The Guild of Knowledge had been established at Natyr by an Archmage known as Tymor in a time all but lost to history. Tymor had created the Guild to safeguard and study thousands of dangerous magical artifacts which, should they fall into the wrong hands, lead to the destruction of the world. But in the right ones, as the Guild proposed, they might be used to create a more glorious Age. He elected to store the artifacts in a remote archipelago called Natyr, a place so remote it was impossible to access by air or by sea nine months out of the year. No one, he was sure, would attempt to reach Natyr unless they wished an exceptionally painful demise at the hands of the elements.
Tymor wasn’t a one to leave anything to chance, however. He instructed his followers, Guildsmen or Tai’shan, as they were called to cast spells over the area to ward off anyone who happened to pass by. This was a problem, particularly in the summer, when seafarers deemed the isles more approachable. To store the artifacts and to mitigate their evil aura, a great castle was also constructed, several stories high and almost as many deep, with the lower reams being home to the artifacts and the upper to those who guarded them. It was in this manner that the Guild was created.
Five hundred years later, where things passed largely without incident, Tymor died. His students selected among them the most skilled mage to succeed their Lord. Their choice was a powerful young mage known as Rayak, whom they named Mordekaiser - Old Tongue for 'he who comes at dawn'. The students assumed that he would be the one to carry on as their Lord did. They assumed that, as the world outside fell into strife, that he would be the one to lead them out of it. They were dreadfully wrong.
It is here that out story begins.
The night was cold and damp at Natyr. Cold on the outside and within. Although that was how it usually was. The citadel which sat atop Natyr was always cold, even in the summer when temperatures would rise above freezing and the deadened plant life that littered the isles almost seemed lifelike. But summer was long gone. It had been six months since the lagoon separating the island chain, of which Natyr was one, had frozen solid. Most Guild members would stay indoors, either in cottages surrounding the citadel or in the castle itself. Natyr was a place of study, knowledge, and most of all – magic. The Guild were its keepers. No one would go hungry, no one would go cold, and very few would die. There were sixty Guildsmen at Natyr, divided into six groups for an even ten each. They were all mages, trained in the Power by Tymor and his successor, although all had a talent for it. Such skill was necessary, with what they guarded.
Cold did not disturb the Guild. But that was not to say it didn’t bother them. After decades of virtual solitude in such a forsaken place it never ceased to unsettle, although few would show it. There was something about Natyr that seemed… eerie. As if something wasn’t quite right. In the citadel. In the shallows. Something was wrong.
Two years past a young guildsman, newly come to the Guild, named Ashir had disappeared without a trace. He had last been seen traveling to the citadel, reportedly to speak with Mordekaiser about a fellow guildsman. And then, on his way there, he had vanished into the night. Naturally, there had been an investigation but whoever silenced Ashir had yet to be found. Guildsmen occasionally reported hearing Ashir’s tormented screams in the night, begging for help they could not give. A desperate plea… riddled with agony. Some wondered if the Isle was haunted, if Ashir’s spirit had passed into the Beyond but Mordekaiser dismissed the possibility as preposterous. Irregularities had happened at Natyr before. Night terrors were only one of the many horrors the relics could inflict on the mind.
And on the soul.
Then it happened again. This time an old man, near death, who had been given leave to live on the outskirts of Natyr. He wasn’t one of the Guild. He was an outsider, although no one knew how he’d bypassed the isle’s wards. He was to stay until he was well, and then be off before Natyr’s corruption could take hold of him. But it was not to be. One morning a guildsman visited his home to a gory sight. Blood splattered over the walls and flesh – flayed from his skin – burning in the fireplace… yet the man himself was gone. Mordekaiser ordered the cottage searched for artifacts and when none were found, the place was burned to the ground. Mordekaiser cast a protective charm over it, to ward off evil spirits, and doubled the night watch at Natyr, should the culprit attempt such action again.
Yet the hauntings, such as they were, grew louder and more frequent than before.
Guildsmen reported that they could hear an old man begging for mercy, and wailing in pain when his pleas were rejected. And at least once, a flash of green light followed by the jangling of chains was observed where the cottage once stood.
After these events Guildsmen had taken to sleeping draughts to avoid the terrors. They rarely spoke and most stayed indoors, even during summertime. When they did venture outside it was in armed parties of two or more, for good measure. Everyone did, that is, except Thresh.
