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FF story: In a Bright Land

Discussion in 'Fall from Heaven Lore' started by Tarquelne, Sep 12, 2009.

  1. Tarquelne

    Tarquelne Follower of Tytalus

    Dec 8, 2001
    In a Bright Land
    Forum formatting - I've tried replacing most indents with a newline.

    Part I:
    Spoiler :

    In a bright land, in a white city, in a dark room a great emperor sits on a gold throne, still. Eyes of eagle-sharpness that can can look from every Mark, from the eyes of disciples, can with even greater ease look inward and long ago. To a long ago where there lay another bright land, another white city, and the throne of another great emperor. He closes his eyes, and remembers.

    The one who currently used the name Lareth sat up in the cart at sunrise. He was high enough in the foothills to see the plains stretch beneath him as if warmed and waked by the sun. And he was sharp sighted enough to see a herd move in the far distance. Cattle, of course. But he was sure his last mission was successful.

    The new wizards were uncertain of their power and more uncertain about the emperor's purposes. He could sympathize. Lareth himself wasn't entirely easy with his role. He knew he was violating the Compact's spirit even if he – arguably – abided by its rules. But his Lord assured him he wouldn't be caught, and despite everything he'd still accept his Lord's word. They had suffered the greatest possible abandonment, and his work must be done for Creation's salvation.

    So as Lareth he'd gone to the wizards... and merely asked questions. Could they bring greater prosperity to the plains? As a stock man (which was how he presented himself) he wanted to know if the wizards could improve his stock. Could they make the horses faster, stronger? Could they make the cattle fatter, hardier? He'd been so earnest that they'd laughed, and told him “Of course.” He'd pretended anger and told them they misunderstood. He could breed faster horses, fatter cattle. All without magic. And so could the Hippus. Probably better, truth be told.

    What could they do that was different, with their airs and their special knowledge and their magic? Could they do better than the Horselords? Make an ox as fast as a horse? A horse as hardy as a bull... a horse that could fly? Now that would be useful. And that had caught their imaginations. Of course. It was a worthy task. It would feed more people and allow them to work harder, move faster. It would give the Patrians comfort while also making the empire stronger. One of the wizards looked disturbed, but the others were themselves comforted. They knew then that what the emperor offered was power, and it could make a better future. They knew the emperor could be trusted, for he – and they! - acted with good intentions. So there would be changling beasts on the plains... for a better future.

    It wasn't long before the cart stopped at a temple to Sirona. Ironic.

    Lareth hopped to the muddy road. A cold breeze ran down it, escaping the mountains, and he acted glad for his sheltering cloak. He gave the driver a few coins and hurried through the door of an inn beside the temple.

    The roof was low, and while ducking beams he spotted his target. She sat alone at a table against the far wall. He knew she'd been here for several days. She'd meant to leave with a south-bound caravan but had been deceived about its route. So here she'd waited for him, unknowing of their appointment. Eating well of the inn's food, he was sure, but feeding mostly on her doubts.

    Lareth skirted the near wall and took the table furthest from the bar. He didn't want to call attention to himself. Their conversation should be private and uninterrupted. How to begin it, though, was a problem. She looked skittish.

    “Breakfast and a drink, my lord, or just drink?”

    Lareth looked up at the serving girl, and smiled. She dropped her laden tray with a tremendous clatter and every eye in the inn turned to his table. So much for obscurity. Blushing, stammering and apologizing excessively, the girl reloaded her tray. Thankfully the mugs and plates had been empty. Exerting a little influence to calm the girl, he introduced himself and ordered some soup as gently as he could. Feeling sorry for her he spread that influence over the rest of the room. Otherwise she'd be mocked. It was a little risky, but maybe it'd calm his target, too. However he decided to approach her, that'd probably help.

    He'd just taken his soup from the girl, who was blushing again, when a woman spoke behind him.
    He turned. “Excuse me?”
    “Laroth! No...”
    His target. Younger than he'd thought. However much he might have calmed her earlier she was now agitated and confused.
    Lareth stood , pulling back a chair for her, and guided her into it.
    “Hello! I'm sorry, what's wrong? Here, please sit down.”
    She gasped a few breaths and said, “No, I'm sorry. I thought you were someone else.”
    He sat down himself. “Well, let me make it three apologies between us: I'm sorry if I've upset you.”
    She shook her head. “My fault. It's just that you sound like him, and what was your name...?”
    “Lareth, yes. It's much like his. Laroth's, I mean.”
    “An easy mistake to make then.”
    “You look like him too.” He laughed nervously. “It's uncanny, really.”

    Lareth smiled with her, to put her at ease. But he was sure she was right. His Lord had provided his name for this foray. As for his voice and appearance... He knew well that what seemed coincidence generally wasn't. Not if a god was involved. Not that you could ever be sure which god. Not anymore.

    Instead he said, “Please, let me make up for fate's jest. Share my table. I've been on the road for days and would appreciate conversation before I move on. My mule and I have exhausted all topics of mutual interest.”

