go and find this stray Reaper, and Champion, if they are not one and the same."
"The Shadow is missing, Mort," Morana says, her teacup actually shaking for a moment. "It could be on the move, or this new Reaper may have taken it somehow. He could be the new Champion of Amena. In which case… we will be in for dark times again."
Mortimer leans back a little, his feathers rising at his sister's distress. He holds up his free hand to calm her. "Yes, yes, serious, I agree. Grim, yes." His extended hand reaches over, and he pats his sister's arm. "The wheel turns, but I did not think we would see the Shadow rise again so soon. And the Light, it is confirmed to be active? Either way, the way is clear. I will go; the Shadow mustn't rise again. I fear what will become of us if the stray Reaper has taken hold of it. I fear for us all."
Outside of the town of Gormless, a lone Rhian attempts to plow a long-fallow field. He pauses in dragging the heavy ironwood plow behind him to eye Mortimer with suspicion. He finally spits out what he was chewing on and declares, "I ain't dead, and you'll not 'vince me otherwise, Reaper."
"We all meet Death in time," Mortimer says, folding his talons atop the upper grip of his scythe, "but I am not here for you, my good Rhian. This is the town of Gormless, yes?" Even in the endless gloom of Sylvania, Mortimer keeps his face shadowed. It's more than a style choice: the light has never agreed with the albino Korv.
"Less Gorm than before, aye," the Rhian says, using the meeting as an excuse to take a break. "Dun know if we'll keep the old name. Summat suggested Dragon's Fall. Dun matter to me though, I just want to grow things."
"Dragon's Fall, you say? Why would they chose that," Mortimer inquires.
"Dragon almos' fell on it," the Rhian says, plainly. He points a horny thumb over his shoulder, back towards the north. "I was one o' his slaves for a time. 'Course, he was smaller that time. Got bigger secon' time he died. Or at least, that's what it looked like from here. Didn't go with the harpies and the dogs to fight that time. I ain't dumb."
"No, no, I'm sure you aren't," agrees the Reaper. Mortimer shifts his gaze so that he's staring off in the direction the Rhian noted, and the corners of his beak crease in a frown. "Bad magic, was it? One of the reptile-folk get their hands on something this way? Worked over the minds of the folk?"
"Weren't a snake-man or scaly folk, it were a dragon," the horse insists. "Big, wi' wings and breathing fire and all, and it could suck your mind right out of your head. T'were like being in a waking nightmare. When it broke, I hightailed it out with the rest of 'em, and ended up here."
"Awrk. Terrible." Mortimer straightens, looking over to the horse with a raised eye ridge. "Don't hear much talk of true dragons these days." He looks up at his scythe, reaching to pick a hunk of hold meat from the end of one of the bones that decorate his scythe. "This dragon have a name? Know any folk that might want to talk about this?"
"Vulgar Milk," the farmer claims. "Or something like that. Hazy. Now, the blood-spider-vampires and man-in-your-dreams, they weren't hazy. Then the harpies show up, and say the… Little Death… is coming to stop the dream-guy and spiders. And Captain Poodle, he doesn't like the sound of that. Dragon's gone, now something worse is moved in. Was all mad like, and then the Little Death guy comes, and he's got a giant and a Sphynx and a green mummy and freakin' Inala and a vampire girl all with him, and they say they're gonna go get this guy who's the son of Dagh or whatever. I don't cotton to all that sort of thing; I just keep my head low. Don't want to be a slave again."
Mortimer's eyeridge steadily climbs as the Rhian relates his story, until it threatens to lift off his face. "Vulgar Milk, yes … Blood spiders, a man-in-dreams, and another group to stop them? And this 'Little Death,' an Eeee who resembled Sunala? White eyes and, awrk, white hair? Black fur? Named Nightmare?"
"Umm, yeah, he looked like that," the Rhian says, rubbing his chin and batting at a fly with his tail. "Nightmare… Uh, not sure about that. Was more a falling-off-the-mountain sort of name… Alpstrauma. Only some of the harpies called him Bearsunala. He didn't look anything like a bear though."
"And he weren't naked neither," the man adds after a moment of thought.
"Alp … traum. Yes, Alptraum would be his name. Nightmare. Of course," the Korv decides aloud. "And this Alptraum and his fellows, they defeated this Vulgar Milk and the man-of-dreams? Necromancer, was it? Don't see much in the way of walking blood without the Dark Arts about."
"Yeah, claimed he was a Necromancer," the Rhian notes, as if just remembering that. "Lot of guys went off to join him. Dragon messed up our heads a lot. Then the dragon came back, like, big as the world and then he exploded into all these screaming ghosts. Thank goodness I wasn't wearing pants when I saw that! I mean… I was washing 'em at the time… "
The reaper blinks at that image, but clears his throat and nods. "Seems to me you folks had more than your share of the Dark Arts here, that you did. Looks as if the old castle has passed on, too … A casualty of the battle, I imagine. Don't suppose you saw something like an old coffin, heavy and sure? Or a great light, such as a blade? Might be you remember something about a Shadow? That's the upper case S in Shadow, proper name."
"Don't rightly know, I was drunk along with everyone else afterwards," the Rhian says, rubbing his forehead. "Was crazy. But the next day, the harpies brought a big hog to town for eating, and one of 'em said the Baresunala turned its brains into snakes, or something. That's the last weird thing I remember. Nothing like a blade of light. Only fancy blade was worn by that Sphynx girl. Guard looked like some kinda flower."
"Much obliged for news, good Rhian. Seems the interesting times have passed then. If you don't mind, I'm going to make my rounds here, then I'll be off again." The Korv reaches out to try and pat the Rhian's arm as he begins to walk onwards. "We'll meet again."
"Not too soon, I hope," the Rhian mutters, and starts to pull the plow again. "Oh," he says over his shoulder, "Captain Poodle and the Harpies and the Green Mummy and all them went north, to Draco County.
"Seems like the place to be," the Reaper agrees. He pauses long enough to wedge his scythe in to the ground, then takes wing, circling around to pluck the scythe from the ground on a pass before he soars towards the castle ruins …
It's not too far to the ruins as the Korv flies. And while the castle is half collapsed in on itself, it's the small lake behind it that draws the eye the most. It's only half filled, the steep sides still crumbling slowly into the muddy morass.
Gliding across the ruins, Mortimer looks down at what remains of the castle steeped in such a grim history. Evil places draw evil men, and so, the castle had once again become a center of necromancy only this time, it died before that dark seed could mature. It would have taken an impressive degree of strength and courage to have defeated what Mortimer thinks must have been a monster seeking the Shadow, and then a necromancer to boot. A question dances in his head as he comes to perch along the lake's edge: who among the forces that battled here could be considered good? "Even the wind has changed," the bird man breathes as he takes in the area. No magic remains to prick his senses, something he attributes to his late arrival. "Where have you gone, O' Shadow … "
A gas bubble rises up and bursts on the surface of the water in response.
It all presents a serious dilemma to the Reaper: if a force had come along that could defeat a draconic monster and a necromancer, plus his followers, could it have taken the Shadow? And if so, what if they had chosen to ally with it? Such a force would be considerably more powerful than Mortimer alone. The Countess of Draco has never seemed like the ally of necromancy, however. Nor is Sunala considered their ally quite the opposite, in most stories. It could be the Shadow was destroyed, but that seems unlikely to the Reaper. No one ever knew how to destroy the Shadow. It must still exist, somewhere, and only the people who came here may know. It seems Mortimer will go to Draco County, after all. After saying a few words for those who may have passed on, the Korv takes flight, heading north.