Tag Archives: magic fantasy

The House of Knowledge

CONTENT WARNING: Extreme violence, torture, and mass murder.

Something about the list of prices made it real. Souls of the dead, not for sale but as sale. One hundred souls for a wand of war, one thousand for a ring that would make its wearer invisible. It was not as though Emla had just learned of the trade in souls. She was educated: she knew what prayer was for. The list made her think of the torments suffered by forsaken souls. She wondered if this was a sign of weakness in her. She might retire soon. She’d been thinking about it more often recently. To get out of the city once and for all. She’d have to spend a year in the clanlands and pay respects to the ancestors, but then she could live on the family estate and raise chickens. It wasn’t her first wish but she wanted to serve the clan. That came before anything else.

Emla opened her eyes when she heard footsteps approaching and looked up at a servant who sat down a stool for another woman. The other woman was aged like Emla but fatter and lighter-skinned, with wisps of grey-black hair (somewhat resembling a full head of it) rising from her scalp. She wore wide-legged trousers but her upper body was swathed in a shawl of rampant pattern, favoring red and green. If Emla hadn’t known Darya, she would have said that the woman’s face was kindly. Now she saw a new plot in every smile.

The servant, in red a creature of the Orlingvir, let themself be dismissed. Emla had sent them with purpose to Darya and the servant knew their business. The Painted Hall belonged to the two of them now, the other members of the Great Council having departed. They sat surrounded by the evidence of centuries of mediocrity, the legacy of the Orlingvir’s ancestors. The exploits of others but re-faced. The whole south wall devoted not to his family but to the drama of Bulokas and Szakish, a war of the gods. Emla — a thin old woman in a worn but stately green shawl, who even held an office granted by the Orlingvir — herself represented a far greater power.

Emla knew that she might never find out how heavy Darya’s hand was in this infernal trade. Emla’s agent had said that the workhouse of the artificers was guarded by a gang called the Hawks, well known to be creatures of Clan Nushak, and Darya was also a member of Nushak. Most saw her as the clan’s leader in Adamabad. Emla saw her that way. That didn’t mean that Darya knew that a camarilla was being run under her nose.

“Darya Chelnik, salute,” Emla said in her hoarse voice. She extended both hands and Darya clasped them in both of hers.

“Emla Chelnik, salute,” Darya said, her own voice full and dry. She let go of Emla and rearranged her shawl. “How is your cousin?”

“He is well, I expect,” Emla said. “Hoping to settle the war soon, as are we all.” Emla had many relations in the empire and beyond, but anyone from another clan asking about “her cousin” only meant one person: Emperor Khurrozi who, like her, was of Clan Meymekhat.

“Gods willing,” Darya said. “Every day might bring another riot.”

Emla didn’t close her eyes and didn’t sigh but she was keeping herself from to doing both. Darya wanted to fence. Emla said “Indeed.”

Darya frowned. “So why did you have a servant fetch me, auntie? I should be on my way home to eat, you know.”

Still fencing. “Will you listen to a story, child?” Emla said.

Darya’s nostrils flared. Only a few years separated them. They had both worked hard, both wielded a great deal of influence. Emla wasn’t surprised that Darya was aggressive. Their clans were on opposite sides of the civil war currently ripping through the clanlands, the same war which was the root of riots in cities throughout the empire, including Adamabad. Darya knew very well she wouldn’t like whatever Emla had to say. Darya had not been educated in the capital but she wasn’t stupid. Emla had been disabused of that idea years ago.

“Let me eat, mama,” Darya said and she put her hand to the floor.

“Sister,” Emla said, reaching out to touch Darya’s arm, “should I apologize?”

Darya made her face cool. She straightened up on her stool again. “What do you want?”

“Sister, I do want to tell you a story, a true story,” said Emla. “These are recent events in Maloxia across the sea. Did you know that a demon sat the throne of that empire?”

“Great gods, no,” Darya cried out, then clapped a hand over her mouth. The sound of her voice rang a moment. “But not anymore? The demon has been slain?”

“He sat the throne just a little longer than a month.”

“Praise the Victors,” Darya said, which would have been strange to hear from her in any other situation. “So which of the Orders now rules Maloxia?”

“None of them,” Emla said. “They raised a new emperor and continue to rule themselves.”

Darya raised her eyebrows. “Well then, auntie, this is a story I would like to hear.”

Emla slowly bared her teeth.

Darya raised her hands and said “Sister, sister, abeg.”

Emla relaxed and brushed the offense away with her hand.

“You know that Maloxia is ruled by its navy?” Emla asked.

“I’ve heard that. It’s a human country?”

“It’s Aridhan, but its emperors are human.”

“That’s what I meant, sister,” Darya said.

Emla paused, then continued. “It’s up through the navy that this demon came. He was called Daoud and he took the form of a beautiful human, lean like a wolf, like a hawk of the land. He enlisted with the Armada as a matross and was employed on land, one of the lowliest there were. His comrades knew him then as a fanatic who gave everything up to the Triad, the three gods that the Maloxians worship. He volunteered for patrols until he led patrols, and he found other religious stalwarts and preached to them against banditry. He led his followers out to attack and seize bandits wherever they could be found. With twenty fighters he waged a war against the agents of the roads. The Armada made him a knight for this. They had no choice: he was becoming known. With the new degree came the power to accomplish even more. And at that time, the word in the wind told of a great cult of demoniacs which had gathered in their western country.”

“They are filthy with demons over there,” Darya said. “I could never step foot on that accursed continent.”

“Sister,” said Emla.

“Abeg, I am hearing you,” said Darya. “The man is a knight in their navy.”

“And there were demon worshippers in the west. After many many months, the western army of Maloxia could not capture this demon cult. When they had failed so many times, they then asked the navy to bring the knight Daoud to come root out these heretics. Daoud came there with his fighters and in thirteen days he had taken the heads of the cult leaders, and these were identified by people who had survived those demoniacs. People throughout the empire began to know of him. The Sea Lords who ruled the Armada had noticed him, too. Most felt that he should be given a land command but some thought he might finally be given a ship, a promotion for many but a sure end to his career against bandits. He got neither. Instead, he was made a functionary of one of the Sea Lords, an assignment which forced him to reside in High Malox, the capital of their empire.

“As imperial cities, High Malox and our capital are not comparable. Our empire is greater, without question, but the capital itself might be our third city. High Malox is the Maloxian Empire and the Maloxian Empire is High Malox. Nothing in that vast dominion is really important unless it happens in the city, as the Maloxians say. Daoud’s entry into the city put him at the heart of imperial affairs. He had been rescued from the sea by a benefactor called Lord Ramya, a cleric of the Triad Church, so he joined her party. His devoutness made him loved by the Church and his charm made him popular with the nobles. His patrols of the city streets brought prestige to Armada and Church alike. Not even half a year since Daoud arrived had passed when the city was gripped by despair: the son of one of the emperor’s favorites, Count Pradeep, had been abducted. It was Daoud himself that rescued the child, wading into the camarilla’s lair with sword in hand, emerging with the child, both painted in blood but unscathed.

“As a knight, Daoud could claim the title of hidalgo. As reward for this service, the emperor at this time — whose name was Iderses — elevated Daoud to the rank of count. Soon, Daoud was engaged to marry the niece of Count Lorrin, the Second Sea Lord, which would attach him to a prestigious family of the empire.

“Almost immediately after those plans were set, the emperor was killed along with 23 hours of the royal household at least. It was a spell, of course: a sudden intense heat gripping the main house and little else, causing its fires but chiefly killing by the cooking heat alone. It was first assumed to be some mishap of a palace sorcerer, none of whom survived to be questioned. The empire mourned but the worthies did not wait, they gathered swiftly to decide their next action. As Emperor Iderses’s child and heir had also died, a council of decision was formed to elect the next ruler. Lord Ramya, a member of this council, proposed that they elect Count Daoud as the next Maloxian emperor. As an outsider with a reputation for fighting criminals and demons, he would be popular with the common people. As a human, he would not shift the marriage aspirations of the nobility. Finally, as an untutored military man and a devotee of the Triad, he would be a creature of this council. This convinced the rest of the council; not all, but enough that their choice was clear. The council of decision declared that Daoud would now rule their great empire.”