    She laughed delightedly at his joke, despite herself. Lareth didn't flatter himself, people always laughed his jokes. But he was glad she was at his table, his way apparently already prepared by his Lord, and that he could get this over with. He'd heard of Laroth, and what he'd heard he didn't like. While Lareth's ability to anticipate the future was nothing like his Lord's, or his Lord's peers, he could guess how his mission would shape the future for this woman.

    Nevertheless, he'd see it done.
    “Have you had breakfast yet? No?” He waved the attentive server to him. “Allow me to offer you some of this fine soup. While I wash the road's dust from my throat tell me what you're doing here.”

    She slumped in her chair, nursing the soup, and gradually he drew her out. She must have wanted someone to talk to, it wasn't hard. Her name was Tejia, and her lover was indeed the itinerant holy man Laroth. He was starting to make a name for himself by preaching of the god Temeluchus. A being with whom Lareth was not acquainted. Tejia wouldn't denounce Laroth, but it was obvious to Lareth she knew the preacher insincere, at best.

    Finally he volunteered some advice: “Tejia, what you both face is a crisis of faith.”
    “Yes,” she said. “I think I am.”
    “I'm sorry, I said you both face a crisis of faith. He's clearly performing a valuable service to Patria, to the whole world, by his preaching. Yet you sense he has doubts. Strong, doubts, yes?”
    “Yes.” She nodded uncertainly.
    “But you know his message is right, don't you.” He made it a statement, which left her little choice.
    “Yes.” This time her nod was emphatic.
    “So you must strengthen his faith. Not everyone has equal gifts, Tejia. I'm sure you know this, but in this case I think while Laroth has a great gift for speaking, you have a greater gift for faith. Take it as a testament to his teaching that you have learned so well. But now, having learned...”
    Tejia straightened in her chair and interrupted him. “Yes! My faith can strengthen his.”
    “Very good!” Lareth looked at her encouragingly, but it was hardly needed.
    She smiled beatifically. “Not only was I feeling bad about doubting Laroth, but I wondered how I could contribute. Just being his... just being with him didn't seem enough. But I can serve Temeluchus, too! I can really help people see the truth.”
    Lareth returned her smile. “Exactly.”
    “Thank you!” Her smile grew even brighter. “I should have seen this before.” Lareth shrugged depreciatively, and she finished. “No, really. I did lack faith. But the heart will find a way if you've good intentions.”

    Lareth's gaze flickered, just for an instant. He'd placed the barb and twisted this woman as his Lord wished. Probably to twist this Laroth in turn. And who knew after that? He didn't know why his Lord wanted this, but suspected the hand of the Hidden Queen. He knew she'd made certain offers to his Lord, and she'd been very active of late. But how active?
    Tejia last remark pained him, and he wondered if someone wanted a barb in him.

    In a bright land in a white city, in a dark room he feels that pain anew. Such is the memory of his kind that the past may be relived as a sort of dream. This keeps both hatreds and loves, hurts and kindnesses, fresh and immune to the passage of time. Whether this makes for greater wisdom or greater folly the emperor does not know. But the dreaming is hard to resist. He believes it makes Sabathiel weak, but gives Cassiel strength. For himself he knows there's a special danger.

    Eyes of eagle-sharpness that can look from every Mark, from the eyes of disciples, can with even greater ease look inward and long ago. But how deeply can they see? What do they miss, and what is hidden with ill intent? He is the Angel of Good Intentions, and those he can always see, can always twist. Believing they pursue the good, men may be led very far from their chosen path. Yet to ill intentions, to deception, he's just as blind as any other being. Maybe more blind.

    His eyes open, he watches motes of dust play within a sunbeam now piercing the hall. It looks so real. Fully in the present again, he no longer dreams.

    Part II:
    Spoiler :

    In a bright land, in a white city, in a dark room a great emperor sits on his gold throne, plotting. He can feel his adopted people, alive in any significant sense, thriving and free on the face of Erebus. The barbarians to the south and east would fall soon enough, and emissaries were on their way from the “nations” to the north. They would be dealt with. And then west, to the sea, and through the Sidar. Fools.

    The silent ones thought they revered Arawn. All they really worship is their idea of that dark god. Not only is he different from what they imagine, he might be more different than they can imagine. God of the Underworld, yes, but only warden of the Dreamlands. What is a god who cedes power and authority at every chance? Who's own chosen realm is a riot of freedom, rotting around him? Life, and Death. Absolute freedom and complete confinement. God of beginnings and endings. Neither light nor dark. The Gray One.

    He remembered the passage of that oppressive aura, and pressing himself tight against the dark stone. Fear spikes through him and he shifts on his throne. His bodyguards, circling the chamber, stir in turn, every woman's weapon glinting red and silver.

    The Sidar were right about his color, at least. Brighter than the night, but infinitely deeper. Gray. The emperor shudders, as if bitten by the cold he can never feel. The Hidden Queen had her secrets, but they could be revealed. The Gray One might be unknowable.

