Resident Bronze Dragon Kasrkin
A short story published 12 June, 2018 on the Malign Portents website:
The stellarium was a whirring mass of concentric stone circles. It occupied a chamber as wide and open as a city square, orbited by glowing spheres and cascades of vibrant colour. The glorious expanse of the aetheric void was depicted in such maddening complexity that only the ancient minds of the slann could truly comprehend it.
Maq’uat was a Starpriest, a humble skink servant of these god-like beings, and such matters were far beyond his inquisitive mind. Yet even he could tell that something momentous and terrifying was occurring.
Stars were withering in the void. This was no violently beautiful act of celestial law in effect, no natural cycle of existence coming gracefully to a close.
This was murder. Slow and purposeful, and carried out on a cosmic scale.
The diminutive creature watched in mounting horror as the blazing lights of the orrery faded and became black as coal, the star-blood that gave them vital life draining away into nothing. The tapestry of the cosmos was once more being unmade. Yet this was not the work of the eternal enemy, Maq’uat was sure of it. There was a pattern here, a subtlety quite at odds with the unrestrained depredations of the Dark Gods, a plan inconceivably complex in scale and woven with the patience of aeons.
A pall of darkness fell across the grand Star Chamber. For a moment Maq’uat thought he heard a susurrus of mocking whispers, laughter emanating from the shadows. His frill rippled with unease, and reflexively he raised his serpent staff.
Silence. Maq’uat hissed, bobbing his head. Nothing could breach the temple-ship of Aximahotl, not without alerting Narok-Gar and his sentinels.
‘The master must awaken,’ he said. His chirping voice sounded small and fearful in the silence of the golden hall.
He turned and scampered up the stairs. Reaching the highest gallery, he pressed his clawed hand into a similarly shaped depression in the facing wall. The glyph-stone glowed azure, and a doorway yawned open. Beyond, a bubbling stream of crystal clear liquid ran down the centre of a circular passage lined with bricks of gold. The Starpriest followed the path, and the soothing trickle of the blessed waters calmed his racing heart and focused his mind.
The path wound on and on, circling back on itself in a maddening series of switchbacks and spiralling ascents. Maq’uat passed rows of gleaming ziggurats surrounded by moats of blinding starlight. He strode on amidst shifting blocks of burnished gold that swirled and rearranged themselves in a constant, maddening dance.
The Starpriest eventually came to a vast, spherical cavern with a single bridge of gleaming tiles leading across empty space. As he walked, Maq’uat peered down to the floor of the World Chamber, leagues below. There lay a great expanse of jungle, gouged by glittering river deltas. He felt a tinge of longing. It had been too long since he had hunted with his spawn-kin, since he had smelled the sweet scent of swamp air and felt the warmth of sun-baked rock under his skin. But that was all a distant dream. His master needed him, and Maq’uat would serve Lord Xuatamos until lonely death if it were asked of him.
The geometry of the temple-ship should have been impossible to navigate by any mortal measure, but to the skink it was familiar and reassuring. At the far side of the bridge he entered another passage, and found himself at the foot of his master’s altar. The pyramid climbed high, its summit lost in a swirl of mists. A seething mass of serpents and lizards poured down the engraved steps. They parted before Maq’uat like a living river as he ascended.
At the top of the altar a throne of carved obsidian hung in the air, beneath a storm cloud of aetheric energy. Upon this throne sat Lord Xuatamos.
‘Master!’ trilled Maq’uat, his voice piping high as he rushed forwards. He feared Xuatamos was dead. The master of the temple-ship was slumped and motionless. His bloated body was not its usual vibrant green, but as grey and withered as a shed skin. The slann’s eyes were sunken and corpse-like, and his face was marked with blotches of purple-black bruises.
Maq’uat closed his eyes as he placed his hands upon Lord Xuatamos’ forehead. For many agonising moments he felt nothing. Then, mercifully, the slightest of sparks flashed through him, a single flickering of consciousness.
The Starpriest sagged with relief, but it was a fleeting sensation. Maq’uat had never felt so alone, so helpless. Death and disaster were near at hand, and without the Starmaster’s infinite wisdom to guide him, he was lost in a void of indecision.
