Monday, October 31, 2016

The Endless Deserts Fiction Contest Winners

Today we have the winners of The Endless Deserts Fiction Contest! There were 12 entries in total and all of them great, but in the end, there can be only one.

First off just let me say, I was blown away by the number of entries as well as the overall quality of them. There were some really great stories submitted, and there wasn't a single one I thought was bad. It's really nice seeing so many people take to the Endless Deserts and weave their own stories through its sands.

While there can be only one overall winner of the tokens from the Mortal Realms, I figured I would like second and third places, as well as an honorable mention. All of these winners were chosen by myself and Eric of the Mortal Realms Podcast. To kick things off, here is our honorable mention.

Honorable Mention

The Invitation of Settra by Martin Orlando 

Hot wind whipped through the cavern with a rasped howl, kicking up flecks of bone with the mustard colored sand in a never ending migration. Hidden from the light under the mountainous rock, broken human skeletons peeked out of pools of sand. Rusted husks that were once shimmering weapons had been bound to the bones by cobwebs. The skulls were all turned to the great portal imbedded within the stone, bound by the macabre archway of obsidian and onyx. If only they had lived to ever see it open.

The Realmgate had closed. Its magical hum had been replaced by the clanking of armor, the trotting of horse hooves, and the heavy footfalls of Sigmarite plate upon sand and stone. Stormcast Eternals clad in a vibrant indigo chased with silver formed the vanguard of the small but well armored host. They moved with a curious mix of pomp and precision from the hidden passage into a wider valley. Wrapped about their holy plate were the trappings of princes of Azyr; feathered hats, great jewels, and capes of red and black silk embroidered with white interlacing patterns. It was almost as if they were imitating the platoon of mortal men marching in lockstep behind them.

From the high saddle of her Dracoth, a Concussor gestured to stop the advance of the troops. A voice of noble gravitas rang out, ordering the footmen to form defensive postures. The handful of Liberators among them formed a shield wall, centered amongst the Freeguildsmen who were puny in comparison.

The warhost’s commander moved her horse up beside the pale drake. It was an angelic steed armored with immaculate steel, marveling even the divine craftsmanship worn by Sigmar’s chosen. “I expected Shyish to be as cold as the grave like in the stories. This place seems to disagree.” She was undoubtedly a lord, bearing armor and dress fit for a queen. She had high cheekbones, emerald eyes, and long blonde hair spun into a thick braid that fell over one shoulder to her bosom. A white rose crowned one side of her scalp like a tiara. She looked around at the empty desert before her, and sneered.

A cloudless sky and an oppressive sun was all that could be seen beyond the edge of either rock face that bordered the thin valley, which was no more than a hundred paces wide. One mouth opened into endless desert, and the other a similarly uninviting ocean, but on the horizon a great pyramid shone wickedly with gold. Its radiance likely betrayed the sinister beings entombed within.

The Lady on the white horse pulled a long wooden talisman from her saddlebag, and held it with both hands. Wood was more precious than gold in a place where no living thing dared to grow, and so a great effort had been taken to carve hieroglyphics, wards, and finery about the token. At its top, a winged scarab was set into the dry cedar with an artist’s touch, each piece either gold or jade. Rubies and sapphires followed on each flank, but had been dulled with age. The sunlight made the wood react, and it rumbled in her gloved hands. Reality around it seemed to shift slightly, and a psychic echo made a voice heard loudly in her mind, and only in her mind.

‘The murk of Ulgu shifts and stirs. All seek to enter it, and yet none return, save you. Lady of Siebenbur, your Castle is a wonder of the Mortal Realms. I invite you to my domain, so that you may witness the glory of the true monarch in Shyish. Endure the crucible of the sands, and I shall entreat with thee.’

The same message rang out in the minds of her warhost as it did within her brilliant stone walls when a half-dead winged creature dropped the token upon her doorstep. Siebenbur Castle was a marvel indeed; home to mortal men and a self-exiled Stormhost deep within the enigmatic Realm of Shadow. But for all of its might, it was short on allies. The mistress of the Castle was intrigued at the prospect of purchasing an alliance with a famous enemy of Nagash, but she was not without caution.

