It is a time of relative peace in the Holy Illion Empire. After struggling through a decades long period of civil wars, they have come to rule the lonely land of Cairnewn. Using their religion as a tool of power and control, they have maintained a stalwart hold on the entire known world, ruling through a divine royal family.
Only lately have whispers of conspiracy been heard, and only by the most attentive of listeners. Plans murmured in dark places by dark men seeking dark deeds. A cult has arisen within the kingdom, clandestine and cryptic, claiming purpose from the heretical being known as "The Outlander." Their motives are unknown, and despite the Illion Inquisition's best efforts, their influence is continuously and subtly felt.
The world hangs by a thread, the blades of chaos writhe about it. The 100 year peace of the Inviolate Era is near an end, the moon is changing and bringing with it, the Cycle of Night.
High Confessor Albrecht hurried down the hall of the Sacred Hold, pushing past the priests and pilgrims that littered its halls, hand on the hilt of his blade as he threw open a pair of large wooden doors. Outside it was a bridge leading across to the Convent of the Pure.
He drew stares from the hall's occupants, a man of his piety was rarely seen in common areas, but the summons had been urgent. He rushed across the bridge and into the convent, climbing the winding stairs to the chapel at its peak. The confessor threw open one last door leading into the large worship area, dozens of pews flowed past him as he hurried towards the huddled group of nuns and women in front of the altar.
As he grew closer he heard hushed conversation and accusing whispers. One of the elder looking nuns turned to him as he approached, "High Confessor, you grace us with your presence, I apologize again for --" He silenced her with a motion of his hand and waited for her to continue. "Your lordship, I'm not sure what to say.. you better just look." The women parted for him as he approached what they were huddled around, it was a girl, she was kneeling in a way that seemed she had been forced down. Her shirt was torn revealing her back. The confessor's annoyed expression turned to one of shock as he saw what was scarred across the girl's back. Deep scratches had been torn into her flesh looking as if they had happened overnight, they were scrawled in a horrible symbol. Three shortening horizontal lines with a jagged line drawn vertically through them.
The confessor scowled and gestured to the Head Mistress, "Take her to Abaddon, I will deal with this further." Abaddon was the name of the prison within the basements of the Sacred Hold, reserved for the greatest heretics. The High Confessor barreled out from the convent, his pace now faster than ever. He had seen the symbol before, but its meaning was just beyond his recollection. He headed for the great library beneath the Cathedral of the Chosen, to consult the archives. Albrecht already feared the worst, the girl had been marked by the cult, she'd be kidnapped like the others. This was the first time they had dared to mark one of his holiness's own chosen.
Hours later he was pouring over a dozen dusty tomes in the base of the archives. The candle on the desk flicked in the wind, casting a grim shadow behind the confessor. He drew his finger down the cracked page, looking through an index of occult symbols and writings. He stopped suddenly as his finger came across something very similar to what he had seen on the girl, and his mouth dropped open, a slight breath escaping him. Under the symbol were hastily scrawled words simply reading, "DUSKBRINGER."
The high confessor jumped back from the desk, sending his stool tumbling into the book case behind him. He clumsily grabbed the book and raced towards the stairs, his candle snuffing out as he ascended the depths.
Serena jolted when the doors to the chapel burst open. She wished that she could become so small no one would notice her any longer and move on to something else. She had listened to the whispers of the nuns around her, women she had once trusted. She had become no longer a person but an artifact of study for the time being. She was branded with an occult sign… that much she had made out. The nuns conspired with one another, wondering what sin that she had committed to deserve this. They had once said that she was pure, now they were not so sure. She couldn’t bear these insults. She also heard that those women marked as such were soon kidnapped and rumors had spread that they were likely sacrificed to some dark demon or god. How had it come to this?
The day before had been just as any other, a day spent mostly in silence, her voice only raised during prayer in the chapel beside nuns and other young maidens meant for a life for god. Even meals were eaten in silence after the prayer of thanks had been spoken. From an early age she had felt different from the other maidens. The nuns were less harsh in their punishments if she had been bad than with the other girls. There were other favored behaviors, much to the vexation of her peers. They would sit behind her in the pews and pull locks of her hair until her eyes stung with tears, they would deliberately go out of their way to make her miserable, steal away her things and place them where she could not reach them without aid. Once they had dribbled black ink into her morning cup of tea when her eyes were turned away, daydreamer as she was. She had to brush her teeth to the point of bleeding gums to get the black out.