Thresh was one of the original guildsmen stationed at Natyr. He was a quiet, methodical man, tall in stature but slim and unimpressive with his long white hair and pale blue eyes. Few had thought much of him when he’d arrived, not that there’d been much opportunity to think otherwise. Thresh was a recluse. For those who spoke with him conversation was short and to the point. He ate alone, he didn’t like attending meals. Nor did Thresh enjoy the outdoors. He rarely came outside of his own volition, and when he did the light seemed so disagreeable to him that he covered his head with a cloak to block it out.
Thresh spent his time in a vault, deep below the citadel, which contained some of the most dangerous artifacts in Natyr. There was a book that would blind anyone who read it, a mirror that, when one looked at it, felt a powerful urge to kill, and a bell that would drive insane anyone who head it. Everything under his watch was evil, in one way or another, and was naturally guarded with runes, charms, and arcane locks. Only Thresh and Mordekaiser held the keys, which Thresh opted to hang, bound by essence, from his belt.
Most guildsmen did their work in various rooms around the citadel, usually within safe distance from a particular artifact and once done would return to their cottages. Not Thresh. What he guarded was so dangerous, so corrupted, that virtually none of it was fit to study. The risk was so great that even bringing one of Thresh’s charges with the less strong willed might wreck unimaginable havoc. Thresh, for his part, took regular doses of laudanum to preserve his sanity and wore enchanted gloves to avoid being possessed by anything he handled.
If Thresh hadn’t stayed in the castle so often he would’ve undoubtedly been a prime suspect in the Guild’s investigations. But he wasn’t even considered to have had a hand in the matter. Yet it was odd, some thought, that the twin murders, the like of which had never happened at Natyr, did not seem to bother him in the least. In fact, Thresh seemed cheerful when he emerged, once or twice in the coming days. Yet this didn’t raise suspicion either. After all, Thresh was an odd person.
Thresh walked down the hallway of the dimly lit chamber, holding his lantern in front of him to see where he was going. He carried his lantern everywhere, partially out of habit, partially out of need. He patrolled the lowest levels of the citadel, where natural light had no reach and torchlight was a poor substitute. His lantern, however, provided all the light he needed.
It was a funny thing his lantern. Square shaped but slightly curved along the sides with a low platform on the top, welded to the handle by which he grasped it. That was normal enough. What wasn’t was that it never ran out; it was enchanted. Thresh had learned the incantation after a very frustrating week in the chamber. It had rained much more than usual that week and structural problems in the castle had allowed groundwater to seep through the cracks and flood his domain.
Thresh grimaced at the memory. One moment he’d been studying the Lost Scroll of Di’ahkbar, the next plunged into darkness. Well, thought Thresh, looking at the unnatural green glow emanating from his lantern, not anymore.
A loud boom sounded from above. Thresh paused and listened. Boom, boom, boom, it was the gong for the evening meal in the citadel’s Great Hall. Thresh acknowledged it and moved on. He had more important things to do then engage in mindless chitchat over a meal. Most didn’t attend meals anyway. Not anymore.
At short length Thresh reached a tall metal frame with an irregular shaped lock in the middle. A strange green mist oozed through the keyhole and seeped through a short distance. Thresh smiled, he had reached section 9 as indicated by the jagged ‘9’ craved into the stone above the frame. His little domain.
Thresh took a key from his belt and turned the lock. The door swung open and he went inside. The room was small, hardly over twelve feet in any direction and like the rest of the chamber it was poorly lit. Torches lined the wall, lit with pythene they glowed an eerie green in the darkness. The mist which had seeped through the door swelled around Thresh’s boots as he stepped inside. The floor, if it could be called that, was filthy. Blood was splattered across the walls and the organs of his most recent victims were piled in the corner. A necklace, at least that’s what it was supposed to be, hung from a stony outcrop near the door. Kidneys laced with intestine. Thresh liked expressing his creative side.
Thresh grimaced as he surveyed the gore. Of course, the gore itself didn’t bother him but it was all so messy and the smell was awful. No matter… he thought as he reached into his cloak and removed a thin, steel mask and put it on. That’s better
The mask transformed him. Normally Thresh had a relatively handsome face, especially now that he’d taken to braiding his long, white hair. But with the cold steel over his face, the jagged opening for his mouth, and slits for eyes he became a monster. But what was a monster without a victim?
Thresh smiled. The two deaths in Natyr had caused him quite a bit of trouble. While he’d managed to evade suspicion the mess he’d made was very annoying. Especially with the old man… Thresh shook his head, there had been so much blood he’d been forced to use magic to clean his cloak. And using magic, in a realm where all magic is corrupt, had severely wounded him. Thresh still had a scar on his abdomen from the spear that had almost impaled him. The evidence had been concealed. He would indulge in his hobbies for as long as he pleased.