“Gods forfend,” cried Darya. “And this was the demon?”

“He was the demon, yes,” said Emla.

“How could they have let this happen?”

“They did not let it happen. They had been outmaneuvered, for a moment, by a cunning demon, an immortal hell-creature. This demon emperor Daoud was crowned shortly thereafter and was married on the same day. As soon as he was enthroned, Daoud cast suspicion on everyone who survived the death of the old emperor, and all such people were speedily replaced. Not only was the captain of the guard dismissed, nearly every member of the guard was thrown out, to be replaced by new fighters. Not only servants but even traders who prided themselves as royal suppliers now had their business refused. Count Lorrin was named archcleric (which is like our grand vizier) and many of the new appointments came from her circle of associates.

“But the city talked. Not all of the emperor’s servants could be replaced with the same speed. Those who were dismissed met different fates. Some were suddenly and cruelly killed. Others fled the city or went into hiding. As they left, they scattered the pieces of what they’d seen throughout the city. Piece by piece, the story of what was happening inside the palace was assembled outside its walls. The Triad of Emperor Daoud demanded blood. Oaths of undying loyalty to Daoud were being carved into flesh. Uncanny shadows crept through the halls. The consort, already pregnant and bedbound, was cloaked in a presence of such inexplicable malevolence that no nurse could be around her and no one could tend her unless they had taken the flesh-carved oath. The emperor took a strange form at night, it was said, and each day another part of the palace was restricted for his personal use.

“Lord Karolkarem, the guard captain dismissed by Daoud, still lived in the city. He had survived two attempts on his life already when he was approached by the magistrate for the empire, Count Batulay. Naturally, the emperor couldn’t simply dismiss her, but he made himself and the palace inaccessible to her. Batulay and Karolkarem were both familiar with what was supposed to be happening around the emperor. They decided that they had to break into the palace and deal with the malefic presence which had established itself there. Lord Karolkarem summoned a half-company of fighters and they attacked the palace. Count Batulay’s powerful magic subdued the guard and broke through the demonic defenses, allowing Karolkarem and his troop to storm the building. Inside, they confirmed all the horrors that had been rumored and more. Many lives were lost against the demon called Daoud but he was slain that day. With all they knew to be true, Karolkarem and his fighters did not rest. The lord held one of Daoud’s broken horns. He no longer doubted what was happening.

“What grew within the consort was a cambion. Batulay crushed the consort’s womb with magic, then the fighters slashed her throat and hacked her body apart to make sure that the child could not live. Count Batulay sealed the palace so no one could leave while Karolkarem went from chamber to chamber, murdering everyone they found by the sword until swords got too dull, and then by whatever instruments they could find. They battered to death servants of every kind, they disemboweled retainers, they threw children down stairs. They murdered all 24 hours in the palace that day. No one there died an unsupervised death.

“After this, Count Batulay assembled a few locals to made a council of decision and elect Karolkarem as the new emperor. Word spread in the city and soon Karolkarem had over 1,000 fighters with him. The force first marched to the Palace of the Sea Lords. Those Sea Lords who had supported Daoud were either not in the city or had already fled, and the two who remained speedily accepted the decree of Batulay’s council. High Malox fell to the new emperor almost instantly. Those nobles and officers who had favored Daoud would find no support anywhere; their oldest friends and most loyal associates abandoned them when it became clear what Daoud was. It was not long before Karolkarem had full control of the Armada and the other military forces of the empire.

“Both Emperor Karolkarem and Count Batulay knew that the empire was not yet safe. Needing channelers they could trust, Batulay invited inquisitors from the Land of Mum to aid them in wiping out the demonic threat plaguing Maloxia. Count Lorrin, the archcleric, had been killed alongside the demon, so Karolkarem ordered her manor to be ransacked. Soldiers invaded Lorrin’s home and seized everyone they found. Most were butchered where they were caught, streaking blood across the floors and onto their killers. Others were held until a magician and a channeler could be found. The magician performed a torture called reversal, twisting limbs back and forth unnaturally, careless of what might snap or break, while the channeler drew upon mystic to penetrate the patient’s mind and separate truth from falsehood. All of Lorrin’s relatives were tortured like this and they revealed how deep their devotion to this demon ran. Everyone they had found was a slave of the demon emperor and had been for years. Not only this, they knew of many, many others who knew that Daoud was a demon and worshipped him as the Lord of Death who would soon have been crowned. Everyone who had aided him was in his thrall.

“Those named by the patients of torture were placed on proscription lists, marking them as criminal arch-heretics whose sentence had already been decided. There were only two sentences: death and arrest. Rotting blood stank throughout Maloxia for weeks after the vicious hunters had finished mauling the heretics. The few who were arrested were dragged to the manor which had belonged to Count Lorrin, which was now being called the House of Knowledge by those who had, by necessity, to speak of it. It was a place where you stopped noticing screams. Floggings continued for days. Desperate to find where the least demonic influence might still reside, the torturers devised ever more devious ordeals to extract ever smaller shreds of gossip or shattered memories. When they decided that they could learn no more, they burned the house down; only the torturers and their servants were allowed to leave first.

“The first person who was ever known to have seen Daoud was the registrar who had enlisted him into the Armada. Some time after that, this man had been assigned to a ship and then to a post in the Kingdom of Aybakeli. He settled there, joining the Aybakeli navy, and marrying, and raising a family. It is said that he wasn’t even aware that he had met the Emperor Daoud before, not even during all his early exploits. And yet on a hot but cloudy day, the man’s house was broken into by a gang of mercenaries. The mercenaries dragged him out into the street along with his family where they were brutally decapitated. Their bodies were left in the street but their heads were taken. I do not know what happened to the heads.”

Darya stared at Emla, wide-eyed and empty.

“This all happened over five years,” Emla said, “from Daoud’s defeat of the demoniacs to the lifting of proscriptions. Both Daoud and Karolkarem were elected four years ago, and the House of Knowledge burned down the year before last.”

Darya still stared. Finally, she managed to say one word: “Madness.”

“Is it?” Emla replied.

“Do you think an ocean of blood will solve your problems?”

“Should they have allowed a demon to fester on their throne?”

Darya shook her head. “Madness,” she said again. She put a hand down and this time Emla didn’t stop her from getting up. Darya said “Let me tell you something, auntie,” as she drew her shawl tighter around her. “An exorcist is much cheaper.”

Darya turned away and walked out of the Painted Hall at a stately pace. She had left her stool. The servants would return it to her, of course, but she should carry her own stool out of a place like this.

Emla wondered if that mudling Darya had understood what she was trying to say. She wondered if Darya had understood more than she wanted to say. Emla knew what she had said, she could recall the words, yet she wondered about what she had really said and how much of it she meant. How could heretics and demons be tolerated?

Emla closed her eyes. She was suddenly exhausted. She wondered if it was all becoming too much for her. Maybe she should retire.

Dueling magicians by Jeff Brown

The Angel’s Bridge

[wpedon id=”566″ align=”center”]

A beautiful bridge was being built here and all he had to do was enjoy it. And he did. This kind of magic interested Dastan: the way it snapped into place, piece by piece. He didn’t notice a piece was there until it was. If Dastan wanted to weave magic it would flow outward and build on itself until it matched the shape he wanted. If Choros did it the same way, Dastan would have seen the shining strands evolve out of a distant will. He didn’t. He saw them pop into being, into perfect position. It was endlessly entertaining.

He could not feel Choros’s presence from here, across the planes. He only sat underneath the bridge that the angel was building. He kept his mind quiet, weighing the sensation of the bridge as well as his other magic. His sandy brown face, with closed eyes, lay in a languid smile.

Dastan’s heart swelled with love. Love for the angel Choros and this great project. If Dastan had opened his eyes he would see a sweep of jagged mountains thick with volcanic scars. The peaks thrust above a heavy gray cloud carpet. Constant thunders slashed the slopes and valleys below. He was too high up to hear them now. He would throw himself off this mountain if Choros asked him. He would do anything.

