A day in the life of planars (from old site)

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sciborg2
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A day in the life of planars (from old site)

Collected from journals, sensory stones, and mimirs, what follows are various accounts of planar life that will be provided by myself and anyone else willing:

The Spider Feeder

They need food, they're their version of pregnant.

The light boys, touts, and general urchin populace have gathered them for her, the newly dead left by the Dustmen carts. They are gathered in napkins, sacks, and cases meant for now pawned jewelery. She knows not all of them were found corpses, some were pushed along. She doesn't mind, if anything it speaks to the ingenuity of Sigil's children - some of the clever ones might make it out of the Cage. She loved every living thing, so much so that sometimes her heart would swell at the cry of mating cats.

But living things eat living things, and the spiders needed their food.

She opens all the containers, one by one, with wrinkled chestnut hands sporting wisps of hair whose silver is dulling to grey. Arthritis pains her, but it also slows her, giving her the excuse to study every find in the waning flame of a cheap, lopsided candle. Even her father, who demanded efficiency, would have to give allowance on account of her withered ligaments.

This is her favorite part, her chance to marvel at blue bottles hit by sling shots and ants trapped in congealed blobs of honey. There are some that cannot be used - too dried out - but she feels most of those are honest mistakes. Though some of the children have gotten into the habit of delivering arthropods of poor quality, taking advantage of her charity. She tallies the count of their sins in her mind. She'll pray for both things, for justice and for mercy.

But she doesn't worry about the lost money, not at all, as she has been left so much of it. The inheritance won by her father, not by sword or spell or even cleverness. But well earned regardless, as the gold was given for manners and discretion.

There are things one might see when working the night shift, coming home as the first light follows anti-peak. The same things a young girl might see when waiting for her father to return from places so terrible even a youngling knows they exceed nightmares. But her father had been an important man - the City, after all, needed its meat.

She lays out the tiny insects and crustaceans, spreading them in a distribution upon the floor because just like children some spiders can be selfish and unruly. Well not exactly selfish, she admonishes herself with gentle humor as they scurry out from cracks and spaces between floorboards. Eggs on their backs, glistening in the candle light. They are mothers eating for their young. When had she stopped being disgusted by them? When her children left her here, running off into whatever the portals offered? When her husband - whose hard discipline was something she endured easily but could not pass on to their brood - had finally fallen while leading some company through the places her father had also braved. Places that she now had names for - Hell, Abyss, Tarterus.

She had never seen those places, though they troubled her little. Evil needed to feed just like Everything Else did. She had a honeymoon on the shore of Paradise, a son who made a name for himself in Tradegate. She could have left the house, but this is where her family had rebuilt after fleeing, this is where her father had made a name for himself. This is where her father had brought her family when the dragons had swept over their world. How many had seen dragons the way she had, looking over her mother's shoulder as they swept down spitting flames over the livestock?

How many had seen dabus make love above the ground, symbols intertwining into a new language?

The dead lose their color as the spiders suck the juices.

That intimacy blew a wind on the dying embers of her own passion, something no memory of her own experiences could do.

Many would have bragged, or tried to record the story to the Sensorium. Her father had walked passed discretely, then chided her for staring at things she was too young to see.

How soon after that had their fortunes turned for the better? When had the coins begun to be delivered?

The spiders begin crawling away, back into their secret hideaways. She can feel them beneath the floor, behind the walls, but she has never tried to root them out, and even has repairs made to keep the light off of their homes. She feels they deserve their privacy.

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The Black Sheep of Lightning

The Black Sheep of Lightning Spirits

This moment is almost over. If only it was like the others, if only it could not tell where they ended and it began. But it knew, because it looked out into the churning thunderheads and wondered:

What lies beyond?

It was strange, because it too felt the pleasure of a thousand intermingled souls blazing white hot from the moment of their inception, a moment that was this moment, the moment the churning of charged clouds released the branching arc of an electric tree.

Its awareness travels as far as the glow of this gnarled fire can illuminate. Light travels fast and far in the Plane of Lightning, but not far enough. There are too many curtains of cloud, too many shadows that might be kingdoms or beasts or the just approaching members of some other species. It will never outgrow seeing things in the dark.

Yet the sparks that fly from the minds of shockers and elementals, the current of thoughts caught on the charged particles of wind buffeted matter, touch its mind as the current of its colony is conducted across miles . Its need alone is the reason this bolt of lightning, containing itself and all its siblings, branches out in as many directions as it can. Tendrils of blazing blue white extend out like a grasping hand of the glutton, or perhaps the pleading hand of one drowning.

It catches memories everyone else in their brief existences devours as mere entertainment, while it ponders these glimpses as fleeting as itself. It asks what more could life be beyond the endless storms that are its womb and home.

It will never know.

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The Priest's Prayer

The Priest's Prayer

The eyes of a cow set in a tanned, beautiful face. The face of one who endures, and whose beauty is refined rather than withered by the burdens She bears. It was this, more than the silver corona that served as halo, that assured him this was a goddess. Her bovine gaze is unreadable now, but it was not always like this.

When his flesh was not that of a clam's, when he walked among men rather than the prawns and salamanders of Ossa's shoreline caves...back then Her eyes held love, love and a mother's compassion. He remember the night of his initiation into Hera's priesthood and mystery cult, when after fasting for seven days sipping only on honey he had seen Her while blindfolded. She had come to him just as he felt the warmth of the fire he was led to, just when he smelled the burning dung.

It was an image that pranced before his mind's eye but for a moment. She was young then, a maiden with calf's eyes and untanned skin, Hera the Virigin whose innocence was forever renewable. This magic was not available to beings less than gods, as he would come to learn.

Back then he and the others had celebrated their accomplishment, getting drunk on wine made from the pomegranates given to the temple as offerings. They were sacred to Hera, and ivory sculptures of the fruits had been set by artisans to appear to grow directly from the marble that served to hold her idols and their caretakers.

That day, and those that followed, had been among the happiest of his life. He had been married among the living and carved fruits mere weeks following his initiation, for his new station had made him worthy of his love's hand. Her father, a shepherd of cows, would never deny his daughter to a priest of the very Mistress of Cattle. Hera had come to him on his wedding night, a proud mother who blessed him because he had saved himself for this moment. He had watched, in dreaming, as the goddess's light made her surroundings into silhouettes, as she had touched the womb of his wife.

Two strong children, twins of different genders, had followed. Following this sign of favor, he had risen quickly in the ranks of his brothers, an idol himself to the incoming initiates. Yet those initiates also brought their wives onto the grounds.

The story he had told himself; that his adulterous love was somehow beautiful, that his initial denial was proof enough of his commitment, that love beyond the boundaries of his vow was something more pure. But then he recalled the derision of his children, his fellows, and the stricken disappointment on the face of his mistress's idealistic young husband. He had used excuses to defend his selfishness, his pathetic immaturity, his inability to let go of youth.

But realizing one's guilt does not preclude one from justice. Fury, fire, burning through eyes of a maddened bull. He hadn't just betrayed his wife, he had betrayed his Lord. Hera, the guardian of love's oaths. He was thrown into the wildest currents of Oceanus, bones broken then simply removed, head melting into the stalk of his neck, skin turning a wet and putrid white.

And now here he was, placing shards of oyster upon an altar, offering up mother-of-pearl to the goddess in a cave serving as temple. Rotten octopi pantomimed the place of pomegranates, and the only texts available were the scriptures he clumsily yet continuously scrawls onto the wet stone.

He could have railed against Her, attempting to assail the temples - he was monstrous enough to be a threat. Or he could have simply abandoned his faith and possibly his life. But sin, and its punishment, could not gainsay his belief in right and wrong. He had preached the goddess as Just, had condemned the adulterers he knew were hidden in his flock - that he had given into temptation was not the fault of the goddess. What She had done to him was Right, he had not been wronged at all.

What can he do but continue his role as priest?

They are still connected. He knows because he still sees Her, even if those seemingly wide and open eyes are unreadable. But as he looks upon his crudely crafted idol with its barest suggestion of hips and breasts, he knows his own gaze is far more easily sounded out. He knows what She sees:

Someone who endures.

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Hunt

Hunt

"Life feeds on life, and only God makes it holy."
- A.A. Attanasio, The Dragon and the Unicorn

The arrow flies, and his heart goes with it. When it passes through the neck of the antelope, he knows the spirit of the beast accepts the Cycle even as the animal before him thrashes in terror. As the twitching stops and the black wet sphere of its eye loses something certain but undefinable, he feels the breeze tussle his hair.

The antelope is dead, but the spirit understands. The spirit knows the arrow was fired as a gesture of love, and with a gentleness more appropriate to a babe than a corpse, he picks up the animal and slings it over his shoulder. Blood, warm but cooling quickly, runs down the taut musculature of his slender chocolate back, soaking into his loincloth of hide and running down his leg. He feels the attention of Night's predators turn toward his direction. He needs to make it toward daylight, but that requires moving beyond the endless darkness of Karasuthra.

Here, where it is always night, he is more prey than hunter.

He lights a torch, and the flame brings sudden illumination to the deep hues of the flowers and vines providing fashion to the entangled trees. Serpents hiss, disturbed by the unexpected heat and light, camouflaged among the kaleidoscopic flora. Veiled by the canopy making them modest to moonlight, now they are retreating jewels, scales sparkling in flickering fire like sunlight on Krigala's rivers. A moment more without the torch and they would have kissed him, their venom a libation to his heart, an invitation to endless sleep that could not be denied.

He moved past the snakes with caution, but there was only respect in his eyes. He nodded to them, knowing the spirits inside them would acknowledge the gesture. He could not fault them for their hunger, no more than the antelope could charge him with any crime. Upon the Beastlands killing was something apart from murder, a necessity acknowledged by the inhabitants of its three layers.

Branches break in the underbrush, the sound caught by his ears. Muscles tense, the heart races, but again there is no fear. There are many enigmas his young life has come across, questions about love and war and the Invisible that speaks to the epileptic shamans. There are many Mysteries to this life, but death is not one of them.

Death is merely a gesture, a movement in the ever improvising Dance choreographed by this sanctuary, this sheltered place where violence can walk hand in hand with innocence. To die is to become one with Home.

The wind turns, its current caught by the waltz of the surrounding air, and fortune serves to warn him. The scent is of something that is both reptile and lion.

A moment more and he hears the splintering of trees and the armored creature runs closer. It is still far away but he can hear the life around him begin to burrow and flee. Far away, yes, but closer than the portal that would take him to safety.

He turns and runs, because that is what the Dance requires. He does not drop the antelope, not yet, not until the steps of this waltz demand he do so. His heart is pounding - not from exertion as he has sprinted across miles of savannah without stopping - but from the anticipation a youth of Sigil might feel for an approaching appointment with a lover in darkness.

"At that he turned and seemed like one of those
Who at Verona run through the countryside
For the green cloth, and among them he appeared
The winner of the race and not the loser."
-Inferno, Canto XV

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The Invisible Museum

The Invisible Museum

You would pass through it without a second thought, perhaps in pursuit of some solid item, perhaps pursued by predators in flight from their own bellies'...emptiness. You might catch - without truly taking note - the feeling of dry gasps upon your skin, the hint of rosewater's scent, or perhaps a far echo of music.

But I doubt it, because the Invisible Museum is not meant for your solidity. There are sounds and scents, rumors and maps, all serving as distraction from our shelter. All meant to lead you all - from lowest insect to most ancient wyrm - to other, more fitting, pastimes for your kind. We let the promise of material things persist, so long as it keeps you away from our bastion of privacy. And should your somehow reach it, the Invisible Museum barely breaks your inattention. Even then, if you are awarded a brush with our art, it undoubtedly holds little value in your search for Earth and Mineral derived currencies.

I do not think any of you, save for the slightest few capable of appreciating Art itself, could truly appreciate how we have so stealthily given substance to subtlety.

The Invisible Museum is all the majesty of air distilled into light perfumes, samples of climates, and a collection of harmonizing whispers. It is a whirlwind of a hundred zephyrs that are continuously woven and rewoven into halls, wings, floors and galleries. It is ever changing and ever inspiring, its evolving echoes of exhibits meant only for those who are risen wholly from the Place of Infinite Breath.

It is not meant for your ears, nor your nose or tongue, nor for your skin, and certainly not for your eyes.

ps. this is touching on a line in an old Dragon magazine talking about the art of air elementals

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Market Day

Market Day

"Hold my hand" she orders for the fifth time, grasping his own tightly enough to border pain. He doesn't need to be reminded, and no matter what he won't let go here, not in this place.

This is a tent market in the Hive, and anything unattended is for the taking. Resist blinking in the smog, best as you can. Pay attention. Mouth shut, ears open. Don't swallow.

It would be easier if she hadn't given him the flowers ahead of time, the pink ones off blue stems that taste sweet but make him drowsy. But she had too, he knows that. Mother needs love today.

He drowsily glances around, settling his eyes - iris's colored like a blue bottle's back - on an old woman cradling a just bought mandrake root even as she whittles it with her near toothless nibbling. Fled a war, remembers better days with living grandchildren. She glances back at him, embarrassed and angry, and spits in his direction.

His mother, looking in the crone's direction, sneers but pulls him away.

There is someone weeping as they beg for hash, but this isn't anyone to bother with so he blots out the sound, stumbling over broken remnants of cobblestone, instead focusing in on some idle flirting at a fish stand. Fisherman from the Styx, regaling a young Caged girl of his exploits.

A half-orc boy runs past him, a pickpocket who dips a hand into his pocket, looking for change to feed his little brother. His mother notices this, and glances down at him. He nods, she nods, and she pulls him forward.

His mouth tastes of fish swimming in sweet waters, and memories left in their gills make this a good find though not enough to leave just yet. Grandchildren and a little brother are also strong enough to be useful.

He reminds himself not to swallow. Mother needs love today, and it's easy to siphon off these emotions - in the Astral space of thoughts he could lift a strand from a web without disturbing the spider at its center.

His gaze hovers over a pack of corner boys, driving off the weeping addict. A family of orphans that will drown in betrayals, who won't understand that today was the day they inexplicably loved each other a little less.

But this is a tent market in the Hive, and anything unattended is for the taking.

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Elemental Day Dream

Elemental Day Dream

if i were a rain drop i would like to fall on a maple tree. the chance
to taste its sweetness makes the trickling descent an adventure. i
would be a prism for stray rays of sunlight and a mirror for leaves
looking in anxious awe at their change away from what they had thought
would be a lifetime of adolescent green. they would be able to reflect
on their mayfly puberty as i left a trail of myself winding
[bleeding-out] down through the limbs and creased joints of rough and
wrinkled bark. would i be less noticeable than even the touch of a
settling butterfly? would the tree remember me for me, or only rather
the collective wash of my brethren? would it feel my quest from the
brow of its canopy to my long fall hugging its length? still...even if
my waters never intermingle with its sap, when i fall to shatter
against a hard knot of twisting root yes i would be my own teardrop
and likely the only one shed for my demise...but i would be a tear of
joy...

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Natural Diplomacy [based on a

Natural Diplomacy [based on a long ago discussion about the alignment of the 4 seasons]

"Winter freezes off what's left of mad Summer's balls after Autumn rot, but then the cold bitch recedes and in Spring rutting all misery's forgot..."

Ilshae smiled to herself as she hummed the raunchy old bar tune. It had been several weeks since the dwarf maiden had left the nearest village, charges in tow, but unlike those greener druids she'd kept her good humor. Not that she faulted them for their misery. All their kind, when first initiated, longed not just for villages but the walled enclosure of city life - it was the only time they felt secure enough to rest. It was not easy to be hunted and hated in every passed wood, every waded river, every hiked mountain trail - to know that just beyond the campfire lay temptation and threat. The flowery perfume of merciless nymphs. The promise of murder read clear in the howling of wolves reborn from the Frost.

As one became less of a target and more of a power unto one's own Self, fear was less of a distraction and thus the wilderness could be tolerated and eventually once more Loved. That was the real reason she found it to be as hard as she must be. Each of her eight disciples had come to her to defend the natural world, as well as their families and neighbors. Their love for the world is why they had broken from their clans and their comforts - because they knew that only the druids kept the Seasons' missionaries from overrunning the world. Ilshae winced inside even as her oaken staff smacked a once serving girl from her distracted reverie.

But here, where the leaves were caught in the preternaturally bright colors of flame - forever decaying but never falling - the need for vigilance could not be denied. And Ilshae, smiling with full lips and corn-flower blue eyes, tracked their unseen escort even as she hummed and swayed her hips and made pendulums of her rich brown tresses. Unlike her pupils, who frowned as they worked not to gag on the stench of rot that was dampening the air, the elder druid knew that confidence brokered passage in the Land of Spirits.

Which, sadly enough, was rapidly becoming all lands. Not that humans didn't tear down more forests, build more cities, over-fish more seas. This unnatural abundance of humanity was, as far as she was concerned, a curse from Spring. But even if such was not the case, all the druidic orders' Numberers had calculated that from the poles Winter reached out with Her glacial claws - that another War of Seasons would occur in little more than a century. Sirrine, the serving girl she just struck, likely had enough elf-blood inside her to witness the opening salvos. Even the relatively pure blooded humans with her - Kara, Justin, Mael had a chance to live long enough to watch the world end.

Unless, impossibly, the druids found a way to broker peace between the four monstrous forces that believed Time should be held, forever pinned down while they were ascendant.

That's what made Ilshae such a harsh mother, even as she sang her ribald tunes and flirted with the deaths on the other side of the trees. The Hounds of Rot, they had brought down megasloths and mammoths as she had watched helplessly as a mere initiate. A mere spy invisibly recording their crimes. What had sickened her was not that they killed, but rather the drawn out delight they took in doing so. Wolves - real wolves, not those eaten then spat out by the Frost - would bite prey on the nose to induce euphoria, but the Hounds of Rot danced around the great mammals until the poor creatures bled out. And even wolves born-again in Frost devoured - the Hounds of Rot merely left the carcasses to spoil in honor of their Lord.

Beneath the mask of bravado, Ilshae waited and even hoped for the Hounds to lunge out from behind the brush, but none came. Of course they would not, for though they were hated by the Seasons' spawn in ancient days the Heirophants had extracted oaths from all the Spirit Courts. As this was a diplomatic mission, so long as the necessary obeisance and libations were given, this path into Autumn's rotten heart would be clear of any conflict. If this had been one of Spring's blossom-harems, she'd be more worried about her brood straying, but the stench clearly wafting in from the deeper darkness ensured all her charges would keep to the trail.

They were far enough into Fall's territory that the canopy above blocked the noon-day sun they'd come from. Or rather as they had walked, the canopy had thickened above them. The light of the ever-dying, never to fall leaves cast all below them in strange shadows. Caricatures of their own forms. Sirrine glances around nervously, but her waif form stretches up from its hunching. It seems to add a foot to her height, and her dark brown eyes begin to ease into the gold of lions' irises. She has suffered personally at Fall's hands, her and the strong black Mael whose iron cleavers are already in hand. The girl's mother left to the slow-rot, the boy's whole village scourged by the Order of the Maggot. Without the pouch of herbs Ilshae had placed around his neck, he would constantly wake up screaming.

Mael, the only initiate not caught off guard by the curtaining of the sun, snorted and gestured with his chin for the others to look forward. Two Hounds, almost certainly to have been pig-wallowing in excrement today, had taken up posts several strides in front of them, eyes bright with yellow flame. They seemed like burgundy mastiffs misbred for their overly large skulls housing jagged, misshapen teeth. Between them a horse carcass stood upright as black beetle hordes made a tunneled city over and through it's remaining flesh. Astride its back there was a figure, hooded in dirty rags, eyes burning in the same manner as its canine companions.

Upon the rider's own back was the burden of a massive scythe shedding flakes of rust with every gust of wind.

"Wait." the rider said so softly a necessary zephyr carried the fiend's whisper over the intervening distance. As it passed against their ears, each of them caught a hint of the sweet cloying smell of overripe fruit.

"For what?" asked a rough, loud, voice behind Ilshae. Horganth, the great one-eyed half-orc. Of course he would think to challenge a spirit - not because he believed he could defeat one, but because he would not let death stand between him and respect. A fabled warrior whose own shamans had brought him to the Heirophants, he was Ilshae's most difficult charge precisely because his own accomplishments rivaled her own. She whipped her head back to glare at him, but it hardly mattered. The fiend waited patiently, and would not leave the path. They would not dare to fight it, as even if they defeated the autumnal being the woods would pour out packs of Hounds.

With nothing else, to do, they made camp, knowing their rations would begin to hint of mold and rancidity. With nothing much to share save their own witness to the horrors of Spirit, Ilshae figures they might as well talk of war. Beginning with their immediate mission.

"If the fiend attacked, it would have killed us all." Horganth, of course, does not lower his gaze as the others would. He glares with his mossy green eye into his mistress's blues.

"Honored One", these words he intones without sarcasm, "I thought my careless courage should match your own." Those latter words, however, are dripping with it. His tone, his leaning forward - he almost wants battle. Not here, not in this place, but elsewhere and soon. Not because he believes he is her better in wielding the blessing given by the World's desperate need for stewards, but because he knows she was at the overrun of Summer's forces seven years past. The war in which the orcs drove back the cold blooded hordes and their solar dragon masters. The war in which he, a "lowly" half-breed, had led a rag-tag company of goblinoids and wild men deep into the heart of the slaughter.

He would be a great warlord someday, and so the orc shamans whose blessing he sought had brought him to the druids, the world keepers. To lead was to serve - and in truth only the blessing of the World was respected across the races he hoped to draw warriors from. Ilshae looked at him with mild annoyance, but said nothing, choosing instead to pass out the tiny, black dried mushroom heads each of them was to sup on. Horganth took his humbly, this fungi of Communion reminding him of his place.

Sirrine licked at hers as would a cat, Mael simply swallowed his for he did not like the tangy flavors the fungi put on the tongue. Horganth chewed his dramatically, a gesture accentuated by his point-filed teeth. Kara, whose tanned skinned matched Sirrine's and Justin's, bit off half and began to breathe rhythmically. For whatever reason, the short (for a human, but a half-a-foot taller that Ishlae) woman with gentle brown eyes matching her short locks took to the visionary power of the plant spirits with greater ease. A farmer's daughter who had no need for suitors despite her pretty freckled face, she'd jumped at the chance to escape chastisement about her lifestyle amongst the provincials she'd thought she suffer for a lifetime.

Kara was close behind Ilshae to see the tragedy of the world, and at times given the young human's tears the dwarf wondered if the girl saw deeper than her mistress. But Kara knew not to shed any in this place, so close to Fall's putrid heart.

...The woods around them explode into all the senses as Truth rushes past the veil of the mind | The trees weep, the earth dry heaves through constant gagging, its shuddering untraceable to unaided perception. A constant buzzing underlies the air | Spirit overlays material, diaphanous and ethereal | Foxes, wolves, deer, even rodents and birds - ghosts of all that were gather around them once they know their suffering is witnessed | All those whose souls fled as their bodies were given over to the fiends of decay | To see them, to take in the knowledge of the trespass against them, for this the animal souls are thankful allies | The druids are surrounded by the forest's restless dead | Yet even as friends are found, so too are enemies increased | Here in the invisible, Rot has festered freely, and with skin of warped wood serving as thin sheet over long gnarled bones, the forest's wraiths turn their fire-eyed attention to the gathering of eight on the road...

Sirrine's breath quickens, but she composes herself enough to growl. Her face has become quite leonal. Mael raises his cleavers, though he knows there is little in their enchantments that would effective against the incorporeal. Ilshae raises up her hands and the spirits, along with Kara, see their soft white haloes. A quiet majesty like that of distant yet powerful stars. It is not enough to stop the approach of Autumn's fell servants. The wraiths between the trees, walking upright as men but stepping somehow in a manner reminiscent of spiders, the swamp-lights of their eyes boring into the dwarf kneeling to lay hands upon the soil. Hundreds, pressing against the angry animal mass matching their own translucence. Watching as Ilshae reminds them that there is a greater, deeper power than that of their cancerous Lord.

Soon enough, as the mushrooms take effect, all her disciples can See her magic.

Horganth watches all this with grudging respect, realizing Ilshae made a mockery of their enemy precisely to draw their attention her - the one strongest against the Rot in the invisible. He could snap open the jaws of a wrymling but all his muscled might would do nothing against the spectral hosts of Fall. What is of equal interest to him, and the other disciples, is that Justin's hands hold a similar glow. The boy himself, with a still cracking voice at fourteen and still very pimply and gangly, seems just as surprised. With soft sepia eyes he looks down through long bangs of red, staring in wonder at his hands. His father, a woodcutter, was lost to the nymphs of Spring, and this death by infidelity had broken his beautiful mother. He too had been relieved when Ilshae had come to collect him, saying she had spied him out in dream.

"Put them in your pockets." Ilshae says guardedly, even as she notes the wraiths turning their attention to the lad. Justin complies instantly. Morna, another initiate and a stocky female dwarf that doted on Ilshae's every word, pushed the much taller boy closer to the fire. Hammer in hand, the younger dwarf glanced around with eyes only a shade darker than her mistress's. In fact Morna was a distant cousin, though both had not let clan loyalty come before the necessary harshness of the younger's training. How could any harshness be spared when in every avenue of Life their enemy waited - in the cold, in the heat, in the seed, and in the rot. Still, Morna looked saddened she had not been trusted with the truth about Justin.

Ilshae ignores that hurt, turning her back on the wraiths - who do not dare to trespass onto the trail - to move toward the center of the campfire being tended by Lorelai. The sylvan girl stared intently at the diminutive humanoid figure watching them from the center of the flames, an indistinct figure akin to shadow save it was made of white hot Light instead of darkness.

A spirit, like those of the extinguished animals, whose allegiance was to the World rather than the Seasons. Lorelai warmed her hands, for the elf was a pale and wane thing clearly touched and thus cursed by the Frost. White hair, pink albino eyes, a bone-thin maiden afflicted by continual shivering. But even the wraiths watched warily for her palms were clearly being kissed by flame as pale skin remained unburnt. Taking care to move slowly so as not to startle the spirit, the elven woman reached into the campfire to adjust the burning wood.

"This delay is a show of power." she said quietly to the approaching Ilshae and Keird, the beardless gnome who sat transfixed by the sounds of the spirits. Lorelai and Keird were both from wealthy families that understood the way courts -both mortal and spirit - functioned. Lorelai had been fetched from her father's mountain demense - she'd been attacked by a frost-wight in the woods. This had caused such a deep hatred for the cold that the Fire had immediately taken to her during her initiation.

Keird nodded glumly at Lorelai's comment. A merchant's son, he had never expected to retreat into the forest, nor had he expected to Awaken to the hatred of so many spirits upon being initiated. A gnome of seas and cities, a handsome adventurer with the black hair and storm-grey irises of a pirate, whose shipwrecked family had bartered one of their boys in return for assistance from the druids of the seas. Keird, surprisingly, had volunteered. Older than Justin but capable of acting far more childish, he seemed to regard the nightmarish borderland as personal insult to his station.

The mushroom seemed to be acting as a partial balm to his misery, as despite his frown he bobbed his head in time with the psychedelic cadence of the world's secret rhythm. His eyes watched a trail of termites devouring a fallen tree with concern. Though Keird had proved to be an irritating aristocrat, Ilshae had come to learn of his charity work with veterans who had fought the encroaching Seasons. The young gnome had a hero's heart, it was just buried in the flotsam of his spoiled existence.

"My father would make men wait a time inverse to their worth. That way they knew his favor, or lack of it, could be measured by the length of their delay."

The gnome smiles, remembering the taste of his father's commercial prowess. Ilshae looked at him askance, but then shrugged. After all, many of the druids reveled in their station. Even she, in truth, took a certain pleasure in the command of her eight. To teach, to shape lives, to judge - there was an intoxicant to this. Of course, this same intoxicant had corrupted the Seasons and was why their world was threatened with dissolution.

"Will the Courtier accept the terms?" Keird turned to ask Ilshae. Even though none of them understood exactly what they were bargaining for, the merchant's son was eager to understand the -business- of the druids' relationship with the spirit world.

Ilshae sighed. "For the surrounding villages, I hope so. But this is just an agreement to parley with Spring, and giving that the region is seeing Summer's end in truth - Autumn will ask much for peace." She still remembered the brief renaissance when the druids had found the texts of ancient binders. Printing presses had run dry, blood had become ink, clans and kingdoms giving their lives to ensure that the world might know power over the Seasons.

For over a century it had worked. Spring might be known without thoughts of seducing fey. Summer brought no reptilian hordes with its heat. Winter did not seek to make all sterile and static, yoked to the Frost. And Autumn kept to its place in the Cycle, rather than pursue the ever-decay of all things. One might think to tap maple trees for their sap rather than prepare to flee before the coming of the Hounds of Rot.

Then somehow the four groups of cultists had come together and found a way to tear at the runes carved into the ancient sequoias that powered the chains of arcana, releasing many of the monstrous forces of the Seasons. Over two hundred years gone, and they still weren't sure what had happened, or how many of the missing members of their orders had gone over from the World to serve blight and Seasons.

In the long years since while serving as diplomat, Ilshae had worried she'd see former friends, respected teachers, even one of her lovers of those forgone centuries in one of the Courts. In the shadows, or behind the flowers and light, she had felt recognition, but never had any traitor revealed themselves.

She thought of those lost ones as they supped on the simple stew and dried meat that was somehow still susceptible to the Fall Court's proximity. They ate hurriedly to prevent their environment from corrupting the food further, then waited in stifled conversation for the invitation of the court.

