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Morgynn gripped the sides of the wide wooden bowl set before her, tracing the designs on its sides with her thumbs and whispering their meanings as she awoke the device's power. Carved in the ancient days of the Nar Empire, legend held that it had been a gift to Goorgian from the Nentyarch of the time-a time long before the druids of the Great Dale took the title of Nentyarch for their own leaders. She admired the crimson stains of past use on its interior. Its bottom was set with a dark mirror, almost black, that reflected only shadows.

Khaemil walked into the chamber quietly, careful not to disturb Morgynn's casting. Morgynn saw his arrival but did not pause to admonish his poor timing. The words of her spell completed, Morgynn released her grip on the bowl and picked up her dagger. She opened a small wound in the center of her palm, allowing herself to bleed freely. Setting aside the knife, she picked up a stoneware pitcher of rainwater and began to pour its contents into the bowl, letting it mix with the blood from her palm. The bowl appeared no different once the spell was completed. She leaned on the table and peered into the depths of the pale red liquid, looking beyond the submerged dark mirror and willing the images to appear. Blurry shapes began to form, quickly growing more distinct. Morgynn sighed in satisfaction. Before long, sounds emanated from the bowl and the noise filled the chamber, amplified by her will. She felt Khaemil shudder. During his years of service and his time in the Nine Hells, she knew he'd been privy to the many sounds humans make when in pain, but the tortured voices of the bathor had few equals among his experiences. Their throats produced a cacophony of sounds that stemmed from a madness only the dead could comprehend. Morgynn's eyes closed and her head swayed as if hearing the hymns of a practiced choir. This was the sound of success, of victory. Though the lyrics lacked poetry, she knew no bard in all the Realms could have penned a greater tribute to her conquest.

Beneath their voices were the twitchings and thrashings of strained muscles and cracking bones as her army tore its way through the Qurth, heedless of the limitations of living anatomy. Lightning could not reveal them through the knotted trees. Thunder hid their cries and moans, their tearing of undergrowth as they progressed through the forest. Their steps were in tune to the rain, quick and scuttling, mindlessly hurried. Slack jaws opened and closed in a mockery of speech, physical habits that had no meaning or worth. Even the harmful plants of the forest recoiled from their nearly impenetrable, leathery skin, smooth and unnaturally pale. The few wounds they received opened briefly like puckered mouths, but would not bleed and closed again in a few heartbeats. The rain washed away grime and clumps of thinning hair, matting what remained to their necks and shoulders. An aura of heat surrounded them, feverish and sweaty, a fog of humidity created by their constant trembling movement, a blur of suffering and madness.

Those who followed watched in awe and revulsion, sensing a terror unlike any they had felt before. Constantly, they whispered prayers to their devil-god, praising his wisdom and power. Morgynn smirked as she watched through her scrying bowl. She allowed the wizard-priests their prayers and misguided praise, if only to keep them loyal, but wondered if even that vile god was capable of what she'd done, of what she'd birthed. "Impossible," she said aloud, startling Khaemil. "What do the gods know of mortality?" She sneered as she gazed, her face lit by a crimson glow, and mumbled her thoughts into the bowl, conversing with herself. Finally, Morgynn stepped back from the scrying bowl with look of contentment. The light of candles danced in her eyes as she turned to Khaemil. "Soon," she said. "Now, what news do you have?" "It is the tower, Lady," he began, measuring his words carefully. "The Gargauthans report that it is resisting their further attempts to strengthen the net of spells. The most recent runes, once written, begin to fade and must be applied again and again to maintain the magic's integrity." "And what cause do they suspect?" she asked, her voice perilously close to anger. "Only the tower itself," he answered.

"The source of the obstruction is unknown but local." Her eyes scanned the walls, searching for some trick or ward unnoticed before. Nothing.

"They can maintain the control we currently hold?" "Yes, Lady, long enough at any rate." "Good," she answered, still peering at the tower walls, though she half-suspected the latent magic of the Qurth itself was at work somehow. "The storm and the obscuring shield should be necessary only for dealing with the oracles. I had wished to keep it longer, as we moved on the rest of the Reach, but I suppose" Her words trailed off as she imagined the fruits of her ambition. Khaemil did not reply. She didn't notice his silence, anyway, as she walked over to the window. Her eyes saw a horizon not yet born, a world under a twilit sky taken by the Order. The people who lived in her ambition were faceless, meaningless, casualties of her will and purpose. They were despairing throngs devoid of hope, lost between life and death, darkness and light. They would know, she thought, what Gargauth could not. "It takes knowledge of a life lived," she whispered, "to know the nature of a life destroyed." Though her outward demeanor was calm, she clawed at the stone window ledge, scraping her knuckles open on its rough surface. She allowed them to bleed, oblivious to the pain, and marveled at the sight of lightning reflected in the smeared drops of red.

CHAPTER SEVENTEEN | Bloodwalk | *****