The Witch’s Dance

Dancing Gypsy

Under the blood red sky, Tsura danced. As the world crumbled to conclusion, she danced. She danced for her people. She danced for love. She danced for her dead husband. She danced for her dead daughter. She danced for the child who was not her own. She danced to praise the gods and to call upon the stars. She danced for Magic. She danced for Life.

And to her steps, the heavens sang.

Joy and sorrow, pain and pleasure, in the flash of her hands, the patter of her bare feet, the jingles of the bells upon her wrists and ankles, the swirl of her skirt, and the sway of her hips, all that was human and glorious and honorable and worth holding onto erupted in rhythm and grace.

In the ugliness of the world’s end, she was beautiful and rare and more precious than anything could ever be.

In the face of death, she was defiant.

But her heart broke.

Even as she smiled, a tear rolled down her cheek.

The curse of precognition was in her blood.

The time of sacrifice drew close–and someone was about to die.

– Clarisse, Daughter of the Gypsy Queen, Chovihanis-in-training

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Memorial for A Warrior

Gretchen 7

Gretchen Millafried Holzapfel did not look like the person she was inside. I think she was made so large, because any smaller body could not have contained so generous a heart as hers or so pure a spirit. She was the biggest woman I have ever known–both inside and out. It wasn’t just height or girth that endowed her with such enormity. Nor was it all that muscle underneath that gave her the strength of a team of oxen. Oh, yes, she could pull a stump out of the ground, roots and all, with only her hands to pry it loose. Yes, I’ve seen her lift full-grown men above her head, one to the right of her and one to the left, and then crack their skulls together as easily as if she had flicked a finger. Yet, her physique was only part of her stature.

It was her presence that made her imposing. It was her soul that made her indomitable. She inspired confidence. She was honest to a fault. I doubt anyone could ever keep a secret better than she. Once you knew her, you knew there was no one you would ever trust more. Once she knew you, unless you were under her command, her gruffness disappeared. She could be so gentle–and so kind.

Gretchen would never be called a beauty. No lines ever formed to court her, although I think she had lovers whom she never talked about. She was plain-faced, neither pretty nor dull. Her complexion was pasty and freckled, and she had a small, insignificant nose set in a sea of rolling dough. She had pretty hair though, golden and shiny. And while her eyes may have been set a tad too close, they were as clean and blue as an unblemished sky.

Sargent Gretchen Millafried Holzapfel was the finest warrior I have ever known. Moreover, I have never come across any individual, man or woman, of finer character. She was noble of heart and noble of mind. To me, she was the ideal of honor.

She was the perfect soldier: reliable, capable, and she would not fail. She evinced a dogged determination, unswerving once set to her course. To her oath, to her family, and to her friends, she was forever loyal.

But there was also a terrible sadness about Gretchen. She radiated loneliness. I think that because she intimidated most everyone she had ever met, she had been isolated. That always struck me as such a loss, that so few would come to know how wonderful a person she was. I think that is part of why she was always so active in any community to which she belonged. And for so large a woman, she could be surprisingly shy. She kept her tragedies close to her heart and allowed very few to share in the details of her private life.

I don’t think there has ever been anyone who loved children more than she did, although they were usually wary of her at first. It was rather like being approached by a smiling bear. I’ve seen seasoned veterans unsettled by her grin.

But for those of us who knew her, we were all well aware of who Gretchen really was.

Warrior Woman

She was a hero.

– Götling Hans Velsing, Wizard of Ulm –

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What Plays The Piper When Skies Run Red?

Lich 3

(Excerpt from the personal journal of the Stone Wizard, Ottnand Bulstrich, Deceased)

We had no notice of him. Even rumors arrived late. History does not clearly mark his entrance to the Empire prior to his invasion. We do not know from what land or even realm he hails. The Council suspects that several skirmishes on the borders of the Dwergen kingdoms might be attributed to our enemy. Freshly emptied graves at an ancient site, the reports of a trapper gone missing, and the disappearance of several patrols might be the earliest events recorded in our loathsome adversary’s rise to power.

Because even the dead cannot resist his call, the woodsmen local to the borders of the northern wastes dubbed our mysterious foe “the Piper.” The designation stuck.

