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TNES VI - The Mythopoeia

Discussion in 'Never Ending Stories' started by Thlayli, Aug 31, 2018.

  1. TheMeanestGuest

    TheMeanestGuest Warlord

    Joined:
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    Location:
    Ontario, Canada
    The Holiday Spirit

    High up in the sky laughter abounds, a booming great voice spreads mirth all around; tall trees pass below with snow on their crowns.

    Up through the valleys and down to the seas, old Kleb went about as quick as he pleased. He rode on the back of a winged balgaroo, which is the wingiest creature you ever could view. He came bearing gifts: treats, sweets and new clothes. From Carnhold to Krake - even under the lake! - good folk prayed to Kleb wearing bells on their toes, leaving out mead for his red glowing nose.

    The North on this night was grown wintren and white - a day of long darkness, the moon shining bright. At Amno the zemmi sleep wrapped up all tight, warm rooten beds dug down deep underground. Snoring with sneer amid rumbles and groans: no dreams in their heads, not one to be found. They arise with a clamour, screams in their ears - it must mean old Kleb was soon coming near.

    Midwinter's night Shadur hates most of all. It hated, it HATED, and filled up with gall. It sends out its whispers, but no one can hear, their hearts stuffed to bursting with Wintrentide cheer. Naiounes on clouds it dispatches each year, but Kleb flies too fast; laughs away in the clear.

    "No, not once more will this come to pass! I won't be outmatched by this troublesome clown! I'll make up a trap, and I'll cast him right down!" Shadur screamed at Hyric, who started to frown.

    "YAVA!" it yelled, its voice calling far. "Bring me a glabber, one with a scar!"

    With curses and sighs she dragged 'cross the plain, six glabbering legs kicking in train. She dropped it right there in front of her God; what plan did it have to bag the drunk fraud? Clatters and klinks echoed above, and out from a mouth Shadur tumbled a jug.

    "Now milk me its teats and we'll make up a drink," Shadur spat in the bottle, letting it sink, brewing a spell made from troublesome sleeps. Wraiths to fly out, promise to keep.

    "On Hyric! On Ibba! On Yava and Glame! Kill me a godling and pickle his brain!"

    In a field lonely and clear they set up a lure, zemmi arms heaving up a mountain of beer. In the midst of clay bottles lay the trappening jug; they knew Kleb would come, drawn by thirst for a slug.

    They waited and watched as the moon crossed the sky, until way up above a red star did they spy. Kleb dropped with a crash, falling on snow, and he took up a bottle, his nose all aglow. Beer after beer he threw down the hatch. He drank and he drank and he started to grow! Would the spell work? Soon they would know.

    A monstrous man, now tall as a bear, covered all over in white scratchy hair. Ah, at last, the jug is right there! Kleb holds it in hand; the naiounes prepare. But then on his face a look of great care, he sniffs at the contents, inhaling its airs. The wraiths hold their breath, their eyes giving stares.

    And Kleb drank it down with a rumbling shrug.

    Hyric leaps out, grey spear in hand. "We've got you old man, for this we've long planned!" - he's thrown through a tree, the distance quick spanned. Ibba flies in, a howl of rage, an axe in Kleb's back while Glame readies the cage. Ibba trips up, his feet all askew. Can Kleb truly resist the strength of the brew? Yava is there with a rope and a chain, wrapping Kleb 'round - but she's smacked by his cane.

    Glame lashes the field with a howling wind, the icy sharp teeth of an obelisk's grin - then kicked in the head by a winged balgaroo.

    Hyric is back, face all aglower, arm of the monolith thrumming with power. A punch in Kleb's gut, fist striking straight through while Ibba grabs on, sticking like glue. The drunk shakes him off, dancing aside, intestines spilled out, the hole gaping wide. Hyric pressed on, wounded in pride.

    Alas, not tonight would Shadur have Kleb's hide. He scampers and skips and he hops on his ride.

    The naiounes look up as he flits on his way and tosses a bag as night turns to day.

    He laughs as he calls to wraiths he holds dear: "You all tried your best, and thanks for the beer! I've left you a gift, and I'll see you next year! Even Shadur deserves holiday cheer!"



     
    Last edited: Dec 24, 2018
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  2. Thlayli

    Thlayli Le Pétit Prince

    Joined:
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    Messages:
    10,539
    Location:
    In the desert
    The sounds of bleating lambs are oft to awaken one from slumber. Don't cry, little sheep, for your shearing will come. I am back, and preparing, so your new coats will be fresh and white, and your year's growth repurposed for higher beings.
     
  3. Thlayli

    Thlayli Le Pétit Prince

    Joined:
    Jun 2, 2005
    Messages:
    10,539
    Location:
    In the desert
    It is close now. Oh, yes, so very close. That thing, which you desire, your nourishment. And how have you asked for it? Oh yes, you asked so politely. "Where is my food?" you said. And again, and again, "How many more ingredients must you add?" And again, "I cannot wait to consume the repast." And each time I nodded, smiling, adding, stirring. But did you offer to come to the pot? Did you offer to wipe my brow as it sweats? Did you offer to scythe the wheat I need? Or did you wait, and SIT, with sullen eyes that belie your endless, consuming hunger. Oh, no, don't feel guilty. It is far too close to mealtime for guilt.

    Oh yes, your meal. Your delicious, delicious meal. You so long to taste it. Well don't worry, hungry eater. It is ready for you, SOON.
     
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  4. Lord_Iggy

    Lord_Iggy Tsesk'ihe

    Joined:
    Jun 7, 2005
    Messages:
    24,544
    Location:
    Yukon


    1. The childhood of Haadulf, who became aware of the Wheel of Leaves and was rased among the Gahadi.
    2. The captivity of Haadulf by the Mohabef, where he first met and befriended his intended betrothed, Halid.
    3. The youthful journeys of Haadulf and Halid, with their guardians Mastin and Gologind. Many gifts and much knowledge was shared, and Gahad grew into the Garden City in their absence. Halid's firstborn, Halogund, is born shortly before their return to Gahad.
    4. The flight east. As Anis-Natar bore down upon the Garden of Gahad, the party pursued the Wheel of Leaves and the Thousand Voices to the east. Halid second pregnancy ends in tragic miscarriage, but the Aeranath are born.
    5. The childhood of the Aeranath. The party raise the Forest Children in the sacred groves of the east. In this time, Halef is conceived and born.
    6. The journey west. The party visits several of the Circle Cities, and more children are born to Halid and Haadulf. Aardulf and Aarogund are born as sons to Haadulf's lineage, and Masti as his daughter, while Golofar is a son to Halid's moiety, with Halef and Golofind as daughters. A daughter, Haadalid, is born to Haadulf's moiety further west, among the mountain people inland of Sommos and Enaios. At the end of this period, the party encounters the traveler Koskin, who ultimately attempts to destroy Haadulf in service of SHADUR. Alai and Jammie, however, arrive in rescue and become acquainted with the group.
     
    Last edited: Feb 20, 2019
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  5. Thlayli

    Thlayli Le Pétit Prince

    Joined:
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    Messages:
    10,539
    Location:
    In the desert
    Prologue

    I doubt there is a more pretentious phrase in human speech than “I am an artist.” I don’t think I’d even call myself a craftsman; would that I were. A poet once called me a dilettante, which hurt because it was closer to the truth. Perhaps I might call myself a perfectionist. Of course, like the function of a square root, we only approach the limit of Perfection, the improvement to effort ratio dropping the further we reach. The problem, you see, is that mortals have such tiny shards of the mirror image - Not enough to see the true Reflection. This is the meaning of the ancient teaching that we are cracked vessels. Haven’t you ever felt it flicker around the edges of your consciousness? The missing pieces. The mirror you cannot see.


    Update 3: The Tyranny of Land

    “Why are you so surprised that you never saw the stranger? Did you ever let your lover see the stranger in yourself?” -Billy Joel

    706 – 712, Southern Calendar
    31 – 37, Second Circle / Hexic Calendar

    Of the South:

    Salap Scarab Skin’s wrapped hands shake as the girl sobs atop the now-closed valley. Helplessness crowds his mind. Sand-spirits of lost, dying winds cannot fight against the great grievance, the ancient foe. He has lost everything. First family, second family, the young ones he was training. There is no future for his art, nor his blood. There is only one thing left.

    “You have two choices,” he tells the orphaned girl. “You can die. Or you can live.” He crouches down, looking her in the eyes as the wind whips her tear-soaked hair over her face and back behind her as it shifts again. “There is only one way to survive. You offer yourself. You offer everything, and you never look back.”

    She nods, trying to control herself, still wrapped in the coils of an insufficient grief, the vast weight of all the dead Kfeji pouring down on her unremarkable shoulders, shaking with silent sobs. Salap turns from this. The Kfeji were never truly his people. Of course, that does not temper the pain.

    “Where do I go to end this?” he asks the sand spirits. His anguish empowers them.

    “where it all begins” says one.
    “where it all ends” says the second.
    “where it all continues” says the third.
    “Arisaras.” “Arisaras.” “Arisaras.”

    The murmurs continue for some time, blending into an endless Arisarasarisarasarisaras.

    In his pocket, he clutches It, tightly. The city of devils. But what more is there to fear, now? Only one thing. He fears how they cluster around the girl.

    “I have something to give you,” Salap says.


    Of the East:

    The umak Jemmi stands on the precipice of the ocean. Companion to Alai for nigh-two decades, she now stands alone. Sea birds wheel over sun-glittered Past. Twenty miles away, a colony of udyn migrants are searching for a new shore on the western coast. She feels at least five great schools of fish, and the solitary predators tracking them at a distance. Small birds peck in the underbrush, occasionally twisting wary little heads on fat necks. And between it all, like a knife carved through the flesh of the ocean, the line of Land. The intrusion.

    Jemmi prays, peace-cloths fluttering in the salt wind. She prays harder than she has ever prayed. The sea spirits come to know her as the forest did. The sun sets, and rises, and sets again, and the ocean begins to hum with her resonance. In all this time she does not move a muscle. She does not shout, but asks, again and again, and then the waves begin to rise, battering against the line of Land. And then, something comes. The thing that has driven the waves before it. Things. A great beast, no, two. Two monsters so vast they might be called gods in truth. Tentacles stretching miles, and behind it, a fin as great as a hillock, barely the iceberg tip to the great scaled being beneath.

    Kraken and dragon do no justice to the physical forms of these ancient behemoths of salt and scale. Jemmi feels a twinge of fear, wondering what she has done, how she led these beasts here. She feels then the simple revelation experienced by all mortal priests, an understanding of the miniscule place of humanity in the vast cosmos. The head of the kraken slams into the shoreline, and a tentacle throws spray up into the air for miles as it lashes across the land, sprinkling the flowers of the headland with saltwater and the blue sky with rainbows before a great plume of pulverized obsidian ashens it. But the dragon’s ferocity is greater still. At the tangled combat, a blast of spray, and muffled thumps from below the sea, as the two bodies thrash, bigger than the mountains themselves. Jemmi realizes suddenly that those small beings which she has long placated and served in the forest are not gods. These are gods.

    A tearing supersonic screech meant for the underworld of lightless oceans extends from a beak the size of Sommos’ walls, filled with millions of countless rows of tiny needle-teeth. In its desperation, the kraken tries to heave itself over the obsidian slag, pulling itself across the land with its vast tentacles, gouging a canal with its bulk as ash and smoke rise in great clouds, ancient encrustations grinding through rock. And then, a great occlusion of the gentle blue sky, as darkness from above shrouds. The sea dragon has leapt into the air, and it lands on the kraken with a violent snap of vast ochre jaws. Gouts of brown blood to make the stone smoke further still. The gouging canal becomes a channel, massive gushes of water pouring in between the broken line of Land, huge chunks of stone casting up massive splashes as they fall miles away.

    Having broken through, perhaps accidentally, in their titanic clash, the beasts continue their combat into the inner sea, a combat that might continue for weeks or months (or timeless eons) more. Jemmi sighs with relief and catharsis, partially that the titanic beasts are gone and did not destroy more than she intended, but mostly that she accomplished her task.

    “I can’t say I’m not grateful,” comes an acerbic human voice, as a long, white-haired man in a yellow- flowered robe melts out of the stone behind her, distinguished by a severe lack of arms. “Biggest spell you ever cast, wasn’t it?” The armless one gives a grin and a chuckle, and Jemmi takes a step back, whipping a charm-staff in front of her. “Wokiko,” she says.

    “I’ve been watching, little umak,” he says. “And I got some questions.”

    “Are these questions optional?” says Jemmi, taking a step back.

    “Sure,” says Wokiko, grinning.

    Jemmi looks down at the sward beneath her feet, the backwards step having gathered momentum on the heel, and takes a single step forward, warm breaths of wind and sliding grass allowing her to close the distance faster than space would normally allow and jam her staff into Wokiko’s face, charms jingling. The construct crumbles, Wokiko’s illusory mouth saying, “Typical,” as it deforms into clods of dirt and pebbles.

    Strange beings of the utmost South, four-legged striped quadrupeds of black and white armored in iron plates, canter onto the horizon. Off their backs jump elongated, black-furred monkeys, leering wickedly with whips in their hands as their tails curl with avarice. Wokiko’s pet khergaa soldiers. They scramble and hop across the shoreline rocks with great agility, drawing daggers in their off-hands as they circle the rocks to corner her.

    She jumps off the cliff. Her last prayer before she hits the water is that Wokiko doesn’t have any dolphins.

    ---


    T’namar once more looks up warily at the sky he cannot see, as his line of amethyst skeletons fans out through the forest. There are many lives here, small flames of forest creatures, and greater ones deep within their burrows, waiting for night to fall. Not that the gloom of day is much brighter in this undergrowth. He is careful to shroud his power beneath layers of obscuring smoke. His pursuit has been slow and methodical, but finally, his tightening ring of searchers is closing in on the valley of Haadulf’s hidden sanctuary.

    Then suddenly, across the forest, all of the tiny purple flames go out, like when the air is sucked from a room by some greater fire. The eyes of the skeletal warriors fade and they are simply skeletons, clattering down to nourish the forest floor with their phosphor, spears and helms toppling. T’namar unveils his power, ember eyes glowing like coals as the silver chains encircling his body under his orange-red robes sear the cloth with their heat. The link to the Land has been broken, somehow. He did not think these aranefh he had tracked and skirmished with had such power…no, this must be some new enemy.

    T’namar sits on the forest floor, pensive. He meditates, a small dervish of slowly burning leaves rising around him as he sends his questing mind outward. A second time, the enemies have now eluded them. Eyes closed, T’namar allows a half-burning leaf to land on his open palm. He blows upon it, and it soars up into the canopy, seeking the winds above. Seeking his blood across the sea. The Mountain’s magic may be severed by the Past, but Afrakt’s lineage bears not that curse. Grandfather will not be pleased, but he must know he has failed him.

    Then he pulls out a small rabbit skull with topaz eyes, a corrupted flame he bears with distaste. “Emperor Wokiko,” he says. “Working on it,” comes the voice from the clattering jaws of the rabbit. “It’s an umak. But this one feels different.” T’namar’s face remains impassive, eyes closed. “Wise observation,” Half-Marid finally replies. “Just…give me a second!” says the rabbit skull, sounding harassed. “I’m divining. And chasing the girl.” T’namar waits, the half-burned leaves glowing along their fringes, frozen in the act of consumption as they slowly rotate around him. “Neeeeeh,” says the rabbit skull, finally. “So…what do you know about dreams?”

    ---


    T’namar’s path did run cold that day, thanks to the efforts of Haadulf’s friends. For years, Haadulf worked, continuing to teach the Wheel’s bounty and raising his ever-growing family. His knees began to ache with the years of travel, but still-greater crowds followed his teachings in the new Circle Cities and beyond. Although he tried his best to keep his travels secret, his immense celebrity meant that his appearance in a place often gathered massive crowds, news of which spread widely.

    His departure from the far East foiled pursuit, for a time. For years, even, his close family and followers kept him one step ahead of the agents of the South, who despite their alliance with Wokiko had shown surprising restraint in not launching yet another full-scale invasion to follow the one they had already launched. While they worked to secure the full length of the Aarda River with an expanding network of trading posts and forts, a client state relationship was formalized with Sommos, which granted a tribute of grain south and recognized the supremacy of Anis-Natar.

    While Anis-Natar did not send out more legions, what they did send were spies in great measure, both orange-eyes and those in their employ. Ships became less safe for the group as marids were reported in the sky patrolling sea-lanes, requiring Haadulf’s ever-fleeing party – of whom we will speak more later - to travel between obscure paths and villages in the raw and rocky lands south of the Carnish seas.

    And what transpires for the Carns? Those purveyors of family yarns. Well, Mathlin grows in fame and might, while on the throne he lays his sights. But Tanguy holds it now and then, befitting those of Arthmael’s ken. (Don’t expect me to rhyme for the whole section.) The Carnish confederacy has prospered in these years of raiding, civil wars notwithstanding. Refugees from the Circle aid in the growth of intricate shelf farms on the steep cliffs of the Carnish coast, and new techniques are developed for the processing of wool into cloth. Some heady pit-mines and wrightworks now smolder among the crags, noxious fumes rising to mull in the mists.

    The clan-town of Dúnmael gains fame and size enough to be called a city. A stone wall with towers surrounds the king’s city, and something the Somnians call a “citadel,” a special high-fort for the king’s house. A house so great has never been built in memory, and for it, High King Tanguyix has even built a special tower for his mystics to gaze at the skies, and a special room to collect each scroll that has been written in the world. A private harbor for the king’s own use lies hundreds of feet below the citadel, accessed by a rope and pulley system designed by Somnian slaves, winched down perilously past salt-sprayed birds’ nests and the pounding roar of the relentless surf.

    And in all this, the Carnish move towards peace, for a time. Tanguyix deems it better, for now, to build and trade, for this is a High Kingdom, not a low kingdom. Yet the captains chafe, and their butchery cannot be entirely stilled. Perhaps it is because of Sommos’ new “ally”. Perhaps it is because of the news of the fires of the South. Or perhaps it is because the High King wishes to bind his peoples in chains himself, chains of peace and empire and wisdom. The Staredours tell him to do such a thing.

    Who? Astatori, in the Somnian tongue. This is an old practice of the seas, a reliance on the stars. It was necessary, when no land is to be seen. But old navigators found that the stars whispered to them more than their courses, of love and longing. They gained power under the cold, alien pinpricks, lost and vagrant histories that transit the void. They learn to fill a man with light, to over-flowing. Perhaps for his good, perhaps not. Or to find hidden things, or to hide found things. Not great in might, but cunning. Long distrusted (but respected) by the Carnish, they are gathered up by the High King and set to make his arcana. Once rough painted figures on scraps of cedar bark, the cards of the Carnish tarot have now become omens of great portent under royal patronage.

    The Bound Door, that which changes, opens, starts and ends. The Twisted Tree, murder, madness, disaster. The Serpent Ram, for the wild, a journey, rebellion. The Indigo Past, for dreams, lust, forgetfulness, conquest, age, time. The Kelpen Maid, for youth, life, hope, but also traps, betrayal. The Hornéd Helm, for dominion, war, fate. The Golden Laurel, for wealth, increase, corruption, seduction, alliance. The Sleeping Cadain, for peace, mistakes, and family. The Wandering Widow, for rivalry, hatred, and strength. And many more. The houses of the moon, the equinox, and the constellations’ declination dictate the prophecies they accumulate in their tower. And one, they make very clear to the High King’s great displeasure: Twice-Queen Maelis is to be his end.

    So, he does what is natural, and summons his champion.

