The Ashen Veil
Mages spent weeks in meditation, exploring the farthest reaches of the ethereal world. The demands of the body were ignored, and they survived sustained only by magic. Their efforts were rewarded, a sentience was contacted, dark and horrible. It whispered secrets into the mages’ minds, secrets of necromancy, diseases, sacrificial rites. It promised power in exchange for their blood, and they freely gave it.
The goals of the Ashen Veil are obvious and their evil undeniable, but what motivates those who make the infernal pact?
1. The initiate seeks power, more quickly than through the Council of Esus, and of course with fewer restrictions than any good religion.
2. Later, after the aspirant has received power and achieved their goals, they find the time of reckoning quickly approaching. Lest they be taken by the demons they bargained with, others must be found to fill the ranks.
3. Finally, the very upper echelon serve the same cause as their god: corrupting the world. When judgement day comes, Agares and his servants can point to the huge numbers of the fallen and say, “See, Temporance was flawed; my mistakes were not my fault!” So they seek to justify themselves by damning the rest of creation.
Needless to say, followers of the Ashen Veil aren’t very nice to be around, feeling no remorse for any sort of cruelty or coercion; but this isn’t to say that they can’t work together towards their goals, even get along. Most do not pursue cruelty for its own sake, as do the Overlords, though it would certainly not offend them if their peers did.
Chaotic Evil/Neutral Evil/Lawful Evil
Archmage Hairen Carashnel, God-King of the Holy City of Shard, screamed out in pain. What he had given his demonic masters was not enough, not sufficient, and they were taking it out on him. He felt fire coursing through his veins, pain and agony filled his body. Stumbling to the window of his tower, he pulled out the ceremonial dagger in his belt and thrust it into the middle of his palm. He screamed out again, not because of the wound he had made, but because of the pain his masters were causing him. For a moment, he only stared uncomprehending at his hand, not understanding what it meant to see it pierced by the dagger.
Then he remembered. Raising his wounded hand, he let the blood drip on the window sill while he spoke the words the demons had taught him. As the blood began to glow, the pain eased, and Carashnel pulled out the dagger, hurling it towards the city below. The dagger exploded in the air, morphing into a fireball that made the city light up in flames. The mage burst out in laughter as the pain was replaced by a rush of pleasure. Now it was no longer his pain, it was the pain and agony of the people who had worshipped him and trusted him with their lives, and he collapsed to the floor in a helpless fit of laughter as their deaths empowered him.
It had been weeks since Carashnel had last slept or eaten. Ever since the Burning Sacrifice, he had obsessively walked among the corpses of his followers, used his newfound power to make them walk the earth once more. Even his tower was destroyed, so he abandoned the city, taking refuge underground. Now he brought his army of living dead to that cave, one by one taking the remains of their skin and using it to make the pages of a book. The demons granted him power, but soon they would take it from him again, demanding that he slaughter more people in order to keep the infernal gifts. But he would cheat them, he would use the remains of his followers to scribe down the new spells while he still remembered them. Then the magics would always be at his disposal, and could never be taken from him.
By the time the adventurers found the cave, the army of living dead had long ago collapsed, now little more than broken skeletons. Archmage Carashnel, on the other hand, was oddly well preserved. The skin on his body had been flayed and woven into a rope that held him suspended from the ceiling, upside down. Had it not been for the untouched face, still bearing a mask of terror and agony, he wouldn’t even have been recognizable as a human from all the long spikes thrust into his body. The way he was grasping at the pedestal in front of him suggested there had been something important on it once, but whatever the prized artifact might have been, it was now long gone.
The basilica was flooded with screaming, a mob calling for the death of Lita. Long suspected of witchcraft, she was found with crow’s blood on her forehead and eyelids, evidence of her attempts at clairvoyance through dark rites.
The adjudicator listened to the guardsman’s retelling of her capture. A neighbor claimed to have seen a cat walking backwards from her house and a pigeon hanging upside down from the eaves like a bat. The guards had been called to check it out, not an uncommon occurrence for Lita. But this time she didn’t open the door, and when the guardsman entered, they found her in her basement deep in a trance, with the crow’s broken body beside her.
“What are the names of these demons you say I follow?” Lita argued, “Hate, suspicion, fear, weakness, pride. Do you believe these are my demons or your own? You scream because I killed a bird, yet you will return to your mutton dinner tonight and see no hypocrisy. You claim that what I have done is evil, yet the temple diviners perform the same acts with oils and burnt incense.”