"Any news from the western border?" Kara asks Keird, as his father continually had servants checking in on his son. Druids may have taken him, but his family would not abandon him to what they perceived as the orders' dour asceticism. Given the amount of planning done by druids in cities (and orchards within them), this image was only accurate for situations such as this one.

Keird waits, savoring the attention Kara paid to him even though he knew it had little to do with his looks. Though she had no desire to return to life under her village's scrutiny, she did worry about her village left in Spring's path. Keird glances up at the fiend blocking their path (~ever rotting, never dying~) and quickly turns back to the pretty human.

"They haven't crossed it, they're still drawing in humans and elf-blooded villages bordering the sylvan protected forests. Even the cities are losing population as the blossom-scent is borne on the wind."

Lorelai looks up, though her people are miles away fighting the wights and wolves of the Frost. But it hurts to think of fair-touched falling to Spring's temptation, even if that was essentially what Spring was. Sirrine, one of those elf-blooded, nervously pets one of the ghost-foxes - the mushrooms have pulled them in between the worlds of matter and spirit.

"Any word from Nagayo?" Mael asked, curious about his homeland and its savannas threatened by arriving tundras and deserts.

Keird nodded, but looked away. "The House of Ibe has become very popular." Mael scowled. The Ibeans were elemental worshipers, corrupt nobility more than willing to bargain with the Seasons for power. They had ruled his country when the Order of the Maggot had come through his village. They had marched in at night, killing with blade and Rot. The latter they took a special pleasure in, for like the Hounds they believed it holy to leave cursed victims wasting away. It was not a time Mael ever chose to talk about.

As her pupils speak of the lands beyond this wood, Ilshae, her belly full and her high coming to its apex, finally feels strong enough to do what they have all been avoiding - lock gazes with the fiend. To not do so is to confess a weakness not only in herself but in the power of the World over its recalcitrant spirit children. Her eyes run up the legs of the horse, over its beetle bored torso, and even here the insight of the fungi in her blood is terrifying. The spirit of the horse is still there, still tied to its body, still screaming silently as it tries to run into a true afterlife.

- the eyes of the fiend | burning yellow | corrupting flame | entropy with no purpose save sadism | kill Time and keep all caught in forever-decay | shut the doors | let nothing escape into Death | no release | ever rotting | never dying -

Ilshae feels fear thunder through her voluptuous body, bowels threatening to loosen completely. But her nails dig into her palms, her eyes hardening at the summoned memories of all those lost when the sequoias fell, thundering to the ground even as the conflagration of spirits rose up screaming in triumph and release. When once more the Balance became the fool's gold left to druids' dreaming...

The dwarf, the druid, the woman refuses to look away even as the fiend, true child of Autumn, shows her all the world immortal, ridden with maggots and chased by Hounds, begging for death that does not come. Ilshae raises her hands before her, their haloes pushing back with a vision of a different future - four obelisks carved from the red wood of elder trees, each humming the power of forever-bound courts. The spirits chained by arcana of innovation and ancient wisdom, whipped by the druids into obeisance, caught in the rotating Dance of the Cycle.

Seasons enslaved, the way the World had meant Them to be.

The disciples begin to turn away from their talk, witnessing that battle of wills between the fiend and their mistress. Glancing back and forth between the two proxies, the burdened souls of animals matching the turn of their heads. The Eight of Ilshae huddle together as Time seems to swing between two destinies, two prophecies. The promise of peace, of druids' victory, and the hope of Autumn that the dead will rise to Rot and the living will envy the temporary release from the world known by those once-corpses.

Justin the World Healer comes to stand with his mistress, arms parallel to hers, his own starlight palms defiantly facing the fiend. The wraiths stare at him, his power, with recognition and hatred.

And fear, Kara the Seer notes. They fear him.

"Come." the fiend whispers into their ears, the promise of future violence made clear. But for now it turns its horse and with the Hounds beside its flanks they lead the way toward the Court.

Ilshae, her Eight, and the cadre of animal ghosts follow suit. As the Rot deepens, the Hounds that had followed them behind the brush and trees emerge to border the path.

The World forgets Itself as they pass through an arch of intertwined trees, air shimmering as they enter the Court.

Without the pacifying nature of the mushrooms, they would retch so much they couldn't stand, their hearts threatening to collapse with weight of the spiritual anathema concentrated here. It was too dark to properly see, so Lorelai the Cleansing Flame raised up her arm even as torchlight ran down it's length.

-The world was never meant to be like this-

The path is pulped with rotten fruit fallen from trees leaved with the ember glow of restrained cruelty. Everything they dimly illuminate in autumnal colors, even the druids, seems to be cast somehow in the shades of meat far past its prime. The wind, gentle though it may be, carries the feeling of grubs pushing against skin.

Seeking orifices.

Trees on either side serve to form this macabre hall, where bodies of what might have been druids, even friends of Ilshae, are pinned to trees by rusting nails. Their faces have become a mask of sludge, features softened in the way of vegetables forgotten in dark cupboards. Gathered on the branches around them are iron-clawed buzzards that dip their hard beaks into the buttery flesh, pulling out organs that regenerate. For a moment it seems they might forget themselves and the Pacts, preparing to take flight against the Ilshae and her Eight, but a growl from Sirrine (Lioness) and a glare from Mael (Maggot's Bane) quickly put them back in their place as wretched carrion crawlers.

Real animals, their bodies scattered and torn, mewled in pain from the darkness beyond the high bordering oaks themselves gouged by termite swarms. The restless spirits of tortured fauna gathered around Justin and Ilshae as children would run to parents after a bad dream.

This was the eternal life Autumn hoped to grant to all living things. Spring sought to breed bodies to stock its harems, Summer sought to exalt Life into its prime and then madden it in glaring sunlight, Winter wished for the quiet of Frost to bring the calm, patient stillness of undeath. All those fates seemed to pale before the perdition arrayed before them.

Yet the guarding veil of ingested psychedelics offered them a Truth they might lean on. Tempted or bred or changed, the creatures here were mere corruptions of the World's dream. The trees, the vermin, even the nearing forms of cultists cloaked in hooded rags and knights armored in ever-rust emblazoned with their order's maggot standard - all this was born of the World. And with light akin to that gloving the hands' of Justin and Ilshae, sketching the borders of mutated forms in the manner of a cloud's silver lining, the World still laid Its claim. Strengthened by their connection to a Higher Power, knowing that even something as terrible as the Rot is merely a wayward rebel of Nature, they enter the throne meadow of the Courtier.

-where should be grass | strange little flesh-pink mushrooms | of the World corrupted stand | distorted facsimiles of genitals | poking through the piles of compost treasures | carcasses born of flora and fauna | still twitching | nothing dies here-

Keird, the City's Speaker, takes in everything that might count for currency in this twisted reflection of life in the World. He wants to understand what might entice the Seasons to sue for peace.

-naked men and women | sway as if drunk | animal heads | eyes | if there are no longer turgid | slow imploding grapes clinging to stalks behind lids | many empty sockets | flesh is canvas | chew holes | gangrene | bones showing and marked with scavenger teeth | fur capes | no modesty-

Kara keeps her eyes to ground save for guarded glances, her Sight too strong to take in all this wrongness.

Morna, Unbroken Guardian, stands before the thing on the throne and the group. Hammer raised, with the symbol of Secrets Kept marking the power of the World's heretofore innocent bones. Under the Mountain the Seasons had little sway, though in the cavern lands Summer's saurian armies warred on dwarf and goblinoid alike.

-throne is carved from flesh of giant apple | inside is wet and brown and sunken into slush of the half-eaten | half-alive | it sits upon roughly hewn fruit | scarecrow body in short metal cloak | tarnished silver chain-links | bat-wing foreskin flesh stretched sheer over jagged yellow bones | smell of marrow left to air | head of a butterfly like blister swollen to burst | buzzard claws for hands and feet | proboscis slurping at own slime-skin | whip-licking around at blue-white mold webbing body to throne | above insect head is apple's core | of course only cavities where seeds might once have sat -

The heaps break and bubble with the Thing's voice, its words coming through the still living piles surrounding them. The voice it has is soft and kind, calm and congenial, as though this place was not the climax to a hall of horrors.

~Summer falls with the Cycle here, Fall rises, Spring comes in defiance of World's decree, Join us, Rout the nymphs and purge out their blossoms~

Ilshae glances around at the compost, the voice's mouths, then turns to the figurehead on the throne. In those butterfly eyes she sees herself though the reflection is small and distant in those dark compound orbs.

She sighs, not daring to weep.

"Spring will be taught once more the Way of things in Balance. Rest assured. But your Lord -"

The Hounds and several of the courts' heads growl but the dwarven veteran continues. The wraiths press forward but stop and the growling, hissing, cawing sounds of the animal spirits who protectively surround the company.

"-your Lord Autumn has also forgotten the Path. The decay of Fall is vanguard to Winter - it should not swallow the villages around these woods."

~Autumn is God. world is honored mother. But mother must remember her place before Him~

The haloes around her own but especially Justin's hands begin to flare. Ilshae looks at the boy in concern as she feels the weight of the Courtier's mind run over him. He stares serenely back at the Thing, the light from his hands bright enough to lend an aura of silver substance to the animal ghosts.

Yet the arcana of the Pacts still keeps both sides from striking. It is only after they are beyond these woods will he need to worry.

"Winter is short here, by the World's decree. Fall is shorter. You'll have to hold these lands from Winter, then Spring will come in mere months for She will be in ascendance in these lands. You will be hard pressed to keep these woods, let alone any lands you might temporarily conquer."

Even the Courtier's proboscis calms its vigorous licking at that. Driven by a hunger to make flesh into receptacles of His word, the mind of the autumnal spirit struggled against this fanatic need so as to grab hold of Intellect. The druids offered defense, knowing that Autumn would devour the surrounding area but would then be open to attack from Spring. Rot had taken hold in these woods, the World's dream turning over to the Lord.

But it would have to gamble that it could hold against the nymphs and their legions of pollen-caged harems. Better to parley with Spring and the druids, yet at the same time demand much for the promise, and Pacts, of peace.

~What do you place at our Lord's altar?~

Ilshae hesitated, trying to clear her thoughts. Images of those faceless damned crucified to trees did not leave her. She reached into one of her pouches and produced a collection of gems, their faceted darkness lit internally by twinkling lights.

"For the parley I offer the souls of those servants who sought to betray the orders, the Fianna of our Orders who lost heart and broke their oaths to the Heirophants."

She drops these on the ground, where they are quickly drawn under the congealing waste. She stops, looks back at Justin, and exhales.

"My brood, my Eight, must reach the city of Caraedin. Many of your Lord's woods lie between this place and their destination. For safe passage from all Seasons I offer myself."

Justin the World Healer's serenity breaks, and the light of his hands flickers with his uncertainty. Lorelai the Cleansing Flame gasps, but then fires are born in the deep recesses of her albino eyes. Mael Maggot's Bane seems unsurprised but grimly stares with open hatred at the Thing on the throne. Kara the Seer looks as if someone has punched the breathe from her lungs. Sirrine the Lioness watches impassively with feline eyes - her human form will bawl with the Seer once beyond the Rot. Keird City Speaker seems more lost child than merchant prince of gnomish kind. He will cry more than any other. Morna, Unbroken Guardian, *bends* deep. She turns, hammer suddenly heavy enough to weigh down her muscled arm, one hand reaching out toward her cousin. But then the hand curls into a fist placed between her armored breasts. She lowers her head in honor of the sacrifice.

~Let it be so. Praise be to the God of all Rot~

Somehow this place seems to -lean- toward the druids. The wraiths are becoming more solid. The buzzards are flying in from the passed trees, settling on surrounding branches in anticipation.

"Go." the mistress says to her dumbfounded disciples. There is so much to tell them, so much more wisdom to give. Little more than a paltry year of training and now nest's departure. But the World had carved their lives for Its purpose long before Ilshae, Skald of the World's Dream, had come for them. With Justin at their helm they would be a spear against the spiritual cancer that threatened all nations and peoples.

"There's nothing left to be said. Go. You'll find horses waiting. Fall's wraiths will keep you safe."

It is Morna, eyes wet, who begins dragging them away, pulling them to where the Path's continues beyond the throne and beyond this grinding moment. She herds her grief-stricken siblings in faith, even has Fall's branches descend downward toward His prize. Ilshae is now His new toy. Upon the apple throne the Courtier's proboscis flagellates its body in delight.

"Horganth" the Skald speaks. The half-orc, the last to turn from her, turns once again to look at her. The descending branches are already touching her hair, her shoulders, softly as a shy lover might. The gentleness will not last.

-Ever Rotting | Never Dying-

"Come back for me." she begs in whisper. The half-orc looks hard at her, the stream of lunar-glowing animal forms flowing past his feet. He is disturbed, not because her courage has broken, but because of the compassion that wells up and catches his voice in his throat.

Finally Horganth, who will come to be known as Ilshae's Vengeance, nods.

=-=-=

They entered Nine while the sun was high and emerge from the Rot and its woods with daylight squandered but still some to spare. In less than half-a-day they are Eight. The animal souls, alight with Justin's magic, fade to rest as truly natural twilight strikes them.

Invisible outside the Rot, still they can feel their entourage of Pact-bound wraiths gloating.

The setting sun sits on the edge of the World's stage. It could almost be Autumn's baleful eye, His colors spilling out from the horizon to herald His coming.

The mushrooms they ingested have dissolved almost completely into their blood, but the plant spirits still retain a waning hold on their minds' attention. This is enough for the sound of Ilshae's voice to reach them.

Her desperate scream cuts through the distance of spirit and matter, those last wordless pleas mercilessly reaching their ears.

~end for now~

sciborg2
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Kalna

Kalna

In the city of Kalna, the adults do not understand exactly why but they feel quite estranged from their childhoods. That is because what they believe to be their childhood selves are really sylvan angels that slide out of their reality around the time of puberty, which the gods deal with by creating a replacement. That is why the city's citizens have so much trouble remembering those childhood memories and the contentment they found in them.

They only have origami approximations of what those original pilgrims felt in their temporary time in Kalna. So connecting themselves to those fey beings in memory, that's like trying to decipher the origami steps of the paper animal in your skull by staring at its completed form. Those folds don't give up their secrets so easily. But the people of Kalna are blessed by celestial kindness, because those coure-eladrin who are their child-selves (precisely because they are their child-selves) mercifully sneak out at night to whisper to them about who they "were" as they dream.

If they are brave they can be the children they never were but always reach back to.

"can you hear that children's song? can you take me to that place? high above the lamentation up on the desert plane" - 'Face and Ghost', Live

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Steam

Steam

It was, as far as your tribe was concerned, the End of Days. You saw the great Wave rising up from the ocean, striding toward the shore, pausing at times to gaze up at the Sun as if to ask if it truly wished for judgment to be passed. You waited expectant, even exultant, as you knew you had kept the fasts that needed to be kept, had never asked anything of the lesser spirits save for what was allowed in the Code of Sun's People. You had even, just in case, carved out the meat that was to be thrown in fire for the gods.

Who does that anymore? Just you and yours.

You knew you would survive this - then you need survive nothing ever again. The others, save for perhaps those few you'd spied in the congregation whose hearts were akin to yours, scream and cry out to be saved when the volcano not only erupts but *splits*.

~It is too late to ask for salvation~, you think with an almost erotic satisfaction, ~those eons are past Us now~.

When the sea roars all turn to the approach of the Wave, an elemental giant whose every movement upturned what distant boats remained in sight from the cliff the villagers had gathered upon to bear Witness. Most had managed to make it to the sandy shore below - which was something you noted with distaste. The fisher boys had, to a man, seemed far too keen as to what lay beneath the grass skirts of the village slatterns.

It is magnificent, this oceanic incarnation of the gods' final judgment. Deep set eyes, eyes that can spy out the virtuous from the sinful, are set below the foaming white crest of its brow. Their green glow speaks of ancient majesty. Its shadow darkens the sea before it, its curving back gracefully towering above the very island you have lived all your days. The very island that is the world, now broken.

Everyone - or rather just about everyone *else* - is overwhelmed by this tribulation, and their heads whip between the over spill of lava emerging from the world's center and the behemoth of water making its way to the shore. A tide that will not stop until it has swept away the unworthy.

If this was not enough proof that rapture had thankfully come in your lifetime, you begin to laugh as the sputum of magma rising from the earth begins to weave itself into torso, arms, a head with eyes like angry gold-white stars. As it takes form ropes of melted stone whip around to provide body to this trial by flame that few besides you and yours will pass. As the magma elemental raises its first foot out of the volcano's remnants, its first step turns several wealthy tree houses of the merchant district to little but burning splinter wood.

Volcanic ash darkens the sky, threatening to blot out the Sun. A whoop of triumph escapes from your lips like an uncaged bird.

In wonder, as if your eyes must choose between a rainbow touching down upon the beach or shooting stars streaking just above the trees, you dart your gaze between the two behemoths. The living wave emits a gargled roar that reverberates the sky, the salt spray of its breath flavoring the incoming winds. Answering this is the deep bass clarion call of the volcanic elemental, its voice dragged out from earthen depths.

~twin reapers, their trumpets heralding the end of these sin-choked times~

All this time witnessing, haranguing your neighbors as to the sins of copulation, heresy, excess sugar...now finally the proof of your concern and love for them had come to wipe them off the face of creation.

Because how could the pure be asked to live among the weak in the imminent Paradise?

As Fire and Water approach each other in a battle that only the Chosen will survive, your mind races with corrections as to what was literal Scripture and what was metaphor. Verses once prominent prophecy are cast to the darkness of discarded rationalizations, new ones once obscure arise to take their place in the forefront of your holy consciousness.

The magma elemental descends as a libation of liquid earth and ore, the surrounding forests igniting as it makes it way toward the mountain of water that has stepped onto the shores below.

The inconsistencies that clamor for your attentions are swept aside, for the shining truth that your house remains untouched in this elemental cleansing is proof that faith has singled you (and by association, yours) out to lead the saved in the swiftly arriving age. In fact, not only is your house unharmed - it is located on the other side of the island!

And now, as you gaze with bated breath, whispering your moans of tribulation, the two cleansing proxies of the gods meet at the plateau's slope where the lascivious fishermen descend daily to provide food for the entire tribe. The water elemental surges forward, its massive approximations of hands seeking the magma clothed spirit's approximation of head and face. The giant born from volcano's womb closes in, wading into the living wave's grasping, its fist blazing so white hot you turn your eyes even as the punch connects.

The booming explosion of evaporation, the roar of injured elementals, and hot waves of steam veiling over everthing. Barely able to breathe, you fall to your knees in supplication even as you feel the space between Here and Other...crack.

=-=-=

Somewhere out in the island's remains, the elementals are still fighting, still raging. One's being renewed by geysers of lava spewing out from the cracked volcano, the other reconstituting itself from the Mother Ocean's waters.

Mother Ocean has not appeared. Neither have the other gods. From the Other, others have come. Creatures engaged in their own religious battles, a civil war in their reality. Silly things, goblin faced, flying on bat wings and somehow having mist and steam for flesh.

Scripture has failed you. These...ridiculous things are deadly, yes, but they have no correspondence to any of the books, legends, initiatory stories of your people. You, yours, everyone else has been forced to deal with them. Most galling of all, *everyone* has been forced to deal with Elka the Wicked, who had been banished from the village for bedding a fisherman out of wedlock. (Thankfully the man was saved - with your guidance he became your happily married neighbor.)

Elka, unrepentant in her evil, showed no bitterness at having to advise the people on the proper runes that powered her witchery, the ones that could be painted on doors with livestock's blood to keep the mephit-things at bay. Your wife has forced you into participating in this blasphemy, citing the disappearance of your laziest son. (It was strange how *all* the women of the village seemed to regard Elka as a friend.)

In subtle defiance, for a woman's place is not to command, you have added your touches to the arcane calligraphy - the holy symbols of the gods as a form of syncreticism. But even with this compromise you feel sullied. You reason this is all some test, some false End of Days the gods are using to see who will be faithful without promised reward. Even with this slight heresy, this tolerance of witchcraft, you are leagues more holy than your neighbors. You know you will be held in higher regard by the Divine when they choose to reveal themselves and proclaim the kings of the new Paradise. Perhaps they'll have a new queen for you as well...

But the days are long now, with everyone believing your preaching to have been worthless. Elka even dared to suggest that your outspoken admonitions have been nothing more that a worthless jeremiad. You would have slapped her then and there had you not been a gentleman. Rather than descend to her level of barbarity you walked away in a huff, refusing to speak with such a (now respected) harlot. (Not to mention it was starkly clear how your position as Speaker had been usurped. And there was Elka's boon companion, a giant canine familiar. Demon in animal form no doubt.)

Your currency was their faith, and now you find yourself without occupation. Without respect. It will almost be a relief when tomorrow, in the afternoon, a steam mephit who slipped past your malformed runes emerges from the whistling water of your tea kettle to gleefully tear out your throat.

Falling will make your grizzled body broken bones upon the dung-packed floor. You will close your eyes so as to not see the gremlin hunched over you. For its part, the mephit will be giggling over you as if your life had been nothing more than one long joke.

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Flash Before Your Eyes

Flash Before Your Eyes

Chern Wei looked through the wisps of cloud thinly veiling a full but distant moon, disturbed by the distance his body was from the clouds. For most the blood soaked soil of the battlefield was no more than a horse's torso away as best, but for a dragon knight such as himself to feel the moistened soil was both dishonor and boon. Dishonor that his people should be forced to concede both sky and ground, boon that he should survive the fall. Charred and broken, legs trapped under the weight of his dead master, but alive.

His sons would not be made bastards, his daughters would not have to be whored off in lesser marriages to *merchants*. His wife would not have to fear the machinations of conniving rivals who sought to twist his land and title away before any of his children could lay claim to it. His eldest, his daughter was barely a teen for all her fierceness - she could still inherent the gauntlets from what would be his own age spotted hands. Just as he had inherited them from his mother, her bravery and his father's skill in numbers allowing their family to become invaluable to the Emperor. He remembered her, weathered like wood bleached in sun but standing straight, strong enough to aid his ailing father, her dragon in attendance but masked as a woman herself.

Yes, most of all he remembered the dragon.

THUNDER-> bodies of horses and men thrown into the air -> colored comets exploding into blazing stars -> this close even echo is deafening

Even as his lower body numbed, he clung to the dream that his daughter could inherit the artificed glory enclosing his hands. All he had to do was survive the fireworks raining down in the night. Above him the dragons roped their long wingless bodies through a staccato darkness punctuated by explosive interruptions. The golden scaled body of his own dead companion had breathed out such death upon the field of battle as well, a young-for-its-kind but fierce warrior he had been proud to serve and learn under. He recalled the day he had first sat astride the dragon's back, happy to have been paired with a young male - he could not find love in his heart for any female dragon. His mother's gauntlets, almost thin gloves made of papery metal sheets and wire, thrumming in their own anticipation and closeness to a draconic mind. He breathed deeply, inhaling, exhaling, emptying himself of all thought but Purpose. Of servitude. Fingers stop their shaking - their bones still vibrating with the heirlooms' ecstasy - and grasp the dragon's oryx-like horns.

THUNDER -> young for dragon is lifetimes for human -> so many years so many thoughts -> so many senses -> so much Life

Chern Wei felt himself slipping into this reverie, despite the explosions around him. How he had taken on the mantle of dragon rider, learning at the clawed feet of his master. Dragons were an old, ancient race, who had nearly destroyed their own population long ago in bygone eras. Dwindled as they were, they knew they could no longer dominate the world as a species. They required children such as men to ally with draconic families, the intermingling of their blood conferring the right of lesser mortals to rule over others only granted the Short Life. And they required the riders, men such as himself, who could serve as aqueducts to the vast oceans of their own minds.

THUNDER -> broken skull of his second father revealed in fluorescent red then green then orange -> scattered bits of body and metal pour over him -> had he and his lord not played this same game in the aftermath of victory?

Dragons were cruel, capricious beings when it came to their lessers. The younger ones thankfully lacked the natural resentment of their elders, some of whom had lived long enough to recall the days when men were but rodents scattering before the great armies - armies! - of dragons and their draconian samurai. Their first children of whom all the others given only Short Life were mere substitutes. To know this, to overcome this prejudice, this disdain - that was the first duty of any who would be rider, any who would share the thoughts of such a vaster mind. How he had spent days shuddering, retching, losing himself in the terror of both the overwhelming memory of the senses of a higher being and the terror of being separated from that great reptilian body. That separation from organs was like having eyes plucked, nose shattered, tongue loped off and eardrums popped all at once. He had only taken thirty days to recover. Not the fastest, not even in his own time, but still quite respectable. Enough that when he came back to meet his lord for a second time there was pride in the dragon's eyes. Pride for their intertwined families. Son paired with son, though Chern Wei could never make himself love or even truly respect his master's mother.

THUNDER -> lights flash far above -> the dragons' breath becoming patterns -> already they glorify their kingdom -> the story of this battle is written across the sky in fire -> the story of his people's defeat -> the story of his master's death

Grief, anger, dishonor. The need for revenge rooted within his code. This would keep his own death at bay. Somewhere above him, dancing even now, were the pair that had snatched away his companion's life. Why had his master turned the bulk of his great flesh to save Chern Wei, a lowly rider? An honor, one of the highest, but nothing compared to the least of those gifted with the Longest Life. Chern Wei recalls those early days of training, learning to bear the intrusion of that vaster consciousness into the papyrus shell of his own skull, and then finally, like a ray of light through the thunderhead, sharing his own thought and worth with the being that would become his second father. The moment where he could finally not just know but *believe* there was something his lowly race could offer such magnificent beings.

THUNDER -> the rodent quickness of his thoughts -> the sanctuary of his small heart -> the books in his bones and memories held in the beating of his heart -> the worthiness of the Son come before the Father

Just a few hundred feet away someone playing possum broke into a loping, stumbling terror, and a dragon swooped down and cleaved his body in twain with a playful snap of its great wyrm jaws. Great Wyrm. Just like the mother of his second father, the dragon who watched him in a human form. The youthful courtesan with ancient eyes for whom time passed as a glacial thing, for if that seductress was ravaged by age it was the way a river cuts a canyon through stone. When she blinked, the action itself mere affectation, only then her beauty took even his hateful breath away. And what was that childhood of his spent under her gaze but a mere blink to one such as her? Those eyes locked with his own were guarded, wary, the viper watching him through the eyes of a porcelain doll. The secret shared between them, the secret he could never speak lest all his family's efforts turn to dust. Honor is silence, the knowledge of that sin passing from human son to dragon father yet never given voice to.

THUNDER -> first lesson in shame -> his mother's unclothed back with a light trail of scratches -> her own muscled body blanketing another, lither female form -> eyes look up as her mother's face is hungrily kissing this stranger's neck -> slitted eyes his child-self will flee from that night and recognize in the morning-> years after his own mind-marriage to a dragon he almost understands but cannot ever forgive -> but come morning if he lives it is that reptile that shall bear him home

A rider is the vessel of arcane power. A dragon can work magic without a spell book, much of Short Life arcana requires nothing more the gesture of claw and push of will. But the arcana of the dragons, and those few other races granted the true Long Life, this required great ritual and great sacrifice. Somehow, through the tinkering of alchemy and the salvation granted to his ancestors, the dragons had changed their Short Life species so that they might be worthy servants to the first children of the gods. Chern Wei had learned to make himself both an instrument of record and calculation, a sorcerer-wizard, a magus who himself was a book of spells. Through Short Lived sons and daughters, the dragons could work true draconic arcana not within their cavernous rune-caves and nation-trees, but upon the field of battle. Each rider was a channeler, an abacus, and a sacrifice. Chern Wei knew he had given himself not just to the field of battle, but also made of himself a candle whose life melted out faster than others of his kind. He was honored yes, just as his mother was, but he would sacrifice decades to taste the sight of light on a dragonfly's wing miles away, the creaking sounds trees make underneath their bark, the heart leaping triumph of scattering whole companies of men the way down pouring rain breaks lines of ants.

THUNDER -> sheets of eldritch fire arc downward -> cracking earth and bone and teeth -> once armor running off of flesh and burning in its descent -> men become even less than they are -> break ranks -> lightning chains out and catches even the fastest coward

Only now he lies among them, an ant among ants, as dragons above make mockery of the preceding massacre. Without riders, the dragons would never have allied with any of the Short Lived. Only with these useful insects astride their necks gloved in gauntlets forged in rune-caves and nation-trees did they come to respect men at all. And even then the swarming morass of little forms meant almost nothing. Only the greatest workers of arcana, the rulers of nations, the few proxies striding the world in the name of the gods, and the riders - only these, among all the Short Lived, could be golden nuggets within the murky currents of meaningless lives arriving and leaving the world. But only the riders could make the dragons understand, and only the riders could catch a glimmer of what dragons were. Only the families of riders might hold onto echoes of such experiences when the dragons were no more. And only the riders allowed dragons to break each others necks in their jaws, to rend each others scales, to kill another dragon the way a mortal soldier could kill another man. Dragons needed power, needed territory, needed to hoard coffers of Short Lived that men thought of as their own kingdoms. But to take part in their own race's extinction, to know that as another one of their own fell from the sky that something as beautiful as they were was tumbling from air to death, only human callousness could allow them to accept such a thing.

quiet -> the dragons above have tired of their game -> they are leaving -> but he is dying -> his hopes are pinned on the adulteress coming for her son's body -> what remains of night will be occupied with the question that haunts him:

how?

how could a dragon dishonor itself and take something so weak, so low, so base as a human for a lover?