And how convenient! The Guild had even brought him a plaything for him to torment. Thresh glanced at the writhing form on the table before him. Another old man, but unlike the one at the cottage, this one had infused his body with raw sorcery. His skin would regenerate and his body would heal, within seconds, no matter how grievous the wound. Thresh didn’t know how he’d managed it. Supposedly he was a warlock, a man of great magical talent from another age who had once served as a record keeper at Natyr. Thresh smiled, to think he’d been here the whole time! How delightful.
The Guild had asked that Thresh study him and attempt to learn the secrets of the man’s immortality. The man was too dangerous to be placed under anyone else’s care, and Thresh did have experience… in these matters. Of course, Thresh would oblige. He was, after all, a Guildsman himself. But why not have a little fun in the meantime? And oh, the fun he had. The man’s presence delighted Thresh, especially the first time he cut him. Seeing the blood spurt out of the wound, running across his belly and dripping on the floor… the man screaming in agony, and cutting again and again, the man begging him to stop, pleading for mercy… and Thresh would stop. Yes, he would stop. And then, just when the man thought it was over he’d start again. Again! Thresh giggled at the thought. Raking his hook along the man’s back, penetrating his skull with raw iron and steel. Oh yes… Thresh thought, it was wonderful!
The perfect toy. That’s who this man was.
And the toy had noticed him.
Thresh watched as the man cried out and tugged, futilely, at the chains that bound him to the stone slab. Yes, squirm Thresh thought as the man writhed frantically at his approach. Try all you want but you’ll never escape… you are mine. My toy… my prisoner. Thresh could see his face. Eyes wide, face contorted in fear. He could not hide his trepidation. His terror. Thresh smiled, he knew what was coming. Thresh walked over to one of the room’s many stone outcrops and grabbed a slender metal implement by the long chain that bound it. It was his hook. Of all his instruments of torture it was his favorite. He had used it to tear the heart out of the guildsman Ashir as he had torn the old man to pieces with a few tugs of his chain. Thresh ran a gloved hand over the sharp, curved blade, and eyed the man hungrily. It wouldn’t be long now…
“Please…” the man whispered, eyes fixed on the hook, “N-n-no… I beg you…”
“What was that prisoner?” Thresh asked. He always addressed the man in such a manner. Oh, he was sure he had a name. But Thresh just hadn’t bothered to remember it. “I said, what was that?”
“D-don’t hurt me.” The man said, “Please…”
Thresh smiled, “Don’t worry prisoner.” He said innocently, “I won’t hurt you.” It was a lie, of course. The whole point of this was to hurt him. But the man seemed to relax, chest heaving what Thresh could only assume to be a sigh of relief. Relief? In this place? Thresh laughed and swung his hook, slamming it into the man’s chest with a sickening squish. The man screamed as Thresh tore it out with a yank of his chain. Blood spurted from the wound and splattered the walls. The man clawed at his chains and howled in agony, screams echoing across the chamber as Thresh sat and laughed.
Yes… Thresh thought, it had been too long since he’d felt such delight. Such ecstasy. Most of his victims died far too soon, blood pouring from their severed limbs as they died. Could he be blamed? Thresh was a jailer, not a healer. It was not for him to determine how quickly a soul gave up the struggle. But this, this was different. The warlock had no choice in the matter. Even if he wanted to die he had no choice in the matter, he had made himself immortal. Immortality… Thresh watched as the man’s flesh, his muscles, were made whole again. He watched as the color returned to his weathered face. And he watched as air filled his repaired lungs, and his breathing returned to normal. Yes, Thresh thought, this is how it feels.
“You said… you said you wouldn’t hurt me.” The man said, “You said…”
“I lied.” Thresh shrugged, “Surely you didn’t think I came to listen to you beg and cry, did you?” he laughed, “Now that wouldn’t be any fun would it?”
The man cringed as Thresh sat up and walked towards the table. Thresh smiled and twirled his hook. But he lowered his hook once he reached the table and merely stood over the man. Thresh paused, “Do you know what I like the most about this room?” he asked absentmindedly. The man didn’t respond, although Thresh thought he caught a whimper. Not talking? Well that wouldn’t do at all. Thresh hated one sided conversation. Clearly, the man needed some encouragement if he was to learn proper etiquette. Thresh jabbed him with his hook, tearing the flesh like candy from a wrapper. Blood trickled from the wound. “Do you know what I like most about this room?” he hissed, thrusting his masked face in front of the man, “Hmm?”
