“Greetings my dear, what brings you to my humble abode?” said the grey-haired hag peering out of a crack in the doorway. The full moon was high in the night sky and the cold air was . The light from within the cottage illuminated the features of a man standing outside. The man was quite fat and the brass buttons of his shirt struggled to contain his enormous girth. His pigish face was rather ugly being lumpy in places and scared all over with pockmarks. His clothes were patchy and worn from wear. The smell of hot porridge wafted through the air.
Antone, a traveling salesman, was in route to the town of Ashenvale accompanied by his half-starved mule laden with cheap trinkets and other junk wares. He was taking a short cut off the main trail, but he had gotten himself hopelessly lost. He was used to camping on the road, but the potential for warm victuals and a surface softer than the ground for sleeping on was too much for him to resist. “Good evening mi’lady! I seek food and shelter for the night before I continue my journey on the morrow. I have some untrimmed copper crowns with your name on them if you would accommodate me.” He winked and grinned a toothy smile that was too wide even for his fat face.
“Yes do come in – I’ll have you for supper. It would be nice to have some company for a change. Now my dear, do take a seat by the hearth and join me. I’ll fetch you a bowl of porridge.” said the old woman.
The porridge was a thin gruel, and hardly appetizing, but to Antone it was a hundred times better than the hard tack he usually ate when traveling. He offered his thanks and began to eat greedily from the bowl with a wooden spoon. The porridge dribbled down his double-chins and in that moment he looked exactly like a hog eating slop from a trough.
While the petty-merchant was busy stuffing himself, the old woman interrupted him with a question. “Do you like stories my dear?”. Antone knew that he was probably the old hag’s first visitor in a long time, so while he did not care to listen to her story at all, he nodded yes anyways. “Good!”, said the old woman, “I will tell you the story of Durin. It is a story of gods, of demons, and of angels. It all began many years ago in the now forgotten age of the world”.
“The intentions of an act are meaningless when compared with the consequences.”-The philosopher Epirus the Younger
The twilight sky was darkening and the oncoming of nighttime brought forth the cold. It wasn’t a biting cold, instead it was the cold of springtime which was cooler, but not altogether unpleasant. The spring air tasted fresh and crisp. Overhead the grey clouds foreshadowed the rain that was sure to come. Beneath the sky was a high mountain of granite. On that mountain were two persons that looked like ants climbing upon it. As it so happens, those persons were brothers. Brothers in a contest of whom would be first to reach the summit.
“You are growing tired, little brother!” taunted Durin. “Perhaps I should call you Maldrin the slow” He quipped, continuing his climb without so much as a pause for breath.
Maldrin replied, not loud enough for his brother to hear, “We shall know the real winner soon enough, brother”.
* * *
In those days there was a kingdom named Roem. Roem was, like most kingdoms of the time, a small city-state ruled over by a warrior-king. Durin and his brother Maldrin were young princes of Roem. As such they grew up there and they knew the kingdom as well as anybody could claim to. As boys, they had ridden and played from one end to their father’s kingdom to the other. Although that wasn’t particularly difficult either since it took only about a day’s ride to traverse the entirety of the kingdom’s borders. You could ride around it all and still be home again for supper. As children, their father’s kingdom had seemed impossibly vast and filled with adventure. Now it just seemed small.
Outside the borders of the kingdom stood the monumental ruins of a vast and ancient city. Most people that saw it wondered what had happened to cause its destruction, and where had all the people gone? Although there were many stone carvings depicting splendid kings, or chronicling important battles that they had won; nobody even knew the name of the peoples that had once lived in that lost city. The ruins of the temple ziggurats displayed carven images of four strange gods. Two with the bodies of men, two with the bodies of women, and all with the heads of animals. The written language the former denizens employed used cryptic symbols that meant nothing to anybody anymore. Durin and his brother Maldrin liked to visit the ruins of that ancient city and climb the stones there pretending to be kings leading armies of soldiers to battle, or noble heroes slaying wicked monsters. It was in the ruins of that ancient city that Durin began to wonder what else might lay in the lands beyond the borders of their father’s kingdom. Durin was not sure, but he vowed to himself that one day he would go out and explore the world to find out.