The sound of tense jolts of movement pulled her away from the token. The Stormcast and the Freeguild had turned their attention to a phalanx of skeletons marching towards them from the direction of the faraway pyramid. Spear and shield in hand, their grinning skulls wore no emotion, without skin or sinew there was nothing capable of showing expression. They came to a halt about twenty paces away, and parted for a walking corpse. Dead skin tanned by the sun and undoubtedly subject to mummification, it was hunched over slightly, and walked with a limp. Despite all this, he was not without a princely demeanor.

“How auspicious indeed to receive your ladyship at a time such as this,” The man choked on a dry tongue and bowed with all of the courtesy one would have expected in Azyrheim, and not the deserts of the dead.

“I came at the invitation of Settra the Imperishable. Is that whom you serve?”

“Most certainly. I speak on behalf of the Kings and Princes of the Endless Desert in welcoming the Lady Mary Rutherford to our realm.” He half turned back towards the pyramid, causing the columns of bony warriors to do the same, never breaking from their formation, “Ahead you shall face many trials. Unwelcome guests sadly outnumber esteemed visitors like yourselves. Put them all to the sword and you shall have your audience with the True Monarch.”

“Cannot the mighty Khemrikhara vanquish these invaders on his own?” She put on a slight smile, almost mocking the creature that was neither living nor dead before her.

He swiftly retorted, “The Imperishable is beyond all, these foes that infest our land only serve as a crucible for his guests. The mighty shall overcome these challenges, and only they are worth his attention.”

Third Place

Scarab by Sam James

Inferion ran his hand across the wall, brushing away the sand to reveal the glyphs and ancient inscriptions beneath. The meanings were lost on him, all except for one, his fingers traced its outline, a winged scarab raising a skull into the air.

The same image had haunted his dreams for months, sent him near delirious in his rituals, brought him across the Sour Sea to draw blades against the Blood Maiden, forced him to seek aide in the human town of Bétone, and at last, led him here to this necropolis.

Khorne has purpose for me here.

With him was Vorgax, a loyal Blood Warrior, and also a human from Bétone named El-Kanash. A wretched and pitiful creature but whose skills in alchemy and knowledge of these lands had been invaluable thus far. The alchemist was studying the hieroglyphs on the wall.

The sight angered Inferion, his thoughts darkened and filled with rage. He stepped forward and grabbed the man by the throat, lifting him off the ground.

'You can read these inscriptions?'

'No-no,' he spluttered, 'I have never seen the like-'

'Enough, my Priest,' said Vorgax, 'We may have need for him later.'

Inferion's anger quelled and he tossed the human aside, 'You are right. Pass me the bone dagger.'

Vorgax revealed an ivory blade and handed it to the Slaughterpriest. This was an ancient artefact of chaotic power.

Inferion returned to the wall and brought the ritual dagger to his palm. A stream of red ran river down his fingers which he poured over the hieroglyph of the scarab and skull. The blood channeled down inlaid canals that led unseen into the floor below.

'It is done,' Inferion said, 'my blood cannot be ignored. The necropolis will answer.'

A few moments passed before the wall trembled and began to sink into the ground, revealing the chamber beyond. Dust and cold air swirled out from the inky blackness.

The next chamber was shrouded in darkness save for a dais illuminated by a thin shaft of sunlight from above. A plinth in its centre held the scarab upright. It shimmered gold and held aloft a carved ruby skull. A thin bridge of sandstone led to the dais with unknowable depths plummeting either side.

This talisman is the scarab I seek.

A scuttling could be heard from the darkness and a moment later the shaft of sunlight caught the ridges of carapace as something climbed up onto the bridge and raced towards them.

'A Tomb Scorpion,' gasped El-Kanash as he backed away, ready to flee.

'Hold!' shouted Inferion, the power in his voice stopped the alchemist.

The Blood Warrior, Vorgax, charged the scorpion now entering the chamber and roared, 'Blood for the Blood God, Skulls for the Skull Throne!'

The Tomb Scorpion was a terrible construct of bone and metal. It reeked of Death-Magic. Vorgax came down upon it with his goreaxes in hand but like a viper the coiled tail lashed out and sunk its fang deep into his chest. The Blood Warrior managed one final swing of his axes, severing the end of the tail, before he collapsed onto the floor.