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Angel Mouse

Angel Mouse

There is a mouse in the Library of Ursinals. It sleeps between the Infernal and Abyssal sections, comfortably snuggled in a hole above which lurks forbidden books of summoning snatched from ever foolish mortals, catalogs of those same fools falling into temptation, bestiaries detailing the forms and functions of baatezu and tanar'ri, and other tomes detailing their own variegated horrors.

The mouse does not consider the weight - both physical and otherwise - of the books stacked over its home. It does not know that though the spines of those books do not thicken, many of those tomes recording the depredations of the fiends are in fact expanding in the way a mountain rises out from the cymbal crashing of two tectonic plates. It does not realize the space between those two sections is a metaphorical battle ground, that the great bearlike celestials who shuffle back and forth between these continent spanning collections gathered from across creation are seeking to find an answer to a conflict it does not know is called the Blood War.

(You might be tempted to refer to the mouse as "Clueless".)

What the mouse does know is that the library larder is filled with cheeses, with loaves of bread, with fruits and occasionally something called 'mana'. 'Mana', whatever it is, is delicious. Because the word 'mana' is a Word of Creation, the mouse understands it in the way it understands the pictures painted in its brain by the brush of its whiskers on wood and stone, the way it understands that when an ursinal weeps at the folly of mortals practically throwing themselves into the Pit its duty is to run up a table leg and comfort the creature as it might one of its hairless babies, the way it understands that the leonals are not going to eat it but should be avoided just in case.

What the mouse does not know is the way to the larder. This ignorance is of course a miracle, because in any other place it would be forced to realize there are no interconnecting holes between its home and the larder, that the sections on fiends are sealed off deep underground and warded from any potentially prying eyes. It does not realize it can access the larder because every time it steals something it uses a small, nearby portal bordered by table legs whose gate key is a mouse's whisker to enter Sigil, City of Doors. And every time it comes to the Cage, it leaves a slice of bread, a sample of fruit, or a wedge of cheese - as much as it can carry - for a little girl in the Hive.

The mouse, you must realize by now, doesn't really know it lives upon the plane of Elysium. Nor does it know anything about the Traveler's Way. It doesn't have an angel's vast mind, nor its power, nor its conscious pledge to the Good and the Light. The mouse, you see, only has an angel's heart.

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Moonshine

Moonshine

She pulls on this heart like She pulls on the sea.
-'That Moon Song', Gregory Alan Isakov

"Lena, you're leaning too far back..."

Splash.

Laughter from the other coures. Lena crawls out, silver running in droplets down her child's height length. The glowing liquid is soaking into the red patchwork dress so it gives off the color of a sun going to bed just behind the horizon. Lena is smiling in self-mockery, happy to play the jester to a group of friends as drunk as she is. And it's not like she's the first to fall into this great porcelain tub they pulled into the forest from a ruin in the vast white of Pelion, layer from which the Last Word emerged. They have, after all, been at this for days if not weeks.

Time gets funny around moonshine.

Above her more coure eladrin flutter and swoop in tangled loops around the ghostly beam of cold moonlight that shines down over their ad hoc distillery. The ritual creation of moonshine is something akin to a funeral and a collaborative writing project. As the plane's chaotic weather has to be carefully managed, the sudden tide of storms and cloud covers fended off, there is almost an aspect of seamanship to the whole process as well.

It starts as wake, as a confessional, tears of loves lost and shames purged dropping into the tub from the eyes of the gathered angels of Chaos. Then the event plays kin to a farmer's market of stories as tales are bartered and conjoined and pitted against each other. Bildungsromans, allegories, fables and folktales gathered from the Multiversal canvas. All added to the oral history of their brew, a great epic mystery play that changes every time they draw out the night to draw down the moon.

As the tears fall and stories settle down from their lips into the pool of salt saddened waters, several coure begin to take flight, encircling the path they would like the beam to take. Hours and hours condensed into one midnight witching hour will pass, and slowly the diffuse pale illumination will thicken into the intended path of luminescence. As it hits the tub, lunar condensation occurs and the Moon submits to the alchemy of Itself interwoven with tears and stories.

The coure will keep most of it for themselves, and even now some of them are working together to turn Pelion's sand into glass that in turn will be blown into the appropriate containers. The rest they'll trade to the lillendi for invitations to the the snake-ladies galas held every century or so within the labyrinths of the Infinite Staircase.

Another coure, skin chocolate to Lena's vanilla, dressed in blue sleaveless summer, decides this is the moment to get over herself and share her feelings so she leans in and the two heavenly women kiss. This other coure, Jehan, swallows and suddenly she is Awake to Infinity. She has drunk from the stories that are catharsis, the characters fictional and real who tread paths so that wherever one ends up Lost one has only to follow the signs back to Themselves and this alcohol that has fermented through their lachrymose vigil into a burning throat, nostril widening argent soma has a name beyond this half-joke|half-poetry word 'moonshine' and that true name is Mythology.

'It's done.' Jehan says with a laughter-tinged hiccup. And then she and Lena lean into another kiss amidst the cheers of their fellow art-maddened, heart-conjuring celestials.

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BY JEM:

BY JEM:

"Test instrument leakage," the scientist mutters angrily. He starts up the machine's diagnostics from the control console. Banks of bulbs flicker to life, reds shifting green in tame order. "Like I don't know the difference between a photon disappearing and one bouncing out into the lab."

He moves over to a pair of steel arcs, wrapped around with silver wire, and checks a series of magnetometers as he makes tiny adjustments for the slight differences in the Earth's local magnetic field that had accumulated overnight due to the shifting of subterranean magma flows. "Magnetic domain miscalculation," he laughs bitterly. "So I send a massive particle through the tear, and unconserved charge is just me pissing electrons into my equipment, is it?"

He satisfies himself that the fields are aligned properly, at least for the next few minutes, and sits down at the control station as the last light flicks green. "Fine. Nobody bothers to refute the actual calculations, do they? Of course not, they can't because the calculations are perfectly fine." He taps out a series of commands. "They just say it's symbol-chasing on bad assumptions, like theirs are anything to crow about. . ."

He gets up and stands in front of a videocamera, sitting on a motorized tripod, pointed toward the setup with a clear line of sight. The light behind the stand shines on carefully-tended computer equipment, lovingly-calibrated electronics, the vital archway, and the grungy gray brick wall of a basement apartment. He brushes off his shirt, removed the anti-static gloves he had been wearing, and faces the camera.

"November 23, 2010, Omaha, Nebraska. Professor Dieter Klass, Physics Department, College of Omaha. Repeated nanoscale experimental verifications of my continuum substrate theory have failed to convince my colleagues that it is possible to excite mass-energy into exiting our experiential space-time into the M-brane upon which our universe rests. This comes despite the fact that I have managed to show nonconservation of both energy, in the form of a laser, and matter, in the form of a stream of electrons. It is true that my data is noisy; the exit procedure involves creating an area where the waveform of the entering particles is as unpredictable as possible. However, the signal is statistically significant, and independent labs have been able to verify my results. Regardless, my competitors persist in derogating my experimental setups as impossibly prone to data corruption.

"I have been stymied in pursuing this research further since sending macroscopic objects through white noise of the sort that I was using would have required enormous energies -- possibly the Large Hadron Collider would have sufficed to send traceable isotope-marked molecules if the beam were aimed precisely enough. But, of course, the funding for this type of work was not forthcoming.

"I have since redesigned the core experiment and believe I have solved the energy threshold problem. Unpredictability may be generated by a sufficiently complex object acting with sufficiently tight parameters in a sufficiently unpredictable way. I believe that through proper stimulation of a human brain into various active states of consciousness, magnified by a sensitive magnetic field generator into the data-signals specified in my theory, I can produce a continuum-rip of indefinite size. Today I intend to attempt a 1-meter rip, large enough to send a robotic camera through. If this doesn't convince the scientific world, nothing will. Naturally, with my scientific reputation in tatters, permission for human experimentation was not forthcoming from the IRB, and hence I have been forced to fund this project from my teaching salary, and will be using myself as the chaos seed."

He taps a few buttons on the computer. "I have just uploaded my experimental design to the arXiv. Due to my banning, I apologize to the coordinators for the use of a pseudonym and IP mask. The GPS data and video feed being streamed now from the camera will be archived on my departmental webspace, regardless of whether anything goes wrong in the next few minutes."

He moves backward and settles down in a chair slightly to the right of the iron curves, still on screen. Carefully, he fits several electrodes to places on his balding pate that have already been worn smooth from repeated trials. He says conversationally to the camera as he works, "The method of inducing the requisite 'organized confusion' might seem rather esoteric. Recent psychological studies have discovered some interesting patterns in the neural states of meditating Tibetan monks; I myself have been designing a regimen of visualizations, verbalizations, and somatic movements that are completely at odds with each other's rhythm. Doing them all at once takes quite a bit of practice to master! They even change from day to day; the necessary field shapes generated by the motor and speech centers differ slightly based on the magnetic magnification fields, which in turn have to be calibrated to the Earth's local magnetic field. The tolerances are that fine. . ."

He completes his adjustments, and sits back. "And now, if all goes well, humanity is about to witness for the first time the departure of a tangible, complex object from our space-time continuum. I hold very little hope of retrieval, of course, or even of the signal returning after the camera passes through. After all, by definition the space outside our little bubble of space-time does not share our space, time, or probably even our physical laws. Whether the camera even exists after it leaves might be something of a metaphysical question. However, on the off-chance that some sort of existence does persist, I have programmed the camera to attempt to return, and it will be broadcasting its video stream as long as possible."

He hesitates. "Here we go."

A final button is pressed. There is a delay of a few seconds as a clock times down. At zero, the camera witnesses Professor Klass beginning to utter a bizarre chant, while waving his arms and legs in a rhythm that does not match the chant at all. His eyes follow neither rhythm, instead appearing to be watching a different scenario somewhere in his imagination. This goes on for several minutes, as electrical potentials build up and begin ponderously to move.

The camera's view beyond the circular arcs of steel begins to blur, as sparks start to fly between the two semicircles in complicated patterns. Faster they spew, until the entire circle is filled with fractal static. It blossoms and contorts in weird patterns that start to look like images and then burst into checkered splotches. Professor Klass' voice raises, as he furiously attempts to act strangely in a scientifically describable manner, and his gestures become energetic.

There is a flash within the arcs. A critical energy threshold is reached, and a signal is sent to the motorized tripod, which begins rolling forward. Within the circle, the flare extends throughout the entire pattern, appearing to fill the circle with a roiling flame. Professor Klass' chanting has taken on a tone of vibrant triumph.

He should not have paid this much attention to the results of his research just yet. With pride and exuberance comes a burst of energy. The spark pattern bulges into three dimensions, pushing beyond the generator coils. He breaks off in astonishment, but the field has become self-sustaining for these few moments, and along with his camera he too is dragged into an unknown realm.

----------

He pants. "Uh. . . uh. . ." It's dark. His chair has tumbled over. The electrode net is still connected to his head, but it must have torn off of the power source. The ground is. . .

. . .ground?

He feels. It's not his basement. It's dirt. There's wind. Loud wind, in fact. What happened? Where is he?

He sits up. He looks up.

A cheerful-looking midget waves at him.

He looks around.

The sky is a madhouse. Streaks of fire rush across floating oceans against a background stream of boulders tumbling leisurely across the air. The ground is bare dirt, a circle of it, maybe a hundred yards wide, centered on a man wearing medieval armor and a sword. A sword.

"I swear all those religious fruitcakes who told me I was opening a portal to Hell were right," Professor Klass says.

The midget blinks at him, and says something in a language he doesn't understand. He looks blankly at the midget, who, he is now realizing, is also dressed medievally, in a leather jerkin and matching boots, carrying far too many daggers, and sporting pointy ears and odd dentition that narrows his face.

The midget says something else which gives him a sudden feeling of familiarity, like the chants he'd been practicing for years, then licks a fingertip, digs for gold in one of those pointy ears, and, astonishingly, pulls a tiny clay model of a ziggurat out of a side pocket and crushes it to crumbs. Then he says, "Now can you understand me?"

"Why, yes."

"Weird to run across a human wot don't speak Common. Where you from?"

"Berlin." I'm conversing with a leprechaun in a no-place beyond the realm of sanity, he thought.

"Nevah hoid of it. Prime?"

"What?" The midget and his companion groan.

"Pure Clueless," says the standing man. "I told you it was a spell backfire."

"Dat was no backfire, Alf. I know my spellcraft, and dat was a gen-you-wine incantation. Old school magic, right dere. Primitive. Primal, even."

"Primitive!" In his current unmoored state, to be called primitive by an apparently twelfth-century charlatan gnome and his vaguely-British-knight companion was too much, and he started chortling uncontrollably.

"Oh, he'll fit right in around here," says the knight.

"Yeah, he does. In case yez haven't noticed, since he woke up our safe zone's up an' doubled in size. He's got a head on him. An' I think he may be an anarch."

"You're not seriously-"

"Anarch'd be awful useful on this trip."

"Look at him, he's a graybeard-"

"Who managed to magic himself inta Limbo practically by accident. He's got potential. C'mon. What're we gonna do, throw him inta da soup?"

"Yes! He can stabilize it himself if he's so--"

"He needs training, you know dat."

". . .fine." The tall man sighs. "He pulls his weight or he gets tossed, though. I don't feed strays."

"Right then!" The midget slaps Professor Klass on the back. "We got about ten minutes left on this spell, and I need ta teach yous about how ta stabilize Limbo. Listen sharp, then. . ."

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Half-Peak

Half-Peak

Enterprising fiends, heartbroken murderers, and heretic thieves slink into darker alleys, annoyed by the arrival of Sigil's morning. Those who have lived upon worlds where dawn emerges from its horizon tomb, a hound chasing away night, find it all the more irritating. In those worlds shadows are lengthened and deepened by the position of the Sun upon its daily arc. In the City of Doors, the seedier elements found in almost every city, as well as those who are found in almost none, are forced to contend with a suffused glow brightening the air around them.

(One wonders if peak and antipeak are the Cage's crude approximation of those Suns, or rather Suns are the best approximation to the Lady's work the gods could manage.)

Retreating with night's recession, besides the fiends and their disciples, are twin ad hoc orders that often cross in unwitting or unwilling osmosis.

Sigil's darkness calls out to the aasimars as one pulls out a candle when the sun is down and the moon has waned too far. Angel blood has alchemically conjoined with baser flesh, and with this gnostic understanding of the tribulation awaiting the good-but-weak-hearted this 'race' emerges to wage a whispered war against the temptations of their sires' enemies. Whores are paid for naught but their company, assassins thwarted, children led back to their worrying guardians.

The other congregation is that of the repentant or recalcitrant tieflings, those who seek to become candles so as to enjoy the light of the Sun. Fiendish blood has alchemically conjoined with hopeful flesh, and with this struggle of the soul to be its own Philosopher's Stone this 'race' emerges to wage a wanton war against their sires. The corrupt are coupled with to learn their secrets, soul harvesters entrapped in their own gems, rapists gutted.

But enough about these bastards and inheritors, these children whose street level mystery plays enact microcosmic models of their parents' more infinite wars! Do you not see they have snuck away from our descriptions, vanishing even as we named their lineages and professions?

Do you not see we are in the nascent pearly brightness of half-peak, and do you not wonder about those hungry who braved the night with children or elders in tow to greet this sunless dawn? Do you not marvel that despite the dangers we have just discussed, the line for the Bleaker's soup kitchens already extend across blocks and blocks, almost daring to spill into Wards for whom such dismal sights would be like the perfumed fair maiden awakening to a horsefly leaving erratic footprints across the heavily applied rouge that to logic's contrary does not mask but accentuate the noble beauty of the rich?

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The Day after all Others'

The Day after all Others' Tomorrows

"The beginning is a shipwreck. Such was the unspoken premise of the seers."
-Roberto Calasso, Ka: Stories of the Mind and Gods of India

In the Tower of Arcana, it was all too easy to look out at the corpses of merfolk and marine life bubbling to the surface and judge the Wasteland that would exist after the Final Battle. All the gods might die, but the archmage Aquela knew that this prophesied demise of the Powers would open up the mortal world to new wars. These battles would be fought in an Age bereft of the healing and hope the deities' clerics could provide. It was that Age, the one after prophecy, that she now waited for like one grown bored with a play one is forced to attend at another's behest.

Solars and planetars mounted on silver scaled ki'rin leading angels illumined with all the colors of a Sun's daily traversal of the sky did battle with nation-swarms composed of a gamut of winged devil ranks led by legions of pit fiends themselves astride the largest of nightmares. The reality bending nature of cumulative wish spells had left space and time rippling, blurry things. Beyond the borders of this reality the larger existence that circumscribed the Prime shone through ghost-like, the way moonlight passes through diaphanous cloth. Outside the world, on the other side of the sky and revealed as Vision in every blink of an eye, the gods of Good and Evil have reached the culmination of their contest. Revolting Beauty contests with enraptured Ugliness.

The White-Silver Witch of the Western Hemisphere ignores it all - the light and the dark, the cleansing fire and tsunamis of shadow, those titanic forms armored in their constellations - each impact of an opposing divinity's comet forged weapon dousing stars the way her breath extinguishes the candles of her ritual. She'll see how dark the night is after they've finished the final act of their childish game. An endgame that distracted so many of her fellow immortals that the Tower of Arcana, whose foundations lay at the bottom of the continent-tall, oceanic Unarian Trench, had been emptied of archmagi and apprentice alike. Fools joining Faithful in a last stand against the Amethyst Hearted, the prophesied children turned death knights who commanded the armies of Bleeding Nightfall. A disappointing squandering of power, but one she had long calculated for. Her own apprentices remained in the levels below as well as in other secured locations. Alongside them were mathematicians, engineers, alchemists, doctors, teachers, druids, merchants, manufacturers - she'd spent centuries building the cities that could be shunted into para-dimensional locations for extinction level events.

Something banged against the curtains of prismatic force shielding her location, something that could see through her wards. Her eyes flicked away from ritual, taking stock of the potential intruder through her own wasted reflection.

Kerzed the Black looked back at her with eyes of red hatred cut through with black slits of desperation. Atop his back a girl, no older than twelve, leered with intentions beyond those a prepubescent would entertain. Her eyes exuded rays of indigo that darkened her face, though in the conflagration of high arcana outside the Tower her once brown skin glistened with an oily, coppery sheen. Her white petticoat was stained by blood and angel feathers, making the child's garment akin to a butcher's apron.

With this Amethyst Hearted's aid the fiends had won the surrounding sky and ocean. And now the death knight believed they could win this Tower as well. The girl touched one of Kerzed's horns, and in what seemed more spasm that willful action, the great wyrm's tail slammed against the abjurations Aquela and the others had raised. It was the last act she had required of the mages before they could be released from their oaths to the orders to "fight for their souls" or "defend the Light" as they had put it. Fools.

Soft rainbow light flashes out at Kerzed's strike, making the Tower a momentary lighthouse in the encroaching dark of the angels' retreat. Kerzed screeches, the flapping of his wings as he pulls away churning up the currents below into waves striking then running down the invisible walls of Aquela's abjuration. But even as the black dragon pulls back, the child - whose inky glow now shines not just through eyes but exudes faintly from all orifices - touches her palm to the dragons forehead. Serpentine orbs roll back until ocular veins are starkly visible, standing out in lightning yellow contrast to the scarlet of the dragon's blazing sclera. Exhalation as involuntary gagging splatters gallons upon gallons of acid against the warding magics, but beyond producing another light show for the encircling fiends nothing occurs. Those infernals dare not approach, nor do they dare to even test their diabolic spells against the Tower's defenses. None, not even the pit fiend generals, wish to risk banishment to Elemental Void promised by the runes carved in Unseen Light.

They know the White-Silver Tower is a gateway to that Nothing that even their kind must surrender to. In this they are wiser than the dragon riding harbinger that continues to use a reptile as ineffective siege engine to batter against the barrier. Kerzed screams in pain, and the girl's flesh seems to ooze a pitch shade of frustrated violet from every pore. Still the Tower defenses hold, more steadfast than iron though they appear as nothing more than faint iridescent sheets. In another place, one might think them woven of rain drops in drizzle playing prism to reemerging sunlight. Aquela can see hints of bone in the ruined flesh of Kerzed's tail. The dragon grits its jagged teeth, its pupils begging for assistance, all the more pathetic for being framed by burning red.

The dead little girl on his back continues to leer disrespectfully at the archmage. The Amethyst Hearted knew it might fall to the Light in the name of the Dark, but the harbinger could not comprehend that here was one who denied the Day of Judgment itself.

Aquela sighs. There is a part of her thinking that whatever is inside that corpse, its costume of meat could easily be one of her daughters by descendants. That part of her - Compassion - was tamed long ago, however, and does not drive her to hasty action. Her lineage, all of it save for a hundred or so god-slaves, are nested safely in the cradles of her created dimensional pockets. They wait to inherit the world, one they will conquer with potions and purse strings, livestock and grain.

Messages come to her mind from the great wizards below who sadly remain neophyte archmagi. They are still nascent in their understanding of seed craft, the paints and notes from which the Art of High Arcana ensues. Her ancient and surprisingly religious fellows, she suspected, had awaited the Armageddon with the anticipation of cowards needing Someone Else to bring them to their desired conclusions. They'd all taken the gods as bed mates, but there was no reason to show so much attachment to such alien beings. New symbols could be drawn from the blood of old in time. One of the many things she'd learn in preparation for this chapter's ending.

She had not expected Kerzed to come to her door - in fact she was surprised the dragon had answered the Call of Darkness, the enchanted echo of those trumpeting horns - each once belonging to a now extinct mountainous mastadon - resounding across the world. Not that she thought he would fly south, guided by the Sapphire Polestar to where the Light had gathered. It was just that in the long millennia of their relationship, beginning when he had demanded sacrifices from the long forgotten empire she'd been born to, Kerzed had never seemed so much Evil as driven by pride and greed. He was not one to believe in things, not even the Dark which claimed to have sired him and his kind.

Seeing him here, despite their last meeting which had left both of them scarred and in need of deep regeneration, she felt a strange kinship with the monstrous great wyrm. They were practical creatures drowning in a war of fanatics - the silhouettes of these very Powers shattering the climates of the world into thunderheads and blizzards. Even below, in the inky blackness surrounding the Tower's base, bioluminescent civilizations sacrificed themselves to religious fervor.

She was old, as her immortal flesh had crossed from its youthful tawny gold into dry jaundiced papyrus. Each almond eye now rested on a bed of bordering wrinkles. And so much of that exhausting life had been spent readying the world to outlive its gods both self-righteous and psychotic. How many times had she sought to bring Kerzed into her confidence, recognizing his amorality and its mercantile intelligence as an asset? Yet each time he had hounded her, breaking her secret portals to arable land beyond the fields of their shared planet. Scattering the armies she'd manipulated into wars. Forcing her to raise her own hand in violence when he succumbed to the bribery of the Dark and directly threatened her own long-sighted designs.

Yet here, in the last days of known divinity, she could not help but feel pity for him. Was it the promise of ruling in the Dark's earthly perdition that enticed him? Was that why he had made the pilgrimage to the obsidian studded wastelands where the Dark incarnated itself into seventy times seven sacrificed children? What was his reaction when his bridle was given over to one of their number, a lunatic dead thing whose only dreams were wet ones of spirits bent and then forever broken?

Yet it was not pity for a fellow Old One that drew her out into battle. Even as she stepped through the argent walls of her Tower, she thought of Kerzed's knowledge of the seed craft, of that magic written and illumined by lesser beings in the versed epics of varied songs and Scriptures.

The dragon could be made useful. Jaws clamped around the invisible globe that kept her as center as she stepped across a floor of air with a fearless, measured gait. She locked gazes with the Amethyst Hearted and calmly spoke a word of power.

'Release.'

A cloud of shadow-light as dark as vein's blood exploded out of the girl's body, wisps hooking desperately to the corpses skin. With a toss of his cabled neck Kerzed sent the corpse tumbling downward toward depths where its white petticoat would more than adequately serve as shroud. The shadow-light became the tail of this falling star of Dark. Even as Aquela and the dragon followed the thing's descent with volleys of force, lightning, and fire It suspended herself just above the water. Deep violet light billowed around the girl's body as an aura of demonic miasma, and the youthful puppet of flesh raised a grasping hand toward the ancient black dragon.

Kerzed dove with a howl of despair, and when he regained the sky the Amethyst Hearted, though charred with ensorcelled cloth melted to skin, once more straddled the space between his horns. Even as Aquela watched the child's body healed. The pit fiends that remained in the surrounding sky encircled the trio as mere witnesses, even their nightmares doing little else but pawing the air with burning hooves.

On the other side of the sky, the gods seemed like shadow puppets engaged in slaughter with the conviction of Geometry's students approaching well studied proofs. In this great battle lay the promise of Answers.

Answers that will end where the fruition of the White-Silver Witch's epoch-spanning conspiring begins. But first, the harbinger and the rather valuable asset the death knight continued to keep from the archmage's grasp.

Conjured meteors intersect and shatter into tumbling embers around them even as a hail of jagged diamonds is dispersed by Aquela's abjuring hurricane. The moon wraps the harbinger in unseen chains of gravitational pull but the dominated Kerzed counterspells before the constriction of force can turn corpse-flesh to pulp.

The child, beautiful in life, shines out Dark like an inverted star. Aquela can feel the malignant force leaving cracks on skin stretched over joints, widening age spots into cancerous splotches. The girl is a carrier of another reality's fragment - her presence is now pollution to this world and anathema to Heaven.

The witch, apparently, was not the only one who had prepared well for this war where destiny would be decided, where both sides might finally know the rest of victory and defeat.

And I am what comes after. Hundreds of her bloodline cut their throats with knives of jade, offering their life force to her necromantic contingencies. Renewed, she catches her enemies in a cyclone as thick as the Tower behind her. The intermission gained in Kerzed's dispelling of the wind allows her a needed moment of regeneration against the continuing assault of Dark's aura of enervation.

And then fire is traded for ice, and acid is traded for lightning. Lances of sound are met with shields of silence. Barrages of elements and force exchanged with thunderous abandon. Visions of horror traded, but even as the girl huddles against dragon flesh when faced with the spectre of Dark's defeat, Aquela laughs a froth of blood onto her lips. Everything the Dark shows her she has planned for - all that and more besides. It is not Good but the meticulous hand that defeats Evil and brings it to heel.

The scent of myrrh perfumes a wind from Heaven, a zephyr that causes the witnessing pit fiends and their mounts to widen the circle even as their scales flake off and their fangs crack. The Amethyst Hearted stumbles down onto her mounts muscled back, but retains her hold on the wyrm so he is unable to throw her off again. As the harbinger regains her footing upon the black scales she is met with a storm of silver-white hawks. The Storm of Raptors, the conjuration the White-Silver Witch has used against armies. Even as the magical beasts surround the Dark's champion in cloud of violence, Aquela's gaze pierces between claw, beak, and feather. Concentrating upon the body of the girl, she begins hunting the threads that tie Evil to mortal remains. Finding them, she raises up her arms and with the gestures of a composer performs her ethereal surgery.

The Dark seeks to retract its gaze but finds itself unable, its awareness locked as the ancient crone raises up the mirror of the Void. The slavery, the torture, the rapine and slaughter - even the echo of their victims' creaming does not find the border of the elemental absence. The depths of its hate, its malice, its sadistic lusting for cruelty - mere heartbeats unheard in a cage of bone. The long and ancient war it has fought with its twin, the Light - even the Time before Time seems to fit in the emptiness that brings utility to the beggar's bowl. Its battle cry of defiance, the roar of the lion that stalks the souls of mortal and angel alike - naught but the reverberation of a bumblebee's wing.

If the Void is Its mirror, then where did this storm cloud of hawks come from?

When the last hawk spirals down dead toward the waves, Aquela turns her head back to the Tower and whispers almost imperceptibly to the edifice. Gouged and now cyclopean, the harbinger swoops Kerzed toward the witch. In the same moment the primastic barrier that protects the fabled home bubbles with the birth of an appendage - an arm that reaches up and outward to grab both dragon and master in the tightening ball of a fist. Primastic sheets of lightning flash out as abjuration makes contact with scale and skin.

Ribs older than the the Atzaquatl Mountains crack, punctured lungs denying Kerzed the honor of a dramatic death roar. Following that, a hissing sound almost congruent to wheezing laughter fills the air - Kerzed's internal organs are awash with acid. The Harbinger screams - in rage and perhaps in prayer to the Dark - but it avails the death knight little. The tattered child's gaze, its remaining eye's shadow-light emitting wordless (and also worthless) promises of vengeance, remain locked on the crone's weathered face.

Then, a moment later, its skull is crushed. The hand of force flings them violently downward. Both bodies break the surface of the water, but only Kerzed is given the life force of a hundred or so of Aquela's followers, their souls kept safe from Judgment by her creation of a temporary afterlife in the Void. Thanks to their deaths, the black will be kept on the edge of life. The dragon is too injured to heal itself, and the disjunctions being spent by her subordinates will exhaust all the wyrm's contingencies.

When she finally kills him, he will rise again as a dracolich. Safe from the Dark's displeasure, his bones woven together by the honoring of his debt to Her in the world to come.