It was also there in the ruins of one of the ziggurats that Durin found a treasure hidden underneath the ruble. He reached his hand down to investigate. His fingers grasped hold of something cold and metallic. He brought the object closer to his eyes to better see what it might be. It was a ring. A golden ring with two gemstones set into it. The ring was cunningly crafted into the shape of a snake that was apparently eating its own tail. The gemstones were of amethyst and represented the piercing eyes of the snake. Durin felt an eerie attraction to the ring at once. He slipped the ring onto his finger. It fit him perfectly as though it was made for him.
The boys’ father, King Lurin, passed away that winter. He contracted a coughing sickness that caused him to spit up blood. The sickness withered away his powerful body to nothing in a matter of months. After the passing of their father, Durin was crowned king. He was just 16 years old. Durin was born to rule of course being the eldest son of the King Lurin. But some thought that Durin was not yet ready to rule. They suggested that a regent should be employed until Durin became a man as was custom at 20 years old. Like all youths, Durin was known to act rashly and with emotion instead of using reason and logic. He was ambitious too. He desired more from the world than the small kingdom he ruled over could ever provide him.
Maldrin was close in age to Durin, but was the younger of the brothers. Despite his youth, he possessed cunning far beyond his years. At court Maldrin attempted to assist Durin with the burden of administering the realm. By any respect Maldrin could be considered a true bureaucrat. A person who believed in the proper order and administration of all things.
But Durin did not like administrators or bureaucrats anymore than he liked common thieves. He believed he ruled his kingdom absolutely. This meant he would not for long tolerate sharing control with Maldrin. He was the king, was he not? What business did his brother have in usurping his authority? Durin made it clear to his young brother how he felt about the matter and that had settled it. Maldrin was a prince of Roem, and a prince only. Durin was the king. That was all there was to it. What Durin didn’t know was that he had angered Maldrin greatly.
In his anger Maldrin thought up his evil plan. He would challenge his brother to a contest of strength. A race up the mountain. His brother would never decline a chance to show his superiority to his little brother. All Maldrin had to do was make sure his brother had an accident. Durin would be dead without any witnesses around, and Maldrin would become king. Yes he could imagine it already.
* * *
Durin was first to the summit and he rested for a moment to catch his breath. Suddenly Durin heard a loud voice from behind him.
“There can be only one!” Maldrin screamed.
Before Durin could even turn around he was pushed forwards. He stumbled, then fell. Durin was in free fall and the air rushed around him. The crack of thunder could be heard loudly above the rain.
A curse borne of vengeance is known to draw the eyes of the gods. As Durin fell from the mountain he cursed his brother. As it so happens, the gods were watching that day.
The Dark Pact
“Blood is the river of life, and we drink gratefully from it. Blood is the sustenance of the heart, and the heart is the key to the soul. The soul walks the path into heaven.”–Slaughterpriest Torsek
Durin was stirred to wakeness. His head pounded and his memory was foggy as though he had too much wine to drink the night before. He lay upon his back and he saw an azure sky above him. The grass was soft and gentle upon his skin. He sat upright by pushing his elbows out behind himself. A gust of wind caused the grass to dance with life. The birds chirped their songs melodically in the trees and curious red squirrels could be seen running about in search of nuts most likely. Everything seemed…perfect.
He then began to think about what had happened to him. He remembered a mountain…his brother…and falling. Yes he was certainly falling. Maybe he had drunk too much wine he thought to himself.
