The days in the forest bled greenly into one another.
Soon after Scott had encountered the Foundation Stone, Kuluck approached him. Scott anticipated the words before they left the vampire’s mouth:
“Come at me,” Kuluck said.
Night after night Blasphemy watched the vampire beat the Interloper. Kuluck fought only with backhanded strikes and grapples. Though once, he snatched the Interloper’s stick away and struck him with it until he fell to his knees.
Bruises bloomed up and down the Interloper’s body and deep-set shadows formed beneath his eyes. Each injury made him stronger, though he had not yet realised it. Sometimes he would call to Blasphemy for help; but she never did.
“Think of each bruise as a lesson that might one day save your life,” she said to the Interloper one night as she treated his wounds.
That night, the Interloper cried himself to sleep.
“There,” Kuluck pointed. Blasphemy had to tap the Interloper on the shoulder to get his attention. She motioned in the same direction Kuluck was pointing, to where a majestic three-horned stag stood some distance away, surrounded by flowers like some unlikely painting.
The creature’s head was up, dark eyes studious; though it was not looking directly at them it had nonetheless sensed their presence.
“I can take it down,” said Kuluck, thinking in that moment not of his companions but his own need for sustenance. The stag, though invisible to his eye—was made visible to him by the rich and powerful circulation of its life-force.
“Impossible,” muttered the Interloper—the idea that Kuluck would be able to reach the stag before it fled was ridiculous, let alone bring it down. Blasphemy knew better.
“Leave it,” she told Kuluck, even as she sensed his hunger. As though alerted by the sound of her voice the stag faded away into the flowers with the grace of a ghost and they were alone again. And still hungry.
The next morning, they awoke to a forest thick with fog. Mist ebbed around them as they moved through it, dampening their clothes. The Interloper’s cheeks were stained by the trails of his tears where they had sluiced the dirt away from his eyes. The Interloper and Blasphemy shivered as they walked through the mist; while Kuluck, cold-blooded, seemed untroubled by the undulating curtains of mist.
Although the cold did not touch him the fog did obfuscate the upir’s sense of smell, such that they stumbled upon the dead thing before Kuluck sensed it. The remains of the stag they had seen the previous day was crumpled in the clearing, torn limb from limb. The Interloper backed away, grimacing.
“Wolves,” said Kuluck.
“Wolves of a particularly unpleasant disposition,” Blasphemy added.
Kuluck knelt down to inspect the body, his nostrils twitching. Almost no trace of flesh remained on the bones of the creature. “This was no mere feast,” he told his companions. “But a message.”
Behind them the Interloper was snapping his head in every direction, his imagination forming strange wolfish shapes out of the mist.
“They have sent the wolves ahead to track us,” said Blasphemy. “It makes sense.”
“But it is a risk,” said Kuluck.
“What are you talking about?” asked the Interloper, trembling in the cold a few steps back. He had his arms wrapped around himself.
“The Wolves of Shadrath live their entire lives in cages,” Kuluck said. “If they are ever let out they are kept on short leashes.”
“It must have been years since they have felt the wind on their skin,” said Blasphemy. “By setting them free their masters are risking that they might remember what it is to be wolves.”
“Whatever their intentions, we may be sure they are hunting us,” said Kuluck. “Stay alert.”
Again, the Interloper shivered.
As they walked the mist slowly faded away and the forest became increasingly alive, as though one pane at a time was being stained with colour by some unseen artisan. Flowers opened up around them and a dizzying mixture of pollens danced in the air.
By the time they passed across an ancient dry creek bed the scent of the flowers had faded. They pushed through a thick growth of ferns that obscured almost everything else from sight until they made it to the other side. Huge, grey-barked trees grew here and the leaves above were sparse compared to the forest they had left behind.
Dry leaves—orange, yellow and brown—crunched underfoot. For a time the travellers said nothing and the only sound was the monotonous stomping of their feet as they made their way through the forest. Then the wind moaned through the trees and in the distance came a deep, distant rumble.
“It’s close,” said Kuluck.
They came to a ridge that descendedly jaggedly down towards a vast canopy of trees. The cliff granted them a view to the north where the trees met the muddy horizon of the Wastelands and it was there that Scott finally saw the storm from which his companions were fleeing.
The Wastelands were obscured by an enormous cloud, shot through with flickers of crimson lightning. This bloated, billowing mass clawed its way south, dragging its bloated, blood-filled belly behind it. The storm was ravenous; it hungered as it crackled with crimson eldritch light.
Anything the storm touched was tainted: trees would rot and water would spoil. Even the stoic inhabitants of the Wastelands had crumbled beneath it and had been killed or enslaved by the upir that marched beneath the protection of this ungodly, eternal night. The screams of those who had been captured rattled in unison with the sound of their chains, as they were dragged along like cattle to fuel the storm’s advance.
Light turned to dark and the world sagged and groaned beneath the weight of the storm, shifting ever lower towards the indeterminable depths of chaos. The stars changed nightly in their positions as the universe struggled to maintain its shape.
The storm reminded Scott of something he had seen before but could not remember what. Like a mushroom cloud, all-destroying. Beneath the billowing darkness beat leathery wings, dark beaks snapped and heavy boots stomped as warriors wielding weapons forged from blood-steel advanced upon the world. Theirs was the unrelenting march of an army that did not tire.
This was a genocide; a feast. The vampiric taint locked away for so long behind those metal gates now blocked out sun and moon and stars without discrimination, such that there would soon be nothing left to wish upon.
Black and red and stinking of copper. Luminous and triumphant, the storm coursed towards them. Dark engines sputtered and roared, moving forward on heavy treads; fuelled by the blood of the captured. Remade creatures walked along with them, blood-beasts created by vampiric experiments, transformed by alchemy and the undying, regenerating flesh of the upir. The earth was upturned by the creatures and the machines, forming deep grooves through which crimson rivers began to flow.
If you had a heartbeat: the storm would find you. The blood became one. It trickled down funnels and tubes, collected into those dark engines, charging demonic batteries that fizzled and sparked and then churned out that black, all-encompassing cloud.
Wail, lament; for you look upon the end of everything.