If prosperity is what drives, we shun all that comes before. Through serenity, one, and with severity we come. We are the bringers of fate, harbingers of our own demise. For that is our own true fate: to unite, prosper, and lose all that came before as we kindle in the blight.
So as we stand on the precipice of our crossroads, united amongst the living dead, we hail for all that is holy, and wail for all of our dread. Though beaconing a virtue its own, we shun it, not for our selfish rights, but our continued existence undone.
And as we sail into the blind abyss, doth we not dream upon the stars? For our men, our women and children alike?
Because if not for the age of man, what doth we fight for?
- Balthasar the Mad, King Regent of Vahlmore.
Crimson light like blood streaked across the sky, the dying light of Caesar captured in talons of churning mist. Jagged spires and ancient towers soared high overhead, disappearing into the low-lying fog, blotting out ever more of the waning sunlight. As day slowly but inexorably gave way to night, the streets of Vahlmore grew eerily quiet, citizens so attuned to the netherworld and sinister forces at play that they could not help but recognize that this night would be dark and terrible.
Soon, only two remained on the open streets, Rosa Tacita Aestus and former friend turned escort, Melina, wending their way deeper into the city, into the nexus from which the ill tidings radiated. The road ahead of them, at length, began to fall into disrepair, ravaged by time. This path they strode was one rarely walked, from the time of Balthasar the Mad.
Rosa closed her eyes for a long moment, surrounded by stillness and quiet, but then the chanting began. Hundreds, thousands of cultists, joined in prayer to their goddess. Rosa opened her eyes and looked around the open space she found herself standing in the middle of. She stood now in a graveyard, as old as the very City of Blight itself, surrounded by deep coils of mist. Most of the gravestones were weathered or broken, names unreadable.
This was the Nether Grave. It was here where the maiestris were strongest, most drawn to the Eternal Night. It was also here where Rosa would meet her end, crucified by her own mother to resurrect an ancient Threat.
Deep into the graveyard, as the sunlight finally died overhead, deep red flames beckoned through the fog. Rosa continued toward them, Melina directly behind, and surrounded by the chanting of cultists just out of sight, hidden among the shadows.
In hindsight, Rosa probably should've realized that things wouldn't really go as planned - something that, surprisingly enough, was a good thing for once. As she approached the flames, she soon found herself in front of a crumbling stairway leading to a sacrificial altar, flanked on both sides by wrought iron sconces holding flames aloft. The altar was coarse black basalt, inset with a cross just the right size for a body. It was not flat but a very shallow bowl, designed to pool blood toward its center. The arms of the cross in the altar had holes to allow for barbed spikes to be driven through. Standing next to the altar was, of course, her mother. Cast in the light of the sconces, Araneaâ€™s silver hair seemed to dance like hellfire.
Overlooking the sacrificial altar was the Throne of Balthasar. The black throne was formed of the same coarse basalt as the altar, a crude but imposing thing, lined with spiky protrusions on the outsides and with a high. It seemed built for a giant, a monster, its high back dwarfing even the tallest of people.
As it had for centuries, the throne sat occupied. A withered corpse sat upon the throne, barely more than a skeleton wrapped in leathery flaps of greenish-gray skin. Hundreds of years of exposure to mist and wind had scoured away any clothing which once adorned the body, but the body itself remained. Claw-like nails grew from the corpseâ€™s fingers and toes, unnaturally long, yellowed and cracked. Strings of long black hair fell from the bodyâ€™s head, stretching out like spider webs toward the desolate ground.
Melina was still walking behind Rosa, but honestly? The sounds of thousands of cultists humming and chanting kind of drowned out any form of coherent noise.
Not that Rosa really needed to hear anything from her former friend anymore anyway. She wasn't capable of that. Taking the first step of many up the stairs leading up to her doom, she gazed back to her red-haired bodyguard one last time, before sighing softly. She wondered if, had she not been a part of this strange world, things would have been different.
Would she have given a damn?
It's possible, a voice rang in her head, clear and full of purpose.
Arachne... Rosa responded internally, though that was about it in terms of interaction before the half-blood was drawn back to reality by her mother.
"Rosa," Aranea spoke commandingly, "I am so happy you could join us, join me here today."
"Yes," Rosa said. "Well, at least that makes one of us. I'd rather just be killed than sacrificed, but I guess what I want doesn't concern you. Not anymore, anyway."
"You knew that this time would come."