    Let of speak of him, for a moment. For strong Maithlin has gained a name second only to the king’s. Maithlin the Tall is a peaceable man, except when he fights, despite his great brawn, or perhaps because of it. He carries a blade that none have ever seen unsheathed, because it cuts away from them their memory of the thing. He seeks the hand – or perhaps the alliance – or both, it is hard to say, of Yann, daughter of Judoc, the recently dead, and mad. Her many clamoring suitors he defeats on pitch-deck combat, the roar and call of the crews from the sails cheering their captains. And from them he cuts away part of their very humanity; they find themselves bestial, crowing and lowing. The animal-men cursed to lowliness for their dishonorable pursuit of Yann ap Judoc beg Maithlin to return to them their humanity. He offers it. Bound by cursed torcs of amber detailing their animal forms, they are allowed a semblance of their humanity if they carry out great deeds for their master. They are the Torcwenn, the honor guard of Maithlin’s new army, stronger than all but Maithlin himself.

    But young Maithlin’s exploits do not stop there; indeed, his adventures begin to serve as the nexus for quite a corpus of tales. He sails to the Slave Cities, or so it is said, and plunders an Imperial trade-barge under the cover of a storm said to cut water itself from the sky, dampening the pursuit of any marids, while smuggling both scriptures and weapons to the enslaved cities. He signs peace in the king’s name with several tribes of the udyn, against all odds (and the advice of any sound Carnishman against the savage kelp lovers, to be sure.) With the Torcwenn as his ensorcelled guard, he begins to gather warriors to him from across the Carnish tribes, ostensibly for the High King, but High King Tancuy is rarely seen these days outside of his kingsfort. So it goes. But it is then that Maithlin is summoned to capture Tancuy’s greatest foe, the thorn in his side from the north, Maelis.

    But not long after Maithlin departs, and before he returns, a messenger arrives at the court of the Carns.


    From: The Empire of Anis-Natar
    To: High King of Carns


    I’ve traveled o’er sea and sky,
    I name myself, Shev Orange-Eye.

    I find this village crude, but fair,
    And of it I’d not rend a hair,
    Upon it, though, lies Afrakt’s glare.

    A god is He, of might and right,
    His eyes an ember-glowing light,
    Above all things, he loves to fight.

    Now understand, that this may be,
    A most destructive travesty,
    But first, an offer comes to thee.

    To Sommos send a tribute fine,
    And kneel to Afrakt, our divine,
    Upon the Mountain’s great incline,
    And peace, not ruin, shall be thine.

    Protect your people, wise High King
    And to our halls, your homage, bring.


    ---

    Maelis Twice-Queen has been busy with her small queendom, her second husband, Atami, and their son, Taevic. The coast of Tamimael prospers in unnoticed ways, thanks to the dedicated pursuit of arts and crafts. The Maelish even trade with their neighbors, the elusive Mimish, who appear unnoticed at the gates to learn the arts of story-carving and depart just as suddenly, leaving gifts of food and timber. A few prosperous towns now grow in this land. Perhaps we will speak more of this at a later time.

    Taevic plays in the town, until one day he walks through the door. Then he finds himself in a different place, a place full of threads, and strings. He is afraid, and he cries, but no one comes. He is there for what feels like many years. He watches a bumblebee, its wings moving once each day. He wanders far away, seeing many things, all of them moving so, so, slowly. And eventually, he breaks. He screams, he begs. He begs to go back. He does not hunger, he does not thirst. It is the loneliness that does him in. And then he hears a voice. It asks him if he wants to go back. He says, yes, yes, please. The voice asks him, are you afraid of Boundaries? He says no, I have seen every Boundary and there is nothing to fear. The voice sounds pleased. It asks him what he will do to go back. The boy says, anything. The voice says, you will go to your half-brother Morvan. The boy did not know he had a half-brother Morvan. You will go to him, and be his companion, says the voice. And one day, I will ask you to take something from him. I don’t want to hurt him, says Taevic about the half-brother he did not know he had. Do you want to go back or not, says the voice. Yes, says the boy softly. Then go back through the door.

    Taevic stumbles onto the grassy sward, back in the world. The bumblebee wobbles through the clover, his Maelish guard dozing against a fencepost not far away. He is still a boy, and no one missed him, because almost no time passed, hardly any time at all. He cries in his mother’s skirts that night, and she pushes him away and shouts for Atami to do something, appalled that she raised a child so weak. Perhaps she too is getting weak, in her old age. Atami says there, there, and allows the boy to sleep with him, that evening. The boy does not sleep. The next day, Maithlin the Tall comes with his sea of ships, his great brawny, hulking warriors, his might and renown. The Maelish run hither and thither in chaos. They have made a nice bell, and they decide this is an excellent opportunity to ring it. Maelis calms them down. Contrary to the expectations of everyone, she meets Maithlin on their small dock, embraces him with a glistening in her eyes that is certainly not tears, thank you very much, and offers him her crown. No thank you, he replies. He will be wearing another crown soon. Maithlin meets young Taevic, who gives him a shy smile which turns into a laugh when he is wrapped in a bear hug and spun around. (The boy does not yet know he is his brother Morvan.)

    I’m going back with him, Maelis tells the stunned Atami. Don’t worry, it will be fine. You can handle this place while I’m gone. As soon as she disappears, Atami turns to the Maelish, who are watching him silently in a large, gathered crowd. “Well everyone, it’s time for us to make the best of this!” he declares. Oh god, say the Maelish.

    ---

    Oh, and what of Sommos? It submits. Its laureates submit in triplicate the terms of their accession to servitude. It is wise of them, since Anis-Natar’s destructive capabilities are known. And it is wise of Anis-Natar, for the great and sluggish empire struggles now to digest such delicacies as hundreds upon hundreds of miles of river, and the restive peoples therein. It is wise for everyone. Let us all sit and congratulate ourselves on our wisdom. Naturally the vassalage is not popular with the common folk, but the threat of Imperial protection seems enough to warn off Carnish raids. Consequently, the city grows in peace, and there is a burst of fertility, perhaps thanks to the methods imparted by the refugee greenpriests imported from points South. Civic unrest is common, as factions and gangs fight turf battles in the slums with warpaint crudely applied in the colors of their gods, but the newly reinforced Lawblades are typically sufficient to reimpose order after a block or two is torched.

    There are some disputes with the Anis-Natari legate, Ashrak, as to whether the Mountain must be officially supreme in the pantheon, but it is ultimately settled (for now) with a policy of decided ambiguity, and the decision to give Her the tallest temple, if the Empire would be so good as to donate to the construction. The city has become home to quite a cluster of gods, both inside and outside the official Hexic Pantheon, and still more obscure folk-deities worshipped in small street-shrines, many of these belonging to the descendants of displaced tribes now half-assimilated into the Somnian commonality.

    And as for Sommos proper, about the city a vast and impressive set of walls are raised, like nothing else in all the land. Hundreds of feet tall and wide, they block out the very sun for those that live in its shadow. Priest-administrators of the Mountain and architect-warriors of the Boundary provide consultation for the Trifecta, (the Anis-Natari going blindfolded as they inspect the harbor defenses,) and with their assistance the walls of the city grow mighty indeed. Never again, say these mighty walls, to a humiliating sack at the hands of the vile Carnish pirates! As for the Trifecta, they have taken advantage of peace with the Empire and the Carns to finally launch the long-awaited expedition against that pernicious thorn in their side, the traitor-Laureate Arrupos, Dictator of Enaios.

    So, the First and the Second Law march forth, a stern Laureate commanding each. Far outnumbering Arrupos in the field, the forces of the dictator retreat in the face of the oncoming army, shutting themselves up tight within the walls of Enaios. Most of the tribes of the region pay fealty to the forces of the Trifecta as the Enaians prepare for a siege. And the siege drags on…and on…and on. Enaios proposes a border at the river, while the forces of Sommos refuse and demand total submission. The Somnians have neglected to prepare siege weapons, and although several proposals were drafted, a fleet was deemed too expensive so soon after the Carnish sack. As a result, the Lawblades are forced into encamping outside Enaios for several years.

    Eventually, however, the siege bears fruit. What breaks first, it seems, is the defenders’ sanity. Laureate Arrupos had been accused of erratic behavior, shaving his entire body completely hairless and talking in his citadel late into the night, having conversations with what he claimed were angels with wings made of edges. One day, a cluster of shocked citizens stumbles out of Enaios’ gates, telling the surprised Somnian commanders outside that Arrupos melted down all the gold and silver in the city into one giant vat, then walked himself and each of his soldiers into the molten pool in the middle of the night. Those that refused were dragged and thrown.

    The shining, mutilated corpses in their coats of electrum are lined in the central agora in their thousands for the shocked commanders of Sommos to see. But then, as one, they begin to twitch, and move. Their shells of gilt crack like eggs, and shining, golden, statuesque figures emerge. Arrupos the Mad rises, resplendent and naked, a laurel of electrum upon his brow. “I serve this world no longer,” he says. Gathering his fellow soldiers, they march, naked and resplendent, out into the western wilderness. Some crazy fanatics follow them, believing this to be the will of the Boundary. But the vast majority stay, since Sommos has now granted religious toleration to Emanon, and Sommos for their part are fine to let the golden lunatic march off to the ends of the earth as long as they get the city.

    But what now comes?

    A thunder that is not thunder, on the horizon. Horns that have not been heard in the world since before the ancient war. Once more piece of the puzzle, finally falling into place – as the joyous Oshkum ride their horse-horde across the open, rolling countryside of the East. The pact made in the North has replenished their herds, although now they are only born black, and occasionally white. This land is the land they have been promised, the land that was foretold. Free, and wide, and beautiful – but not, entirely, it seems, empty. Nonetheless, the spirit of the tribes is optimistic – this country is far more suitable for their herds, and richer even than their ancestral homelands.

    The Oshkum, of course, are almost entirely flummoxed by the very idea of a stone city, especially one with walls that tower taller than even their strongest man can overshoot with a bow, while the Somnians have no idea how to deal with these beast-men with two heads and six limbs. Preliminary intelligence does indicate that these chimeras can separate from their lower halves into creatures resembling men, but the Laureates are not yet convinced of their humanity. What the Oshkum do understand quite well, however, is raiding – villages recently subjugated by Sommos now burn on the River Emmia, and the horde (mostly) crosses the river and continues on its path east. But shall they settle here, or conquer, or continue on? This foe, with their organized armies, great walls and bronze shields, are like none the Prophet-Prince and his father have ever faced before in their long journey. And men cling more stubbornly than gods, at times.

    The Lawblades and the Oshkum horde have yet to come to a decisive conflict – their Carnish friends have told them of the softness of the Somnian countryside and the great wealth and slaves it can offer, and their initial probing raids have borne much success. But it seems that in the intervening years as they roved from the coastal forests into the pleasant, warm climes, ripe grain fields and gentle rolling hills of the Somnian demesne, these “soft” people have raised larger, stronger armies, clad in shells of metal in an abundance the Oshkum had never thought possible. How did they get this much metal? Prophet-Prince Golmorod dreams – there are some few watchers, cloaked in robes of red and orange, non-participants in the skirmishes that have ranged along the inland between Oshkum grazing land and the territory of Sommos proper. These men, if they be men at all, have the spark of a great and ancient power within them, a power that binds in chains all the metal of the earth. This is the Oshkum’s first encounter in this age with the powers of the South, and indeed it seems they hold this entire realm under the sway of their great and distant empire.

    They will have to proceed carefully from here. Indeed, they have found a region capable of becoming their new home, and it is what Golmorod’s dreams promised. But they will now have to navigate the treacherous waters of war and politics with the great civilizations that live in this part of the world if they are to indeed make it their home, and not their grave.

    ---

    There is the matter of the sacred groves, their children, and the sleeping god they embody, but the following years pass mostly in isolated abandon. The growth of the groves stabilize as much of the energy within them is now focused on the increase of the aerenath, whose breeding seasons seem to lengthen and shorten depending on the food that is available. This is, luckily, a good time. A watch is set on the Slave Cities from the southernmost canopies of the tallest trees, but the legions do not issue forth. The only significant incursions of the orange-eyed legions are to eliminate the few pockets of Elaadi’s presence south of the Slave Cities, and those few aerenath that remain in those places have already left for more stable locations.

    But they must be planning something. And eventually, at the end of it, word comes to the new court which now forms deep within the woods. To the aerenath who consider it their sacred duty to protect the Circle Cities, and the people of their spiritual ancestor. To Aeledan, the new king of the horned ones. Some aid he has sent north, particularly with his friend Alai who served the forests even before they properly awakened. But this was mostly a courtesy; his eyes, unblinking, unwavering, are fixed South. Two great disturbances scythe through the forest seers, the rumbling of a dream edging into a nightmare. Two great spiritual upsurges, two great, violent, and ruthless depredations of Spring.

    Of these, we speak more elsewhere. But now, the groves are no longer content to simply wait for their fate. Under their new king, they are prepared to fight.


    Of the East, particularly its endings:

    Shadur mulls, and murmurs. Now is the time for bounteous increase, to dig deep the holds of horror. So, the twisted tree-vaults of Amno crack deep through permafrost and bedrock, into the bowels of the earth. In them, children are born to zemmi-hood, and this second generation, born in the shadow of the obelisk, are stronger and more cunning than their parents. New generations of naiounes will come more readily from the young-zemmi, these cruel, calculating children who have never known a world without Shadur’s voice. Its approval their only currency, their loyalty is less easily shaken – but their dependence on Shadur’s voice for guidance is perhaps more potent than their elders that knew the outside world. Further afield, servants of the Obelisk strengthen its’ hold on the North, with the great moon-valley of the Kurom now worshipping Shadur alone, all other false idols shattered.

    It has taken the dreamer Kurei, and drowned him, yes, pulled from the man’s memories a subtle understanding of the art of dreaming. In its own pool far underground, it casts like an oil slick a twisted corruption of the dream-well of Iphu, a roiling, burbling torrent – the Well of Nightmares. Yes, the curse of the Well will infect entire cities that dare oppose it, amplify its strength, deepen its tortures, and its reign shall become unquestioned soon – but what, what is this? A subtle mist overlays the land, not a physical fog, but a…dampening of its powers. Ssssssssssss. An attack. Its coordination grows…sluggish, its ability to control its zemmi over great distances limited. Shadur finds its awareness being confined to circles of power around the naiounes, Amno, Orthier. Many zemmi are lost thanks to this treachery, and many naiounes are distracted from more important tasks in rounding them up.

    The enemy has acted before Shadur’s plans were fully laid. These insipid dreamers. But they are not finished. From the mist, a being coalesces in Shadur’s dreamscape. A boy appears before him, no…a tree, no…an obelisk like himself. But it moves, it moves…it has taken human form, but it is so much more. The dreaming master of which loyal Koskin warned? Thousands of voices feed it in a swirling whirl of iridescence. Brother? The unwanted curse of mercy lodged in Shadur’s side pulses like a beating heart. And his…brother…bears a mirror-mark of hatred. The figure moves to embrace Shadur, and for once…for once…it questions its actions. Have I…? The dream-being unfolds nine and twenty iridescent wings, and takes hold of the weakness in Shadur’s side – and it tears it from him. Shadur screams a scream that is not rage, but pain, a shriek that echoes through glacial valleys and frozen forests. A crack in the obelisk, and it bleeds forth ichorous blood into the snow.

    (Far away, Alai rises gasping from the well, the supportive hands of the dreamers all around him.)

    But Shadur laughs. It laughs, in pain, and anger, and joy, because at last, it knows these foes of his have a single master. Kill it, or better, give it to the well…yes, there are so many opportunities now. But it is vulnerable, until it finds a way to heal this wound. It must protect itself…and until then, revenge.

    IBBA, it roars, and the naioune comes forth. The victor of frigid Draum, he has gained much from his combat with the ancient syyag under the pack-ice of the north, and from its bestial corpse, greater victories will yet come. A gift, Ibba, and it bids him combine the syyag’s heartsblood with water from the nightmare well. Drink, Ibba, and become more than you are. Ibba screams, and the syyag’s strength fills him, as muscles and mind grow. A proper pyre of hatred for the ones who harm your Father. Ibba stands nine feet tall, with corded muscles like wrought iron, and a mind like an obsidian adze, bent on destruction. No hulking beast alone, but a mental force to dwarf even Shadur at close-range in the field, to dominate and control even the other naiounes – and crush what he cannot dominate.

    A vast battleaxe is given him that four staggering zemmi struggle to lift. This is not a power you deserve, Ibba, as the muscle-bound naioune kneels on the flagon-stones of Amno. But you will earn it. Destroy the city of Iphu. Pour my voice into their well. Then, bind the boy dreamer, and bring him to me. “Will it bring you joy, Father?” rumbles Ibba from the depths of his now-cavernous chest. Yes.

    Shadur has been laboring for this day. Hidden teams of zemmi in spray-soaked coves have been wrenching whalebone and skin into boats, fire-hardening spears from Amno’s bounty, curing horsemeat from the pens to lay up provisions. Some wear a motley assortment of wooden armor and chain garments given in tribute by Carnish and Kurom moon-priests, others simply bare their naked chests covered in spiraling warpaint. Finally, the naiounes come to review their horde, tall and silent in their noble cruelty, the shine of their weapons, the beauty of their faces. “Good luck,” says Yava to great Ibba, with a smile on her face. “And you,” rumbles the hulk. The unspoken I hope you fail, that I might have more of Father’s love, lies between them.

    They cross the salt-sprayed sea, dozens of small zemmi-boats rocking in the surf. Ibba reminds the churning sea of when it was ice, and the surface of the water lies still for their fleet. Finally, it disgorges them on the northern coast of the East. Ibba looks to the canopy beyond the beaches, lush and green, and the zem marvel at the soft pink sand between their toes, so unlike the raw rocks and gritty sea-gravel of the North.

    They have felt their approach, the silent watchers from the trees. The forests here are against us, unlike home, muses Ibba, as the zemmi are whipped into rough ranks and companies by the naiounes. The intelligence provided by the lost naioune, Koskin, has proved useful. “The enemy has allied with a race of forest folk, few in number but strong,” Ibba tells his subservient captains. “We only enter the forest with smoke, mask, and axe.” The zemmi don their horsehair masks, shielding nose and mouths from both poisons and the burning they will do to cloud the enemy’s senses. A small delegation of masked Kurom hunters, clad in thick black bear-fur and loyal to Shadur, leads the army south into the forested hills, scouting ahead for these rumored tree-men.

    Shadur has given Ibba much – twelve naiounes, a hundred Kurom, and almost a thousand zemmi. And of him, much will be expected. The column begins to hack its way south, making no secret of their advance. Isolated farms are found abandoned and despoiled, any sacred glades in their way hacked to pieces. Of the watchers, these aerenath, only glimpses are seen. Traps and quick ambushes pick off a few zem here and there, but the oppressive psychic presence of Ibba compels these hidden foes to flee towards Iphu, as he bends even the nearby trees to his will.

    A few days march out from Iphu, he makes his first gambit. Summoning a great, dark cloud with his fellow naiounes, he gathers up fifty zemmi into the dark mist and soars them into the air. “Fall on Iphu like poison rain,” he orders. “Burn and break and steal. Then escape if you can, and die if you can’t.”

    Concealed in the darkness of the cloud, the zemmi have only each other’s sullen breaths to listen to, fingering their weapons or their charms. The glory of Shadur’s power envelops them. Until it releases them, high in the sky – tall, green hills rise on either side, the stars sparkle above, the beloved, lifeless moon shines – and below, a newly-walled city, a sparkling bay, surrounded by rich green rice paddies and farmland. They see no people, hear no alarms. They slowly drift to the ground, falling in rooves, courtyards, landing in kitchen gardens.

