Wednesday, April 2, 2008

Crawlers of the Void 01

In the pursuit of knowledge, great care must be taken to ensure that the eye does not catch sight of the unreadable, the ear word of the unspeakable, the mind thought of the unknowable; for while wounds earned in battle may be healed, the mind is a devious thing: that which is learned may never be unlearned. ~ A Hymn of Shade and Sorrow


The Depths of the Undercity shimmered with the sickly green glow of its noxious river. In the larger chambers vaulted ceilings, though cloaked forever in oppressive dim, helped alleviate some of the closeness and claustrophobia the catacombs inspired. Here though, in the bowels of the Undead citadel, there was no such comfort. The rough-cut tunnel walls dripped with something foul and glistened with far worse than deep rock niter in the sputtering, oily torchlight. The tunnels were an afterthought, carved hastily into the very walls after the main causeways were excavated above, and were resoundly ignored by most of the Forsaken. It was in these prime estates that the most reviled of Undercity's prisoners found residence; the final resting places of things that death had long forsworn. The cells were reserved for traitors, deserters, and conspirators of the Scourge, and for any such prisoner to have a visitor was nigh unheard of.

That's what made Lucius Morgov, keeper of these jails, so uneasy: the man that stood beside him in the harsh torchlight had made not one, but several trips into this very cell, and with each departure left behind a fog of palpable malaise in the already sullen corridors.

The brief silence was broken an instant later as the screaming resumed. It reverberated off the walls, piercing in its intensity and completely incomprehensible in meaning, but Lucius knew it well; the screams had begun three days ago, barely ceasing, and always repeating the same blasphemous, unintelligible gibberish in a screeching, gnawing rhythm. When the stranger had returned with yet another sealed parchment granting him access to this prisoner, Lucius was almost relieved. The screaming was starting to get to him; just that morning he had been rudely interrupted from his daily chores when, to his complete shock, he had found himself standing in the mouth of this very tunnel, swaying to that accursed screaming, with no recollection of how or when he had gotten there. All he could remember was that maddening voice, and the overwhelming fury that gnawed at his senses. Lucius had stood at the mouth of that tunnel, shaking with rage at the intolerable screaming, as thoughts of murderous intent had danced on the red-hazed surface of his minds eye. Rage had turned to sudden dread when he had noticed the set of keys clutched firmly in his mottled hand, at which point Lucius had swiftly drawn as far away from the mad keening as he could manage. An hour or so later, the stranger had returned.

A cloak was drawn across his emaciated, unnaturally lean frame, clasped at his breastbone with an insignia that seemed to shift if one gazed too long at it. A wide-brimmed hat was perched low on his pale head, leaving most of his face in shadow. What little was left to be seen lay hidden beneath the ebony sash of cloth that was blindfolded across the undead's eyes. Like many of the Forsaken, this one sported signs of extended, though halted, decay; most pronounced was the lack of flesh about his lower face, where nothing so much as an unyielding, skeletal grin was left.

At their first meeting, Lucius had been unnerved to learn that, despite the blindfold, the stranger was inexplicably capable of moving about the darkened catacombs with nary a stumble, and with next to no hesitation. The faintly glowing staff he held in his right hand did not sweep the ground searchingly ahead of him, but tapped resolutely with each stride. How the undead navigated, Lucius had no idea...but if the rumors he'd heard about this one were true, it was the work of a particularly dark kind of magic.

"You say he's been screaming like this for the last three days?" the stranger asked upon their arrival at the heavy, chained prison door.

Lucius nodded in assent. "Aye," he muttered, "almost non-stop. I were about ready to go in there myself and shut him up permanently just before you arrived."

At this, the stranger seemed to regard Lucius with a strange tilt of his head, and the jailer felt his undead flesh prickle. "Been a little eager with your keys lately, Morgov?"

To this, Lucius grunted vaguely, swallowed hard, and led the stranger to the cell door. His hands rolled back the keys with practiced efficiency, and with a swift turn the massive lock on the door was snapped open. The portal opened with groaning protest, and all at once the screaming was piercingly louder. Before he could enter, the stranger grabbed Lucius's shoulder with surprising force and pulled him aside.

"Today you will stay outside," the stranger said, to which Lucius felt his anger rising, only to be quelled a second later by the sudden change from within the cell; all at once, the screaming stopped, and was followed moments later as low, insane laughter gurgled forth from the darkness. Then, words Lucius finally could understand crawled across his skin.

"You would deny him the wrath I have so lovingly stoked in his dead heart, would you, warlock?" the thing in the cell cackled, "Had you taken a moment or two longer, I could have been free of your loathsome questioning!"

Lucius made to spit a curse at the wretch in the cell, but his companion rapped him hard on the shoulder with the head of his staff. "Leave him to me," Ferenzys rasped, "I will require some isolation with the prisoner this time."