For some reason hearing her mother like this gave her strength. Strength to not give a damn, to not feel any sort of sadness related to her youth, her life, or just her existence in general. She was content with her end, because she could not retaliate, could not resist. When push came to shove, she'd always been too weak willed, always looking for confirmation, acknowledgement.
It was almost bittersweet how aware of her surroundings she was as Aranea grabbed her arm and dragged her across the platform to her resting place. The ground was desolate, though a few sprouts of green fluttered through the soil around the platform, and even the cracked, broken altar had hints of green littered throughout.
Maybe this was life's way of saying there was beauty even in the darkest of places.
Also that you shouldn't give up so easily, Arachne chimed in, and for a moment Rosa became like concrete to her mother.
"What," Aranea began, "pray tell, do you think you're doing... Rosa?" A flicker of dark crashed through her arm. The stunned Aranea let go of Rosa and fell back to the ground.
Rosa just stood there still, silent, arms by her side. Slowly, but surely, she shifted, turning around ever so slowly, ever so slightly until she finally faced not just her mother, but the entirety of her cult, but...
The Rosa everyone knew, loved or hated wasn't there. Her otherwise dull eyes turned a sickly yellow, her hair grew longer before their eyes. Rosa stood before them, but it was not the same Rosa.
"What do yoU think you ARE doing?" The duality in her voice was unmistakable, and for once Rosa let it happen. She gave in, cared not for its consequence. For once, she didn't hold back one bit as she unleashed the full brunt of the very being Aranea was trying to revive in the first place.
"How pathetically you cower!" yelled Rosa at Aranea, a shock wave reverberating through the entire graveyard, sending shivers down not just the silver-haired cultist leader's spine, but every single person in attendance. "For years I've humoured your every whim, but youâ€™ve grown boring. No more!"
Inching closer to her slowly retreating mother, Rosa drew a strand of hair from her head. Twirling it around in her hand it transformed into a sinister approximation of a lance, one which would rend flesh effortlessly.
"I..." Aranea stumbled, her words coming to her at a slower pace. "Rosa... but, no... Arachne!" Her eyes widened, and an insane smile crawled on her face, but quickly turned into fear as Aranea's mind caught up with what was going on. Rosa didn't draw that crooked lance for nothing. "L-look..."
Rosa didn't stop. Whatever feeling she would've had seeing her mother crawling back like that was completely replaced by a single emotion: hatred. Pure hatred. Aranea had to die, and Rosa was going to make damn sure of that. Before the night was over, blood would flow. The altar would drink its fill. The corrupted half-enlil was going to make sure of that.
Standing only a few feet away from her mother's staggering body, Rosa pulled her right hand backwards and just as she locked eyes with her terrified mother, unleashed hell upon all she had ever known.
It lasted maybe less than a second, but as blood covered her entire visage, Rosa's eyes widened, the yellow in them pulsating wildly. The young spurii gazed upon not the broken form of her mother, but the bloodied visage of a young blonde woman.
The only person she would ever consider could draw more than just blank emotions from her: her best friend, Elara.
"No," Rosa said, gritting her teeth as Elara dropped forward. She caught her friend in one hand, and gazed across the ritual grounds to her mother, looking back at her with that crooked smile of hers.
"YOU!" she shouted. "You did this, didn't you? You bitch! You made her your thrall; you fucked her up in defending you, didn't you?"
"So...wha-" Before Aranea could even finish her sentence, Rosa was upon her holding the jagged lance of hair to her throat. Elara lay on the ground, clutching her wound as blood flowed between her fingertips. "I wouldn't do that if I were you," Aranea said with a crack in her voice, sweat beading her forehead. "Unless you want your beloved, your one special person, to die along with me?"
For a second Rosa hesitated, her eyes losing some of their bestial ferocity. In that moment of hesitation, the yellow faded away, and the blade in her hands fell limp, nothing more than strands of hair. With a relieved, satisfied smile, Aranea thought she was going to win this after all.
A blood-curdling shriek broke through the chanting suddenly, and both women turned toward it. The chanting died away as more shouts rose up. Something moved just beyond the reach of the firelight, shadows in the mist, and another howl of agony ripped into the young night. Rosa and Aranea looked at one another, each suspecting the other.
But then it came into view. It was the eyes, first, glinting in the firelight, high above any normal humanoid: sickly, bestial yellow, void of pupils. It strode closer, entering the light of the sacrificial flames. The thing was tall, easily twice the height of the blood-streaked cultist that it held in one skeletal hand in front of it. Its height accentuated the terrible thinness of its limbs, shriveled to little more than branches. Framed in a web of impossibly long strands of web-like hair, the face seemed little more than a skull, its yellow eyes sunken deep, dried lips pulled back in an eternally smiling rictus.