    A zemmi climbs in through a window and runs, her eyes calculating, down a hallway, looking for a room of most valuable treasures to loot and burn. She shoulders her way through a screen door, splintering in a collapsed mass of paper and painted wood. She stumbles onto a balcony, patters down a flight of steps and under a gateway, finding herself in a forge-yard. She sees a weapon-rack, filled with spears and swords – they shimmer…are they…humming? Oh yes, the master will reward.

    The smith’s hammer takes her sideways across the face, and she spins, falling into the dirt. She opens her eyes, spitting blood onto the ground, cheek bone shattered. There is another woman in the distance, jumping down from a roof – her vision blurs, blinks, she is already here. She glowers, carrying a blood-red trident. “I- I’m just a slave, I didn’t know –“ it starts to lie, replaced with an “ah.” as Vyndra lodges her trident in the zemmi’s thigh with a wet meaty thud. “ahhhHHHhhaaaaHHHH!” it screams, writhing, clutching the trident-shaft.

    “Decide who can hurt you more – your slavemaster, or me,” says Vyndra as she pushes her weight down onto the trident in the zemmi’s leg, making it scream louder. “When you tell me everything, the pain stops.”

    After she finishes torturing the zemmi, which gurgles its last with trident-holes in its throat, she turns to the smith. “You came back,” she says, squinting suspiciously at the man who she silently watched depart a few weeks before.

    “I had to,” he says with a voice rough with disuse, testing the heft of a warhammer. She snorts in half-approval.

    All throughout Iphu, the raiding zemmi find their paths…frustrated. Rooms are empty, hallways are recursive, staircases lead them back down to the bottom. And where – where WHERE! Are the people?! Their paths are led through intricate series of illusions towards the sacred pool at the center of the town – this, at least, they have been told of. Ruin their pool, sully it, soil it.

    And for the first time, they see a figure, a handsome man in his prime staring down at the glassy water. A zemmi whirls a slingstone expertly and casts it at his head. It stops, inches away from his right ear as he continues to stare down at the pool. It gently floats down to the ground.

    Then Alai looks up at the zemmi, not unkindly. Drawing on the Well, he unveils a small measure of his power, and all of them drop to the ground like string-cut puppets, asleep. Only then does Alai relax, feeling the wave of exhaustion from exerting dominion over so many minds at once. It was terrifying – and it was exciting. He felt each one of them, their dreams, their desires, their past, the way Shadur manipulated them into service – it was so much, an overwhelming flood of sensations not his own. He didn’t have time to deal with them individually – they would have been swarming over him like flies. It is easier, simpler, to just control them, like the obelisk does – Alai has learned how to do that now, after his first confrontation with Shadur in dream. But even as he is tempted by the path, he sees its outcome – an empire at Iphu, him as the emperor, legions of dreamers doing his will, a people made to obey. He will grow to become a different kind of Shadur, maybe a better one, but fundamentally similar.

    It will be harder to find a better way, but he will find it. He is determined to. He will put them to sleep, for now. He signals his allies, and they come out of their hiding spots, tying up the zemmi. They won’t be killed for something that isn’t their fault. Later, they can talk to them, reason with them, help them find their own paths out of Shadur’s madness. He notes the blood already staining Vyndra’s trident, and knows that she has chosen another path. They have spoken of it, but their minds are both set in their ways.

    The people of Iphu have been evacuated south into the forest, long in advance of Ibba’s assault. All that remain are those unafraid to die and willing to fight. Alai, Vyndra, the smith – and Jemmi, who finally found a ship back to Iphu after years being lost in the South evading Wokiko and Anis-Natar. Perhaps fifty aerenath, thirty-three adult dreamers, and the city’s embryonic militia of twenty people trained by Vyndra. Barely over a hundred, to face more than a thousand servants of Shadur from the North. They know their odds very well – they have done everything they can.

    It begins close to noon of the following day.

    The enemy’s advance is heralded by smoke throughout the morning as they burn their way through the forest, and the last of the aerenath scouts report that they will arrive soon. The naiounes come first like volcanic ejecta, visible above the treeline, gliding over the rice-paddies on their sullen clouds, polished armor of obsidian and bone gleaming. Then the companies of zemmi, somewhat reduced and scratched up from skirmishes in the forest, but still in good form, marching in clusters under naioune-captains. Finally, their commander comes, surveying his conquest-to-be.

    Ibba stands head and shoulders over the naiounes, bedecked in massive weaponry, and even miles distant, Alai feels an immense pressure coming from him. He has never felt such a powerful dreamer – his dreams are simple, yet ironbound, incorruptible. A love for, and duty to, Shadur that will never waver, never regret. Alai knows he will be a terrible foe.

    As Shadur’s army advances, clouds of stinging wasps fly, vermin swarm, and water snakes slither out of the rice paddies to attack the zemmi, and their order is disrupted as they fend off these pests, a few falling down stricken by deadly venom. Ibba glares a sullen glare towards Iphu, and one of the dreamers standing on the walls preparing the illusions screams, blasted off the ramparts by an intense beam of telekinetic force, flung backwards in a wild spin to die on the ground below.

    Standing over Iphu’s newly carved gate, Alai flings his hand to the side, the other held up straight, turned to the side to focus his mind like a blade and whetstone, a sluice-gate for the power of the Well. He exerts all the mental force he can on Ibba. For his part, Ibba is thrown into a swirling world of mist where he can see his compatriots only as shades. “Go onward,” grunts Ibba to his subordinates who he cannot see. “I grapple the dreamer chief.” He pushes back on the illusion as he walks forward in the mist-world, suppressing the nausea from the ground’s lack of pushback, knowing he still walks in the real.

    As Alai and Ibba struggle in dreams, the aerenath tasked by Haadulf to aid Alai and Jemmi, and those that joined them out of friendship, now sprint out from Iphu’s gates, gliding over the water of the rice paddies. Water-vines and twisting roots whip out of the water to flay the advancing columns as they hack at barricades barring the pathway or wade through the water around them. Several zemmi are pulled underwater and drowned or strangled, before the naiounes are able to sear away the vines with beams of cutting moonlight and reorganize their troops.

    The main body of the advance, led by a trio of naiounes, finds Iphu’s small militia led by Vyndra and the smith. “You insult Shadur with this pitiful defense,” says the first of the naiounes, a dark-eyed woman called Eoia, who does not raise her arm to block before a knife of Vyndra’s meets the flesh of her throat. The Red Trident gleams as Vyndra plows into the column, jumping higher than mortal height in boots of shimmering steel that seem to sing through the air. The armor the smith has made her is incredibly light yet strong, and she lands, legs splayed, behind the first knot of zemmi before impaling them in the back as the smith and the militia charge forward in a disciplined line.

    Vyndra is swarmed by zemmi time and time again, but each time she throws them back with inhuman strength, her armor glistening with blood as she joins the battle she was always meant to fight. Her whole body is a weapon – shoulders, kicks, elbows, gauntleted punches at close-range, boot knives and daggers to unprotected areas. She slays zemmi after zemmi. Blows, grasping hands, even ropes somehow slip off her singing, shining light armor, and for a time Vyndra delays the entire advance as she cuts down row after row, those who make it past her meeting the smith’s grim hammer and the spears of the militia.

    Behind them, the bulk of the zemmi column lacking leadership sees a great, white pillar stretching into the sky, as large as Iphu itself – surrounded by a chorus of song louder and more powerful than even Shadur’s voice. It is an illusion, of course, but a powerful one, forged by the dreamers as one. It breaks Shadur’s hold on many zemmi, and a fair number flee the battlefield before even reaching combat as their wills are decisively broken, the naiounes too distracted to round them up.

    For a time, this allows the defenders of Iphu to gain the upper hand, especially given the chokepoints they have created in the few dry paths through the rice paddies. But then, a few naiounes roving independently manage to scale Iphu’s modest walls, and they begin cutting down isolated dreamers, who stand at wide intervals on the wall to protect the illusion. Jemmi and a few aerenath are tasked to protect the dreamers who are mostly helpless as they cast other spells, and they engage the naiounes, but there are not enough defenders to protect all the dreamers, and their cries of pain and death empathically effect Alai, causing him to lose control of his illusion over Ibba.

    With a roar of triumph, freed of his bonds, Ibba telekinetically launches himself to the forefront of the battlefield, landing among the paddies with a vast splash.

    “Retreat to the walls,” says Vyndra, who already sports multiple wounds. She can’t feel them, however, all that matters in this moment is the battle.

    The smith looks at her for a few moments, but complies with a gesture to the militia, and the surviving zemmi of the front column shout for joy as they see their commander finally here to make his presence known.

    Vyndra looks at the rising bulk of Ibba as the mats of rice-stalks and water flow off his back. They do not taunt or ask questions, both know why they are here. He is swift despite his size, and the massive swoop of a battleaxe is only inches away from Vyndra’s first dodge as he reaches the berm of the rice-road in a single stride. No bracer or buckler or shining armor will stop that, Vyndra knows. She slides between his legs, barely missing a blow that shatters the ground, sees him turn, judges the moment, closes the gap and thrusts – the trident scores Ibba’s face with three deep gouges, but he slams her backwards with a gout of telekinesis that – albeit dented by her tempered rage, sends her stumbling back several steps. The zemmi and naiounes simply watch – this is their commander’s fight.

    Ibba seems not to notice the blood that runs down his chest as he bears down on Vyndra, her stamina ebbing away with each slash. She meets a massive battle-axe blow with the buckler on her arm, and it dents the shield and breaks her arm. Well, she has another. She kicks up dirt, aiming for his eyes, then leaps –

    And lands, with a thump. She cannot feel her legs, because Ibba has separated her from them. “Well fought,” says Ibba, and leaves her to bleed out. Vyndra’s vision blurs – it doesn’t hurt, not really… Alai is shouting her name from very far away. It doesn’t seem to matter, anymore. She isn’t sure if any of it ever mattered. Oh well, it will be fine. In the bay just south of Iphu, Nathrom the serpent ram screams as it feels its master’s death. In grief, it swims for the depths of the Past.

    The forces of Shadur have lost much, perhaps a third of their force, but many remain to them.

    The dreamers have withdrawn from the walls as their position became exposed to enemy fire, and what remains of them, as well as the aerenath defenders, are gathered behind Alai behind the gate of the main square, while the tiny militia are skirmishing with the naiounes who have leapt the walls or setting up a last line of defense near the Well.

    Ibba leads his troops towards the gate of Iphu. With a mighty roar, he channels all his hate towards those who would interfere with Shadur’s plans, and breaks it open with a single blow, the intricately carved wood splintering into a thousand pieces.

    Facing the great naioune and his army before the broken gate of Iphu, Alai and Jemmi take hands, and the dreamers behind close their eyes in unison, focusing their calm as enemies swarm into the city. Together, they speak a single word, and it reverberates across the city, as the charms tinkle in unison from an unfelt wind. Naioune and zemmi alike tumble down to the ground, even as they swarm through the gates behind Ibba. Elsewhere in the city, the smith crushes the skull of a sleeping naioune with whom he was locked in combat, face covered in sweat, chest heaving as he guards the Well.

    The entirety of their enemies have now been put to sleep – except one.

    “You have one trick,” says Ibba. “And I know it.”

    He lays out Alai with a massive fist – capture, not kill, this one – Father has use of it. The girl, he has no need of. She stands over Alai’s unconscious form and draws a bow, firing arrows which thunk ineffectually into Ibba’s body as the dreamers scatter from the combat. He makes a sweep at her with his axe, which she dodges, drawing knives – but it is just a feint, as a massive chunk of masonry Ibba has dislodged with his mind takes her in the back.

    She sprawls out, coughing blood and struggling to stand. Jemmi spits blood at him as he nears. “Hm,” says Ibba approvingly, and moves to crush her, but he finds his feet entangled in sudden roots. A volley of arrows from the remaining aerenath, three leaping forward to stab him with wooden spears garlanded with flowers. Among them is Alai’s friend, the young aerenath Len.

    He grunts as the spearpoints open new wounds and then roars, grabbing Len, snapping his back, splitting a second head-down like a log with his axe, laying open the chest of the third. The remainder, he forces their nightmares to become real. The aerenoth are frozen, rooted to the ground, a forest of petrified trees overlooking a frozen bay, underneath the cold unbending light of a sterile and pitiless moon.

    Lacking the mental defenses of the dreamers, many fall to the ground. A few gather the strength to run but most are paralyzed, and Ibba executes those who fail to flee. Then he considers Jemmi, who lies broken on the ground, regarding him with eyes of hatred, crying silently for her friends. There is something about her, Ibba realizes, so he penetrates her mind, laying bare her memories as she screams. “His lover,” says Ibba. “We will turn you, then use you to break him.” He taps her forehead with his finger, and she screams as Shadur’s madness fills her mind. She resists it, screaming louder – and passes out from loss of blood and broken bones.

    Oh well, muses Ibba. She can be brought back to Amno and they will finish the job. Then he looks around him. Blood on the pavestones, a broken gate, and all his other allies knocked unconscious as the dreamers and few remaining defenders retreat. Besides that, he has lost a lot of blood.

    Ibba slowly walks forward, dripping blood, Iphu silent again around him but for the birds and crickets, who could not care less.

    The source of the sleep spell is that well. Ibba walks through the silent city towards it, pulling from his belt the dark vial of water drawn from the Well of Nightmares. Darken the well, and make it a new center of Shadur’s power. This will then reawaken his forces, and they can finish off the remaining defenders. With the gift of the prisoner, perhaps Father will then confirm him as lord of Iphu, and he will then surpass Hyric as greatest of all naiounes.

    Ibba allows himself the ghost of a smile, before the ancient magic of the South lights up the pavestones under him with bright orange, glowing hieroglyphs.

    A man…no, something more than a man, stands before him in an ornate robe, staff in hand, pelt of a white lion draped over his shoulders.

    “That is an ember trap,” says T’namar Half-Marid. “If you swear to leave this place, I will release you. Otherwise, if you move, you will burn.”

    “Why?” says Ibba.

    “Alai is now under my protection,” says the half-marid, ember eyes glowing geometrically beneath his hood in an ancient tanned face.

    “You fool,” says Ibba. “He is a threat to your empire.”

    “I am not my empire,” says T’namar Half-Marid.

    Ibba growls, and steps out of the ember-trap. As promised, he ignites, but still he tries to march towards T’namar. The naioune roars, and the syyag within him roars, his heart of ancient cold cracking and melting in the forge-fires of the half-marid’s power, as hieroglyphic chains brand his flesh with their symbols, liquifying the stones below into lava.

    Ibba breaks from the glowing chains, charging at T’namar – but his magic, his mind, are too different to understand, he cannot attack him spiritually, especially while burning alive. The hierophant floats backwards before the naioune’s charge like an ember in an updraft, lashing him with flame after flame.

    Finally, Ibba Syyag-Heart, the mighty naioune general, collapses to his knees, the crackling and crisping of his flesh the only sound after his vocal cords are burned out. T’namar looks distastefully at the great burning corpse, and moves on to begin incinerating the remainder of the horde, some of whom are awakened by the conflagration (and the screams of their fellows) and manage to flee. These survivors number perhaps three hundred zemmi and a sullen pair of naiounes.

    The smith trudges through the broken gates to dutifully wrap up Vyndra’s corpse, while Alai eventually awakens to grieve over Len and frantically work to save Jemmi’s life. The losses have been immense, but Shadur’s army was defeated, and the people of Iphu saved from further nightmares. Strange new alliances have now been formed, and old friends lost. Both sides, indeed, have been grievously harmed.

    Alai looks at the remnants of the carnage around him. This is only the beginning.


    Of the North, particularly its endings:

    It is a moonless night like any other. The red-eyed doe stalks, and all fear its passing. The Northern wind whispers quietly in the pines, and snow crunches underfoot. There is a pair of human lovers a short while hence who have taken advantage of the night’s taboo to gather in a silent glade outside their people’s knowledge. They will pay the appropriate price.

    Then she lifts her head, scenting the wind. Something has changed. But it has been too long since she felt fear. An arrow whistles into her side, and she stumbles, crimson orbs pulsing with rage. Who dares. She readies a soft cry to paralyze the aggressor with terror, but nothing passes her mouth, only silence. No. Another arrow, and another, and the doe staggers, and falls, legs trembling as it struggles to get back to its feet. It is late in the pregnancy, and so much of its energy is going to the new life.

    A crown of antlers looms above her, the stag-man watching. The doe understands, but it does not condone.

    This is my time, the doe thinks. You have no right to violate it.

    The stag’s mask tilts infinitesimally towards the doe’s belly, and its position is clear without words. Violate and be violated.

    A diving peregrine with red eyes attempts to plunge from the night sky to claw at the stag’s face, but such a facile ruse is met with a thrust of horns, skyward, and the bird is broken.

    The doe gathers its strength and runs. It plunges into the undergrowth and flees, and flees, but the wounds from Nastya the Silent’s cursed arrows leave trails of blood that are easily scented, easily seen in the starlit snow. The last of the doe’s energy gives out on a small hillock overlooking the river. A tall mountain looms in the distance, crowned with the emptiness of an ancient, broken temple. The stars shine brightly above in all their subtle pinprick colors.

    The stag looms above her, as tall as an ancient oak. The doe does not speak or beg, merely condemns with her eyes. A long, skeletal hand reaches out, grasping the slender, black neck of the doe. It crushes her throat and breaks her neck. The doe’s lifeblood stains the skeletal hand of the stag a faint red as it gushes out over the bones and onto the frozen ground. No water or spell will ever remove such stain, just as the curse that lies on Arthmael’s line will not be lifted but by one thing alone. The stag releases the doe’s corpse, which falls lifeless to the ground, as black flowers with red stems sprout on the now-cursed hillside.

    Then the stag regards the body. The reason it has come. The small, growing form inside the belly has not yet died. It moves, kicking its tiny legs in distress within the corpse-womb.

    The stag gores it. It tears at the flesh of the belly, ripping the doe’s body in half, then casts it down and stamps upon it, crushing everything within into bloody, macerated pulp. Having brought death with complete brutality, its work is done. It turns its great shoulders and leaves.

















    Prophecies are terrible things.


    They move in ways that are beautiful and complete. The greater the attempt to avert the prophecy, the greater its fulfillment. The aversion is, often, intrinsic to the fulfillment. You are blessed to understand the fulfillment of a prophecy and cursed to witness that fulfillment.

    The doe’s lifeblood, as you saw, was red. But the contents of her womb were black. You should know that there is a darkness darker than the space between the stars. Blacker than the darkest cave below the earth, the deepest trench beneath the sea. It is a darkness from beyond our universe, a darkness from a place that has never known even a memory of light. That is the blackness of the viscosity laid bare on this moonless hillside, the remnant of an aborted god.

    The stag is a god of cycles. A god of nature, and life, and death. Of the autumn in every Spring, and the Spring in every autumn. And a god of man in nature. Born of death, and a man’s mistake. And on the overlook of the man Arthmael’s folly that gave birth to it, it was repeated. How could it know?

    For to free an unquiet spirit, the sacrifice must be given to fire, to the smoke which carries it to the upper world and dispels it. That is what is taught. That is what is prescribed. And that is what was, in a repetition of the mistake that bore it, forgotten.

    The liquid travels, as all liquids do, down. It sinks into the earth, and then into the water table. And then into the river, and then into the Past.


    And it remembers how it was made.


    And she knows her name


    kotzal


    Far away Hyric, prince of naiounes, is jolted in a chamber of new-hewn Orthier by the sound of screaming. It is a scream unlike any other scream yet uttered, a cry of such raw, purulent hatred as if a storm of razorblades carved unending cuts into undying flesh. Tens of thousands of voices repeating the worst anguish imaginable, merged into a single frenzied screech of utter desolation.

