Jaoken leaned on his golden cane and looked out across the mountains of the Burning Lands. Some of them were small, and he could see the peaks, jagged and sharp, scraping at the smog as it drifted by. Others were lost within the acrid smoke of the volcanos, forever shrouded by the caustic fumes. As the eldest of the Efreet, the path was his to walk alone. His time had come, and none of his brothers or sisters would be there, leaving him to his solitude and final contemplations.
A river of bright, red lava coursed its way down a nearby mountain and crept along a worn gulley that was thick with igneous rock where the volcano had bled in the past. Jaoken traced its route to his destination, a wide lake of sulfur that reflected what little sunlight breached the smog with a sickly, yellow hue.
“On I must go, the mountain is waiting,” he murmured, collecting his long cloak about him and forcing his tired knees to continue the climb.
A rumble sounded nearby, and the blackened crust of the earth burst open, coughing dry soil over crimson boulders. Jaoken paused as a fire beetle emerged, pulling its vast body from the burrow it had made. No sooner had it breached the tunnel than a fire erupted across its back, licking at the heavy air and dancing with newfound freedom. The beetle peered at him, mandibles twitching and red antennae waving with curiosity. It only took a moment before recognition of his power registered with the creature, and it spun around and scuttled off over the crest of a nearby rise.
Jaoken continued onward, smiling at the memory of a tale his father used to tell him about Zijuk Charuh, the greatest fire beetle that ever lived. A fable for a child, nothing more, but it had entertained him many times. He pushed the story to the back of his mind as he ascended into a thick, sulfurous fog. Its fumes were poisonous to most denizens of the Burning Lands, but most were not Efreet.
It signified his journey was coming to an end. Before long, he would walk onto the peak of Mount Eerunu, the greatest volcano in the Molten Mountain range and the place of his birth. Half a century had passed since he last visited this most holy of places, and his bones were weary and his mind tired. It was time for him to enact the last rite of remembrance.
The click of his cane echoed through the smog as he followed the stony path. There was much for him to be thankful for. Life had treated him well, and he was ready to pray one last time to the fire god. He would lay out his endeavors before the Great One, then he would travel home to spend the remainder of his days in quiet contemplation.
The peak of Mount Eerunu had not changed since his last visit. Three stones of remembrance encircled the raised dais at its summit. Great runes were etched into the grey stone platform, following a spiral pattern that met at its center. Some said they had been created a millennium ago, at the time of the Splintering. Jaoken was not sure of the veracity of this, but there was no doubt they were old and held the power of the great volcano within them.
Jaoken stepped onto the dais and made his way to its center. Then, wincing, he eased himself down, set his cane aside, and crossed his legs. He took a small wrap of leaf from the pocket of his robe, laid it in his lap, and carefully opened it. Inside were scrapings of Ashilla, the only lichen that could survive deep underground on magma, grown by the soft light of fire crystal.
He lifted the leaf to his lips and licked it clean. It had a sharp taste, not completely unpleasant, but then it was one he had become accustomed to after many trials in the fire. The euphoria took him almost immediately, easing through his body and reaching its probing tendrils into his mind. It was important to relax; Jaoken had witnessed many initiates lose their wits as they fought against the beginning of the ritual.
Visions of his childhood raced before his eyes as the flames grew around him, the heat warming his bones and caressing his skin. He watched his life spiraling into the furnace, deeds from long ago flashing by as vivid as if they had happened yesterday. There was much for him to offer his god, for Jaoken had been great indeed.
As the ritual continued, something tugged at the edge of his consciousness. Barely perceptible at first, it grew stronger, distracting him. His focus slipped, and he lost hold of the visions of his past glories.
Consciousness returned and with it, a pounding headache — a result of the incomplete ritual and the potent, lichen drug. The fire god would be displeased. Jaoken hadn’t shown him everything. His life’s story was left incomplete.
A woeful caw came from the sky nearby where a strange shimmer coalesced, a myriad of sickly purples and greens spinning amongst the dark clouds. Some kind of portal?
It grew wider, and a strange prickle ran across Jaoken’s skin. It was the same sensation that had dragged him from his meditation, and he felt anger flash inside him.
