Smoke… and silence.
The knight was not exactly sure what he noticed first as his eyes cracked open through the layer of grime, but the world was an ethereal grey of smoke and silence. The type of silence, that felt thick and suffocating amid that dense veil that clung to the air.
He was beginning to re-establish an orientation to his surroundings. As wispy tendrils dispersed and coalesced, churning wildly in every corner of his periphery, it felt like it was weighing him down and keeping him pressed to the stony gravel. Small bits of stone dug sharply into his back, piercing a million nerve endings that sent his spine into a neural catastrophe. Well, the armor was split open, that was certain. There was no other explanation for feeling the small shards of rock against his back. Damn that monster… by some unholy strength the claws of that beast had cracked his chestguard completely open.
He felt himself wince as the sensation shot through his neck and tensed his shoulders. It was a slow flashfire that made its way down the rest of his body – sprawled out over a rocky surface that seemed to stretch endlessly to all sides. The pain protruded through every muscle – a cellular calamity that was befalling his entire body. Even if all feeling did return eventually, he felt as though he had nothing in the way of energy to expend in twitching a single limb. So, he just lay there, succumbing to the soft sound of soil shifting silently in the light morning breeze.
Ash swirled overhead amid all the smoke; feathery flakes suspended and pierced by the cold light of dawn. It was tragically beautiful… the way the soft hues of a new day had to surrender to the roiling abyss of dense grey that threatened to swallow any last drop of light. Perhaps he wanted that delay… so that he could just waste away and wallow in that eerie peace that seemed to be so fleeting of late.
He discarded the thought. His mind was far too well trained for the idle moments of the void. Needless to say, that as soon as traces of memory started to trickle into his present stream of thought, his mind was actively reaching for a recollection. And as the images came flashing back, he bolted into a sitting position, biting back the pain. The others…what had happened to the others?!
The falling ash and rolling smoke all but obscured his vision. But one thing became evident as more of his focus returned… the sheer devestation. The landscape was all but incinerated. The fires had long ceased to burn, but the heat still rose in waves from all around. He had rolled into a small ravine at the foot of a hillside, but the rise into what had once been rolling grasslands dotted with groves was all but charred to bleak ruination. The very trees were but burnt skeletal memories of the destruction that had come upon this land so suddenly. They had been ambushed…all of them. Him and his bretheren…his sisters. He remembered now. But where were the rest?
He stood up then, bracing against the shooting agony. But he had to know… he had to find them.
They were a small retinue of nine warriors. Knights, one and all. Yet, their cause was their only liege lord, with loyalty devoted to one another. As consequence, they had a particular proclivity for drawing attention as a band of dark crusaders. And with form-fitting plated armour doused in obsidian black, rumours of their party had become terrifying tales reserved for idle minds. As an act of tactics, they had allowed it, these wild whispers that circulated amongst a terrified populace and the villainous underground of cutthroats and bandits. It kept their true purpose hidden, which was routing out dark and cultist organisations that were more than mere foolish mortals caught in paltry parlour tricks. Real enemies were hidden among an unsuspecting people, and if not for their covert interventions, terrible fates would have long befallen the quiet homesteads of a land at peace. By being labeled as the Black Crusade, they had inadvertently come across a perfect alibi without giving it much further thought. They could continue unperturbed in the purge of malevolent forces…
But a new force had come upon them. In the space of a few yards from where they had traveled, the tree-line had all but shattered in the wake of horrendous faceless creatures that moved with unnatural speed. The fiends had barreled toward them, and would have cut them down were they truly the makeshift company of famed black marauders that those wild tales had claimed them to be. But they weren’t. And though caught off guard, their lighning quick reflexes had quickly brought them into formation to counter the attack. Magically imbued blades met the slash of razor appendages, as their small retinue dispersed in swift and evasive attacks, hacking at the flanks of the new menace. But as he himself had leapt to launch an aerial attack on one of the demonic monstrosities, he knew that they were all taken aback by the horrors that they had not seen in nearly a century.
And then, above all possibility, something worse had come… and the sky had rained fire. An all consuming inferno that devoured all in flame.
He now stood in the aftermath of that attack; the scorched earth a testament to the dread of ancient evils that had awoken in the world. And as he waded through the dark waste, blackened roots and grass blades crackling at the touch, he came across the lone figure of the first he had seen of his party. The sight of the figure made him stumble, and snapping himself from his reverie of disbelief, he felt himself run to the distant smoke-shrouded figure. As he approached, he felt his knees buckling as he was gripped by an ineffable despair…
Laying against an outcropping of rock, was the contorted body of their leader, petrified to display the malicious torture of whatever horror he had faced alone in his final moments. If not for his helm, he would have been unrecognisable due to the dense layers of ash that had settled on his heavy armour. Fallen and forlorn, it was hard to believe that their leader had once seemed so invincible. Rising from where he had crumpled, the knight edged closer, for a moment gripped by disbelief. But perhaps he was still alive. Perhaps he–
The thought all but perished as his gauntled hand rested to touch their leader’s shoulder, only to have it cave in, and crumble. To the knight’s horror, their once proud commander – a stalwart warrior who had seen the darkness of centuries wax and wane – fell into a broken charred mass, leaving nothing but the shadowy imprint of his form against the rockface.
As the knight stared at the black ashes of their commander, now intermingled with the ashes of the very earth, he felt old energies coursing through his veins. Suddenly, his own pain was dwarfed by the grief; a grief so fierce that it burned away at his wards. Powerful magic awoke and melted away at the spellwork of his disguise. And then his true form erupted… Tormented by his loss, the suppressed energies of his ancient powers overtook him along with a great and vengeful anger.
A draconian roar broke loose from his throat and echoed across the burnt wasteland, making the earth tremble with its rage and anguish…
…arousing one of the faceless fiends that had been edging closer to another one of the black-clad figures lying motionless in the brush…
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