    Trickles of blood ooze from every orifice as Hyric writhes on the ground, possessed by the raw, maddened, insane hate-grief of Shadur. And he is empathetic. He feels it with his beloved master. He is broken and reforged a thousand times in a dozen minutes.

    There is a pain, deep inside his body. His new arm, monolith-hewn of cursed stone. It hurts. It hurts. And from within it, out of the false flesh, an Amethyst dagger clatters onto the ground.

    Shadur’s screaming order rips from Hyric’s lips until the vocal cords are bloody and torn, pulling every subservient naioune and zemmi of the forest castle from their fitful sleep -

    “KKKKKKKKKKKKKKKIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIILLLLLLLLLLLLLLLLLLLLLLLLLLLLLLLLLLLLLLLLLLLLLLLLL!!!!!!”

    The next day simply does not dawn for the Naami. Twelve hours pass, but there is no sunrise. The moonlit stars twinkle as they did before. The people are afraid. The full moon hangs, swollen with intent, unchanging, unwaning. And a day, two days, three days, pass in moonlit darkness. They burn great bonfires, dance and pray, the oil-masked priests supplicate, but to no avail. Scouts are sent out, and they find that twenty miles away, the cycle of day and night continues normally. It is just their home where the sun refuses to dawn. There is a passionate debate about what to do. It is decided to stay and wait, for this may be a trick to lead them out of their ancient protections, or perhaps a sign from their god they fail to understand. They make the wrong choice.

    On the fifth day, the naiounes come.

    No horns announce their presence, no gnashing teeth or chant of zemmi horde. They simply melt out from between the trees, jump down from sullen clouds, and begin to kill with unprecedented brutality. Babes are speared on glaives and stuck into the ground. Limbs are hacked and thrown with great abandon, the limbless victims cauterized with fire, raped, their tongues pulled out while they scream. Cruel sport is made of the children, forest paths twisting around on themselves to lead them back to their tormentors, dark magics used to deny all escape, destroy all hope. The naiounes take no joy as they might; the pain of Shadur suffuses them. Their only hope is to transfer as much of it as they can onto these victims.

    Hyric stands with his back to the slaughter, staring silently at the treeline, long, flickering shadow cast toward the woods from the light of the burning Naami village behind. A faint hint of wind quirks his ear, and he flings his artificial arm out to the side, a juddering arrow shattering upon the stone of the monolith. The second arrow whistles in four seconds behind the first, batted down by a vicious slash from Hyric’s sword as he sprints low to the ground, chaotically zig-zagging towards the hidden archer to avoid another shot. He holds out his palm, and a beam of pale moonlight shines out, illuminating Nastya in her hidden position at the crook of a high tree limb. She squints and shields her eyes, turning to flee, but Hyric pulls back his flesh arm and flings his sword like a javelin. A soft sound like a disinterested dove as the blade takes her through the lower back, on the left. She falls behind the tree.

    Hyric rounds it quickly. Bloody blade embedded in the wood is there; no Nastya. She can’t have gone far. He gives chase.

    The silent hunter is gone from the next glade, but the uncrowned stag looms in her place. The impassive mask stares down at Hyric, its antlers tall enough to graze the forest canopy above. About its head a cluster of green fireflies shimmers in the darkness. Hyric, so stately, so poised, so tragic, Shadur’s eldest son, his chief priest, his solemn knight, screams a raw, painful, wounded beast of a roar, and flings himself through the air, spinning his body and his blade in a slash towards the stag. It clangs off the great skeletal bone arm of the god-beast, and the battle is joined. Hyric glides between the great strides and thrusts of the stag, partially decomposing into the darkness of a naioune-cloud as he dodges, taking a blow on his stone arm, lashing out in reply. As the brutal strikes shiver and splinter the ancient aspens, Hyric is bruised and gored, the stag’s crown of antlers shattered. Hyric is fast, but the stag has strength. And it is wearing him down.

    But then, a javelin takes the god in the side, and another in the leg. The stag’s arm sweeps through a stretch of forest, the size of a fallen cedar tree, but Yava leaps over it, throwing another javelin. And then one by one, the naiounes come, drifting down from the trees. With chains and ropes they lash the stag, which thrashes and bucks, annoyed, breaking its bonds. These mortal implements are but distractions. It is nature’s own ferocity, the silent condemnation of age.

    But it gives Hyric an opening. He darts forward, dodges a blow from the stag’s mighty hoof, launches himself up, drawing the Amethyst dagger that pulses with power, and slams it through the stag’s mask, jamming the blade with his arm of Shadur-stone into the stag-god’s skeletal eye socket.

    The stag falls to its knees, clutching the empty eye in the skull. Its back pulses, rippling. Unconstrained power roars and roils through it.

    The stag, aspect of Spring, is before all things a god of Time, and Azzatar, ancient in wisdom, learned this aspect through years of watching. Her weapon is not a weapon at all, but an unbinding and unmaking, of turning one’s own strength inward to destroy oneself. The stag’s empty skull is clothed in flesh, its bone arms become wreathed in flowers and fall to the ground, covered in life.

    The cloak falls, and a young stag emerges on four legs, his antler crown magnificent, but shorn of all his morbid power.

    Hyric takes one look at the deer, and slaughters it with a single cut. The naiounes skin the deer, cook the meat, eat the flesh, and give everything that is left to fire. The blackened skull they leave on a pike, next to the piled body parts of the butchered men, women, and children of the Naami, their tribe unwritten from history, Shadur’s revenge complete.

    It never had a chance to speak its name.

    But far away, the smith’s head throbs in the darkness. His forehead, his horns… He is filled with unconstrained music, a fierce and unconfined melody. And he knows. Kotzal is coming. But this time, he knows what he must do.

    Of the South, particularly its endings:

    The circle of green leaves does not take sides, give favors, or express opinions, but Haadulf found that over the course of many years the volume and quality of the information it gave shifted in subtle ways in response to the needs he had. When Gahad grew, crops and foods predominated. When the Gahadi gathered for war, so too grew the circle’s lore on poisons, salves and medicines. When Haadulf fled into the wilderness, wild plants and seeds became more abundant in the circle’s teachings. Haadulf never knew for sure if it was trying to help him, or if it simply responded to his subjective (or subconscious?) experiences. Sessar blooms on dry plains after the land has been scoured by wildfire, the green circle tells him helpfully, beginning to describe its appearance and uses as he stands with his party on a low rise of hills, looking towards the distant ridge of mountains. It is the third time in the last two moons that the green circle has given him plantlore relating to fires. Shimmering on a far-distant mountain are the torch-signals his companions had told him the tribe called Eccoro, who dwell in the mountains southwest of Sommos, would leave to signal safety.

    Haadulf stops. And he takes a breath. “Gologind, Mastin.” The protectors move to his side swiftly, green hoods obscuring their kind but weathered faces. New bronze armor purchased from a Somnian trader now glimmers beneath the green. “Let me go speak to these people alone.” They begin to protest, but Haadulf silences them. “You will wait here for one day,” he says, his voice acquiring a tone of command it so rarely does. If he does not return by then, he orders them to take Halid and his family in utmost secrecy to Sommos, and from there, to find a ship back East. Mastin starts to cry, something she has never done before. Haadulf tells them it’s going to be fine, and not to worry, he just feels that he needs to go speak to these people alone. He has quiet words with Halid, after. The children are already asleep, Haadulf embraces each of them in turn.

    Then he walks alone in the darkness across the dry plain to the mountain.

    By the time three hours have passed, he is surrounded by the Eccoro. Their torches burn in the darkness, their eyes shadowed and their faces emotionless as they take Haadulf not unkindly by the arm. He asks to see their elders in the languages of Gahad and Sommos, as he has for many tribes before, and although they make no overt reply, they seem to understand. Eventually, they take him to the entrance to a cave lying at the base of a great, mountainous crag. Lanterns hang outside it, and markings stain the rocks with obscure, triangular symbols.

    “Good ol’Haadulf!” says a voice in a long-vanished Gahadi dialect, as a crook-backed, hunched elder crawls out of the entrance to the cave. “Such’n honor to finally meet the great gardener!” Haadulf replies with great trepidation that it is a pleasure for him as well, wondering how a refugee from his people could have come to lead this distant tribe so far from home. “You know, m’something’ve a gardener meself,” croaks the man. “Might’ve a few tricks you’ven’t learned yet.”

    Haadulf asks the old man, crooked and shaded, what he has learned of plants. “Ash and bone feed ‘em marvelous in proper portion,” croaked the ancient. “I can show you my mixture, but you’ll have to come to my home,” he says, ancient reedy voice gaining an umbrous thrum at the end, the old man’s eyes flaring bright red as curls of smoke drip out from under his hood. Haadulf understands the jaws of the trap that have closed, ever so gently, around him. “And what do I receive in return?” he asks, the wheel whispering silently to all but him and the god.

    “Every good gard’ner’s a giver’a seedlings,” says Afrakt in his old-man incarnation. “You’d like t’see ‘em grow undisturbed. As for me? I just want a cutting of the tree.”

    So Haadulf surrenders. What choice does he have?

    And so proceeded the Deliverance of the Prophet, a remarkable historical event from beginning to end. Haadulf might have been expected to be humiliated and dragged to Arisaras as a prisoner, or summarily executed. What he certainly did not expect was to be turned into the gala event of the century. He was clothed in a raiment of green and gold more fantastically opulent than any he had ever worn, and Anis-Natar assigned him a personal guard of orange-eyes, jailors to be sure, but clad in ornamental versions of Gahadi cloaks with branch-themed helms of magically-worked amber.

    It was clear that he was a prisoner, certainly, but a more luxurious prison had never been seen. Bowls of strange, gem-encrusted fruits were at hand, ephors of refilling wine and countless scrolls of his own teachings. Marids watched from the sky miles off, but invisible to most. Young women scattered flower petals before and after the train, and young men bore shining tabards on poles, or scattered golden acorns to the crowds.

    This continued for several months, over several hundred leagues, until the party reached Darail. There, they were transferred to lion-prowed pleasure barges, embossed in purple gilt, their three hundred oars rowed by teams of muscular and branded servants. And this fleet, guarded all the while by the watchful eyes of the marids, proceeded with pageantry and incense up the River Dakh, all passing barges shelving their oars, the fishers, merchants or patrolmen lying prostrate on their decks below the heavy-lidded gaze of the indigo priest-administrators looking down from their palace-cabin.

    And thence, they came to Arisaras.

    Long have you heard of it, but now you are privileged, (privileged!) to gaze upon the imperial seat. The walled garden city with its palaces immemorial, blooming in the midst of the Jeweled Dakh as it winds through the blasted desert. Arisaras, the Isle of Paradise. Home to Emperor Anis and Empress Natar, the Imperial Twins and Their divine reign. O laudatory conquest, o just dominion! Even for the wretched impure (such as yourselves) who shall never complete the five-year period of ablution-tithes to be considered to gaze upon the inner mysteries, just the exterior is a marvel remarked on across the South, and beyond, by passing travelers who can only imagine what lies within. Since you will never be worthy enough to experience it yourself, you may enjoy this account.

    A sacred isle, Arisaras parts the Dakh with her flowering immensity. Its walls are a testament to its glory, an endless wrapped frieze of the triumphs and tribulations of the ancient Empire, painted in ochre and jewel-shell and seasonally retouched by precarious climbing teams of family artisans for whom the sinecure has built both sinew and a lasting appreciation for structural platform engineering. In the art, beast-gods are brought low, their corpses borne by great processions of lion-priests to the offering pyres of the city. Anis-Natari legions breach the legendary ziggurats of twisted bone and their strange stilted cities, and offer the blessings of structure, commerce, and law to the insensate barbarians who are lucky enough to have the embrace of the Mountain, her servant-consort Afrakt, and her divine children. Imperial propaganda at its best, and situated at the heart of the empire, it spreads the narrative to all who pass.

    At the downstream peak of the city, a giant statue of Glorious Anis holds a horn of plenty, sending an endless fountain of blood-dark wine pouring into the Dakh from her vast silver cornucopia, and a perpetual cluster of maritime traffic gathers about the platform to pay their toll and receive their share, some to redistribute throughout the Empire at a profit. At the upstream peak, a statue of Great Natar holds a sword, overseeing a military port and a tithing station to regulate trade.

    The walls of the city rise sheer from the water, but for those few lagoons embedded in them like sconces to admit the pleasure-yachts of the priestly elite. The torches burn purple in the cool shadows away from the sun, and among the lily pads, jeweled tortoises and giant bullfrogs paddle at their leisure as the walls rise on either side and overhead. Smaller pipes here disgorge wine into the water, not as gift but as effluvia. It was into one of these sacred harbors which Haadulf’s barge slid, oars shelving as attendants throw silver chains to tie up at dock.

    As Haadulf draws near to the Isle, something about him, within him, feels some kind of fundamental wrongness about this place. It is not to say that life does not flourish here, but it is a fundamentally different type of life. It is something hard, and cold, and made of sterile stone, yet it somehow grows and flowers as plants do. Yet none of it, none of it flowers freely. Everything, down to the smallest blade of grass, is crystallized by design. Haadulf is brought from the docks through a dizzying array of chambers, handed off between byzantine teams of functionaries in mausoleum catacombs etched with unknowable and intricate hieroglyphs, guarded by lithe, black, anubine-headed dogs whose eyes glow purple as they look up silently from their curled rest. What are they guarding? Who knows.

    And then, suddenly, he is brought out onto a balcony, and the crowd roars. Plazas, and towers, and obelisk-gardens stretch as far as the eye can see, and every inch of viewing space is packed with people. The population of Arisaras in their hundreds of thousands have all turned out to see the greatest slave-tribute of the era, the long-awaited triumph over the northern barbarians - the ceremonial humiliation of Spring.

    It is a day of music, and dancing, and wild celebration for the children of the Empire. For Haadulf, it means being placed in an elaborate gilded cage, carried by teams of chained slaves who fail to meet his eye, but have the look of people from his homeland. Could they be Mohabef…or were they born to a servitude in which their lineages are not even known to them? The culmination of this pageant occurs at a truly massive obelisked mastaba, the Leonine Onyx, at the center of Arisaras, indigo spouts flowing outwards from the roaring mouths of two enormous black lions flanking it on either side. The wine flows through an elaborate series of decorative canals, separating the imperial city into towering isles of polished black and white. The network of wine-canals nourishes both the pleasure parks for the children of the priestly elite whose many generations of descendants now revel in the streets, and the intricately-farmed gardens further out, whose veiled indigo priests do not rest, even on the day of triumph, from carefully stewarding the Empire’s limited food supply, silken boots crunching softly in the crushed-glass soil.

    So, we come to it at last. Others have written of it at length, the judgment and its verdict, and I will not bore you here. Would that the crowd standing before the sixteen hierophants, the Hekatarch shining in her amethyst finery speaking through a translator with imperious disdain, down to the ceremonial dancers, ephor-carriers, and incense burners, could understand the emotion in the words with which Haadulf replied to the charges against him, of heresy, treason, and remembrance.

    Beneath his mock-barbarian finery, any who had the eagle eyes to gaze such an immense distance across the plaza might wonder why this barbarian god, the terror of imperial propaganda for over a decade, looked so humble and small. They might marvel at the kindness in his voice, if they understood kindness. They might marvel at many things. But you must know already what even children do: There is no room for mercy in the apparatus of empires.

    The marid carrying the great flaming halberd was named Hazzaq. With inhuman eyes that gazed upon the wheel, he said, “Grieve not.” Accounts differ by tradition as to what was the Prophet’s reply.

    Then, it swung the halberd through Haadulf’s neck as the crowd roared its desire for his blood.

    I must pause to remind you – do not blame me for what you read here. I did not create this story, I merely convey it. If there is a lesson, it is to never forget that men are still animals, and grieve that the gods treat us as such.

    From the balcony of the Onyx, the Emperor and Empress look down at the execution as Court Tutor Ha-Tishbat (more influential in politics than even the Hekatarch) watches his charges attentively from behind a screen. “Look at the flowers, brother,” says Anis, reaching for Natar’s hand before he smacks hers away petulantly. “I’m not a CHILD, Anis,” Natar snaps, bristling before crossing his arms, and remembering that he is a God-Emperor. Then he looks back down, his pout softening slightly. “I can see them.”

    The crowd roared as the flaming blade cut Haadulf’s throat. But as the light faded in the Prophet’s eyes, the expected blood did not stain the stones. What flowed from Haadulf’s neck was a stream of flower petals. To everyone’s surprise (including, surely, his own), his entire body decomposed into flowers. And not simply that – a constant stream of petals, emerging out of nowhere, blowing to the side like an ever-burning memorial flame. Disguised somewhere in the crowd next to Salap, the girl clutches the vial of Ktse’s blood in her hand that he gave her so long ago atop the closed valley. There is a soft tinkling from beneath her robe – the blood has congealed, and is plinking at the side of the vial like little pebbles, or raindrops. She feels it, trying to pull itself towards the flower-flame.

    And so Haadulf met his end, was martyred, justly slain or apotheosed – but the error of the Empire is laid plain. The season is not slain, not yet – it lays its curse in the very heart of Arisaras. No matter how many marids lash the stream of flowers with fire, no matter how many incanting priests of the Mountain attempt to dispel it, it continues. Hastily, they build a shrine around the site and pretend it was always supposed to be this way – but there is great unrest and even minor rioting in Arisaras over the coming year from the religious dissent caused by this event. It was remarked upon throughout the city and whispered beyond that the arrogance and carelessness of the chief-priests led to Spring placing a curse on all of them, and the Hekatarch herself would be toppled in a vicious palace coup within a few years for her mismanagement of the affair.

    Oh, and one other thing happened, the tale of which is an utmost state secret.

    Six nights after Haadulf’s death, under the cover of a sandstorm fiercer than any had seen in decades, strong enough to sand-blast the hieroglyphs off the very temple walls, the girl walked barefoot on the plaza stone, approaching the fountain of flowers as the blood pebbles plinked tenuously against their vial-glass. The orange-eyed guards were batted away by sand-spirits, and Salap wrestled with the marid in the sky set to watch over the palace as her bright orange hand closed around his arm, cooking the flesh as his bandages torched and he screamed.

    The girl reaches out a hand -


    ---






    Stats:

    Those who dwell in the South

    Gods:

    Azzatar, the Amethyst
    Magic: 8
    Civ: 0
    Heroes:
    Holdings: The Land, The Fire, The Swallowed Past

    Empires:

    The Empire of Anis-Natar
    Magic: 5
    Civ: 6
    Heroes: Afrakt Ghul, The Fire (6/1), The Despot Children (3/1)*
    Holdings: 7 orange-eyed legions, 17 marids, 151 part-marid lion-priests, the Jeweled Dakh, the Slave Cities
    Cities: Arisaras, Rhut, Darail
    *A prophecy has been made

    The City of Xtri
    Magic: 0
    Civ: 3
    Heroes:
    Cities: Xtaita
    Holdings: Favor of the sea-dragon, green-scaled armor like the sea, 1 band of dragon-warriors

    Heroes (independent):

    An orphaned girl [5/2]

    Those who dwell in the North*

    *A prophecy is complete, oh woe.

    Gods:

    Shadur
    Magic: 5
    Civ: 4
    Heroes: Hyric, broken prince of Naiounes (4/2), Yava (3/1)
    Holdings: Perhaps 2,100 zemmi, seventy-six naiounes, the Great Hold of Amno, the Well of Nightmares, a serious wound*, the whispering curse, the unabating mists**, dread parentage
    *A cost of 4 points to dispel
    **A cost of 3 points to dispel

    The Fisher-King
    Magic: 3
    Civ: 3
    Heroes:
    Holdings: 2 companies of silverfinned guards, Voice of the Torrent

    KOTZAL
    Magic: 7
    Civ: 0
    Heroes:
    Holdings: Hatred.