She often found herself in the convent’s library, her eyes running over the tomes that were placed there, longing to read every one. She had an appetite for knowledge. But the nuns had scolded her when she tried to read them, saying that they were not meant for little girls to read, even though she would be fifteen in the summer of this year. There was a few delicious moments, however, when she did manage to get a tome off the shelf when the nun overseeing the library had dozed off. She sat down immediately on her floor, cross-legged, and greedily began to read being as quiet as a mouse. She could read well, for at least the nuns had taught them through readers to learn how to read and write, usually in sentences of scripture. The tome contained information on the entire realm of Cairnewn, as documented by Illion scholars. She ran her fingers softly against gilt-edged maps of the territories. She had just began to read about the lands beyond before the tome was torn out of her hand and she was given a sharp lashing to teach her a lesson. She favored her hands for the rest of the day, long welts had risen on the skin where the nun had caned her hands as punishment, so the lesson would be further learned. The only book she was allowed to read was the holy tome, and her volume had become worn with use. She always put the tome under her pillow at night after lights out were called and she snuffed out her waning stump of a candle.
The day before today was the same as the day before, and she had become familiar with the routine of cloistered life. Before bed, Serena brushed her long blonde hair carefully until it was soft and glistening, then carefully braided it after changing into her night shift. She said her prayers quietly and crawled into bed, the mattress had long ago sagged with age but she remained comfortable enough since it nestled her body shape. But her sleep would not remain peaceful. Sometime in the middle of the night she awoke with a shriek as the covers were flung off of her. She had no time to react as her head was pressed into the mattress so her screams were muffled and her body held down by strong arms. She heard the breathing of two intruders, her eyes rolling about in terror. She heard the sound of ripping fabric as the back of her shift was torn open. Then the searing pain as her back was scratched by some metallic instrument and tears instantly came to her eyes and she let out a shuddering sound of misery and anguish. Her body was given one last shove and suddenly she was alone again. Somehow Serena managed to get to her feet and stumbled out of her room, her hysterical crying waking those in the rooms around her. She collapsed against the mother superior and unashamedly cried like a baby so afraid was she. A candle was lit and as soon as the mother superior had seen what was marked on Serena’s back, she called for a messenger to be found to bring word to the High Confessor Albrecht and no one else.
She was led into the chapel, and the nuns had sent everyone else back to bed. They bade her stay before the altar and instructed on her to pray to god for forgiveness. What she had done was beyond her, but she did as she was told. Serena shuddered in both pain and shame and she tried to tug her torn shift about her body when a male presence came into the room. Her hands were slapped away so that the mark carved onto her back could not be hidden and inspected. She did not look at his face, only turned her eyes downward, wishing she could shrink into the black and white tiles decorating the chapel floor. She heard the word Abaddon and knew it to be a prison. As the man left, Serena let out a frightened shriek, pleading that she not be taken there.
“I did nothing wrong. I DID NOTHING WRONG!” She insisted as she was being led away. At least someone had the kindness to drape a cloak over her half-naked body. She groaned in dread as she was taken out into the early morning light. She knew she was guilty of nothing… but how could she not be if the nuns had told her to pray for forgiveness and that she was now being taken away to be imprisoned?
As the high confessor left the cathedral, two knights in golden armor swept into the room, their white capes billowing behind them as they charged forward to seize her. They slowed their pace as they approached, one of them holding out a hand for her to place her arm within it. She had always had special treatment by decree of the Hallowed King, and they would not take her forcefully unless she resisted.
