|Weapons||Staff of Aarakis|
|Birth||c. 430 AR|
Supreme Aptimus Zaal possesses a frame slighter than was seemly for a skorne, even one of his years, and he carries himself with his shoulders slightly stooped. Yet this does not greatly undermine the sense of dignity and quiet power he conveys. His crystal eye gleams from within the extoller mask that covers half his face.
Zaal was born around 430 AR, to House Kerash in the city of Kaleed. While Kaleed is smaller and less famous than several other skorne cities, it is noteworthy for being home to a sizable library filled with treatises on the occult, gathered at great expense and the cooperation of numerous houses. Many of the most accomplished extollers and other mortitheurges in the empire come from there, second only to the first skorne city of Malphas.
At the age of twenty, Zaal replaced one of his eyes with an oculus and became an extoller. During his youth, his house had enjoyed a prominent position in Kaleed. By the time Zaal reached the rank of extoller, however, House Kerash had suffered several significant setbacks and disasters, leaving it weakened and exposed to the predations of numerous rivals. Zaal was credited with a special facility for awakening the exalted and convincing them to join battle. He also found ways to streamline and expedite the process by which both ancestral guardians and immortals could be fabricated. This allowed him to bolster the martial power of his house substantially. Zaal helped House Kerash weather the encroachment of its rivals and even thrive, thanks to the might of this unliving army.
Following Zaal's elevation to supreme aptimus of House Kerash in 540 AR, rumours of improper treatment of exalted ancestors by Kerash extollers started to circulate, possibly as a result of Zaal’s research. He is thought to have conducted forbidden invasive experiments upon less valued sacral stones, such as those captured from defeated houses. Some extollers believe Zaal has actively destroyed stolen sacral stones to study the effects of their destruction firsthand. Had such accusations ever been proven, the scandal would have seen Zaal’s title, station and life forfeit, but such proof has never been proffered.
By the time Vinter Raelthorne IV came to the skorne as the Reborn, Zaal had held the rank of supreme aptimus within his house for nearly seventy years. He was chosen to travel west to investigate the rumours surrounding this foreign conqueror in the hopes that his insight and wisdom would help Kerash’s dominar determine his best course of action. After arriving in Halaak, Zaal secured an audience with Vinter and offered his services to the former Cygnaran king rather than reporting back to his dominar, as ordered. Due to his individual talents, Zaal was able to offer Vinter something especially valuable: the chance to legitimise his efforts with a display of exalted ancestral might.
Through Zaal’s unique ability to influence the exalted, Vinter was able to bolster not just his army, but also his reputation among the skorne. Zaal was placed in charge of his entire caste, becoming supreme aptimus of the entire Skorne Empire. His unprecedented position as supreme aptimus under a unified Skorne Empire has allowed him access to the sacral stones of dozens of ancient lineages, including those who have warred with one another for millennia. As his first official function, he immediately created a central repository for plundered sacral stones, ostensibly to be used in the service of the empire.
Following Vinter’s first campaign in the west against the city of Corvis, several major dissatisfied skorne houses united in an attempt to overthrow his remaining supporters and return the skorne to what they saw as their natural and proper state. Zaal sided with the loyalists despite them being greatly outnumbered and retreated into House Balaash’s greatest fortress compound within Halaak, where they were soon besieged by the rebels. Zaal knew that to have the empire dissolved would mean an end to his control over the extoller caste, which would also potentially lead to retribution due to rumors about his use of captured sacral stones. Zaal helped House Balaash call upon a substantial force of immortals and ancestral guardians during the siege, bolstered the resolve of the outnumbered defenders and called into question the righteousness of the rebels. They held out until Vinter returns to lead the Second Unification War. According to Viktor Pendrake, Zaal may have anticipated that Makeda was the most likely candidate to assume leadership of the empire, and becoming invaluable to her during the Second Unification War might have been a calculated move to secure his future.
