(If you want to listen
Over the course of several days, a dark atmosphere spread throughout the city, and madness gripped the very air as it emerged from the once holy places:
the sacrificial ceremonies, which had not ceased even though the bloodwells flowed with a violent river’s boon and waves; the cackling from the scriptorium, which had sounded many nights from deep underground; the strained screams from those forced to toil raising the stone columns of the new temple; remnant echoes of the vizier’s raving sermons, proselytising a future of divine light in its message but with a darkness emanating from its form and origin, seemed to travel continuously as maddening whispers.
The people who took part in the bloody revels had started going insane, losing themselves to the mutilation of flesh. They had turned into red, walking ghouls of derangement, their mono-colored eyes looking without expression or direction as they wandered in psychotic delusion. The mess from these sanguinary feasts never washed away from the skin, but scarred like scarlet paint; a pigmenting absorption of gore. Those most fanatically pious were overpowered and then incarcerated or simply executed for the safety of the rest as they started seeking a dismembering thrill outside the ceremonies. Others fell into mental imprisonment out of sheer envy of those slaughtered so spectacularly by the ritualists’ thrust of steel.
The construction of the new temple was historic. Many had willingly volunteered to honour the gods with the labour of their hands, but Aziel’s ambitions had been too big for the efforts of the enthusiastically involved, so more were put to work, quite as he had ordered. Ghostly spirits had started to appear in the sky. They travelled from places outside the view of the city and carried orbs with purple smoke inside which they left within the temple, whose deep dungeon only few had seen. These flying shades brought an ambient anxiety to the site, never communicating or offering more than a short dreadful glance, a pierce into the eyes of those workers whose curiosity tempted them to pause and look.
Down in the scriptorium, the goblinesque scribes, small, bony figures with pointed teeth and grey skin, had been hard at work wasting none of the harvested liquid. The grand magus, tall and hooded, walked with stern steps among their candle-lit wooden tables, monitoring their productivity and ensuring they didn’t drink from the bloodwells.
“This isn’t meant for your consumption, you foul mongrel!” he yelled, throwing the perpetrator to the ground. The creature shrieked, its mouth elated and in terror of the repercussions at the hand of the grand magus. They spent long hours of the night scribbling sequences of symbols upon parchments which were then reviewed in the early morning by the grand magus. What pool of language and wisdom these creatures tapped into he didn’t know, the sapience of their communications occasionally proven as great as at other times entirely absent or indecipherable. With the vizier gone, the foundation of the grand magus's judgement of these writings would likewise seem nonsensical to any observer. What never yielded was their incessant, uncontrollable and mirthful shrieks from the neverending satisfaction that their work involved the killing of humans.
Division kept growing. The number of people realising the consequences of Aziel’s dominion was rising, but revolt seemed futile while defilement aimlessly ensued and with no central power at which to rebel. With the ghostly creatures inhabiting the construction site of the temple, and the underground cackles sending unignorable shivers through the spine of anyone who heard them, who knew what other monsters had joined the ranks of the hell-sent man, and for what evil they had been recruited. At the same time, others were still enamoured with the future they had been promised. The empire's people had always had a universally acknowledged, spiritually sanctioned belief in some union with the gods of worship.... Eventually. However, the bliss foretold by Aziel and the immediacy of his message was enticing beyond all the stories told of the heavens before. Some of his most adherent albeit not entirely zealous followers paid no mind to the flailing lunatics of a scarlet figure who roame the empire.
“This is simply the price we have to pay,” they often whispered to each other with mourning resignation after passing one of these poor souls on the street, as if the omnipresence of ruin had not at this point awakened them from their delusions of ascension.
Erisey walked in the ruins of her once beloved people in sorrow over the nonsensical loss around her. She was still haunted by their broken wills, though even more so by those not broken, but awakened. Those who hadn't needed coercion, but whose own greed had easily surfaced by grand proclamations never to be fulfilled.
"Looking back, I can barely even tell them apart," she thought, "I feel so naíve and blind in ways I had no idea I needed to anticipate. Everything seemed to be going so well. I thought everyone's needs were met. I thought I could trust our gods, but where were they when we were slaughtered at the hands of each other's raving lunacy? Pathetic, although," she looked to the sky in contemplation, "who knows what fate must've come to them since they abandoned us when we needed them the most."
To forgive a god; a consideration befallen few mortals.
Suddenly, she felt something grab her shoulder, and she turned to face a scarlet ghoul growling violently at her. Its gaping mouth had transformed from human into that of a predatory beast, its teeth sharpened for the tearing of flesh, and only able to express fear-inducing howls and snarls. Erisey leaped away to avoid its grip, prepared to defend herself. Its pace was slow though menacing, so she looked around for a makeshift weapon that could keep it at a distance. While she scanned her surroundings, two figures came up behind the ghoul, kicked it to the ground, and began stabbing it with knives until its screams went silent and its hands stopped clawing at the sandy ground. They were amazingly quiet during the assault, as if they’d held their breath fearing toxic fumes.
“Thank you,” said Erisey, still in shock. “I don’t know how I did not hear that thing approach me.” The two people were men of near middle age in good shape, revealing how long they’d lived in a state of needing to defend themselves and others from threats like the one no longer writhing before them.
“You are not safe here,” said the one who seemed to be the slightly older one of the two. “They don’t tend to hunt in packs, but-”
He stopped and narrowed his eyes, “Empress Erisey? Is that you?”
“I was afraid whether anyone would be able to recognise me at this point. I haven’t seen my face in a while.”
“What happened to you? We saw you when Aziel brought you out to the ceremonial grounds, but it wasn’t clear what exactly happened there.”
“I was dead,” she said matter-of-factly. “And then he brought me back.” The two men stood paralyzed by this revelation.
“He must have used black magic. I wasn’t sure if he was willing to go so far, but now, I am not what I used to be. I am neither dead nor alive. I don’t even know if I am your empress anymore,” she admitted, wanting to feel the sadness from this fact, however nothing surfaced. “The court of the gods has not made my status entirely clear to me.”
The younger of the two men said, “We know so much has happened to the rest. While you were imprisoned, we witnessed a gruesome transformation of our community. We can hardly recognise the people we once saw as our peers.” Sorrow seeped into his voice. “It has been a living nightmare trying to survive as those you depend on go mad. But, to those of us not lost,” he looked with hesitance back at the corpse adorning the barren ground, then back at Erisey, “you are still our empress, and we will follow you wherever you go. Our loyalty is not broken by their derangement.” Erisey smiled slightly to acknowledge his words. “Thank you both.”
Erisey joined the two men, and they made it back to the house where they had found safety along with others who hadn’t been lured by the vizier. Everyone in the group, adults as well as children, bore visible mental scars from the time of Aziel’s reign. They were exhausted from the constant looming threat from their fellow human beings outside - or whatever they had now turned into. They had endured beyond their fair share, Erisey thought. They scrambled to find sustenance as all infrastructure had been made unusable; no one tended the fields and no one could safely hunt when the number of predators had increased so dramatically from the emergence of ghoulish monsters from the bloodwell ceremonies. Ressources were running thin, and so, evidently, were the inhabitants of this small camp of survivors.
Upon seeing the state of those most innocent, most victimised, yet still alive, Erisey knew there was only one thing to do.