He stood, gazing at the ruined form of his master. Above, the celestial energies boiled and swirled, and in the depths of that storm Maq’uat saw the glittering constellation of Sotek’s Fangs, burning with fierce vitality amidst the turmoil.
‘The fate of worlds falls to lesser creatures,’ the Starpriest whispered. A course of action had entered his mind. It was drastic, blasphemous even. Yet he could not stand by while darkness rose to swallow all.
Narok-Gar stood sentinel before the great doors of the spawning chambers, as motionless as a statue. The Sunblood looked as though he was hewn from obsidian by an unskilled sculptor. Scars and burns covered his grey-green scales from snout to claw, and the club-like ridge of the saurus’ skull was gouged horribly above his left eye – an old wound caused by a Khornate axe.
His eyes did not even flicker towards Maq’uat as the Starpriest approached.
‘You are not Starmaster,’ Narok-Gar growled. ‘No pass.’
‘Lord Xuatamos will not come,’ chirped Maq’uat. ‘He has entered the long sleep, and will not awaken. It falls to us, honoured one.’
Narok-Gar’s pitiless eyes finally snapped across to meet the skink’s own. He tried not to shrink before that ancient stare. The Sunblood was old even for his kind, and the list of his victories against the Dark Gods was beyond recounting.
‘There is an ancient power rising,’ Maq’uat said. ‘Death saps the light from the stars, and smothers the realms in darkness and fear. We must act. The spawning cycle must be brought forwards. We must make ready for war.’
‘You are not Starmaster.’
‘He will not come,’ repeated Maq’uat. ‘Our master lies dying. The lights of the constellations fade. If we do not intervene–’
Narok-Gar growled softly, and the Starpriest’s acute danger-sense urged him to take flight. Yet he stood his ground determinedly, meeting the saurus warrior’s eyes with as much boldness as he could muster.
‘Do you not wish to fight?’ he asked. ‘How long has it been since your club has tasted the blood of the unclean?’
The Sunblood stood still and silent for a long while. Hours passed, but the skink knew the nature of the saurus mind well enough to do nothing. At last, the sentinel stepped back, and struck his obsidian club against the door behind him. The sound resonated thunderously through the halls. A moment later, the doors began to rumble open, and the Sunblood stood aside to let Maq’uat pass.
The skink trembled as he entered the spawning chamber. A circular path skirted the edge of a great lake, its dark waters placid and shimmering. Great golden wheels were built into the walls, marked with hieroglyphs and sacred wards, and the ceiling was open to the heavens. Blessed starlight rippled across the gestation pool. On all sides, helmed guards stood vigilant, their spears and clubs held in steady claws. They did not move a muscle as Maq’uat passed by them on his way to a raised dais at the far end of the chamber.
He stepped up to the glyph-stone in the center of the platform, and his hand hovered an inch from its shimmering surface. Never before had a lowly Starpriest been given such terrible responsibility. It was no small thing to accelerate the cycle of spawning. Seraphon birthed too early were often prone to fits of bestial rage, unable to control the predatory impulses of their primordial selves.
Yet Maq’uat could see no other option. Steeling his mind, he pressed his claw down upon the glyph-stone, as he had seen his master do so many times before.
There was a deep grinding sound before the thunderous roar of rushing liquid. The golden wheels began to spin, and water gushed out in frothing torrents. Writhing shapes could be seen within the deluge, the protean forms from which the armies of the stars would grow.
The warm air became humid, and then swelteringly hot. Maq’uat watched the pool bubble and boil with new life.
A chorus of shrill screams filled the air, frenzied and agonised, spilling forth from half-formed mouths. Blood stained the waters.
‘Born with hate,’ said Narok-Gar, causing Maq’uat to jump. The Sunblood had approached with surprising stealth. ‘Born in pain. Pain gives strength.’
‘They will need it,’ the Starpriest said.
Narok-Gar growled in agreement.
‘I summon starhosts,’ the old warrior said. ‘Where to strike, Starpriest?’
‘The amethyst realm,’ replied Maq’uat. ‘It is from there that the decay spreads, stealing the life from all it touches. The light of Sotek will guide us, honoured one. I only hope that we are not too late.'