-327 AE: The Western Wall-
He awoke to the sound of silence. It was a silence of an absolute nature, blanketing everything around him with an alien sense of quiet and calm that did not belong. The ground around him was covered with blood and muck, littered with the fallen corpses of Protectors. A hundred yards away, he could just barely make out the crumbling ruins of what had been the Western Wall, a formerly impenetrable defence that had stood between the Regions of Earth and Fire for hundreds of years, undefeated and unbroken, until now.
Dawn was slowly breaking on the horizon, but even still, the sky was still dark, and the air still freezing cold from the crushing presence of Kulta, the Skull Grinder. Somewhere deep inside, he knew that the corpses littered around him had been moving, walking and stumbling mindlessly along, only hours before. But something – or someone – had stopped them. In his heart of hearts, he knew that Kulta had fallen, her Undead Army eradicated. The Faith of the Skulls had undoubtedly been crushed.
Spitefully, he hoped that Lord Toru Sevoi and General Quin Galum were among the fallen. After all, it was they who had abandoned him. He felt his blood beginning to boil, as feelings of frustration, rage, and betrayal washed over him.
He had been left behind, and forgotten. It was clear that nobody had felt the need to see if he was actually dead. He hadn’t been worth the time. Then again, they never were, he and other Protectors from the minor houses. House Petros, House Maran, House Raqmu, House Aodh… those houses, and others like them – the so-called Great Houses of Okoto – made history day after day, crushing all others under their heels. Of the smaller houses, he knew of only one that had ever managed to rise up above their station. But House Ash had paid dearly for that privilege in blood, nearly been exterminated, and he doubted anyone else would feel it worth that effort.
A fist slammed into the dirt, splashing mud everywhere. He closed his eyes, taking several deep breaths. He needed to calm down.
Beneath him, the earth shuddered.
His eyes flew open again, fear and adrenaline racing through him. Something stirred nearby, and before his horrified eyes, one of the corpses slowly stirred, moaning deliriously. He watched, paralyzed, as it turned away from the Western Wall, stumbling further into the Earth Region. He remained absolutely still, praying it would not notice him. But then he heard more inhuman moans, and all around him, more corpses shifted and sttirred, and panic began to fill him.
Rollor save me.
Unable to help himself, he pushed himself to his feet with trembling hands. Some of the corpses turned, staggering towards him, and he stumbled away. He opened his mouth to cry out, but the sound caught in his throat, and he spun in place, sprinting away from the Wall, away from the Undead.
He raced through the barren wasteland of the Earth Region for hours, and then for days. Every so often he would stop and make camp, rest for as long as he could force himself to remain still, but always, inevitably, he would be forced back on the move by the arrival of the Undead. Not just Protectors, either, but other creatures, other monsters, corrupted by Kulta and the dark energy that had powered her. The Earth Region, home to the Skull Warriors and their master for so long, had become a breeding ground for those creatures that belonged in Okoto’s worst nightmares.
Hunted and surrounded, he eventually fled the only place he could – underground. Deep within the heart of an old, empty earth city, left abandoned and burned after the rebellion decades before and never again re-populated, he found an entrance into the ancient mining caves. He fled into them, hunted by Skull Warriors and Undead and other nightmarish creatures, and still, he could not rest. So he fled deeper and deeper, into the massive caverns below the Earth Region’s surface. Deeper still, into the chasms, and the unimaginably ancient catacombs, older than even the Mask Makers. Surrounded by the cold, suffocating presence of dark energy, choking on it and his own fear.
Still, he fled deeper, and deeper still, deeper than any Protector had ever dared to walk before. Deeper than even the Mask Makers had ever ventured, to a place where even the Titans had avoided since a time before recorded time, where he found an ancient, heavy stone gateway. Left alone and untouched for a thousand years recorded and a thousand years untold, with symbols of a language so old that even Kulta and Umarak would no longer remember it.
It is open.
Somewhere, in the back of his mind, he knows that it should be closed. A barrier of shimmering energy covers the opening, but it is weak, and fracturing, and he is able to push past it, when he knows that it should render him into a hundred, a thousand, a million different pieces. The barrier feels warm, and light, and cleansing, but then he is across it, and the dark presence is back, even stronger, more powerful, and more threatening than before.
The cave on the other side of the gateway and the barrier is lit with torches that burn with an otherworldly white fire, but they do little to light it up. He takes one step in, and then two, and then three, and then he feels it. Something, or someone, in there with him. A presence behind him.
He turns, trembling and shivering, his legs threatening to give way beneath him, and finds himself staring at a towering figure, clad in pitch black armor and wearing an alien black mask. He can make out a single red eye behind the mask, silently inquiring and loathing at the same time, and he suddenly knows. That whoever this is, they are older than Kulta, stronger than Kulta, more dangerous than Kulta. That Kulta was, in fact, only a pale imitation of this being, this dark shadow given physical form, and that he has found Okoto’s greatest threat, imprisoned for an eternity.
And the prison is failing.
He feels a flicker across his thoughts, feather-light, and knows that his mind has been read like an open book. His entire life is now in this monstrous figure’s hands, and they know him better than he knows himself.
“Ahkmou Umrik,” the being says, in a voice that is melodious and strong and ancient beyond belief. “Are you afraid?”
He does not speak, but he does not need to. He is quivering, shaking like a leaf in a hurricane, and his voice will not work. It cannot. Not now. He is paralyzed, and knows that to this being, he is less than an insect.
“Your island’s Age of War is finished, and the pale shadow of the Great Ata dead,” the being says. “The Titans are scattered, and soon, I shall be freed. You will help me, Ahkmou Umrik. You will prepare Okoto for its true destiny, for its lord and destroyer. You will prepare it for the Great War that is still to come, before Okoto’s time runs out.”
EVERYTHING BEFORE WAS JUST PRELUDE.
The Great Game returns October 6th.