Child flesh is wrapped in the suckered arms of a nautilus mega fauna owing allegiance to no one, this meal dragged into the craggy depths of the Unarian Trench. The Dark once contained by the sacrificed girl pours out unseen, its oblivion a diffusion into those clouds that billow out from tectonic vents scattered across an ocean's lightless depths.

sciborg2
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Newborn

Newborn

Whatever it is, the gargantuan form who came from Positive to play retreats once more into the boundless explosion of Life that defines that plane. The ambrosial conflagration it wove in the darkness of an empty crystal sphere moves from energy to elemental, coalescing into a sphere.

Time passes, and the mad churning gives way to the predicted calcification. Jet streams form from the exhausted exhalations of the world's birthing of itself.

Mountain ranges began to dress in the first coats of snow, a fashion they will wear until the end of time. Magma churns beneath the earthen crust, seeking understanding of its boundaries and obligations. Oceans lap lazily in well earned recline, the fluorescent storms of the world's birth pangs now sated.

The afterbirth glow that gives these environs their auroral sheen fades, concentrated into the flesh that is heir to matter. Arising from the soil, floral spirits yawned awake to Life as tufts of grass and shoots of trees broke through the soil, as the first streamers of seaweed were nursed by the caressing currents of the still young seas. Thus spirits of the plants came to be, and upon their awakening were greeted by their elemental forebears and told to prepare themselves.

'For what?' asked the dryads of oak and petal, of fern and fungus.

'For the coming of the first fauna, who even now are woven together in my depths.' said the water.
'For the birth of dragons who even now are gestating in my bones.' said the earth.
'For the breath that carries the dead, who even now are gathered in my zephyrs.' said the air.
'For the ash of offering given through me to these gods now arriving.' said the flame.

Hearing the words spoken by Fire the floral children cast their gazes upward and saw the spectral, near transparent faces of the gods on the other side of their cerulean sky.

=-=-=

"I will gift my magic to this world." the Seamstress said softly, in her hands the first threads of silver spellfire being woven into an immense arcane field.

She had come first to this newborn globe, called here by oracular dreams that rose out of her divinity as guiding doves and shepherding ravens.

In the cosmic game, such young planets were among the few nexus points in which the gods might act with incredible directness upon the material of the Prime. Which was why she had sought to declare herself the Goddess of Magic to those mortals, including the dragons, who might wish to delve into the Mysteries.

Now the first touch of godhood this world would know was Magic. The spirits below waded in the warmth of her Weave.

"Bit presumptuous - don't you think?"

The Seamstress turned from the world she was arching over in blessing, and found herself confronted by a Dragon of Shadow. In the same moment, for even in the Void the Seamstress could manipulate the Demiplane of Time, seven of her stood where in this same moment, now erased, there had only been one. Each one armored in plates of force, crusaders of Mystery holding swords of sound, chill, flame, Life, dissolvent, Death, and arcing electric respectively.

The Dragon of Shadow studied these knights with a jet fanged smile, its coils extending around them as scales colored in the iridescent pitch of crow feathers ebbed and flowed, resolved and dissolved, out of the surrounding dark.

"I believe we will have eons for that. Whole ages for the threads of shadow to contest with the threads of arcana. For now, I will let you clothed the world."

Beneath brilliant helms seemingly hammered from the same ore as missiles of magic, the Seamstress grimaced with all seven faces. Not here. I wanted to be free of such folly in this place. The urge to strike was strong, but even now she could hear the arrival of other divinities, and to fight this necromantic leviathan would leave her vulnerable to the coming strangers in the distance. They were living Words whose flesh, like hers, was their own lantern light. Their approach illuminated the still starless black of Wild Space.

Within the enclosure of her armor, the Seamstress sighs.

I had wanted a little more time with Innocence. A respite in which to savor a brief monotheism.

=-=-=

When the sun first sets, the world is greeted by the first twilight. The gods watch in awe as the echo of the mysterious creator's Song closes the curtains on this Dream Time with the emergence of the planet's fauna.

From the canopy of the great Tree that is the Axis Mundi, to the core-world of Shangri-La circumscribed by the cavernous Underdark, the first animals are crawling, flying, swimming and climbing. This vibrant explosion of fauna, breaking free of the placental salinity of the oceans, is vanguard for the first sentients that follow on their heels, the dragons who emerge with the wonder of green youth at what creation has prepared for them.

From mountainous wombs they come, from stone roots and snow laden peaks. As night comes in earnest, the eldest race-in-flesh take in the sight of the hastily created stars. These pinpoints of light are binding fires born with the swearing of the deities' treaties, constellations arranged into the Pantheon's holy symbols.

Near the horizon's edge, deer and gazelle warily look upon the Eye of the Huntress, who in turn looks upon the world with a merciless gaze. Her brother, the Archer Poet, has claimed half the arc of the Sun - while the Hummingbird Warrior has taken noon to twilight. The gold dragons look upon the Lyre and the Obsidian Sword, and muse over which would prove a more worthy master.

Some of the gold are drawn by neither, and with other dragons who even now feel the touch of avarice in their hearts look to the Jeweled Dagger of the Heartless Vault Keeper to preserve the hoards they have instinctively begun to collect.

Those with a deeper love of things darker than ore and gemstone, who already stand over the corpses of their brethren - these are the ones who look up in mad wonder at the Murderer's Circle of Bloody Tears.

And those instead already in the arms of a mate they would die to defend, these look to the Crystal Rod of the Maiden to guide them in this new world.

The sky has been filled with the starry beginnings of mythology, enough so that every dragon can seek its own masters, if any at all, in the unfolding narratives History will bring.

Yet even among dragons there are those who see millennia while the other Eldest see only centuries. They know they are at the beginning, but already they can foresee the endings. They know this world is a battleground between the Silver and the Shadow, a contest that will play out even beyond this world's final sundering to dust and ash. For them, the other stars are already superfluous, and so they reserve their gaze for those constellations that sit warily above all the others, the stellar etchings that shine directly above the World Tree's cresting leaves.

What they see is the Circle of Mysteries, the seven brightest polestars set into the sky to mark the glory of the Seamstress. Yet within that symbol itself sits the Reaper's Skull, the promise and threat that is the Dragon of Shadow, it's sidereal jaws open as if to devour those seven points of stalwart hope.

This entwining, the wisest of dragons note, is engine to all the world's coming History.

sciborg2
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Raised with Demon

Raised with Demon

There's something called a glabrezu in my basement. I know it's not from here - here being our entire Universe - but I don't actually know where it's from. I think it lived in that house, or at least that patch of land, long before I was born. I remember seeing it as a child, it being as familiar to me as my own parents. Fixtures at those early days of actual memory, when you just know Mom and Dad and Kathleen and the Thing in the Basement.

Even now, decades past with grandchildren of our own, Kathy tries to talk to me about the Thing in the Basement. About what happened, about how it started me on a long road that took AA to tow me off of. A whole decade of seeing my face but looking at a stranger's. I always look away, make a joke, or go grab something from her kitchen - we never meet at our parents' place (where I of course live) - and she always stops her question when sees I've jumped over (evaded) the moment. She'll make sure to catch my gaze, though, and with Mom's sea greens she'll express her desire to be let in.

I think one day I will tell her, one day when Bill's lids are heavier than ours and the early night can cushion my long story. I take comfort in the idea, in its likelihood - I see my sister often enough. She's only one exit away after all. And admittedly I visit often enough, maybe more than Bill likes, taking breaks from the not-quite-lonely-enough place I've become guardian to. It isn't that bad, living with the demon, but that constant wanting me to want things gets tiring. Haunting my dreams, trying to turn regret toward rash action. But the temptations are now less than half-hearted. It knows that if I was going to damn myself, I would have done so before the start of my empty, alcoholic decade.

God knows life threw me enough opportunities to throw my soul into damnation. Or whatever the glabrezu's catch really is.

The first time was around the time I was learning that I wasn't just scrawny - I was slow, clumsy, and easily tired too. I couldn't sleep, having cost my soccer team yet another game. The flush of humiliation had been warming my cheeks the whole car ride home. My father, stalwart comforter that he wasn't, let the disappointed silence speak for him. I lay in bed, knowing I couldn't quit halfway through the season but still wishing I could just do something as simple as not trip over my own shoelaces. I wasn't startled when I heard the almost-sensical whisper - I knew who it was and where it was coming from.

The basement smelled like overripe apples and a woman's sex. The latter I didn't recognize at the time, but I might be the only person who dreams of dead dogs after their first foray into third base. Of course, before that post-soccer game night, in my dreams I would see something vaguely canine in the dark, hear a grating sound of chitin ill-fitted into bone. I would draw nearer and see insectile claws make spastic gestures in the dark that hides what I know is its massive, muscular form.

When I tug a bulb's string and the light goes on, what I see is somehow more terrifying for its far more pitiful nature.

Corpse of a brindle lab with a light case of mange across its rib protruding flank, a skinny thing that died on its side. It's eyes aren't even looking at me, they are staring off into the corner where the canned goods are stacked. There are crab claws, spotted with tiny white bumps that are obviously some kind of disease. They have too many joints, and are tangled in with its unmoving forelegs - left one coming out from high on the shoulder, the other so low it could be another leg.

It doesn't dally in explaining its offer - a swift image of me resting on my teammates' shoulders, followed by Dad's face beaming. I pause, staring at it, waiting for the terms of the exchange but it just lays there. Sometimes when I blink its gone, then suddenly my brain or the world corrects itself and the dead dog returns.

I pause, pretending to think it over, and then ten minutes later I'm back in bed. A few months later, I place first at the local science fair and get to see that look on my Dad's face. Funny, more than love or pride I remember a childish smugness, feeling I had gotten one over on the demon in the basement. As for the last laugh, given our history, what's happened between us, I don't think either of us is gonna take that prize. Before that first night, it had always been this ghost Kathy and I sort of accepted and my parents refused to talk about. When I was four (maybe five?) I had asked an eight-year-old Kathy if the house was haunted, and she'd looked me with faux maturity, made an attempt at ruffling my pseudo crew-cut, and said, "Yeah." It was scary but in a low key kinda way, no more so than the wasps that always got at least one of us in the summer or sixth-grader Simon Daniels who would throw rocks at us on the walk back from the bus stop but always seemed on the verge of doing something worse. In a weird way, I was always thankful toward him for that, for controlling whatever it was inside him until he moved away.

My Dad would snort - his signal for terminating dinner table conversations - if one of us brought up the "ghost", and I knew he couldn't stomach the idea. Not because he needed a rational universe or anything like that - he just couldn't stand the thought that he'd been tricked into a bad investment by taking the place. That he hadn't, as he liked to tell his poker buddies, gotten the house at a "steal". Mom, on the other hand, accepted it in the way she'd later accept a post-Darmouth-graduate Kathy living with a guy she wasn't married to. Something you dealt with by barreling past the implications.

Still, as far as I knew, I was the only one that it had "talked" to. The only one who could see it. I also thought I was the only one who knew about my unique position in the family, but I found out differently the second time the demon made an offer it thought I couldn't refuse.

I'd come home from Model UN and found the note on my pillow. Kathy had taken what amounted to a leave-of-absence from her extracurriculars, so had had plenty of time to leave the fragment of paper with its hasty scribble in my room before returning to her closed door mourning.

Ask it to make him love me again.

I read it several times, putting it down and pacing between the readings. Glancing at her door with its KEEP OUT sign, like she could see my face through the wood. She knew. All this time she somehow knew that I could talk to it. Naturally, there seemed only one way this was possible.

Walking to her door, I crouched down and slipped my message into her room:

Why don't you ask it yourself?

I stood there for less than a minute before I had my answer:

It doesn't talk to me. Not really. Only you. Please Jaimie.

Todd had been a great guy, the protective jock every nerd hopes for. And even after the end of their 7 month relationship, he still kept me from suffering the greater predations of his fellows. He even sat next to me one lunch period (that wasn't his) and said, "Your sister is pretty bummed." to which I'd simply responded, with faux macho-ness, "Yeah. You know how girls are."

Kinda of a back stab there, me not wanting Todd to feel guilty. Not that he'd done anything more than breakup with my sister - he'd even been very nice about it. It had still seemed out of the blue, and to my eighteen year old sister it probably was. Maybe it would have been better if he had immediately started dating some other girl, a bimbo cheerleader or something. Instead he simply lost interest in the girl who had fallen madly in love with him.

And while we all have friends who somewhat fit into the "You know girls" stereotype, Kathy wasn't one of them. Bright, beautiful, great at theater and crusader for the environment, pre-breakup she'd been the nice pretty girl that everyone knew would end up the dark horse candidate for homecoming queen. Then somehow the star "smart jock" had decided to try his hand at acting in a school play, apparently more to piss off our school's lacrosse coach than anything else, and suddenly Kathy had her first real date and first real boyfriend and ultimately her first love. Not to mention, unfortunately, 7 months later her first heartbreak.

I tried to cheer her up, but since even I had managed to find love with the delegate from Syria I was both busy and made a poor commiserating buddy. Perhaps more importantly the idea of confiding her sorrows to her 14 year old brother would be so unbelievably awkward it was simply beyond the pale. Like freezing something to absolute zero. While I felt guilty for being friendly with Todd and self-absorbed in my own life, I took comfort in knowing that my parents were managing to frack up another pivotal, TV episode worthy, time in one of their children's lives. My Dad, somehow dense to the reality of events, had tried to get Kathy to fix things with Todd, mostly so there'd be a boy he could talk to about sports in the house. My mom was more sympathetic, but she'd married her first love. She, being the only real Catholic in the household, also needled Kathy with "clever" questions, trying to find ways to "subtly" figure out if my sister was still a virgin. Admittedly there was room for doubt in my mind as well - I mean, why else would she be so upset right?

And she was upset. At first it seemed to be a case of what even my Mom thought of as teenage girl syndrome. But slowly, as Kathy became more of a shut in, our family became altogether more quiet. Nobody said anything, but we were all worried and we knew Kathy was getting more, not less, depressed. My Mom continually asked me if Todd had started seeing someone else, in the same way one might ask about the latest hurricane warning. If Kathy was bad now, seeing him with another girl...

Against my better judgment I found myself in the basement, watching in my mind as the glabrezu - somehow I just knew that was what it was - showed me images of Todd and Kathy holding hands at school. The dead dog stared at the canned goods as it showed me the old Kathy coming back to life, her and Todd homecoming king and queen, the relief everyone would feel to see the school's star bright again. I asked for the terms, in my head, and again only heard silence. I studied the crab legs, wondering what those white spots were - a fungus? - when the demon decided to up the ante. A flood of images - Todd and Kathy getting married, having children, their last breath passing simultaneously as they lay old and gray in each others arms.

I started laughing. Admittedly I was fourteen, and no expert on love, but the demon's offer was just so over-the-top ridiculous. For our world at least. Even my mom, as old fashioned as they come, hadn't married her first boyfriend. The dead dog with crab hands stared at the canned goods, showing no sign of annoyance, even when - still smirking - I turned off the light and headed upstairs. Ripping out another fragment of paper from my chemistry notebook (all the paper in the world couldn't help me there) I slipped the results of my non-Faustian non-bargain under her door:

I asked it to make you stop loving him

A month later, and Kathy was almost her old self again. Her smile a little less innocent, her eyes a little more world weary, but these things somehow made her more beautiful to everyone. Even Todd was happy to see her getting over him. Years later, during one of our winter breaks, she asked after our mutual friends had left for the night, "The thing with Todd, my senior year, did you really..."

"No."

She smiled, kissed my forehead, and headed off to bed. So round two went to me as well. Of course, a lack of athleticism and a broken heart wasn't much for a demon to work with. After Simon Daniels got caught killing stray cats at his new school, I actually and honestly prayed in church one Sunday. I thanked God that the demon had come to our relatively normal nuclear family, our for the most part happy home, rather than been allowed to work its magic on someone like Simon Daniels.

As years went by, the glabrezu made other offers. The chance to hoop up with cheerleaders, the chance to make sure my high school tormentors (Todd was a senior when I was a freshman) either suffered horrible ends or at least left me alone. The former seemed way too skeezy and pathetic, but I might have taken it up on its latter offer if had been willing to name its price. But it only offered the images of its promised results, nothing more. I don't know why it expected me to agree - didn't it realize we had horror movies like Wish Master 1 through 3 (4?) to warn us that things can always get worse?

Once I got to college, it seemed like it had something new to offer me every two months at minimum: Fixing my own relationship disasters, giving me the ability to not be beaten bloody by multivariable calculus, ending my long post-graduate stint of unemployment where my Dad eyed me like a man who'd caught a three eyed fish in a stream. "You should've gone for the internships like I told you. Nobody wants an econ major who spent college helping out at an elementary school."

Each time it was easy to refuse. At least looking back on it those times were easy, when compared to the Big One. I do remember times when I'd stay up late, trying to get it to tell me what the actual terms of our deal would be. My first adult breakup, the end of my engagement at 24, and I did wonder if the saying "I'd give my right arm to be with her" was something I'd be willing to go along with if the glabrezu put the offer on the table. But the desperation would cool, I'd come to my senses, and that would be that.

Until the Big One, the dead dog never said anything, only showing me images of what its handy-working of reality would bring. While the demon still stalked the darkness of my dreams, a behemoth breathing heavily, its every exhale carrying the smell of soured cider laced with the musk of feminine arousal, in the basement it was the corpse of a brindle lab with diseased crab claws protruding from its body. Honestly, it looked like nothing more than another poor victim of a missionary cancer that wanted to convert all that was canine into something more suitable for aquatic existence. Something more crustacean.

The older I got, the more I wondered if I was simply imagining it. If it wasn't for Kathy, who would look at me whenever it suddenly felt like the demon was more *here*, I might have convinced myself the whole thing was a childhood game my brain had forgotten to unload before puberty overtook me.

If I had, it would have made the Big One easier. I wasted so much time trying to bargain with it, when I should been at Sophia's bedside. Of course once the diagnosis was in I got a call from my sister. She was bawling - Sophia had been family for years after all.

"Jaimie - mom called me. I'm so sorry." A sob, then a pause, then an intake of breathe. Then she said what I knew she'd say the moment she called.

"But you know you can't right? You can't ask it for help. It's...there's something wrong with It. You can't."

I feel sadness and anger all at once. I want to tell her how it felt when Sophia called me while I was at work, saying the doctors double checked and realized it wasn't benign. It wasn't benign. That was her way, Sophia, trying to make sure people didn't worry about her, didn't want me or anyone else to fuss over her. We'd just begun discussing the idea of having children.

And before I can even take all this in, absorb the nightmare I can feel me and my wife hurtling toward, my big sister is calling me about the Thing in the Basement and what I, the only one It wants, can or cannot do to help the love of my life.

I only get one word out passed the rage in my chest and the lump in the throat.

"Todd..."

Kathy exhales. We both knew, before this conversation started, where it was going to go.

"It was a mistake. A stupid teenage mistake. I thought it was something else, a ghost or maybe some Native American spirit...I know better. Okay? I know better - I have dreams Jaimie..." She struggles to lower her voice, not wanting her husband or my wife to overhear. Some things stay in the bloodline, because unless you grew up in that house you couldn't ever really believe. It's like how even if your wife tells you she saw a UFO, you yourself will only know that "she thought she saw a UFO" and that "maybe she did see an extraterrestrial vehicle that night before we met."

"I have to ask." I say with a tone of finality, and on the other side of the line I feel Kathy restraining herself from hysterics. My sister is a corporate lawyer, so this losing of cool does make me at least consider her words. At least until ten minutes from now when I check in on my wife who's "resting" upstairs.

"Jaimie, please...there's something wrong with It. It's Evil."

=-=-=

At the time, Sophia and I were three states away from my parent's house. Also, you can't leave your wife as she fights cancer to take a jaunt to your parents. Originally I had thought that we might go there "for some R&R" but Sophia wanted to stay home in between chemo visits. Being weak wasn't something she enjoyed sharing with anyone, not her parents and definitely not in-laws. I barely caught a break, finding myself on the receiving end of her anger - understandable seeing as I kept looking for excuses to get us to my humble family estate. My wife, for all the right reasons, felt as if I was looking at what *I* needed while she fought her own body to stay alive.

It was six months later, post surgery, that we found ourselves celebrating the winter holidays at my folks' house. I had become a Church going man again, figuring I needed all the help of the angels if I was going to wrestle any kind of healing from the Thing in the Basement. My sister called me almost daily, often rudely rushing through pleasantries with my wife in order to deliver her admonition. Once I was home again, though, she'd said little more than "Merry Christmas" to me and worked to make up for lost time talking to my wife. On the actual day Kathy and Bill were at his folks, something my mother was rather miffed about, but she had more than enough sense to bring up the words "last Christmas" with Sophia at the dinner table.

Surprisingly, it was Dad who carried the evening. I found myself discussing politics, movies, and even sports with the man. He brought out old stories about me and Kathy as kids that I had thought I got tired of - that I was tired of hearing until I saw Sophia smiling, laughing, shaking her head at my youthful follies.

I don't think I loved the man more. We didn't have the words for it, so as he and I "gave the women a break" and cleaned up, I shook his hand firmly and looked into his eyes. He nodded, his thin lips a hard straight line, and squeezed my own hand as he clasped my shoulder.

With the blessing of my Father and the Holy Spirit, I descended into the basement to beg the demon for my beloved's life.

Before I made it down the stairs my mind was filled with images. Sophia wasting away to almost nothing, a skeleton, before the glabrezu interceded. Sophia waking up tomorrow, completely healed, the carved out part replaced with true flesh. Me at a funeral, weeping as I fall to kneel before the casket. Sophia giving birth. The demon doing nothing to halt the cancer as it returns in full force, simply denying my wife the nausea and the agony - giving her a peaceful few months before the end.

The demon had learned me, during all the years I'd come to think of it as a non-threatening joke. I was a market sample, a focus group of one. As I stepped off the last stair I was hit by the thick scents of apples and sex. Before the scent had always been faint, riding a bike through an orchard and waking up a few hours after making love. Now it was cloying, and hot. Before I got to the light I knew my glasses would be foggy. I wiped them off with my night-shirt and pulled the string as I had so many times before.

There was nothing there. No dead dog with crab claw cancer. At first I waited, knowing that it seemed to slide in and out of visual range if not existence itself. Then I glanced behind me, then I looked at every corner of the basement. I began to move old boxes around, and that's when the bulb shattered and the light died.

I heard the panting that was laughter, smelled wet fur and dog fart. The sound of scorpion pincer arms oddly attached, their ends' scraping bone under thick back muscles.

It was pulling at the tether of my need, it had come.

"Save...her."

It sounded as alien, as strangely cruel, as you might expect. Imagine a dog's throat imposed upon by linguistic surgeons, forced into human speech. The obvious pain it felt when speaking to me answered a lot of my questions. Why it had never tried to be something friendlier, gentler, when I was a kid. That it had come here, or been forced to remain here, against its will. That it was weak, not dying perhaps but not healing either.

"What do you want?"

Wheezed out laughter. For the first time it occurred to me the thing might be insane. A different, just as plausible answer, to the myriad questions I'd accumulated over the years. Still, I asked again, trying to keep the anger, terror, and volume out of my voice.

"What do you want?"

I felt a furred but otherwise human-seeming hand place itself on the back of my neck. I shivered, felt my bowels twist, and tasted blood before I realized I'd bitten the inside of my right cheek. Panting against my ear, a drop of otherworldly saliva on my collar bone. My thoughts went to the crucifix and the taste of communion wafer I'd taken that morning. Maybe I should have left Sophia's life in God's hands, but if there was even a chance...

"Give what you will."

That voice. Human. Sonorous. But still the demon playing its games.

I decided to start small, explaining the cut away as getting up early and trying to make breakfast for everyone. My mother launched into a barrage of nagging even as she took over for me, trying her best to make me regret my lack of culinary preparation and satisfaction with microwavable food. Sophia smiled faintly as my Dad rolled his eyes as he drank his morning coffee.

She did look better. This both heartened and worried me. Its tongue lapping at the split skin of my finger. How much could I give? Before I cut myself again, I tried to give it raw meat from the store but it wasn't interested and I wasn't surprised by this. It would only take my descent as currency. Before we left I cut myself two more times, between my toes and on the high inside of my thigh. I felt like a heroin addict trying to pick out parts of me even my wife wouldn't see. For a week afterward my wife stayed at two-thirds of the way toward good as new.

"See," I said with hope she would in fact see, "a trip to my parent's did you good." I almost sighed with relief when she agreed, smiling. For a month we went back and forth, me finding new ways to give the glabrezu blood. With a friend who definitely suspected he was helping me hide an affair, I was able to donate blood, in a sense, to my wife.

One night she was healthy enough to make love. This was several months later, and it seemed the cancer was in total remission. The morning after I was actually thankful to the Thing in the Basement, I felt like we had made peace with each other after all these years. I even laughed to myself, thinking of the times I might have taken it up on its offers.

The whole time I was getting my life back, Kathy would find ways to let me know that Sophia wouldn't want this. That the glabrezu was evil. That she'd find herself next to Bill, waking up in a cold sweat, afraid not for herself but for me. I did my best to ignore my sister, even shut her out of my life - after all, Sophia and I had begun to think about kids again. As time went on, however, Kathy began to treat me like a loved one who you've resigned to being an addict or just a total frack-up for life. This would a good preparation for her when I ended up becoming an alcoholic after my wife died.

Because of course that's what happened. Only a fool in love couldn't see it ending this way. So much hate still in me, the night the thing refuses the blood packets, that night when it just looks at me with amusement as I cut myself twice in the same spot, hoping that maybe if it the cut was deep enough that would satisfy it.

When Sophia asked about the wound on my thigh I remember turning violently away from her, yelling that I didn't want to talk about it. She looked so hurt I started crying, bawling in her arms in a way my Father would've hated me for (you're supposed to there for her) while she assumed I was a cutter. I made up some story about hiding this habit from my family for years, finally confessing the "truth" about scars I'd gotten from much more mundane experiences.

I don't think she believed me. But she had bigger things on her mind by then. As did I:

Internet searches, library visits, getting in touch with professors whose classes I'd taken to fulfill requirements I detested. Herbs, runes, veves, even rosary. My mother wondering why the basement smelled like sage. My father's brusque, "Jaimie, this New Age shlock isn't gonna help her so knock it off." Sophia become more distant, more a goal than a woman almost. I began to think that if she was healthy again she would leave me, but I didn't care if she did so long as she was alive. That was how much I loved her, or maybe how much I fell into my martyr complex.

Either way, she died.

At the funeral I was a wreck. I didn't even get any words out. I just stood up at the podium for a moment thinking about the smell of apples in an orchard. About my wedding night, and the honeymoon days after when the Thing in the Basement was the furthest thing from my mind. My father helped me back to my seat after a few moments of awkward silence. I stayed at Kathy's for a few days, thinking about the things I might have done - that I had refused to do. I thought about strays I might have killed, even taking a lobster and ripping its claws off while it was alive in the basement. I thought about the idea that a long affair or just the taste of a hooker on my skin might be enough to lessen Sophia's pain. I thought about all the evils I might have done - all the things I refused to do out of respect for who my wife was and hopefully is somewhere outside the Universe.

I thought about how I had never asked it if it wanted my soul.

I cried into my hands, night after night, and I thought about all the ways I had killed my wife.

=-=-=

I had some drunken nights where my parents were afraid of me, I know that and I'm not proud of it. I wish my father had stuck around long enough to watch me get clean, but my mother assured me he looks down on me from Heaven. Those were long hard years for me, and I know the demon enjoyed them the most. The two times I went into the basement, drunk out of my mind, I remember how it had never seemed so happy.

I was lucky enough to adopt a girl, raise her with Kathy and Bill and my mom - never remarried though. I couldn't shake the thought that somehow It had gotten to Sophia, had somehow twisted something in her cells. Kathy always pointed out that my wife's family had a history, but I couldn't help but wonder about it.

After my mother moved on to her Heaven, or whatever place stands opposite the glabrezu's home (I feel like there is something like that, a place of Light) I took care of the house. More charms, more runes, more prayers. More burning sage. Made friends with some counter culture type people, and found out some of my old friends had been there all along. Some offered to help me with exorcisms for the "ghost problem" I'd mention off and on, but I always insisted on doing those things myself.

It's faded now, the demon in the basement. I don't how much harm I did it, but I know its weak - Kathy comes over sometimes to drop off food that isn't microwave dinners and assures me that in refusing it I did the right thing, that she feels like its barely there. I'm still trying to decide what to do with the house - I can still see a poor kid like Simon Daniels moving in, and the thing getting into his head. I can still see it trying to get free of its in-between state.

It might outlast me. I might have to let some my friends in on this. Might have to talk to the dioceses. Tonight, though, tonight I'm going to burn some sage and see if the corpse of a dog that isn't really there has gotten skinnier, if the smell of it is fainter than ever. We're both old and we're both dying.

I just wanna see it go out first.

sciborg2
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Last seen: 11 hours 51 min ago
Joined: 2005-07-26 19:14
Name Day

Name Day

"He reminds me of a fine scarf caught on a high wind - just as pretty and likely just as constant."
"And what kind of man would you have me marry Gran'mama?"
"That you married a man would be enough child. They are rare enough in this Age."

Nerah smirked at that, even as she stole another glance at Milaan. I want to kiss him and when we open our eyes I want to those blue irises staring back at me in wonder. She knew she was a good kisser, though how she came to such talents she thought best to keep from her grandmother, whose judgmental scowl took on a near sinister presence in the dancing shadows. No point in shaming the dead. Or myself for that matter.