Rosa turned to look behind her, confirming immediately that the corpse no longer sat upon the Throne of Balthasar, now splashed with Elaraâ€™s blood.
This thing in front of them... was Arachne.
In her head, there was familiar, dark laughter. The thing in front of them drew its cracked, yellow fingernails across the belly of the screaming cultist, one after the other slowly popping straight through the robes and flesh beneath as the man wailed. It lifted the body over its head, letting blood rain down over its atrophied form before it suddenly slammed the unfortunate soul to the ground, silencing the screams and skittering closer to Aranea and Rosa. Its movements were sharp and jittery, its spindly limbs not unlike a spider as it clambered onto the sacrificial altar.
Rosa expected some kind of inner-rebuttal, a force of power coursing through her mind as a blanket of pain as the disconnection from the Mother of Spiders, Queen of the long forgotten landmass Aranea. Instead, she felt empowered, emboldened by the sheer freedom her mind operated from now.
It didnâ€™t quite feel right, though.
â€œYou seemâ€¦â€ the young enlil began, her voice surprisingly bereft of the tone she used to carry. It was stronger now, more willing. â€œIncomplete. As if something isnâ€™t quite right. I felt it when you left my mind, but I canâ€™t quite put my finger on it.
â€œIs it disappointment?â€
Arachne's throat rasped, the thin reeds of her throat shuddering as the monstrosity tried to speak. All that came out was a sibilant hiss. The once-humanoid vessel of the Mother of Spiders moved closer and slowly uncurled. The body upon the throne had been tiny, no larger than Rosa herself.
This hideously deformed shape in front of her now towered nearly three times her height.
One hand, mere twigs with long, cracked nails now covered in blood, lifted up in front of Arachne's eyes. Then, suddenly the arm snapped down, backhanding Rosa across the face hard enough to throw the half-breed into the side of the throne. Arachne lifted her hand again, a thin, wet tongue stretching out to lick the fresh blood from her knuckles.
Then, those horrible yellow eyes tuned on Aranea.
The silver-haired woman had her hands cupped in a pleading manner, her eyes filled with an odd combination of fear and admiration as she looked upon the grotesque form of her goddess. She was shaking, chills running down her spine. Sheâ€™d done everything Arachne had asked of her, in her dreams, in the Words of the Mother, so why was she so, so afraid?
Only upon hearing the rather disgusting sound of her daughter coughing up blood just behind her did she break her gaze from the Spider Queen.
Wiping whatever blood was flowing from her mouth with a tattered piece of the sleeve from her dress, Rosa stood back up. It felt a bit wobbly getting back to her feet, but on the whole she wasnâ€™t feeling all too terrible actually.
â€œIâ€™ll take that,â€ she began, spitting out a clot of blood from her mouth once more as the monster turned to face her again, â€œas a yes then.â€
With finesse her right hand drew a knife from within her dress. Though it looked rather simple, its handle no more than a crude end and the blade itself a clean metal, there was no mistaking that this weapon was as sharp as sharp could be.
â€œYouâ€™re so fickle, though,â€ she continued, a flick of the wrist causing her knife to rest loosely in the palm of her hand. â€œFirst you want me, then you push me away - quite literally even. I am here now, am I not? Iâ€™ve always been in the palm of your hand, so what makes you so adverse toâ€¦ little, defenseless, willing oldâ€¦
With the flick of a wrist, a figure rose up from the ground besides Rosa. It was one of the cultists, but not one that was still alive. This one was dead and, though her flesh was still fresh, there was something unsettling about the way her body twisted and turned. None of her bones were quite right, and it looked like she was in a lot of pain.
Not that any of it mattered, since the deceased would remain dead even if animated beyond belief.
Another one quickly rose thereafter, perhaps even more sickening than the first one. Maggots had already taken root in one of its eye sockets, and bones were sticking out from its body left and right. It groaned in pain, but moved towards the hulking beast nonetheless. As a sort of pack leader it made its presence known, and soon the graveyard was flooding with the recently deceased.
The cadaverous form rose up, the desiccated cords of its throat rattling, choking with something like laughter. Then Rosa could hear her voice in her head, familiar and yet not. Arachne's voice plucked at the strings of her sanity, no longer teasing, luring, or even amused.
If you are no better than this dried husk, then of what use are you to me?, the creature demanded, malevolence glimmering in the shadowed hollows of its eyes.