"Can't do that!" Lucius snapped, shifting his anger at the grinning visage of his strange charge, "Against the rules, can't leave prisoners alone with visitors, not s'posed to HAVE visitors, just who do you think ye're--"

Lucius was cut short as Ferenczys muttered something incomprehensible in the dark that made his jaw suddenly snap shut, his limbs seizing. Torrents of old, shunned memories cascaded uncontrollably from Lucius' fevered mind. Fear, concentrated and gibbering, bubbled up from his quaking throat in a halting scream. The last thing Lucius Morgov saw before his feet carried him blindly back into the depths of Undercity was the memory of seeing his father torn apart by the spider-thing that had destroyed their home.

Ferenczys waited until the man's screams had faded into the gloom before turning to his quarry, who sat cross-legged and cackling in the dark. The only illumination came from the sewer grate in the low, domed ceiling. The bands of green light revealed that the prisoner had recently been gnawing at his wrists, just below the thick shackles holding him to the ground. Stepping inside, Ferenczys shut the door to the cell, and gazed at the prisoner in what might have been pity, had any remained in his still heart.

The creature had been human, and if the tattered remains of its clothing were any indication, it had once belonged to the order of the Scarlet Crusade. Ferenczys did not know his name, and did not care to. Provisioned to him by an old friend in the Apothecarium, the human was little more than an experimental tool. The experiment had proceeded quickly though, and now scant little humanity remained in the creature's visage. Taking a heavy tome out of his satchel, Ferenczys withdrew a long quill and began taking preliminary notes.

'The flesh has taken on a mottled, sickly appearance, spattered with boils, growths, and tufts of thin hair; bone protrusions along the spine and arms have grown at least another half-inch. The stench...more pronounced, but at least the leprosy seems to have halted its progression. The eyes remain cloudy, faintly luminous, and appear to have developed an infection of sorts. Limbs continue to twist and gnarl.'

Having completed the note, Ferenczys placed the book on a small wooden pedestal in the corner of the room. Then, ignoring the curses and insults the creature spat in his direction, Ferenczys stepped behind the shackled prisoner and unceremoniously drove the end of his staff into the thing's back. It snarled in pain, but submitted and bent forward. Ferenczys waited expectantly, head cocked curiously to one side. At first nothing seemed to be amiss, but a moment later, something stirred beneath the parchment-thin skin.

'A closer look if you'd please, Grim,' Ferenczys said, more forcefully pushing the staff between the struggling thing's shoulder blades to still a new surge of struggling. The air beside the warlock's left leg suddenly began to shimmer as if in a heat-haze just before a single, disembodied flame flickered into existence. Suddenly illuminated by the otherworldly fire smoldering on the tip of its tail, Ferenczy's imp, Grimdoom, scampered across the grimy floor to leap up and grab hold of the warlock's staff. Spinning itself about the runed rod, the fel creature lowered its toothy face to the squirming mass. Its luminous eyes stared intently, wide and white, and through the dark magic binding the creature to his will, Ferenczys watched through the imp's eyes the unnatural gyrations occurring just beneath the thing's skin with cold, clinical intensity.

Had Lucius been capable, Ferenczys would have had him secure the prisoner while he conducted the examination, leaving him free to record his observations, but the jailer's behavior had been most troubling. It confirmed that the parasite, as Ferenczys had come to perceive the entity even now undulating along the prisoner's spine, was steadily growing stronger, and in more ways than expected. The physical deformities, the rapid onset of mutative decay, these were more common 'symptoms', but in recent visits the warlock had made discoveries of a more disturbing nature.

Even now, in the imp's peripheral vision, Ferenczys could make out the charred corpses of bloated, malformed sewer rats the thing had somehow incited into frenzy. During his last visit, while Ferenczys and Lucius had been occupied with the prisoner's flailings, three of the twisted things had come surging out of a drain pipe, clawing and biting rabidly at their legs. Though fierce, whatever influence of the parasite's that had granted them their unnatural size and vitriol had also made them frail of form. One had split open like an overripe fruit as Lucius kicked it away, and the other two had quite literally exploded at the first ignition of the warlock's fire magic.

And Ferenczys was certain, after examining the corpses, that the same magic twisting the prisoner into the monstrosity he was becoming had also perverted the rats, but apparently with a recklessness beyond the seemingly careful prodding of its host's body. The way the prisoner had cackled during the attack only emphasized the point; they were created out of pure spite, an expression of its growing rancor for its captors. This latest episode with Lucius, however, went beyond mere nuisance. It belied the cunning intellect that was even now burgeoning in the gibbering shell of the prisoner, an intellect Ferenczys now felt confident had thoroughly consumed what little remained of the Scarlet Acolyte's mind.