In his mind, he saw Choros’s shapely body. Bountifully curved, fit for all exertions, a face which reminded him of a heart, eyes which he could not escape, which had the hue of—

He opened his eyes. Hovering in the air a fair distance away was a feminine human-kin. They appeared exactly as they had in his mind: the ideal of desire, their skin a tone of red like silken clot and eyes a hue of burnished bronze. The being smiled, much deeper than he had been smiling, but that was all. His ward and their presence did not agree. Dastan figured that they would have broken his spell if they could have.

“What do you want, demon?” Dastan called. He didn’t get up. His hands sat on his knees, thick red trousers clothing his legs and hanging round his ankles. His top was a buttoned-up white garment threaded through with shining fibers, its sleeves puffing from his shoulders to his elbows, and then clinging tight up to his wrists. His hair was black with fringes of gray and he had tied it back, clasping it with a rubied gold ornament. His face was thin and dominated by a high-bridged brown nose. And though he had no instruments with him, his pinky nails were long like an alchemist’s.

The floating demon laughed at his challenge.

“I do have a name,” the demon called back, their own voice lush and tangy against his brusqueness. “My name is Grenzer. And you are Dastan.”

“You’re not wanted here,” Dastan said. He unfurled his body and lifted himself to a standing position. “You will not get through this ward.”

Grenzer’s face flooded with disappointment. It struck him between the eyes.

“Why won’t you let me in?” they asked him.

There was a world in which they were his and he theirs. He saw it in front of him. He felt their body against his, holding him while he held them.

He inhaled. He saw them floating so far away. He saw their face there and he saw it inside his mind, heartbroken and heartbreaking. He exhaled. He inhaled.

“You must go,” said Dastan. “Now.” He didn’t want to close his eyes. He didn’t want them to see him waver and he didn’t want to see his own fantasies. Their fantasies.

“Please,” said Grenzer.

His attachment to the subtle space trembled.

Dastan wanted to let her in. He knew that he wanted it. He knew in that moment that it would be greatest thing that he had ever done. The greatest good that could be reached.

But he also saw the shining something, the humming abstract, an arcane loop ringing around him. Tightening. So Dastan reached out, his stalks of subtle feeling reaching out past the words that rang in his ears, curling around, finding a way to drown out the tremor of the demon’s suggestions and peel them away from him.

This desperate effort was interrupted, his ward as well as his need to un-spell the demon’s persuasion both dissolving at once. All that, and everything else, was replaced by a single sensation.

A roar which should have scythed murderously through the human mage.

Dastan nervelessly dropped to his knees. He stared agape at a bestial creature the size of four great warhorses hurtling through the air directly at him, its pair of huge bat-like wings cracking the air with each terrifying beat. Two horns sprouted from its boulder of a head, the left one being crooked crazily, the right twisting like a ram’s horn.  That roaring maw was edged with dagger teeth and in both hands it drew back a sword which was as tall as Dastan. This nightmarish shape blotted out the view, the sky, the light.

On instinct, Dastan formed subtle shapes which cloaked him in rippling fire. His bones, still liquid with shock, at least warmed. His vision of the great beast before him was overtaken by flames, and then his body was. He snapped together into a thin tendril of flame which poured through the air, sluicing away from the oncoming terror, twisting and curling until he found a crag wide enough for him to stand. The snake of flame that was Dastan arced upward and poured his human form back into reality.

Atop the mountain, the winged creature stamped its cloven hoof and roared into the air, its crushing, harrowing bellow being met by a clap of thunder. Dastan shuddered and faltered. He based his hand against the rock so that he wouldn’t fall. He didn’t know if he would have stayed on his feet if he’d felt that full roar again. Even the thought of challenging that beast sent ice through his veins. It was the devil he knew. The one he dreaded. Malariel, grand commander of Hell.

Hiding from Malariel was out of the question. He had been too dazed to try and fade his subtle form during his escape. Instead, Dastan took a wide stance to steady himself and cycled his hands in front of him, arms making large revolutions, and the many stalks of his subtle form contorting and shifting in the same rhythm. From a mote of air blossomed a spiraling disc of bright orange fire that stretched until it was just taller than himself. In the same subtle way as he manipulated magic, he saw through the opaque shield. Malariel’s wings launched them into the air and they hovered, drew in breath and roared carnage directly at Dastan’s shield. The force of that howl smashed his magic fire into an outrush of smoke.

Dastan did not stand behind it.

There was no time to hide. The motes that were Dastan reassembled above Malariel, clothes and all apparel still intact, his face now crunched in concentration. He moved his fingers minutely and chanted under his breath, keeping his focus, reminding himself what shapes his subtle tendrils had to make. He had prepared for just this moment. He had hoped it would come under his own terms but now his only hope was to take advantage.

As Dastan conducted arcane reality, he could feel the devil’s subtle body being constrained. He could feel the bounds of existence squeezing around Malariel, so that he could only stretch out half of their full span, then half of that, and half again, until the bonds were closing against Malariel’s body itself. Then, suddenly, the binding was gone and Malariel streaked through the air at the sorcerer.

It was not enough. All his preparation was not enough. For a breath the thought paralyzed him, but the sight of Malariel ever-climbing pulled him back into the present. That sword, the fearsome blade called Trunksplitter, swung back again and, as Malariel shot in closer, slashed straight through the mage’s midsection with a single clean stroke.

Smoke wafted away along Trunksplitter’s edge. Then, unnaturally, the smoke pulled back and reformed into Dastan, hovering and anxious. Malariel snarled, their face warping to display a deeper rancor, and slashed back into Dastan. Again, he was smoke, and then himself again. The winged devil’s arms blurred as they hacked back and forward into Dastan’s body, each time meeting nothing but smoke which then combined and solidified. Then, in the midst of that flurry, a slash seemed to disperse the fumes of Dastan entirely, leaving the air before Malariel clear and blue.

Startled and growling, Malariel swung around into Dastan shoving a palmful of fire straight into his face. The explosion of force and flame launched Malariel backwards at great speed, the immense sword tumbling from their hands as they shot far into the haze and disappeared.

If this had been any other time, Dastan would have followed after Malariel, either picking up the sword or tracking down the devil themself. Choros was counting on him, though, and he didn’t know where Grenzer had gotten to. He had to return. Exhausted, Dastan carried himself through the air over the cratered and singed peaks with snow retreating away from the long wounds which descended beneath the storms. He felt Mount Meaira again and he lightly descended upon it. He had to build the wards back up. The angel’s work was still ongoing, the pieces of the bridge coming into being in their prescribed places. Dastan absently brushed his shirt free of some dust and sank down to sit on the ground.

As soon as he sat, the ground splintered into shards beneath him. Dastan’s arms windmilled and his legs kicked. He was falling. It wasn’t just that the ground had crumbled, it had completely fallen away beneath him. The mountain itself was gone, or shattered until it no longer broke the cloud canopy. And he was falling.

It took him a second to recover his senses and start shaping his escape, but once he reached out, he felt an iron-heavy clamp shut tight around his subtle form, choking his physical body the same way as it constricted his subtle form. The stalks he had reached out with now withered away until they were stumps and less than stumps. He could not move, not in any sense.

He was being pulled now. Not in a direction or even away from himself. He was being pulled into another state of being. Drawn not just inside but through and against, his self and his sense of self fraying against a surface that was not a surface. His body flopped limply against the grip on his inner body. His mouth opened wide but he could not scream or breathe. His eyes opened wide and he saw the grinning fangs of Malariel, patiently lifting up from the grey-black clouds, arm outstretched and fingers curled as if clawing some fruit with all five of his talons and savoring the red juice that ran out.

As blackness closed in on his vision, he saw a single spark of silver become two, running through Malariel’s body. Dastan’s suffocation lifted, the force stretching his essence relented, and his vision cleared. It was a spear that had run straight through Malariel’s body. The devil grabbed the shining haft with one hand, black blood heaving out of its chest and its back. Their immense wings beat at the air, flinging Dastan away at speed while they spiraled through the air and streaked away to safety.