    “I know who you are, though you do not.”
    Her. How could she be his spawn? Sure compassion... and her brother raging anger. Maybe the twins were just the knowable portions of the God, exiled into the deciphered world.
    He knew his thoughts went in circles. They always did when he thought of his most successful mission. His Lord had never cloaked him better. Yet it hadn't been enough. Thinking was not the way through. The eyes of memory can never see aright in the dreamlands, only the eyes of dreams.

    Lights scattered over her black mantle like the stars, and following her through the twisting passages was like spinning up into a night sky that had suddenly abandoned Erebus for the void. Disoriented and lost beyond recovery should she betray him, Rahserat, the fallen Angel of Good Intentions, could only endure as the Hidden Queen guided him down the paths only she knew.

    Finally she halted by a doorway formed of three large bluestones, the horizontal one marked with an eye and a hand. “This is the one,” she whispered. “Give me the password.”
    “My Lord bade me tell you only after I stood safe and free within the Underworld.”
    “This is the one. The Death God will know if I enter his realm. Give me the password.”
    “I'm sorry, my lady, but I carry my Lord's trust.”
    “Don't mock me, Rahserat.”
    “Never. But I have been given this,” Rahserat produced a small yellow vial. “I will destroy it when I stand in Arawn's kingdom. The knowledge you want to be released to you then.”
    “So.” Her whisper was so soft he had to lean forward to catch her words. “And if you do not I will consider your Lord, and you, to have betrayed me.”
    The angel said nothing. He'd been warned against speaking to her more than was absolutely necessary. He merely bowed. She hissed, and gestured at the doorway. He stepped through it.

    After that it was hard to put things in chronological order. Later he wondered if his own realm drove the Death God insane. Where a human found infinite freedom, bounded only by his own mind and preconceptions, what would the unbounded mind of a god find? It was hard enough being an angel.

    But he did his master's bidding, working for the downfall of the One and a better world beyond.

    First he used the vial. Then, cloaked as one of the angels appropriate to this place, Rahserat moved through the dreamlands. He persuaded, he tempted, he cajoled. He ministered to the souls, always playing off their better nature and always guiding them back toward ambition. This kingdom of the most uncaring god was naturally a place of stillness, where the unguided dead lost themselves. And though he did not specifically direct their re-awakened ambitions – that could too easily invite scrutiny - he knew where striving would necessarily lead them: The new center of the dreamlands, the anti-deity Laroth. That Spirit master collected the newly aware dead into an army. An army to challenge the reigning Death God. Even if Laroth was doomed, his plotting weakened Arawn's hold over the underworld and especially his angels. If the grandiose plan succeeded Rahserat didn't know if Laroth would be any better an ally for his Lord than the Hidden Queen. But it would remove a god who stood with the One.

    Rahserat avoided the Forsaken Palace, Arawn's seldom-occupied center of power. Yet as he moved among that god's angels some show of participating in their increasingly disorganized and apathetically pursued work had to be maintained. Thus at times he walked the basalt and chalk halls, trapped for days, sometimes longer, in elaborate games of etiquette and influence. The dead-eyed black-and-white patterned angels that formed the palace guard and inner-administration, called phantoms, were unwaveringly loyal to the Grey One. Every other angel was suspect. Rahserat had to play a careful game both with those of certain loyalty and with those who might be Laroth's minions. But his Lord's cloak, his assumed identity, always held. Or, really, lack of identity. He started thinking of himself as the Other Angel. Never Rahserat. Never the angel he spoke to, or one that angel had just seen or spoken with. Always someone else. The Other Angel.

    Even when he escaped the Palace a feeling of self-alienation didn't leave him. Mirrors began haunting him. Usually empty, but sometimes they showed Laroth. Even Basium, whose thundering could sometimes be heard throughout the underworld, at least by an angel, would be clever enough to understand. What did Rahserat do so differently from Laroth? Both twisted the spirit or soul out of true, both always using something within the spirit or soul to do so. Laroth did so for personal gain, while Rahserat helped topple empires for his Lord, and thus for all of creation. But still the mirrors haunted. Rather than spinning a dream he could inhabit Rahserat felt he was unraveling himself, weaving a new Rahserat. One who took souls supposedly safe within the underworld and drove them on. Hell, the great machine that was Agares' greatest triumph, now reached here. Thanks to Rahserat. It was better than utter destruction, but the world would pay a great price to withstand the One.

    Even with angelic memory he couldn't know when it happened, on which sortie into the Palace it occurred. But while transversing a black stone gallery above the entrance hall Rahserat felt the arrival of the Death God. There was a pull, or a calling. Maybe it was what mortality felt like? But it was irresistible, and all eyes went to the Twilight Portal.

    A guard of phantoms assembled along the wide, descending stairway from the great doors. Their black and white ribbons hung limp, stirring only when they turned, as one, to face the Portal. Two were already by the doors and pulling on the great rings, swinging wide the doors and revealing the Grey One.