Whatever magics at this creatures disposal, Ferenczys had immediately recognized the influence on Lucius as being very similar to that generated by a Curse of Recklessness, but one administered not by sight, but by some other, unknown medium. A mental command sent Grimdoom climbing up the warlock's staff to perch expectantly on his left shoulder. Releasing the pressure of the staff, Ferenczys bent forward and hauled the man to his gangrenous feet. "It took three days for your spell to find its mark, which tells me you were not focusing on the jailer specifically. Why?"

The abomination grinned. "An evil word always finds an ear, warlock. Someone was bound to hear Us."

Ferenczys snarled the words to a spell, and the prisoner's laugh was immediately broken by a renewed scream as the flesh of his neck started to blister and smoke. It was the screaming, then, Ferenczys noted, that had delivered the spell, and all at once the wretched scenario unveiled itself in his mind. The seemingly random gibberish would somehow incrementally weave the curse upon anyone within earshot, gradually forming into the supernatural rage not unlike that seen in the rats. Lucius, as the only one of Undercity's jailers charged with this wing, would have been the one most frequently exposed. The enraged victim would then have followed the maddening screams into the bowels of Undercity, to this very do what? The only thing the spell seemed to induce was violence towards the spellcaster, which suggested...

"You wish to die," Ferenczys spat, smoke still coiling away from where his hand gripped the prisoner's neck. The cloudy eyes swiveled onto him, and slowly the pain-wracked rictus twisted back into that empty smile.

"We wished for freedom," it responded, "but if that was not possible, We wished to hasten your return." The grin widened, splitting the skin at the edges of the froth-caked maw, "And return you did!"

"You knew I would be back," Ferenczys responded dryly, unimpressed, "My studies require periodic observations. Why so impatient?"

Though the warlock did not bear the physical strength of Undercity's more militant denizens, the wretched prisoner was so emaciatedly thin that he had no trouble hoisting him yet higher, until it seemed that the man's neck might snap from the angle. Came the strangled response, "W-we wish to deliver a message."

"Speak quickly," Ferenczys replied, "For I am of the mind to rip out your tongue and see how well you shriek your spells then."

Suddenly, from beneath the tattered garments clinging to the withered frame there came a sickening ripping sound, followed by a shriek as a long, toothy tendril erupted from the man's abdomen and lashed out at the warlock's face. Hurling the prisoner away, Ferenczys barely snapped his head back in time to dodge the whipping appendage as it tried to latch a lamprey-like mouth to his skull.

On his shoulder, Grimdoom began chattering in a panic, spouting off demonic curses at the vile thing that had almost knocked him from his perch. Ferenczys backpedaled, quickly distancing himself from the thrashing corpse and the three-foot long worm that rose like a stalk from its flower bed. The vertical slit along its belly was filled with razor-sharp teeth, and its skin bore a diseased, mottled look to it. In contrast to the dessicated husk of the man it inhabited, this creature appeared bloated, ripe with the fluids of decay, and gleaming with foul secretions. Ferenczys was snapped out of his disgust when the prisoner spoke again, only this time, Ferenczys saw that the worm's mouth undulated in time to the agonized words.

"Heed Us, lest your soul be defiled by the maggots of the void," it hissed, "You who carved the hollow and invited Us in, the eyes of the infinite are upon you! Go now and gnash your teeth in despair, for quickly We come to cover the land in Our tread!

"You who carved the hollow, you are known to Us, and no temple will give you shelter, no sacrifice will appease Us, save the last dregs of sorrow We will wring from your bones! You who--"

But the creature never finished its sentence; Ferenczys, no longer interested in mere interrogation, unleashed the full strength of a shadow bolt into the prisoner's corpse, immediately engulfing it in spiraling black fire. Noxious gasses began to billow from the burning flesh, and now the voice of the thing was intermixed with the feral screams of the prisoner's body, mindless, but still capable of expressing pain. Grimdoom lashed his tail about in warning, barring his fangs at the dying thing as it twisted in its death throes.

The tendril's maw gaped as it lashed blindly about, its tether, its lifeline now severed. It screamed and hissed, reaching spitefully for the warlock as he silently stormed to his heavy ledger and stuffed it in his backpack. Wordlessly, Ferenczys threw the cell door wide and stepped out, before turning to regard the smoking thing in the center of the floor.

The fire had found the thing's bloated body, which began to blister and crackle, blood boiling. Death, Ferenczys noted with some finality, was certain. He would find someone from the Apothecarium to dispose of the remains. Jaw clenched in disgust, the fel-sighted spellcaster began striding away from the chamber. He had gotten less than ten feet away when he heard the thing hiss something that made his still blood turn to ice.

"...know the"

Ferenczys spun about, another shadow bolt at the ready, but the thing was dead. The flames had died to a smoldering crackle, and the corpse of the prisoner and his vile parasite were already falling to ash. The catacombs echoed faintly with the sounds of the Undercity above, but from the prison cell, nothing further was heard. Very soon, Ferenczys would be stepping through a mage portal to return to Shattrath city, but it would be several hours before those last words would fade from his memory, and the chill would leave his undead veins.

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