From the Archives of Arasunia
Recorded by Vestigo in Ephemeris from Beyond the Verge
~3710, During the Uniting of the Clans
This land is despair, manifest.
I have traveled east across the Great Waste, the fine red sand slowly giving way to a rough, grey shale that shrieks underfoot but refuses to shift in the constant headwind. It retains nothing of my footprints; the grit trembles into the divots and grooves until it appears to have not been disturbed for centuries. Indeed, it may be that long and more since a living being has trudged here. The air is dry and cold, slithering over my flesh and causing a negligible—albeit constant—nosebleed.
The jagged peaks of the Iron Mountains are visible in the distance, but the land between them and myself is shrouded. The reason for this is unclear to me, for the sun beats hard against my back and should throw my shadow like a spear before me. But there are no shadows here, only gloom, and I fear the land ahead is hidden to compel me to continue on, curious about what lies in the confluence of this grey earth and the towering slopes of the Iron Mountains.
I press on, despite my growing alarm.
I now know why the land is hidden from those who stand on its periphery. Just as no man would dance across quicksand if he knew of its presence, no sane being would willingly enter this quarry of misery after being forewarned of its overwhelming desolation.
And yet, I stand at a gate.
A vast gate within a soaring wall of black iron, bristling with spikes. Each plate, each rivet is a testament to the audacity of man’s attempt to persist in this realm. The rust on the hinges suggests the gate has not opened in my lifetime, but when I rap the head of my walking stick against the booming metal the echo has barely died when a voice of unknown source calls for me to identify myself.
I answer, giving my complete title as steadily as I can muster.
The voice chuckles, and the gate opens.
I enter, unaware I have stepped into the gaping mouth of madness.
They call this forsaken place Blackwal.
I had heard of it before embarking upon my journey, but in my arrogance I assumed it was yet another myth of the simple folk, like the man-eating plants in Death’s Cradle and swarms of over-sized insects in The Hivelands.
But my eyes are clear as I step through the gates, and the sight before me is unfortunately real. The men who escort me wear full suits of black armor, complete with faceplates that hide their visages from me. Given a choice, I would look upon them to see why they all speak in a manner best described as viscous. Their guttural voices are clogged and sticky. I have observed no women or children. No livestock. I ask for a drink of water—a common courtesy for any guest—and my escorts seem at a loss. We cross a broad courtyard of crushed shale and climb wide, granite steps. I was impressed by the gate and wall looming behind. The castle they protect renders me speechless.
This is Blackwal Keep. It seems to grow from the steep slopes of the Iron Mountains like a jagged tumor. Black stone and decaying steel form an exterior pocked with arrowslits and loopholes. Water must fall here at some point, for each opening hovers above a trail of red and brown rust that gives the cavities a look of weeping sores.
I am standing before a set of massive, petrified wooden doors, gawping at the hideous gargoyles and murder holes staring back, when one of the doors opens. An armored guard produces a dented mug of what seems to be liquid.
I accept it with a wobbling smile and take a sip. It is brackish and threatens to return immediately to the cup. I hold it down and return the cup. The guard drops it to the ground, turns without a word and enters the Keep. I follow.
At first I think the dimness is due to my eyes adjusting, but the light outside the castle was not much brighter than the interior, and I catch sight of a torch moldering along the wall. It has not been lit in years. None of the torches have. I miss their light, but even more I long for the overwhelming smell of their smoke. Anything to mask the stench within the doors of Blackwal. It is the stench of mass death, a festering, putrid fetor that skims atop a thick, cloying undercurrent. I can taste it and wish for the mug to return.
To turn and flee is unthinkable. The gate was barred behind me. Doors thunder shut as soon as I pass through, followed by the ratcheting of bolts slamming home. I am beginning to regret my calling to wander beyond the Verge and document what lies across Newerth, for I am beginning to suspect I will find my own death here. These guards do not intend to let me leave Blackwal.
They take me deeper into the fortress, the stench growing thicker with each turn within the dank walls. Finally the passageway opens into a cavernous room with weak, grey light falling through narrow windows onto a cold, barren stone floor. The ceiling is lost beyond hovering gloom and the far wall is comprised of the jagged, unfinished surface of the Iron Mountains. Moisture glistens on the facets and drips, echoing across the throne room. It is a throne room, I believe, or once was. Can it be called such without a true throne? This question arrives as another is answered: the source of the decaying stench.
The walls are lined shoulder to shoulder with slumped human corpses in various states of decay, from near skeletons to a burly man who looks to only be sleeping. They are in assorted garb—armor, finery, peasant rags—and they all look as if they were stood against the wall and had their throats slit. Black blood cakes their chest plates and tunics. I try to estimate their number; the length of the room puts the count into the hundreds. And there, at the far end, a hulking man sits atop a mound of the dead. Gaps in his jet black armor seep a sickly yellow glow, as if a rampant infection has taken hold of his very soul. The bodies beneath him slide and ooze as he leans forward, and I try to keep from fainting.