    Empires:

    The Moon-Country of Kurom
    Magic: 2
    Civ: 3
    Heroes:
    Holdings: The gibbering moon-priests, Castle Orthier

    The Tribe of Yztrau
    Magic: 2
    Civ: 1
    Holdings: Forbearance of the four forces

    Heroes (independent):

    Nastya the Silent (1/1) [A grievous wound]

    Those who dwell in the East

    Gods:

    Elaadi*
    Magic: 2
    Civ: 1
    Heroes: Aeledan, King of the Children (4/2)
    Holdings: The Great Glades, perhaps two thousand Aerenath, a dancing and bounteous court
    *A prophecy has been made

    The Ring of Leaves
    Magic: 0
    Civ: 3
    Holdings: 259 green-priests and many faithful, an uncertain but prolific lineage

    Emanon, the Boundary
    Magic: 2
    Civ: 2
    Heroes: Arrupos the Golden (1/3)
    Holdings: A shard, lent. The loyalty of Enaios, within Sommos. Prominence elsewhere. The Shining Law.

    If You Don’t Stop, I’m Calling The Guards!
    Magic: 4
    Civ: 4
    Holdings: Well aren’t you making quite the mess.

    Empires:

    The Second Circle
    Magic: 2
    Civ: 3
    Heroes: Halogund (2/2)
    Holdings: The memory of Gahad.

    The High Kingdom of the Carns
    Magic: 1
    Civ: 3
    Heroes: Tanguyix, High King of Carns (1/1), “Maithlin” (2/4) [The edge of being, Maelis Twice-Queen {0/2}, Taevic (-1/1)], Yann (0/1)
    Cities: Dunmael
    Holdings: Regalia of Arthmaelix, The Hornéd Fleet, the Torcwenn, the Staredour Order

    The Tribes of Oshkum
    Magic: 2
    Civ: 3
    Heroes: Prophet-Prince Golmorod (4/3)
    Holdings: A great horde of horses*
    *A prophecy is complete

    The “Kingdom” of the Maelish
    Magic: 0
    Civ: 2
    Heroes: “King” Atami (1/2)
    Holdings: The feeble regard of the Mimish, above-average arts and crafts.

    The Republic of Sommos*
    Magic: 2
    Civ: 3
    Heroes:
    Cities: Sommos proper, Enaios
    Holdings: 2 armies of law blades, reformed civil administration, the Hexic Pantheon, the Great Walls of Sommos
    *A prophecy has been made

    Iphu
    Magic: 2
    Civ: 1
    Heroes: Alai (4/2) [The mind of the Dreamer, Jemmi {a grievous wound} (1/0)], A certain smith (1/3)*
    Holdings: 26 awakened dreamers, the Lake of Stars, weapons that sing

    *A prophecy has been made.

    Wokiko’s Empire
    Magic: 3
    Civ: 3
    Heroes: The Wokiko Emperor (4/1)*
    Holdings: Servitude of the Four Peoples, An army of the living, an army of the dead
    *A prophecy is complete.

    The Udyn Tribes
    Magic: 2
    Civ: 1
    Heroes: Hakta Longswimmer (2/2)
    Holdings:

    Heroes (independent):

    T’namar, Foremost of Lions (4/4) (marid)
    Nathrom, the Serpent-Ram, (3/0)


    Those who dwell in the Past

    Ktse, Daughter of Spring
    Magic: 0 (dead)
    Civilization: 0
    Holdings: ??????

    Haadulf, Prophet of Spring
    Magic: 0 (dead)
    Civilization: 0
    Holdings: The Flower Font of Arisaras

    Vyndra, the Mad Huntress
    Magic: 0 (dead)
    Civilization: 0
    Holdings: Love of a serpent ram

    The slaughtered stag
    Magic: 0 (dead, again)
    Civilization: 0
    Holdings: Broken temples and covenants

    A red-eyed black doe of the northern valleys
    Magic: 0 (dead)
    Civ: 0
    Holdings: Comeuppance.

    Salap Scarab Skin
    Magic: 0 (dead)
    Civ: 0
    Holdings: Redemption.


    The Doormaker
    Magic: -2
    Civilization: 0
    Holdings: Services in transgression, a growing boy

    We are Flaming Dragon!
    Magic: 3
    Civilization: 0
    Holdings: The praise of Xtaita
     
    Last edited: Mar 24, 2019
  6. Thlayli

    Thlayli Le Pétit Prince

    Joined:
    Jun 2, 2005
    Messages:
    10,539
    Location:
    In the desert
    OOC: Hello everyone. This was quite an effort. It took longer than I would have hoped. Part of that was because I moved from Africa back to America in the middle of writing it, and another part was that there were a lot of complex player conflicts that I wanted to do proper justice to. However, ultimately the responsibility for a faster pace is on me, and I will do my best not to keep you waiting so long for the next update. Any character can now prophesy, either on themselves or others, with the Carnish Tarot for 1 magic point. A forthcoming bestiary entry will further detail this.

    As always, if you feel neglected or dissatisfied with the outcomes of the update, please send your written complaints, stapled with the processing fee, directly to the Past. Or reach out to me on #nes. It was a big update, and it's always possible I overlooked something. I am always interested in new players, and if you think you would like to be one, well, my first question is, why would you do that to yourself? But if you're sure, please don't hesitate to reach out.

    Stories and orders for Update 4 will be due on May 22nd, 2019. Don't worry, it only gets worse from here. Serving out your sentence is far worse than hearing it, you know.
     
    Last edited: Mar 21, 2019
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  7. Lord_Iggy

    Lord_Iggy Tsesk'ihe

    Joined:
    Jun 7, 2005
    Messages:
    24,544
    Location:
    Yukon
    Perhaps that it is good that I die now. As I grew older, and felt bitterness, I could feel the tug of my heart towards cruelty. I wished to see the Empire of Flame snuffed out, and each of their servants perish. At first, I simply wanted them gone. But later, I quietly hoped for them to suffer as the Gahadi. To perish, to burn, to pass beyond living memory.

    Now it dies with me. Hmm. There shall be none living who remember what once was. So turns the wheel.

    And indeed the wheel turned, without sympathy. My patron, my all-knowing idiot spirit. The source of much of the good in my life, and much of the bad.

    But yes. Perhaps it is best that I die. Gahad burned before it grew corpulent and wicked, as it eventually would have. I be reduced to ashes in the heart of the flame, or perhaps kept as a trophy until time takes me. Let it remain true that the last standing scion of Gahad-That-Was did not succumb to the desire for ruin and vengeance.

    My keepers dress me in resplendent robes as they parade me. I take them off several times, until they stitched it onto me. I wonder if it is vanity to deny a symbol of vanity placed upon me? Certainly, I have plenty of time to ponder, and the poor wretches who carry me and guard me offer no conversation.

    I would just as soon walk among their company and come to their altar under my own power. They know I cannot escape, but opt to keep me this way regardless.

    As we travel, I finally see with my own eyes the Flame Kingdom of Anis-Natar. Such absurd wealth, such power and opulence. Why did they have so much need to come for us? Why did they not trade- surely my kin would have exchanged goods in abundance for the treasures that are commonplace here. Why did they burn and enslave my race, all for the humble boons that the Wheel of Leaves offers freely?

    As we pass by caravan and ship through this blasted land, its secret poverty also reveals itself to me. The windblown sand and dust that settles into my gilded cage, I gather in private. Yet there is nothing within it, no spore or seed. What does grow here, I realize, grows only according to the will of its masters. The force of vibrancy and irrepressible life is absent here. Perhaps the greed and lust for power of the magnates here has come at this cost. Perhaps that is why they covet the wheel of leaves, and me as his earthly interlocutor. They grasp for what they cannot have, or have already killed.

    It is pitiable. And foolish. They shall burn to sterility that which they touch, ever hungering for more. I realize now that even their flame is not natural. The 'man' with smoke and copper eyes spoke of ash as a fertilizer, but there is no fertility where this flame flourishes. The Flame of Anis-Natar is not destruction and renewal. It is caustic lust alone.

    Maybe it is good that I die. But there was still so much more I had to do. So much more I could have done, should have done, wanted to do. A world where my home, the land in which my childhood existed, had not been scoured beyond recognition, lost forever into the Past. Where I had continued my journeys, with my friends, my family, my love. I had hoped to teach, to help, to heal. To die an old man, alongside my old wife. Oh Halid. How I wish I were with you now, far away from here. There were more children, yet unborn, who shall never be. I will not see my children grow into men, and women. I shall not be able to smile upon their achievements, as my father did for me.

    I will never know my grandchildren.

    I sit cross-legged in my open-air chamber, a handful of sand clasped between my palms, and allow the tears to flow, though my voice remains silent. It is not important if my captors see.

    The City, the Heart of the Flame, is a monolith, a polished stone edifice extending out of a sterile, lifeless river. The people here likely know no better, or no else, than it. My presence is an entertainment for them. A diversion, a festival. This city, I realize, is the end of the world. There is nothing here. Nothing here but a gilded, hollow artifice.

    Yet it is maintained so. Were the flame to be snuffed, and its hunger ended, in time I sense that it would recover, in many thousands of years. In my handful of sweat and sand, I am, with some effort, able to draw forth some manner of life. Tiny desert plants. Tiny and purple with fine hairs along the stems, and leaves waxy and green. I let it grow and catch the wind, drifting out of the bars of my cage. Somewhere it touches down in the crowd. Perhaps someone will understand what it means.

    Perhaps someone will recognize the lie in which they live.

    In time, I am brought before the lords of the hollow flame. It is a show-judgement, the climax and set-piece of their festival. Some among the crowd here hoot and jeer. Some of them hate me. I struggle to understand what I have done to them to make them feel so. Would that I could speak to each of them. Sit down with each and every last one, on a mossy tree root by a stream, thick with swimming insects and frogs, with birds in a misty canopy, and speak to them. Learn of them. Learn what has turned them into what they have become.

    A few more violet flowers drift off in the wind. I notice several of them swiftly be consumed by an unseen fire shortly after leaving my cage.

    They fear it. And they do not acknowledge their fear aloud.

    The judges speak largely in a language I do not understand. It seems to be largely a theatre. My patron speaks no tongues, and would be of no help regardless- the wheel of leaves has been absent from my dreams for some time.

    Eventually, a man wearing rich garb and ceremonial golden chains spoke to me, in the tongue of Gahad-That-Was.

    He accused me of heresy. In truth, I do not understand the meaning of the word.

    “The Wheel of Leaves, the Green Spirit of life, death and eternal renewal, spoke to me, and guided me to the Thousand Voices. The Wheel taught me the secrets of the lives of growing things, and gave me no orders. I shared what I had been given as a gift with those around me. That is the truth.”

    “These words confirm your heresy.”

    “These words are true.”

    An imperious voice boomed in a foreign tongue, and the accuser then spoke of treason. Again, I did not understand.

    “I was forced to abandon of my birth-tribe, as a hostage to the Mohabef. When Anis-Natar came for me, I accepted the orders of my elders, and drove east, and my home was destroyed. When the first child of my moiety gestated, I failed to protect him. When my companions requested I do not travel on the path that led me to your land, I traveled alone and left them behind. These are my betrayals, if that is what you seek. That is the truth.”

    “These words confirm your treason.”

    “These words are true.”

    Once again, the voice boomed out over the crowd, and the crowd responded, a great wave of vocal hostility. Finally, the accuser spoke of remembrance.

    “I remember my youth, among a tribe who erected no lasting buildings, who once every many generations were granted a spirited child. I remember my father, who understood my oddities and loved me until his dying day. I remember my time as a hostage of men who I once thought to be my enemies, who came to be the people of my most beloved friend. I remember my youthful journeys, the murder of my family and the annihilation of my home, my long flight, the births and deaths of my children, the awakening of the forest children, and the betrayals I have suffered. I remember the cold, dead evil in the north, and the hot, hungry evil in the south. Both are inimical to life, and I do not understand how they have come to be. Most recently, I remember sharply the sting of those who called for my aid in good faith, then gave me to you. I remember a great deal, but I do not live for memories.”

    I spoke this, and was struck at the fate of the poor Eccoro. I was stung by their betrayal, but I feared in that moment that there were others, far away, who cared for me dearly. People who had nothing to do with their decision would die terribly, and it was now too late for me to do anything to help them. Halid had always had a more aggressive and vengeful edge to her than I, and she would raise our children in my absence. And what of the green priests, and those who had followed me?

    “These words confirm your remembrance.”

    “Do you intend to kill me?”

    The judges made their proud pronouncements in their tongue, and after several minutes the translator, in his magnificent robes, deigned to respond.

    “For your crimes, you will be killed.”

    “I do not want my death to bring about further death. I am sorry.”

    The voice boomed over the crowd. The accuser spoke a few moments later.

    “Your belated attempts at apology shall now sway us, nor shall they earn you mercy.”

    “I do not intend to seek mercy.”

    The lengthy proclamations over the festive crowd carried on, and a walking vessel of flame drew close.

    “Grieve Not.” it declared, in a voice that transcended language.

    I faced the thing that would kill me. This was it. In a faraway land, so far from my home, my family, I was going to die at the hands of this creature. There was so much more still left out there. So many things I needed to say. So much that I feared would come to pass if I was not there to speak of peace. There would be a war, a terrible war, and so many would die. So many here did not know what they were doing, and they and their descendants would suffer so much for what they cheered on in ignorance.

    So turned the wheel. I watched the vessel of flame, with his great staffed blade, step towards me, and perceived with my waking eyes the swirling green ring. The leaves sprouted from bare branches, grew, thinned and withered, and fell crisp and grey away, only to grow again. I hadn't expected to die young. I had always imagined that I would some day be old. The wheel stared into me, and blinked.

    The body of the dead man slumped and fell face-first onto the stone, bouncing briefly before coming to a still. No blood poured from the cauterized wound. Only flowers.

    A wave of violet.
     
  8. Thlayli

    Thlayli Le Pétit Prince

    Joined:
    Jun 2, 2005
    Messages:
    10,539
    Location:
    In the desert
    From: The Councils of the Second Circle
    To: All Free People of the East


    For years, we only sought peace. Even after the enslavement and murder of countless thousands, we only sought peace. But now, now, the Empire of Anis-Natar has captured, humiliated, and executed the symbol of our people, Haadulf.

    Year after year, we only ask the imperial envoys to simply leave. But it is clear they will never leave. It is clear their purpose is to scour the world itself of life, to feed all to their flame and leave only barren rock in its place.

    We call for all those who still resist the Empire to gather in council at the encircled court of our ally Aeledan, for we must decide our future place in this world. We abhor all conflict, as the Prophet taught, but we cannot all be willingly led to our deaths as he was! We must decide a way forward, together. We have no choice.

    For He Withered, so that we might grow.
     
    Last edited: Mar 23, 2019
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  9. Jehoshua

    Jehoshua Catholic

    Joined:
    Sep 25, 2009
    Messages:
    7,127
    From: An Emissary of the Court of Summer
    To: The Brothers of the Circle

    Realm and God are one and in the midst of this godhead strange humans are unwelcome and unwanted, for we have seen how they come hither with fire and axe and hear not the dreaming of the forest nor understand that they tread in the midst of divinity. Even you, the kinsfolk of our foster-father and who for loves sake we protect do not wander needlessly into our domain.

    Nonetheless our King, in remembrance of murdered Haadulf, shall permit, this one time only, one emissary from each mortal nation which dares resist Stone-Fire and its unyielding Flame to be granted passage that they may speak on this matter before the King as you have called for. For we know that this is our karma and that all of us, both the horned ones and the children of men, are bound by one fate. Subjugation and death, or liberation and life.

    Such is what prophecy has foretold.
     
    Last edited: Mar 29, 2019
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  10. TheMeanestGuest

    TheMeanestGuest Warlord

    Joined:
    Dec 4, 2008
    Messages:
    204
    Location:
    Ontario, Canada
    kotzal

    For Shadur, every moment stretches to eternity. Each is held distinctly and at once within the howling vortex of its mind. It has seen all of this before; time unfolds before it as it remembers. The terror and anguish of its birth, alone in the high cold nothing between the stars. Horror as it gazed upon the world, powerless. Confusion when a stranger came to stand before it in its sanctum, a figure of tangled, twisting colour; no, no, not a stranger at all. A friend. A brother. This isn’t right. What have I done? And the searing pain of treachery; a cruel and gushing wound.

    Yes. Yes, this it remembers.

    It remembers when she died, grace and beauty broken in the snow, their son butchered, defenceless, unprotected. It remembers the shame, and the rage, the pain. And it remembers its revenge - just as there is no escape for Shadur, there shall be none for the condemned. It sees the barest glimpse of its own dissolution, but so infinitesimal that there is no clue or hint of it to be gleaned, no circumstance or cause. Unease becomes obsession. A fog descends across its vision, and reality constricts. Its thousand eyes are stuck fast, unable to look away from these few strands.

    where am i? *

    A flicker, and perceptions slow

    i’m not sure if i can... *

    Another, and they start to fray. Hooks and wires fall away from each other as everything collapses into tatters.

    Here. This will help us understand. *

    ---

    The town of Inraic went up a winding hill, eagerly snaking away from its cramped, narrow and stinking dockways. Atop a sheer rocky plinth sat a small tower of inexpertly mortared stone, the banner of its lord hanging limp and indistinct on a still and hazy summer day. Its people seem distant and aimless as they go about the common business of their lives, perhaps disturbed by some hidden recognition of their own troubling mediocrity. Even among the Carnish it was regarded as a rather regrettable place.

    Irel had lived there all her life; she found that most of it had been dull and unenjoyable. Her family was not the richest, and their house was small and plain: walls of wood and daub, a thatched roof, and a few sparsely appointed rooms that somehow still felt crowded. Her father was a carter, hauling with his donkey up and down the twisting, muddy streets. Her mother was dead. Her father’s wife had now given him two sons, and it was clear to anyone with eyes to see or ears to hear that the man loved his sons much more than he loved his daughter.

    She was not the boldest girl, nor was she the most beautiful. She worked hard every day mending nets and spinning cloth, subject to her stepmother’s frequent cruelties at the slightest mistake - or at times for no reason at all. Despite this, Irel always had a kind word to spare for those around her, and she wore a dutiful smile on her lips. All things considered, she often thought that she deserved much more than she had.

    She met a man, then. Ared was tall and strong and spoke softly, his father helmsman to a ship. For the first time in her life she felt free and happy. They loved each other, and he promised to marry her. For a short while Irel forgot her misfortune, and she even dared hope that there might be a place for her in the future she’d always imagined. This was a grave mistake. Scorn misery, and tempt its return.

    He left on a raiding ship. There was a child growing in her belly. She waited and she waited, patient, knowing the gods would favour him, that Ared would come home. She was right in this, though she was wrong to think that they would favour her as well. The child died inside her, unnamed, unknown. She wasn’t well after that, red-hot pain lurking in her gut, blood quick to follow. The whole town shamed her, men stepping rudely into her path, women whispering and staring.

    At long last Ared’s ship returns, captured banners flying from its mast. Hope flared in her heart; let things go back to the way they’d been. She would give anything, anything. He stepped through the cheering crowd, laughing. He wouldn’t meet her eye. He had silver rings on his left arm, and a bride on his right; she was green-eyed and fine-featured, garbed in white wool, a babe held gently in her arms. She looked down at her child, beaming. Irel fled, face flushing red-hot with rage.

