Dueling Lords of Decay (Pt. 1)
This post is in the Eldritch Icons project which will weave a narrative to supplant the 13 Icons of the Dragon Empire with more sinister icons born of Weird Fiction. If you want to read a more thorough take on the Great Ghoul, I was invited to contribute a Fallen Icon to the 13th Age Bestiary 2.
As the chill graveyard air touched their skin, the travelers quickened their stride. This graveyard, far from the well-minded heart of the Empire, had been left to decay and to him—the Lich King. When the first bereaved lover saw the silver-masked figures carrying off the body of his sweetheart, everyone called him deranged by grief. But reports spread of these stooped, robed, and gloved men—could they be called men if they could not be seen?— removing fresh corpses in the dead of night.
At first, stout family members resisted. Bleeding and slashed, they crawled back to town babbling of men with lupine faces and curved talons. It eventually became apparent that these strangers never killed the living (although some succumbed to their injuries), they only took the dead. For many, this was an acceptable bargain—would they not else have lost their loved one to the Lich King? And so, towns forewent burial and rituals developed to welcome these ministers of the dead, although with fear. But some resisted.
While the living concern themselves more with the forces taking over the Queen's Wood to the North-East and the Wild Wood to the South-East or of the strange stories emanating from Santa Cora, two great forces battle for the bodies (and souls?) of the dead. The Lich King retreats into the heart of the Necropolis with his skeleton troops, basilisk guards, and vampiric servitors.
But Mordiggian? The moment the ghouls of the Dragon Empire heard his psychic call, they no longer belonged to the Lich King. They flocked, or loped, to find their new master. He gave them something beyond mindlessness and they repaid him by silently swarming over the dominions of their former lord. They ripped apart skeletons and devoured vampires. But, acting on his orders, neither Mordiggian's reborn ghouls nor his jackal-headed ghoul-priests harm the living, unlike the Elk Queen's frenzied Blood Druids, as long as they surrender their dead for the god's feast.
With many of his outer strongholds fallen, the Lich King has barricaded himself in the Necropolis. Will the lich who has lasted so many ages hold his (under)ground? Or will ghouls at last suck the marrow of this icon's bones?
Mordiggian, the Great Ghoul
Not until Zothique, Clark Ashton Smith's Dying Earth, do we encounter “The Charnel God,” Mordiggian. The town of Zul-Bha-Sair lives in truce with their god. They allow his priests to bring their dead to his yawning temple. Families do not visit its black stone interior to participate in burial rites or funerary practices. And in return, what? Mordiggian saves them in the afterlife. He does not offer an abode for their souls but rather an eternal peace. For in a land rife with necromancers and malign forces, how else can the dead be safe than through total consumption, whether through cleansing fire or Mordiggian's maw?
Through him, we are saved from corruption and the worm. Even as the people of other places devote their dead to the consuming flame, so we of Zul-Bha-Sair deliver ours to the god. Awful is the fane, a place of terror and obscure shadow untrod by the sun, into which the dead are borne by his priests and are laid on a vast table of stone to await his coming from the nether vault in which he dwells. No living men, other than the priests, have ever beheld him; and the faces of the priests are hidden behind masks of silver, and even their hands are shrouded, that men may not gaze on them that have seen Mordiggian.
As Great Old Ones go, Mordiggian is one you might not mind seeing move into your local charnel house. He won't raise your loved ones to fight in his skeleton army or send a plague of ghouls to uproot your town. He's patient, he'll wait for you to come to him. But do not try to cheat him (are you listening, Necromancers?) or to withhold that which he's claimed.
Go, for Mordiggian is a just god, who claims only the dead, and has no concern with the living. And we, the priests of Mordiggian, deal in our own fashion with those who would violate his law by removing the dead from the temple.
While some may welcome this change from the Lich King, those who have put great effort into mummificiation and other steps to protect the bodies of their kin won't take kindly to this death-consuming force. Pockets of resistance will band against his encroachment. Magic-users will experiment with protection rites. Fighters will keep his priests at bay. But can you fight darkness made manifest?
As if compelled by another will than his own, the youth turned and saw the thing that had halted Narghai's blow. Arctela and Abnon-Tha, pausing before the open door, were outlined against a colossal shadow that was not wrought by anything in the room. It filled the portals from side to side, it towered above the lintel — and then, swiftly, it became more than a shadow: it was a bulk of darkness, black and opaque, that somehow blinded the eyes with a strange dazzlement. It seemed to suck the flame from the red urns and fill the chamber with a chill of utter death and voidness. Its form was that of a worm-shapen column, huge as a dragon, its further coils still issuing from the gloom of the corridor; but it changed from moment to moment, swirling and spinning as if alive with the vortical energies of dark eons. Briefly it took the semblance of some demoniac giant with eyeless head and limbless body; and then, leaping and spreading like smoky fire, it swept forward into the chamber.
In pt. 2, I'll give some plot hooks, more about Mordiggian's priests, and ask whether there is a lesser of two evils here.
As an aside, there's a reason these are taking a while—what some consider too long—between installments. It's a combo of paid writing work which obviously takes precedence over my writing-for-fun, work for my professional life (I'm a journal editor and co-chair a professional committee and wrote a journal article this fall, plus other stuff I can't bring up here), a solid two weeks sick, and some real crap going down in my family this year which has been so emotionally stressful that whatever free time I get I've mostly spent trying to do therapeutic things. Sometimes writing is good therapy, sometimes it's not and I'm afraid it hasn't been lately. I am going to do my best to keep on with the project as I can…I wish it were a straight line, but life hasn't been a straight line at all.