The thought of Joren's lifeless body still made her sick. She'd cared for him, he'd been a true friend - a constant one - before they'd begun their relationship, and though she had no more tears for the boy there were times the thought of Joren's easy smile would shorten the breath. The ending was made easier with the knowledge that their people could never be together, that even if a wedding was permitted they would never have been able to conceive a child.

Two years ago, that hadn't seemed to matter. Yet now she knew that the thought of a barren home would have driven them apart long before any such wedding day. She felt the ache of the wound receding, and chose to study how the light of the fire brought a shine to Milaan's eyes.

Two years without a kiss was much too long. And Milaan seems nice enough. Not to mention he lives and breathes. She glanced away before his eyes met hers, but she knew he'd see her blushing.

"Sometimes I think your father was the last of them."

That gave Nerah pause from her harmless games of flirting. Her grandmother was the only grandparent she had ever known, on her mother's side. While her mother spoke little of her late husband, a man who'd died after planting the seed that would see his daughter birthed three months after his death, Nerah's grandmother made up for her own daughter's reticence. Nerah's absent father was a hero, of that there was no doubt, but this was not what gave his daughter pause, not what unsheathe the iron he had passed down into her veins.

"Perhaps Gran'mama. Yet Joren did not fall so easily to them either when his time came."

She turned from the guilt that slapped itself across the old crone's face, walking away from the woman's sputtered attempt at apology. She looked past the fire she strode toward, past its flames to check on her mother's face. Thankfully the beautiful young widow hadn't seen the exchange. Nerah had no wish to upset her mother, whose quiet counsel would only grate on her. She hasn't been sharp with me for two years now. Perhaps this is why my eyes wander on Name Day of all days.

Feeling herself being studied, Nerah's mother looked in her direction and smiled. While Nera was a pale slender creature with bright gold eyes, Ela was a gently curved matron with soft orange irises. Her grandmother would often mark the contrast between "You take after me, child, an arrow set to burning and fired into the night. Me, and your father. Your mother takes after her own father, a hearth to warm ones hands against." There was no judgment in these words, no malice. Her mother was a healer with words, a natural born comforter to those who lost loved ones to our stillborn, still living siblings.

Why are you doing this? she'd asked, angry at Joren's stupidity, though all the while she had known the answer. Her dead father was a hard shadow to live under, especially for one not born of the Fire. Yet he was too young to even try - couldn't he see that? To young to face the Misbegotten.

Two years - training in sorcery, combat, strategy. If only the fool had waited two years....everything would have ended in the way it was meant. He could be just a past lover to me, rather than the martyr curled deep in my core.

She looks at her mothers weathered face, still beautiful underneath all the lines of grief. Nerah knew her father's name before she knew almost everything else, it was the first word she'd uttered. My cradle near her beside, my mother calling out to him in sleep. How many of the Misbegotten had he killed? How many had fallen to his blade? She thought of how that blade would mark her this very night, mark her deep, as she crossed out of the shadows to the heat of the bonfire. Grandmother kept to herself, and having the old Fire in her blood could sit farther than other elders more easily chilled by Night's teeth. Nerah didn't mind the cold, but felt her spirits rising even as the first draft of warmth touched her chocolate gold skin.

As she neared the fire she woke her blood and passed by it slowly, her hand stretched deep into the flames. She felt her own fire give answer to the heat, lines of lightning sketched under skin by veins and arteries. Her mother watched with a smile, white steam rising off her
daughters now hairless arm. Her father had faced the miscegenations that crawled from the world's volcanic heart and come back to her mother unscathed.

They'd have built a statue to him, grandmother had said, if we could but spare the metal for aught but weapons.

Was that why Mother still calls out his name? Because of the corpses left in the wake of a sword's swing? Nerah looks into her mothers soft eyes and doubts this thought - her grandmother was the one who measured a man by the death he brought. Her mother must have loved something else - something she'd grown to love in the stranger she'd found herself promised to.

"That Milaan is a bit of a rake." Her mother says after Nerah searches for those blue eyes again, a warning that her daughter finds rather strange since the boy had wind in his veins. There was no expectation of lasting relationships among the youth, and almost no one was foolish enough to seek out a mate of their own kind. Love was something for the young, to be followed by arranged marriages to other tribes. Fire was meant to be wed to Fire, but all marriages were political and meant to strengthen alliances. The People could ill afford true war, not when the Misbegotten had won so much of the Barrens.

Grandmother says as a child she remembers acres of wild forest whereas now there were only walled-in orchards. She think the People have weakened.

Yet, for all her nagging and complaints about succeeding generations lax morality, no one had been prouder to hear that Nerah would be among the first women to become a Hunter. It was, of course, another example of declining manhood to her grandmother - but the breaking of such a wall against gender was truly a source of pride for the old woman.

I suspect she believes that had she been a Hunter in youth she might have cleansed all the Barrens by her lonesome. It will be enough for me to live up to my Father's name.

To do what Joren could not.

They had found the boy, the pale blue corpses of ice horrors dead from the wounds he had inflicted. His stony skin was barely scratched, but the dark granite of his flesh had paled to gray. Joren had frozen to death in the middle of summer. Nerah took a step away from her mother, back toward the fire and its warmth.

It was time for the Naming anyway. Or at least the only part of it that would actually matter. Tomorrow, the next day, and a week afterward there would be chanting, recitations, fasting, and dancing. Yet that was all echo to the moment before her, the moment she came to hear the true name that was written into both passing flesh and soul's immortal fire.

Nerah's heart quickened as the moment approached with the nunnery in tow. Nerah's heart was comforted by the High Priestess, a crone so stooped and old that she made Nerah's grandmother - who walked beside her - seem a veritable maiden. The elder woman had seen many of her older friends through their Naming Days, as She was one of the few present for the naming of all four strains of blood. The women behind her were all blood of the fire, their varied hair and skin shades of brown and gold and red. High Priestess Shera seemed out of place at their head, a green skinned river born with blue-black hair and gray silver eyes. As she approached her mother took her daughter's hands in her own smooth palms, kissed her on the cheek, and hurried off to take her own place in the ceremony.

She goes to fetch my father's sword. After tonight, my palms with be like hers

"Together we forge a blade against the Misbegotten." Shera's voice seemed so young, a stream running over rocks. "We are the stone that holds the ore, the fire the heats the forge, the air of the bellows and the water that cools the sword. Together we will take back these lands, together we will send the walking still births into the darkness they were meant for. The children of the Four Daughters will all have their place in this great plan...but tonight is a night to honor the Fire that lights the darkness, the Fire that cleanses the rot, the Fire that warms the hearth."

Nerah listened absently as the woman continued praising the Fire, knowing that this would lead into the story of the Misbegotten. She'd attended enough Naming Days before her own to know what they entailed. Even across the four tributaries, the sermon was largely the same though Shera might praise the rain or the breath in the lungs. The Misbegotten had come after the People, monstrous creatures that should have died in the world's womb. This was the story the Scriptures told, and for the sake of ceremony neither her nor any of the younger ones would gainsay it. Even if one believed it, as Nerah had when she was younger, it was unusual that the fiends that defined their lives were offered but a few passages in the Book of Haun.

In her grandmother's time the Barrens had not been so barren, and the creatures had likely seemed more nuisance than threat. Of course that was a true Age ago, given the long life of her kind. Centuries had passed since then, and even the People had changed - that Nerah would take part in the Hunt showed that as much as anything. There was also the relationship between her and Joren of course. The one her grandmother didn't know about.

Nowadays, most subscribed to the idea that some kind of magical experiment had gone wrong, transforming cities of the People into monsters or somehow tainting the elements with malignant spirits. Her mother and grandmother had been loathe to discuss such things, though Nerah hadn't really understood why. Similarly, grandmother had known her and Joren were close but never knew or at least never acknowledged that they had been lovers. The custom of premarital relationships had always been around, of course, but her grandmother frowned upon them. Yet given the loveless arrangement of most marriages, and that the coupling between different blood strains produced no fruit, most thought it only logical to know something of love before one lost the freedom of youth.

Nerah looked at the others in a line to either side of her, and wondered if they had known love or only its myriad shadows of infatuation and lust. Perhaps she was both more and less lucky, and perhaps it was her fault for not realizing the limits of the heart.

The mistake I made with Joren was thinking we might leave these lands, adopt a human babe in place of our own. A human would be but a pet to us, old and dead before the flush of our wedding night cooled from our skin. And now I know I could never leave.

The People had made it their holy mission to destroy the Misbegotten, a religious edict that had gone from the hunting of pests to something more resembling a war for survival. Some did leave, of course, but even among those most returned. The war oaths sworn by the Four Daughters ran through the blood as much as their respective elements did. The Barrens were home and battlefield, defining the soul of the People. One might seek out adventure in other places, or perhaps trade, but to abandon the war...even the foreign ground beneath your feet would mark you as a coward, sounding out your heart with every step tread upon its soil.

What a difference two years makes to one's thinking. At least when you are young.

And the end of my youth even now approaches.

Nerah watched as her mother approached, the sword of her husband and Nerah's father white hot in her hands. It hissed as the gentle woman buried half its length in the earth before Nerah's feet. The others - all male - had their fathers or at least uncles placing their swords before them. None of the adults cried out - they had all passed from the pain of this act during their own now passed namings. All the People had to find their true names, as there was always work to be done in the war. What made Hunters special was not their names, but rather how they used such power. Only Hunters sought the walking stillborn in their craggy dens and windswept cliffs. Only Hunters took the fight to the elemental fiends. Only Hunters could end the war.

Nerah grabbed her fathers sword, knowing all eyes would wait for her to cry out. She looked at her mother's eyes, and found in them concern and unease. Looking into the crowd behind her, she saw Milaan appraising her, a youthful desire glinting in his beautiful eyes.

Just as useless

Then she came to the hard gaze of her grandmother, the orange red irises that spoke of a Huntress denied. Her grandmother would not let her falter, for Nerah carried the weight of both their hopes. The pain threatened to overrun all thought, a pulsing force as wild as any stallion. The Huntress-to-be squeezed on it from all sides, shaping it anew, forging the agony that ran from her hands up through her trembling arms. She rode her suffering, leaping out of her still standing flesh into the Other where she must find her Name.

=-=-=

She is a wisp of smoke, rising through the layers of the past that bore down on her. Legions of magma overrunning the cities of her grandmother's childhood. Ogres of ooze poisoning the streams and rivers, spectral vampires of cloudy soot choking the life out of those night travelers who crossed their path. Beautiful but just as evil temptresses of ice, gently passing their hands over fruit and field, leaving nothing but the frost ruined farmland for the People to starve upon.

A man, cutting his way through wolves made of cinder.

Father.

He is everything her grandmother had said he would be and more. His irises were blue, but shot through with flecks of wavering white. His eyes held the hottest flames. His hair was a deep red, his skin matched Nerah's own. He was well muscled, and with every swing the wolves bled out the smoke that was their innards. He was covered in the soot of their deaths but he looked the hero's part all the same. His glare and bared teethed made him seem as one with the wolves he fought, and in truth Nerah was frightened by the wildness in his eyes.

For a moment she was back, looking into her grandmother's eyes, her mind remembering the pain. No no no no - She lassoed agony once more, sat astride its back as it sought to throw her off.

Her father fights a band of ice trolls, his every pore exhaling the breath of the dragon. With bear hands his fists burrow into their flesh. She watches in fascinated horror as their maces and morning stars fall upon the echo of where he was a moment before, his own strikes finding far more purchase. It only takes a matter of minutes before the burned corpses of the trolls share the ground with her father's fallen companions.

The man's armor is torn, rents of metal he discards along with the wool underneath. He is a man of old Fire and winter holds little threat. He looks over the carnage, and steps around dead foes to close the eyes of fallen comrades. Sweat drips from his brow as he does this, masking his vanguard tears. The last Hunter's eyes closed to the world, the man looks at all of the dead around him as he seeks to gather back his breath.

He raises his head and screams, and Nerah starts. Then the madness leaves his eyes a moment before he falls to his knees and weeps.

This time Nerah returns to the present for a moment, and she is looking into the face of her mother. Before she clung to her grandmother's hardness, but the image of this weeping warrior draws her gaze to her mother's kinder expression. There is worry there still, but the smile underneath those eyes is a fierce one beaming with pride. Nerah matches her smile for smile, and then the pain comes down like a wave and she must swim the current back into memory.

The face that greets her on the other side of Time is familiar. Nerah gasps, but no one hears. Her mother's face, wrinkles only around the corners of the eyes here. Nerah is looking at her mother through her father's eyes - the woman who dresses his wounds, the woman whose shoulder he weeps upon - a tear stained memorial to fallen friends. He goes to his knees again, but this time he smiles and he puts his ear against the curvature of his wife's womb. In awe he draws his head back and places his hand reverently upon her swollen belly. He raises his eyes and looks into those of his wife.

And now she sees the secret of her father's madness - the fury he feels against those that would threaten his home, the miracle hiding on the other side of his door. She watches as he sits in the cold outside, a fire lit for light rather than warmth, cutting at wood rather than fiendish flesh. A cradle - my cradle - made from interlocking pieces of wood. Here it is an unfinished thing, something carved with a gentle hand. The promise of her banishes away her father's demons - she sees the peaceful contentment the carving brings.

In the present, she knows her left eye betrays her even as the right holds fast, feels the tear sliding away from the bridge of her nose to better trace the curve of her cheek. She is thinking of the impossible child, the child of fire and stone that she and Joren could never have had together.

Joren had been like her father - so much like him. How often had she woken him with half-remembered nightmares, taking comfort in the protective arm and gentle smile that never failed to appear. It never mattered how many hours of training he had suffered during the day or the early hour he was meant to report for his black smithing post.

My core is given to dead men.

And suddenly, the knowledge comes into her, entering her through the door in her heart. She feels her smooth palms, smells her melted flesh recrafted. She opens the interlocking of her fingers and releases the now cold metal of the sword.

Her lips part, and the air passing through them carries her True Name.

Nerah's mother shivers at the touch of her daughter's breath.

=-=-=

Milaan smiles at her, unsure of what her face holds, but the Huntress barely spares him a glance. When she stepped out of the line she notices she was the first to complete the ritual, the first to taste the smell of cooked flesh in the air. She touches fingertips to palms, looking at how the intersecting rivers of fortune have been cleared away. Fire makes its own path through Fate?

Her mother stays close to her, telling Nerah that she might collapse at any moment. One's Name is a hard thing to bear, at least one such as the one Nerah had found for herself. Her mother had looked into the Huntress's eyes and simply known. Hugging her daughter, she'd whispered words of mercy ringing with hard pride -"You would have made him proud tonight. And you will carry his name - you're strong enough for that. I promise."

Nerah walks as if in a daze until her grandmother approaches. The older woman is unsure of herself, as though reminded of all her own comforts and weaknesses. Her grandmother, for all her bluster, now looks at Nerah and sees the weight of the father's legacy on her shoulders. All the early mornings training when others were asleep, all the long nights quieting every thought that kept her from hearing the fire in her blood.

All to earn a Name worthy of a Huntress. A Name worthy of her bloodline. How many could bare it?

Nerah's grandmother touches her hand, and simply says, "He had the fire in him Nerah. He did." Nerah smiles at that, wanly but still glad for the making of peace between them.

I must remember my Father's softness.

Even she doesn't notice her left hand taking her lineless palm, clandestinely resting it on the hard flatness of her taut belly. A place where new life might be kindled one day.

sciborg2
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Last seen: 11 hours 51 min ago
Joined: 2005-07-26 19:14
Lichocracy

Lichocracy

The points of yellow light in her lover's eyes died out, and as Keva watched she couldn't help but think of fading stars in the distant black of night. She cradled his charred skeletal form and raised her rictus grin to the sky, expelling a wordless, silent wail of grief. Even as she gently laid his lifeless form onto the gray bricks of the castle floor, she felt the life and unlife of their shared experiences welling up and flooding out onto her consciousness. Her living memories - the warmth of his body, the feeling of him insider her, the softness of his lips upon her neck - these seemed like mere prologue to the embrace of bones that they had counted as intimacy for the last seven centuries.

Keva reflected on this as she turned her attention back to the battle, the blue pin pricks in her own now blazing eyes widening to circumscribe the rage she felt toward their enemy. She looked up from her place in the now topless tower to see her brothers and sisters attempting to bring down the remaining great wyrms. Archmages clad in silks woven in gardens deep beneath the earth, ioun stones whirling about their heads as their enchanted wands, staves, and jewelry lent power to their spell craft.

She looked down at her lost lover, phantom lips in a hard line as she slipped off the platinum rings off his fingers. As she slipped them onto her own skinless digits, she noted with forced detachment that his silver chain had melted into the cloth of his blue robe. Even its gold embroidered runes were too burnt to hold any lingering enchantment.

A shadow descended as wind swept over her.

In a single motion she turned and rays of green tore through the young black who had thought to take her by surprise. The disintegration punched holes through its flesh, killing it even as it crashed onto and then through the floor behind her. Acid splattered onto the iridescent sphere of arcana that kept her at its center. With the memory of what a sigh felt like in the lungs, Keva returned to her self appointed place in the sky. Clouds of ash and whirling thunderheads awaited her, and within their depths she could hear the pestilence of dragons roaring.

Glancing below, she saw the fortress had been severely damaged by the falling of dead and wounded dragons. She felt little nostalgia for the place, given that she and her fellow liches had raised it from the plateau's surface only a year before. Once the protective illusions and counter divinations around it had unraveled, both the chromatic and metallic tyrants had come with the better part of their broods, once they had recognized what the long hidden archmagi were planning. Given that their empires were fraught with incited rebellions, that plagues unable to gestate in the flesh of mammals ravages the continents, and that the liches own armies had risen from the Underdark, the dragons knew that their only hope was to destroy all the Order of Izari before it could break the lines of ley upon which the Draconus Arcana hung.

Having drawn the ancient wrym-lords from their ziggaurats, the Order itself knew that they must end the long dominion of the great dragons with this battle. Even as she aided two of her sisters fighting a great silver invoker, she could feel the footsteps of the legions scouring the cavernous mazes of the subterranean world. They'd found her lover's phylactery, and though it was miles away it was only a matter of time before they found hers. Many liches destroyed here would not return. Perhaps none of them would, as the dragons had sent whatever forces they could into the Underdark.

Whole swaths of forest surrounding the plateau were aflame, and with a gesture Keva uprooted these burning missiles and flung them into the silver's flank. The great wyrm screeched, turning toward her and spewing out a wave of frost even as it cracked the globe of prismatic energy around her. The dragon's breath carried its true attack, and Keva felt the flakes of ice coating the husk of her animated corpse dragging her in a direction sideways to the world's reality. She could feel the paramental torturers grasping through space. Anchoring herself to the stone-shaped fortress below, her magic pulled her body out of the banishment even as the silver's tail slammed into her bony face.

She spun out, feeling the cracks attempt to seal themselves even as the lights of her eyes flickered. Younger dragons snapped at her form as she flailed through the air, but her contingencies flashed out and tidal waves of sound blasted them away. She touched one of her former lover's rings and in an explosion of sulfurous vapor twin balors appeared at her side. Righting her floating form and whipping at any who came near, they gave Keva a chance to teleport away from them even as a golden ancient plunged through the space she had a moment before occupied. From a distant she saw the clumps of tanar'ri flesh dissolving back into the Abyss as the pieces tumbled toward a ground they would never reach.

Even an archlich on its own would be short work for any of the truly immortal dragons that ruled over the world.

It had taken generations fleeing first into the elven forests and dwarven mountains, and then finally into the caverns winding around the core of the world, to even begin to understand seed craft. So many had been hunted down, even in the dark, and the threat of losing even a shred of knowledge or power had imposed lichdom on all of them - beginning with Queen Magus Izari. Shattering the ribcage of an elder white with a thunderous blast of explosive fire, Keva glanced toward the breastless skeleton robed in silks once robin egg blue - the lich queen was soaked in the dark wine colors of the reptilian dead. Blades of golden sunlight whirled around her august personage, the thin jade crown upon her head blazing a sickly green tinged white. Keva flew toward the great queen, desperate to reach her as she saw the great blue swooping toward Izari with three elders in tow.

She could not let Izari fall, not the woman who had gifted her and her lover the passing centuries. Flesh sublimated to smoke, skin calcified over bones, and still to have the simple pleasure of holding his hand through the planning and preparation, to share with him the final pleasure of damaging enough of the ley lines to give the mammalian rebels a chance...

Teleporting the intervening distance, Keva was at the queen's side even as the gargantuan blue dragon flew straight through Izari's sun sword barrier, the energy weapons shattering upon its skin. A column of jagged lightning turned the world white, though thanks to numerous enchantments both women retained their picture of the world in their respective minds' eyes. Its massive claws battered their protective spheres, its vermin children flailing at the globes from all sides. Keva conjured a living storm that wrenched the dragons off the barriers with its hurricane of tendrils even as the strangled dragons wasted lightning upon its thunderhead flesh. Izari sent a river of winding primastic rays into the great wyrm's maw, but still its serrated fangs broke through her defenses. Waves of molten silver were conjured out from the Queen Magus's fingers, flowing into the dragon's snout. Keva invoked the Starving Void, the tributary that held her unlife becoming a torrent. With the light of her eyes turned to miniature azure suns, she pulled at the great dragon's mountainous jaws with strength stolen from its own life force. Izari tore at the creature's defenses even as flocks of cornugons appeared to encircle them. Arcs of electricity scurried up and down the swords of its teeth, the amber pools of its eyes slitted through with gloating green-black pupils. Keva feels all the enchanted masterworks upon her body melting under its malevolent gaze.

Keva's living storm wrapped them in a cyclone, an umbical cord between the storm clouds the liches had called to aid them. Great shards of hail whipped around them, punching holes in wings of the panicked lesser dragons. Arcs of lightning blasted those foolish enough to attempt interference, and those who continued unheeded found the summoned baatezu clawing at their scaly hides. Even as the ancient blue's arcana washes her in positive energy, even as it saws at her link to the Negative Material Plane, Keva forces a space between its teeth - enough for Izari to fly free. With a roar the dragon whips its head and cleaves Keva's body in two. She sends a screeching vibration from the bones of her hand through one its incisors, and blood spills out of the ensuing crack. The blue bites her again, shattering bone and contingencies alike, and this time it is her skull that has turned to shards of pottery, each of them nothing without the others, lost as they find themselves tumbling toward the trees below.

=-=-=

Keva is nothing but thoughts in a rib cage when the spectre of her mind returns to self-awareness. She is in the ruins of the fortress, and sitting upon a humble chair of woven wooden is her immortal queen. Izari's eyes shine with the same soft lavender they did in life, save now they are but distant candle flames in the far-reaching darkness of her sockets. The queen had no visible damage to her frame - she looked as umarred and polished as the relics worshipped in the Underdark cathedrals. Yet she had no clothing covering her withered corpse, as though the dead skin could appreciate the warmth of the breeze. Though it would be some time before Keva could once more experience the faint sense of smell left to liches, she knew the wind must carry the smell of rot and ash.

She sense the corpses of the great wyrms all around them, but she cannot extend herself from ribs barely bound to a cracked sternum to count.

Only one question matters.

Victory?

Izari chuckles, her fossilized teeth making a staccato clacking noise.

Here? Yes. But it will take time for us to consolidate our hold.

Keva paused, unsure what to say. She had thought, for her long but admittedly sheltered underground life, that the end of the draconic empire was their ultimate quest. Her lover was gone, her vengeance was done. What was their to grasp, to hold, to consolidate?

Izari sensed the tension between them. The First Lich had long ago learned how to read her companions unliving souls.

We won the world from the dragons. We wedded Death himself to do it.

Keva, all the world is our dowry.

=-=-=

=-=-=

The incense smells of orange peels and cinnamon, carried into the humid hair by the occasional zephyr. A maidservant leans in to wipe the sweat from Keva's brow, and she remembers with a faint smile how she used to start at the closeness, the immediacy of her entourage. The early years had been hard, but Izari was not found wanting in her secret preparations. Or perhaps not so secret. My work had taken me far from her over the last millennium of our struggle. Thankfully there was a place for me in her plans, that she was worthy of her empress's crown.

"Thanks be to Izari, Mother of the World. By her hand do you rise to grace." The priest is an old man, hunched over the kneeling woman to be knighted, the sound of his voice pushed through phantom gravel in his throat. Keva looks down from her throne of seeming mahogany, an uncomfortable but necessary edifice. A twisting horror smoothed into a nightmarish yet beautiful collection of artistic swirls, all the transmuted tissue and muscle of the great wyrm's hardened heart now barely recognizable. Yet all the people know - the reminder of what was paid by their unliving rulers.

As she stands she feels a relief - a vestigial bump of the aorta had been pressing into her back - an uncomfortable pressure between her sweating shoulders. Though her discomfort was expressed with little less than a slight stretch, a muscular manservant was immediately there to massage the soreness away. He followed her as she stepped down barefoot onto the kiln fired brick the steps, the entire palatial shrine a living tome where pictorial facets of the Great Struggle where carved into every edifice, reinforced with statuary and hanging scrolls of painted vellum. A glace upward would show the mural held by cathedral arches, a vibrant depiction of that the final battle.

Thankfully they did not depict me cleaved in two, falling away from the queen. Keva feels a smirk threatening the mask of solemnity she wears, but she has remastered the art of the face. The woman before her is leanly muscled, everything from her eyes to the color of her hair bears an the aspect of the lion. Keva has seen the woman fight, and might even take her on as a sparring partner if not a consort. Yet there is an intensity, and a hurt that sits on the rim of those golden irises, that wars such thoughts away. They always expect too much of me, and I always come to think of them as children rather than lovers.

I cannot offer anything to their needs.

Keva places a manicured hand, pale with painted silver nails, upon the chestnut skinned woman's spilling curls. The woman looks upward, meeting Keva's sea green gaze. A single gasp escaped the almost-knight's lips, a single tear falls from her cheek. Then the lioness looks down once more, away from Eternity, at Keva's silver painted toes. Bells chime out as the priest of Izari begins to speak in a long chanting ramble, his trailing echo caught up by acolytes in the next refrain. They are all clad in red damask for the occasion, a contrast to Keva's own argent rune-silk.

Everything from the chanting to the incense to the feel of the woman's ringlet curls around her fingers falls away. There is only Keva's own bones and the soul of the woman kneeling. Only a lich and its waters. The woman does not gasp this time, accepting the inverse baptism as the undead demi-goddess standing above her takes Her tithe.

In a moment it is done, the unconscious lioness borne away on a litter, carried by acolytes to where the knighted woman will awaken. When she next opens her eyes the jade face of Izari's carved beauty will be staring down at her from the ceiling.

=-=-=

Though she is too high for the salt spray to find her, Keva tastes it in the air rushing over her. Her hair is a comet trailing behind her, the silks of her dress whirling around her. Goosebumps freckle her shivering flesh, but soon she knows the cold will be meaningless. She savors everything - the bright sun that hurts her eyes, the swallowing of saliva, the mere act of breathing.

She stands upon the palanquin fastened to the insides of the massive ribs scything down into an open air cavern, laughing as the oceans rush below her. A flash of island chains, the criss cross of towns and rice paddies. The world seems so small, as high as she is and as fast as she travels, carried across the world by the bones of dead dragons.

=-=-=

The dracolich lands gently upon the plateau, the lush forests below the raised stone filled with the chatter of animal life. She exits the passenger chamber its ribcage, ignoring the hateful glare behind her back. More than the monuments carved from dragon bones, more than the heart thrones the Magi sat upon as they crisscrossed the world as the Hands of Izari, even more than the lich lords themselves, it was the dracoliches that demonstrated the power of Izari and ensured the people remembered who had saved the world.

As she steps into the walls of the labyrinthine enclosure, the walls sparkling in the dark with glinting promises of ore and gemstone, she remembers how they had called this place out from the rock beneath her feet, how the structure had flowed upward and taken form. They had kept their knowledge of seed craft hidden for so long, buried within themselves as they too were hidden beneath miles of earthen crust. To release all that power, into the fortress and the unraveling of the ley knot, and then the explosive final battle. Even a century later, the dawn of Izari's Golden Age just cresting over the horizon, she still felt eclipsed by the wonder of it all.

The world. We had won the world. From this place, we untied the lines of ley. From the sky overhead, we threw down dragons.

From the parapets above she had seen the approaching dragons. The metallic were a shining line against the massing thunderheads, the chromatic organized into fives legions, one each for the head of the monstrous hydra that presumably spawned them in the distant ages of Soft Time. She still remembered the terror, her and her lover clasping hangs, skeletal digits interlocked for the receipt and offering of strength. Her phantom heart beat a silent cadence against her ribcage. They had faced dragons before, even buried a great red wyrm in the Underdark, but...this was the Apocalypse, the closing of an Age.

Keva nods, a gentle acknowledgment of toward the knights that man the walls and the clerics that bow before her. Izari had used the death of the dragons to raise the surviving liches to a collective divinity, and the few mortals who had not been obliterated by the dragons become their first Chosen heralds. They were legends in their own rights, having witnessed the end of the dragons - though for Keva they served more as a reminder. She recalled the scattered limbs of those who had manned the legion of ballistae, the patches of ash and melted flesh, the hundred splotches of blood that marked where there once stood knights and magi.

They had been fodder for the cause and fodder for Izari's arguments.

In this place my lover died his Second Death.

There had hardly been time to grieve. Izari had spoken of the long struggle, the rebellions fomented over centuries, the suffering they had witnessed under the draconic empires. She had reminded them of the petty squabbles mortals had engaged in, pathetic plays at power that had led to internal strife within the battle along with bitter betrayals. She had asked them who would be better suited to ruling than those who knew the price of malignant politics? Who better than the immortals who had coordinated the defeat of the dragons across the world, those would remember these early days of triumph in the centuries to come, when humans, dwarves, and elves looked upon each other as brothers and sisters?