Following the Second War of Unification, Zaal was tasked with supporting the new Army of the Western Reaches led by Archdomina Makeda. Zaal’s peers scrutinised his association with kovaas in Halaak, and he could never have conducted his experiments in proper secrecy there. In the vast west, however, he can operate without interference - Vinter sees the kovaas as just another weapon in his arsenal. Zaal fights with the Northern Bloodstone sabaoth, alongside the skilled mortitheurge Lord Tyrant Hexeris, and though his subordinate extollers serve throughout the army, they are concentrated here. Upon arriving at western Immoren, Zaal and Hexeris immediately start conducting research on non-skorne souls and make significant discoveries.
When he arrives with Hexeris at the Castle of the Keys, Zaal sees, through his crystal oculus, a soul of tremendous potency and utterly alien configuration. He feels hypnotised by the complex flow of its dark energies, entwining across coiled layers, and finds them beautiful and horrible at once. Barely able to restrain himself from transfixing the sight, Zaal, struggling to speak, immediately requests Hexeris to summon as many soldiers to the Castle as possible. Hexeris listens to him, and redirects the forces of Tyrant Xerxis towards the defence of the ruins.
However, Hexeris, Zaal and Xerxis are entirely unprepared for the sudden convergence of outside forces on the region. Two massive armies of the Circle Orboros and the Legion of Everblight fall upon the skorne at the same time. During the clash, Zaal witnesses a dragon - the source of the blinding radiance he saw earlier - leap forth from its hidden lair beneath the castle ruins and immediately get swarmed and brought down by a legion of serpentine creatures and soldiers.
The two-fronted assault results in high casualties among their army. Only the diversion of forces from the south has enabled the skorne to maintain tenuous supply lines across the Bloodstone Desert. After the battle, Zaal resumes his research on exalted spirits and kovaas.
When Archdomina Makeda, discovering Vinter Raelthorne to be a human who is using the skorne for his own ends, decides to march east to overthrow him, she orders Zaal to stay behind with most extollers working to increase the number of guardians and immortals at their disposal. During Makeda's absence, the interlopers at the Castle of the Keys are driven away and the fortress rebuilt. Zaal and Lord Tyrant Hexeris are able to secure the defeated dragon’s corpse for further study, finding that even in death its flesh contained latent power. Dissected pieces are provided to multiple laboratories, and other parts sent back for study by the mortitheurges in eastern cities such as Halaak and Malphas. Both Zaal and Hexeris agree it should be a priority to seize a dragonstone - the focus of the power Zaal saw with his oculus - for study.
As Zaal is trying to communicate with the ancient exalted ancestor Jyvox in a fortress near the Castle of the Keys, he's disturbed by the presence of a flying creature, and his occult vision is overcome by a radiance of spiritual energy blazing from the creature, which is several orders of magnitude more powerful than Jyvox. Zaal feels the same radiance as what he saw earlier through his oculus from the dragon at the Castle of the Keys, and it takes him great effort to protect his mind from the dragon's presence. In the end, he collects his wits and discovers this new dragon - whom he identifies as Scaefang - is gliding straight toward the Castle of the Keys. Realising that Void Seer Mordikaar is there and completely oblivious of the imminent threat, Zaal sends a warning to him through the Staff of Aarakis.
The highest-ranking leaders gather to report the attacks on the Castle of the Keys, first by Scaefang, then by the Circle Orboros, formally several weeks later, when Supreme Archdomina Makeda and the bulk of the Army of the Western Reaches return from the difficult desert crossing. Makeda asks for Zaal's opinion on the dragon attack, and he can only say it is no coincidence the dragon visited the site where one of his kind was destroyed, and advises Mordikaar it's unwise to continue staying at the Castle of the Keys.
Continuing his research, Zaal reveals to Hexeris his newest findings: the generals of the blighted force that attacked them at the Castle of the Keys carry within them small stones similar to — perhaps even taken from — the fonts of power the dragons themselves possess. Zaal concludes their best opportunity to study these dragonstones will come from defeating or capturing one of these mortals - a far simpler task than confronting a dragon, and informs Hexeris that according to the vision of an ancestor, one or more of these dragonstone-empowered mortals approaches. Additionally, Zaal reveals to Hexeris what Jyvox recently saw: some occult ritual of tremendous power is about to be invoked at a site northwest of Scarleforth Lake, whose successful completion will have a catastrophic impact on all skorne western holdings. In response, Hexeris decides to inform Makeda of the ritual.