One long spindly arm lifted slowly into the air, ragged claws glimmering in the firelight. Arachne swept her arm across the rising corpses, throwing three of them back to the dirt with hardly any effort. "...wEeaK..!" the creature rasped aloud.
â€œSurely you didnâ€™t expect them to beâ€¦ not?â€ Rosa asked with a peculiar look on her mind, her head tilted slightly to the right as she drowned out the beingâ€™s voice.
With a flick of the hand she raised the corpses once again, this time becoming more of an amalgamation of the recently deceased than anything closely resembling a human being. It groaned loudly, its grotesque form causing it to almost topple over before finally finding its footing again.
Dread seeped from its very pores, a black goo dripping to the ground as it shuffled onward to Arachne once again. For added oomph, Rosa had taken the reigns of her beast by gesturing with her hands. It was almost as if the Risen mirrored the young spuriiâ€™s every movement.
In a surprising instant, the beast was upon Arachne and with great force brought down its fist upon her.
The long-dried skeleton splintered under the blow, leathery skin tearing and red blood beginning to ooze sluggishly. Instead of reeling back, though, Arachne's cadaverous form stepped in, reaching up to wrap her long fingers around the amalgamated creatureâ€™s throat. Her other hand grabbed the monstrosity by the shoulder. Nails ripped into the bodies, harshly splitting the dead bodies and ripping them apart with frightening strength. Deep splashes of crimson and ebon splashed across the ground.
Surrender your flesh. It had already been offered, and rejected, but there was something more final to the words, a sense that emptiness would follow.
Surrender your will, Arachne rasped in Rosa's head while the risen monster attacked her current avatar. Even split down to the waist, it moved, following the commands of its mistress.
Like a moth drawn to the flame, Rosaâ€™s mind wandered off to the thoughts of the beast for longer than she would ever dare to admit. Deep down inside she knew she didnâ€™t want to resist, that she wanted to give in and let the world around her taste despair. But, how was she to do that if her own sense of self no longer existed?
With great force she slammed her hands together as if she were trying to put something together again that had been ripped in half. Almost immediately her amalgamation started to fuse back together, pulling whatever grip Arachne had over the beast back along with it.
â€œSee how you like this!â€ she yelled as part of the risen deadâ€™s body reformed itself into a black, gooey needle pointed towards the Ancientâ€™s throat.
And the tip shot forward.
From Arachne's throat, blackish red blood sprayed in a heavy burst, splashing all over the risen abomination, the courtyard, and even onto Rosa.
Noxious tendrils streamed into the air wherever the blood touched. The dead flesh of Rosa's minion began to lose shape, melting away. Rosa's living skin didn't corrode, but the toxic fumes made her head spin before she could stop herself from breathing them in.
Arachne fell away, clutching at her throat while more blackish blood seeped out, but her hollow sunken eyes met Rosa's and the unholy ancient wasn't finished, yet. Her spindly form rushed forward, putting an arm to the risen monster to shove it aside as she swept her other hand toward Rosa.
In a flash, the young half-breed drew her trusted dagger and held it out in front of her body as if to prepare for a strike. There was no notion of hesitation in the girlâ€™s movements, no thought provoking idea behind the monstrosity cantering towards her. The air crackled softly, a burst of magic enveloping only the slightest streak of her blade.
Though darkness had all but fallen, a streak of sickly green erupted forth from the dagger and shot towards the ancient threat as she slashed her blade in a sideways motion. Then, with her feet she kicked up some dirt and bolted out of the beasts trajectory.
Before she had gone two steps, however, she crashed into someone else. Rosa looked up, staring back into the wild eyes of her mother. Aranea grabbed onto the half-breed, nails digging in painfully. "Enough! You knew this time would come!" she shouted, trying to regain control of a situation that had spiraled far, far beyond anything she had planned for all those years.
Lady Arachne, her goddess, stood in front of her. The power she craved was there for the taking. She had only to prove that she, not Rosa, deserved it!
It was in that split moment of losing focus, thinking about a possibility that had not yet come to pass, that her eyes widened in a mixture of shock and fear. She could feel Rosaâ€™s heart beat irregularly against her, the pulse of the veins in the arm sheâ€™d grabbed were cascading against a cacophony of sounds. They werenâ€™t sounds sheâ€™d heard extensively before, but they were the kind she was all too familiar with.
She stumbled backwards, releasing the half-breed in the process as she reached for her own throat.
In a frantic motion she tried to reach for the visage of her adopted daughter. She tried to yell, but the words wouldnâ€™t really come out as she wanted them to with blood filling her very lungs. Sound did, though, but it wasnâ€™t particularly consoling to listen to. It was a screech, high pitched and full of venom that was released from the now kneeling Aranea.
