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PROLOGUE

The Year of Lightning Storms (1374 DR) Early Autumn (Uktar) Nuressa clung to the low stone wall, facing the sea. She stared at dark ships that approached on reddened waves as chaos erupted in the streets behind her. Shouts, screams, and inhuman roars faded into the background as the tide swelled, carrying its ominous burden closer.

The crimson light of early sunset grew deeper and more inflamed, casting the small town of Logfell in tones of blood as she struggled to pull herself up on weakening legs. Her pale, sickly skin was covered in red welts and painful lesions, signs of the blush, a plague that had sprung to grim life a little over a tenday ago. Clouds of steam rolled atop the lethargic waves of the Lake of Steam, carrying the handful of strange longboats closer. But Nuressa's eye was drawn by a lone figure clad in tattered red robes walking barefoot upon the sea ahead of the shadowy fleet. It was a woman with flowing dark hair and eyes that were flooded with red. The woman extended her arms outward as she neared, as if gathering the town in a distant embrace.

Warmth flowed across Nuressa's lips and she tasted blood. Her nose dripped, succumbing to the bleeds the blush induced as its grip grew stronger. A droning chant drifted on the air, emanating from the longboats behind the woman in red. No words could be made out in the menacing litany, but power rippled in the syllables that reached her.

The sound of the deep voices rose gooseflesh across Nuressa's body, and the chant drove a chill wind, early for the season. Nuressa shivered. The steady drip of Nuressa's nose became a bloody stream as the woman in red's voice joined the macabre chorus. The waves around the woman pulsed in a circle as she spoke harsh words in an arcane language. Blood spilled from her eyes and curled across her cheeks in unknown symbols and sigils, runes of power that changed from one to another as she spoke. The fear and terror Nuressa had been numb to just moments ago returned with a vengeance. She gasped as pain lanced through her chest, arms, and legs, a dull ache that crawled up her neck as the chanting grew louder. The chorus washed across the town and raised screams from the maddened masses behind her. Paralyzed by horror, she could not tear her eyes away from the woman in red, who rose in the air, her toes barely touching the water. Closer now, Nuressa could see strange, scarlike designs and markings on the woman's body, horrific and beautiful, like a poem of fine lines and old pain. The chant reached a crescendo that throbbed behind Nuressa's eyes, and just as she considered acting on her fear and running away to find shelter or sanctuary, the noise stopped. Silence crashed across Logfell as the woman in red tossed her head and arms backward, arching her back in ecstasy or pain, the focal point of some dark working. Then the blooded eyes lowered, seeming to meet Nuressa's.

Crimson lips smiled and whispered a single syllable, releasing an energy that thundered across the water's surface in an ever-widening wave. The ground shook as the force crashed against the coast, flooding across the town like a choir of swarming locusts. Nuressa fell from the low wall, trembling as her veins pulsed and became visible beneath her skin. Muscles throbbed and strained against tendons and bone. Her mind was full of the sound of the chant, unable to escape it as she crawled toward the mass of limbs and stampeding terror that filled the street in front of her. Her friends and neighbors had become like animals, clawing and biting at one another to reach the gates. Nuressa did not look at their faces, pale shadows of the people they'd once been. She focused on going home, finding her daughter, and praying for release from this incursion of chaos, pushing and screaming through the crowd, and trampling across the bodies of the fallen as she passed. The same scene lay in the streets beyond-people fleeing or fighting one another. All of them were held in the grip of the blush, the plague excited to growth by the chant they could all hear playing in their minds. Nuressa stood and stared at her small home for several moments, searching her memory, unable to imagine what it must have looked like before the blush. Frustrated, she pulled the door open and fell to her hands and knees inside, holding her breath as fresh pain washed through her head, and gulping for air as it passed. On her stomach, she crawled through the simple kitchen, pushing chairs out of her way in the dark. Down the hallway, darker still, the bedroom door was open, allowing the dying light of the sun to illuminate her path. Whispers surrounded her and she realized they were her own, a stream of nonsense, spilling out the contents of her mind in a rush so fast she could not cling to one thought before the next was gone. An emptiness hovered in the back of her mind, growing larger as she poured out the myriad details of her life, until the empty thing filled her head. She imagined it behind her, some creature crawling and mewling in infantile tones as it pawed at her ankles in the dark. It seemed she could hear its claws echoing her own fingernails as they strained to pull her weight. She sobbed in pain and fear as she reached the doorway at the end of the hall.

Gripping the frame, she slid her body into the room and kicked the door shut against the imagined demon that hounded her. She pulled herself to a sitting position and winced as the dim sunlight found her eyes. A growing twilight colored the sky in violets and reds as she muttered uncontrollably, trembling and shaking as pain wracked her body. Her eyes rolled, trying to recognize the room she sat in, seeking some memory to link it to herself. Her whispering slowed and the words became meaningless and distant-a language she could not recognize though she'd spoken it all her life. The last dregs of her mind bled out as silence surrounded her. The stabs of pain intensified, but she was no longer fully aware of their ebb and flow, nor could she identify where she hurt. Her eyes, now blank and unmoving, stared at the darkening sky, and though her heart still pounded madly, her head slumped forward, limp and lifeless, privy only to the darkness.



Bloodwalk | Bloodwalk | *****