Celtic Heroes

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The Darkness Returns

#1
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It was the most hallowed night of Samhain, when the barrier between the worlds of the living and the dead had fallen, and finally, the acolytes of Efnisien the Necromancer had succeeded in their goal – the master had heeded their call and had returned to Dal Riata. Beyond the sight of mortal eyes, deep beneath the earth, the acolytes gathered around the Necromancer to hear of his experiences in the land of the dead, and his plans to conquer the world of the living…

“… and that, master, is why Hrungnir isn’t here.” Slurgrim finished talking, and realised that his eyes were already closed in anticipation of the killing blow. But nothing fell – no arcs of lightning, no blast of eldritch energy to strip the flesh from his bones… nothing. Slowly, Slurgrim opened his eyes to see his master, Efnisien the Necromancer, towering over him. Efnisien looked dreamy, almost distracted.

Slurgrim coughed. “Er… master? Are you not angry with me?”.

Efnisien looked down and focused on his servant. His voice, when he spoke, was like no other – it was like a mournful wind blowing through dead leaves, and though it was quiet, and didn’t even echo in the vastness of the cistern room, it nevertheless was laden with wisdom and authority. “Slurgrim… why would I be angry with you? You, who have served me for so long?”

Slurgrim took a sideways glance at the other acolytes standing next to him. Acherus and Eugaan looked eager – eager, he thought, to see his blood spilled on the cold stone. He looked back up at the Necromancer. “Well… because I… that is, my foolish helpers let your prize creation escape.”

“Oh, do not worry about that. Hrungnir was a fine experiment, but now I have been to the land of the dead, now I know truths of life and death privy only to Arawn himself.” He looked around at the acolytes arrayed below him. “And all of you have been loyal in my absence. Have kept the flame of our work burning even when hope of my return seemed bleak. Well I hope you have not forgotten one of my most important lessons – faith… is rewarded.”

Slurgrim couldn’t believe it – not only had he escaped punishment, but he was being rewarded! He looked on in awe as Efnisien stepped back and began to weave a spell, his clawed hands becoming surrounded by a pulsing aura of dark energy. Again, he glanced at his fellow acolytes, their rapt faces bathed in the light of the master’s spell. “If only they weren’t here” thought Slurgrim. “The master should reward me – me alone! If only…”

His thoughts were interrupted as once again the deathly whisper of Efnisien’s voice filled the air. “Now, my faithful followers” he said. “Long have you waited, and finally it is time for your reward. I will make you greater and more powerful than you have ever been. In death, you can serve me forever!”

Efnisien extended his talon-like fingers, arcs of black lightning erupting from his hands to strike Acherus in the chest. Slurgrim and Eugaan watched, aghast, as their fellow acolyte fell to the ground, dead. Efnisien pointed at the fallen acolyte, and uttered a single word: “Rise.”

Slowly, and with jerky, spasmodic movements, Acherus got to his feet. But it was not the Acherus that Slurgrim remembered. His flesh already showed signs of decay, while two glowing, baleful lights stared out of empty eye sockets. As if in a trance, Acherus walked in a stumbling gait to the side of his master.

Eugaan turned and ran for the exit back into the sewers, but he was not fast enough. Once more the arcs of energy leaped from the Necromancer’s hands and plunged into the fleeing acolyte. Slurgrim watched as, like Acherus, Eugaan rose to his feet, and dragged his broken form across the room to stand at Efnisien’s side. Slowly, Slurgim raised his eyes to meet those of his master, looking down upon him, and saw Efnisien slowly moving his hand to point in his direction.

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“Wait!” said Slurgrim. “Wait a minute! You… you don’t want to do that to me!”

“Why ever not?” asked Efnisien. “Look at your brothers, Slurgrim. Look how happy they are.”

To Slurgrim, they looked anything other than happy, though what was left of their faces was hardly capable of expression. Frantically, he searched for words that would keep him from suffering the same fate.

“Oh, master, you are too kind! But this gift is wasted on a worthless worm like me. Surely, I can be of more use in other ways.”

Efnisien lowered his hand, and the corona of magical power that surrounded it seemed to dim slightly. “Explain” he said.

“Well” said Slurgrim, “While I was awaiting your return, many adventurers came to talk to me. They seemed to be on some kind of mission to cleanse these sewers of evil. A foolish task, I’m sure, but they seem set on it, especially if there is the opportunity for some sort of reward. Many of them are seeking a challenge of some kind, you see – a great battle to prove their strength. You could be that challenge.”

Efnisien’s eyes glowed angrily, and the air seemed to shake when he spoke. “You would lead these heroes to me, Slurgrim? You would see me slain? I will devise a fate for you worse than a thousand deaths!”

“No, no!” said Slurgrim desperately, “that’s not what I mean! Master, who is more powerful than you? Even Hrungnir bows to your might! I would lead heroes to you, true, but I would lead them into a trap. You would be prepared for them, and they would easily fall before you. Then, once they are dead, they could be raised once again as soldiers for a new army. Think of it master – no more using the long-dead bodies of crofters from the local graveyard, but trained fighters. A grand army of death!”

Efnisien made a cryptic gesture in the air, and the aura of dark energy that he had summoned faded entirely. “Your plan has merit, Slurgrim… and perhaps… perhaps also you are right and you are, as you say, not yet worthy of the gift I have bestowed upon these two.” He nodded at the undead acolytes beside him, whose vacant eyes still stared into nothingness. “So be it. Prove yourself to me, Slurgrim. Bring these adventurers to me, and watch as they fall to my might. For who could stand against me. I, who have control over life and death. I am the greatest necromancer of all. I am Efnisien!”

As Slugrim walked away, he considered what the future might bring. The master might vanquish all who came before him, but equally… if he could find some heroes that were strong enough… then Efnisien might himself be defeated, and then it would be time for a new master.

A master called Slurgrim.
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