With quiet thanks to her necromancer for the strength of her new vessel, Ser Merlida Clearthorne’s expedition into the Dying Worlds began. Whatever training had been afforded her by more experienced Crows would never have felt like enough, she was sure. But it was time that she ventured beyond the God’s Reach and truly began the fight for the glory of Kane.
As she passed through the runegate and into a sprawling, ravaged temple, she felt the expanse of the universe unfold before her.
The centerpiece of this sanctuary, immediately across from the semi-circle of runegates, was a statue on a stepped pedestal. Merlida picked her way through the ruins, drawn inexplicably towards the sculpture.
Life-size and intricately detailed, the statue portrayed a Stoneborn standing guard in armor the likes of which she had never seen, not even in the halls of her lords. One hand held a greatsword that spanned nearly the same height as the statue itself, the other held a broken crown. Each detail was exquisite, and she marveled at how long it must have taken the sculptor to carve such life into the stone. Even the roots that erupted from the statue’s legs and wound their way deep into the ground looked too real.
She bent down to inspect them, reaching out with a steady hand to brush her fingers against the carved wood. Her brow furrowed. It was actually wood. The hairs on the back of her neck suddenly prickled as the distinct feeling of being watched washed over her. She glanced up, and her gaze locked with a pair of eyes. Living eyes.
Merlida balked and drew her dagger, scrambling backwards. This wasn’t a statue at all! The Stoneborn’s eyes followed her, but she couldn’t see a hint of malice or even irritation behind them. Tension hung in the air for a long moment, long enough that a sliver of doubt crept into Merlida’s mind. Was she imagining things?
The statue shifted, unleashing a small rain of dust and a creaking of entangled roots that were now intertwined into a chest seemingly made of stone.
A low, rumbling voice came forward. “You should not be here, daughter of Kane.” The Stoneborn’s head lifted with eyes that fixed on her coldly. “This is no place for the living.”
Merlida squinted and looked at the destruction around her, not yet willing to sheathe her blade. A cold wind tugged at the tattered banners on the walls, but otherwise, nothing moved. Nothing lived. “These are ruins. Why protect them?”
“I am of the Sentinel,” the Stoneborn said. “This is my temple to protect. This is the house of Gaea, my mother. A home for the lost. A sanctuary in the darkness. I was carved to guard it until the end of time.”
“You’ll die”, Merlida said, finally sheathing her dagger. She wasn’t even sure if the stranger could move, with feet rooted in place. Even if it were possible, there was no inclination to do so. “This world is dying,” she said, “and you’ll die with it.”
“Yes,” the Sentinel replied. “The Hunger has touched this world. We could feel it in our bones the moment it happened, like a chill wind in an ancient tomb. That was when my vigil began. As it spread and began to consume the world, the worshippers dwindled. Some fell trying to fight it. Most fled to other worlds, to what little warmth lingers. I will not flee.” Their head turned back to its vigilant position, eyes no longer lingering on her. “I will watch this world die, as is my holy task in the Great Work. The Hunger will destroy this world, as every world. And on this world, it will destroy this temple last, because I will stand here and give what remains of my warmth, and my life, to this place. I will not abandon my post. I will stare down the Hunger as it devours everything around me. You are one of them, yes?” they asked Merlida. “Sent by the Gods to pick clean the bones of this place?”
She replied, just above a whisper, a simple “Yes.”
“Then I will guide you, as I guide the others. Tell me what you seek. I will be here when you return - if you return. It will be because of me that this world will not die alone.”