Once they had her in hand they led her out of the convent, past the dozens of staring eyes, across the bridge and into the Sacred Hold. They took her through the back halls of the hold, if too many people saw the spectacle or especially the mark, things would get out of hand. They arrived at a silver portcullis that lead to a platform. One of the knights reached forward and pulled down an ornate leaver and the portcullis clicked open. On the other side was an elevator with open archways looking out over the mountains and the rest of the city of Sacrosanct, cold wind blowing in from the snow-capped peaks. They lead her inside and the portcullis slammed back down. Another lever was thrown and the sound of chains and gears grew until nothing else could be heard.
The elevator went far down, half-way down passing into the mountain beneath the Sacred Hold, shutting out the light. At the bottom a huge obsidian hallway extended beyond sight, lit scarcely by torches. Unlike other prisons it was completely quiet, no muffled cries or ratting chains, only the very distant sound of chanting and hymn. The two knights were of the Sworn, and as such did not speak a word as they continued to lead her down the hallway. They finally arrived at a sturdy but ornate door, one of the knights reached and opened it, revealing a room that didn't look entirely uncomfortable. They stood in silence and waited for her to pass into her confinement.
The Hallowed King stood in front of the massive stained glass windows at the back of the throne room. His immaculate golden armor shown in the sun with a blinding light, his every movement causing its many embedded jewels to shimmer brilliantly. A long crimson cape flowed down him and cascaded down the small steps leading away from the throne. A dozen servants stood at the sides of the room, waiting for his whim.
He was an average sized man, but his face was stern, neck-length red hair edged out from his crown. His expression was blank as he gazed at the ornate glass.
The sound of the huge metal doors rang through the hall. Two knights of the Sworn pushed each door and through them strode the High Confessor. His pace was fast, his armor loudly crunched as he took long strides down the carpet leading to the throne. He looked harried, his face carried a look of concern.
The king half-turned to regard Albrecht, his eyebrow raising as he spotted the old tome under his arm. The high confessor reached the base of the stairs and dropped to a knee, "Your holiness," he began, "Something.. most troubling has been discovered within your sacred monastery." The king now fully turned, taking a few steps towards Albrecht and unfolding his hands - he said nothing and simply waited for the confessor to continue. "One of your vowed daughters has been marked.. by the Unnamed." The king's eyebrow twitched but his expression remained the same, "Which one?" The king asked curtly. The High Confessor hesitated a moment, "My king.. it is your ward, the promised child."
The king's gaze fell and seemed to observe the floor for a moment. The king raised his head and looked as if he was about to speak before the High Confessor raised his hand, "My lord, I regret to tell you that it seems worse than that." Albrecht lifted the tome and opened it to the page containing the symbol. "This.. was the mark, it is centuries old, even I am not sure of it's complete meaning." The Hallowed King lifted the book a moment before putting it back in Albrecht's hands. He turned back to the window and thought for a long moment. Albrecht thought he caught a smile on the king's face, but when the king turned back it was gone. "We will bring her before the tribunal." The High Confessor simply nodded and bowed away from the king, hurrying to make his way to Abaddon.
Serena’s frenzied movements were stilled when she realized that the knights were being courteous to her. She felt completely baffled, and her face clearly expressed so. From what she had guessed, she was to be treated as a heretic and a criminal, from what she had gleaned by the gaggle of nuns that had shrunk back from her as if she had been tainted. She was not accustomed to be treated as a criminal, but even the simplest of people knew that this was quite uncommon. She reached out a trembling, tentative hand and allowed the knight, whose impressive armor dazzled her senses, to take her into custody. She trembled as if she was cold, her eyes focused on the paved stones beneath her, cheeks blushing brightly as they passed through the townsfolk. Still, this was somewhat of a thrill since she had not stepped past the confines of the chapel gardens when she was harvesting the gardens. It was too much for her senses, the feel of temporary freedom. But the deep dread returned. She was only trading one prison for another, and she did not know what kind of kindness, or absence of it, was in store for her.
She quietly obeyed the knights as they steered this way and that. What reason did she have to struggle? There was no one waiting for her in the world, not after having lived most of her life in the convent. Besides, they had done nothing to hurt her all of this time. She had been taught about the desires of men but these two knights left her alone and raised no hand against her. Just how much of her teachings had been false? Her shoulders slumped as she realized she knew nothing of the real world and that she would be locked up tight inside some cell never to have known of it the rest of her days. These thoughts consumed her until she was quite despondent, tears welling up in her eyes and clinging to her eyelashes.