Had they won the world simply to see the children squabble over the shards of shattered empires? Was it not time for true shepherds to take the place of the dragon slavers?

It took much debate, but in our hearts we knew what we had earned. We would not let the world be carved up as territory for the squabbling mortals seeking new kingdoms - to profit from our eons long suffering. It was avarice more than compassion that moved us. Had we not sacrificed the most - peaceful deaths and age spanning loves?

Bound to her own cracked ribcage, less than a ghost, a century ago Keva watched as the Queen crowned herself Empress of the World. Even as the black marble doors before her were wenched apart, Keva looked toward the spiraling central tower, where Izari's aura shone out through the windows as though their walls contained a flickering jade bonfire. Izari never seemed to tire of playing the role of goddess.

Unclasping the lock that allowed her neck to support her dress, she let the silver silk fall and heard the gasps of wonder that came from the viewing of her naked form in the green tinged light. Her nakedness was a vision akin to a bolt of lightning, for in the next moment Keva began her descent and was lost to her Queen's illumination. She ignored the wet foot prints she left, knowing the servants of the fortress would wash away the echoes of her descent before she next rose. The next few steps set the cartilage of her knees to jiggling, before the caps finally fall into gout like lumps under the skin of her feet. Another two steps and they burst underfoot, splitting skin and spilling blood and melted tissue across the jet marble tiles.

Her eyes run out like tears, every orifice of her face dribbling out the quickening grey sludge sloshing in her skull. She peels her hands off like the gloves they are and drops them behind her but pays no attention to their simultaneous splashes. Her scalp sloughs off as she leans her head back, reveling in the lightness offered by the plummet of her breasts. The sound of them, akin to the splatter of overripe mangos upon the tiles above, is muffled by the tumbling of her falling earlobes. They fall beside her melting nose.

Organs tumble out as walls of flesh collapse outward, her stomach acid splashing across her thighs a moment before they too fall away. By the time she reaches the sarcophagi, all that remains are her slick sun bleached bones. With all the strength of an ogre in her iron hard frame, she lifts the lid and gently places it upon the floor, admiring the paint of crushed gemstone that depicts the almost childlike forms of tangled lovers' limbs, one made from brushstrokes of powdered topaz and yellow quartz; the other of sapphires and lapus lazuli.

Keva climbs into the chtonic bed frame, taking up her post with a wordless sigh. They could almost be two skeletons arranged in the manner the painting depicts, save that one of their skulls holds soft cerulean fires in the dark recesses of her sockets, distant candles lit in loving memory of the fallen.

sciborg2
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Knots

Knots

The unicorn will not yield - she sees that now. She'd hope to keep it alive, to keep one good thing in this world so bereft of them. When it comes again she dodges, but this time her knife draws a thick line of red across its flank as it gallops passed her.

Why are you making me take you, when I've already taken so much?

Where the unicorn's blood falls on the flakes of snow, she feels as if the red is staining not just every life held in the circle of the world, but every possible life that might come the soil of its history as well. In the creature's eyes she sees anger, a deep hatred for her and her kind. It wants to gore her deep.

But the sunlight upon the curl of its spiral horn is the very scripture of golden innocence.

It comes in again, fast, but this time it rears up and presents her with flailing hooves. She jumps back as a blow on her vambrace almost makes her drop her dagger. Her sword has remained unsheathe, though now that seems like the hopeful gesture of a fool. She cannot speak to the equine miracle, both of them have been carried on the tide of their histories.

When I came back from the war, I thought my sword work was done.

Druids and knights together, faithful of both wood and iron standing against the Flame. Battlefields had bred whole clouds of flies, and over the years the close company of maggots became preferable to the fields of silent ash holding remnants of bones. She had fired arrows while raised up by Entish arms, had dressed the wounds of the wild-eyed, freckled elves. Simurghs had rained down around her in what she'd thought was her final battle, just before the Burning Heart had been shattered by the Heirophants.

The unicorn falls back, her cut almost taking the joint of a foreleg. One of her slashes has even nicked its horn. Guilt wracks her even as her instincts sigh with relief. I'm sorry she thinks even as she draws her blade.

They had saved the world from the Prince of Flame, but the fire lords has not been fools. They'd burned through enough fields to span the width of nations, leaving the threat of famine to hang over victors who in truth were merely survivors. She found the roads home choked with refugees, forcing her to put her sword through human vultures preying on the weak.

And now this.

The unicorn circles her warily, blood running down its leg and flank. It won't try to heal those wounds with its horn, it won't waste the magic on anything but a killing wound. It's counting on me not being able to land two such mortal strikes.

It charges in, hooves and horns flashing streaks of silver and gold. Its coat is almost blinding as it reflects sun from sky and snow. She cuts its chest, its snout, she almost takes its left eye with her sword. A wild swipe cuts across its forehead before they part. Every wound given by her sword is cursed, leaking more blood than their shallow depths should allow. Stepping away from each other, she sees its face is painted red.

The runes along the length of her blade glow sapphire blue, the color of her god and His people. By His Word she promised to defend the babes and farmhands, in His name she swore to keep safe all who bended knee and kissed the Book. We need the soil of the Forest - I cannot let them starve.

It comes in again, fast, but this time it rears up and presents her with flailing hooves. She jumps back as a blow on her vambrace almost makes her drop her dagger. Her sword has remained unsheathe, though now that seems like the hopeful gesture of a fool. She cannot speak to the equine miracle, both of them have been carried on the tide of their histories.

When I came back from the war, I thought my sword work was done.

Druids and knights together, faithful of both wood and iron standing against the Flame. Battlefields had bred whole clouds of flies, and over the years the close company of maggots became preferable to the fields of silent ash holding remnants of bones. She had fired arrows while raised up by Entish arms, had dressed the wounds of the wild-eyed, freckled elves. Simurghs had rained down around her in what she'd thought was her final battle, just before the Burning Heart had been shattered by the Heirophants.

The unicorn falls back, her cut almost taking the joint of a foreleg. One of her slashes has even nicked its horn. Guilt wracks her even as her instincts sigh with relief. I'm sorry she thinks even as she draws her blade.

They had saved the world from the Prince of Flame, but the fire lords has not been fools. They'd burned through enough fields to span the width of nations, leaving the threat of famine to hang over victors who in truth were merely survivors. She found the roads home choked with refugees, forcing her to put her sword through human vultures preying on the weak.

And now this.

The unicorn circles her warily, blood running down its leg and flank. It won't try to heal those wounds with its horn, it won't the magic on anything but a killing wound. It's counting on me not being to land two such mortal strikes.

It charges in, hooves and horns flashing streaks of silver and gold. Its coat is almost blinding as it reflects sun from sky and snow. She cuts its chest, its snout, she almost takes its left eye with her sword. A wild swipe cuts across its forehead before they part. Every wound given by her sword is cursed, leaking more blood than their shallow depths should allow. Stepping away from each other, she sees its face is painted red.

The runes along the length of her blade glow sapphire blue, the color of her god and His people. By His Word she promised to defend the babes and farmhands, in His name she swore to keep safe all who bended knee and kissed the Book. We need the soil of the Forest - I cannot let them starve.

The unicorn looks back toward the forest, where it knows the brownies and dryads are watching. It is blinking blood from its eyes, neighing its displeasure. Then it turns back to her and those behind her, once more meeting the leering eyes of starving foreigners. The Book says the faithful are inheritors of the world. They belong here as much as me, and more than Them.

Its next charge sends her flying, rolling away. She is barely on her feet before its horn punches into the plate upon her chest. Enchantments threaten to unravel, and pain lances through her sternum. It almost took me through the heart. Her knife is gone, and so she uses both hands to flail away with her sword.

I wish you'd killed me just now. I was trying then, I would have gone to Heaven even though I'd lost.

Does she hear the voice of the fey on the winter wind? Is that cheering or is it a song of sorrow? If only the Forest had yielded, if only if It had given us more than what was promised in the world's greener days.

Both of them are staggering. She watches as the unicorn twists its neck, but the wound under its legs remains out of reach. Unable to close the weeping gash, finally the stubborn creature realizes it will die...but in its wisdom it always knew there was no room for compromise. Not with men, who held no covenants as sacred.

Why had she even asked, even with the faithful looking on? What had she hoped for? Recognition? In all these long years, with the whole world waiting for the descent of extinguishing Flame, did she think a single unicorn would remember the girl who looked out her window in wonder? That it might care that its image was what she recalled while stepping over the the baked bones of children?

Because of you I found my God. Because of you I believed in the Light.

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Under the Cover of Light

Under the Cover of Light

Upon the Plane of Radiance, they sailed an ocean of blinding scarlet under a sky of blazing gold. The galleon is a green silver thing, its glow that of moss awash with the argent rays of moonlight.

The vessels around it are flickering deviations of an orange's orange, bright robust cheddars taken from cupboards by torchlight. To look upon them is to think of thieves, and hungry children, and guests with ill tidings arriving at midnight that you suddenly need to feed even as you fret over what they will have to tell you. Addict-plunderers man these smaller craft, pirates hunting for colors to add to the Infinite Rainbow. Each ruffian is clad in his own motley, picking and choosing hues which might slake their need for a day or an hour. One wears only grays of premature kittens and hurts-to-look-upon-whites of summer lightning. Another is armored head to toe in a chaste coating of cornflower blue, though from his visor leaks the mischievous amber of his fading youth. Others are not so discriminating, daring to match the brown of an overripe's kiwi's skin with the beige of sandstone barely moistened by the tide, clashing the purple-yellow of a lemon dropped in a wineglass with the morose tones that mark blood dried out over heaps of volcanic ash.

Scaling ropes of braided nebulas, the chromsumers crawled over and into the galleon like starving rats unexpectedly blessed by a carelessly unlocked larder. The Jet Couriers, so named by the onyx skin and raiment they maintain before, after, and between voyages, stand dumbfounded by their ill luck. Their company, which takes on jet-ness so that every employer might easily detect the presence of even pilfered scraps, had taken this very route due to the pirate's fears of the Teal Queen's navy. Sadly, her royal highness had seen fit to ally the better part of her warships to the defense of a lascivious paramour, a lowborn Topazite whose only claim of wealth were his mines of splintered-sunlight-through-indigo-thunderheads.

And so the pilferers pilfered, heedless of the likely swiftly plummeting reputation of the licorice shaded sailors. But then it was over in a matter of minutes, the only things taken a swath of frost-kissed blackberry shades and a sparkle of cerulean sun on stark-gray-but-silica-rich-silt.

The Jet Couriers were, as you can imagine, surprised that their supposedly precious cargo had so little to add to the Infinite Rainbow. Of course they were relieved, it would not be so difficult for their guild branch to pay over the loss - and their greatest fear, that of the company heads dissolving their membership's particular holdings, would now never be realized. Yet the sailors, who had traveled for so long in one color that they confused others for refracted versions of themselves at times, began to dream of the pirate's prismatic totem, began to wonder about colors they had never laid eyes on. In waking they tried to describe what they had seen to their fellows, but in truth you can't explain colors to a blind or sighted man. You can only point to things like the yellowed-alabaster-of-a sun-bleached-bone-that-once-belonged-to-a-dog-and-makes-you-feel-inexplicably-lonely and say, "that is the color I saw in my visions". But what if there were no such bones, an absence compounded by the utter lack of salt-falling-from-unscrewed-shaker-into-my-thick-chicken-mango-gravy and a dearth of guts-of-a-rain-forest-caterpillar-falling-from-the-beak-of-a-jungle-parrot-just-when-morning-shifts-to-midday?

What if no one knew what you were talking about when you said these things, and in turn their own descriptions called to mind what you knew to be meager approximations? And if you couldn't grip your mind around their dream colors, nor they yours...then perhaps there was something lacking in your heart, your mind, your soul? Perhaps even when all was said and done, surrounded by grandchildren, you would think back to the fleeing pirates and the variegated shades they must have beheld over the years, hues that might have steered you away from the lesser life that awaited you on whatever scheduled shore the goods were bound for...

Upon the Plane of Radiance, they sailed an ocean of blinding scarlet under a sky of blazing gold. The galleon is a green silver thing, its glow that of moss awash with the argent rays of moonlight. It is a great dire-wolf of a vessel, its ghostly lichen shaded sails unfurled and billowing, following pirates in cheddar-fire ships who cheer on their approach, all of them companions on a pilgrimage to the Infinite Rainbow.

sciborg2
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Dead Words

Dead Words

"I would cross an ocean and jump a canyon for the promise of my lips against your wrists..."

The herd of Astral stallions rode along the back of a living song, a fragment from some bard's memory core given a life of its own. It shown with a golden translucence against the metallic-gray of the sky that dulled around the god's corpse, as though the argent void had become afflicted by a splotch of jaundice.

Upon the cerulean backs of the equine steeds rode the inverted-priesthood of the dead god, violet-cloaked leaders of the theocratic Uin nomads who wandered the seven worlds that were the seven fruits of a world-tree rooted in a crystal sphere. Seven worlds warmed by the passage of four suns whose charioteers wove twisting paths through the great branches and their myriad dangers. Seven worlds whose own gods looked upon the Uin as anathema, whose Chosen would band together to hunt them and whose peoples would mark them as accursed even as they sought out the inverted-priesthood's blasphemous miracles. It seemed preposterous, that the worship of a god's death could be so fruitful...

The Uin are a people who once had a god, a maker who was Father and Mother both. Their god was neither jealous nor cruel, but instead righteous and generous. There was deep love on both sides, and the children of the dead god loved their Maker in truth. What, then, ended this Eden of the heart? What crime, what infidelity, did the god commit that was so heinous that he should be given no reprieve by his worshipers, that his Astral corpse should be trod upon even at this very moment by their summoned steeds?

As the crime of deicide was followed by Cataclysm, the seven worlds know little save that the Uin vanished for nine hundred and fifty seven years before any were seen again. When they returned, they had no use for their broken castles near the seashores, had little care for fulgurite badlands made from the lightning that had hammered down their old homes in execution of divine sentence.

What we know is this: Women hover phantom like above these shattered dwellings, the rain that falls here bears the taste of rosewood, and the sea unleashes swarms of blue shelled crabs to chase out the vermin that dare make their homes in the Uinian ruins. If one looks closely, and can stand the banshee screaming, they come to see that all the women bare but one face though they are parted by the Wild Space between the seven worlds.

The face of that woman bears a resemblance to that of the dead god, upon whose flesh the inverted-priests see strolling specters of themselves that break their hearts, for those reflections are lost in the ecstasy of a living god.

Is that woman a lost daughter, or perhaps a divine mother? A sister, a divine twin pining for the death of her brother? None on the seven worlds can say, and of their faith the Uin tell us little, only that they were betrayed by their god and now worship the moment of his death - making his last breath the air of their lungs, his blood the waters of their bodies. Many suggest the Uin worship some Ideal and thus draw upon the archetypal undercurrents of reality in which the gods' own strength is rooted.

Yet what Ideal do they worship? Justice or Vengeance? Simple Murder, or the knowledge that even the mightiest can know Death? Or perhaps, given their continued trade with the Athar, perhaps they too worship the supposed "Greater Unknown" the Godless prattle on about...

Yet that Ideal is tied to their former god, and to continue their priesthood they must return to his embrace. To renew their order they come here, to baptize the new initiates. They stand upon the sternum of the god's corpse and cry out litanies, their steeds vanishing into the astral skies to escape the crushing grief of the inverted-priests who renew their power through the unending echo of a heart's breaking.

For ten days without sleep they will mark time in this timeless place with their chant, their oratory a recitation of once joyful prayers now spoken in tones reserved for the grimmest of embittered eulogies.

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Bonfire on the Shore

Bonfire on the Shore

They came together for the funeral. From across the earthbergs they came to this great comet of a continent, a shard of blazing land large enough to hold an ocean inside its rough approximation of a beggar's cupped hands. Some forgotten god had cast this fragment of Ysgard into a perpetual starlit night, the sky honoring the dead with its myriad shades of indigo embroidered with twinkling constellations depicting the great lovers and fighters of the land.

The earthbergs above passed through the sidereal illuminations like charitable shooting stars, moving lazily enough so that all the dreamers underneath their paths might see them and make their wishes.

The ocean bore the scent and taste of white wine, though how long the Vintner's Season would last could never be predicted. Tonight, at least, the men and women toasted the dead dogs piled upon the pyre with sea water scooped into kiln forged cups and passed around wine skins.

Some came from the halls of Alfheim, some from the halls of Asgard and some had simply diverged from their fellow bauriar wanderers to do these canines homage. Not every dog could shepherd the great rams and live, many were crushed underfoot or broken by the curling horns. These great hounds they honored made the golden fleece trade possible.

The celebration of the brave fallen quieted as an avariel recounted the sight of the dogs from sky, driving the herds across the grasslands and undulating hills cresting into mountains, pushing the rams every year into a migration whose destination led to the waiting nets of the fleece shearers. For every ram caught and tamed, at least ten shearers left each year with naught but broken bones. Yet only from the sky could one see the trail of fallen dogs left behind, the fallen the avariel gather for the pyre pushing the darkness with a flickering orange brighter than daylight near its center.

One of those shearers now speaks, talking of the dogs that jump to put their weight upon the nets, tiring the golden fleeced rams into surrender. How they stubbornly grasp the ropes in their jaws even as the rams drag them across the ground. How even the older bruised and batter sheep dogs fight with a hunger for glory and pride equal to that of warriors on the battlefield.

A wonder then, a tailor points out, that save to sustain themselves in the migration, none of the dogs ever kills a sheep, never seeks to maim one or slow it down with a bite to the ankles. When did sheep and dogs come together, a lillendi asks, and draw up the rules of their annual game? Why only once a year do the sheep run from the dogs, while at all other times one can find the two races living in harmony of the far side of the traveled mountains, beyond the hills and grasslands of the chase?

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The Nimue Gambit

The Nimue Gambit

She was waiting for him in the hollow of the mountainous tree trunk he scaled, the chittering of ratatosks coming from where the branches disappeared into the sky. She helped him up, her expression sad and almost unreadable. There is no joy for her now that our passion is spent - only duty drives her on.

"I failed."
"I know...I saw the fires."

The fiend-blooded thing that men across worlds called Merlin sighed as he took in the soothing appearance of her form. Nimue, the Angel of Choices, her modesty covered in the bark of her dryad flesh. The green of her irises was that of a maple leaf in spring time, flecked with the gold-yellow of their water bearing veins. She had no pupils. Her face seemed to have risen from the twisting trunk of a weird-wood, though it did not lose any of its maternal beauty because of this.

Of course the Angel of Choices did not always appear as such. Sometimes she was a young noviere girl that rested in the depths of a lake at the top of a mountain, the mother-waters of crisscrossing streams and tributaries. Other times she was a dark skinned warrior woman with braided hair and cow's horns, sleeping in the center of a briar-bush maze. She was never the same in any of the worlds she took Merlin to, but then again neither was he.

"I had hoped we'd arrived early enough to tie Arthur's heartstrings to another woman. And as the King's champion, I had hoped that with Lancelot disgraced by my victory and disabled by my shattering of his shoulder..."

"She loved him for who he was inside - she did not care that he had been crippled." Nimue finished for him. The Angel seemed disturbed by the events herself, disturbed and disappointed. Guinevere's heart was true, but that did not make the results of her adultery any less disastrous.

Merlin looked out into the distance, seeing the Shining City on the Hill in flames. Smoke uncoiled into the sky, and the smell of cooked meat was carried on the wind. Something in him recoiled, the rest of him salivated.

"Nimue - take us away from here." Hearing her whispered sigh he looks back, seeing the bags under her eyes, the bending arch of her back. She swore. She swore to stay with me until my vision prevailed.

"Wife." He speaks the word as command, and flinches from that harshness as soon as it leaves his mouth. Nevertheless, she complies. He knew this was the hardest part for her, and even as the sharpness of the world melted into the possibilities he knelt beside her and took her hand. It was a weak sense of compassion spurred on by guilt, for there was no more love left to be lost between the two of them. It had been killed when he'd refused her unspoken plea for release.

If she told me my vision was false I would yield. But in her ignorance to the truth there is hope, and so long as hope remains there is duty. My oath to myself is no less binding than the one she gave me. She had always been with him, since the moment when the paragon of Light born to the world as Optima had herself born and borne him into this world. The conjurer had foolishly sought to love an Abyssal Lord out of Evil's grasp, but her pride had proven to be Optima's undoing. She'd thought her magic strong enough to turn away the seed of the Six-Fingered man, and her heart strong enough to turn him away from the Abyss Itself. Naturally, he had gotten her with child in jest and then abandoned her to the agony of his son's birth.

Optima's broken heart and the Abyssal visions tied to Merlin's birth had driven the woman to madness, though thankfully the druids and their fey allies who'd saved her from his monstrous birth had raised her tiefling child while she taught him magic during month-long lapses into sanity. Though she had died in his teenage years, Optima had truly been a virtuous if foolhardy woman, and this fact along with her considerable magical prowess had drawn the attention of the celestial Nimue who took great interest in worlds whose timelines were touched by temporal nodes. Worlds such as the one Optima hailed from.

Merlin, apparently, was a living knot in the thread of fate. Somehow the fey boons the druids used to keep Optima alive, the conjurer's own work with seed craft, and the blood of an Abyssal lord had conspired within him to unhinge his movements from the normal place of a single soul in relation to the Temporal Prime. This had been quite distressing for Merlin in his youth, for his mind sought to grasp past-present-futre from the perspectives of the Fairie Lands and the Abyss even as his body continued to move in linear time.

It was Nimue who had come to him during his troubled youth, partly as a favor to his mother and partly as an opportunity to further study the nature of time. There was also the question of whose blood would ultimately tell once the boy became a man. It would not have been right for an eladrin to ignore the dangers of allowing the child of an Abyssal Lord to open the way for his father to swallow this world, just as it would have been equally criminal of an eladrin to deny the child the choice between Good and Evil. How Merlin had chosen Good was what brought them into each other's arms.

He holds her in his arms now, though what they feel for each other is less than love but not quite hate. A beautiful echo, leaves dressed in fiery shades by Autumn's decaying touch. The world softens until it is running watercolors on thin parchment, the paper tearing to reveal a kaleidoscope of interconnected worlds. And at the spinning center of this explosively blooming perspective is the City, the shining city from which would come mortals who possessed the light of angels in their blood. Trueborn aasimars, birthed across generations, noble houses dedicated to the Light and its furtherance across the branches of possibility stretching into the void of the futures.

It is the dagger of his obsession, piercing through all of Nimue's hopes of rest. How often must she wish she had never taken me into the cave - or perhaps it began with a tree? - where she showed me the branching avenues which bear worlds as fruit, born from the blossoms of every passing moment.

"Each of them is someone new, created by choices taken and forsworn...but each is connected, part of the other - imagine a person spread across bodies, each mold of skin and bones thinking of the others as dreams or fictions."

"You're saying...it need not end like this."

And then, years later:

"You're saying...they bear the same flaws."

"Not always, my husband. But each is a distorted reflection, or perhaps refraction, of the others. They carry the same capacity for good, for fulfillment of your vision - and the same capacity to undo it before it takes root.

And there is..."

"Yes?"

"There is something else to consider Merlin - they change, in every world they are different. But in every world, you remain you who are. And too often you remain the same."

This time. This time it will different. This time I will be different.

Nimue groans as she bends time and space, carving them by taking the knife to her very identity, sculpting who she is and was to fit into yet another history that waits to be lassoed and yoked to Merlin's destiny.

And if I fail again, my wife is still bound to me. The Angel of Choices. So long as I have her, my vision is never truly lost, but instead a stranger waiting on the far side of Time. A prophecy that forever waits for to be fulfilled.

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Baptism

Baptism

The cornugon watches the silvery waters of Lunia, and that part of his blood that still fears Heaven thinks of the tide as a hungry creature lapping at the shore with a puerile anticipation.

The rest of his being, the part that is risen, knows it is his fear that makes him think this. The fear he was weaned on since he was a larvae dumped on the burning grounds of Avernus. The fear of fiends for what is holy, the confusion of redemption for oblivion.

Behind him stands his sponsor, the sapphire eyed Arenza, her trumpet cradled in her hand. He glances back at her, sees an encouraging smile on her face. The wind lazily raises her auburn hair away from her plump face.. Go on. the archon's expression urges.

You will be destroyed. part of him whispers in the voice of the osyluth that betrayed him, abandoning him to the mercies of the kocrachons. It shows him in agony, the flesh boiled off his bones by Lunia's holy seas.

The cornugon steps forward, unmindful of physical agony. He knows his pain as penance, as a step toward the heights of the infinite mountain.

The seas shimmer under the light of the full moon, a sparkle of all the possibilities in Love that evil could never offer. The sand is as white as a wedding gown, every one of the fiend's steps recalling the blush of the bride on her wedding day. He knows that nothing will ever be the same after this, and summons his courage to cross into a new kind of life.

Your guilt will break you, when all your sins stand revealed. These words are said in the voice of an enriynes who he had lain with for a time - until her murder had allowed for his advancement..

The cornugon steps forward, knowing that it cannot change the past, only dedicate itself to the Light for all moments hence. It's fiendish eyes pierce the depths before it, spying the gentle faces of Zoveri treading the undercurrent, waiting to lift him up should he fall gasping into the seawater's depths.

You are unworthy of Heaven's outstretched hand. Turn back. Wickedness is all you can ever know.

This time the voice is his own. The tide has run up to this feet, in the burning of his fiendish skin he can feel the offer of release. He looks to the heights of the Mount Celestia, obscured by the misty veils that part its seven layers, and feels the coldness of its mighty shadow.

He turns, looking back at Arenza, and sees the smile has not left her face. In fact, if anything it has widened, and is now colored with pride for the student finally ready for the Truth of Celestia.

"No one is worthy Hamath. Justice finds us all wanting - the archons more than anyone, for we are raised under its gaze but still touched by the flaws our free will allows us to wander into.

No one is worthy - but all are welcome. That is the very definition of Grace."

Turning back toward the waters, Hamath enters the ocean.

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Settlements

Settlements

When men came across the frozen seas, baying their desires like dogs and breeding like rabbits - they did not find us unprepared. Our augurs had seen visions, had told us that our great empires would wane and we would live in the shadow of our former glory.

My mother was not one to put great stock in prophecies. I recall being a boy of fifty, running to her mailed skirts and begging her not to leave, weeping that the seers told me she would die were she to mount the sky on a back of gold. Her dragon Aristes looked at me askance after I blubbered out the warning, but mother merely laughed in mockery.

"Bowing to Fate is living life as a funeral. If we are meant to die I will have our glory live on in the annals of our short-life butchers and those elves who survive us. Perhaps in a time where less heed is paid to fortune tellers and their pigeon entrails our people will rise again."

I wish I had spread the seers' words to more ears that morning, as my mother returned missing an ear and a chunk of scalp but alive nonetheless. She and Aristes had left my childish company from one of the balconies on our wing of the great autumn palace, but had returned with her fellow dragon knights in the central courtyard - just past the edges of the hedge mazes.

First of the Empress's consorts, my mother had an entourage waiting for her when she returned with all of her subordinates. Despite the blood that had made a mask over much of her face she was laughing. The eye not stickily shut by blood caught all the seers in its mocking stare, and the other soon opened to do the same once the Empress extended her blessing.

Though I'd been nervously clutching my father's timid hand, my trepidation vanished as the healing touch of our ruler had instantly made my mother good as new - at least it appeared this way from where I had been standing. The Empress did not take kindly to my presence, regarding me as a product of infidelity though me and father had come before Her coronation and polygamous wedding...though even at the tender age of five and twenty I'd known my mother was bound to be picked.

Later that day I would see the pink of too quickly healed flesh, the faint trace work of scars. A griffon, she told me as she supped with father and I. The humans had flocks of them, easily dispatched on their own but able to threaten our gold and silver allies when they attacked in their rabid masses. One had torn off her helm while another had sought to part her skull with its talons.

As my father was a healer himself, I knew that her wounds had been healed too quickly, a regenerative effort by a horrified child rushing to recover the face of the First Consort. The Empress's (shoddy) work would be fixed in time, mother assured me and my father though neither of us were overly concerned about the restoration of her beauty. I was happy that she lived despite the seers' words, and as for Father he was forbidden from touching her. As he was also forbidden from taking another wife - lest the First Consort be diminished as less than a perfect prize - he spent much of his free time perfecting his Craft with my nigh continual assistance - thus doling out my inheritance in a piecemeal fashion.

My parent's marriage was political, and so there was no love to be lost between them. They seemed more like congenial friends than anything, and my father had never been comfortable with his bride in the way he was with his son. At times I wondered if he preferred the company of men, though if this was so he was very secretive about it given that he wasn't allowed to marry males either and any relationship outside of marriage was considered sinful.

He fluttered like a hummingbird over my mother after we took our meal, beginning to repair the work the Empress through the use of salves and spells. It was strange to think he was prettying her up for the women who'd stolen her, but I was still too flushed with her defiance of prophecy to care. Father made me promise I would visit my mother in her quarters and apply the ointments daily, and after that came a hug and mother wishing us goodnight as she departed for the arms of the Empress.

Only as I lay in bed did I come to realize she would again fly over the armies of men soon enough, if not tomorrow. She hadn't defeated death, only cheated Him for one appointed hour.