He tortures his captives for information. He also tortures them just to hear their cries. Few have escaped his clutches. Others have been returned to us, laid upon our doorstep, disfigured and crippled and often only within moments before their passing — just long enough to relay a word of command or a quick threat or even a gibe to demoralize us.

Messages and graffiti have appeared throughout the Empire in strange places and often by inexplicable means reading, “The Piper comes.”

But we believe that he is already here.

His cult grows. Fearful masses have sworn allegiance to his cause. Sabotage and vandalism often occur as acts of devotion and to demonstrate fealty in hope of future favors. But we have no evidence of any direct connection between the cult and the enemy himself.

The Royal Court of His Imperial Majesty refers to our foe as “the Dread Lord.” It is as apt an appellation as any. We simply have no proper name for him nor do we have any reliable information as to his lineage. It is quite possible that he is not even human. If he is a demon, as many have suggested, he would well guard his true name. Therein lies the power for a demon’s control. Some have claimed that he is a banished member of the peerage or that he is a wizard who has fallen to madness.

We just don’t know.

He is a necromancer. That much is certain. Where he acquired his knowledge of the forbidden arts, we can only conjecture.

However, it has been suggested that as the Piper is so powerful, he must be a lich — a necromancer who by virtue of his ability has risen to such eminence that he has utterly vanquished death and so persists in the land of the living even after his body has expired.

What we know most of him is by way of the reputation that he has won from his prolonged military campaign upon our northern front. He is a brilliant and devious tactician. He shows no moral compulsion. He is patient, always willing to wait for his advantage. When he attacks, it is to take a strategic objective. Otherwise, his only actions are intended to test the strength of our forces and to expose the thinking and responses of our military leaders. At all times, his forces are controlled under an enviable degree of discipline. When not engaged, his troops stand as steadfast as the trees of a petrified forest.

We also know his character from the aftermath of his attacks and from the testimony of certain individuals subjected to the depravities of his Undead horde or from the witness of our soldiers to such savagery.

He is singularly cruel and without compassion.

No one has seen him, at least no one living. We have no description for him. His resurrected General is his spokesman on the battlefield — for what little speaking has ever occurred.

He has given us no demands.

We have much overwhich to be concerned. His armies grow. Our fallen feed his ranks. The threat rises. And, of course, the return of the dead and their attack is one of the early signs of Ragnarok as foretold in prophecy. We fear that shortly the gods shall wage the final battle and destroy creation. Yggdrasil shall bear no more fruit, the boughs shall wither and die, and the roots shall rot under a blood red sky. Woden shall go into hiding and whatever is left won’t be fit to live upon.

There is little we can do so far other than probe for the weaknesses of the Piper’s forces. Our war mages, the Tolemists of the Academies, keep careful accounts of the engagements between the Army of the Awakened and our imperial forces. Much of that could not be believed were it not witnessed by so many.

Clerics have disclosed what little they know of dealing with this kind of evil. The annals of the churches have not revealed much as to how or where such sorcery might arise. What is described isn’t more than allusions to contracts with malevolent entities or a reference to a “natural” skill given unavoidable expression. Like any other kind of wizard, necromancers merely demonstrate an innate talent. Theirs is simply a proclivity for the dark arts rather than any of the sanctioned disciplines of magic. And like any other mage, a necromancer shapes magic as much as magic shapes him. The quality of the magic predicates the quality of the transformation. What he does is what he becomes.

I would have laughed it all off as ridiculous had I not been sent north to investigate. I have not discovered much, but what I have discovered has changed my understanding of men, magic, and the universe.

I have beheld a host dark as night that stretched to the horizon.

I have seen dead men walk.

I have seen things told of in legends shamble and rush into battle, and I have seen things never named and indescribable.

I have witnessed evil made manifest.

I have seen the Dark.

And I can assert with confidence: The Piper Comes. He but bides his time for a moment of his choosing for reasons we do not know.

But when he makes his move, it shall be terrible. Whether or not we can survive is a question I’d care not to contemplate or give opinion.

– Ottnand, Master Wizard, Advisor to the Council of Twelve –

Purple Easter Egg

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Tree of Endings

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It was as bad as anything I’ve seen, and I’ve seen a lot of bad. In some ways, it was worse. I mean … they were just people. Hanging in the dark. Picked apart. Left to the vultures and the worms. They weren’t warriors. Their deaths had no meaning. Their executions had no value … other than to warn any travelers away.