Durin stood up, brushed his clothes off, and surveyed the surrounding land. He was on a low hill and saw more trees, but no buildings, no farms, not even roads. Until…there in the distance he spotted something. About a mile-and-a-half distant stood a great and proud oak tree. The tree must have been many hundreds of years ancient no doubt because of its considerable size. Under the tree’s branches he saw the silhouette of a person. Durin, not knowing where else to turn, began to walk in the direction of that tree to meet the mysterious person that stood there.
The man waited for him there under the shade of that great oak tree. The man was clad in a black robe with a dark hood which obscured most of his features. He stared at Durin as he approached but said nothing. Durin could see a little of the man’s face, but what he saw looked unnatural. The man’s skin was as pallid as dead flesh. His eyes glowed the color of fresh blood. Durin was lost for words.
The stranger broke the silence. A chilling wind blew forth and shaped itself into unearthly words. The syllables were jagged and stiff as if they had been cut into pieces by rattling bones. “Have no fear King Durin” the mysterious man said.
“How do you know me, and who are you?” Durin asked the man in black.
The man simply chuckled. The sound of which was deep and sharp, like claws scraping loudly against stone walls.
The man smiled cruelly. His razor sharp fangs flashed in that instant. “I am the angel Tezen. I am here because the gods have sent me to you. The gods have been watching you, Durin, with great interest.”
“The gods?” said Durin. He, like most people, believed in the existence of the gods and their heavenly powers. He worshipped the sun god for the life he provided, the storm god for the rains she provided, as well as a pantheon of lesser gods. People at the time were superstitious and quick to attribute various cosmic events, droughts, or earthquakes to the machinations of the gods. Correlation or causation, it didn’t matter but the stories of the gods provided explanation to the people for how the world worked. It explained why the sun rose and set each day, and the changing seasons of the year.
“Of course.” Smiled the angel with his sharp teeth. “As is generally known, the Universe – like life – represents a wheel. A wheel on whose rim eight magical points are etched, making a complete turn; the annual cycle. Four spokes of the wheel represent the four gods: the Warrior, the Father, the Mystic, and the Wanderer; while the remaining four represent the changing seasons. Other false gods are worshiped by mankind in these days, but it was not always so. Once mankind worshipped the true gods.” The angel paused then continued, “This is where you come into the gods’ plans Durin. You have been chosen to reintroduce the true gods to mankind. All the world should know their eternal glory instead of the false idols they worship now. This is your task, Durin. In exchange the gods will give you life again so that you can have justice against your traitorous brother. You, Durin, will become the greatest king to ever live. You will conquer the whole world.”
Durin clenched his fists at the mention of his brother. He wished nothing but vengeance upon his brother for his treachery.
“The gods only show mortals the path.” said the angel Tezen. “Men must still walk the path. If you wish to live again so that justice might be done, then hold out your hand and receive the blessing of the gods.”
Durin offered his hand palm up. The angel drew forth a wicked dagger and slashed it across Durin’s palm to form the rough shape of an eight spoked wheel. The slash caused blood to flow from his hand and drip onto the ground. The dirt drank his blood greedily.
Suddenly the world around began to change. The sky turned a deep shade of red. The grass withered away leaving only dead straw behind. Durin looked back to the angel for explanation, but he saw nobody. He was alone.
Fire erupted a few feet away and the flames quickly spread in his direction. Durin ran to escape. He felt sweat drip down his forehead, and he felt the earth shaking beneath his feet. His path was blocked ahead by a widening hole that stretched in both directions as far as he could see. Durin needed to escape the flames and reach the other side. He readied himself and ran forward at a sprint. Three steps, two steps, one step…and he jumped. For a moment he was certain he would reach the other side. But he fell short. He started to fall. The chasm was deep and his eyes fluttered then tightly shut as the air rushed around him. His mind faded to blackness. All was emptiness. All was darkness.
Durin was being shaken hard. He jolted his head, then blinked several times. He saw the morning sky. He felt tired. Tired as if he had just climbed a mountain or run a mile. He was assisted up by two men, both garbed in the purple and gold colors of Roem.