=-=-=

I rushed to the courtyard, pushing passed the courtiers forced to tolerate my presence, pausing my charge only when the force of wind born of Aristes wings dispersed my momentum. I raised my arm to my eyes, squinting to close the gates of my lashes against the woken dust, even as the gold settled to the ground while the Empress and her entourage came up behind me.

I felt the nails of her Imperial Grace dig into my shoulder, another one of her messages that let me know I wasn't wanted here even though tradition demanded my attendance. Something else I wouldn't care about until later, my attention focused on my mother and the prisoner tied to her aureate companion.

Mother had caught a man!

Caught him and burned him. His waist was charred, and his leathers seemed to have melted into his meat. As my mother jumped of Aristes' back she was calling for me even as others came to untie the unconscious man and bear him on a litter.

"Tend to him" she commanded. Though her lips were stern her azure eyes were sparkling with pride, the sun's gold making silver fire out of her hair. Then she was gone, leaving me to my task, her and the Empress holding hands.

=-=-=

By the time father came I had prepared the initial salves and applied them. My arcana wasn't yet strong enough, for that I needed him, but I was determined to execute as much of my appointed task as I could without the aid of others.

My father is a quiet man, never one to question his lot in life, but this time he seemed rather disquieted that mother had left the care of a political prisoner to me. I pointed out the man's restraints, both magical and mundane, and the four guards posted around the man's bedside. The other beds for elven wounded had been pushed far away from the comatose human.

"It is not your safety that worries me." he said, even though it was clear that he was worried about me. He did not elaborate and I knew better than to ask, so I left him lay hands on the man's burns and then watched him depart.

"He'll live.", father called back as he exited. After several hours, the man did more than live.

He awoke, in terror of a conflict days over, begging for mercy from my mother and her dragon.

What startled us more was that he spoke in near flawless Elvish.

=-=-=

Brought out of savagery by elves beyond the frozen sea, the man called his people the Isildari. Generations of men raised by elves they had looked to as saviors. While we looked at the humans upon our continent as scavenging packs grubbing for sustenance, our brethren had taken it upon themselves to gift short-lifers with civilization.

The Isildari, in turn, had sought to do the same for the barbarian tribes around their shining acropolises - but then the Star Fall had come, gouging craters into the plans of men and elves alike. Worse, these sidereal fragments brought with them a sickness that twisted life into aberrations, most of them rendered incapable of surviving the environs of this world.

The elves across the ice had been wiped out...or changed.

Over the course of days I healed him, and over the course of days the story of his past caught up to my mother and Aristes and his burns. Their great exodus, a diaspora across the ice, their shepherding of the lesser tribes of men, this cresting tide made from the remnants of their world shattering against our mountainous walls.

"To you...even our elvish lords would be primitives." It was hard for him to say this, as if unable to keep a vomit of blasphemies from barreling through the corral of his teeth.

"They feared the dragons much as we did."

As his words approached the present, more and more they made my mother a stranger. I thought of her swagger, her mischievous smile when she asked after the charge she'd assigned me. Eating with her and father, I dug desperately into her gaze, searching for regret and horror. Something to assure me this woman had a soul, even as she and those under her command burned away whole nations while the Empire prayed daily for her safe return.

=-=-=

Father was not surprised, and told me to take the question up with my mother. I asked him if I should keep it a secret, that it might divide the Empire, and he snorted and said it was likely everybody knew.

I wasn't so sure, as among my fellows and elders I suspected many might protest such slaughter quite vocally. Councilman Gilithas and his husband Quirrele, who had first taught me my letters. The priestesses of our Silver Lady, the patron of the healing arts. The Empress's uncle Silithae, who had once called for the elimination of the ruler's consort-right.

But before I could go to any of them, I knew I had to confirm the man's tales with my mother. I followed her out of Father's quarters, back the wing of the palace where I was allowed to dwell in save when the Empress called on my mother. She has entire palaces, must she take my mother where I might live and sleep? I often thought bitterly. Love was a rare thing, and while I didn't know if my mother loved the girl on the throne I knew she bore the Empress greater affection than she ever had my father.

Still, I found my position as a legitimate bastard continually trying. I was the child of a hero and a healer, two honored personages, yet the courts in all the seasonal mansions treated me as if I should be ashamed for having been born, as if I should have miscarried myself in the womb so that the Empress might enjoy her pleasures without the distraction of my existence.

That my mother never rose to my defense had always hurt me, so perhaps I had seen the human's horror stories as a means of legitimizing my selfish anger. In any case, me grabbing my mother's arm and yanking her back as she rushed toward the arms of the Empress caught her unawares. She spoke before I even opened my mouth, suddenly shrouded by burdens that made her seem old despite our blood - burdens that made her seem almost human with the age they spilled onto her face.

"It's true. What he says. It's all true. We burn them to ash, to cooked meat, and still they come, stepping over the charred bodies of the fallen.

Fire has proven to be stronger than prophecy."

She might have slipped a dagger between my ribs, such was my shock.

"There must be -"

"Some other way?" Her eyes once more held their trickster's glint.

"The Empress thinks so too." With that she turned away.

=-=-=

When the lines were drawn, I was surprised who I found standing beside me and who stared with hard gazes across the boundary with their own reasons and convictions. Quirrele, the kind slow speaking man who'd patiently taught me how to write and read, ended up as a major advocate for continue the daily purge of the refugees. His husband Gilithas was kinder, giving credit to the humans for crossing the frozen seas before suggesting they now find a way to live upon the glacial expanses.

My father was not a vocal voice, but I did find him and many other healers standing by my side. The High Priestess of the Moon, herald of the Silver Lady who commanded the healer's worship, reluctantly took up our banner - though in private she was more concerned by the horrors humanity would visit upon the elvish should we be drowned by their tides. The warnings of the augurs was a concern for everyone though as we brought more humans to our prisons it was hard for the healers to stomach the smell the cooking fat and muscle, to look at more of what passed for faces among the screaming charred.

Silithae, alongside the Empress, was more concerned about the Star Fall and why the humans and not the elves had survived it. In fact, this seemed to have become the Empress's sole obsession. Did it confirm our fates, that our glory would pass on from this world? Or was it treachery by the Isildari the cause of the elvish downfall across the continental spanning stretches of ice? Many accused her of searching for some pretext to justify the slaughter, but none dared to do so to her face.

Always, her Imperial Grace looked to me, but now without jealousy or hatred. Or at least without either of those at the forefront. These had been replaced by...expectation?

In truth I had not expected to lead the naysayers of the Autumn Court. I had assumed those who agreed with me would take up the mantle and push me back to my boyish irrelevancy. I suppose I was both convenient scapegoat and the one with the least imperial favor to lose. Our moral argument was also a childish one, in the sense that the burning of nation spanning diaspora was not something to be rationalized on the basis of prophecy. Apparently in our Empire such clear cutting distinctions between Good and Evil were the province of those ignorant to the ways of the world.

My mother thought so, anyway, and told me as much each time I begged her not to go. To her, however, there was little difference between a conscientious objector and a coward. Each morning, her eyes compelling me, Aristes staring at me like a dullard too thick to reason out her puzzle, she asked me if I had thought of how the Empire might survive prophecy, how we might survive a Star Fall in our own lands.

Each morning I would always be struck glum and silent at her words, and she would fly off with a sigh of exasperation.

=-=-=

Dinners with my parents had become more than a chore - they were a struggle of epic proportions. That we bothered at all is perhaps more evidence to elvish slavery to habit, a disease we once called "tradition".

Father had gone from quiet to bitterly silent, staring at his once-wife turned instrument of genocide. I give credit to the woman that when questioned by the seasonal courtiers she never hid what she and her cadres of dragon knights were doing. She never tried to deny that each day she would fly out, disperse the remnants of human air power, then cook the hordes beneath her. When questioned by the clairvoyant diviners about the orphans and widows left on the shores of the frozens seas, my mother actually suggested they had underestimated the fatherless populations.

I harangued my mother in between mouthfuls, and she in turn merely looked at me either with an exhausted blankness or with the same expectation that I would save her from the daily dragon flights over the invading humans.

"How would you save the Empire?" she asked me, time and again. To this I would throw my own conversations about the humans - their cultures, their histories, the rise of the Isildari from caves to palaces. They were the children of our fallen elvish brethren - surely we owed them chance at life?

"How do you think they survived the Star Fall? Are they fated to live while we perish?"

The Empress's words, spoken through my mother's lips. The royal family had seemingly gone insane, spreading word of the Star Fall across the Empire - suggesting that a similar event could easily be imminent. The possibility began to loom large in the minds of many Imperial citizens - that some fell power amongst the stars might seek to gut the world of all elvish people. How else, they whispered, could the lowly humans have survived when their Elders fell? How else could human blood prove the stronger?

My mother had survived the augurs' prophesied death, had proven that with dragon fire the future glimpsed through windows in Time could be made into a compliant ash in which a new story could be written. One night I told her the Empire, even if it survived, would forever look upon sea of ash and burnt bone beyond which would lay a blanket of dead widows and children extending over the frozen seas. I told any price would be better than to see us become that Empire, that perhaps it was better we fall.

She looked at me, with eyes turned old again barely daring to meet mine own, and whispered, "The Empress thinks so too."

=-=-=

In times past my mother had become a hero, driving off monsters emerging from the Underdark or taking on the black and red dragons that troubled our borders with their petty fiefdoms. Yet now that she dealt with greatest threat to the Empire in thousands of years she was seen as little more than a butcher. Even those who supported her actions began to look upon the actual work with distaste - especially as word of the nobility of the Isildari spread. Of course it was their nigh worship of our fallen brethren that won the elves of the Empire over, and the thought that we might raise up humanity to the level of an actual civilization. What was really left of the human refugees anyway but peasants and scholars? Had not almost all of their warriors been consigned to the fires of our gold dragon allies?

Others, terrified of a second Star Fall occurring on our lands, began to feel that perhaps we should have some fragment of humanity capable of carrying on our legacy should we too fall to some sidereal misfortune.

Around this time, perhaps in eagerness to hasten the end of her reign, the Empress began to allow some of the Isildari at court. Naturally they pleaded for their people, both their own high race and those lesser tribes they had shepherded through the ice. At first they were greeted by many as well behaved curs whose pitiful aping of elvish custom was absolute proof of our moral duty to offer them succor. Over time, even as the burnings of humanity's ragged armies continued, many more elves became convinced that humanity was capable of a nobility that might make them worthy inheritors to our history -- assuming, of course, that the augurs were still correct in predicting the end our people's glory.

"Are they our dogs or our equals?" my mother asked me one morning before she rode off to enact her fiery pogroms.

"Equals." I said with a certainty I did not quite feel.

"You love them."

"Yes." These words I spoke fiercely, without doubt.

"Is their blood worth ours?" She asked, beginning to mount Aristes once more, preparing to turn thousands of them to ash. Again it seemed that if I could just decipher what she wanted of me I could stop her.

"It doesn't have to be that way." I said, believing in a destination, a future, one whose path continued to elude me...though I was beginning to understand even as my heart sank. The hysteria over the Star Fall, the introduction of the Isildari, the allowance of my own movement against my mother's work.

The Empress and my mother had made me their pawn, trained me to make the sacrifice I had to come to on my own.

Aristes was spreading his wings, his body a shining wonder in the sunlight, a miracle preparing to deliver us from our fate. I tried searching for my voice, seeing the future closing around me if I spoke, and found my words in the burning fields revealed to the Empire in the calm pools of our scrying.

"Mother!" I called out before the dragon could take to the skies. Aristes swiveled around, and my mother looked down on me from the heights of his glittering form.

"I will do what the Empress wants. I will become a husband among them."

=-=-=

There. Though it has taken an arc of the sun to finish the telling, that is the story of your people little one. That is how you came to be, living here with your half-brothers and -sisters. You are the first-born of my second wife, new to the world...and like my sons and daughters before you your mother's life will be measured by the blinks of your eye.

For me, your life will be an arc of the sun - through you I will live one beautiful day. Already I see the creeping of Time in your siblings, already it feels as if your mother is under the soil...ash in the pyre.

How many more, I wonder, will I see off to the edges of the expanding Empire? How many will I outlast? Which generation of my bloodline will finally bury me?

My future is like the frozen waste - something cold that stretches out, easily outpacing the horizon.

It will be easier for you, the death of one parent and the long youthfulness of the other. Your siblings will be there to support you, though they in turn are damaged for being the vanguard. Half their blood destroyed so many of their other half's ancestors, for the Empress knew her people could only train so many dogs...integration was made easier by the deaths of so many of humanity's warriors.

We murdered the wolves to better tend the sheep among you. If the Isildari were galled at their own forced betrayal...they are dead now. Though I remember the anger and bitterness that swallowed my first wife well enough.

My hope is that the human in you, in the others, will forgive such things as that part of your blood is want to do. Horrors become rationalized necessities become ink on the page...

How I envy the racial forgetfulness of the short-life peoples in this world.

I want you to understand, and to justify, all that we have done in your name. I want to see you grow up and laugh and marry...and yes, eventually die, surrounded by your own progeny that will stand at my side and weep for all that you were.

I want to see that something of my mother who took her own life survives, that whatever fire gave humanity the strength to cross the ice will burn across the generations.

On the subject of my hopes, the augurs say nothing, and in their silence I am free to imagine a future where the best of what we were lives on in you.

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Treaty

Treaty

In the mermaid's narrowed fish-eyed gaze I see an old promise - that one day all land above the seas' grasp will drown from the hunger of oceans. For a moment I gasp, feeling the liquid tonnage heavy upon my back, my eyes lost in the inky dark and my lungs burning even as I gag helplessly on the taste of brine.

Then she blinks and the spell is broken. I can breathe and do so, a long and grateful gasp that assures me we won the war. The mermaid somehow smiles both shyly and slyly, the innocence of the fanatic giving expression to her nudity - she is an inhumanly beautiful and voluptuous woman with ichthyian eyes from her head to her belly button, below which her legs are scaled, thick, and strong.

She would bear me strong children, were she human.

I pull my eyes and thoughts away from their ridiculous distraction, looking over at the willowy elven companion to undo my lustful attention. A gaunt creature, not quite wan but far too thin and tall for a woman, Elana has offered us elvish hospitality to negotiate this treaty. With myself representing humanity and Ogrim the People of Stone, our tripartite council is here to hammer out the terms of our most recent peace.

I look out from the twisted columnar branches that support the flowery tangle of the ceiling, studying the cloud sculptures in their lazy processions around the trees shaped into the arboreal metropolis of A'lenia to dismiss the mermaid's intruding prophecy. That we are meeting here, so far above the touch of the tides, is no accident.

Still, one might think the losers would be more apprehensive than the victors.

=-=-=

Elana found herself in the seat of elvish power somehow badly missing the company of her own kind. Instead seated to her left was the boorish human Charnoff and to the right was the intimidating but insufferably stoic Ogrim.

Charnoff had somehow found himself elevated from warlord to king, a man granted the trappings due royalty minus any of the education and refinement a true succession would have granted. He was a base man driven by simple hungers, and it seemed to her mere chance had granted him the position necessary to fulfill his prodigious lust for violence. The contribution of humanity as canon fodder had been vital to the cause of war, but the fact that of all people Charnoff sat here ogling their enemy made her wary of the coming peace.

Ogrim she had far greater respect for, given his people could have retreated to their mountains and refused the surface world's call to arms. Without the oreads they best they could have hoped for was a meeting in a coral-grown palace to hammer this treaty, and that meeting would have been little more than a farce given the religious beliefs of the sea dwellers. Unfortunately Ogrim's people had been far less willing to spare their enemies, given that they had little need for food and water. That continuing the war would have subjected humans and elves to poisonous rainfall due to the cycle between ocean and cloud was a small price to pay for the oreads' extermination of those who would drown the world.

Elana shook her head at the thought. The mermaid princess met her gaze but the elf looked instead to the sahuagin deep king seated directly across from her. It was their race that had clung to the prophecy all these eons, somehow preserving this religious foolishness until it might breed among the merfolk, kuo-toa, and locathah. If it hadn't been for the sea elf nomads we would not have prepared in time. Though the kuo-toa and locathah had also sent representatives, there was no one to speak for the sea elves save for her.

Because there are almost no more sea elves to speak of.

Thinking of their corpses sent upriver as message, Elana grits her teeth and daydreams of the oreads sating their desire for genocide in a far future neither humans nor elves would bear witness to.

Because the mountains remember. Remember and endure.

=-=-=

Every place has a spirit, every mountain and river and stream. Even the darkest depths of the ocean, beyond the reach of the sun - even those places have spirits to tend them.

Every spirit feels the others, the connection between them as vital as the life's blood running in a fleshling's veins. The fleshlings do not understand, and so they butcher whole grasslands, or force the trees to bend the knee. They mine and fish and farm far beyond the boundaries of the Balance, willful children who forever batter themselves against their place in the Cycle and thus forever threaten the world.

Ogrim looks at the fleshlings arrayed around him and sighs, uncaring that his disregard is heard by those he holds in contempt. If it is any consolation, he thinks, I blame your gods more than I blame you.

For the oreads, children were born rarely - usually when one of their kind dies or a new mountain range rises from the crust of the earth. A child was both a responsibility and a bearer of responsibility, not a being to engendered lightly. The same could not be said for the work of the gods, who seemed to take on the creation of new races as a indulgent exercise of their own overly inflated egos. If this had led to a manageable smugness - like that of the elves - it might have been bearable, but the truth of the matter was the peoples of the seas and oceans had merely given into the most overt of the fleshling's prophecies. All of them looked forward to a time when their gods would disfigure the world to create a paradise for their particular people, none of them bothered to think that the paradise was lost when their gods excreted their kind upon the world.

One day, he promises himself, there will be a true accounting.

=-=-=

Princess Nyolokivi partially hid her revulsion with a grimace as the human struggled against his desire for her. In the way of their kind, she knew he would somehow misread her displeasure as some form of sexual teasing. That a human could even claim a seat at this table was a sign of the surface's need for cleansing. Bad enough her own allies were seated beside her, when only merfolk should have spoken with the Voice of the Seas and Tides.

She had been young when she'd answered the Ocean's call to arms, the ancient voice whose fragile echo had been left in the keeping of the sahuagin. Such was the way of prophecy, that it would humbly let itself be shouldered on lesser backs to give the merfolk the opportunity to turn themselves away from the folly of their modern faithlessness. Such were the sacrifices made for her people's salvation.

And one day, when the Ocean was All, the time would come for her people's conquest.

Though she would not live to see it, in her heart she was at peace, knowing that all she had done was done for the sake of her people and the Voice.

=-=-=

The merfolk bitch is dangerous. The mermaid's selfishness pollutes our cause.

The sahuagin deep king had been bred for rule, generations of ancestors having supped on the weaklings of their species. Truly the ones lost to our cannibalism are as much our ancestors as though who lived to offer seed and egg to the future. It knew the weak did not long survive, and had learned to sniff out the infection in itself and others.

The mermaid princess was one such creature, her rule brought about by the sahuagin shamans and the power of the Voice. She had been raised to grasp the Voice, while he had risen through the ranks so that he might prove worthy of the Faith. The sahuagin had provided her with soldiers to quickly and conclusively decide the succession wars that had gripped the merfolk at the time of their Emperor's death. Some of the other siblings might have been more capable, had they been believers.

Perhaps with one of the elder sisters, or the eldest brother, we might have won this war.

The deep king dug his claws into the wooden table emerging from the bark, a limb called out of the wood by elvish magic. It recalled the coral palaces of the deep, though one only had to look out at the cursed clouds to know how far they were from those underwater dwellings. They had been so close! Glaciers melting, tides rising to take first their beaches and then their coastal farmlands and castles. Villages turned to bouquets of drowned corpses, the bloated faces of children testifying to the end of the surface people's generation...

If only the sea elves had chosen the Faith. Their near erasure was not and could never be enough repayment for their betrayal. What was left of them languished in salt lakes, refugee pools gifted to them by their surface cousins' forests. They might crossbreed with these land dwellers, but their bloodline is now too thin to recover.

While this thought gave the deep king comfort, it also brought to mind the shattered ruins of its own people, as well as the rubble on the Ocean floor that were once the standing stones arranged by the Ancients - the summoning circles to the Surfaceless Ocean that would have made it possible for the Faith to fulfill the command of the Voice.

At night he heard the chastisement of the Speaker in his dreams, the agonies of the wounds given to it in dreaming beginning to leave slight scars on its waking form. The deep king knew its days were numbered, that the wounds would pounce, passing from the dream self to the waking body, leaving nothing more than slabs of meat floating apart in the water.

He did not begrudge the Voice this execution, he only prayed that once devoured his flesh would strengthen those sahuagin who must take on the burden of shepherding the ocean's peoples toward the Promise.

=-=-=

So much death. Tired. Eyes of mind filled up with corpses. Why? What is this Voice the others hear - is this why they fight the land dwellers? How did it come to so much murder when it only wanted to keep the world family safe?

The locathah hems in its whimpers before they can escape its maw. It should hate them all, the sea dwellers for thrusting their holy war upon the world and the land dwellers for attacking the locathah at that war's inception. Attacking us in lake and stream, as well as coast.

The sahuagin and the merfolk despised the locathah, and the surface dwellers thought that because it stank (according to their noses) it was evil. Only the oread gave it any real regard, but its judgement was laid bare in its eyes. The locathah had broken faith with the Cycle.

If only they had left us in peace, we would not given the sahuagin the World Breaking Words we had kept, those echoes of the ancients that open the dam between the world and the Surfaceless Ocean.

The sea elves told them we were no threat, didn't they? But if so, why did the humans come with their swords and their fire?

Why couldn't they just leave us alone?

It wants to hate, because in the eyes of these others it sees the hate that makes them feel strong. It wants to hate, but it only feels tired. Tired of murder, of killing. Tired of its dreams of guilt and its waking to find the children and Mother gone.

Across the world, so many Mothers gone - so many eggs left pierced and broken.

Fifteen years I raise my child, fifteen years taken by an arrow. Fifteen years buried in soil too far from the sea. Why were we forced to follow a Voice we cannot hear?

Hoping to distract itself the locathah looks out at the clouds carved and woven by the World's breath. It can't help but notice how similar the movements of the wind are to the currents of the ocean.

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Splinter of Freedom

Splinter of Freedom

It hovers above our time-space, in The Place more shattered and whole, studying the spinning of the Wheel. It looks at past-present-future, seeing a scatter of possible moments like diamonds rolled across an obsidian black.

It turns from One into Many, diving down into futures that will seem to our seers to be improvised prophecies, piercing deep into our Becoming. Futures, lapping at the present like tides.

=-=-=

Our love making is a furious thing, leaving my stomach scraped raw against the gem stones protruding in the hard cavern ground that serves as our bed. There is one music melding the thrusts and my heart beat which tosses blood outside the walls of my skin. My death and my sex are in harmony. We are going to die here, my love and I, in the mines, just as like before. But now we will die without chains, and our masters will live without the mind-gems.

It was not always like this, my death in the mines. In the time before I knew I died alone on my knees, not two-bodies-as-One and free. Today I am galloping my life away, my red stained teeth bared in a smiling roar. My lovemaking is a choice I would not have made before, but before my lovemaking was without choice in the mines.

Before death was a creeping infection, something that takes you slowly. Before I was chained, given a pickaxe and told to cut mine-gems from the dragon graveyard turned calcified cavern. I struck out against the fossils of reptilian mind-benders who for all their coldness had set the world into a clockwork empire of honor and Law.

Today I break a gem, and madness spills out. There is no guard, no prisoner, and definitely no miners. Now there are only bodies to be quarantined and buried.

Already I feel the mind-gems scraping my skin changing, becoming too fermented for the psions to use.

Their rotting keeps pace with my ecstasy.

=-=-=

They should have lived and died as wives forever masked and obedient. Instead they are fugitives running with scraps of hope, skinning themselves as they slide on the slimmest of odds.

Following the promise given in dream they slide off the sloped cliff ledge, tumbling through the distance between the edge and the rapids, the crunching sound of surrendered bone heard by tyrannical husbands looking aghast from above.

Seven black scaled swans arise, impervious to the arrow fire of honor killings, screeching with triumph as they spread their great bat wings that are canopy to the full moon's light, taking their graceful dragon-bird bodies higher and higher until they are dots lost in the star studded darkness.

=-=-=

Before the knife touched me I knew I would fail. Then the bright hot scalpel touched me and I heard a woodwind orchestra, the symphony accompanied by the taste of lemon sorbet.

Suddenly this was an interrogation I could not survive, because I knew with relief they would torture me to death without me giving up the revolution's secrets.

I giggled like a child when they took one of my incisors. They must have thought I was mad, but that wasn't it, not really - it was just that my sanity was so, so far from where they mentally were. Once it showed me the way, the caterpillar visiting my spinal column as honored Sherpa, I knew I could do it too. Pick and choose the sensations, even to the point I could tell my flesh cocooned psyche:

"You know what? Surprise me!"

=-=-=

The mosquito's bite has left me with madness in compensation for blood. Saliva pools in my mouth, spit that I nervously swallow even as I am charging, my feet dragging me with the volition of dreams, my clammy hands my rudders through the pendulum sway of the crowd.

Then I am there before her, her head turning and then she is taken by surprise by my presence as much as I am. The mosquito's venom has made my tongue puppeteer to my hopes, my exhalation sculpted into words even as my hand uncurls - like a whip? - better yet like a vine in a vineyard.

"Would you like to dance?" I ask, and the love of my middle school life smiles shyly and takes my hand as she rises.

=-=-=

Many are One once more, and the aberration hovers above our time-space, returned to the eternal moment it has now never left, a diamond fractal observer studying the knifed timelines altered now and forever and back by its exo-temporal thrust through the Wheel.

Futures bloody, brighten, then finally resolve.

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The Politics of Apocalypse

The Politics of Apocalypse

Stepping from Her domain in Elysium, Gerrun entered the Odeon of Pelion on the back of a sun bright cow with no little trepidation. Riding bareback upon the Positive-touched bovine the goddess of the farmland nervously chewed Her lip, doe brown eyes darting at the arriving gods, completely unaware that Her wheat-woven crown was askew. The pantheon, She knew, were going to discuss an inevitability that would leave Her with little to no domain in the world.

As She thought of the pain to come Ujuer's avatar emerged from one of the portals astride his rune carved nightmare Erozsh. The calligraphy that blazed silver on the fiendish stallion covered the war god's flesh as well, the divine language of violence uniting rider and ridden until the dawn of the Gods Death. Though the god was destined to be eaten by His steed He seemed as bound to Erozsh as the blood-lovers of His sister Leajan.

Gerrun gave Him an evil look, wrinkling Her nose at the god's Abyssal stench, but saved the better part of Her hate for whenever Leajan would deem to leave Her Winter Mazes in Pandemonium and grace the pantheon with Her presence. The goddess of Death and Cold held Herself above most gods whose portfolios she regarded as trifling or banal. Gerrun especially was seen as a deity to be bullied by the surprise attack of winter, the onset of which bit the lands of Her mortal wards with frost and frozen soil.

At times the blood-lovers would come, wedded pairs of husband and wife arriving off the coasts to raid what better mortals had tended and grown. Gerrun always took pleasure when Her clerics would kill one, then capture the weeping other.

A crack of thunderous applause on the other side of a portal marks Zezi, god of theatrics and music, arriving from His great auditorium in the Outlands. Gerrun glanced at the deity quizzically, then dismounted to take her seat even as she shook her head. Her mount, like Erozsh, turned back to leave through the portals from which they came.

Her seat was next to Yaneeshia, the Lioness of Summer and Glory. The goddess of "righteous war" was armored, as always, in plate that outshone the cow Gerrun had arrived on. The feline headed matriarch took up Her hands in Her own paws, assuring the wheat-crowned goddess that the Lioness would seek to preserve as much of civilization as possible. This was met by a snort from the seats above them, where Their glances found Ahwr the Plague Bearer seated.

"It's not a chastisement this time. This is a Cataclysm to punish the world entire for sins of the Northern Magi. Whoever survives the wars and natural disasters will be nothing more than My toys for a decade at least.

Not to mention My blights will see to Your farms and orchards before then. We'll probably send those off as omens."

It was sickening to watch Ahwr, for He was masked by maggots that had made a breeding ground of his skinless face and arms. The rest of Him was hidden under a stained woolen shift. The smell of rotten flesh warred against the scent of summer roses though neither could truly challenge the earthy scent of Gerrun's soil. For now I am stronger. For a little while more. The Lady of Harvest stared sullen daggers at the plague god, but the Lioness proved true to Her name.

"If there are survivors they will be blessed with crops to eat, and soon enough - as We measure things - there will be farms and orchards once more. Your days never last, Ahwr, and will cease to be in the Gods Death."

The deity of agriculture found the Lioness words less that assuring, as the Gods Death was far and the Apocalypse was now, but at least it was something. There were likely few others in the pantheon who were giving much thought to the consequences their actions would have on Gerrun's domain.

Perhaps I should have turned more of my attention to the raising of mushrooms in the Underdark.

They were coming quickly now, those members of the pantheon that wished to have a say in the matter of the imminent Doom. Many who came Gerrun expected - the elemental gods, the gods who presided over the works wrought by mortals soon to be razed and thrown down, the gods of the wild places that would burn...

And many who came Gerrun felt should have remained in Their realms. Zezi, yes, but also Mianini the Princess of Vampires, Kithinai the General of Vermin, and all the other lesser gods who had come to support Their patrons in council. Of course, this did mean that Hiaree the Lady of Perfumes and Jerax the Baker would prove useful to Her and the other major lords and ladies overseeing civilization. For that She was grateful, doubtful as it was that the damage to be wrought would be greatly mitigated by Their aid.