When they reached the portcullis she temporarily forgot her woes, instead fascinated by the whirring of the gears as the silver portcullis was raised, revealing an open platform. She could feel the wind against her body as it blew her hair this way and that fiercely. Serena was reminded of her indecency of clothing as the wind seemed to blow right through her white cotton shift. A blush rose to her cheeks of another kind and she prayed that the knights would not look upon her in the manner attributed to lusty men. As the elevator descended, the mountain view was enveloped by the stone of the mountain itself. It was terribly dark and she couldn’t see to where they were descending, which rekindled the dread in her belly like a guttering flame as the elevator halted at the end of the obsidian shaft leading down into the prison.
The silence unnerved her as much as the sounds of misery would have. It added to her emptiness. She wondered if this prison was created somehow meant only for her that the stone walls could crush her very soul from her and leave her cold. They stopped at last to the door of the cell, and after it was opened, she obediently walked inside. The stone was very cold against the unprotected pads of her bare feet. The room had not looked what she had fanaticized to be a prison cell. It didn’t seem all that different from a room in the convent, which abhorred personal comfort. Moments after she stepped inside the knights closed the door and locked it. There was a small barred window in the door from which she could be observed. She hurried to it, pressing her hands against the sturdy wood of the door and balanced on her tiptoes to have a look as the knights moved away, taking the torch with them. The light receded until she was enveloped in darkness.
She was grateful for the cloak that had been draped around her, for she clutched at it and drew it tight around her body as she felt backwards in the darkness for the thin pallet on which she was meant to sleep. She ungracefully tripped on it and sent herself sprawling against it where she promptly curled up into a ball and cried miserably until she was spent.
Several hours passed before the sound of the elevator descending echoed through the prison halls. The High Confessor descended accompanied by two knights just as before. The clinking of his armor could be heard as he approached the door to Serena's cell. The great dragging of the door's lock filled the room and the door swung open, flooding the cell with light - the confessor's golden shadow standing tall in the doorway.
He stepped inside and the door shut again. The High Confessor placed down a lantern on the cell's wooden desk and approached the frightened girl. He waited a moment before speaking, "Do you know who I am?"
Serena heard the whirring of the elevator and the clanking of armor first in her dreams as she had fallen asleep due to exhaustion. She slept on her side, for the marks on her back would not have been very painful except that they felt consistently irritated as if the marks were being carved over and over again, which may be due to their occult nature. She twitched fitfully in her sleep then as she realized someone was coming for her she bolted upright a little too quickly. What was going to happen now, she wondered? She could only hope that this all was some mistake and she was having a nightmare. But the floor was too cold, the cloak too rough, and the scratches kept ebbing in pain.
She stayed on the pallet, putting her arms around her knees, which were hugged to her chest. If she behaved they could do no more against her. At least she hoped. Serena went rigid when the cell door opened and the light made her blink as her eyes adjusted as it was no longer pitch black. Her eyes widened as she saw the man standing there. His armor seemed rather more regal than the accompanying knights and she felt that this was an important man.
Serena concentrated on his face after his question, squinting a little as she searched her memory for his face. She swallowed hard, for even though it had been a question posed to her she felt that he was the kind of person you did not speak out of turn to. “I believe I have seen you once, sir. It was years ago.” He had aged some but so had she. She would have only been a very little girl, hardly noticeable by anyone, and the quality of recognition from the passage of time was something to consider. The way he spoke to her felt like he knew very well who she was, at the least. It made her uncomfortable, since she was at a disadvantage. “If you please, sir, the nuns had said you were the High Confessor when you visited the monastery sir, to examine me.”
His eyes squinted as he watched her think and reason, nodding at her response. "That's right.. and do you know why you are here?"