“Where am I…?” Durin spoke with pained difficulty.
“You slipped and fell from the mountain my king! Prince Maldrin reported the accident at once upon his return to the city. We came here as quickly as we could to search for you. Although we did not hope to find you alive from such a fall.”
“I do not remember what happened.” said Durin groaning from the throbbing pain coursing through his body.
One of the men offered a hand to help the king to his feet. He grasped the man’s hand and noticed a black scar in the shape of an eight spoked wheel upon his palm. He wanted to scream out loud. But he calmed himself and reminded himself of his purpose. Vengeance. Durin knew what he must do.
“Where was my brother did you say? There a matter I must repay him for in kind.”
Conquest and Faith
“The strong exact what they can, the weak suffer what they must.”-King Durin of Roem
King Durin led his legions of soldiers to conquer all the neighboring realms. Those city-states that did not surrender outright were put to the torch. All the unfortunate inhabitants then were flayed alive and set atop wooden stakes to die slow deaths while the carrion birds circled overhead. Word of Durin’s brutality set an example for other cities that might have had a mind to defy him. The skulls of the dead were piled in high stacks as offerings to the Warrior god for their victory in battle.
In his expanding kingdom, Durin ordered all idols and blasphemous scriptures burned or destroyed. In their place a new religious order was founded. Temples were constructed devoted to the true gods. The four gods each had the bodies of humans, and the heads of animals.
Inhabitants of Roem worshiped all four gods, but generally favored one more than the others. The gods represented different virtues of society. The Warrior god, with his bear head, was the lord of war and favored by soldiers and kings. The Father, with his bull head, was the god the harvest and of health; he was often favored by peasants. The Mystic, with her raven head, was the god of magic and of knowledge. She was favored by the magi and the wise. Lastly was the Wanderer with her snake head. She was the trickster god of intrigue and of self pursuit. The greedy and the cunning favored her.
The kingdom of Roem had grown greatly in size in a short period of time. Now at the age of 53, King Durin ruled over the largest kingdom the world had yet known. This vast multicultural kingdom was controlled entirely by religion. It was the mortar that held it together. Faith was their shield and their spear. No enemy could stand before the heavenly warriors of the true gods. The priests proclaimed Durin to be the physical manifestation of the gods’ will, a living saint. Durin looked the part of a hero too with his mighty muscles and deeply tanned skin from a lifetime spent on the campaign trail. His only luxury was two-fold. First the silver armor he wore upon his breast, and second his golden snake ring with its amethyst eyes.
Durin continued to wear the ring all these years. It gave him great comfort to wear it. He couldn’t explain it, but the ring made him feel sure of himself and of his destiny. He gazed at the gemstone eyes of the snake. The eyes seemed to glow brightly at times. The snake was eating its own tail, but why? What did it mean? A beginning and an end surely. But a beginning and an end to what?
“Mankind is a futile embarrassment. An imperfect vessel imperfectly made. We play at being omnipotent, knowing the potential perhaps lies within us yet it will always be denied to us.”–Disciple Zagtek, church of the Father
Durin’s determination to expand his kingdom through military conquest meant that his life was lived in the saddle and on campaign. He never was able to fully enjoy the fruits of his victory before he was off again fighting yet another war. Currently he was waging war against the norsemen. The norsemen lived in the cold tundra of the far north and they refused to submit to the rightful rule of Roem. The diplomats that Durin had sent were even decapitated by the barbarians and their heads sent back in a bloody sack. Conquering the norsemen at the edge of the world, however, proved difficult because of the mountainous terrain and the arctic conditions that his soldiers were wholly unaccustomed to. Many had died simply because of the inescapable cold because of inadequate clothing to keep warm.
Durin shouted commands while he led his troops into the melee of battle. They slaughtered the barbarians that stood against them with ease on the open battle field. The battle was going well and the norsemen were retreating up the mountain path. Durin gave the order to pursue and led the charge.