Dastan did not think anything. He was free but still exhausted, still drained, still without anything stable. He spun through the sky with the wind dragging at his body, pushing breath out of his lungs and choking him with pressure. Everything ripped by him so tremendously fast. At any moment, his confusion could end cold. He couldn’t even speculate.

His side slammed into something steady and large wings whipped the air around him. He twisted on impact, arms and legs splayed, and immediately began to drop. A pair of arms hooked around his chest and held him up. Those wings still beat to keep both Dastan and the something aloft. Feather-like wings, of a shining whiter-than-white.

He looked up into the proud and perfected face of Jephra Blindlight. They were dark-haired, though despite the color their hair shone as brightly as their wings. They wore a sleeveless tunic as most angels did, belted around their waist with the sword of their office hanging from it. Their eyes shone silver, without iris and without pupil. They did not look pleased. He supposed that this time they had a right.

“How hurt are you?” Jephra asked. They shifted their grip, sinking an arm under Dastan’s legs so they could carry him like a baby. He tried to relax, his head lolling. They were already flying away from Mount Meaira. He didn’t want to look back.

“I don’t think I’ve broken anything,” he said. “But I could sleep for a week.”

“You won’t have a chance to if you stay on Sangir.”

“I’ll take my week in pieces, then,” he said. “I can’t leave now.”

Dastan collected his breath a moment. The wind rushed past them noisily but both were well versed in the tricks of flight, so the wind’s intrusion was kept distant.

“Why were you fighting Malariel?” they asked. “Foolish thing to do, sitting out in the open like that.”

“Why weren’t you fighting him?” Dastan asked. “Before, I mean. I thought he would have been tied down with you all the world away.”

“He flew off in the middle of the battle. I followed. And a good thing I did.”


He knew they were looking at him, so he didn’t look at them.

“It was a favor,” Dastan said. “Choros was building a bridge for the dead to finally escape this world again. But I know how you feel about the other angels so I thought it was best to leave you out.”

“Hellfire,” Jephra said.

“I’m sorry,” Dastan said. “I know we planned the uprising together but this was important. I wouldn’t have manipulated you otherwise.”

“That’s not it,” they said.


“Was it really your idea not to let me in on it?” Jephra asked.

Now Dastan understood. He didn’t say anything.

“How much blood do they want me to spill?” Jephra asked. Not of him. Not that he could face the question. “What does the King want from me? Centuries of service, of waging war against the infernal powers, but still… but still…”

Dastan groaned. Everything ached. He didn’t think he could even light a candle at the moment. Every bit of this plan had collapsed. The uprising against Malariel’s armies had probably crumbled without Jephra and now Malariel was free to assume Choros’s bridge, which meant that the archbuilder would have to leave the project unfinished. Dastan’s crude banishing had utterly failed against the devil. And atop all that, Grenzer – a succubus demon, of all things – had seemingly found common cause with Malariel. Dastan sighed and tried to relax in Jephra’s arms again.

“Don’t worry about the other angels,” Dastan said. “I know I made a mistake. If you’d known what I was doing, maybe… but we’ll figure it out. We have to drive Malariel off the Mortal Plane. That’s clear to me now more than ever before. Once we do that, I think that your people will think of you differently.”

He felt their fingers tighten against him. They kept flying, turning slightly, seeking out a safe place they’d used months before.

Eventually, Jephra said “I hope you’re right.” They said it quietly and to no one.

Dastan didn’t hear her. He had fallen asleep.

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Map of Morzand

A Description of the City Anaris

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Intended for the hands of my friend Boltar, 19th archivist of the Undannekan Library in Gazbek


I greet your father and your father’s father, all those in your clan, and all those in the Undannekan Library. I hope this letter finds you in stout health. Here I beg you to get that nose of yours out of old histories and read this for a moment, as you might find it interesting. I know that you are far too busy to think about leaving the Library to see the world. That’s why I’m bringing it to you, or at least a report of it. It would be good for you to know some little about what’s around us when you start sifting through the half-burned pages you love so dear.

I write to you now from a passing room in the main hall of a township in Anaris. I know these words do make no sense to you, but I had to find a place to start. Anaris at least you must know, one of the great human cities out there in the stormlands. I’ve been here six days up to now and I do know not quite what to make of its people. Humans are usually as friendly as a drunk, but these here are generous with the little they seem to have. I’ve seen few poor so far, but neither have I found the large buildings that I know humans build. I almost think that I should have stopped at one of the other cities we passed through. In every one, I was able to stay in a quite comfortable inn and speak with the grandees. Here, friend Boltar, I sleep in someone’s spare room and I eat my meals elbow-and-elbow with everyone else.

I said the room was passing, which is either a criticism comparing it to those inns before or a sign of just how desperate this journey made me. You can choose which of these it is. The journey was utter hell. Through the Library I’d hired a human ranger as my guide, with the idea that we’d skirt the storms as best we could. He had a nose for the weather, he said. Nonsense. Twice we missed a city’s gate closing and only the generosity of the sentinels let us sleep in the dry. We were pelted by rain and hail throughout, walking always under the most forboding black clouds, jumping at every strike of lightning. And after all that, I write to you from a borrowed room where I constantly have to say that I am not yet leaving, and which is a walk of fifteen minutes from the place where I will sleep tonight.

Unlike in dear Gazbek, though, I do not think I’ll have any fear of walking past curfew in this place. They do no take care like you would without thinking, keeping a little jabber to scare off urchins, not carrying a great deal of coin, and while I’m speaking of it, I hope you still do keep that knife to hand. In Anaris, I’ve sat up through a night and found it quiet. I even saw seen the true stars once, whose majesty did no strike me until I thought about them the next night which was ceilinged by clouds. There be patrols around some buildings but none with strong arms, no sticks even that I could see. I keep my jabber with me but I find myself somehow soothed by the still air inside the bounds of their barrier.

This things may not seem trivial to you as you will know the same good bed tonight that you’ve known for a century. But though I’ve put all this down, and though you might as well read it and laugh at what a jammed gear I am, this is no what I wanted you to hear.

On the third day I had been here, I was in the town hall of this particular township (whose name is Hayan) and watched their weekly official gathering, where they aired grievances and assigned duties. That is, at least, the closest thing to it that I can say, as they did no decide in our way. The one who opened the gathering was called Ranah bet-Shahan of the Weather Circle and seemed to have the studious bearing of a wizard, but even-saying the meeting proceeded almost ignoring Ranah, with motions coming freely from the others, being discussed, agreed upon, and accepted without Ranah’s input. In fact, he spoke only three other times, and always in support of someone who had spoken. Two of these motions appeared to be favored, but the third was clearly rejected. When the meeting was done, Ranah repeated the main points of agreement where he was again interrupted and accepted that input, made sure the items were recorded, and the meeting simply dispersed.

Imagining the astonishment on your face right now has had me laughing for far too long. It’s complete chaos, is it not? Imagine any firm in Gazbek being run so haphazardly. People interrupting the tycoon? I bet you’ve dreamed no once even of talking back to the First Archivist.

I asked questions of Ranah and of some others in the city, and I was surprised at how erudite the people were. I’ve seen no nobles in this town, but I got as fruitful a discussion about the city’s politics from a farmer as I did from a member of their star-chamber, and I say that as no insult to the sitter. What they told me is close to chaos but is no the same, there is order. I will do my best to explain, but first I must tell you some history.

You are familiar with Cammelan, I am sure. One of the Last Realms and fell, like all the others, after the Breaking. Most of the humans to our south are their descendants. Cammelan was ruled by sovereigns and, when this country was shattered, many of its successors were ruled by sovereigns as well. But Cammelan did not just fall from a catastrophe of the new climate. Those great, destructive storms were actually the violent stop to a civil war which was by then on its way to ripping the realm into pieces. That war was fought between the Royalists who stood for their sovereign and the Supporters who favored their university and its high mages. In the middle of that war, there were those who fought on the side of the Royalists but who had before this decided that they would no longer be dominated by magic. They were a relatively small group then, but after the kingdom’s seat was leveled by storms, they were one of the few large and united groups of people remaining.