    Stern and aloof, he loomed in the open doorway like a thundercloud. Fine clothes, with both tunic and pants of a rich, thick cloth. But everything only in shades of grey. Pale silver from the lining and jet rings on the hands were the only adornments. And, like a cloud, he dimmed light in his presence. The phantoms at the doors prostrated themselves. Uncaring, the Death God passed them and descended the stairway. Each phantom going to one knee as he strode by. A wave of ribbons in absolute hues fooled the eye, blending and seeming still even as they rippled with the sudden motion. So flanked by motionless movement, by black and white mixed to grey, by the bowed heads of servants utterly loyal and completely unacknowledged, Arawn entered his palace.

    Rahserat should have fled when he first felt the god. He had no wish to test his masks against the Grey One himself. But Arawn could never be avoided indefinitely. And Arawn was already walking up the gallery.

    The illicit angel pressed himself into an alcove carved directly from the basalt. Fighting an urge to run Rahserat went to his knees, bowing toward the walkway, and then went still. The footsteps of the Death God and his retinue were the only sounds, and they were coming closer. Then they were before him, and died away. Hearing nothing, knowing Arawn stood before him, Rahserat looked up.

    “Who are you
    Suddenly unable to see, the god's demand hit Rahserat like a hammer blow. Was this how Iaegus fell? The angel felt like he might be crushed, caught between the god's pull and the need to escape. He choked back a damning response and concentrated on his Lord's precept.
    When Arawn turned his head Rahserat could see again. The god spoke to someone beside him.
    “It hardly matters. Give him to your brother. Whatever's necessary should be done.”
    “Yes, Arawn. I will see to what's needed.”

    The god walked on, leaving Rahserat with an angel of female aspect. Pale, with long hair utterly black, and wearing pure white. She looked after the god until that one, never glancing back or even to the side, had turned a corner. Then she beckoned Rahserat with a gesture. “Stand.”
    No, she wasn't an angel. She possessed too strong an aura. An archangel.
    A pair of phantoms waited at her side, one with a spear and one with chains. “You may go. This one is no threat to me. You,” she gestured to Rahserat again. “You will come with me.”
    The phantoms followed their god, and Gyra suddenly took Rahserat's face in her hands, seizing him with her eyes. “I will not give you to my brother. I will not even see you driven from this place. For you have work to do.”
    Her eyes blazed, lit by something Rahserat thought he'd seen before, but had long since forgotten. “You see, little angel, I know who you are, though you do not.”

    Gyra took him from the Forsaken Palace and to her own places on the edge of the underworld. She showed him many things. Though it was properly in the keeping of her brother, she showed him an unguarded and secret way into Erebus: The Ivory Gate. She showed him better ways to bend others to his will. She could wield compassion like a knife, a knife she gave to him. She took him into her home and introduced him to her daughter, and he though she said nothing he thought he saw a father beyond the daughter: A one-handed man with stars for eyes.

    And never did she remonstrate with him for his deceptions, for sending more souls on to fallen Spirit master, one who he knew she worked to stop. All of this surprised him. Especially the daughter, Korinna. But nothing shocked him like the false Laroth.

    They stood on a cliff somehow high above the dreamlands. “Arawn made this place, to more easily survey his domain. My brother cares for other things and never came here, and Arawn comes here seldom now. But still, we shouldn't linger. I have something to show you, then a place for us to go. Come and see.”

    He stepped to the edge and looked where she pointed. “There,” she said. “Use your eyes, angel, and look upon the false new kingdom!”
    It was subtle, but a part of the dreamland, the inhabited underworld, seemed organized. It flowed like the rest, but some dreams stayed apart, mixing only among each other. Reading the flow for pattern, Rahserat looked for that pattern's source. There – a center. A huge hall, like an ivory vault. Mortals of all sorts at its walls and in the center a man with a mirrored crown. The would-be god, Laroth.

    Gyra touched his shoulder and Rahserat's gaze was torn from the distance. Then the archangel's pointing finger commanded his attention in a new direction. There he spied another seed of order within the dreamland's chaos. Another pattern. This one was smaller, and even more subtle. Furtive might have been a better word. At its center another hall, empty this time. But there was another throne. And on this throne...”

    “You look upon the new false kingdom, Rahserat. Now: Come and see.”
    Gyra took Rahserat's hand, effortlessly lifting him with her as she rose above the cliff. Then, moving them in her own manner across the dreamland, Rahserat suddenly stood before the second throne. And the second Laroth.
    The features were the same, and the crown. But rather than empty pits a cloth band of arterial red covered the eyes.
    Rahserat turned his puzzled face toward the archangel. “Another Laroth?”
    Gyra nodded. “A false one. Most of the souls you stir come to him. Especially the Patrians. Pelemoc, for example, is already here.”
    “But who is he?”