The mountain path gradually grew more narrow as Durin ascended. Eventually the path was so narrow as to only allow a single person to walk at one time. The mountain was on one side, and a sheer cliff was on the other. The snowy mountain climbed ever higher still. It was impossible to go backwards now because of his soldiers pressing behind him. The wind blew snow sideways and visibility dropped to only a few meters. Durin continued to swing at the Norsemen with his hammer while he advanced up the mountain’s path.
Durin was growing tired though. While he slayed easily dozens of the norsemen, he was steadily growing weaker and his swings with his hammer were growing slower. He suffered a few hits when the norsemen were able to land blows upon his silver armor denting it in places. Durin couldn’t see anymore because of the blinding snow. He didn’t know if there were only a few of the barbarians left or a horde. Durin began to despair. He couldn’t go backwards for relief, but neither could he continue on forever.
A voice spoke to Durin then. If require my power, all you need do is assssssk.
Durin did not know to whom the voice belonged, but neither did he care in that moment. Here was a sliver of hope offered to him in his hour of despair. He would take any help he could get.
“Give me the power to smite down my enemies!” Durin replied to the voice.
So it shall be. Said the slithering voice.
Raw power coursed through Durin’s body as new strength flowed into his veins. The king could feel the weighty presence invade every inch of his flesh. The eyes on the ring glowed brightly.
The power of the ring wormed its way through his veins. Durin felt his bones twist with the corruption. His skin turned a dark purple color and he fought to hold out against the malevolent presence.
But the demon only laughed. The voice of course belonged to demon Kabraxis. An infinitely ancient demon that was powerful beyond mortal comprehension. She dug her talons deep into his flesh and his vibrant red heart slowly faded away, replaced with a new venomous tint.
Durin screamed. But no sound came out. He made a grave mistake he realized only too late. He lost control of his movement, his limbs suddenly immobilized. He fell face forwards onto the mountain path. Frozen tears welled from his eyes as his body lay there stiff in the snow. Durin was dead.
Durin’s corpse lay on the mountainside and the barbarians cheered for having killed the enemy king. Durin’s soldiers tried to lift up their king so that they might carry away his body for burial.
But Durin’s corpse began to twitch. The soldiers and the norsemen went silent and stared at the jittering body that was Durin. The arms and legs writhed and moved about in unnatural ways. It was as if insects or snakes were crawling under the skin desperately trying to get out. Bulges grew from veiny limbs, wet flesh swelled at a rapid rate, and his silver armor was shredded like paper. Durin’s body rose to a standing position. Black leathery wings unfurled from the thing’s back as the former resident’s human skin sloughed off. It was a gigantic bat like monster with the head of a snake. Whatever it was, it was an abomination. The demon was covered in black flesh, and it claws and fangs were like razors. The thing howled a terrible hissing cry as it emitted a shriek which drove those nearby in an insane to madness and despair.
The demon spread forth its great, leathery wings and took flight off the snowy mountain. Kabraxis laughed to itself. Mortalsss are ssso weak she thought.
The ring remained on the demon’s finger. In the gemstone eyes of the ring, Durin’s soul was trapped for eternity. The demon listened to Durin’s muted screams. She thought to herself that it was the sweetest song in all the world.
“How do I know this story you ask?”, said the old hag, “Why… I was there of course.” The hermit smiled malevolently at Antone. It was then that Antone realized he couldn’t move. What was in that porridge? He thought too late. He then saw something on the hermit’s finger, he had not noticed it before in the dim light of the cottage. But now he saw clearly. It was a golden ring glinting in the light of the fire. The ring was in the shape of a snake eating its own tail. “Yes” Kabraxis said, “How sweet it is that you came to me this evening. I was growing hungry for human flesh and now I shall have you for my supper.” The demon bit into the fleshy neck of Antone and he screamed. The owls continued to hoot in the distance and the wind rustled the treetops.