Rage flooded through Inferion. He moved in swinging his Wrath-hammer around his arm in long arcs before launching it at the Tomb Scorpion. The metal ball and chain punctured into the side of its carapace and caused it to stagger. He drew his Hackblade but the construct was lightening fast, it had already righted itself and was upon Inferion in a second. He parried the first strike of its pincers but the blade was cut cleanly in half as its vice-grip closed. The severed tail lashed out and bludgeoned his chest. He fell sprawling onto the flagstones, his vision pitching.

The Tomb Scorpion closed in once more but was stopped as the alchemist leapt onto its back and sunk deep a curved dagger. A screech sounded from the skull visage of the construct as it lost its balance. El-Kanash repeatedly stabbed his dagger into the carapace, screaming with terror, until the Tomb Scorpion ceased to move.

'You could be a servant of Khorne yet, alchemist,' said Inferion as he rose to his feet. 'Kindle the lantern and follow me.'

The scarab is mine.

The Slaughterpriest traversed the narrow stone bridge guided by the warm light of the lantern behind. As he ascended the first steps of the dais he wondered what plans his God might have for such a talisman. The Blood Maiden was a fool to question me.

He felt a sharp pain as a blade entered his back, he lashed out in fury but as the dagger twisted something dark and sickly took a hold of his muscles. Inferion fell onto the steps before feeling the blade puncture his back three more times. He turned and saw El-Kanash, his dagger dripping with blood. Inferion spat in anger, 'Khorne will not let this betrayal pass, human!'

The alchemist regarded him coldly, 'Your God does not care for your plight, Priest.'

He stepped over Inferion and for the first time beneath the cloying scents of sandalwood and other spices could be smelt something far darker. Inferion tried to lash out but his arms and legs were now wholly paralysed. He watched the dark-skinned man ascend the stairs and screamed in rage, 'My God led me here, fear his wrath, fool.'

'Believe it if you must,' said El-Kanash with a soft laugh, 'Now die quietly, you brute, my master requires your aid no more.'

Inferion's last few moments were those of agony. The poison coiled around his throat and lungs before strangling him in silence. His vision filled with blood as he watched the alchemist reach the dais and take the scarab from its plinth. He swaddled it in cloth before placing it in a satchel. A dark shadow flew over the Slaughterpriest and he saw a bird settle on the alchemist's shoulder.

A carrion bird of death...

Second Place

Seekers of a Lost God by AgeofSigvald

A dry breeze rustled across the tall dunes as the sun cast its merciless burning gaze down over the warm sands below, twisted hooves beat an infernal tune upon the ancient desert leaving a high trail of aged dust in the caravan's wake.

From his throne Aluvian idly passed a now empty glass to one of his blindfolded courtiers and glanced down to the quartet of multi-hued reptilian horses at the head of his golden chariot. The creatures were unnaturally fast, pulling the chariot with terrifying haste across the desert sands, their long daemonic tongues whipping around tasting every sensation to be had in a place as old and dead as this.

The lord of Slaanesh rose reluctantly but gracefully from his throne, grabbing a handful of pills from the silver tray offered by a courtier and brushing his hand across the exposed torso of another as he stepped down to the lower platform. Aluvian rolled his eyes back in ecstasy as he closed a bare palm over the golden frame of the seeker chariot. The supple metal beneath his hand pulsed with the hedonistic magic of his patron but the thrill was short lived, regaining himself he focussed his eyes back on the empty horizon ahead of them. In the past weeks they'd fought through other chaos tribes in these endless deserts, decimated the orruk settlements they'd passed for sport, and with ease managed to outmanoeuvre a hunting party by the Blood Maiden herself. Since then there had been nothing. There'd been nothing for days now.

Tossing a few of the pills into his mouth he glanced over to the retinue of hellstriders that flanked his vehicle, their hellish steeds of Slaanesh easily matching the pace of his caravan of chariots. In their boredom the riders had taken to thrashing one another with their barbed hellscourges, inflicting pain out of sheer lust for excitement.

"What do you see?" Aluvian cried out.