It was on the east bank of the river called the Channel that he had first seen the so-called promised child. Outside the high shimmering gates of Sacrosanct at the surrendering of the old kingdoms, a small party of weary knights and nobles had delivered the bundled baby to the Hallowed King himself. It was common for the victor to demand a member of the enemy royal family as a condition for surrender, but this child was much more than tribute, she was a treasure. She was the last of the blood of the first fathers, a power and majesty ran through her veins that had not been seen in a hundred years. It was only at the threat of complete annihilation, the rape and murder of every other family member that had forced the last rebel kingdom to surrender its prize.
So she was kept in one of the safest places in the holy city, the convent that serviced the Sacred Hold itself. Under the dutiful eye of the Sworn she had been safe for nearly two decades. The High Confessor actually did not know what plans the king had had for the girl, she was not part of the divine family, in the eyes of the faithful she could never hold a place of power. Yet Albrecht had felt her influence that day on the shore, standing in the moist sand as dark clouds gathered. Even as a child, he had felt the weight of her circumstance.
Serena shook her head a little, wondering if she should remind him that it was he that sent her to Abbadon, but that seemed rather silly. “I have not once been guilty of any sin, and I must contest that I cannot see why I should have come here. But since the night I was assaulted and marked everything has changed.” Serena sighed a little. “I can only assume it has something to do with the wounds on my back.” She did not yet know what they looked like nor had they been described to her. She bit her lip, to volunteer this further information may be wise. She was going to tell him that the marks continued to burn as if they were fresh, but she held back, wary to the fact that it may hinder her treatment here.
She folded her hands together. “If you could be so kind as to tell me for what sin I am being held here, I would be most grateful.” Her stomach fluttered due to the seriousness of the situation. She felt that her fate may rest with this man and it would be unwise to anger him. She would not push him, nor would she offer any resistance. He was impressive and imposing. He was being cordial thus far at least. But what could she hope for… freedom?
Albrecht raised an eyebrow, "You claim this mark was inflicted upon you?" If it was true, he wasn't sure why the king had called for a tribunal. He motioned for her to turn around, "Let me see, child." As she turned he carefully pulled back the torn shirt and his gaze grew stern as he studied the fell carving.
The swelling from the first time he had seen it was gone, but the marking still seemed to pulsate faintly and dark green splinters of light seemed to be embedded in the scarred tissue. He stepped away from her. "This symbol.. it is not like the ones on the other girls, you have been marked for some special purpose." He drew his hand to his chin and thought, after a moment he turned back to her. "The king wishes you brought before the tribunal, his holiness suspects you may be cooperating with the Unnamed." The High Confessor seemed concerned, as if delivering this sentence was unsavory. Breaking his concentration he made for the door, "Sleep, and be ready for tomorrow. Food and new clothes will be brought to you." Without looking back he walked from the door and it slammed shut behind him.
Serena pressed her lips together and nodded solemnly at his question. What had he been thinking, that she had done it to herself? Those thoughts were pushed to the back of her mind because it was not important, only that he understood what was true and what was not. She obeyed and swept her hair to one side and bent slightly placing an arm across her chest so her shift covered it and did not slide down. She remained still until he stepped away from her and she again tugged the shift as best she could over her shoulders.
She blinked, surprised that this symbol was different than the others. If the other women had been kidnapped, locked away and possibly killed, what more did this mean for her? She shivered despite herself, her green eyes fixed on his face. She went pale as he went on. She swallowed and swallowed again to find her voice. “Tribunal?” Serena shook her head fervently, her eyes widening. “The Unnamed? I don’t understand, I am pious and have worshiped god all of my life, working to serve him and not myself!” She gasped and ran a hand through her hair, large tears forming in her eyes as her lip trembled.
A comfort was that he believed her, that was a first step, but whether he may be her champion in the cause was yet to be seen. He owed her nothing, he had not needed to explain any of this to her. For this she was grateful.
“Thank you,” she raised her voice just loud enough that he could hear her before he slammed the door shut. She slid down to lie on the pallet again, resting her head against her palms. She hoped that she could sleep, after knowing what was going to happen the very next day. She whispered a prayer to god to save her from evil, the tears finally rolling down her cheeks, her throat constricted and strained.
