The letter of Vaar, written in haste for the sisters of the Sophia of the Amaranthians,
To the great, to the wise, to the devout amongst you – greetings, & godsbless.
I was a priest of five-faced Epharis in the days of the wise Athalin. I had no fear of the Creeping Death while daily I chanted the obituaries at Thaul. There was abundance of camphor from Brach & storax from the distant lands of the Urim. The smoke from the offerings rose beyond the towers where the great bells of mourning dinned seven times for every Passing, & peace reigned throughout the land.
Then the brass bells at Thaul rang also for the last Athal. Epharis showed the faces of War & Death to the Seven Houses of Mizna, & the Halls of Waiting became crowded with the righteous & the unrighteous alike, believers & unbelieviers – from the factions of every prince & every hierophant. Like rye before the reapers the victims of intrigue fell, & it seemed as though we would never know rest from our work.
. . .
I know not when first came the Strangers through the Malmour, nor how they achieved prominence in the courts of doomed Mizna. From the bell towers I did not see their sorcerers put down the foundations of their manses. The sextons told rumours of riders in crimson cloaks, & shuddered.
When the murders ceased, we welcomed the respite that new order brought – though we did not thank Epharis for it. Death, more than peace, is a gift of the gods. Now Thaul serves all who come to her, & the Halls of Waiting welcome the dead of many nations. It is not surprising, therefore, that neither the priests nor the deacons noticed the fate of Mizna before the sextons, & remained without news when these fled, along with other servants.
I was the first to suspect that something was amiss when, as I was pronouncing the midnight blessing over the bells, I saw Mizna aflame. Fearing for its dead, I organized an expedition with two brother priests (Father Atau & Father Lithe, peace be upon them) and five brother deacons & set out the following dawn.
Mizna is less than a day’s ride from Thaul & the steeds of Epharis are swift. It is not distance that kept us away from our destination but unholy wonders we met on the road – horrors which can only be described with difficulty, & are impossible to explain. Zeal, not madness, egged us on as we were determined to discover the root of the evil, confident in the power of Epharis & the True Gods.
The Strangers’ first line of defence is the birds. They are like great ravens, with four claws & human voices. They circle overhead at all hours of the day & night, wailing blasphemies in the tongue of the Abyss (a language that Father Atau knew well). They disgorge a venomous vapour against which the Shield of the Unknown God is efficacious. After we had warded ourselves, they could do us no further harm, but they would still disclose our position to the Riders.
These came next, & they were as the sextons described. The cloaks they wear is not fabric but a fetor hanging about them, like a mist of blood, covering them entirely. Their mounts are bears with scales instead of fur; we found most are mercifully slow, & quite a few we encountered were deformed & limping. They come by threes or sixes; we tried to parley with the first three we met, but they would not – or could not – speak. They charged at us with iron pikes, which we averted with our staves (& with the chant of Atepomarus Soter for which we are eternally indebted to your sisterhood). Our prayers & our blows soon toppled the first of them, after which the other two seemed to fade in the evening air. On a second encounter we discovered their cloaks must not be allowed to touch flesh, for the fetor enters the body. We have not found a cure for it, & it has driven Father Lithe to madness.
. . .
It took us eight days of skirmish, ambush & flight to wend our way to Mizna; in this time we lost Father Lithe & ran out of rations. Father Atau gathered mushrooms & charmed what scarce venison dwells in the Miznean countryside to offer itself for food. Though such fare was difficult to cook, I was grateful for every meagre repast we obtained in this manner.
Leaving our horses in the relative safety of the undergrowth, we approached the charred ruins of doomed Mizna. We saw monsters on its walls: great horse-like beasts with spiny backs & long, thorny tails. Around the broken gates they prowl endlessly, black against the blackened stone. They can be charmed to sleep, but not their stewards: those are like the Riders, only their cloaks do not hide their faces, which are featureless tangles of grey sinews. By stealth we snuck past them, but Atau was left behind with one of the deacons. I pray that they have escaped to some far haven, to cry a warning of this mysterious atrocity.
In Mizna itself we found only desolation: the houses and temples have all been laid to waste & new, impious constructions have been made from the ruins. The inhabitants are neither alive nor dead but in a state in between; sleeping they toil to fulfill the mad designs of the sorcerer-kin, building walls & digging trenches in senseless, obscene patterns. I shudder at the thought of what noxious ichors course through these deep gullies, of the ophidian abominations undulating therein.
We did not stay to spy long, for the Charm of Dolios is difficult to maintain, but we saw with our own eyes the very heart of evil. In the centre of the city, where the cathedral of Elgabala used to stand, there is now a heap of jagged stone, a haphazard ziggurat of every kind of debris. From this unholy pedestal the Strangers dance on mounds of skulls, wearing grinning masks of death. They dance, their fetid garments cascading cataracts of blood, pouring libations in leaden vessels in honour of immemorial, faceless gods. It is they who keep fallen Mizna under a sorcerous thrall. Though naked & splendid under their swirling cloaks, perfect, burnished flesh like that of youth, these are not men, but the damned anathema of an era before time, the inheritors of rancid, cancerous rites.
. . .
For escaping with our lives & with our sanity we have Epharis to thank – may the True Gods protect the world from the spreading bane! We found only one of our steeds horribly mutilated; the rest had either fled or been killed. With great haste we sought to return by foot to Thaul in time to give warning, avoiding confrontation as best we could. It took us twelve days to find the smouldering ruins of our home. Whither my brothers have gone, I do not know, but hope you have heard of them.
Now the towers of Thaul have fallen & their bells lie cracked & corroded in the rubble. The semanterion is no longer heard in the Halls of Waiting where the dead slumber, shameful & rotting. I have sent my brother deacons away to Dumere, to Brach, to the Urim & to yourselves. The bearer of this letter is called Auh. I have complete trust in him, & vouch for the veracity of his tale.
As for myself I do not think I will survive here long. At night I cower in the mausoleums of Thaul; by day I patrol the ruins & chase away the Riders with prayers & blows. I have revealed as much on the nature of the evil as I can. Reverent sisters of Sophia, I beg you alert your king in Amaranth of the ancient threat of the nameless gods. If he should send soldiers to contain the plague, teach them the wards & the prayers against such evil, & send news of my scattered brethren. If the sorcerer-kin of doomed Mizna can still be stopped, if the cosmos can be saved, the world will need your lore – now, more than ever – to heal.
Greet the Abbesses Lotha & Druthila, the sisters Myriannon, Adeodata, & Sola, & the brother secretary Hemeriophylos. May Epharis show unto you an auspicious face, & the Providence of the True Gods be with you always,