But that wasn’t the worst we would see.

– Gretchen Milafried Holzapfel, Sargent –

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She Stands Between

GHOSTLY WOMAN

She looked no different dead than she did alive. Always a beautiful woman. And tall. She had a grace about her and a kindness. The serenity of one who lives with love.

I guess it wasn’t all that odd she didn’t remember that she had died. After all, she looked as whole as you or me. You could touch her, and she could touch you. She laughed, she cried, she seemed to breathe. There was nothing of the grave about her — except when she turned insubstantial and walked through walls or vanished and reappeared.

Nothing of that registered with her. And she had that smile … so oblivious and unsettling. Like a grin on a leper’s face, doped to the pain.

I think she’d been trapped in a dream. The world had become such horror that she utterly denied reality, not even realizing that was what she did. In the end, she even denied death. She saw her world as she wished to see it, and in doing so she was forsaken.

Living in the past, she surrendered her future. She lost whatever it is that lies beyond and all the mysteries that might be answered and all the wonders she might behold.

I think she will always stand between, neither here nor there, seeing what she would, rewriting her history, trapped till time comes to an end.

I don’t know what to feel about her. Pity? Yes. But when I think of her, I feel sorrow more than anything. Of all the cruelties she may have suffered, she was cruelest to herself.

And my love for her makes it hurt that much more.

– Götling Hans Velsing, Apprentice of Ulm –

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No Longer Dead

Snow mountains 2

They marched from beyond the world’s edge, from across the glacial plains where the White Wastes stretch without end.

Dread Army in Snow 2

To the northern borders of the farthest kingdom, the invaders came fast and silent, as if they’d been a part of the gathering mist. We’d almost no word of their advance before they surrounded the hallowed walls of Hammerhall.

march to war

Knowing not the identity of our enemy but only that a spread of legions upon our borders boded no good, our armies charged to greet them.

Undead Army

We were not prepared for the horror that we would find.

Medieval Zombie 2

From forgotten armies of ages past, the Piper raised his abominations.

Zombie Knight 6

Some more dreadful than others.

Undead knight 3

The worst were those of our warriors who fell before the fury of the opposition–and rose to join the ranks of the living dead. None of us took well to facing the resurrected remains of our brothers-in-arms, brothers who should have found their way to Valhalla, carried in honor upon their shields and lamented by their kin.

Zombie Knight

Champions appeared on the field. Whereas the common rank and file of the Dread Lord’s legions possessed no mind or will of their own, we spied the officers of the undead controlling their lines. The undead did not speak, they did not cry out, and they had no concern for their lives or flesh.

Hero

Our Field Marshal rode out for parley when our enemy raised the flag of truce.

Horse in Snow

He never returned.

Lich

And our enemy mocked us.

Tree General

My master, the Tree General, led a valiant assault at the heart of the opposition.

Ent Eye

His walking forest wrought more destruction than could be done by a score of trebuchet.

Battle Ends

But we were overwhelmed.

Bloody Snow 2

In the battle, the Empire’s most revered wizard was vanquished. There wasn’t enough left of him to bury.

Mounted Knights 2

I assembled the last of the Tree General’s Hedge Men. We charged for redemption, a final bid to avenge our beloved master.

Fire Explosion

We rode right into it.

Harbin's Charge

There was no turning back.

Man on fire

To a man, we burned. The Hedge Men died in that conflagration.

Harbin

Even I died. Though I yet draw breath.

Scary-Night

In shame, I continue, living without honor. My blade has no purpose. I atone by looking after my master’s widow. Every tear her Romani pride keeps from falling, I cry for her. But I am only half a man. I am not the warrior I was. Hammerhall is taken. The north is conquered. The living dead have claimed their territory.

Evil Tree

The signs are certain. As Tsura has foretold in her witching ways, the Awakened march again. Soon, they shall be at our gates.

Piper

And they shall bring him to us.

Burning village 2

Living or dead … he comes for all of us.

Blood River

As sure as winter brings the cold, the Piper comes.

– Sargent Harbin Herzog, Last of the Tree General’s Hedge Men –

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