Since passing through the gates and realizing Blackwal does indeed exist, I have been silently praying that its infamous master of legend does not. A place that looks as Blackwal does ought to be expected to gather the myths and ghost stories I’d heard, like moths drawn to a torch, but surely the stories of its liege were fabrications.
My pride—and grip on reality—take another blow as I look upon his sallow face, harsh and ghastly in the dead light.
“You are a volunteer,” he says in a voice that rumbles toward me. It is not a question.
“I’m sorry,” I say, jumping at the sound of my own words bouncing between the walls. “There has been a misunderstanding—I am here to document the landscape and its flora and fauna.” This is met with silence. “Its natural inhabitants,” I offer as clarification, since there is neither flora nor fauna surrounding Blackwal and the concepts are likely foreign.
“Document.” He tastes the word and seems to find it rancid. “For whom?”
“Myself.” I will not betray my benefactor.
He shifts back on his throne of corpses and looks at me over the ridges of his cheekbones, as if he knows I am trying to fool him and will not succeed. Beneath him, a swollen arm pulls loose from its socket and tumbles to the bottom of the heap.
“Do you know who I am?”
I clear my throat. Twice. “Salforis.”
He smiles. I hear the skin creak. “Lord Salforis, Baron of Blackwal. What else have you heard me called?”
“Else? Sorry, I haven’t—”
“Deatheater. Necromancer. Soothsayer of Carrion.”
I feign ignorance at these, each of which I’d heard countless times in every tavern on my path across Newerth whenever I uttered the name Blackwal.
Lord Salforis finds this amusing. “And you are not here to volunteer for my army?”
“No, again, sorry. I…did not know enlistment was open.”
He gestures at the tangled corpses along the wall. “Your comrades would welcome you.” He laughs at my silence. “Obviously they need discipline. They should salute a man of your high carriage! I shall whip them twice the usual tally.”
“No, no, that’s fine.”
He gazes upon his gruesome morgue and asks me, “Are you here to steal my enchantments?”
“What? No!” I lift my meager pack, stuffed to bursting with my tattered blanket and precious journals, in defense. “How could I? There’s simply no room.”
He doesn’t seem to hear me. “Everything I’ve sacrificed. Every blade worn dull on these loyal men. And you would take it from me, back to your Emperors and Overlords to be used against me.”
I have no reply for this. My records state there has not been an Emperor or Overlord in Newerth for nearly two hundred years. I am left wondering: How long has Salforis condemned himself to this tomb of a castle?
The thought of lingering for a day, let alone anything longer, makes the words tumble from my mouth: “I don’t want to take anything from here except my life.”
“Your life?” His eyes narrow. “Within these walls, all life belongs to me. Your stammering heart continues to beat because I allow it. If I find a better use for it, you’ll have no say in the matter.”
This seems unreasonable, but I do not feel compelled to speak up.
Salforis picks at a face staring up at him with empty eye sockets. “You claim you are documenting my realm. Why Blackwal?”
“Oh, it is not only Blackwal, though your region is certainly fascinating and worthy of my sole attention. I am wandering all of Newerth with my journals.”
“Newerth…” He mulls the word, as if he had not considered it in ages, and hearing it had stirred a pile of memories long coated in dust. “And what tidings do you bring me? Is Zhazar still bragging about the steeds he stole from me in that ruse he called a wager?”
I wrack my brain for the name…Zhazar…and all I can recall is one of the Nine Kings of the Great Waste. But surely Salforis could not be referring to a tyrant who ruled the red sands hundreds of years ago?
“No,” I say. “But war dominates the land, man against man, man against beast. The Five Clans are being united, though not willingly.”
His pale brow furrows. “Five Clans? I care not about this. You wish to leave here with your life, yet you bring me nothing with which to barter. As of now, only your corpse has value to me.”
Slightly alarming, to be sure. I am panicking inwardly but keep my face serene as I speak words of an uncertain source: “I can bring you more volunteers.”
He lunges forward, his head jutting on his corded neck as the bodies shift and slide beneath him. “How many?”
I picture the ranks and columns of soldiers who ought to be dispatched here to raze the walls, tumble the castle and burn these things dwelling within. “Thousands.”
He gasps, the rank air rattling past his dry lips and gray teeth. “Yes. Bring them.”
I wait for more. “So…I am free to leave?”
His eyes have drifted once again to the corpses along the wall. They wander back to me eventually, rasping within his heavy lids, and widen without a glimmer of recognition. “You are a volunteer.”
The guards escort me out. The acrid wind coursing down the slopes of the Iron Mountains smells like rosewater. The massive gate rumbles shut behind me, closing like a tomb door on the misery of Blackwal.
I run without looking back.