The smell of rot was in the air.
As the afternoon sun began its descent, the footsteps of the approaching stranger fell upon the quiet village streets as poison leeches into an unguarded well. The muddy road never touched his immaculate black boots and the hem of his long robe was as clean as a starless night as he made his way towards his destination. The small hill that overlooked the village and the cottage that stood on its top were his goal.
At the foot of the hill crouched an elderly hound. His eyes were clouded and the hairs on his muzzle were white, but still he rose to greet the stranger, his long tail wagging back and forth furiously. The stranger stopped and reached a gloved hand to pet the old dog's head, his fingers gently scratching behind the hound's ears, causing it to whimper happily. The old dog rolled on his back, and the stranger gave his belly similar attention. The hound yelped like a young pup at that. The stranger laughed, and if anyone else was there to hear it, they'd likely have noted how unlikely it was to hear that sound coming from that cold, pale face.
From the hill above came a wail. A young woman came rushing out of the cottage, her face ruddy with tears. An older man came after her, visage drawn with pain, to gently lay a hand on her shoulder. The woman turned to him and buried her face in his shoulder, weeping loudly. The older man combed his fingers through her hair, obviously holding back tears of his own. At the bottom of the hill the hound looked up worriedly, but the attentions of the stranger soon swayed it back into complacency. As for the stranger himself, he observed the scene impassively, cold silvery eyes passing over woman and man and cottage as if all of those were less than the dried leaves that covered the surrounding countryside. He made no hails, nor did he move to ascend to the top of the hill.
Some time later, a third man emerged from the cottage. His outfit was that of a country physician, though his pale Ibis-bird mask belied this impression. He spoke briefly to the older man, nodded to the young woman, then returned inside. Moments later he emerged once more, this time carrying a large bundle in both hands. Seeing it, the woman wailed again, running back into the cottage and slamming the door behind her. The older man shook his head, said something to the physician, and the two shook hands. The older man followed the woman inside, while the physician, bundle in hands, began to make his way down from the hill and onto the muddy road below. While all this occurred, the stranger never lifted his eyes from the hound, who was now dozing in the sun next to his feet. Long fingers kneaded the hound's hindquarters, where an old hunting wound left a large scar.
As the physician stepped unto the road his eyes fell upon the stranger. He stopped mid-step, bundle clutched tightly in his hands.
"She is not for you, Youngest. A deal was made."
The stranger gave the hound one last pat and turned to face the physician. Eyes like frosted glass measured the masked man.
"A deal? I recall no such thing, Diagnostician."
The physician grasped the bundle more tightly yet. "You gave us leave, damn you! You gave us leave!"
The stranger cackled, this sound lacking all the joy of his earlier laugh. He straightened, and in his full height he loomed over the physician like an oak over a stalk of grass. "Be wary of making assumptions, insect. Remember your place. Remember by whose power your rotten form remains on this earth."
The physician looked up defiantly for a moment, than all resistance seemed to leave him. Something within him crumpled, and he dropped his bundle to the earth.
"Have her then. You always get yours in the end, don't you?"
The stranger laughed once more, and a silvery harvest sickle appeared from the folds of his dark robe. He raised the instrument to the air and the physician closed his eyes, unable to watch. The very air was parted in two as the sickle descended to the ground… to hover above the head of the old hound, whose labored breathing slowed… then stopped. A silvery thread unwound itself from the elderly dog and curled around the sickle like early morning fog, and the air was momentarily filled with the sound of the proud braying of a hound in his full glory, filled with the thrill of the hunt.
The physician stared as the stranger stashed the sickle back in his robes and turned to leave.
"The hound… you came all this way for a dog?"
The stranger half-turned and looked up to the early autumn sky, towards the slowly setting sun.
"I have told not to make assumptions, did I not?"
The physician didn't know what to say. So he said nothing. He bent down to pick his fallen bundle. As he rose again, the stranger was gone, leaving only the scent of rotting snow and dead leaves behind him. And a comment.
"I happen to like dogs."
The warrior gaped at his own shattered corpse. His face, adorned with the newly formed beard he had been so proud about, now sported a rather ugly hole dead in its center. His brothers in arms didn't even stop to arrange his body in a more dignified pose, so it remained splayed on the dirt where it fell, its one remaining eye staring blindly at the desert sky.
This can't be happening…
An explosion in the distance. Screams.
Seven. Improvised demolition charge. Total eight.