    She sat alone in the shed as night descended, crouched on a pile of mouldering straw, a thin and tattered blanket clutched close around her. She wept quietly, rain pattering softly on leaking boards, spilling down to mix with the tears on her cheeks. Vermin scurry in the corners. When she lost the child her stepmother accused her of harbouring unclean spirits, sending Irel away from the family to sleep in the run-down hutch behind the house. Where before her father had been merely distant and unkind, he now became cruel, the bruises on her face a terrible proof. Irel had overheard him grumbling sourly the other night - drunk - lamenting the burden of an unchaste daughter. His wife spoke to him softly, idly, wondering. They were talking about selling her - the slavers would be coming through soon.

    She hated them all so much. She hated and hated and hated, her blood boiling. And she felt so powerless. Maybe that’s why she'd made the doll, piecing it together from scraps of cloth, staining it black with ash from the hearth. She knew it was foolish. She had heard all the stories as a child, shivering with fear on full moon’s night. Indeed, the guilty might wish that Irel had not called upon the twisting tree that night, considering all that followed; but deep down they had to know it was their own doing - they drove her to it. It was her only escape.

    “Shadarix, Shadarix, Shadarix!” she cried, viciously stabbing a long, sharp needle into the blackened doll with each heaving utterance. A low boom of thunder echoed in the distance. Her breath came harshly, her thoughts swimming madly, her own voice too loud in her head; the donkey brayed fearfully in the yard.

    he can’t help you tonight, the voice said, jagged, creaking, the groan of ice as too much weight is placed atop. That forever moment as it gives way beneath you, plunging down into a cold forgetting. Irel dropped the doll and needle. Her heart pounding, she shuffled back against the wall, shadows moving just at the edge of sight.

    and it would be so inelegant. no, this isn't for father. you are lucky.

    “What - who are you?” she stuttered, her teeth chattering, a chill creeping into her bones, shadows slinking closer.

    kotzal

    Kotzal

    KOTZAL

    ***

    The rain continued, light but steady. The witching hour, and Inraic's winding muddy street was empty, abandoned. She felt ill, those familiar daggers of pain tearing into her, nausea rising in her gut, a fever on her brow. Her steps were confused, her clothes soaked through; she stumbled her way down to the docks. A black cat crossed her path, darting between awnings. It glared at her from a dry perch, hissing. For a second she could have sworn its eyes were red.

    ***

    She was there, looking down. Night-dark waves lapping gently at the boards, droplets coursing from the sky, an endless muttering sigh as they fell to join the sea. A pressure was building behind her eyes, her head aching, her skin itching.

    well you'll have to go in, the words unbidden in her mind, almost conversational.

    It all seemed too much then, an overwhelming, crushing finality. It was unfair. Why did it have to be this way? “I don't want to die,” she sniffled, emptiness and fear warring within her. She just wanted to go home.

    but what else is there? the voice asked in reply.

    Irel stepped from the dock. She couldn't swim, and her dress was heavy in the water, pulling her beneath.

    No one was there to see her drown. And no one was there to see when a little while later she hauled herself back out, dripping, hair hanging limp and wet in strands, face pale and tinged with blue, dark veins standing out against her skin. Irel murmured softly to herself as she climbed back up the hill.

    ***

    Irel smiled as she served the stew, ladling it out into bowls for her family. She even smiled when her stepmother hit her, claiming she stank of mildew. Irel said she was sorry, hanging her head low, promising that she would soon wash herself clean. She started to hum to herself as she sat in her corner, watching them eat. Her brothers kept shooting her worried looks as the tell-tale ticks of fury began to play on her father’s face. Irel kept smiling as he looked her in the eye. He shot up in a rage, knocking his chair back, setting the table wobbling. Taking a step, blood started to drip from his nose, he wiped at it with his wrist, his face screwing up in confusion. He keeled over with a smack, nose pulping on the floor. The boys started to choke, then, coughing blood up into their bowls. Her stepmother tried to scream, but her throat was swollen shut.

    The sun was shining brightly as Irel closed the door behind her, four corpses sprawled out for dinner. She was grinning so wide it almost hurt.

    only a few more~
    , a whisper, sing-song.

    ***

    She’d lured the girl behind the barn, a maid at a fine house at the top of the town. It was easy. A story about a dog.

    “I don’t see anything back here, are you sure?” the girl asked, looking around.

    now kill her with the knife

    “But I don’t have a knife,” Irel said, confused. Oh. She realized that of course she did. It was in her hand the whole time. The girl looked confused too, but not for very long. Irel cut carefully with her nails, taking off the maid’s face neatly, just like kotzal told her to.

    ***

    She walked out from the stone house a few hours later, screams left in her wake. Her eyes were green, and she held a baby in her arms, looking down at him fondly. No one seemed to notice her as she strolled slowly down the hill, commotion growing as more bodies were found. She stood upon the docks again, the sun setting into the sea.

    are you ready to come home, irel?

    “Yes!” she cried joyfully, walking into the water.

    ---

    Another. Just to be sure. This is an old one.

    ---

    It remembered something else. It remembered the first time it met her.

    He remembered the first time he met his daughter. [That can’t be right. Something is wrong here. Something’s been changed.]

    She’d made a house for herself, though it was hardly worth the name. It was deep, dark, and empty: a lonely, lightless place. She laid him down as he crossed the threshold, the wound in his belly dripping black. you should rest now, she said, taking his hand in hers. She turned her head away, tears on her cheeks. you have to go to sleep, or it won’t get any better, she murmured, placing their hands together across that jagged cut. Warmth spread through him, a soft yellow light in the gloom. He closed his eyes against that sudden harshness.

    ---

    And eternity coalesces.

    This is how we will destroy the usurpers, Shadur intones. Shadowed figures step back and away, emblazoned chiaroscuro against the white, drifting snow - a great crystalline scar on the monolith’s flank pulses with a wicked crimson light.

    it’s past time we begin

    Spoiler Moraighs :
    - Moraighs: Kotzal has gathered up these kindred spirits, crying out for vengeance. She drowns each one lovingly, and brings it to her house at Draum. To please the undren throne they have been blessed with great power: to hide themselves in plain sight, to steal faces from the dead - to pretend to be a friend, to fill up lungs with water for a grisly choking death. They cut quickly across the past, riding strange currents below the surface of the sea. They may have other talents, hidden away from prying mortal eyes. They adore kotzal with perfect purity, forever grateful for her gifts.
     
    Last edited: Mar 31, 2019
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  11. Jehoshua

    Jehoshua Catholic

    Joined:
    Sep 25, 2009
    Messages:
    7,127
    The Four Winds

    -

    Time is like a river, and the gods stand in the river and are moved not. Such is the nature of divinity and such is why finite, temporal man can never understand those who bear its mantle. It was by being made subject to time that the stag was slain by the crystal dagger of Azzatar the Mountain, being unbound and cast adrift into the eddies of oblivion. It was by being made timeless that Haadulf caused fear to wrack the souls of the lion-priests and people of the Empire, the whips of their Marids cracking in a futile attempt to erase from the ever present now an eternal martyrdom. Even now they seek to hide this mystery from their slaves.

    So it was that in the river of time, across the endless desert of the Land of Flame an orphaned girl wrapped in tattered robes of brown, her frail-seeming hand shielding her deep green eyes from the merciless sun that seared the cloudless sky trudged, step by heavy step, across the lifeless dunes. The demon city of Arisaras was left far behind, past the clouds of dust and mists of memory that followed in her wake, spirited away in an instant like a mirage as she was cast adrift in the moment she touched the font of flowers and became lost in its flow, the black and red and purple of the city and its false life fading into motes of ash and a field of grey. She had fled that haunted place as soon as Salap fell, across the plain of fire-scoured earth stretching into everywhere and nowhere and into the endless desert, running from the questing eyes of a thousand hungry flames that wheeled across the burning heaven and the leering mountain that brooded overhead. For neither the ash-plain nor a city of lion-priests and demons is safe for any who bear the mark of spring, and she did not know the secret arts that Salap used to protect them from the lie-seekers and the burning ones when he smuggled her through the walls of Arisaras. She continued forward, and the dunes sang as she trudged, their echoes reverberating across the desert and for a moment she imagined the music was the mocking laughter of the desert spirits. How they mocked her for living when her kin lived not, for doing nothing as the Prophet died, for abandoning Salap as he died for her sake and was burned away to cinders, and most of all for running away from death into the burning wastes only to perish of thirst and heat. She trudged, climbing up the high dune all alone, her teeth clenched as tears stained the face beneath her veil and with each heavy and unwieldy step the desert spoke a word.

    dead.

    dead.

    dead.

    The desert called out to her that it, in itself, was dead, devoid of life with only shattered glass and the occasional diamond fly to bear mockery to the living. So too it spoke that all that she had ever loved was dead and that not even the worms might feast upon their graves. She remembered the past and the bitterness crept down her parched and burning throat.

    -

    Her mother and father, their smiling faces and tender love, they were dead. Their terror as the shadow closed about them was the last she ever saw of them before Salap caught her up and brought her back into the light.

    All the rest of the blessed Kfeji were dead too, crushed beneath The Land, their skeletons crumbling to dust beyond the Past, lost just like Ktse in the waters of memory. Their screams and Salaps tears still stung at her soul, their accusing faces, their lamenting cries and the uncaring darkness that was all that lay beneath the lifeless rock still chased her in her dreams like a rabid dog baying at her heels.

    Salap too, who was her foster father for but a short time and who loved her and her people even though he was not of their kin, is dead. She remembered how he was charred and burned away by the fiery embrace of a Marid and scattered to the four corners of the desert by the howling winds as the echoes of his spirits lamentation faded into silence.

    She regretted too that she stood in the place of lifeless celebration where Haadulf the prophet of spring was cut down and could do nothing as he died, she recalled that as he looked into the beyond and perhaps more, he even smiled one last time before the end. She did not understand his words, when the burning woman had accused him before the baying mob and called out heresy, heresy, heresy. But she knew, she knew his resignation and regret. She knew too that in a land of lies and shadows, he alone spoke truth. Perhaps the desert was right to mock her for her silence.

    The holy blood that beat within her heart throbbed and she remembered at last the tinkling vial and she pondered the mystery that took place in the cursed city on the seventh day and which she did not, even now, understand. Why her, she wondered. Why did she have to suffer so.

    "Where now"

    she whispered.

    -

    South

    North

    West

    -

    whispered the voices of the winds, their whisperings swirling through the sands and high into the cloudless sky, the dust whirring in the sudden breeze and tinkling down the dune behind her as they circled round like vultures. She knew what they promised.

    The languid south wind beckoned an escape to ease and plenty, it told a story of men in leopard skins borne on ships of bone and hide down a wide river. Far from Anis-Natar in their midst she might feast upon exotic fruits and bathe in fountains of purest mountain water tended by maidens of mist and a hundred comely slave boys. She would suffer nothing in this life if only she would go south.

    the north wind sang of a cold revenge and mighty ruin, of twisted trees and shards of glass. Go north and sweet vengeance and sweeter retribution would be hers and the goddess who slew her people, together with the Empire which belonged to Her which slew Salap, would be cast down. She would stand triumphant over the shattered ruins of their infamy and all the world would tremble under the soles of her feet. Embrace the north wind, and she would find solace in revenge.

    The west wind whispered of an eternal rest free from the sufferings of earthly life, for in the west lay the realm of the dead, and amongst the dead she would find rest at last from her heavy burdens. Rest in the western sands before the feet of the mountains and she would be given the blessing of an end to her labours. The girl trembled, she did not want to die, not now when she had promised Salap she would live. She would not let the blood of the Kfeji perish.

    -

    "East"

    A strange bird, a little thing of dabbled brown and grey so unlike the bejewelled orioles of Arisaras nor the crystalline herons that cleaned the teeth of the ruby crocodiles of the dead river, flitted its wings and flew down on a cool east wind to rest upon her shoulder.

    "And what awaits me in the east, what empty promises do you bear"

    the bird replied to her bitterness.

    "You shall find that which was buried in the Past."

    The girl laughed. She was taken to Arisaras to find the Prophet, and the prophet was killed before her eyes, now she must find something else. How many more people will die for her? How many more things must she find before finding peace? How many more regrets must weigh upon her shoulders? Yet, she wondered, the Past was forbidden by the Empire, the very memory of it blasted from the minds of its wanderers by dark sorceries and forbidden towers of unknowing... what secret was buried beneath the waves for the Empire to fear it so... her curiosity if nothing else made her ask another question

    "How shall I find that which was buried?"

    "Submit to prophecy"

    Prophecy. Salap had told her that she must go to Arisaras and so she did because prophecy demanded it, being smuggled under spells of warding even to the court of execution where Emperor and Empress saw the font of flowers spring forth from a mans severed neck. But Salap had died and left her all alone. It seems all that prophecy had ever brought for her was death and ruin. Haadulf the Prophet too died because he was a pawn of prophecy if what the demon-woman had said was true. He died because T'namar the Lion in a secret council had foretold that Spring would devour Anis-Natar and the demons that made their nest therein. Perhaps there was a hope after all...

    "To what end"

    "Life"

    The bird flitted from her shoulder and its form changed to a wild boy, and as his feet touched the sand flowers bloomed at his feet. She stepped back in shock as her eyes went wide, for he was like unto the Kfeji, skin tan and hair black like the night, but his eyes were deep with wisdom and green like hers, or at least as hers were after that night... Her heart thumped and the blood within her drew her nigh to him compelling her, drawing her in one direction, east, with an unspeakable longing.

    "I shall be your guide Last of the Kfeji, Inheritor of the Prophet. Through the Land of Fire and past the slave cities I shall bear you hence to speak for your people and for the dead, and to submit to the destiny that awaits you in the Court of Summer."

    "What are you"

    "A spirit"

    "You are no desert djinn"

    "I am of the forest"

    "What's the forest?"

    "Come with me and the answer shall be revealed to you, bearer of the Holy Blood."

    Still she hesitated... and hesitated again. the desert was her past, her memory, the last thing that remembered what she was, that remembered how she played the Kawaja with her sister-brothers and sang the songs of lost Ktse with her tribe to the light of stars before everything was snatched from her by the cruelty of the Mountain.

    "Whats in the Forest that I must travel so far"

    The boy held up a cup filled with a liquid clear as glass, the suns reflection seeming in her sight to make it like unto a cup of light.

    "You are thirsty, drink".

    She held out her trembling hand. For in truth she was thirsty. She had dared not taste of the mulled wine proffered in copious quantities in Arisaras to the nourishment of the slaves of Fire and Land, and the water Salap had left to her was almost finished. She would die if she did not drink, for a girl could not live on regrets alone.

    And so she drank.

    And the winds of the north, west and south vanished back from whence they came, and with them all thoughts of revenge, ease or death.

    She saw that which no girl of the Kfeji had seen before, and knew that she would go east.

    -

    Spoiler Heralds of Spring :
    Halogund - 2MP Heralds of Spring: Halogund, firstborn of the prophet and favoured of the thousand voices called forth from the spiritual realm the twelve spirits referred too as Heralds of Spring [known as the Fir Aardach to the Aerenath, Landvaettir to the Carnish and Keepers of the Grove by the Dreamers], which in the form of sparrows, robins and other small forest birds sing songs of renewal at the coming of spring, to protect the sacred forests and bring solace to mortals [most particularly those who serve spring]. Calling trees from slumber and crops from winters fallow alike before returning to the rest once winter comes again, so too do they act as guides and messengers of Spring, and contend with the ruinous powers of flame and nightmare and their servants that afflict the free peoples of the east and seek the forests ruin. For the Heralds bear great power and can hear whispers from leagues afar carried on the winds. Thus shall the world come to know that the strength of Water and Wood is no less mighty than Fire and Stone.

    Halogund after his father was captured by Afrakt Ghul sent one such spirit which he named Daethlin, south in pursuit that at the very least Haadulfs children might know of his fate. His fate it uncovered well enough, as well as something else... The other heralds act at Halogunds behest as well as in the service of the Forest and its god.
     
    Last edited: Jun 9, 2019
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  12. Thlayli

    Thlayli Le Pétit Prince

    Joined:
    Jun 2, 2005
    Messages:
    10,539
    Location:
    In the desert
    OOC: The political map has been slightly updated, specifically with a few small towns crawling out of obscurity.

    Well you see, lately I've been shifting away from the book business...I find that in these times the reselling of iron is far more lucrative. Oh, don't give me that look! I suppose I can ask my old acquaintances if they're interested. You really should consider a different line of work yourself, with things as they are, my friend...you aren't getting any younger.

    Gazul: The high peaks of the great mountains that separate the South and the North are mostly inimical to life. They soar, frigid and bare, into cold and airless realms where even the mightiest yak of the uplands will struggle for breath. However, this does not apply to the valleys and the caves, in which the Gazul hunt and breed. The Gazul might look on first appearance to be rock-monsters themselves, as their bodies are covered in thick encrustations of rock-like calcifications in varying shades of grey and rust, as are their thick, leathery wings. But they are living beings of flesh and blood, and they are reported to mate and reproduce by live birth. Young gazul are soft and smooth-skinned, with their encrustations gradually developing through adolescence as they learn to fly.

    The gazul are nocturnal, sleeping in caves during the day - their eyes are incredibly sensitive to bright light. Of these, they have four - three at each corner of a roughly pyramidal face, and one in the back of their head - affording them an exceptional all-around view of their surroundings in the air, one presumes. Their pyramidal, pointed mouth-noses bear little resemblance to the jaws of terrestrial creatures, opening in three parts. Socially, the males hunt and fight, but they appear to be polyandrous, with one female breeding once every few years with the most favored male in her flight, and exiling younger females once they reach adulthood who attempt to forge new flights. Flights are aggressively territorial, as these large beasts require equally large quantities of meat, which tend to come from yak (which two adult Gazul can carry off together), mountain goats and elk, often competing with snow leopards and the great undulant ice-snakes for these prizes. It is rare to see them descend below the tree-line in the North, but scarce food or natural disasters will occasionally cause this. Gazul are ferociously strong, and have been known to drop chunks of wood and stone from above upon unwary prey. Luckily, their sensitivity to common torchlight and preference for highly remote areas makes them little threat to civilized folk.

    Aerenath: These beings have come into increasing prominence in the last decade on the fringes of imperial territory, and have been noted as native to the Four Great Glades of the East. Believed to stem from the mutation of a sacrificed child by Hadaph, the dreaded Green Hierophant executed by the Empire of late for heretical practices, they have become a fierce hunter-warrior caste for the servants of Spring. They typically stand man-height or above, with corded, muscular flesh and hooved feet, and are known to have a ferocious roar that exceeds that of a wild beast and strikes terror into the hearts of those who hear it. Their colors range from copper to black, but the most common seen is brown with dappled white speckles in some location on the upper trunk. The base color of the skin is typically mirrored in the color of their furred lower legs. Their legs and hair are also observed to grow various colored flowers in the growing seasons of the East, but it is unclear if they are decorative or part of their body. It is known that they abhor metal and civilized customs such as construction and farming, seeing these as sinful rites imported from the South. It is rumored that despite this, they have intelligence approaching that of humans. The size of their horns is seen as an indication of their magical power, which includes all the subject plants and animals that live within their groves. While their social hierarchies are little known, horn size may indicate dominance structures in their kin-groups as well. Luckily they remain highly vulnerable to fire, and despite their troubling intelligence, mastery of Eastern plant life, and imitation of human speech (used in combination with hauntingly beautiful songs to lure unwary travelers to their doom in their hidden forest dens) they have no weapons more durable than flint. Further information is restricted by proscript of the imperial Priest-Administracy.
     