As Hexeris takes a detachment to interrupt the holders of the dragonstone shards, Zaal marches with Makeda, Mordikaar and Xerxis to interrupt the ritual. However, the initial army, led by Xerxis, Zaal and Mordikaar, was unable to stop it: Xerxis is grievously wounded, and Mordikaar is flung away hundreds of miles to the southeast. As soon as the Circle army disappears, Hexeris arrives, informs Zaal he successfully captured a dragonstone, and asks him what predicted disaster has come to pass. Zaal sees none, but admits Jyvox is never wrong, and decides to destroy the Circle's stones first. Both Hexeris and Zaal agree to tell Makeda the attack was a success.
Makeda soon arrives at the Scarleforth Lake with a team of builders and announces to them her plan: invade Ios, the new home of the skorne's ancient enemies, the elves of Lyoss. Zaal is assigned to accompany Makeda and Hakaar the Destroyer on an assault on the Twilight Gate, the fortification guarding the sole entrance into Ios through its southern mountains.
After the fall of the Twilight Gate, Makeda send Zaal and a force of immortals to the northeastern border of Ios to assist Xerxis. Zaal encounters little resistance in the way; Xerxis’ passage and subsequent raids have left the Iosan border forces ragged. The words of the exalted ancestor Xycus constantly hangs in his memory:
- The night wind howls. It whispers your destiny. It whispers vengeance, by the wind’s edge.
Before the ancestors go silent, Zaal confirmed through them that additional Iosan forces are marching even now to finish this threat to their northern border: Xerxis is in a very vulnerable position. One of his scouts report a force of elves moving swiftly toward Xerxis.
When Zaal arrives at Xerxis' camp, he repeats Xycus' warning to him and attempts to convince him to stay back since he still hasn't fully recovered from his wounds: Makeda would not thank him for throwing his life away needlessly. Reluctantly, Xerxis decides to heed Zaal's advice.
An Iosan army soon falls upon the skorne camp while a group of assassins approach from behind. Xycus sends another warning to Zaal:
- The night wind approaches. Set free the Fury of Halaak.
Immediately, realising they are going to assassinate Xerxis, Zaal convinces him to retreat or else he'll die. Xerxis gives the only answer the hoksune code allows - he'll willingly accept death - but Zaal tells him to gather what troops he can and smash south through the Iosan line: Zaal will die today, but Xerxis must survive - he can go die on the field of battle some other day Makeda has need of him still. Xerxis curses in disgust, but listens to Zaal nonetheless.
As Zaal is coordinating the immortals against Iosans, he suddenly sees the point of an Iosan sword protruding from his chest. Transferring the injury to an aradus, Zaal manages to kill more Iosans, but the ancestor’s prophecy would not be denied and Zaal falls to his knees. The assassin yanks her sword free of his body. When Zaal asks, she reveals her name as Kaelyssa, Night's Whisper. With the last of his strength, Zaal shatters the sacral stone of Xycus, releasing a kovaas and forcing Kaelyssa to back down.
Despite his terrible wound, Zaal manages to keep himself alive with his mortitheurgical skill until all the Iosans have left. The camp is empty of everything but corpses. Zaal searches the camp and finds an empty sacral stone in the corpse of Aptimus Sarangerel. Zaal rolls onto his back, holding the sacral stone to his chest, in the process exalting himself as he dies.
Zaal's sacral stone is then recovered by his followers, who builds a new form for him, one worthy of his stature. Zaal retains the unprecedented leadership of his caste, and his own exalted status places him beyond reproach. If other ancestors disapprove, Zaal keeps their dissent in check, since they can only speak through his vassals.
Zaal is a pragmatic mystic, willing to sacrifice even the exalted to achieve victory. Some whisper that his unorthodox exaltation - normally extremely rare outside the warrior caste - as an abuse of authority, but his followers refute this idea, pointing to the fact he dies in glorious battle, and his unequalled mind deserves preservation.