Dark-winged carrion birds swooped through the portal and filled the sky — hundreds, no, thousands of them. His fury grew as he struggled to his feet. They must have seen him, because they wheeled through the air and angled toward where he stood waiting, their keening cries filling the heavy air. Jaoken had no idea where they had come from or what lay on the other side of that portal, but he knew an enemy when he saw one. It mattered not that he was alone. He preferred it that way. Power always favored a single vessel — one it could fill until it overflowed with potency.
Flames engulfed him, coursing over his body and yearning to be set free. Jaoken held onto them as they grew and watched the birds as they dove toward him. He waited. Waited. The birds descended on him, blotting out the sky, and he released his charge. Great gouts of flame billowed from his arms and erupted from his mouth. The inferno consumed the winged creatures. When he was done, all that remained was a gentle sprinkling of charred ash, like black rain.
As the cloud of death fell, a shadow moved up the mountain path toward him. It was humanoid and wrapped in a dark cloak. As it drew closer, he saw the gleam of a chiseled bone beak protruding from the darkness of its hood, and red lines snaked along its bare arms.
“You have disturbed my ritual of remembrance,” Jaoken called out in challenge.
The newcomer hissed an incoherent reply that was like smoke in the air. It stopped and tilted its head, its bone beak sniffing at the corrupt breeze.
“You shouldn’t be here,” the creature said. It spoke in Jaoken’s native tongue, but the words were awkward and disjointed.
“This is my land. I will go where I please!” The fury in him begged to be set free. “It is you that shouldn’t be here. You walk on sacred ground.”
Dark tendrils of magic slithered from beneath the creature’s cloak, coiled about its body, and snaked toward Jaoken. He felt sick, and his vision swam. He stumbled, caught himself, and pushed out with the molten flame of magic that grew at his core.
The creature shuffled back as the flames danced to life, following the phantom threads of its magic toward their source, growing faster and fiercer as they went. The flames ignited the creature’s cloak, and it flapped its arms, desperately trying to extinguish the creeping fire, but the flames only grew brighter before bursting into an inferno.
Jaoken scooped up his cane as the conflagration consumed the creature. Its shrieks and wails placated the anger that had risen within him. When it was over, he hobbled over to the smouldering remains, his knees protesting.
“What are you?” he prodded the charred husk with his cane.
A cry came from further down the mountain. Jaoken abandoned the corpse and started along the path toward it. When the smog finally parted and he could see into the distance, a frigid shiver went through his body, a dread so cold it was almost enough to extinguish his fire god’s eternal flame.
To the north, smoke rose from the Smoldering Forest. Was the religious school of the Flaming Robe still standing or had it been burnt to the ground? In the east, the tall trading towers and silos of Azad had fallen. Not one remained to mark the horizon and guide merchants and travelers. And in the south, Jaoken’s magic-attuned sight could make out the enormous Sskah City in the Emberlands. It was surrounded by great siege engines that flung destruction onto its streets, its buildings, and its people.
Everywhere he looked, creatures he’d never seen before slithered, crawled, walked, and flew over the Burning Lands. There were thousands of them. Small pockets of resistance had sprung up nearby where the animals that lived in the mountains had come out to defend their homes, but they were a handful against a vast army.
Jaoken had heard whispers of a great invasion in the distant land of Praetoria. Never did he think they would come here.
“In the name of the flaming god, what is happening?”
Mount Eerunu rumbled its displeasure beneath him. He felt the power of the volcano as the ground shuddered and the heat passed into his body. Even the land itself was aggrieved by this invasion.
A small group of creatures spotted him and began bounding up the mountain path, crying out with bestial whoops and barks. Jaoken tightened his grip on his cane, his indignation growing as they drew ever closer.
“I think it’s time you felt the true might of the flame.” His voice rose as he reached deep into the mountain, coaxing the full force of his oldest friend to life. “For when Eerunu speaks, it will always have the final word.”
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Story: Daniel Beazley
Editor: Joseph J. Shimerdla
Character Art (cover): Candycal
Illustrations: Mateusz Majewski
Voice Acting: David Dahdah
Music / Post-Production: Isaria
Creative Director: Nate Aguila