It was the dead of night when a soft sound came from outside the chamber. It was the sound of movement, like something was being dragged across the floor. It started far away but was growing louder and louder, sounding as if it was approaching the door to her cell. The guards seemed to be missing, and suddenly a low moaning growl accompanied the sound as it stopped just outside the door. The torches outside the door were suddenly extinguished and the entire area was flooded in complete darkness. The air grew suddenly moist and cold.
A shape haltingly lifted up behind the cell door's window bars, it looked humanoid, its head seemingly shrouded by a hood. Dark green embers where eyes should be flared as they caught sight of her - the entity locking its eyes on her, stopping all movement. As its sight bored into her there was the sound of flesh on metal as it seemed to grip the door's steel latch and slowly pull it aside.
Serena’s sleep was fitful, she thrashed about on the pallet and whimpered, twisting her cloak this way and that in the process. The prison was silent for most of the time, except for the coming and going of a guard and the crackling of the torches. She twitched awake at the unaccustomed sound, sitting upright in her bed. Her last visitor had been the High Confessor not hours before. Or she had guessed of the passage of time since no sun filtered through the walls carved from the mountains. But this did not sound like the High Confessor or a guard, since there was no rattle of armor accompanying the movement.
As the sound grew closer, the marks on her back began a burning sensation, mild at first but it grew until her back was arched in response. She let out a long hiss of breath. When she heard the growl the metallic taste of fear coated her tongue as her spine rippled in response. Her body began to tremble both from tension and the dropping temperature. She let out a gasp, her breathing rapid, and scurried back as far away as the cell door as possible, not that it would help from the intruder from reaching her if it wanted to get in.
Those eyes, they were inhuman. She froze in its stare, her body seizing up in terror. She whimpered again as it fiddled with the latch. At least it had no way of unlocking the door without the cell key… she hoped. “Go away,” she finally squeaked out. “Leave me alone!”
It didn't react to her cries, only giving further sounds of fumbling as it tried to open the door. Then it seemed to start pressing into the door, its shape distorting, two dark hooked hands slowly passed right through the door and gripped the frame, it was trying to pull itself through. The door shook on its hinges as dark shapes of flesh started to push through the door accompanied by sickening squelches, leaving corroded stains where they had passed. The head of the thing had almost passed through the bars when a warm light seemed to be coming down the hall behind it. It quickly sensed this and with a hiss it retreated back through the door and down the hall from wherever it had come.
The light was from a torch, and as it approached it seemed to be slowly relighting the torches in the hall. Finally the face of a guard appeared in her door window, "Oi, what are you yelling about?"
She scrambled around her with her hands in the darkness to try and find something with which she defended herself, having noticed last in the light that part of the rear wall of the cell, which had been carved roughly out of the mountain, had crumbled. She found a jagged piece of rock and brandished it, rising to her feet and remaining as far back in the cell as she could. Her terror morphed into a moan of dread as the entity began to force itself through the door. It was beyond possible but it was doing it. She shook with uncontained fear, trying to bolster herself into some form of defense. She at last let out a whimper, shrinking back and her back hitting the solid wall behind her, letting out a surprised yelp. She got a hold of her senses temporarily and found her voice again. “Get out, I’m warning you.” She brandished her pitiful weapon, which was the best that she had at the moment.
A breath of relief burst out of her when the entity retreated, thanking god that someone had come when he did. Who knew what terrors would have happened to her had it succeeded in breaching the cell door. What had it wanted with her? Her knees became shaky and weak and she sat down hard when it was too troublesome to go on standing, the jagged stone had been held so tightly it had scraped her palm and bits of blood had welled up but she paid the sting no mind.
Her eyes darted to the guard as he peeked inside her cell. He was cross, but he couldn’t be more welcome. Still, she was surprised that he had been oblivious to the intruder, which caused her belly to prickle with a new fear. She had not been imagining this, the corroded damage to the door was proof of that. She remembered the stone at last and cast it aside lest she appear aggressive to him.
“You… you didn’t see that thing?” Her eyes were wide with disbelief. “It was right there, trying to get in this cell. Look at the door, can’t you see it is damaged?” If he could see past the rust, that is. “You must have seen it…”