Flies were already beginning to gather around the warrior's body. Tiny insects buzzed around spilled brain matter, relishing the unexpected feast. The warrior, horrified, tried to wave them away but they did not appear to notice him. It was almost as if he was not there at all. As if that body was all that was left of him. But that clearly wasn't true, was it? He was here!
This wasn't what was promised…
To his horror, the warrior found that he no longer felt anything when he looked at the meat that was formerly him. He made no further move to swat away the flies that began buzzing about the ruin of his face, nor did he scream when a battered SUV crushed it carelessly below its wheels as it rushed away from the battlefield, carrying wounded that appeared to be in little better shape than his corpse.
Twenty five, series of anti-tank missile attacks. Total-thirty three.
The warrior now became aware of the droning, somehow metallic voice. But where did it come from, where-
Forty-three, ambush, small arms fire. Total seventy-six.
And there it was, towering directly above the warrior as if it was always there. A gargantuan armored shape that eclipsed the sun, a behemoth comprised of broken arms and shattered walls. War personified. Terror incarnate. Pain and desolation made manifest.
One hundred forty-four. Air strike. Total two hundred and ten. Greetings, warrior.
The atrocity's voice scarcely seemed like it could come from such a monstrous figure. It was smooth, calm and cultured, the voice of an elder preacher or a respectable general. The warrior found himself strangely drawn to it even as the creature's appearance repulsed and terrified him. Stuck between fleeing the creature and approaching it, the warrior stood his ground, staring at it with undisguised trepidation.
One. Sudden heart failure. Hrm. Total two hundred and eleven. You seem oddly yourself, warrior. Awareness lingers in you yet. Unusual.
When the warrior made no reply, the creature continued, eyes like massive laser sights burrowing into the warrior like a trench shovel.
Come now, you needn't fear me. There is very little left to fear, really.
"I… what is happening to me."
Something in the creature's rough features moved. The warrior could almost imagine it was grinning. Why, the inevitable, of course. You are done.
"But… this isn't how things were supposed to go. This wasn't supposed to happen!"
Hrhmhmm. This was the only thing that was ever supposed to happen to you.
The warrior found himself screaming. "Do not mock me! I wasn't promised this! There was to be glory, and justice, and the reformation of proper order, I was-"
Twenty. Trap hole. Total two hundred and thirty-one. And who, warrior, made such promises to you?
"The prophets! The scripture! My mother and father, the preachers, my teachers and friends!"
Hah. There is your problem then. Unreliable sources. Such a shame. But not really. Hrmmhahhm.
The warrior's screams now bore the distinct edge of panic. "Silence! I do not believe you, it is not over! It is a test, yes, a simple test, that is all! You are a demon sent to torment me, to try my faith! But I will not let you, no no no, I will not-"
The warrior voice faltered as the massive figure turned away from him. Around them, the sounds of battle began to weaken and dwindle, and the world was losing something of its… color. The sun was setting, the warrior thought, though he did not dare look at it to find out of it was true. He feared he would find the sky empty.
Are you quite done, warrior? For I am. The others are all collected. It is time to go.
And indeed, the warrior was suddenly surrounded by his life-long fellows. And his generations-old enemies. None seem to pay any attention to him as they strode towards the creature with unfaltering unity, marching to the beat of a drum the warrior could only barely hear.
"Where… where are we going?"
The figure turned to him once more. Its mangled iron expression was impenetrable.
Elsewhere, warrior. To a place where you will be a warrior no more. Follow. Or not. It is all the same to me.
The figure was marching away, the warrior's former fellows forming a snaking troop behind it.
What could he do but follow?
Jeser, the Prince of Many Faces, was sweating profusely.
He despised everything about his current situation. He despised the massive, tasteless hall his master chose as his throne room. He despised the horrendously uncomfortable iron chair he was forced to sit on. He despised the way the air managed to somehow feel both too humid and too dry, too hot and too frosty. He despised the pathetic simpering noises his master's consorts and concubines made with each cruel pull of the chains the master held in his massive, gnarled fists. He despised the fact that it was not his hands to hold the chains.
Most of all, he despised his master.
The all-powerful Crimson Monarch. The Prince of Many Faces was a proud god. Once the ruler of two dozen worlds, his to dominate and to do all he desired with. Then came the Crimson Monarch, and then came his countless legions. His worlds were conquered.
This was not the reason he so hated his master.