    Last edited: Mar 24, 2019
  13. inthesomeday

    inthesomeday Immortan

    Joined:
    Dec 12, 2015
    Messages:
    2,798
    Excerpts from “The Diaries of Andracus Herius: In Bondage at Oscandia”

    173 LUNUS 18

    I am Andracus Herius of the nation of Sommos. Today is the 18th of the month Lunus, annus 173. I write these words on stolen paper under moonlight that leaks through the roof of a tenthide.

    For some sixmonth or so I lived in the village of Ilanimos in the northeastern grassland plains of the nation, dispatched there by the Council Association of Geography to manage surveillance of the earth, the heaven, & the ether of the region.

    The village is a modest one, though as are many villages in the outskirts of the nation it is quickly becoming a center of immigration, trade, & cultivation. The status of Sommos afforded by recent political occurrences has also resulted in an influx of barbarian peoples into her borders. Implicitly, another duty of my office was the maintenance of the nearby border posts tasked with managing that form of immigration. As such I have learned much about the various sub-cultures of the alien peoples that surround us during my stay in Ilanimos; none has interested me such as those called the Oscands, well known to the border towns of the Republic.

    I first heard of these barbarians two years ago, at the same time as most of my peers at the University. News was spreading quickly across networks of the academia, both material & magical, that there were reports of hybrid beast-men from the east, who leapt the fields on four legs faster than the knot speed of the most prized hornship, & who fired piercing arrows more precisely than the focus of the orange-eyed. Though these rumors were treated at first with skepticism, at least among my circle, there began to emerge new stories, of firsthand accounts from purported survivors, & even material evidence like barbed arrows and strange, curved bows. We gradually came to accept that indeed such men likely existed, & that they posed a very real threat to the plans of the Republic to expand.

    Today, we know much more about the Oscand than we did then. Below I will summarize the understanding most common to Sommos scholars of the barbarian tribes:

    The Oscand are not, in fact, beast-men. They are, at least externally, human, & their reputation as monsters was derived from the style of their warfare. In battle, they ride on the backs of strange creatures, black as charcoal or white as marble, which run on four legs & seemingly cannot be scathed by the weapons of the Republic.

    Their greatest interest in us seems to be plundering our resources & taking some of our people, mostly farmers & peasants, as slaves. Even their most devastating attacks have left scarce more destruction behind than a notable thunderstorm, & there are often many survivors left behind from their raids, unlike our experiences with other barbarians or wars with other major polities. They tend to take material things first, such as grain or other agricultural goods, or fine cloths and beautiful trinkets, & show a disdain—or at least disinterest—in civilized goods, such as books.

    The Oscand favor bow-and-arrow warfare, & both their bows & arrows are alien to even the most seasoned military veterans. The bows are larger, sturdier, & more complex than ours, with drawstrings likely taken from some animal fiber—many hypothesize from the flesh of their steeds, explaining their strength and endurance. The arrows are crafted from a number of materials, including bone, stone, & crude metal, but all have a certain few factors in common: they are barbed, for example, causing them to impale & stick easier.

    Despite appearances, not all Oscand are riding-archers. Some select few of the riders in battle also carry melee weapons, especially swords or spears. The swords are usually crafted from similar materials to the arrows, & often similarly barbed. The spears are typically crude, & most are known to break after only a few uses. Still other Oscand on the battlefield carry no weapons at all, nor do these ones ride beasts; they follow after the battle, most with a different color skin & some wearing strange masks. These ones disperse potions across the fields, conduct rituals, & on those rare occasions collect the dead.

    Tactically, the Oscand follow none of the five doctrines, but are seemingly willing to change their entire military organization within moments of changes to the battlefield. I once read an account of a border skirmish between a Sommos regiment reinforced by a lower pyronic mage of the desert and an Oscand warband. When the two forces met, three of the riders were scorched from the backs of their steeds by the mage. Once the Oscand and the masterless horses had retreated past a certain hilltop, the regiment set about constructing a rudimentary post in the plain with a tower for the mage to watch over for further incursions by the riders. That night, the beating of footsteps down the hill awoke the regiment, who accordingly awoke the mage. He set about attempting to conjure fire upon the riders, but even as they approached closer they seemed impervious to his attempts. Once they had drawn within easy eyesight the men noticed that they appeared to be soaking wet. They had bathed themselves & their horses in the river behind the hill to disarm the pyromancer’s attacks. The regiment was forced to make hasty retreat to the nearby fortress. Uncharacteristically the Oscand did not pursue, apparently content to reap the supplies left in the post.

    The log of the centurion responsible for managing the fortress noted that it seemed likely they were simply regrouping after the loss of the three riders, a remarkable feat on the part of the pyromancer. The next morning, in the middle of a guard rotation, a warband ten times the size of the previous one opened an assault on the fortress, each of the riders & their horses dripping wet. The accounts that survived were those brought back by fleeing soldiers.

    Indeed, most of our knowledge on Oscand lore and tradition comes from the firsthand experience of soldiers who interface with them or from things left behind at battlefields. There has never been an Oscand prisoner taken by Sommos soldiers. Even those who live on the battlefield but are separated from their beasts either slit their own throats before they are captured by Sommos or are shot down by their own compatriots. There have been scarce few victories against the Oscand; their warbands are untraceable, unpredictable, & extremely difficult to vanquish. The swiftness of their attacks leaves the traditional means by which Sommos soldiers fight ultimately useless. Beyond that, their tendency to versatility in the face of adversity imposes a challenge to even the most adaptive of the generals.

    Little is known of the Oscand language, culture, religion, lifestyle, or government. Some have theorized that they may live under no government at all, based on the chaotic nature of their habits on the battlefield.

    This is certainly a significant factor of my own interest in this people. There is a fascinating and attractive mystery to them. They are a new frontier for cultural research. As such I must admit I hoped perhaps against my better judgment that I might be able to have some sort of interaction with an Oscand or a band of Oscand. Perhaps—and this was a childish wish—I would be the first Sommos official to actually capture one alive! Perhaps my name would be next to Dominicus the Scryer and Iry Banatica in the texts of history. But alas, it seems my wishes fell on some eagerly listening ears and I have indeed found myself in the presence of the Oscand. The circumstances are not precisely how I imagined.
     
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  14. TheMeanestGuest

    TheMeanestGuest Warlord

    Joined:
    Dec 4, 2008
    Messages:
    204
    Location:
    Ontario, Canada
    Gilbies, Reebs, & Esathë Qorub

    Black flowers spilled down the hillside behind, velvet petals of sable, their piquant fragrance heavy on the warm summer air for leagues around. In sumptuous robes of red goatscloth three figures climbed new-hewn steps toward the mountain’s summit, a procession slow and heavy with portent.

    Esathë Qorub, torn down by time. Conquered, cleansed, built up anew, memorial to sit atop the ruined dignity of the foe. They knocked what was left half-down to let the moon’s light in, zem carvers viciously chiseling, scouring the walls to scribe new tales upon them. A crown of amning pine reaching up, an oculus to admit a slice of sky. Esathë Qorub, bathed in blood, a hundred goats throat-cut on full-waxed night, moon-priests chanting spells in founding rite. Tunnels sunk into the sides to find what time had buried, graven faces of the monolith left behind, peering intently through the darkness. Esathë Qorub, the temple of the black doe.

    The naioune Ennoc ascends, bearing the lady’s device before him: an empty white gown snagged upon a hook, sewn all over with staring eyes in red thread. Hyric followed, burden born gently in his arms. A fine bag of black reeb’s fur, soft and silky, and the bones it held within. He had trapped the reeb with ropes and from a nearby tree listened to its soft and sweetened pleas, praising the brave hunter for the taking of his quarry, and if he would only release the creature it would share knowledge of a fullsome treasure; it shifted from four-legged form to two and back, vainly trying to escape. Reebs were always affable, even when attempting to eat you. He revealed himself, and the creature despaired at the sight of its captor, falling on the ground. Hyric killed it, and he skinned it. Behind him up the mountain stair came the moon-priestess Vist, crooning blessings and screeching dire accusations in turn, reading from a long parchment held out at arms-length and scribed all over in small, crabbed runes. He could feel his father’s gaze, but it was not oppressive, merely waiting; watching, almost somber. The steps wound ‘round the mountain, curving in a slow spiral. Zemmi sat await on each tenstep, teasing wings from wasps as the small procession passed. They neared the top, and the bag seemed to jump in Hyric’s arms, the bones clattering within.

    “She is pleased, Lord. You have avenged her, and now you bear her to her rest,” Vist said, her voice warm and lilting. Hyric turned to look at the priestess, and she met his glance. Her mouth smiled, though it seemed in no accordance with her eyes, which regarded him in a remote and unfocused way. “And just so will I record it,” she continued, barking a brief and high-pitched laugh. Hyric found that the haggowri were frequently unhinged in various unsettling ways, but he supposed that for mortal minds such conditions were beneficial to communion with the master.

    They approached the entrance, unroofed and baffled. The zem at the final step was not alone. “There is a gilbie on your shoulders, servant. Do you disrupt the ritual?” Ennoc hissed ominously. The zem cringed with fear, seized by confusion as he tried to think, casting his gaze downwards. Wasp’s wings floated by on a cool breeze from the north, heralding the night’s winds to come.

    “Honoured one, I would not! It indicates an urgent message. They are the castellan’s slaves?” the zem ventured, turning to Hyric without raising his eyes.

    “Indeed. I have bound the gilbenslad to my person, and to the ultimate service of our great father!” Hyric declared, shifting the bag of god’s bones in his arms nervously, awaiting Shadur’s punishment. It did not come. The gilbie was about two feet tall, with skin as drying brown leaves and a scrunched-up face like the knotted whorls of a wounded tree. It looked at Hyric mischievously, beckoning with its right hand, its left playing idly in the zem’s hair. Hyric got down on one knee, and bent his ear to listen to the creature’s whispers - which sounded of padded feet crunching through the forest. “Really?” he asked, a note of pleasant surprise in his voice. “You don’t say! This is excellent news, Rythyskorems,” he beamed, rewarding the gilbie with a juicy beetle retrieved from an inner pocket of his robe. It opened two yawning mouths in an approximation of satisfaction. Ennoc was looking at Hyric askance, while Vist diligently added new runes to parchment, having pricked her finger for writing blood. The bones rumbled in his arms, irritated. Hyric drew himself up imperiously. “Now away. You have delivered your missive. The burial must not be delayed!” he thundered, his voice booming down the mountain. The gilbie shrugged, hopping from the zem and scampering off. Readopting a stately posture, Ennoc crossed the threshold with the standard, Hyric and Vist following behind.

    The entrance consisted of five baffles, nine-foot walls engraved to honour the red-eyed black doe of the northern valleys. All was cast in shadow by the towering trees, but there was no difficulty of sight for these attendants. The first scene was discordant, designed to arouse apprehension: squat human figures frolicking amidst the trees, the bright sun burning overhead. In the second, there stood the lady of the wood, regal as she surveyed her domain from atop a rise; her eyes were of polished red agate. They turned the baffled corners, beholding the fine and finished works. Huddled and dense in style, yet displaying a certain brusque refinement. Hyric had ensured the exactness of construction and artistry, and he allowed himself to admire the weighty anxieties they aroused. Here the doe stalked the dense undergrowth, no moon up in the sky, men and women cowered in the foreground, hands over their faces. There, the dread monolith, a menagerie of red-eyed animals in line towards it. They round the final corner, entering the temple proper. It is a grand space, but not overly large. A sarcophagal altar lies at the back upon a raised dais, one final work spreading across the breadth of the wall behind: great bones upon a fire, a shattered rack of antlers lying tilted on the ground; a gathering of hooded figures, eating. The vengeance of the naiounes.

    The altar lay open, it’s lid slanted crosswise. Hyric approached, Ennoc now following with the hook. Vist’s voice rose to fill the pine-vaulted chamber, her chants bidding the doe to her slumber. Stepping up to the dais, the bag creaked one final time in Hyric’s arms. Gratitude? On a thread of nightwire he lowered the bag oh-so-carefully to the basalt flags that lined the bottom of the sarcophagus, precisely ten feet down. The doe’s remains came to their final rest, at last lying still, and he gingerly freed the thread.

    The lid aligned, and they sealed it shut.
     
    Last edited: Mar 31, 2019
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  15. Jehoshua

    Jehoshua Catholic

    Joined:
    Sep 25, 2009
    Messages:
    7,127
    "The waking world is the amnesia of dream. All motifs can be rent asunder and all metaphor made reality. The present theme of the now always turns into the music of future nostalgia and regret. Do not then abuse your powers or they will lead you astray Young Lord, you will become lost and resentful and finally become sown with the seed of folly at the height of your hubris. Then you will be the father of a broken state and fallen nation. You will be mocked. You will be scorned. All your works will fall apart and fade into the eddies of oblivion like a stone that remembers that it is really water." ~ Dreamer Kylan.

    -

    Rites and Remonstration

    -

    The wind rustled through the great trees that solemnly held watch and stood like a wall before the ash-wastes carved out so many years ago during the conquest of Gahad, while Rashaq, Lion Priest of Afrakt Ghul and a cabal of orange-robed acolytes all cowled and robed, bearing torches in their right hands and accompanied by a silent company of orange-eyed legionnaires intoned salutations to their Lord. From their midst languid hymns and dire incantations rose and fell to the flickering of the golden flames burning upon a makeshift fire altar raised up amidst the ash, while blue sun-lilies poked from little ash-piles in bursts of azure, gold and green around them, fluttering to an eastern wind from the distant Past.

    It was a tiresome chore, at least thought Rashaq, as he wiped the sweat from his brow with his gilded maniple, clearing away the sprouts and accursed flowers that every spring emerged from the ash and threatened to overcome the border-line so sedulously maintained by the Empire. But it was a necessary one lest the influence of heresy spread into the restive slave cities and rouse rebellion in their midst. So too was it crucial in the protection of the border forts from the crude forest-men who made their home within the groves and who would indubitably cause mischief should their watch grow lax. Like all necessary things however it must begin with an acceptable sacrifice and the appropriate rituals of propitiation and blessing lest such a mundane task go awry for lack of divine favour. So Rashaq, piously raising his lion-skin cloak over his head, grasped his brazen knife, glinting sharply in the sun, and slit the throat of a white pigeon struggling in his left hand with one swift cut. The bird squawked once before Rashaq casually [but not unceremoniously] cast it whole and entire into the fire, flicking the blood staining his knife upon the altar steps in token offering to the Land. O admirable virtue, o laudatory religion. Another well-done holocaust for the Lord that he might favour his orange-eyed servants when they began their timely errand.

    Bowing their heads low as the congregation of orange-eyed soldiers prostrated themselves low into the dust, competing to push their heads ever deeper into the ash. Rashaq's acolytes intoned in the ancient tongue of the Empire the holy chant as the pigeon cracked and sizzled in the flame.

    -

    "Praise to Afrakt,

    Good is Afrakt,

    and well endowed,

    exact and righteous in His nature

    and good inherently,

    Virtuous in deeds

    and most successful in His working.

    As thy flame is best for living

    So is it most nourishing for the soul"

    -

    Rashaq leaned forth over the altar bending low, and whispered the secret salutary verses as he inhaled deeply the scent of the burning fowl.

    -

    "I make my claim on thee, O Shining One. I make my claim on thee for strength; I make my claim on thee for victory; I make my claim on thee for progress and increased prosperity, and vigour of the entire frame, and for understanding, of each adorning kind. For this, may thy light illuminate my mind and thy flame fill me with thy power, that having power and authority where I will, I may overwhelm all malice, and become a conqueror of lies."

    -


    Yes, thought Rashaq, with Afrakt-Ghul the march of imperial progress would continue unabated, with fiery strength and might beyond the mortal ken, his warriors thus enkindled would burn down those distant trees just as they burned the southern grove during the conquest. With holy fire the Aerenath and the circle cities beyond would be put to the torch, the survivors rounded up to serve the sustenance of the Empire. All the east would bow to the twin altars of Fire and Land, all the Kings and Chiefs of the primitives would kneel before Glorious Anis and Mighty Natar in abject servitude.

    He permitted a smile to grace his weathered and aristocratic face, stony visage illuminated by the holy fire.

    -

    the wind stilled.

    -

    A little bird sang sweet notes overhead, the high sounds disrupting the deep solemnity of the holy rite in the otherwise preternatural silence. Afrakt, a temperamental deity, would not be pleased.

    The acolytes became silent and Rashaq could not help but turn in agitation to behold their wide eyed stares and vacant expressions before swiftly turning round back towards the trees, his lion-skin hood falling to his shoulders amidst the wisps of smoke coming from the altar.

    Rashaq looked up, calling fire into his hands with a cursory thought as he raised his knife in caution. For upon a heavy branch, a youth with horns upon his head and hooves for feet, a great reaping glaive of star-iron held aloft in his right hand stood watching the votaries there gathered at their devotions. The Aerenoth tilted his head his green eyes seemingly pensive and glinting with wry condescension.

    For a moment that seemed to stretch forever the servants of fire and spring stared at each other.

    -


    "AEL SHEM GAHAD"


    -

    said the youth, and at those words of power the illusion of eternity snapped and the Aerenoth let loose his mighty spear.

    The great glaive sliced through the air like an arrow, narrowly missing the lion priest who scampered to his left at the unexpected assault, before it promptly crashed into the jaw of an unlucky acolyte. The blood from the lads mortal wound most unceremoniously and irreligiously spouting into the air in sanguine bursts as the poor thing crumbled to the earth and began to writhe amidst the ash and flowers grasping with twitching fingers at his face, his life-essence ebbing away into the waste and into darkness.

    The orange eyed congregation drew their swords, activated the fire-signs etched into their blades in the temple-smithies of Darail and swiftly began to run and circle the lion priest in a defensive formation, swords pointing outwards to meet the foe and quivering with dire intent. But alas too little too late, the boy, Aeladan, had already jumped aloft from the tree and somersaulted through the air, landing gracefully on his hooves and snatching his glaive from the ash. Pushing himself from the dust at his descent and darting low along the ground like a dagger thrust into his foe, his blade slices to his right, eviscerating the bowels from three or so soldiers before they could join the circle. A gap! Alas the strength of an Aerenoth is greater than that of mere men, most especially so that of their King.

    The lion-priest with acolytes in tow begins intoning the words of power for an ember trap while the boy wantonly whirled his glaive in great reaping circles, leaping through the air and decapitating soldier after soldier with each passing step, scything legs from torsos in a macabre yet graceful dance. All the while, spreading from their wounds, Rashaqs soldiers bodies began to disintegrate into black hummus in time to the song of the forest bird, the shoots of trees and flowers emerging from their flesh as they crumbled to the ground one by one in piles of damp earth. Even the flowers began to spread along the ground from their ash hummocks and twine up the lion-priests greaves while the swords and spell-forged armor of the slain soldiers unnaturally rusted away to red dust.

    "A herald!" Rashaq growled cracking a fire-whip, an elementary spell amongst his kind, skyward in consternation .

    Arrows pierced the eyes and backs of his men at his proclamation, as six Aerenath emerged from the underbrush with bows and poison arrows. Rashaq bellowed with frustration as the song-bird unwound the spell-song for the ember trap in a moments lapse of concentration, as his working collapsed at last in a mystic heap as acolyte after acolyte died. The boy now laughed raucously as he danced amidst the harvest of severed heads and flying arrows, as arrow after arrow sliced through the air and into the screaming throng. Rashaqs men died by glaive, arrow or sorcery one by one, screams, laughter and the occasional groan mixing in a litany of despair, leaving at last the lion priest alone standing high upon the altar steps. Knife still in hand he stepped backwards against the bricks of the fiery table, dignity still intact as he looked down upon the King in noble condescension. He sneered and spat his final words.

