The wind howled like a spear-stuck pig. Black snow peppered the mountains. Ice blew like ash confetti at a corpse wedding. The Black Pike Mountains seemed to sigh, languorously, as the sky turned black, the stars spluttered out, and the world ceased its endless turn on a corrupted axis. And then the Chaos Halls flickered into existence like an extinguished candle in reverse.
A sour wind blew, a death-kiss from beyond the world of men and gods and liars, and smoke swirled like acid through the sky, black and grey, infused with ancient symbols and curling snakes and stinging insects. The smoke drifted down, almost casually, to Helltop at the summit of the great mountain Skaringa Dak. The Granite Thrones, empty for a thousand years, were filled again with substance. With flesh.
The three Vampire Warlords, as old as the world, as twisted as chaos, formed against the Granite Thrones where they were summoned. Almost. Their figures were tall, bodies narrow shanks, limbs long and spindly and disjointed, elbows and knees working the wrong way. Their faces were blank plates on a tombstone, eyes an evil dark slash of red like fresh-spilled arterial gore, and yet their worst feature, their most unsettling feature, was in their complete physical entirety. For in appearing, they did not settle. Did not solidify. Their nakedness, if that was what it was for the Vampire Warlords wore no clothing, was a diffusion of blacks and greys, a million tiny greasy smoke coils constantly twisting and writhing like an orgy of corpse lovers entwined, cancerous entrails like black snakes, unwound spools of necrotic bowel, and their flesh relentlessly moved, shifted, coalesced, squirmed as if seeking to strip itself free of a steel endoskeleton forged from pure hate. Their skin coagulated into strange symbols, ancient artefacts, snakes and spiders and cockroaches and all manner of stinging biting slashing chaos welcomed into this, The Whole. They were not mortal. They were not gods. They were something in-between, and oozed a lazy power, terrible and delinquent, and none could look upon that writhing flesh and wish to be a part of this abomination. Their skin and muscle and tendon and bones were a distillation of entrapped demons, an absorption of evil souls, an essence of corrupt matter which formed a paved avenue all the way back to the shimmering decadence of the vanishing Chaos Halls.
The Vampire Warlords turned their heads, as one, and stared down at the two men… the two vachine, who had summoned them, released them, cast them into ice and freedom.
And the Vampire Warlords laughed, voices highpitched and surreal, the laughter of the insane but more, the laughter of insanity linked to a binary intelligence, a two-state recognition of good and bad, order and chaos, pandemonium and… lawlessness.
'You,' said Kuradek, and this was Kuradek the Unholy, and his skin squirmed with dark religious symbols, with flowing doctrine oozing like pus, with a bare essence of hatred for anything which preached the word of God upon this decadent and putrefying world. In the history books, the text claimed Kuradek had burned churches, raped entire nunneries, sent monasteries insane so that monk slew monk with bone knives fashioned from the flesh- stripped limbs of their slaughtered companions. Kuradek's arm lifted, now, so incredibly long and finished in fingers like talons, like blood-spattered razors. General Graal, mouth hung open in shock and disbelief, hand pressed against his face where Kell's axe had opened his cheek like a ripe plum, nodded eagerly as if frightened to offend. Fearful not just of death, but of an eternity of writhing and oblivion in a tank of acrid oil.
'Yes, Warlord?' Barely more than a whisper. Graal bent his head, and stared in relief at the frozen mountain plateau beneath his boots. Anything was better than looking into those eyes. Anything was better than observing that succulent flesh.
'Come here, slave.'
General Graal straightened his back, a new anger forcing him ramrod stiff and his eyes narrowed and he stepped up onto the low plinth where the Granite Thrones squatted like black poisonous toads. Kuradek was standing, and the other Warlords, Meshwar the Violent and Bhu Vanesh, the Eater in the Dark, were seated, gore eyes glittering with an ancient, malign intelligence.
'You sought to control us, just as the Keepers controlled us,' said Kuradek.
Silence flooded the plateau, and all present lowered heads, averted eyes, as a wind of desolation blew across the space, chilling souls. Graal, teeth gritted, did well to maintain that gaze. Now he was close, he could make out finer details. The skin, the flesh of coiling smoke, of writhing symbols, of constantly changing twisted imagery, was glossy – as if wet. As if oiled. And now he could see the Vampire Warlords' vampire fangs. Short, and black, like necrotic bone. Not shimmering in gold and silver like the vanity of the vachine. Graal ground his teeth. Oh how they must have laughed at the narcissism of the vachine sub-species. How they must now be revelling in such petty beauties the vachine had heaped upon themselves.
Graal stopped. Kuradek was staring at him. Foolish. He could read Graal's mind. Kuradek made a lazy gesture, and for a moment his entire being seemed to glow, the smoke swirling faster within the confines of its trapped cell, Kuradek's living flesh. General Graal, commander of the Army of Iron, was punched in an acceleration of flailing limbs across the granite plateau. He screamed, a short sharp noise, then was silent as he hit the ground and rolled fast, limbs flailing, to slap to a halt in a puddle of melted snow. He did not move. Kuradek turned to Kradek-ka, who half-turned, as if to run. He was picked up, tossed away like a broken spine, limbs thrashing as he connected with a rearing wall of savage rock. He tumbled to the ground, face a bloody, smashed mask, and was still.
Now, the other Warlords stood. They moved easily, fluid, with a sense of great physical power held in reserve. All three gazed up as the Chaos Halls gradually faded and the stars blinked back into existence, one by one. Now, the wind dropped. Total silence covered the Black Pike Mountains like a veil of ash.
'We are here,' growled Meshwar, and as he spoke tiny trickles of smoke oozed around his vampire fangs, like the souls of the slain attempting escape.
'Yes,' said Bhu Vanesh. Also known as the Eater in the Dark, Bhu Vanesh was a terrible and terrifying hunter. Whereas Meshwar simply revelled in open raw violence, in pain for the sake of pain, in punishment without crime, in murder over forgiveness, Bhu Vanesh was more complex, esoteric, subtle and devastating. Before his imprisonment, Bhu Vanesh had prided himself on being the greatest vampire hunter; he would and could hunt anything, up to and including other Vampire Warlords. Before their chains in the Chaos Halls, Bhu Vanesh had sought out the greatest natural hunters in the world and let them free in forests and mountain landscapes, using himself as bait, himself as hunter. When the hunt was done, with his captured victims staked out, he would gradually strip out their spines disc by disc, popping free of torn muscle and skin and tendons, and he would sit by the camp fire as his hunted victims screamed, or sobbed, or simply watched with stunned eyes as Bhu Vanesh savoured his trophy, licked the gristle from the spine in his fist, sucking free the cerebrospinal fluid with great slurps of pleasure. Bhu Vanesh was the most feral of the three Vampire Warlords. He was the most deadly. An unappointed leader…
Bhu Vanesh was the Prime.
Meshwar pointed to an albino soldier. 'You. Soldier. Get Graal.' The man gave a curt nod, and crossed to the General, helping him wearily, painfully, to his feet. Graal leant on the albino soldier, panting, blood and snot and drool pooling from his smashed mouth, his battered face. His pale vachine skin was marked as if beaten by a hammer.
Kuradek strolled across the clearing, and a cool wind blew in as the world was restored to normality, as blood-oil magick eased from the mountains like a backdoor thief slinking into the night. Kuradek climbed up a rocky wall, his thin limbs and talons scarring the rock. Pebbles rattled down in the wake of his climb. Then he stood, on a narrow pinnacle of iced slate, and gazed out over Silva Valley, once home to the vachine civilisation, now flooded,