“No… no… I don’t know…”
“That’s better!” Thresh said, ripping his hook through the man’s flesh from the chest down. A gaping wound opened over his abdomen, causing him to howl in pain. The chains rattled as he struggled, more fiercely than before. Hands attempting to grasp the wound, what a pity they were chained down. Blood, oh sweet, sweet blood, bubbled over his flesh and dripped onto the floor. Thresh put a gloved hand on the man’s chest, feeling the tissues heal as the blood continued to come, spilling over his fingers like water from a pipe. The man’s skin fled from his touch, hairs raising in protest. The chains rattled violently as Thresh pressed down on the man’s chest, causing more blood to pour from the mostly healed wound, rising up like a river that had spilled its banks. And then he let go. It was enough. Almost. “What I like most about this room…” Thresh murmured, “is that it doesn’t stain when you make a mess!” he exclaimed as he raised his hook and smashed it next to the man’s face, making him scream.
Yes… how Thresh loved the screams…
“Where is it?” Thresh said
“Wh-where is what?” the man stammered incredulously, uncertain of what his jailer wanted.
“Do I need to repeat myself prisoner?” Thresh asked, holding his hook menacingly
“I d-don’t know what you’re talking about…”
Thresh smiled, “No. I think you do.” He said, “But it seems you require further persuasion…” Thresh raised the hook and the man howled as it came crashing down.
Am I mad? The thought had occurred more than once to Thresh. Sometimes he wasn’t sure of it himself. But then again, what was the harm if he was? Madness was relative. A man could be doing something his peers would judge sane in one place, at one time, and others would call it madness. What the Guild did at Natyr, guarding some of the most forbidden and dangerous magic in the world… subjecting themselves to corruption, to the whispers of death every hour, every day, every second. That was madness. And if he was merely another madman in the asylum why should his hobbies be considered out of place?
It wasn’t as if Thresh was disturbed by his actions. No, that wasn’t it. One couldn’t do what he’d done and be disturbed by it. That would be pointless. But he’d always been in control. Control of himself and occasionally, he smiled, of others. Lately there had been shadows… shadows in his mind. Voices in his head. Voices he didn’t recognize, ones that were not his own. They called out to him. Some screamed. Others merely wailed. And others still ranted incoherently, about subjects Thresh did not understand. The screams were well enough, that didn’t bother him a bit. He loved the screams. But he would not have anyone interfering with his thoughts.
“I am in control.” Thresh said to himself, his smooth baritone echoing his thoughts.
I see you the voice said. I see you, death. You have no hold over me. Not me, Lellyla or anyone else! Ankar was right, we should’ve left when we had the chance. Monsters in the deep… We will be free, we will be free, we will…
Thresh’s lip twitched in annoyance. The voices had been annoyingly frequent of late. Annoying them was proving difficult. But he would not succumb to it. He would not let other men’s lives interfere in his own. Especially when he had business to attend to.
“No.” he said calmly, “I am in control.”
Thresh stood and walked to the mirror. His reflection stared back at him. His white hair was disheveled and whipped across his brow like a tree blown over in a storm. That annoyed Thresh. He’d gone to some trouble to braiding it. Well, last night’s entertainment had been more… raucous than usual. He smiled. Was this the look of madness? No, Thresh thought, that’s a stupid question
Madness didn’t have a look to it. It wasn’t a state of being, it was a state of mind. There was no point dwelling on such things. If he was mad then he’d just have to get used to it. And if he wasn’t who was the wiser? Thresh’s thoughts turned to Ashir but he quickly put him out of his mind. Thinking about Ashir gave him pleasure. Pleasure made him distracted. He would not be distracted, it was could be costly, as the voices constantly reminded him.
You will be our downfall… the Ancients prophesied…
“I am in control.” Thresh repeated, silencing the voices. He put a hand to his scalp. His fingers came off red. Blood. How odd. Thresh looked at his reflection again and noticed a small streak of mostly-dried blood running from his hairline to his cheek. From the warlock no doubt. Thresh frowned, this… lack of tidiness would not do. He removed his shirt and examined it. It was also splattered with bloodstains. No this would not do at all. Normally Thresh wouldn’t worry about such inconveniences, hardly anyone visited him and most couldn’t if they wanted to, but today was different. A meeting had been called.
One of the servants had slipped a note under his door regarding the notice. The meeting, formally called a Gathering, was between the six Guildmasters and Mordekaiser. Such things didn’t not concern Thresh. This one was different. It was a formal Gathering – and all Guildsmen would be required to attend.
Thresh grimaced. He’d need a change of clothes.
He didn’t want to risk magic.