    “He is what the mirrors show you. Yourself. Even angels build from dreams here. That's why Arawn has taken them from the angels at the palace. And maybe why...” She shook her head, midnight tresses covering her face for a moment, clearly changing her mind about what she'd been about to say. Continuing, she said “And this is your dream. Or nightmare, I don't know. But this is what you thought you might be. Just like Laroth, but of course you'd rather not just feed his power. Here is your own power base. Souls have been gathering here just as they have around Laroth's throne. But the false Laroth, unlike the other, is completely your creature. He holds the souls here in trust. He will commend them to you, to do with as you will. Let them join Laroth, or swear to your god. Or you may keep them for yourself.”

    “This is an extravagant power you let him... let me possess. Even if it's far less than Laroth's. You oppose him, why do you aid me?”
    “I told you, angel, I know who you are.”

    She refused to explain what she meant, as always, but made Rahserat and herself visible, then introduced him to the false Laroth. The Other Angel. Just as she'd said, the dream-formed Laroth accepted Rahserat as his Lord without the slightest hesitation. He obeyed Rahserat in everything. Laroth summoned some of the lords of men he'd already gathered, introducing Rahserat as their Emperor. Pelemoc indeed was among them, as was Melante. More, the false Laroth told him, would be with him soon. And there were.

    The false Laroth could do the work he'd been sent for, and better. He suspected Gyra had a hand in his formation, but that was another subject on which she would not comment. Eventually Rahserat realized he wasn't needed, and should leave. Esus might not want the souls to go to the real Laroth if there were other options. And, if nothing else, they could be sold or traded to the hopeful usurper. His Lord knew the price of everything. Rahserat bade the false Laroth to send him a portion of the souls he snared. His Lord might find an immediate use for them, and they'd act as proof.

    His Lord was not trusting.

    Furthermore, Gyra offered him a secret way out of the underworld. The ways of the Hidden Queen were almost impossible to find, and dangerous even then. With his mission fulfilled Rahserat had planned seeking passage from Basium. One way or another. But that choleric archangel might see past his masks just as Arawn had. Gyra's charge was entrance to the underworld, but she knew of a few ways out. The Ivory Gate was one. Finally, most importantly, she had a favor to ask of him.

    “I want you to foster my daughter.”
    Rahserat was sure he'd come to understand mortals far more since he'd arrived in the underworld. He'd had to act more furtively than ever before. He'd learned fear. He'd been discovered by one who stood to him as he stood to mortals. He'd learned defeat. And he, far older than most mortals could even comprehend, had been subjected to one surprise after another. This was another.
    “You want me to take Korinna?”
    “Yes. She can't stay here. Despite my efforts she cannot... grow here. Erebus would be better for her. And she can open the Ivory Gate for you. She will go ahead, and is mortal enough to find it from the other side. It's the sure way.”
  2. Tarquelne

    Tarquelne Follower of Tytalus

    Dec 8, 2001
    Part III
    Spoiler :

    In a bright land, under a bright sky, Korinna watched the mammoth herd. She wore fur and hide clothes she'd made herself, bound up with homemade leather, a stone knife at her waist. Hair streaming in the wind, she smiled at the way the huge beasts rumbled across the plain below her. It was good to see something moving, perhaps even thriving, in this frozen waste. The ash under her eyes cut the glare to something bearable, but even the glare was better than the alternating gloom and dark that marked the week-long blizzards.
    From the dreaming dead she knew winter. But she'd also expected to see something of the other seasons, too. No. The whole world, so far as she knew, was covered with snow and ice. She wasn't sure how much longer she could keep moving. If the food and fuel ran out... she knew she wouldn't die. Not from mere deprivation. But to be trapped here, wasted and frozen, would to be in hell. She'd throw herself off a cliff first.

    It had started so promisingly. A great adventure away from mother and father. She would see the living world that had born her father when he was of it, and that mother helped guard. Her mother told Korinna that while the dreams could teach her much they could never teach her everything. They were the interpreted world, not the experienced world. Other people's interpretations, never her experience. The odd hiding angel, Rahserat... she would help him enter Erebus, and then he'd be her guide there. She was to obey him. And she would, if she ever found him.
    Where was he?

    With new traveling gear lifted from the dreaming of an adventuring Queen, Korinna had taken one of her secret uncle's routes from the underworld. (Secret because he didn't know she was his niece.) Stepping into Erebus was amazing. There was air, and ground, and light in the underworld. Of course. But it wasn't the same as the air or earth or light of Erebus. She really did feel closer to the One. Or perhaps just not as oppressed by Arawn's shadow.

    And her journey to the Ivory Gate had been a revelation. It was also long and arduous. The snow had been the worst. She hadn't figured out how to make hide and sinew snowshoes yet. She hadn't figured out almost everything, yet. The cold was the most incredible thing. Dreamed cold was never, ever, half as painful, half as stinging, half as pervasive. Cold was not something that really existed in the dreamlands, except as a pale imitation.