    "Your forests will burn"

    "And you will die"

    Aeladan gracefully jumped forward from a dirt pile that was once an acolyte and twisting in the air he thrust his spear deep into the heart of the Lion-priest, looking almost with tenderness into Rashaq's eyes has he pushed it deep into his flesh, before yanking the glaive out with a cruel flourish. The old man stumbled back and tumbled into the smouldering coals of his altar, the fire crackling angrily as he did. Aeladan hummed a note, deep and sonorous, and the bird sang a new song in accompaniment as a tree sprouted from Rashaqs chest and cracked the bricks upon which the lion priest fell, the coals tumbling out of their receptacle and rolling down the altar steps before being extinguished between the growing roots and rising flowers. Soon a great tree stood and only the brazen knife lay upon the newly grown grass to bear witness to what was.

    Aeladan stood aright, back jarred ramrod straight from his serpentine crouch, and bowed his head to the tree, clapped his hands together and intoned, eyes downward in solemn mockery.

    "A sacrifice for the forests"

    -

    "You're vicious Aeladan, you know that"

    Halogund emerged from the trees along with four tired looking green-priests in cloaks of brown and grey [unlike their usual verdant green] from the circle city of Aarmohab which lay yonder far from their current repose, north of the grove from which he walked upon the azure shores of the bay of Gahad.

    "Mercy is for the foolish, brother"

    said the king as he wagged his finger and poked out his tongue. His eyes turned sharp.

    "But since we are forgiving those old men for calling strangers to our house you can't complain"

    Halogund sighed for not the first time since he started this journey. The Elders of Aarmohab had indeed acted rashly in sending out letters to the nations of the east, calling a meeting in the Court of Summer before consulting Aeladan. While he had managed to appease his blood-brother and ensured a meeting would go ahead, nonetheless the Aerenoth had clearly not forgotten the offence. Halogund shook his head at the unbidden thought that those old fogeys who ran the circle and had done barely anything in the last decade to assist his late father or contend with Anis-Natar assumed the benevolence of the Aerenath would endure no matter what they did in light of their common foe and reverence for the late Prophet. Aeladan might act childish at times, but Halogund knew that the Aerenath did not think like human beings nor did they have the pacifistic forbearance Haadulf once possessed. The Aerenaths good will towards the circle would ebb away if the circle continued to invite intrusion into their sacred forests and then they would begin to be treated the same as any other interloper. At the very least the circle should engage in proper decorum to avoid this unhappy end.

    "Yes yes, and I scolded them for you a hundred times for not consulting you first. Can you really deny them though when they complain to me and say you would not attend a meeting if it was in Aarmohab?"

    The Aerenoth fell silent for a moment apparently in thought.

    "No, too many Carns."

    Aeladan shuddered.

    "Besides you have plenty of time to prepare, its not like you are being asked to host anyone objectionable"

    "most humans are objectionable brother... exceptions aside."

    Halogund sighed again

    "You are entitled to your opinion oh King, nonetheless to the matter at hand...."

    "Ah yes, you wanted to ensure those green men over there make it to the slave cities right, and we want to get rid of this fire-scar. Killing those men gives you time to smuggle your people south and gives us an opening to sing the trees from their sleep beneath the ash. What do you humans call it, a win, win".

    "Precisely'

    Now began the arduous march of contending with Anis-Natar, a long and burdensome task. To free the captives and bring low an empire raised upon a rock of godhood and forged in the fire of divine might. The herald that accompanied them, Ieldran, would ensure the green priests safely made it to the nearest slave village, his song hiding them from the sight of any questing Marids, yet it would still be a perilous quest and one fraught with dangers. Halogund bit his tongue, and prayed to the wheel and the forest that they would succeed in their errand.

    "Now then brother, we must return to the Court of Summer, let us leave this burning pyre that we may rest before a warming fire"

    "You've listened to those Carnish songs haven't you"

    Halogund squinted his eyes in mock consternation.

    "And don't you hate fires?"

    "They may both be disgusting, but the Carns have a way with words. Besides we make fire our own way so it is not subject to the Scourge of Gahad"

    Aeladan shrugged.

    So it was that King and Firsborn of the Prophet bade farewell to the green priests bestowing every blessing they could muster as the four holy-men and one bird marched south in forlorn procession to victory or death. Before turning backwards to the forest for the meeting that, in accordance to providence, lay unerringly ahead.
     
    Last edited: Jun 9, 2019
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  16. Azale

    Azale Deity

    Joined:
    Jun 29, 2002
    Messages:
    18,723
    Location:
    Texas
    Coming to the TNES VI Network...from the makers of Hot Honneung Summer and Wokiko's World...

    One head, two women, three ways everything can go wrong!

    This Fall, prophecy is a fickle thing.

     
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  17. thomas.berubeg

    thomas.berubeg Wandering the World

    Joined:
    Aug 21, 2006
    Messages:
    8,973
    Location:
    Ft. Lauderdale
    The words rolled through his head, as they had done since he had first heard them. Everything else had faded. The cool touch of the fingers on his cheek, the rough warmth of the sand below him, even her smile, all were gone except as memories of memories in his dreams. Everything lost but those words.

    Even his name.

    Why should a star be afraid of the dark?

    When he was young, before he knew his prescribed path, the destiny, the words meant nothing, really. They were words that he whispered to himself as he scrambled through the dust from the other children. They were his mother, his father, even as those around him mocked him for having neither. They were a mantra that he repeated as he cleaned the stone floors, as he ate the thin gruel, as he milked the cows. It was a reminder that he was more than this village let him be. At night, he’d look up, and know that this was not all. A family waited for him, out there, somewhere.

    And, slowly, he made something of himself in the village. He grew strong, handsome, and many girls, and some boys, threw themselves at him. He could have had any of them, but had none. He took a name, or was given one. Ishrac. But still, it was not enough.

    Why should a star be afraid of the dark?

    It had become a question, and he sought to find the answer. It was the Orange Priests who first gave him an answer. Clothed in orange and gold robes, and led by a proud man wearing the pelt of a white lion, they took him from the village, gave him his first purpose. He was nameless again, amongst the shrouded acolytes. Nameless, but not purposeless.

    The Orange Cult was a ladder for him, the ranks falling beneath him, the question driving him forward. He learnt the seven holy secrets, and dutifully forgot the eighth, once it was given to him. He woke the flame in his heart, honed its fury against the enemies of the Orange and the Purple. He grew taller, prouder, golden eyes distinct even amongst his brotherhood.

    As he aged, he wandered amongst the people, for he understood that their simplicity sometimes belied wisdom unknown to their betters. It was amongst them he heard rumors of a white lion making its home in the hills. It was, the people said, a powerful beast, with a pride a dozen strong, and a magnificent white mane.

    And so, on a moonless night, the nameless man who was once Ishrac and would become T’namar, snuck out from the acolyte barracks, as was tradition. He wore a simple loin cloth and clutched an obsidian blade in his hand, as was tradition. And, as was tradition, he slew the great lion in single combat.

    It was a fight for the ages, though not one that the singers would sing about. There were no dashing heroics. Instead, for hours and with subtle magics he broke the lion’s pride, taking it for his own. First it was a cub, and then a female, and then another, and then the rest, lured and trapped by a burning ember, and finally it was its life.

    He returned to the temple wearing the lion’s pride over his shoulders. He was bloodied, and clawed, but he walked as tall and proud as a god itself.

    He was led up the sevenfold steps, and kneeled before the flame, before the Ghul itself, offering the lion’s carcass, as was tradition.

    And the flame reached out, stroked his cheek, and accepted him.

    T’namar, the prodigal, he was named, for in him the flame saw his own blood. A grandson, purer than that of his orange brethren. The flame was silent, but roared a promise of strength and courage to his kin, in exchange for eternal devotion.

    He asked, that night, of the Hierophant, as they performed the holy ablutions, as was tradition.

    The shimmering, bubbling oil dripped down his forehead as he spoke, painting his lips, his tongue, with a glistening coat.

    “Why should a star be afraid of the dark?” It was the first time, and the last time, he would speak those words to another.

    “A star should not.” Was the answer, “For the stars are flame, and are many, and together, they burn away the dark.”

    Nothing more was spoken of it that night, though T’namar heard one of the other priests use that metaphor in a lesson weeks later, and was pleased. This was, after all, the answer he had sought.

    “Why should a star be afraid of the dark? It should not.”

    Those were now the words by which he lived. The words by which he was sworn. They were the words by which his strength in the flame grew, and the words by which he shaped his wisdom. Where they were once a question, driving growth, they were now a mantra. They were a beating drum, driving the rhythm of his heart.

    The Temple soon grew too small for one with his ambition, his power, his wisdom. The libraries soon overflowed with texts and koans attributed to T’namar Lion-heart, and he was loved by the men he commanded and his brothers both. And so when it came to pass that the previous Hierophant passed, all expected T’namar to ascend to the Burning Bower. It must also be said that T’namar expected, though he feigned humility, to take the place he saw as rightfully his. That night, the flame, Afrakt, the Ghul himself, spoke a different name. “Ashantar.”

    Alone, then, T’namar climbed the sevenfold steps to pray before the flame. To plead for an answer, to know why it had spurned him.

    “Why should a star be afraid of the dark?”

    The answer was his question. Not as a statement, but as the voice of the child he had once been.

    The answer he had gotten from the previous Hierophant had led him astray, he understood. Or rather, his interpretation of the answer had. He had grown to see himself as the brightest star. Better than his brothers, and higher than the flame itself. Only when he had learned humility, had learned to honor the wisdom of others, would the seat be his.

    It was this question that again drove him. He wandered the lands in the shadow of the Amethyst Mountain, and even beyond, ministering to those in need. He saw the sorrow, the pain that existed in the world, but also the joy, the light. For tens of tens of years he lived in a cave in a volcano in distant lands. The locals grew to know him, to love him; for the warmth he cast let them grow their crops, and the medicines he wove let their children grow old. And in return, he learned to love them, these people who were part of the Empire.

    And he understood a second answer to his question.

    “Why should a star be afraid of the dark?”

    Because without a star’s shine, the dark is absolute. The Empire was the star, and the dark was the outside. T’namar returned home upon understanding this truth. He ascended the sevenfold steps and knelt before the flaming stone.

    And the flame reached out to him, and recognized him as his own.

    When the Hierophant died, seven years later, T’namar was a much humbler man than the brash youth that expected a position he had believed was promised to him.

    He was finally Hierophant, and under his word, the influence of the Orange Cult, already incredible, expanded terribly. The Legions of Annis-Natar became a formal arm of the Cult, and with T’namar at their head, they performed great works in the name of the Empire. Terrible works, but great.

    The answer served him well as he hunted the enemies of the Empire. The wheel of leaves became the wreathed flame at his hand, and many villages fell to his sword and to his flame. The answer was a shield. It served as his truth, even as it felt emptier and emptier.

    But nevertheless, T’namar persisted. The Empire was, he knew, the only good in the world.

    It was true, even as he served at the command of the foul emperor Wokiko. They both served the mountain, and the mountain was good, even if its tools were imperfect.

    It was true, even during the holocaust of another family of Aeraneth. They served the enemy, and the enemy was countless.

    It was true, until it was not.

    There was no moment that heralded T’namar’s sundering from the Empire. Perhaps it was when he first laid eyes on Jammie, fleeing from Wokiko’s slaves. Perhaps it was while sharing a cup of hot tea with an undyn Umak. Perhaps it was when he immolated his first Naioune despite its claims of alliance between the monolith and the mountain. Perhaps it was even when he came upon Iphu besieged and Alai backed against the wall.

    Perhaps it was when he thought of himself as Ishrac as well as T’namar. Or Ishrac instead of T’namar. T’namar instead of Ishrac.

    Perhaps it was all of these moments, or perhaps none.

    Perhaps it was a forgotten touch, a lost smile, a name that no longer was.

    “Why should a star be afraid of the dark.”


    All T’namar knew was that the question remained a question. The answer, he now knew, was not singular.
     
  18. Thlayli

    Thlayli Le Pétit Prince

    Joined:
    Jun 2, 2005
    Messages:
    10,539
    Location:
    In the desert
    Funny, really. You thought this a reprieve, perhaps? A chance to relax, take in the sun, let your toes sink into the cool sand?

    Everything until now was just the prologue. The real story is about to begin.

    But at this rate, friends, you won't make it until the ending. For summer is a time for hunters.
     
  19. ork75

    ork75 Prince

    Joined:
    Mar 13, 2012
    Messages:
    528
    Darkness. The stuffy cage of basalt, ten feet underground at the top of a black mountain. The bones lie strewn, heaped, forgotten. The temple-grave was made in the name of remembrance, but what has it truly done besides allow the world to forget? It attempts to condemn what was present to the forbidden past. The book is closed, its stony cover shut. Red eyes are dim and dead, the memories of the midnight hunts locked away.

    There is not much moisture here, but the cold draws it from the air to the sides of the tomb. The ceiling slab, thick and heavy, shows its imperfection in a slight thickening towards its center. A droplet of condensation does not exist in one moment, but in the next it hangs from the rock. It wants to fall, but its brothers and relatives bind it upwards, dragging it across to the imperceptible point. The crown is crowded, there are others there. Relatives, droplets called by the same directive. They join, rejoice, combine in a new birth. And together, as one, they descend. The water explodes on top of the god-bones, scattered across the grave’s floor. And the globules of water, infinitesimal parts of an eternal, sealed cycle, wait for their call to rise once more.

    Gods, men, and heroes are weak in this world with no Past. Attention flits in and out, and the things which were troubles a day ago no longer exist, as long as the amethyst mountain stands. Today, the zemmi circle around the bared bones of a dead doe. But will they tomorrow?

    Just because a book has closed does not mean that the story within has ended. A god of cycles is trapped, killed, annihilated. But death, too, is a cycle. Even if a lake is frozen whole, it has still fed streams and creeks and the sea. And these do not simply cease to exist. The Stag was frozen, burned, but his final work was not. Consider: a god who has been unsuccessfully slain knows how to slay another. What does it mean that it chose not to?

    A prison and a fortress are nearly the same. Shielded from eyes of rage and the seeking touch of the earth, water runs across the bones’ pocked surface. In the soundless void they are not white or brown or red-stained, they are just shapes in infinity. And when they stir and tumble, no one can hear.

    Except one. In the air, in the very soul of the north, kotzal shudders. For an instant, she feels her mother shift, entwined now eternal in the rhythms of her second father. But then it ends, and the geyser of Past subsides. What is now carries on.
     
    Last edited: May 7, 2019
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  20. TheMeanestGuest

    TheMeanestGuest Warlord

    Joined:
    Dec 4, 2008
    Messages:
    204
    Location:
    Ontario, Canada
    The Barrows of Nakylkar

    Ghat couldn’t remember much from before. He remembered hunger, and he remembered the endless trek - each summer packing up what they could, and going south, south, through swamp and over rill and down to the cold and winding river. Like them, its waters fled from fear, from ice. His folk were the Kiyalt, and they came from the land of Nol. In years long ago and before his birth it had nurtured and strengthened them; even then it was a cruel place, but so too was it a place of good plenty. The elders said that they had known many gods and spirits, but now all of them were gone. Fled or dead or bound to serve, and so the people too. For Ghat and the Kiyalt there was only Night.

    Night spoke, and the Kiyalt abased themselves to hear, and cried out that they would do as it demanded. They would leave their homes, and bearing the bones of their dead upon their backs they would journey to the country of Tallag about the river Nakyl. There a place had been made for them and others. They could do nothing but obey, for the wood was only cruel, and it did not give up its plenty. As they trekked, Night grew within them, and so they better came to know it. Night is whole, but so too separate, and it is of three parts. First the maiden, who is rain and storm and low, cold places; secret hatreds hidden in the dark. Second the father, a tall, black tree of many branches, hung all over with the bodies of the dead, who brings and breaks and makes again; he holds the chimeric law of nightmare, and speaks in every sleeper’s head. Last is the shadow of the moon’s buried heart, who arrives at the turning of the age; if by chance you spy it wandering - quick! - look away; it is not yet time for mortal eyes to see.

    At last they come to Tallag. The sun is warm again, and the forests are full of fruit and game. The trees themselves seem to step aside to ease them on their way. By night fine-featured spirits walk among them, alighting down from wisping clouds to mark those blessed by the father’s favour. Many peoples gather, and all of them to worship: they praise the moon, the twilight wind, the glacier’s grinding ice. Each brings with them their dead.

    They come to Nakylkar, to a great mound of earth scurrying with working folk, to a village grander than any Ghat had ever known. Tens of hundreds in strange and varied dwellings spread out around: in tents of bone and hide, or sloping lodges carved from wood, in snug halls dug underground roofed in growing sod, or sleeping simply on the ground apile up with furs. All are to work that the mound should rise, in one way or in another. It is a barrow, they say, a place for weary bones long in need of rest. When our service is done we will be granted our reward. With a woven wicker basket Ghat would labour each day for many years, filling it again and again with heavy earth, hauling up and up the barrow’s growing bulk, the second tier nearing completion as swaying gray grasses take purchase on the first. Up and down he went, and in its length this journey eclipsed the migration of his youth. His back grew strong, his hands calloused, his dreams cloudy and indistinct. Amidst this mingling and weaving and working Ghat began to forget his people, just as all his fellows did. In this way he became a barrowman, a Nakyling.

    The Nakylings had a king, and then they had another. Strong and violent men, with booming voices to carry over any din. They were not thinkers, and were unwise in rulership. Soon there was another king still, and after that they came and went quite quickly. The clamour and the chaos grew, and it began to interrupt the work. Ghat knew this boded ill, but there was naught that he could do. Night is capricious in its blessings, and unyielding in its demands. And so the naioune spirits were displeased, and came with many of the favoured. Tough and hale, garbed richly in strong metals and warm furs, obedient to silent command, these zem round up the feuding warriors of the Nakylings, beating them with clubs. Beneath the full moon’s light they are gathered on a field, and the people too are brought to watch. Garbed in black and hard to see, three naiounes wait on thrones, a stone altar placed to wait before them. One spirit sits higher than the others, and it is she who commands the ritual.

    “You all know the game chenkal, and the stakes when played by Night. You bickering fighters end your quarrels on this field in tournament, until one only should remain. Know that the Lord watches, and that he will be pleased by your sacrifice,” she said, taking down her hood, pale face shining with an otherworldly light.

    Chenkal is played on open ground, two teams vying bloodily with long staves, a hard wooden disc whipped and caught with speed upon them. This prize is carried back and forth across the field, the struggle to land it atop a tall and spindling stick planted at each end. The players wear little, to run swiftly and to make them hard to catch and hold. When nine discs are stacked, the victor is known. And so Ghat watched, his attention stuck fast along with all the rest. He watched as the winners fell on the ground and cried with a joy soon to be ended all the same, and he watched as the losers were dragged to the altar and cut open, screaming, insides spilling out on dark wet stone.

    So it went until one only did remain. The naiounes anointed him in spirals with the blood of his vanquished foes, and they wrapped him in a robe of red goatscloth. The people cheered him, and held a great feast on the field of his victory. This is how Luthain became King of the Nakylings.

    As the Nakylings supped upon the roast, the new king spoke: “It is the first duty of our people to honour Night, and we do this in many ways. In my communion with the spirits, I have come to know the displeasure of the father that the great barrow from which we take our name is yet half-finished. The squabbling of our folk is done, and I will afford the means to assure our act of worship.”

    Ghat thought Luthain’s words wise and fine, and in the following days he found the promised means even finer. Choice viands and powerful drink, sturdy skins and a soft pallet. The work went quickly as he strove to see Nakylkar complete. He would earn his chance to take Night’s favour, and the promised boons that come with it.
     
    Last edited: May 8, 2019
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