The Old Dominion

The Kürschbourgh Expedition

Even if a secret kept from the general population, the existence of the undead remnants of the Old Dominion has been known to humankind for centuries. This knowledge has primarily been preserved and safeguarded by the Orders and the higher echelons of power in the City State of Acheron, who have historically monitored and guarded the passages to the East, while most of the times the W’adrhŭn would dissuade, or eliminate, most stranglers that managed to pass through those two human sentries. Despite their best efforts, however, curiosity, scholarly pursuits, misguided worship, and the promise of an entire civilization’s worth of treasures – not to mention the foul call of the Pyre – have been singing their siren call, attracting people from all sorts of life to the broken remains of Capitas. The few that have fled with their lives after witnessing the current state of the Old Dominion have sparked misbelieved tales about the dead haunting the living; but that is about as far as the truth has been preserved among the general population.

Shielded from such truths were even the last few Emperors. In 501 P.R., Emperor Otto III the Accursed saw his reputation and influence dwindle after his marriage to Myran of Leon, a pronounced Deist, and the Church turned almost openly against him, refusing to donate the Palatinate to the Empress and founding the Paeneticum in its stead. Despite his own indifference, a childhood friend and Theist sympathizer, Duke Gabriel von Kürschbourgh, urged him to keep some kind of good will between him and the Holy Father and the two men eventually agreed that recovery of a Champion’s Artifact from the Old Dominion would serve the Emperor’s purpose. An expedition led by the Duke and funded personally by the Emperor, would embark in secret to recover such an artifact. Of the total of forty men, only five returned alive and the expedition’s purpose and findings were never revealed save to a handful of individuals.

Herein follows the surviving account of Squire Jeorg of Riim, as found in the Classified Section of the Paeneticum’s Library:

The abomination with its bannerman stood within range of our archers. We rode out, my Lord Gabriel, Father Mattias of Heigue, Bannerman First Class Peter Shultz, and myself, as Squire to his Excellency, to meet it.

The differences to the other creatures, based on the scout’s report and our own observations, were apparent. Unlike the bannerman next to it and the dozens of other creatures behind it, it looked as if its armor protected something more than just bones. Stripes of cloth escaped the plating and ceremonial attire, possibly strapping dead, rotten flesh to the bone. A deathmask, adorned with a crown of sunrays, covered its face. Its bannerman held a golden Solifer, like those of the Old Empire, albeit torn and tattered. Much like the deathmask of the creature, my Lord Gabriel was expressionless but for those who knew him best, for I could see the anger that danced silently in his eyes when they fell on the banner.

“Who are you?” he asked the masked one, as if talking to a man. To my surprise, the thing replied. Its torso did not move as it spoke, nor did the neck flex. There was no breath behind the words, only the mask stirring slightly as the mouth moved behind it. The voice was low, a muffled whisper, barely strong enough to reach our ears. Father Mattias circled his heart. Bannerman Shultz tried to calm his mare, which stomped the ground nervously.

“We are one,” it said. “We are the name you do not speak. We are the Light at the End of thy prayers.”

“Where do you come from?”

“We always were.”

My Lord Gabriel paused, troubled.

“Who are you?” he asked again.

“We are…”

“No,” my Lord interrupted. “You. Who are you?” The creature simply starred at him for some moments.

“…I…” it struggled to pronounce, almost coughing, as if the word was foreign. “…am Keeper.”

“That is no name.”

“No.”

“Is that a nickname then? A role?”

“No.”

“Then answer who…”

“It is…I.”

“Are you, Keeper, the commander of this army?”

“No.”

“Is there a commander, a king, an emperor, a general among you?”

“No.”

“Then are you the only authorit…?”

Yeeees…” sighed dozens pairs of dead lips, as if with pleasure for finally admitting this; the wind carried the word and made it bounce against the sides of the rocky path, making our torches dance nervously and bringing it to our ears again and again and again. As if by reflex, their whole army had answered and, I cannot deny, it sent our hearts to race, our horses to falter, our guts grow numb and cold. All the dead had spoken. All but the Keeper.

“…I…” it whispered, struggling again once the echoes died out. “…am not. We are One. You do not see, Gabriel, yet We are as clear as day,” it went on, tilting its head. It was hard to discern its tone, but I sensed uncertainty dressing its voice. I am under the impression that as time passed, it seemed to be able to communicate better and that uncertainty fading.

“How do you know my name? Speak, fiend, before…!” demanded my Lord but his words were cut. Again as one, the dead raised their shields and the bowmen reached for their arrows, angry sighs and muted growls reaching our ears. We reached for our swords, but they stopped as suddenly as they had started.

“You. Will not. Speak thus. To Us,” the Keeper said slowly, its head lowered. Then it went on, raising its head to look at my Lord, the army behind it falling at ease once more. “We know your name, yes,” it said after a while. “It echoes in Our… My mind. Words at dawn, murmurs in my head. Do you see?” The question, I felt, held significance, as if the creature itself was uncertain of the answer.

“No, creature, I do not, but I swear to…”

Swear to Us.” Again, a reflex, a sigh more than a reply, and again the twofold feeling. It felt like a command but also a plea.

“You unholy…”

“My Lord…!” said I, hurriedly, trying to appease to him and I remember my throat was dry. I do not hide that I feared the creatures, just as I feared my Lord’s reaction.

“So be it,” he muttered, controlling himself before talking to the Keeper, his words more like a growl than a greeting . “I am Duke Gabriel von Kürschbourgh. In the name of His Imperial Majesty, Otto the Third, Emperor Divine of Mank…”

They all reacted as one, once more. They made a sound, like drawing a single, endless, choking breath, like wind trapped in a narrow tunnel, gaining speed and might and volume with every moment. I felt the back of my hair rise and the bitter taste of terror filled my mouth, as our men exclaimed in fear and reached for their weapons, before our Lord raised his hand. I think, now, that the dead were laughing.

“Stand aside, creature!” my Lord growled over their sound. “In the name of the Emperor, I demand..!”

All of a sudden their… laugh ceased and deathly silence fell among their troops, even as the Keeper spoke.

“You do not..!” it almost crowed in anger but it stopped. When it went on, it was the same, low tone. “…demand. And We shall not command. We shall offer. Once.”

I believe it was the creature’s intention to try and sound pleasant when it spoke again.

“We bring only peace. Love Us. We do. Return to Us. We did to you. Accept Our offer.”

My Lord Gabriel did not answer. He looked at the armor of the Old Empire, the ceremonial deathmask of the Keeper and finally the Solifer, the dawning sun, a sun similar to the one his Lordship’s banner bore. I do not know what he thought, and he never shared, then or later.

“What is your offer?” he asked at last.

Once again, the answer came from all, only this time it was no whisper, it was no sigh. It was a statement, a promise, certain and inescapable, echoing like distant thunder slowly reaching us in the confines of the pass.

Death.

Behind the golden mask, I felt the smile of the Keeper.

“We bring only peace,” it repeated.

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