Mages who had been fleeing in every direction to avoid the supernatural storms came upon this band of wanderers who were being ripped at by the storms but were no discouraged. Some of these mages stopped but were told by the people that they would no accept a mage at all who did not live as an equal citizen with the rest of them. Saying this would be close to anathema for us and it was similar for the humans. Most of those mages who stopped decided to move on and build their own private bulwarks. Yet some stayed, at first only enough to fend off the winds by the night, then eventually enough that they could construct an aegis. They then founded the city of Anaris on this new almost anathema which, as you can see, still motivates its people.

Calling Anaris a city is, according to them, not exactly correct. They call Anaris a “common-hold”. It is divided into 27 townships of unequal size, which can be thought of in the same way as we have many khavans inside the dheep of Gazbek. Each township chooses a custodian of the year (or “custodian for the year”, I did no get precisely how they meant) who is responsible for the township but no having authority over it. Ranah, who I told you about, is the custodian of this year for his township of Hayan. These townships help the people of Anaris to direct their needs, but they no have importance in decision-making. The closest thing that we have are the justice legates of our khavans, but where the legate can command, the custodian can no do more than suggest and often-times the people disagree.

Decisions about governing in Anaris are decided on a city-wide basis at their star-chamber, which they call the Common Council. 40 people sit on this Common Council, each one being called a speaker (instead of sitter). I asked about what their even number meant for voting as the chamber could be locked dead when a majority is wanted. Their way of dealing with this is very strange. If a vote goes to an even split, the council will take a break for one hour in which no member is allowed to speak or communicate in any way with another, and they are no permitted to discuss the details of the matter. After that hour, they vote again. If there are three extra votes taken with no result (that is to say, on the fourth tied vote), the matter must be tabled for at least one week; in this time, the speakers can actively discuss the matter. When I asked they said that while this could, by the letter, continue on this way forever, tied votes rarely even get to the stage of being tabled.

The Common Council is quite different in other ways from our Star-Chamber as well. Whereas our chamber is for sitters to interpret situations and the old kings’-law, their Common Council actually creates new laws with every decision they come to. They have little respect for old laws except as a record of the past and mayhap as a guide in their discussion. I called this a reckless disregard for the traditions which bind any society, but the human I was speaking to pointed out that they would come to the 18th 50-year celebration of their founding in just three decades which is respectable for humans in any age and astounding now in the Ruin. And further, it seems that everyone takes heed of what the Common Council decrees, which is all any government needs.

Also, where our Star-Chamber sets everything in motion and watches over all, the Common Council is a last resort for the Anarines. The majority of their day-to-day decisions are made by discussion and voting among their circles. The circles of Anaris are broad associations of all workers of a specific professional goal throughout the city. For instance, the Clothiers’ Circle is not just made up of weavers or sewers but of those who make any sort of cloth made for wearing or decoration. Some of the city’s leather-makers, such as those who make leather for shoes, belong to this circle. Others belong to the Merchants’ Circle, which includes messengers, wagoners, and hostlers, all of whom have different needs for leather that are particular to trading and carrying but not to wearing. One leather-maker can provide materials for use in both riding and wearing if they are able, but they can only be a member of one circle and must, if it becomes a dispute, follow the decisions they agreed to in their circle. Every year, each circle elects a runner who takes responsibility for, but has no authority over, the circle. The circle’s authority comes from the votes which are taken on each matter, not for any other reason. They tell me that only the Common Council has the right to compel anyone in the common-hold to do something against their will, and even this could be challenged by the circles.

Humans in Anaris are much like humans elsewhere and tend to live in households where adult mates cohabitate, along with with their children in the first degree and with their older relations when necessary. All people above the age of childhood are given a voice in their circles, and even children have one if they are doing more than just a light share of their house’s cleaning. So saying, it is common for young adult Anarines to spend some time living in a household without children, sharing with blood siblings or non-related acquaintances in a compact which must be actively renewed every three years, though it can be concluded at any time. Marriages among the Anarines have only a religious standing and are not backed by the circles or the Common Council. For us, meeting outside of marriage is anathema. For the Anarines, it is a subject of gossip and little more. Staying married for longer than two decades is seen as a testament either to emotional compatibility or mental fortitude.

If I had not been here for even the short time I have so far, I would not ever believe that a city of humans, one fortunate enough to have an aegis, had no great institution of magic, but it is true. It must be true. I’ve seen and heard of no great school here. The Camlani were so proud of their great university, the kind of machine for producing mages which had rarely even been dreamed of. Ah, I caught myself before I spoke about how Undannekan had tried to host a university, but you are the one who told me about it. We would have thought that the human race could no abandon the idea which finally gave them such glory and influence. But pushing past all that, it seems to be true.

Being no great mage myself, I cannot tell just how effective their method of teaching is, but whatever they teach has been enough to keep their city whole. They tell me that it is the circles who teach magic. There be no singular circle of mages or even two. Mages may be found in any circle. A mage of the Farmers’ Circle might focus their efforts on nurturing the harvest or calming animals, while one of the Builders may help in setting and framing a new house. There are five circles who it can be said are interested in magic above other matters: the Weather Circle (which should be self-explanatory), the Teaching Circle (which includes both teachers and scholars, of magic and otherwise), the Alchemists’ Circle (which also includes magical artisans called arcanists), the Ritual Circle (including clerics and divine casters), and the Students’ Circle (which includes young students and apprentices of magic and otherwise). Individuals are trained on the basis of mentorship, but the resources of their entire circle are always available to them.

These circles, while all important, are not equal throughout the city. Each township is its own community, connected to the others but no needing that people leave their own area for too much. In each, so saying, the number of workers of any kind will be different. This Hayan township has a large number of cold craftsfolk, so the Clothiers’ Circle and the Potters’ Circle have more influence than others, but other townships will have more farmers or smiths and so on. This does cause some community competition which comes out in little jibes and other such gnome-tricks but it no seems to rise to true enmity.

I am no giving you a complete report on these people, I know. You would read a more thorough essay in anything recorded in the Library. They will not tell you about Anaris, though, so you must make do with me for now. Mayhap you can persuade one of the elder archivists to sponsor a team and do a good twenty-year preliminary study on the humans. You might write a book that your mother would want to read for once.

I expect that I will stay in Anaris at least another week. I have by now climbed down from our mountainside and seen what there is to see, I might as well see it through. If good things are coming this season from Blessed Darrun, I await them with open arms. Remain in health and drink like I’m there with you, as I will be soon.


In Words Firm and Sincere,
44th Archivist of the Undannekan Library
Written from the Township of Hayan in the Commonhold of Anaris
In the 996th year since the Last Law was proclaimed

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Tower of Babel (top) by Pieter Bruegel

The Creation Myths of Vahea

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The four creation myths of the multiverse of Vahea — Death’s Children, the Invention of Life, the War of the Five Hells, and the Seven Mortal Ages — overlap and intersect with one another. They cannot be completely reconciled. Also, they do not explain (and sometimes contradict) observed behaviors of reality. Together, however, they explain the origins of most principal phenomena of this multiverse.

The Myth of Death’s Children

At the beginning of all things there were three people: the Person Who Was Death, the First Mother, and the Heir Beloved. Nothing else existed: not light, matter, darkness, or life. In this state of pure void and nothingness they were visited by the Great Maker. The Great Maker told them that they lived in nothingness and that something, an existence, would be more fulfilling than the void. The three original people thought this was a good idea, but Death would only agree if the Great Maker also agreed to live apart from them. They all four accepted these conditions. The Great Maker then invented reality and the multiverse, creating all things that they had lacked before, including light, matter, darkness, and life. Within reality, the Great Maker created the House of Death, where Death, the First Mother, and the Heir Beloved would live. They all four were happy with what was made.

