Year 498 A.G. (After the Godswar)
The gales howled as they swept through the Aerie, carrying with them the scent of spilt blood. The dead littered the stone tower's open floors. The great, feathered wings that sprouted from between their shoulder blades were broken and torn; their skin, a pallid grey; and their silver eyes dull as the stone floor on which they were sprawled.
So much for being Immortal.
The soldier looked down upon his handiwork, red cloak and golden hair billowing in the wind as he ascended the Aerie's winding outer staircase. Grimacing, he wiped his blade on his jerkin, leaving a trail of silver on the black leather. Stained with blood, just like his hands; that was the price of betrayal.
He glanced at the carnage again.
The Fal'mor truly were a force to be reckoned with. Children of the Fallen God, they were cursed with bodies that had no shape, and flesh that secreted an acrid, black ooze. Foul and twisted creatures they were, but they had served their purpose well.
Mere hours it had taken for them to tear through the tower, carving a path of death and destruction until the great, stone halls were stained black with the slime that dripped from their skin and not another living creature drew breath. But he had not sought them out simply to massacre the Ae'ren.
Sheathing his blade, the man turned as a voice called out to him, "Master Aramir..."
Aramir pressed his lips together as one of the creatures approached. Falere, it called itself. The leader of the brood. Unlike the rest of the mindless horde who morphed and shifted uncontrollably, this one had permanently assumed the face, neck and shoulders of a human. It had even taken upon itself to model its features upon his own. Out of mockery or deference he did not know. Only its eyes remained its own, the irises a deep, dark, crimson instead of gold like its Master's.
Speaking to the creature never ceased to disturb him; it was like gazing at a mirror. However, beneath the creature's collarbone, the rest of its flesh was left free to bulge, shift and warp, leaving small puddles of sizzling, black liquid wherever it went. Aramir grimaced inwardly, his skin crawling as tentacles changed to insect-like legs, to stump-like appendages all in a matter of seconds. Swallowing a sense of growing nausea, he focused his attention on its face.
"Have you found it?" he asked.
The Fal'mor nodded, its features twisting into a mockery of a smile. "'Tis at the apex."
"Then retrieve it and let us be on our way," he ordered with a dismissive wave of the hand. "Some of the Ae'ren fled during the battle. We must be away from this place before they alert the others."
Gooseflesh rippled across the man's skin as Falere formed an arm and placed its hand on his shoulder. "Do you think I did not try? It is protected, warded against my kind. A dozen I did have try to take it and they dissolved, muscle, sinew and bone into bubbling black puddles. It is you who must retrieve it."
"Let's not waste any time then," its Master said curtly, and proceeded to climb the stair to its end. Several times he had to kick a winged body out of his way, watching silently as the corpse rolled over the edge and plummeted a thousand kilometres through the Veil, to the Mortal Realms below.
Finally, he stepped out onto the circular platform at the tower's summit and surveyed the area. At the very centre of the open chamber gleamed an iridescent orb of glass the size of a single gold sovereign, suspended in a pillar of pale, silvery light. He smiled. There it was, the First Key—the Lumin—the Light of the Goddess.
"It is there," said Falere unnecessarily as Aramir walked over to examine the pillar more closely. "Do try not to melt."
He reached out experimentally but did not flinch as the light flared and scorched his fingers. Withdrawing his hand, he regarded the barrier calmly while Falere muttered in the background; he had expected as much from the so-called Sages of the Skies.
At the pillar's base he could make out several warding sigils. While his knowledge of the arcane arts was minimal, it was easy to assume that the High Council had barred all but the members of its own order from removing the artefact from its resting place. It was a powerful spell but not infallible.
Aramir cast an eye over the bodies that littered the platform. There would be a High Councillor amongst them, dressed in high-collared white robes and bearing the crescent moon mark on their skin. But it was difficult to tell; Fal'mor acid had eaten away at both cloth and flesh. He walked through the carnage and used his boot to turn over the dead, until at last he found a woman with a black, corrupted hole in her abdomen and a silver moon tattooed on her cheek.
"Here, Falere. Help me," he said and moved to lift the corpse into his arms. He cursed and jumped back as dripping black tendrils shot past him and embedded themselves in the dead woman's spine. He turned to find Falere behind him with an arm-like limb extended, fleshy, oozing tendrils where fingers should have been.
"You bid me to aid you. I am aiding," said the Fal'mor in response to the disgruntled look on its Master's face.
Aramir looked on in disgusted facination as the corpse rose unsteadily to its feet and staggered towards to the light, its broken white wings dragging along the ground, leaving trails of silver blood in its wake. It stood before the barrier, head bowed, shoulders slumped; a puppet awaiting its next order. Falere twitched its fingers and the corpse-doll raised its arm towards the Lumin. The barrier flickered as the doll paused, fingers hovering millimetres from the glass orb as if it were hesitant to remove the ancient artefact from its resting place.
"What are you waiting for, Falere? Take it."
Falere grimaced. "'Tis is not I, Master," it said. "The Ae'ren has residual... feelings. It resists. It feels... trepidation." The Fal'mor's red eyes caught hold of its Master's amber ones. "Perhaps removing the Lumin is unwise."
"What nonsense are you spouting?" he snapped back. "They're dead. They know and they feel nothing. Take the Key, Falere! Or have you forgotten our purpose for coming here?"
The man faltered a little as the Fal'mor's gaze tightened into an icy glare. "I have not forgotten, Master Aramir," it hissed. "For half a millennia I have waited for this moment. But the dead know more than you think; sometimes their words should be heeded."
But despite its words, the Fal'mor forced the doll's hand closed and with a flick of its wrist, yanked the Godslight from its resting place.
The effect was instantaneous.
Beneath their feet the Aerie rumbled and groaned like a stone giant awakened from its slumber. Before their eyes the barrier flared in an explosion of brilliant white light. Then...