The Prince was wiser than many of his fellows. He realized from the start that no good would come from resisting such power. So he relented, made the conquest easy and relatively bloodless. And he had made himself useful, very useful indeed. With time, he rose to a position unrivaled by any god in the Monarch's court. Though he lost his dozen worlds, hundreds were now open to him. Though his power was no longer absolute, as the Monarch's right hand man he could have any pleasure he desired, and could inflict any sort of pain on any being he wished. The Crimson Monarch could be a generous lord.
And yet, the Prince of Many Faces despised his master. For forcing him to be here today.
"He will be here soon."
His master's voice was like the chittering of a billion infinitesimal insects, shifting and swirling and constantly moving. It was neither high nor low nor cacophonous nor methodical. It simply was.
"Are you certain, my king? He might not come this year." The Prince offered weakly.
"He comes always. He shall be here."
"Your might grows with each passing moment, great one. Surely, even he has learned to fear you by now. He would be a fool not to."
His master made no reply to that. His massive form dominated the hall, dwarfing the Prince's own usually imposing figure into insignificance. And yet, the usual all-conquering arrogance was gone from the master's voice. To be replaced with something… different. The Prince did not dare contemplate what that something was. Such thoughts were high treason.
They continued to wait. With each passing minute, the Prince watched his master and could feel own his dread intensifying. Why did the Monarch insist he'd be here? What possible purpose was there to subject him to such… has he not been loyal, or at least as loyal as the likes of him were expected to be? Had he not-
A shadow fell on the pale giant-bone floor of the great hall. The Prince saw his master shift restlessly in his throne, gnarled chitinous hands gripping slave chains tighter and tighter. The naked men, women and others at the other end twisted in agony, but the Monarch paid them no heed. His gaze was focused only on the shifting shadow, which grew longer with each passing moment. Then-
The Prince instinctively recoiled in his seat. Where there was only shadow moments earlier stood a figure. Its legs were as wide and tall as men, as great trees, as towers. Its hands were gloved in silk, in mail, in empty vacuum. It wore a robe of purest ivory, of deepest azure, of dusky flesh. Its shoulder were shrouded in mist, somehow disappearing into the darkness of the hall's ceiling, though clearly it could not be that tall…
"All-Death. You come once more."
The Prince had to grudgingly admire the calmness in his master's voice. He did not think he could muster the same. The Crimson Monarch rose from his throne, his magnificent and terrifying figure unfolding into its full glory. The Prince was surprised to see how unimpressive it suddenly appeared.
It is the day. Today, Harak, son of the Third Brood, is the day of your birth.
The Monarch's true name. He dared speak it. So the rumors were true. For a moment, the Monarch's visage was lit with fury. Then he mastered himself, and spoke once more, calmly.
"Today, All-Death, is the day of my birth. Today is the day I began my ascension."
The day of your birth. The day you took your first victims. Your brood brothers still scream for you in my halls.
"They shall scream far more loudly when your halls are mine. I shall make sure of it."
For the mist-shrouded ceiling came an awful sound. Merry laughter, as light and guileless as a child's, filled with joy.
Ah, earthworm. You burrow in your dirt, you eat the other tiny creatures that live in it and think yourself the master of all creation.
His master visibly bristled at that. With a sudden yank, he pulled at his slave chains savagely, bringing one of his screaming consorts to his feet. The Monarch grabbed the helpless man with one enormous fist and effortlessly smashed his throat. The man had no time to scream.
"Earthworm, you say? How droll. See how easily I master your domain. See with what grace I deliver more and many into your dank halls."
For a time, the figure did not move. The master dropped the consort's lifeless body to the floor, where he was gathered by his weeping fellows. The Prince said nothing, looked at nothing. He only wished to be away from here, back at his games, back at-
Indeed. Harak, son of the Third Brood. No other has delivered so many into my halls. Such I shall give you. You have filled them to the bursting.
His master seemed to straighten at that, as if the All-Death was his own master and he but an apprentice, awaiting praise. It was an odd sight.
Consider this, when the day comes you to join them. For me to take you to them.
And just as fast, his master deflated, all strength seemingly leaving his body. The Prince has never before seen him thus.
This is my gift to you, on the day of your birth, insect. I bid you contemplate on it. Until next year.
And the figure was gone. The Prince gaped at the empty space it was in only moments ago, and then at his master, who sunk back to his throne like a dying man. He was actually shivering, by creation! Why did he want the Prince to witness all of this? What was the point of it all?
The Crimson Monarch let out a soft breath, and turned his gaze to the Prince.
"I did it so you remember. Conspire against me, and all shall be yours. My worlds, my servants, my power. The fear of all creation. Dominion over all."