The Great Maker wanted to have a mate then, and so they began to court the Heir Beloved, and the Maker’s advances were returned. This angered Death, who began to torment the multiverse in rage. The Great Maker and the Heir Beloved left the House of Death and traveled far away to make their own home where Death could not find them. The Great Maker made this new house more splendid than the House of Death and it was called the House of Infinite Wonders. Here, the Great Maker and the Heir Beloved had fourteen children. Their love for their children was overpowering, as was their dismay that their children did not speak the same language. The parents could not speak to the children and the children could not speak to one another.

Distressed, the Heir Beloved went to Death and the First Mother, begging for them to reveal why the Heir’s children spoke different languages. Death said that this was because the Heir and the Maker had left the House of Death despite being forbidden. Because of this, Death laid two evils upon the children. For the Heir’s sin, the children and the children’s children would never speak the same language in their hearts. For the Maker’s sin, both the Maker and the Heir would be banished from the House of Death until beyond the end of time, but their children would have to return to the House of Death after some time in life.

The Heir Beloved was bewildered and horrified. The First Mother said that these evils were the payment owed for disobeying Death’s command. However, out of the Mother’s love for the Heir, the Mother granted that seven of the Heir’s children would be spared Death’s evils: they would be able to speak the same language and converse with their parents and, though they were free to visit the House of Death when they wished, they would never be forced to come as the other seven would. Given the two evils and the grace of the Mother, the Heir departed and, to this day, has never returned.

The seven children who were spared Death’s evils became the archdivines, the greater deities and rulers of the outer planes. The seven children who remained cursed became the ancestors of the mortal races, who walked upon the material world. All were loved by the Heir Beloved and the Great Maker and would be so bonded until the end of time.

This first myth introduces the concept of death, the journey of mortal souls, the difference between divinities and mortals, and the creation of reality. The seven mortal children are sometimes taken to be the seven ages of mortal beings, but this analogy fails for several reasons, the most obvious being that the seven mortal children were created at once in this myth while the seven ages happened sequentially.

The Invention of Life

At the beginning of all things there was nothing. The Shaper of Things created all that is. It isn’t known where the Shaper of Things came from, except perhaps also from nothing. The Shaper decided that they would create matter, a thing which had weight. To make matter the Shaper first made the material elements: water, earth, wind, and fire. Combining these in endless variety, the Shaper created the universe, and in this universe lived all the deities who now had something to exist in.

Soon, every deity felt how crowded this single universe was. Each being, who could reach to infinite distances, found that wherever they might reach they ran into another. To please the deities, the Shaper of Things created other universes and the places in between universes. The deities then spread to these other places and they were content.

The contentment did not last very long. The deities who existed on different planes now could not converse. Being unbounded by time, they found that their rates of motion differed so much from one plane to another that the deities could not bring themselves into rhythm. The Shaper wondered for many eons about the solution to this problem. Then, all at once, the Shaper created a new sort of element called life. This element would weave through the material elements and animate them. By life’s motion, which could not be replicated and would hold onto its own rhythm no matter its location, the gods would be able to find one another and communicate.

The Shaper of Things returned to the original universe and there planted life. Immediately, the boundless potential of life unchecked became apparent to the Shaper. To prevent the future calamity, the Shaper created death as an opposite to life. Both were put into this universe and they began to cycle one another: life high when death was low, death high when life was low. This cycle of life became the focal concept of the multiverse, with mortal beings as reality’s meter.

This myth shows the origins of the six elements — the four material and two motive — as well as the creation of mortal beings, the reason for mortality, the creation of the planes, and the centrality of the Material Plane (identified with the original universe in which life was placed). It complicates the Death’s Children myth by saying death was a creation of another being.

The War of the Five Hells

The origin of the Elder Daemons is mysterious but, however it was, they came to reality and found it created, full of planes and beings and life. The Elder Daemons tried to stretch themselves to their utmost but found that they were prevented. They discovered that this was because the many ideas which could be conceived had already been claimed by the deities. Only the undesirable ideas such as cowardice, hatred, murder, and corruption were left unclaimed. The Elder Daemons then claimed them, ensuring that they could not be forbidden from a certain amount of freedom.

With the authority of their claimed ideas, the Elder Daemons launched violent uprisings against the deities throughout the multiverse. On five planes, their uprisings were so successful that the deities fled and the Elder Daemons claimed dominion. The deities gathered together and decided that the Elder Daemons could no longer be allowed to claim any of the ideas which made up reality. The idea of war was then conceived and swiftly claimed by the First Warrior, a deity of great purpose.

The deities, led by the First Warrior, invaded the planes of the Elder Daemons and assaulted their ancient rivals. The Elder Daemons defended themselves but could not stand firm against the deities. The deities managed to retrieve all the ideas held by the Elder Daemons, and some deities claimed them in order that the Elder Daemons couldn’t gain them again. These deities soon defected from the invasions, leaving the other deities suddenly overmatched. The host of deities fled the Elder Daemons’ planes, but as they did they created the Gate of the Hells. This Gate would prevent any being bound to the Elder Daemon planes from passing into any other plane, including the Material Plane.

Being defeated by the deities enraged the Elder Daemons. They decided that they would meet their situation with force as they had the last. To accomplish this, the Elder Daemons would need all the power they could amass. The Elder Daemons gained power by oppressing others, and the greatest power available to any was the domination of a plane. The Elder Daemons created new beings, such as the tanar’ri and baatezu races, to serve in their armies in opposing their fellows.

Until the war with the Elder Daemons, souls who were deemed unfit for entering heaven or for rebirth would simply linger forever on the Fugue Plane. The Lord of the Fugue decided instead that such souls would be banished beyond the Gate of the Hells. Those souls who, through despising the torments of the hells, came to repentance could be admitted back to the Fugue and the normal journey of the soul. The listless but unharmful life of the Fugue could never hope to convert its denizens, even those of ten thousand years. The Lord of the Fugue thought that now there was at least a chance at redeeming some.

The Elder Daemons were overjoyed at the new souls they received at first, but it was soon apparent that most of these were of no quality, not fit to be transformed into a greater sort of fiend. The necessity of testing and sorting all souls received made a great deal of work for the Elder Daemons. Any power gained was also poured back into a conflict which became known as the Blood War or the Wars Between the Fiends.

This war bloomed out of the competition between the Elder Daemons to be recognized as sole sovereign. They felt no remorse for those minions who died and were similarly unmoved by the growing strength of the successful ones. Eventually, the Elder Daemons were overthrown by the races they created. This ruined any schemes the Elder Daemons had for invading the other planes in the foreseeable future. It’s believed that all Elder Daemons have been killed by their once-servants or vanished by some other means.

Those deities who had taken the evil ideas during the War of the Five Hells began to show distasteful behaviors to their fellows. In order to escape these feelings of antipathy, the evil-claiming deities moved to the Five Hells and took up residence. Not even the greatest of archfiends could oppose these evil deities and, without the Elder Daemons, there was no power of competing authority. The celestial servants of these expatriate deities became corrupted and transform into the nephilim. The deities of the Hells do not involve themselves overmuch with the concerns of others on their planes, partly because each plane is so vast and partly because each deity is a transcendent being with simultaneous concerns in other times & dimensions. This is how the evil deities and the fiends coexist in the Five Hells, the Blood War raging while the evil deities spin wider plots.

Here is described the origin of the Five Hells and their separation from the mortal world and the Upper Planes, as well as the arrival of the Elder Daemons and their rivalry with the deities. It also reveals the origin of the Blood War and the end of the Elder Daemons.

The Seven Mortal Ages

In the first age, the first people were made, and these were the People Before Light. Their whole world was in a darkness before darkness, as the dark and the light had not yet been separated. These people moved about in a restricted life, unable to truly know what they did or to observe what their neighbors did. When the Sun came and the dark and the light were pulled apart, the People Before Light came under the Sun’s great radiance. The people could not live under this new light, so they withered and they died.

In the second age, the Brilliant People were made, people who could grow and flourish under the Sun. The Brilliant People were perfect in every way and they sang praises to the gods day and night, dark and light. They discovered magic and society. They moved across all the world and made it theirs. Then the deities and the elder daemons had their great war. The elder daemons had their many demon servants, and so the deities faced them with the Brilliant People. The elder daemons were prevented from invading the world, but the Brilliant People were destroyed.