    But she had made it to the Ivory Gate, eventually. Low on food, exhausted, she'd been looking forward to seeing Rahserat again. Both for the company and because she knew an angel's power would be of immense help in the wilderness. She'd climbed among the foothills and, guided by her mother's directions, found the Gate. She'd taken the Gate's handle in hand and pulled. If Rahserat was on the other side, it would open. But it hadn't opened.

    She'd arrived on the appointed day, and so she'd hauled on the gate all that day. Her hands were continually sliced by the odd barbs in the ivory, but he never came. No angel. No company. No help.

    That had been long ago. She watched the stars whenever visible. She kept careful records on the rock beside the gate when storms hid the stars. On the appointed day she tried the Gate every year, and every year it did not open.

    Korinna made a home of a deep cave a day's journey from the Gate. The great bear that had preceded her as owner furnished her with her first set of new clothes. Now she sometimes worried that she'd hunt the hills bare of large game. She recorded the courses of the stars, but she avoided recording the passage of years. She didn't want to know how long she waited. Had she been abandoned?

    She'd avoided men for decades. Then loneliness had set in and she'd realized they could be company, of a sort. Where before they had hunted her, having seen the smoke from her fires, she hunted them. When she found a lone hunter she'd kill him, but first give him a message to pass to her mother. The earliest ones, of course, she'd had teach her their language. Korinna couldn't trust them to carry a message unless they repeated it back it her in their own tongue. Twice she descended to the villages to seek an auger. What she was told was hopeful, but the terrified, addled woman had made no sense.

    There were no seasons of note in the icy wasteland, and soon her life had taken on a timeless quality. She hunted, she collected dung for fires or, occasionally, wood. But she didn't like to go far from the Gate. She composed long messages to her mother and dispatched them, along with a luckless tribesman, at intervals. When her clothes wore out she'd make new ones, or use those of a fallen tribesman. She watched the animals, sometimes hunting just to observe, not kill. And that was the scope of her days, of her life. She slept through the nights and the storms and walked under the sky only when the sun was clear and shining. In her bright land the centuries passed without mark.

    Until one year, on Gate day, both handles had come away in her hand. She'd hauled on them just as the sun rose and the whole elaborate cross-piece had snapped off, putting a deep cut in her right hand. She looked at the ivory in horror. The occasional day of bright sun and relative warmth had, over a great span, caused it to corrode and crumble. She'd never really known anger, or despair, until that day.

    She'd gone mad for a time. She'd killed every man within a day's journey, saying terrible things to her mother. She'd cursed her father, the faithless Rahserat, and the One. She'd stopped eating and nearly froze before appetite overcame her. She hadn't known it but she'd never really been hungry before, either. She almost sent herself to her mother, but to do so would be to admit defeat.

    Even after her black time she'd been bleak. Perhaps for years, she didn't know. But one day well after the tribes had returned, she had an idea. Maybe the first new one in centuries.

    She could repair the Gate. She didn't know what magic might support it, and she'd never thought about where the Gate had come from, or who'd made it. She just assumed it was something beyond time, incorruptible. But not, at least, the physical form. And that she could repair. Her hands were wise now, after mortal lifetimes of craft, and there was plenty of ivory to be had. The Gate... she could put it right. She would.

    And she did. With a long, stone-tipped spear and as many knives as she could easily carry, she stalked and killed a great mammoth each year. Harvesting the beast for fur, ivory, and a little leather, she'd carve and fit, taking the most time over the Gate's uncanny barbs, and shedding much blood. It became part of the annual, futile ritual that was the only punctuation to her bright, changeless days.

    Where was he?

    Rahserat had left the underworld feeling better than he had for ages. Gyra, for reasons he couldn't fathom, was a unanticipated ally. She hadn't helped him directly with his mission, true, but she still aided him in undermining Arawn, and she'd almost certainly make a better ally for his Lord than Laroth. If nothing else he could return early and report these fortuitous events to Esus. His Lord would know what to make of them. But the angel's mood had dissolved as soon as he stepped into the Hidden Queen's passageway en route for the Ivory Gate. It was not like last time. Instead it was far darker, and shot through with red lights that clung to the edge – and only the edge – of vision. Rahserat took a cautious step to the left, along the wall, and found himself instead moving somehow downwards. Another step, and the passage became even darker, and he moved further downwards. He tried to step upwards then, climb back, but the passage abruptly became pitch-black even to his vision, and the movement downward accelerated. And did not stop. Not for years.

    When he found himself again he was crawling across a gray stone floor toward a great stone chair. A greenish light came into the chamber through a collapsed section of wall, along with a weird and terrible smell. It was something like rot, something like the musk of a great beast, or a city. It never faded. Not over the weeks in which he crawled, or all the time in the chair itself.

    When he found himself seated in the chair, slowly turning to stone, the Hidden Queen finally spoke. She had been watching him crawl, he realized now. She castigated him for his betrayal, for never sending her the word she sought.