The closest of the riders howled with laughter as a barb tore down his cheek as he turned, the blood that was cast out quickly becoming lost in the wake of dust behind them. Aluvian felt a quiver through his body as the youth's eyes fell on him and his form quickly reshaped itself to better appeal to his observer. The enchanted silver armour he wore rippled as pectoral muscles gave way to supple bosoms, and shoulders once broad and imposing, became delicate and refined. The hellstrider stared aghast for a moment and bit his lip before coming to his senses and, in obedient synchronicity, he and his unit halted their revelry and focussed their enhanced vision forward.

A moment later the youth turned back to his mistress excitedly, "Something up ahead my queen, old, stone..." the rider frowned suddenly and flicked his eyes back quickly, "boring..."

The lord laughed and gestured a now feminine hand toward his minion, watching as the wound on the youth's cheek began to heal, rapidly restoring the man's unnatural beauty, "That my sweet is a matter of conjecture. There's something here, a clue, a prize... I can feel it."

Aluvian felt her strained and ancient heart flutter in her chest, finally there was something in this dreary wasteland worth seeking. They'd been travelling for months now, desperately searching for the faintest sign of their lost god, trekking at breakneck speed across the mortal realms to all the remnants of the world that was that they could find. Here, in these endless sands were said to be the most ancient of relics, things not touched since the times of ending when their dark prince had first vanished. Aluvian purred orders to her neighbouring chariots and their furred and scaled steeds redoubled their efforts until she and her hedonist cohorts were but a purplish golden blur over the sands.

In mere minutes they were upon it, a temple older than reckoning and now mostly buried beneath the sands. The stone structure and its indecipherable hieroglyphs appeared as but the tip of an iceberg, the pinnacle of a long forgotten city that now lay encapsulated in dust. Ahead of them lay rows of colossal pillars and a set of huge ornate doors flanked by four mighty statues, each bearing the head of a now long forgotten animal.

The host of Slaanesh slowed their pace and without care the passengers leapt from their chariots onto the sand, landing with an unnatural grace. Aluvian asserted herself and felt her body shift back into manhood. Along with his retinue he took in the scent of their discovery, trying to identify the sensations woven into the fabric of the place.

Consuming the last of the pills Aluvian finally felt them kick in, there was a rush throughout his body as the crystalised souls of the Orruk prisoners they had kept to torture hit their mark. With a grin the lord of chaos marched forward, his armoured footfalls oddly silent against the floor below. Running his hand across the hieroglyphs on the great doorway Aluvian made to push the door open when suddenly and without warning there was a great uproar behind him. Turning quickly the warrior watched with intrigue as something huge erupted out of the once calm sands.

The creature from the sands moved fast, much faster than any mere man could hope to make out. Focussing carefully Aluvian's eyes took in the sight of the giant stone serpent, clad in weathered golds and clutching an ancient skyiron halberd in two skeletal arms. Wildly his warriors dived for it, thrashing their whips against the stone and striking at its hide with savage pincers, but the construction paid them little heed. Turning with the unnatural precision of the undead, the monster turned to face Aluvian himself, coiling its way over the flagstones toward him.

The lord smirked and drew his sword.
There was a second part to this story that went over the 1,000 word limit, so it couldn't be considered for the competition, but if you want to find out what happens to Aluvian then you can read it here.

And the overall winner and recipient of the free set of Desert Tokens from The Mortal Realms is:

First Place

A Gift for the Dead by CJPT

"The dead do not know fear," the grey priest had told her "but do not think them senseless. They are bound to the Lord of Death, and He has no master at all - save the truth of death itself, the final fact of it, the great departure that awaits us all, even Him. Only a fool fears the shifting pathways of the desert when all journeys share a destination."

Akarn had been a girl then, an acolyte chosen for service in the high strata of the Necropolis of Three. She felt a comfort in service to the holy dead that she had never found in the lower city. She had always been different, but under the unfaltering gaze of the Silent Triumvirate she found a stillness that quieted her fitful mortal soul.

Akarn was old, now, and now she knew that the priest had been wrong. The dead could know fear.

She had seen it on the day that the Lord of Death fell. They had crossed the world to be by His side as He met the scion of the dark gods in battle. The priest-cohort tended their dead masters like squires, anointing the holy bones and adorning them with golden tributes that foretold the victory to come. They had been so sure. There had only been the fact of it.

The defeat of the Lord of Death was apostasy. The living fell to despair immediately, fleeing into the desert only to be cut down by the dark-armoured servants of Chaos. In that moment Akarn's eyes had turned to her masters, and then she knew that they were doomed.