Rosa hadnâ€™t really thought about it when she bumped into her mother. It had been a gut reaction, based on split-second thinking as the grip on her arm stinged with the familiarity of years of abuse. She didnâ€™t think about the consequences, didnâ€™t think about anything. But, in that split moment she had done what sheâ€™d wanted to do for years.
Sheâ€™d gotten back at her mother and, as the knife wound scarring the raven-haired matriarchâ€™s neck turned crimson, the young spuriiâ€™s body became lighter. It was as if a burden had fallen off her shoulders.
Grasping for air, Aranea looked up one final time. Her eyes widened yet again as she gazed upon a smile so devious even she would have had a hard time pulling it off.
"But..." she managed, coughing up more and more blood with every fleeting moment.
"You wished for a sacrifice... mother," Rosa said, her eyes crazed and splatters of blood adorning her face, as the blood slowly dripped onto the altar of bones. "I hope you've gotten what you wanted."
Slowly, Aranea's body began to catch on fire with a sickish, hell spawn-looking green flame. She tried to scream for pain, but the knife had scarred her neck to such a degree that she could no longer release any final words. Finally, Rosa let go of her mother's disappearing body and turned back to Arachne.
Laughter echoed through the recesses of Rosa's mind, not a mad cacophony but a sinuous, satisfied chuckle, teasing at the very edges of her sanity. The deeply sunken eyes of Arachne's decrepit host locked onto the half-blood, leaning in closer, all while the walking corpse's blood continued pouring from its wounds.
The fly that gets caught in the web has nothing to offer the spider, Arachne hissed into Rosa's inner ear, except its pitiful carcass. The deformed lips curled back in a rictus of a smile. But finally I can see the fangs you kept hidden. Remember that splash of warmth. Savor it. Hunt it.
The spindly nightmare creature dropped to the ground, curling in on itself, and fell still.
Blood still dripped softly to the ground, adorning the young womanâ€™s face with every passing second. Her face was a deadpan, her eyes devoid of any real emotion as she followed the passing of Arachneâ€™s host back to the crevices of the earth. A sigh, an an exasperated sound left her as she looked up to the sky.
She felt rejuvenated, blessed - or was it cursed? -, but most of allâ€¦ she felt free. Free from a lifetime of abuse and servitude. No longer. She would take all her mother had taught her, all the mental and physical abuse she had bestowed upon her and return it a hundred fold back to the denizens of this plane!
Balling one fist, she moved to face a face sheâ€™d almost forgotten about. It was then that Elara looked up, her eyes widened in a mixed bag of fear and adoration, and tried to say something.
"I should probably be sorry, huh?" Rosa said to the fear-stricken heir to Vahlmore, cutting her off before she could even so much as get a sound out.
"No..." the silver-eyed beauty responded. "If anything I should be, shouldn't I? She enticed me, promised me the world if... if I just gave her a piece of me for safekeeping. I didn't think she'd..."
Grabbing her friend by the neck, she brought the young woman back to her feet again for all to see.
"Rosa... please," Elara said, struggling as the spurii's left hand held tightly onto her neck. "You're... you're hurting me."
"Don't worry," she whispered back, "It won't be long until you'll never feel pain again."
"What do you...?"
With force quite unlike anything anyone in Vahlmore had ever seen, Rosa planted her right hand right into the place where Elara's heart was resting and started to let Arachne's spider web do her thing.
"You've been dead for quite some time, huh?" Rosa wasn't even listening to whatever Elara was going to say next as her vistra's power worked onto the young woman's heart. "I will make you mine, Elara. Forever."
"Ever. You will serve me in death, just as you've served my mother behind my back. But, don't worry, I'll care for you. You will lead the city in my absence as my Queen..."
"Bwuh... bu... but, I... what?"
"You should be happy. Was this not what you always desired from me in the first place? Now, you can finally get it. My body's warmth, in exchange for a life of servitude."
The pain that resided within Elara slowly subsided, and whatever sign of restraint towards this idea she still had slowly melted away into nothingness.
"Yes," she said as she felt Rosa's hand remove itself from her heart. "My Love, I will reign supreme for as long as our lives are intertwined."
Walking over to the Throne of Balthasar, she took her rightful place on it as she looked over the hundreds of cultists still frozen still from the shock of what had just transpired.
"As was foretold..." Rosa said with authority, breaking everyone free from their trance.
"Your Queen has returned from her eternal slumber."