    Hadn't he? He thought he'd had. He'd broken his Lord's vial as soon as he'd arrived. While the Queen gloated of traps and of deities, of bait, and of snares for the One, he thought about the vial and his Lord. Had his Lord betrayed him? Had the vial done anything at all? The Hidden Queen couldn't be a comfortable ally. His Lord might have lied. That was his precept. But then, the Hidden Queen could be lying too. Or maybe his Lord had kept a secret, even if that was her precept. Perhaps he'd wanted the Queen angered at Rahserat, but not able to reach him. He, Rahserat, and broken from his Lord's thought by leaving the underworld much earlier than planned. This eldritch prison, this bizarre torture, might be the result of his own good intentions.

    By the time he'd thought it through, perhaps taking years, the Hidden Queen was gone. She'd said something about the end of creation. Was that where he was? The light had gone for a time, he thought, but it was back now. He could see that a stone chair across from him had eyes, and was slowly turning into a man. Not him. The shadows stirred and giggled. Their thoughts stabbed at him.

    His clothes had awakened from their slumber and left through the hole in the wall. He could hear them screaming as something caught and ate them. When the light turned to darkness this time he noticed that the shadows were unchanged in their dance. He realized it hadn't turned to darkness so much that the darkness had become light. Everything blurred here. His thoughts into blood, light into darkness, the living into the unliving. And the reverse, in everything. Blood to thought. Dark to light. The unliving to the living.

    Souls sent by the false Laroth, sent not to a location but bound instead to him, began arriving. He hid them in the stone. They began their own changes, but slowly, as slowly as he could bend time. Time was just breath, after all. As the shadows mocked him he began to understand. One thing wasn't becoming another. No, all things were one thing here. Unified. If creation was endless variety this place was the end of creation. Everything blurred together. Why the One might be here, the Rahserats couldn't say. Maybe when everything was one, they became the One? Whether that was a semantic trick or a deep truth the Queen might be able to say, but they couldn't.

    The shadows having been consumed, the Rahserats pulled themselves back together. He was stronger now, stronger than ever before, but stranger. He thought he might be an archangel now. He felt that powerful. But whose archangel?

    With the predatory shadows gone space itself grew, and grew. The chamber still had its break in the wall somewhere, but it was lost and tiny now. The immense place was full of darkness, and stone. Or things that were often darkness and stone. That was the tendency, at least for now. And now the souls were legion, but still placed in stone for relative safety. There they lost themselves in dreams far more peculiar than they'd known before. The darkness ate at Rahserat sometimes, and he writhed and ate at it. Maybe the Queen hoped the One would come to save a poor trapped angel. But he doubted it.

    Rahserat started skipping around in time. Perhaps rather than becoming the One, this place was the antithesis of the One. Where the One was existence, everything becoming the same as everything else was the most final sort of non-existence. If everything existed as one – or One - there could, eventually, be no change. And no new creation, for everything already existed. Maybe the One would have to come here to destroy it. Would Rahserat defend this place, this end of creation? He might.

    But eventually he found a time when the darkness sounded like Korinna singing. The souls in the stones actually noticed it first. The singing came not from beyond the break in the wall. He knew he could never go outside. Must not. But he didn't have to. The singing came from a point of red.

    He ate the red. Just the color, it was one he hadn't seen in awhile. The point remained. More points appeared, stains, and he ate the red in them too. Skipping again, he found a time when a red door stood before him. Rather than eating it, he asked his arms to push it. They did.

    Korinna fell away as the door broke again, and cursed. She'd thought she wouldn't have to renew the handles for three or four mammoths. A man had somehow appeared on the snow between her and the Ivory Gate, and the Gate was a bottomless darkness rather than blooded ivory. She blinked at the scene without comprehension for several moments before finally understanding. The Gate was open! He'd come!

    Or was this Rahserat? He was shriveled, shrunken. She turned him over and the blood from her hands soaked immediately into his skin and disappeared. Then the snow under him did, too, and he was limned in darkness for a moment, apparently absorbing the light. He stretched and grew, withered flesh replaced with smooth skin over dense muscle. Korinna steadied herself as the hill seemed to tilt and Rahserat grew... not brighter, but everything else seemed to fade to background. But at last he become the Rahserat she dimly remembered. Then he opened his eyes. They weren't what she remembered.

    Part IV:
    Spoiler :

    In a bright land, in a bright city, on a bright throne the Emperor remembers. He remembers taking Korinna's stone knives and driving them through the Ivory Gate. They sank into the softer stone behind the open door, pinning it open. He remembers the first expeditions beyond the Gate, into what was now called the Bottomless Tomb. In his absence the dead got on with their weird, slow dreaming, and had to be enticed out with offerings and pleadings. The Emperor, Rahserat, wondered just how much of their living existence they spent dreaming. If they never really stopped and only met each other only where their dreams intersected. Whether they ever really lived in the deciphered world.
    They never dreamed in the vaults of Agares and his allies. Maybe thats what hell was, to have imposed on you the dreams of others.