The three kings froze, uncertain for the first time. They had looked so solid, so resolute, but now she saw their frailty. Out across the field servants of the Blood God howled as they claimed the bones of the crumbling host. Where once the Lord of Death had safeguarded His servants, now the routing armies of the undead presented a bounty to the skull-takers of Khorne. The dead kings witnessed this and, as if in despair themselves, collapsed upon the sand.

She led a small group of trusted followers - her own acolytes, for the most part - onto the field amidst the strife. They gathered the sacred remains of the Silent Triumvirate and fled just ahead of the onrushing hordes of Archaon. At the port city of Biriach they bartered what little they had for three well-worn funerary urns, inadequate reliquaries for their holy burden. They crossed the Sour Sea, hoping to escape the servants of the dark gods upon the salt waves. The screams of the men and women of Biriach reached them across the still water when the flayers took the city. Black barques shadowed them on the long journey to Desert's End.

Their return to the Endless Deserts gave them no succour. Progress was hard, and their familiarity with the sands of their homeland provided little advantage in the face of Chaos unchecked. The servants of darkness were a flood, a tide of sacrilege that would drown the world. Men and women that had lived lives in service to holy death now feared for their souls, and for the souls of the holy masters that had guided them. The bones of the Silent Triumvirate seemed to grow heavier each day, and the survivors took to sending acolytes out alone to draw the savages away and earn them a few more hours, a few more days. Each day they spent the living to save the dead.

Eventually six remained. They had lost their way along the shifting pathways of the desert, losing their trust in the old knowledge without the dead to guide them. Akarn considered instructing the survivors to stop and wait and die, but the servants of the dark gods might find their bodies before the sacred sands covered them up. The risk was simply too great, their charge too important.

They kept moving until movement became thoughtless, starving through the freezing night and marching blind through the blistering day. Akarn pushed back thoughts of the Necropolis of Three, how it might feel to catch sight of its glittering promenades upon the horizon. Her desire was agony. She merely walked, affecting the stillness and surety of the dead.

Her eyes were downcast when they stumbled across the ruin. Her first thought was shock, hope - a glimpse of home - but this was not the necropolis. Half-collapsed and claimed by the desert, whoever had erected these cyclopean colonnades had been gone for a long time. The wind howled across cracked flagstones as Akarn knelt and traced sand-smoothed hieroglyphs with her fingertips.

The travellers laid down the reliquaries and collapsed in silence amongst the ancient stonework. Akarn did not stop them - she would allow them a moment of shelter and respite, at least - but nor could she bring herself to rest. As the sun reached its apex she pressed deeper into the temple complex. If the necropolis was truly lost to her, then perhaps a fit end to her masters' journey might be found here.

As she passed underneath an archway flanked by great stone wings she felt eyes upon her, heard stone crack and sand shift. Akarn turned about as she entered a ruined basilica. She was alone. Her eyes turned to the dark statues that lined this place in various states of collapse. The floor was strewn with fragments of obsidian: a broken blade, the forearm of a colossal warrior, the impact-fractured death mask of an ancient queen. Only one statue remained intact, a rampant sphinx with a gaunt mortal face. A holy man of this lost city, no doubt, his name lost to the sands. Time had eaten away at the bindings affixing his golden adornments. He stood surrounded by the scattered glittering remains of glories past.

Akarn stepped closer, feeling a strange kinship with this last inhabitant of a doomed place. She forgot the terrors of the moment and outstretched her hand.

The sphinx regarded her and spoke.

There is even more to this story too, but it was longer than 1,000 words, so we couldn't consider it for the competition, but I highly recommend that you read the second half of it here, it's definitely worth it.

Like I said, all of the entries were great, and it was very hard picking the winners. The competition for first and second place was particularly close. I will be reaching out to the winner shortly about collecting your prize. I will also be getting in contact with everyone who's story is here as well as a few others on the TGA Community about including your stories in an "official" Endless Deserts story collection to be released along the Tomb King Battletome as a free PDF.

Thanks again to everyone who entered and I highly recommend that you go read all of the stories here. Like I said, there's not a bad one amongst them!

Until next time,

Tyler M.

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