She shook with rage, her voice carried an authority far beyond her 24 years. She turned and glared at the townspeople, most she had known her entire life, and each one quieted under her gaze, but then picked the screaming back up when her eyes were off of them.
The adjudicator was Goroff Grist and he had served in this role for nearly 30 years. He wasn’t concerned with Lita’s pagan ritual but he was very concerned with the effect she had on the city. This kind of disharmony could not be tolerated in a cultured society; she had been warned before about her questionable behavior and refused to become a good citizen. He had known the outcome of this trial the second she was dragged into the basilica.
Goroff opened the large tome before him. The hall went quiet as he scribed Lita’s name and the verdict. Everyone strained to gain some clue from the stroke of his quill as to the final decision. Goroff sprinkled fine sand on the ink and blew on it, then he closed the tome.
“The testimony has been heard and a just decision has been made. Lita of Alexandria will be exiled from the Empire. This exile will be initiated by throwing her from the Cliffs of Hastur. We will see if she will follow the crow’s fate and have her body broken, or gain the crow’s gift and be saved from the rocks below.”
The crowd cheered the decision, Lita screamed and attacked the guardsmen that held her. They wrestled her into submission and began the march to the edge of the cliffs. By the time they reached them, the crowd had grown and hundreds of townspeople were there to witness her death.
It was an early spring day and the mists common to cliffs still hung around its base. Lita had stopped struggling and stood unmoving at the cliff ’s edge. She told herself that she would die without weakness and step over the edge on her own, but she found herself unable to do so. She sensed something much worse than death over the cliff ’s edge. Then the guardsman pushed her.
She fell. Her life passed before her, pain inflicted by her and on her, actions performed both good and evil. She considered her own regret, had she become something she didn’t intend? She pushed the thoughts from her mind, she was not the one at fault, but the people of Alexandria. She fed off of her own hate, wished only that they would suffer for what they had done to her.
She passed into the mists and heard the snap of thick leather, like the crack of a whip all around her. A dark form slammed into her and at first she though it was the ground, but her direction changed and she felt herself being carried along the cliff ’s edge. A beast held her, and she struggled to see its face. It had thick hide wings and skin that felt like a serpents, but hard and warm. The face was a man’s, horrible and beautiful, horns and smaller bones pierced his skin and thick iron pins were inserted into the inside curve of his eye, just where tears are formed.
He took her to a dark place, Hell or some hidden cave, it was the same to Lita. She became his unwilling concubine, mother of his half-demonic children. His spells kept the many pregnancies from killing her, but they did nothing for the pain which was so intense that she wished for the times when she wasn’t pregnant and had only to suffer the brutal rapes. And during the periods of the rapes she wished for the times she was pregnant.
Mardero was the last of these children. His birth was so traumatic that even his father’s considerable power couldn’t keep Lita alive through it. His first act in this world was to join his siblings in consuming his mother’s flesh, the first of many human victims his father would bring them as they grew.
Now Mardero roams the land, unbound by the Compact because of his human heritage but as destructive and loyal to the forces of Entropy as any demon.
Rosier the Fallen
There were four in the chamber—tradition said there should only be three, and it wasn’t like the Order to break tradition. The room was round with a domed ceiling and a mosaic of Lord Sabathiel on it. It was late, and the evening prayers could be heard echoing from the sanctuary.
Rosier knelt on the floor; he was an Oath-taker here to report on an oath he had exacted. The Oath-takers served two roles: exacting oaths, and punishing those who broke them. As was typical, there was also a Confessor here. The Confessors extracted information, they were the eyes and the ears of the Order, and they served as a witness and record keeper for these trials. The last normal member of the trial was a Diviner. A Diviner was able to tell if any Oath made in Junil’s name would be broken or not.
What had Rosier flush with anger was the Diviner’s instances on having a fourth person at the meeting: a fellow Oath-taker, Valin Phanuel. Valin stood back by the door, unsure of what to do. The trial (like all things the Order did) had very precise steps. It was a ceremony for three people, and only the Diviner seemed comfortable breaking that. She started.
“Arise Rosier, Knight of the 2nd Heart, Oath-taker and Nonpareil.”
Rosier stood and repeated the phrase, as he had many times before, “I am the shield till the sword comes free, I am a bearer of the law until my lord gives me rest, I am a keeper of peace until the oath is broken.”
“What oath do you bring me, child?”
This Diviner was new, a woman, which was unusual. The former Diviner of the Abbey had been called back, the reason unknown. This was the first time Rosier had met the new Diviner, but he had heard that her unusual behavior had infuriated more than just the Abbey Confessor. Rosier pushed those thoughts back and focused on the reason he was here.
