Exalted South: Crimson Sands
The Strider of the Ebon Sarcophagus
The Strider of the Ebon Sarcophagus sat on his throne of lapis and gold, his jackal’s face staring down impassively at the four ghosts kneeling in chains before him. He was massive, his artisan-sculpted form towering more than twelve feet tall, and yet the throne rose up behind him even more, the gold worked into the icon of a flaring serpent’s hood. In one hand, he held a crooked crozier, the butt braced against the onyx tile of his throne room’s floor. In the other, he held a wicked flail, tipped with barbs and dripping with blood.
The four ghosts before him were pitiful, pathetic wretches, shivering in the arcane chill of his audience chamber. The chamber itself was cavernous, easily large enough to fit ten bonestriders abreast, yet the Strider kept it nearly empty, a small, symbolic sacrifice to Oblivion. The only features were the Strider’s throne, the hawk-helmed guards that stood watch at the door, and the gaping, howling maw to the Labyrinth that yawed between the Pharaoh and his supplicants.
YOU HAVE FAILED ME.
The Pharaoh did not speak so much as project his intended words into the very air, which seemed to crawl and thicken as if in revulsion. All four captives shuddered, lowering their heads to the cold stone floor. One of them was weeping softly.
One of the worms dared to look up, quelled the animal panic that surged through his corpus, and made to speak. The Pharaoh’s amber gaze swept to him, and he flinched back, but pressed forward. The Deathlord noted mutely that it was the Snake that Ate the Moon that managed to summon the will to challenge him.
“Master, we are sorry. But we faced four Celestial Exalts! How could we have succeeded? The odds were insurmountable.”
SURMOUNTING THE INSURMOUNTABLE IS YOUR PURPOSE, DEATHKNIGHT.
Snake flinched away, a trickle of blood running from his nose. Yet still, he pressed on. “And yet, is it not their purpose as well? We were overmatched, my lord.”
AND WHAT DO YOU BELIEVE WOULD HAVE CHANGED THAT, FAILURE? WHAT COULD YOU HAVE DONE DIFFERENTLY?
“Not us, Lord.” Snake’s gaze lifted, settling on his master’s. “You.”
The Pharaoh’s hand clenched on the haft of his crozier, but a flicker of interest stayed his merciless hand. He was intrigued that something so small, so worthless as this, could or would choose to criticize his betters so openly. He leaned back in his throne, letting the interest run its course.
IT AMUSES ME TO PERMIT YOU THE AUDACITY TO EXPLAIN YOUR CRITIQUE OF MY TACTICS.
He was pleased to note the ghosts of his other deathknights scooting away from Snake, but the damned soul seemed to find strength. With obvious effort, he pushed himself to his knees. He pushed himself up onto one foot, then the other, and finally straightened, defiantly.
“If you had joined us, Lord, if you had chosen to stand beside us and enter the fray, we would have crushed Chiaroscuro, and you would even now rule over it. You chose, instead, to flee.”
The Strider did not make a gesture; he did not need to. At a thought, black Essence erupted from the ghost’s pores, leaving him screaming and thrashing on the ground, rolling perilously near the edge of the Labyrinth. He let the torment continue for long minutes, counting the seconds by the agonized shrieks, watching the other three flinch from their master’s unholy rage. Finally, he let it end, and Snake curled in on himself, sobbing.
Yet, the Pharaoh was forced to admit (only to himself, of course) that there was truth in the slave’s words. He had seen, distant and yet bright as the sunrise, the golden light that flared around the battlements of Chiaroscuro. He had seen the animas of the Princes of Creation, flickering coronas of brilliant sunlight that shone through the darkest clouds he could summon.
He had seen those animas, and he had felt fear.
Once, so long ago that he could only barely grasp the concept of the vastness of time, he had been one of them, a Solar Exalt. Like his deathknights, he had been cast down and killed, his Exaltation fleeing to its next incarnation, leaving him nothing more than a hollow shell, a ghost lamenting the loss of so much power.
And since he could not look upon the light, he had turned to the darkness. The sibilant whispers rising up from the Abyss had promised him power once more, promised him revenge on those who had slain him, and he had grasped at those promises. He had become something Creation had never seen before, and the Underworld trembled at his steps.
Yet, he always envied the light.
Of course, that only made Snake’s impudence more intolerable. He rose from his seat, crossing his flail and crozier across his chest. Every hawk-helmed guard in the chamber snapped to attention as he did so, mimicking his movements.
HEAR YOUR SENTENCE, AND DESPAIR. YOU HAVE FAILED ME. YOUR EXALTATIONS HAVE BEEN STRIPPED FROM YOU, AND YOUR IMMORTAL SPIRITS WILL NEVER AGAIN KNOW THAT POWER. AS AN EXAMPLE TO FUTURE DEATHKNIGHTS, YOUR CORPUSES WILL BE BROKEN DOWN AND ALLOYED WITH STONE FROM THE DEEPEST PITS OF THE LABYRINTH, FORGED INTO SOULSTEEL FOR ALL ETERNITY.
One of the ghosts, the weeping man of murder, cried out, shrieking denials to the uncaring stone. The guards came forward, hauling them to their feet. Some tried to fight, some went quietly, but all four were dragged from the throne chamber. The Strider sat again, knowing they would be cast into the Forge in due time.
Once more entombed in the silence of a crypt, the Sepulchral Pharaoh amid Stygian Dunes rifled through ancient memories and contemplated the future for the first time in centuries with some small sense of hope.