    But for an angel the dreaming-that-is-memory must eventually give way to action. To decision. Now he wanted a messenger, and one of his guards left to summon one. Another brought pen, ink, and vellum. When the agent stood before him Rahserat had a scroll ready. There would be a new campaign, and it was time for the opening of the way. From the end of creation, through the underworld, and into Erebus. The Breach.

    He'd soon see that long separated reflection of himself, the false Laroth. What had it grown into, he wondered. Gyra would know of the Breach immediately. Would she see this as a fulfillment of her plans, or a betrayal?

    “I know who you are, though you do not.”

    Enough of memory, now he had another decision to make. The army from beyond the Breach was necessary whether he attacked or consolidated his empire. But should he attack, or just hold? This was a critical time, a pivot, and whether or not the Scions declared now for the forces of rising Armageddon or waited, hoping for greater effect later, could decide the fate of the world. To wait might be to wait too long. What would his Lord have him do? The world must be saved. He wanted only the best...

    “I know who you are, though you do not.”

    A ringing and clattering shattered the quiet of the throne room as a hundred guardswomen all fell as one. The Emperor went still and cold. Finally, he understood what she meant.

    Everything: Nemed's trials, Mammon speaking before the assembled ranks, the War, the Compact, flashed through his mind. Iaegus' pointed cruelties. Esus' plots and plans. The God of Deception. And Trust.

    Rahserat had acted only as he thought was best for the world. He had gone against the revealed will of the One, yes, but he had acted only with the best of intentions. It was a minor precept, but he'd never abandoned it! Never corrupted it. He had been deceived, or at least led astray, but he had never abandoned his precept. He had never fallen.

    In a bright land, on a bright throne, in a room where a hundred identical women lie unconscious, with the guards outside hammering on the door, desperate to know if their Emperor is safe, their Emperor doubts his safety.

    He had never fallen. But now he could. He had been persuaded, before. He had been mistaken. Even an angel, obeying his purpose, can be twisted around that purpose. Yet from the moment he'd realized that no fall was behind him, a gulf opened before him. He could stay consistent with all his past actions over these many millennia. He could stay true to his Lord and creator. He really could be part of saving the world. Or... Before he had been thoughtless or deceived, now he could choose. He could stay the Angel of Good Intentions, or become the Angel of Regret. Which was he?

    Rahserat went cold a second time, and the hammering at the doors abruptly stopped. There was a further danger. He knew his Lord as well as any could. Rahserat had survived the betrayal of the Hidden Queen. Perhaps only, he now wondered, because at the time he was unfallen. Maybe the One really had helped him. He had also escaped the god of Death. He had been taken in by an archangel, and even given charge of her daughter. He ruled a vast empire on Erebus, leading armies for the greater glory of... something. Or did he? He had been very, very fortunate. But his Lord trusted no one, and in his vault casually played games with time and perception. Esus toyed with dreams, and always twisted them. The Risen Emperor might be emperor of only one of Esus' dreams. And he'd never know, never know for sure, until he'd acted in any way that revealed himself. Regret or Good Intentions.

    He could put it off, but there was no such thing as a non-decision. Delay was something he could only... regret. Rahserat knew he had to choose.

    The Breach:
    Spoiler :

    The wind rushes up the hillside without noise, swallowed whole by a hungry sky. The lone rider's gently flapping, twisting mantle is the only sign of its passage. The rider too is silent. The hooves of his horse strike the ground without sound or sign. The beast itself never whinnies or nickers, or vocalizes in any way.

    The rider, Themoch, sometimes seems to. His lips move in a silent curse as he reigns his horse on the barren hilltop and dismounts to the bloody ground. Another silent man and horse are here, though entirely without motion. Neither will move again.

    The horse looks to have died from multiple arrow wounds, but the man was hacked apart. Themoch reads no malice into the act. Being an imperial soldier that's exactly what was needed. He checks the man's torso. No message pouch, and no message. Probably destroyed or, worse, taken. But Themoch extends his search and finally locates the messenger's right arm. Looking, he finds grit under the nails. It isn't long before he finds the shallow hiding hole, and the pouch. In the pouch is a single terse message: “Let the Breach open. Tell him.”

    Themoch checks the seals. The note is from the Emperor's own hand. An enemy finding this wouldn't have know the import of this short message, but Themoch does. Even so, he doesn't hesitate.

    He rises from his crouch and again moves his lips as if speaking. Still without sound. No ears on that hill, no matter how sensitive, would hear a word. Only a lip reader could have made out any meaning.

    And yet... in another place entirely a man without eyes hears Themoch, as he always hears Themoch. His crowned head lifts at the sound of his name, and he hears Themoch's own short message.

    “Come and see!”
  3. Dr. Strange

    Dr. Strange Chieftain

    Oct 18, 2008
    I rather liked these. They give some flavor and resolution to a somewhat lore-lacking civ. And, while I'm no MagisterCultuum, I see no real conflict between this and existing lore. Besides, I think the whole not-so-fallen angel angle is pretty clever. Of course, I am a Scions fan, so take that for what you will.

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