“At the Osul mountains, a small company of Twisted men were captured. They had served the Burnt Priest, but with him dead and his summoned legions gone, they were left unprovisioned and far from their homeland. I gave them the oath, that they should give up their violence and travel back to their homelands, understanding that the way would be difficult, but that they would be unhindered by the Order if they stayed true to their oath. Each one agreed.”
The Confessor wrote the details in a tome; when the trial was finished, it would be packaged carefully and delivered to the Cynosure of Junil. When he was done writing he methodically intoned, “What we three decide shall become law, let no one break it. Ask the question.”
He glared at Valin when he said three, unwilling to change his script to account for him, as if his conviction of the sanctity of the trial would keep Valin from being able to witness it.
Rosier continued, “Will the Twisted men keep their oath?”
The Diviner considered Rosier carefully. The old Diviner would pray here, maybe walk around the room, speak to Junil in angelic languages. But this Diviner, she only sat staring at Rosier. Then she spoke.
“What do you think?”
The Confessor just about exploded. He couldn’t say anything, it wasn’t his turn to speak, but he turned white, and then red, and then back to white again. In his horror, he even dripped ink on the tome, and took it to be a sure sign from Junil that everyone in the room was going to be destroyed.
“Yes, Rosier, what do you think?”
“The Osul can’t support much life, and the twisted men aren’t competent hunters. Many will starve before they get back to their home. After serving the Burnt Priest, they can’t expect to receive any charity from what few people live in that area. Faced with death or the threat of death, most will choose the threat and break their Oath.”
“What causes men to break oaths?”
Rosier was unprepared for the question, unaccustomed to being asked questions at all; that wasn’t the nature of the Order. He thought about it.
“A lot of things, greed, anger, lust. Something as minor as a desire to act unlawfully to something as big as a belief that the person is greater than the oath he made. There are probably as many different reasons as there are men.”
“Valin, what causes men to break oaths?”
It was either so clear in his mind—or he was attempting to keep the Confessor from passing out—either way, he answered in one word, “Weakness.”
The Diviner considered again then seemed to come back to the trial.
“Most of the Twisted men will break their oath. They will attempt to attack a village called Hallowell in three nights. Take a company of Oath-takers and wait for them there. Some of the Twisted men won’t join the raid and will continue on, do not hinder them.”
Everyone in the room looked at the Confessor. He wasn’t writing, he seemed confused on what to record and what to exclude as the Diviner’s rambling. He hastily noted the Diviner’s decision and intoned, “What we three decide shall become law, let no one break it.”
Rosier kneeled again and said his line, “I will carry out this duty, and pledge my life to this task and to Junil. This is my oath.”
The Diviner watched without expression. Rosier rose and left the room, Valin falling in behind him. Before Valin was out of the door, the Diviner called for him. Valin stepped back in and closed the door.
“We have another trial to perform,” said the Diviner.
Valin looked at the Confessor, both equally confused. “I witnessed no oaths today.”
“You just did, and we will need to perform a trial on it.”
Meshabber of Dis
The smoke twisted randomly, as if caught in breeze that was impossible in the small summoning chamber. Kael knelt in a ring with the other students watching the mage in the center demonstrate the experiment in conjuration.
A figured formed in the smoke, an imp a little over two feet tall. His chest was soot black, and he grew lighter gray and hazy along his legs and arms, until his feet and hands were nothing but thin trails of smoke. The embers from the fire danced up into his body and whipped randomly around him, settling in his eyes, which floated lazily, and separately, around his forehead.
He glared at the students until Bradeline, the red robed mage, shouted “Zazim!”
The imp’s ears folded back against his head at the sound of his name.
“Why do you bring me here?” The imp’s voice popped like greasy meat in a hot pan.
“They will try to control the conversation, lead you where they want to go. Innocent at first, but it is a trap. Speak only of what you want from the creature, you did not summon it for idle conversation.”
One of the imp’s eyes remained fixed on Bradeline, while the other floated around his head going from student to student, looking for weakness. Kael was easily ten years older than the rest of the students, and couldn’t tell if the imp noticed this or not. Most of the other students paled and looked away at the imp’s glare. A few returned the stare, their own fear overcome by their lust for power. Kael didn’t react at all, and the imp’s gaze passed quickly on to the next student.
After its examination of the room the imp dropped, placing his wraithlike hands on the stone floor. The fire brightened and the smoke flared out, momentarily obscuring the imp’s form. From within the circle its scratchy voice could be heard speaking unholy words.