In the third age, the Metal People were made. These people came after the war between the deities and the elder daemons, and they were made so that they could not be broken. They could not sing like the Brilliant People, but they were strong and everlasting. For years uncounted they patrolled the world and all its gates. Then one by one they stopped moving and would not move again.

In the fourth age, the Proud People were made, self-moving and self-motivating. These people drove themselves to achieve things that were not even dreamed of by their predecessors. They were as beautiful as the Brilliant People and as strong as the Metal People, and they invented intellect, expertise, and ambition. They believed that their lives were unbounded. In this endless arrogance, the Proud People listened to whispers from beyond their world and they began to build a bridge. The deities themselves stopped this, seeing the bridge by which the elder daemons would storm the world. The deities cast down the Proud People and broke all of their works.

In the fifth age, the Wooden People were made. The knowledge that they could be wounded made these people cautious, but they were still strong, and they still grew as part of their essential nature. The Wooden People communed with the world itself and became its nurturers and its children. Their age was an age of peace unending. Suddenly, a Cosmic Conflagration consumed the whole world. The world remained but the Wooden People were destroyed.

In the sixth age, the Mighty People were made. They would be able to construct the immense barriers and magical works that would protect the world from any future conflagration. They could stand against the elder daemons with full confidence. The strongest of these people would become lords over the others, and the strongest of these lords would become great tyrants. There came then a tyrant of tyrants who thought that their power was equal to the deities. In an instant, this megatyrant was thrown down and the Mighty People were driven out.

In our age, which is the seventh age, the deities made the Honest People, who are also called the Children of Fate. Unlike the earlier people who sought to protect themselves against the shape of coming years, the Honest People would not seek to alter their destiny but to flow along with it. Instead of trying to be unbreakable, and thus ultimately breaking, the Honest People would bend with pressure but remain intact. They would not attempt to resist the will of the deities, but to submit and to do what they could with what they were given.

This myth discusses the progression of mortal races. Most believe that the Proud People became the dragons, the Mighty People became the giants, and the Honest People are all the various smallfolk races. The Brilliant People are usually taken to have become the seraphs, though some believe they became the eladrin.

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Dark ruins (artist unknown)

Empty Belly

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Rushes swept past Dao’s knees in a manner that might have been pleasant had his heart not been demanding an exit from his chest. He looked over his shoulder and saw the lights bobbing after him. If only she’d said she was the daughter of the village headman. Perhaps it wouldn’t have stopped him — she was, after all, the most beautiful woman he’d seen in a month — but he would have been warned at least. Might have had a longer head start on these vengeful villagers.

The ground beneath his sandals shifted with every hard step he took but he didn’t let that stop him. In his mind he fell each time, but somehow in reality he kept his strides going. Ahead, the rushes and tall grasses marched out to the riverbank, morphed into the lightly undulating water which threw a pale imitation of the moon’s light back up at its origin. He didn’t look forward to crossing this river. It would be an hour of swimming if he made good time.

Of course, it was not as if he had much of a choice. The spear that slotted noisily into the loam behind him told him that for however difficult the escape might be, it was better than capture.

Like that spear he flung himself headlong into the river, hands in place of flint tip, body arcing like yew, straightening as he sliced into the water and out of their sight. Rather than give them a target, Dao swam under the water, his light morning-gold skin rendered dark by the night and the depth, tunic billowing out as bubbles rushed underneath and against his chest. He slapped back at the water, kicked with both legs, frantically swam out from the riverbank. He could hear the splash of objects around him, faint as if they were quite far away. Dao saw a head-sized stone hurtling from surface to ocean-floor not two armslengths from him. Oh no, he was not quite safe yet.

His head broke the surface of the water and he gasped, blowing out the last of the air in his lungs. He inhaled deeply and quickly. Black hair whipped against his forehead when he turned to see the figures on the coast, four at least. One of them pulled his arm back and launched another spear. Dao sank under the surface again rather than watch it.

Opening his eyes in water like this was a terrible idea, but again, he had few options. His eyes burned as he tried to figure out just where he was at this point. It was all near-black at best. He could feel the thong of one sandal slipping further from his feet. He curled his toes, trying to keep it, but it caught something and drifted free. No chance to stop.

‘Keeper’s bones!’ he gasped as he surfaced again. He turned around, kicking backwards so that he could watch the tiny torchlights in the distance. He grinned. Either they’d given up, ran out of weapons, or simply couldn’t throw that far. Regardless, he’d got away from them. For the moment. If he tried back on that same riverbank he’d be caught in the morning, doubtless. The villagers were fond of their hunting dogs and he’d given the headman’s daughter a little ribbon to remember him by.

Stupid thing to do, anyway. The barmaid who’d given it him was barely worth remembering. He should have burned the thing weeks ago.

Turning around again, Dao resolved to keep pulling himself along through the water. Soon enough the ache in his arms and legs was almost unbearable. He’d have to keep going, he knew it, but he wanted nothing more than to rest. Now that he felt safe, the heat of excitement slowly leeched away, leaving him to feel the evil chill of the water fully. It should have spurred him on but it made him lethargic.

The darkness shaped a roof, walls, and a patch of solid dirt in the center of the river. Bridgeless, boatless. Isolated entirely. Dao squinted to make sure he was seeing it right, this new island. He knew how a starved and desperate mind could conjure up phantoms. But it stayed, not swaying, not fading, in fact growing more opaque. A little house upon a river isle. At the very least, a place where he could rest, sleep, and continue on in the morning.

If those villagers didn’t have boats of their own. It was a chance he had to take. Once he’d decided that the island was real, he knew that he was not making any further effort tonight.

His fingers dug into the mud on the islecoast. They scored lines in it as he pulled, getting no purchase, but he tried again, again, until he was dragging himself up onto the little island. He spat water out and flopped onto his back. Above, the stars twinkled, faraway, single spots of light that he imagined were wishing him a good rest, congratulating him for the effort. His belly was tight with hunger. At least he was safe.

The voice came to him through a formless and plotless dream. Dao hadn’t even realized he was asleep until he found his eyes opening, staring up at a pillar of hair which bore a flickering candle in its left hand. It took him a moment to decide that this was indeed something to be feared, then all at once he scrambled to his feet and nearly splashed back into the water.

‘Wait!’ cried the man-beast. Dao couldn’t tell if those glossy black eyes could see his hand drifting to his belt, the hilt of his back-knife. ‘Friend, wait. Do you need shelter?’

‘Who are you?’

‘I am Chang Wu,’ said the beast. His voice seemed to come from far away, as if speaking was not the primary function of that muzzle mouth. ‘You look tired, wet. Please, come. I have no extra clothes for you, nor a bed, but there’s shelter.’

To trust a weird was never expressly wise. It was something that Dao knew from an early age. And this one, taller than most men, with limbs meant for rending and teeth meant for ripping, seemed one of the more dangerous sort. But despite his fearsome appearance, Chang Wu seemed friendly enough. Besides, it was either this or swim, and Dao was not sure that he could make his arms work well enough to cross the rest of the river.

‘Alright,’ Dao said. He stood up then. In the darkness, his slight form was likely even less impressive than it was in daylight. He came up to this creature’s chest and no taller. He tried not to show his intimidation and hoped those keen eyes could not detect the trembling in his knees. ‘Let’s go inside. Have a fire?’

‘No,’ Chang Wu said, stepping aside and gesturing for Dao to walk first. ‘I have fur.’

‘Food?’ Dao walked now, keeping at an angle so that he could watch the weird.

‘Some fish that I could not eat.’

Dao stopped then and all at once collapsed into a cross-legged sit. ‘Bring them, then. We’ll see if we can’t start some fire.’

The weird watched him curiously for a moment. Then, wordlessly, he went inside the crude shelter. Tales told him that both men and weird were creatures of nature and magic, but while men could harness magic, weirds had it infused into their being. They distrusted each other for their cross natures. There was nothing for it, though. Dao must have at least a little fire if he was to eat.

With the back-knife, Dao described a circle in the mud, and then a pentagon inside it, and inside that dug a small and shallow pit. He looked upwards at the stars and tried to find the star-sign of the Thinkers, which must be high tonight. His magic was not advanced by any measure, but with the right alignments he might just light the nothingness.

Chang Wu returned with one huge hand full of filleted fish. Dao was still busy waving his hands in a practiced pattern over the shape in the mud, intoning words in a language his people used only for this art. The bestial weird watched him carefully as a mongoose might the snake.

Dao could feel the beginnings of heat at his fingertips but no more. A spark was born, wailed, and died in the center of that little pit. He frowned. The Thinkers might have been an adequate sign for someone more tutored than he. If only this had been summertime. His hands fell to his thighs and he sighed heavily.

‘You should still eat,’ Chang Wu said, extending the bunch of fish to Dao.

‘It’ll make me sick,’ Dao said. ‘Have to cook it.’

‘Oh.’ Chang Wu tried to copy Dao’s posture. It took him a bit of effort, his legs not being made to fold the way that Dao’s were, but he eventually managed it. ‘It has been a long time since I’ve seen a human. I forget what you need.’

‘It’s okay,’ Dao said. He stuck the back-knife into the center of the circle, breaking the arcane pattern. ‘I’ll survive.’ Chang Wu was already eating, covering his jaws and lips in the mashed gore of dead fish. Dao stood then and turned away from the creature. He was slightly apprehensive, of course. Disrobing in front of someone he didn’t know was always a bit nerve-wracking, especially if he had no carnal goals with them. Still, if he stayed in these clothes he’d catch a cold. Besides, the weird was naked as well. Perhaps they found it odd that humans felt the need to wear clothes at all.

‘You came from the coast,’ Chang Wu said. Dao could hear the creature licking his hands jaws, cleaning them of the excess fish guts and muscle. He was out of his tunic and trousers by now and he squatted, beginning to wring them out.

‘Yes. Not my idea, of course. Sorry to disturb.’

‘No.’ Chang Wu stared out the way Dao had come. Or at least Dao assumed so. It would take a bit of squinting for him to make out any direction over any other in this darkness. ‘They harry me as well. Those villages, I think only evil of them. You’re not the first to flee them.’

‘At least I’m not alone,’ Dao said.

Dao continued to wring out his clothes. The splatter of water flecked his legs and dropped idly into the water that stroked the coast. It seemed that no matter how much he twisted and torqued, there was always still water inside. He had to be satisfied eventually. The tightening of his limbs and the yawn forcing his mouth open and tumbling out towards freedom marked the deadline.

‘I’d like to sleep,’ Dao announced. He stood up and gathered his clothes. ‘Can I go inside?’

‘Please,’ Chang Wu said. When Dao looked, he saw that the weird’s shaggy head was turned skyward, towards the twinkling stars. ‘I feel a song. It won’t wait. I hope my voice will not disturb you.’

Dao was sure it would, but he told the weird it wouldn’t. He was in no position to refuse hospitality after all. He picked up his knife and crossed the doorless entrance into the little hovel. There were no furnishings inside. He could just make out a spear leaning against a wall, driftwood with a bone tip. He didn’t care to think about just where Chang Wu had got the bone. Instead, he spread out his clothes on the floor and laid down next to them on his back. Hopefully sleep would come soon. He’d like to forget this whole escapade as quickly as possible.

What started as a moonward howl was modulated, falling in steps and slides, rising like a squirrel bounding up branch to branch. The sound was not that of an animal. Chang Wu’s howl was abrasive to Dao’s ears, but for some reason, he found it relaxed him. Perhaps he had heard such a thing in another dream and now, hearing its cousin, he was being beckoned back to familiar sleep.

The first sensation Dao felt, before even the need to open his eyes, was of metal digging into his wrists and hands. He tried to sit up and realized quickly that he was vertical. Not standing, as his big toes barely reached the floor. He opened his eyes and looked up to see that he was trussed like a butcher’s project, once a pig, to be pork. He could move his legs, lift his knees, but no matter how he kicked he couldn’t swing away from the wall.

Morning reigned outside. Despite the pillar of light flung in through the shed entrance, it gave him no hope. Brightness couldn’t erode these manacles. As much as he struggled, he was getting nowhere. He flexed his fingers to keep the blood flowing through them.

It was only in times of desperation that a man would direct his prayers to the Blood God Azkythiir. An evil power such as he scarcely had an equal, which was fine, for his terrors were feared almost intrinsically. And yet for some terrible reason, Dao’s soul was ultimately his to ransom, so he found it in himself to promise that soul for Azkythiir’s eventual devouring if only he’d save him from whatever fate approached.

All at once, Chang Wu’s head swung into the room. Beady yellow eyes fixed themselves on Dao and the canid weird’s tongue lolled out of his mouth. The beast-man’s body followed the head in then, hunched forward as if now he saw no reason to pretend at civilization. In his hands he cradled a thick root like a mace.

‘Oh, come now,’ Dao protested.

‘I must admit,’ Chang Wu said, ‘you are a bit skinny for what I would prefer. But humans are always a better find than fish. Might make you last for the week at least. It has been quite a while since I’ve had a proper meal.’

‘I treated you decently,’ Dao said. ‘More than those villagers have done, at least!’

‘And I’m to believe that if you weren’t running for your life, you’d still offer your politeness?’

‘I’m not a false man, I’m cordial and pleasant to everyone.’

Chang Wu was clearly not listening. His demeanor was now equal to he who’d trussed the pig up for the purposes of cleaving, cooking, and eating.

‘Shoulders first, likely. Wonder if I can pull them all the way out of the socket. Do hate gnawing on you all together.’ The weird hefted that makeshift club high. ‘And scream, if you would. Much easier for me to know when I’ve broken a bone.’

Before the weird could begin his swing, Dao started one of his own, curling his body up and kicking Chang Wu hard on the underside of his muzzle. Two voices cried out. One was the strangled groan of the monstrous creature. The other was Dao shrieking at the pain that had now taken the place of his foot. He was sure he’d broken toes as the end of his right foot was just a throb, just the sensation of pain.

Chang Wu woofed, barked, and lunged in again. Somehow Dao swung his body up again, legs scissoring out then clamping around the weird’s neck. The beast thrashed frantically. It was as if it had the memories of its distant cousins having their paws snapped in steel traps, caught away from their packs and prey, left to starve and die. Determined not to endure that himself, Chang jerked backward, twisted, did whatever he could to free himself, but Dao had locked his legs tight. He cried out awfully when the weird’s struggles made those manacles straighten out, the cuffs sawing into his wrists until they bled. He refused to let go, though. After all, what had he to lose?

There was little time for him to appreciate the sound of splintering wood. Less than a second, really. Without the support to keep him tethered to the wall, Dao’s upper body slumped down sharply, and he unlocked his legs to allow himself to drop heavily to the floor. He came to his knees, barely able to make sense of the world in front of him in his daze. Somehow the dancing and gyrating colors formed themselves into the evil form of Chang Wu just in time for Dao to throw himself out of the way of the beast-man’s club.

Like a rabbit, Dao scampered out of the house. The sun highlighted the blade of his back-knife with a blinding aura. He caught up that knife by the hilt and swung it up like a talisman before the emergent weird, hoping that in daring the beast to fight he would actually be causing him to think again. Of course, the creature could see that Dao was injured, barely able to fight. He advanced with blood on his mind.

The sound of a sharp impact just near Dao’s feet caused him to spring back. An arrow. He glanced up to the right and saw a tiny flotilla arriving, three small rowboats with men standing and slinging arrows to the little island with little regard for the safety of the two on the island. Chang Wu stared in that direction as well. He swept his club through the air as if he controlled some magic that would ward them off. Instead, an arrow lodged itself in his bicep, drawing a piercing howl of agony.

Dao turned and flung himself into the water. He was not sure if his muscles had gained strength in his horrible sleep or if he was simply too afraid to care about their fatigue. What he knew was that he was escaping, however undignified, from human and weird alike. He hoped his luck would be better on the other bank, though he had to admit, he’d find it a trifle difficult at first without any clothes to show he was a decent man.

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