“The daft creature is attempting to summon more of its kin.” Bradeline looked almost disappointed. “Most would attempt to flee, but both attempts will be blocked by the summoning circle you constructed. Its call can not penetrate the shell of sorcery, symbols, and the enchanted powder.”
Bradeline took a chain from his belt and held it toward the imp. He let go of the end, letting a copper medallion inscribed with a six-pointed star swing down as he shouted the imp’s name again. Bradeline was as much a performer as he was a conjurer. This time Zazim ignored him.
The powder was enchanted exactly as it should be, but it was not all silver as the spell required. The imp’s call was heard, and in a gust of wind the ill-prepared powder was blown all over the surrounding shocked students. Bradeline didn’t have much time for surprise, the newly formed greater demon that stood over the imp reached out and grabbed his throat.
The demon stood almost to the room’s concave ceiling. He had the hooves of a goat, thick twisted legs, and the chest and arms of a massive gorilla. He had two human heads, one with its mouth sewn shut, constantly screaming behind its pursed lips, and the other looked to have had its eyes recently gouged out. Blood and ichor ran down this face and dripped onto the right side of the demon’s chest. On one forearm the demon had almost a dozen battered gold rings.
“Command me now, blood trader!” The demon grinned. Bradeline had summoned him many times, and forced him to perform acts degrading even to demons. The mage raised the medallion ineffectually in front of the demon’s face, the one with eyes, but the demon only laughed. He would have toyed with Bradeline longer, but the students began to scream and he realized he had more fun in store than just this one killing. With a squeeze, Bradeline’s neck was broken and the demon threw the mage’s body against the stone wall of the chamber. Then he turned on the students.
A boy, more full of ego than sense, began to recite a spell prohibited to students this young. He shot his hands out toward the demon as he finished the incantation. But he was not ready for a spell that complex, and the fire intended for the demon raced up the boy’s arms instead. He fell screaming as the flames consumed his shoulders and head.
The room’s single door was enchanted, only Bradeline or one of the academy’s other instructors could open it. This was to prevent any creature that was summoned here from getting loose and threatening the school. It had seemed a reasonable precaution to the students when they had learned of it, but now as they beat on the chamber door they realized the limitations of the door’s protection.
I pledge my body, to gain your strength; I pledge my mind, to gain your insight; I pledge my heart, to gain your devotion; I pledge my soul, to gain your obedience.
—The Grimoire of Summoning, Second Ritual
He came to the Ritualists under the cover of darkness, looking furtively around. It was not the temple that he went to, with its genial looking librarians and philosophical debates, but to an abandoned building some blocks away. The hooded young man opened the door without knocking. Inside was lit only by candles, each giving a different colored glow.
Five gnarled old fingers wrapped around his wrist like a vise. Instinct made him struggle, but other Ritualists soon had hold of his shoulders and left arm. “Why have you come?” hissed the Ritualist holding his wrist. The other observed silently.
“You told me this was the place, to become one of you.”
“Not good enough. It must be of your will. Why have you come?”
The would-be Savant answered again, “I have come to bargain. I offer myself.”
The Ritualist nodded, and pulled out a knife. Then he slashed the newcomer’s palm, and watched as a thin line of blood appeared, soon forming a small pool in this hand. This he spilled into a small, fragrant pile of desiccated herbs. The Savant was released, and he quickly clasped his hands together to staunch the bleeding. Each Ritualist picked up a candle, and together they lit the reagents stained with blood.
A small fire appeared, with an overwhelming stench of burning flesh. A deep voice echoed throughout the house. “What can I give you?”
The Savant peered into the flames before answering. “I have been ignored, mistreated, and scorned. Give me power to destroy my enemies!”
“And what do you offer?”
“Everything. My life, my wealth, my family, my honor. My soul.”
“It is done. You have favor with Me, and your service has been entered into of your own accord. Let all see another choose my path!” The voice faded.
Again the Savant’s hand was grabbed by one of the Ritualists. This was held into the fire, which did not burn him. Rather, his skin wrinkled and aged before my eyes, the mark traveling up his arms and soon covering his whole body. Then he was released, and he collapsed to the floor. He was still for several minutes, and I thought I heard sobbing.
But no, it was laughter. His eyes burned with dark fire. “I feel… so powerful. At last…” was the last thing I heard. He continued laughing as he was roughly stripped and dressed in the robes of a Savant.
—From Chapter 9 of Reflections on the State Cults, by Elder Methyl of the Luonnotar