"Let us begin with the charges." At that, several deities groaned.

It was to be expected that Josunth wanted to begin with the charges. As the deity of Law and Justice He would see the letter of the law carried out, adhering to formality to better mollify His conscience once He was back in his Arcadian realm. That Gerrun was forced to come and plead for the gods to spare Their own worshipers meant there would be little justice found in this Ending of Days.

Unperturbed, the Hammer of Justice continued. A shining scroll appeared in his hands, its soft starlight accentuating the mother of pearl that had been set over every piece of the Most High Justicar's plate.

"The Magi of Valgard have continued work on their Cants of Apotheosis, despite the signs We sent as warning."

Gerrun winced at that. Stillborn calves, locusts, plague-spoiled wells. Her fellows and family always punished Her when They punished the mortals - the rusted armories and first born dead always came after Their attack on the farmlands.

"In the time of the First Reckoning , when the Riolor sought to climb to the heavens by turning their empire into an abattoir, the pantheon came together and birthed dragons to remake the world in fire and lightning."

Again, Gerrun remembered the flights of red and bronze dragons ravaging the world just as She remembered the gods who'd aided the Riolor in their madness.

"When the Chosen returned from the Underdark to bear witness to a world cloaked in ash, it was then that We sent Life in the form of rain, and a Covenant was made so that man and god should forever know their places."

The Lioness and Gerrun looked to each other, each ushering the other to silence. Yes, They had both loved Ina like a sister, and both had sought to bar the path of the others when She was executed for daring to love a mortal. This act of loyalty was one of the reasons Gerrun would find so few allies to assuage the wrath of the gods.

This wasn't the time to reopen those wounds, though despite Their keeping quiet the pair of Them felt the divine attention of the pantheon upon Them.

"The Covenant is broken once more, yet the dragons are now one with the world in both virtue and sin. Truth be told, their blood runs in the veins of the North as does the allegiance of many great wyrms.

Lords of the world and its peoples, what form will Our sentence now take?"

These words released competing clamors - calls from the darker gods to tear rifts between the world and their realms on the Lower Planes, calls for rains of fire and great rents in the earth, calls for all the nations of the world to strike out against the hubris of Valgard.

The gods of stone craft and forge called for plague and vermin, in order to leave the greater part of their domains intact (Depopulation would be far better than ruins.) but They were swiftly rebuffed. If mortals could easily regain the tracks of their civilizations, would they truly have learned?

While there would be war, this too was seen as dangerous gambit. All too easily the gods could see other mortals taking up where the Northern magi had left off, completing the spell and warring with the pantheon for the heavens.

The challenge of the gods was the difficulty in influencing the world. They could only touch the world where Their domains were strongest, and even then without quorum there was little any one god could do directly to alter anything on the Prime Material Plane. For the most part, it was Their clerics who were Their eyes and ears and hands. In the North, where druidism held sway over civilization, the gods had little power. This was how the magi had progressed so far, that and the betrayal of those dragons who wished to share in their apotheosis.

The elemental gods fell into argument with each other as the Lioness and Ujuer continually called out for war - one seeking glory and the other seeking slaughter. Gerrun and the other gods of civilization tried to turn the direction to preserving the most faithful of the cities and villages, but in a place of competing gods what One saw has faith oftentimes Another would see as blasphemy.

Gerrun of course was more than comfortable with the rising cacophony, for if the majority of gathered gods could not reach agreement it might still be poss-

"Before the world burned, now it must drown in ice."

Leajan had arrived, wrapped in a cloak of snow over Her frostbitten skin. She looked like some village maiden barely passed her teens, bound and left to die in a blizzard. She takes the form of the very sacrifice She demands.

Gerrun frowned at that, and behind Her She felt Ahwr bristle. A world submerged in glacial expanses would benefit neither farmland nor plague.

At the Death Goddess's words, Zezi projected His disagreement over the crowd of divinities, but He was largely ignored. Gerrun knew the god of bards had hoped to raise up a new Order of wandering troupes that would bring the lessons of the gods to the Cataclysm's survivors. The glaciers now made His bid for power impossible.

But many of the other gods of civilization were quick to lend Leajan their support, realizing that glaciers would preserve at least some of the works of Their followers. Arcana could be used to keep a few cities alive. Likely They had been waiting for Leajan, likely They had come to Her before. They abandoned Me before I even arrived here.

The gods of Water and Air also supported the notion, likely hoping the ensuing vortices into Ice would give Their elemental planes an advantage.

Ujuer glared at His sister, sitting back sullenly as the gods of Order began to lend cautious support to a goddess who resided in Pandemonium. Death by cold was preferably to the anarchy of the last Apocalypse. It would also keep the dragons from overrunning the broken world, and kill off many of their kind as well. They had shared in the sin, and now they must share in the punishment.

Gerrun cared little if the draconians went extinct. Dragons, after all, did not farm.

Ahwr began calling for plagues to be sent as omens, final warnings given to the North. He realizes the quorum would favor the glaciers, and now seeks to eek out what He can before the Ice kills off many of His diseases.

Josunth reminded the Plague Lord that the time for omens had passed, to which Ahwr called for mercy, for a final chance to encourage the magi to redemption. The gentler gods of the Upper Planes found themselves siding with the Maggot Keeper, but too many of Their brethren had little desire to see the suffering Ahwr's outbreaks would cause. A death wrapped in Ice seemed far more merciful.

Gerrun sought some way to preserve something of Herself in the world. Some stores of food might survive, through the work of stalwart clerics and magi. She knew the other gods would not allow arcana to easily preserve much beyond gardens, otherwise the lesson would not be learned...still...

She looked to the Lioness, then spoke.

"Let the blood of the Northmen warm the soil of the world."

At those words many of the gods turned. The Lioness was quick to lend Her support, was was Ujuer - both saw the opportunity for war. The gods of cities and craft began to murmur agreements, as agriculture was the foundation of all that They were. Even Ahwr agreed, for where there were crops there lay the possibility for blight.

Gods of earth and fire saw They might preserve more of Themselves than Leajan had allowed for, and Josunth found a thread of justice in Her proposal, a justice Zezi now claimed as poetic...The gods of undeath knew They needed Their chattel...

For Her part, Gerrun let Them agree and argue. In Her mind She could see the pogroms, the blood spilled to turn tundra to arable soil. Valgard had spread its people across the world, its bloodlines intermingled into nations and peoples far from the North.

Throats of children would be cut for the hope of a meager harvest.

I have saved more than any of Them, brought some justice to this farce.

Suddenly Gerrun dreaded the end of this meeting, dreaded Her return to Her realm in the Upper Plane of Elysium.

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Antipathy, Sympathy, and

Antipathy, Sympathy, and Trying to Get Through the Work Day

The mercane were experts at making the best out of a bad situation, so of course they set out their spies to record citizens become test subjects in the wake of the enchanters releasing their spell-bombs:

=-=-=

Subject One: Bezalus, Guardsmen at Union District 7

"You want chicken right?" The young man smiled at Bezalus, the smile of someone who simultaneously had a romantic interest in you while being old enough to know they were too young to act on said interest.

Bezalus, normally willing to give a polite smile to respectfully acknowledge and simultaneously deflect the boy's affection, instead continued to stare at the pan in which the legs and wings of poultry rested in a buttery red sauce dusted with chopped coriander.

"Chicken, sir?" The boy asked again, worried in the self obsessed way of teenagers that the harmless flirting in his smile had finally offended the guardsman. The boy knew Bezalus had a husband after all.

This was not the case. At all.

While Bezalus's fidelity was unassailable, the strength of his marriage was at the moment a distant thought far, far behind the rumble in his belly and the spit pooling in his mouth. It was the boy's question echoing in his mind.

Chicken? Yeah, right now I want It more than anything.

An exaggeration, to be sure, but one that shone truth on the guardsman's despondency. It had, after all, been three weeks since he had chicken or anything cooked in its broth or fat. Three weeks since he'd been caught in the blast.

Now he found it, not revolting...but not something he could bring himself to eat either. It gave him no joy, its meat seemed to dull the flavor of its accompaniment as Hades leeched color into shades of grey. Eating chalk would be preferable.

It was only upon the denial that he understood the depth of his now departed enjoyment. How the pulling off of skin was a daily treat to be eaten as the last thing on the dinner plate, how the cracking of boiled bones with his teeth vented his occupational frustrations. Chicken had been the one meat his mother had eaten and thus the one he was raised on, and the plentiful nature of the bird on his home world had ensured its place as everything from garnish to pan-grease to main course.

When he'd first come to Union, it was chicken that had soothed him, that had made him realize the commonality tying together such far flung infinities...

With a sigh, he asks for a piece of charred pork.

=-=-=

Subject Two: Calidrani the Vampire Winer.

She didn't even live in Union, barely ever visited to check on her mercantile holdings. It galled her that Fate, who until the day of the prank (attack!) had proven a faithful servant, would decide to force her to play victim to such a ridiculous crime.

Magic charged to bursting, a wild magic surge of enchanter's arcana.

And now here she was, wandering through her life with a constant desperation she could barely keep sated. Her blood lust had become a refined beast beneath her sweatless chocolate skin, a discerning animal that refused all attempts at domestication.

Calidrani could only drink the blood of those she held some level of admiration and affection for. She could sate herself on others, of course, taking sips from her larder, but this brought on a nausea that quickly led to splatters of red vomit on the tiles of her home.

Seeing that the red splatters had yet to accentuate those mosaics of elven courtly life, Calidrani was forced to take precious time from her nights - nights she'd used to manage her accounts and contracts - to travel on bat's wings to the city. She dare not feed too close to her home, and had found little to inspire her heart amongst her cadre of human chattel.

The vampiress had first gone to the docks and the tributaries of streets that led to the sea, knowing the deaths of foreigners - especially likely pirates - would do little to spark a fire of investigative vigilance in the city guard. Sadly, while she could admire the cut throat nature of the merchants and sailors she found little to quicken her heart with any hints of affection.

A few sailors who were at least loyal to their captains or captains who were genuinely kind to their crews, but these were few and far between and took too much effort to find. She did, after all, have a business to run and a city watch to avoid.

So she was quick to move on to kindhearted whores. And from there to protective older siblings in the slums, which led to teenage mothers whose spiraling descents had been inverted by the birth of their children.

She knew she was exhausting the virtuous in the slums with her visits, and during the day she dreamed she was some fat stupid fish, a carp or a koi, devouring the the very stars that lit her own way through the void.

After a few months of this dream, Lady Calidrani finally began to hire some of her Chosen to work on her lands and tend to her vineyards. Some were struck with surprise at their fortune, but others more aware touched their hands to paired pinpricks on their skin and smiled knowingly.

=-=-=

Subjects Three and Four: The Dwarven Cousins

Honum and Irgar sat in a Union Tavern, trying to talk about what had happened in the roundabout way that politeness to kin had always demanded.

"Remember that time we had to fight our way past the crystal packs? All for that jaundiced bit of topaz Lady --"

"Whitehawk." Irgar offered.

"Whitehawk! More like White Ostrich - wasn't she a weird looking one eh? A dwarf woman's promise below the waist, but then all spindly by the the time you get to the neck!"

Honum sputtered, expecting this might be a good time for both of them to roar with laughter, but Irgar merely smiled politely as if his cousin was a king who'd gifted a foreign dignitary with a fart joke.

Honum was forced to continue.

"You fought well that day." Twenty-five years isn't as long to a dwarf as it is to a human, but the hours in the day don't change for them. It was a long time to finally admit something like that. Twenty-five years ago Irgar might have beamed at the compliment, but now he only dipped his head a fraction - Hornum figured this was better than the younger man recalling that Hornum had berated his cousin for getting stabbed in the leg and becoming "dead weight".

Irgar had in truth admirably covered the retreat of their company. Hornum had proven adequate in combat, it was the aftermath in which he'd shone.

"You fetched us a better price for the risks she'd failed to mention." Irgar said quietly. Hornum wasn't necessarily one for figures and ledgers, but he knew how to ingratiate himself with clients and how to bully them into coughing up funds that were owed. Sadly he'd been arguing in Union when the spell bomb went off and caught both of them in the blast.

Sadly? No, sad wasn't really what it was.

The elder dwarf grunted, unused to the amicable quiet in which Irgar thrived. Hornum was used to the boisterous fellows of his company, a company in which he'd taken Irgar on as a favor to his mother...though now, when he thought about it, he'd perhaps overused the word "favor" to drive down the lad's wages. But why feel so guilty about it after so many years?

Had to be the enchanters and their attack. What did they want anyway?

Ah well, at least it made the cousins realize the importance of family...

=-=-=

Subject Five: The Mercane Murelo

Abjurations, Dispelings, Disjunctions and in case of emergency Wishes. Murelo might have acted on any of his options immediately, but instead he allowed his fellows and their assistants to lay copper wiring under his smooth cerulean skin. He even endured their probing with a brown stained smile, and a predatory one at that. Despite being born with a general disinclination toward violence - or rather violence done by one's own hands - the mercane were in fact lions in the jungles of commerce, spiders laying out webs for the economically unwary. It was clear enchantment based spell bombs secreted around Union were bad for business, and doubly so when mercane were caught in the blast. Likely the attackers sought to send some sort of ethical message, clearly not realizing that the ideals behind their explosions were destined to fall on deaf ears.

The Mercane did not see combatants with a moral ideology. Rather, they saw instead competitors seeking their own profit to be paid in a different currency, a satisfaction made from the forced alteration of Union's business practices via their spell bombs.

Murelo, sitting at one of his favorite cafes, had fallen victim to one such explosion of arcana. While the Sentinels teleported in to deal with the lesser victims, Murelo had approached the owner and requested a plate of chocolate.

The Sentinels had returned for him eighteen hours later. By then he'd eaten twice his own weight in sweets while pondering the military application of gastronomical fetishes in lowering the moral of the besieged.

=-=-=

Subject Six: The Pitfiend of Stygia

Mortals, angels, even lesser devils often made the mistake of using the form of the pitfiend to ascertain some generalization about the collective pinnacle of Hellish non-nobility. They something brutal, driven by hate, forever seeking to rend and burn and chain and dominate.

These desires were there, truly, but oftentimes it was thought that the pitfiend was ever climaxing toward frenzy and violence, that all its subterfuge and intrigue were not just foreplay but pretext to the "final encounter" - usually some minor off-Baator assignment - with wayward adventurers.

To a pitfiend, violence and hatred were tools - enjoyable tools that carried their own baroque flavor. Tools that the pitfiend could wield over much of creation, for across the Multiverse there were few who did not fear the species of devil. Yet the palette of the greater baatezu was refined in the Pit of Flame, and thus sought after other tastes as well - a pitfiend could spend centuries scheming and researching without laying either hand or spell on anyone else.

All that mattered was the ordered accomplishment of the Work - for the means were in truth ends in themselves, actions once taken contributing to the spread of Evil and Law.

If only H'arzma had not spent so many centuries establishing a business in slavery before being caught by the enchanters' attack. If only he had been given a penchant for some delicacy, or concluded that the feel of green steel in his hand made him nauseous.

Instead as innocent bystander seeking to augment his wears had been rendered squeamish, a pitfiend no longer able to stomach the industry that had won him a great deal of reknown.

He'd just entered one of the open air markets, accompanied by two bearded devils and an amnizu accountant. He hadn't even glanced at the day's catch when his world become a roaring torrent of nacre light. A slave had sought to flee in as chaos ensued, and the devil had of coursed raised the lash...

What he felt now was not compassion. He did not feel pity for his shackled charges, his heart remained locked in his callousness and did not dare to go out to them. He found himself, instead, in a worse position than being forced to endure such...angelic temptations.

He simply could not bear the proximity of violence. He was like the gourmand who gorged himself daily on a mountain of meats but could not bear to see to the slaughter of livestock. The first day had been a curiosity, a trial to be endured. He'd been surprised to number himself among the afflicted, and it made him wonder exactly who these arcane wielding terrorists were.

Then his dispelling had failed. A wish might have worked, but H'arzma had used this annual gift to work out the death of a rival. He'd been forced to try and free his underlings from the new found predilections. An abishai who loved sausages, another who now despised amethysts. An amnizu with a new taste for fine wine. None of them had dared to ask him how he had been affected - there was no need.

They'd all seen him cringe, dropping the mask for an instant, when he tore open the back of that slave.

And now the spies in his entourage were certainly reporting their suspicions to his rivals! This galled him, infuriated him, burned him until his mind was calling out for violence while simultaneously whimpering at the thought of seeing blood.

=-=-=

Subject Seven: The Sympathizer

"Still no kissing? I feel like the client of a whore!" There was still humor in the words, but soon that'd be overrun by the edge in his voice. Which in itself was also funny-with-an-edge since as far as she was concerned the fault lay with him and his principles. A year ago, she'd not been one for causes, righteous or otherwise.

She looked away from his lips, even speaking they disturbed her. She hadn't looked at a mirror for days, lest she be forced to face the fat pink maggots under her nose. Even her tongue had been trained through triggered dry heaving, it now kept itself dutifully behind the corral of her teeth, refusing to grant those now horrid appendages a taste of its moisture.

She wondered why it had mattered to her, the romantic egalitarian notions of this Anarchist. Well, that wasn't it exactly was it? What I really want to know is why I had to pay the price.

Of course the reports coming in told her she'd gotten off easy, and even if she were hungrily scarfing down shit right now it'd be better than what the mercane would be doing to her if she'd have been caught.

Really, the fact that she wasn't in a torture chamber explained everything about her relationship to this guy still in bed wanting his kiss.

You hear the word Faction in the Hinterlands, and at first it seems like joke. Groups of opinionated fools, including angels tied to devils no less, by philosophies and ideas. You see how they pop up in places, wide spread missionaries with a bone to pick with how everyone else is living their lives. You shake your head, throw their pamphlets into rubbish heaps and trash fires.

Then you hear whispers. Planar real estate shifting over, great proxies converted. You hear of dreaded things rising or being put to the sword. And in these stories, like a backdrop and setting, you hear the name of a faction or two.

Are there really so many? Do their fingers dip into so many pies?

And one day the man you are seeing, a pleasant enough chap for the slim pickings of Union, tells you that he is an Anarchist. Capital A no less. His ideas had merit as theories - the burden of the laborers known to waitresses like her, the noose of addiction that drags down the prostitutes in our midst, the fate of the slaves in the open air market...

Now he presents himself as solution. Lovemaking takes a new turn, to know your body is pressed against that of a hero. And then one day, spooned by his slender musculature, he asks you to help.

At first you say no, talking of risks but really thinking Me I'm too small -

He laughs, assuring you its only a bit of smuggling. Barely merits a fine if you're caught. His truth of his favor comes as relief but a part of you rankles. I could do more.

It's a wonder, getting away with even the little breaks in the Law. Anarchists - a Faction. A force strong enough to walk unnoticed under the eyes of the mercane. More than that, there's a warmth in your heart born of these continued infractions - you're helping someone, you're risking your neck, if only the town you ran away from could see you now -

There was a heady rush when he asked her to plant the bomb. It seemed more a prank at the time. And even now someone on the outside looking in would laugh at that inopportune twist of the ankle, the flood of mother-of-pearl light soaking her soul and her insides until she thought she might burst.

He got me out. To an apartment in the Hive, but he got me out. At least the mercane can't come into Sigil.

It should trouble her more, this being on the run. The long reach of those sentinels of Union. But she can't think of the big things, not really, not while she has to get drunk to even speak, drunk enough to forget that talking makes her feel like the slugs over her chin are scurrying over her face.

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One Day You'll Save a Whole

One Day You'll Save a Whole Kingdom

"By the intervention of your hand, the weighted crown will not break." This the oracle of our tribe once told me, and thus I was sent by horseback from the grasslands with arrows and bow in my hands.

From twilight I move into unceasing day. Lionesses roar at my passing, beseeching my aid as vultures circle above. Is it so simple, so close, this place of lions besieged in the Happy Hunting Ground?

My heart tells me no, and so I keep walking but I am a kin to those ladies so half my antelope-prey is left as a tribute - a donation to their efforts in war.

My bare feet tread through white desert, sinking through snow to land on the sand. Mummies scribe frantically, remnant-dead pillaging their memories in search of lost glory. These wrapped up philosopher-kings have no need of my bow.

Nine times I die, nine times I rise. My arrows win me much glory because I stand against the other side's charge. But these wars are their own purpose, and when I pass into the bark-Ocean my hoof print tattoo-scars are faint if not gone.

My ocean of wood is a river in a stream, branches tributaries to branches. In time I come to living ground dying, green fading to orange and red. There are ants here fighting, driven by two warlord queens scheming. One I take in the eye and the next through the gate of her jaws, and then I leave the survivors to pour kindness into the lines of succession.

Hate churns like bile, stacked high so the bottom eludes me. Here lords are higher than princes, and much of that royalty squats on the Plain of Infinite Portals. I am hosted while scouted, once I introduce myself through my arrows. For a moment I am tempted, but remembering myself I quickly move on...though I will think back on horizonless empires and invitations declined.

If Home rested on a sphere this could be it. If my home had a night, I might have been born here. I look up at stars studded into curving black crystal. With every step I take I make music, scattering and clattering the bones of the dead. If this had been the kingdom...No - it was dead before the oracle spoke. Viners and bunyan trees have nearly swallowed the stone striving of men.

From that dead world I pass into silver, and in the Seas of the Mind I see that corpses do dream. My feet are tried and tested on a rough carpet of god flesh. I glance up and see a Jackal in Shadow, I look down and see memories pressing up from the ground. I look back and see footprints painted in blood.

I sail through a sky without ending, a pirate casting her fate on winds and djinn. There are genasi who bow before the whims of a child, cursing the fate of the mother taken too soon. This child makes war on his betters, what is now our people lost to folly and pride.

Populations are starving, but forced to fight on with no cause. Our scholars are slaughtered and great teachers are burned, all because wisdom is bane to his whims. Where we win we bring fire, so even in victory there is neither honor nor glory. Orphans are now common as runaways because demanding soldiers quarter in their homes.

We hate him, they tell me, but oaths in our bloodline still bind us all.

They take me over ruins where even banyans would not grow. There is no soil only ash for their roots. I see the schools emptied and even in temples nuns can be fished out for the harems of the Prince and his favored. The broken idols of gentler deities now litter the streets.

With the whispers of mummies on my lips every wood-river arrow finds a path through armor and bone. I run with light breath, my feet blessed for having trod on the skin of a god. Though the hoof prints are gone their horses - they know me, because I have been trod upon by Saved dead of their own. They throw off their riders and scatter through streets, and I am already ascending - I cross over seven or ten steps with each leap and each bound.

The prince he is waiting without fear, dancing on his throne. Nothing more than a child. The rebels their muscles cramp when they see him, chained by ancestral oaths to the crown now soured into ill-fitting vows.

The boy smiled even laughed as courtiers were cut down, my skin light but not white yet still easily missed. I think of a world of bones murdered by war - this memory notches an arrow but it is the Prince inside me that lets go. The first time. Yes the first time, the one through the mouth to stopper laughter, that is Abyssal, but second is mercy through the eye and that arrow is fired by Home.

Soon around the child killer these wind people they are kneeling, and I think of ants perhaps abandoned to anarchy when I take up the crown.

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Snippets from the Athar

Snippets from the Athar Picnic Luncheon

Living in the city to Everywhere, a Cage that keeps out the powers of creation, one cannot help but develop a...conflicted attitude towards the gods. Yes, there are proxies one catches glimpses of, and one cannot argue with the something each of them carries inside. There are also clerics in the street, proclaiming that in the end - whenever and whatever that means - their god will prove to the be right "one". There are temples with money and wealth and power...

But set against it all is the cutting shadow of our Lady. Her hand rests on the balance of faith. Not that of the clerics and proxies, and not that of the habitual churchgoers...but others notice, and whisper, if only to their own minds and hearts. And then there are those who've taken the offer of the Shattered Temple, who have actually seen dead gods floating in the Astral...

It is into the city that the Athar cast their nets, seeking to recruit new unbelievers through nightlife parties and all age gatherings in what passes for parks.

=-=-=

"Oh - I'm not Lost! - I just came here with a friend actually...For laughs." Miranda practically stammers without humor, suddenly thinking the man's too blue beautiful eyes might be the mark of a proxy. Of course They'd send Their own, see who was straying - Dammit why did I believe Ezel when she said this'd relax me?

An Athar hosted pinic - what was I thinking? Thank the Lady we're in her ward in the daytime.

"So, what, you're part of a flock?" The man asks, clearly taken aback. Or maybe he's just an aasimar or water genasi - why must it be so hard to meet people in this city?!

"I don't see an Athar badge on you either -"

"I'm an Indep - I'm Athar and then some." He says with something between a smile and a sneer, and suddenly those irises seem somewhat faded.

Miranda struggles to keep from rolling her own eyes, and says something about finding her friend.

=-=-=

Ezel sits beside another young mother, both of them observing their children at play. She sees the human mother watching her tiefling child with a doe's eyes, and somehow manages to keep her tongue focused on trivialities about gods and religion.

"Guessing we're both guests here." the human says without turning her worried gaze from her child. Ezel understands the woman's anxiety - fiend-blooded adults in Sigil can walk about confident and unmolested. Children are much easier targets for those (self) righteous in the Light.

After all, no one Ezel knows has been mazed for bullying.

"Is it that obvious?" she says with a laugh, one hand swatting away a mosquito hovering next to a long pointed ear.

"The Athar caregivers wouldn't sit in silence as long as you have. They'll start talking about the weather, work, husbands or wives, recipes, teething and-or potty training - but it always comes back to the gods." The human tenses as an older boy walks passed her daughter, but her muscles slacken when the Lost child goes by with a wave and a smile.

"Potty training to gods - you think they'd be more subtle." Ezel sees her fellow guest smirk at that.

"You worship?" Though the human isn't Athar, her tone still makes it sound like a test. Ezel nods even though her fellow has eyes only for her daughter.

"We have idols in our home, of course, but I come from a world of spirits. We know not to make too much of them. But we also know we have to show them respect." she says as her child digs a hole in dirt with delightful intensity.

The human turns slightly towards her , studying Ezel's sun-elven features. The woman looks remarkably young for a mother but there is age in her glance - something old leaks out of her pupils onto her eyes.

"Kind of like tyrants then, aren't they?" The doe narrows her eyes. "Or judging fathers."

Ezel says nothing to those too personal words, instead looking over at the meat cooking on the transportable grills.

=-=-=

Kelah looks back to her mother, sensing her anger, but once their gazes meet mother's face slackens then smiles. Kelah smiles back, because father has told her it is better if mother is fooled into thinking she can protect her daughter. It is one of the things father says is so beautiful about Mom.

"You don't look like your mommy." Kelah looks at the post-toddler digging his purposeless hole. Yes, his mother and him share blond hair and green eyes.

"Your mom has different ears." Kelah says without rancor. The boy laughs with only a hint of mockery.

"That's cause she's an elf!"

"She's very pretty." Kelah says, and thankfully this homage deflects what she knows the boy was going to say. Her mother's skin is pale but hers is burgundy. Her mother smells of lavender and she smells like overripe wine - well probably the boy probably doesn't know about wine. But I have her eyes, the amethysts that Father loves in his two special ladies.

While Kelah thinks about the strange looks she gets from beautiful angels the boy returns to the attention demanding excavation. Father says the angels are blind, that they only see beauty where it's easy and safe.

"Are you and your mom Lost?" she asks, and at this boy stops for a moment's reflection and then vigorously shakes his head.

"We just come for the food. What about you and your mommy? Are you guys Lost?"

"No. But we don't worship at our house." The boy pauses, suddenly solemn, unsure if that matters. He decides religion pales in import compared to his quest.

"Do you want to help me? I'm making a portal but I need a key for my hole."

"You should make it boogers." Kelah says, a mischievous glint in the corner of her eye.

The boy laughs heartily, a laugh that belies any further talk about silly things like gods.

=-=-=

"I can't believe I let you talk me into this. Tiamat's hide - a Lost picnic!" Miranda moans quietly on their way back. Teilue is asleep in her arms and Ezel is pushing an empty stroller. Light is fading from the air as the light boys come out. Thankfully their neighborhood does the sensible thing and takes up a collection - also good that these Hive urchins have jobs they can make a future out of.

(Neither woman could tell you the second rung on that particular career ladder.)

"What about that guy - the blue eyed one?" Ezel asks with genuine interest. It would be nice if Miranda found somebody, then Ezel and her husband Kelliath would have someone to go on double dates with.

"He was an Indep who couldn't take a hint - and no, they're not all bad but this guy - well he was gunning for Factol and didn't see the irony." Ezel snorted in supportive disgust.

"And now, still single as ever, I have to spend an extra few hours at temple." Miranda adds peevishly. Ezel finds her friend's miserly attitude toward faith somewhat amusing. She'll go on about Bahamut but hates every service.

"Do you pray for a husband?" Ezel asks while knowing the answer - her friend's unintended blasphemies are very amusing.

"I don't think Bahamut will appreciate what I want a man for. Suffice to say - not a husand."

Ezel never quite understood this part, where the gods made rules while at the same time asking for worship. To the elf that was like your banker or bricklayer getting to say what went on in your love life. The spirits take what is given and give in return. Even fasting and meats are just part of the deal - the rest of our lives are to do with as we please.

"Do you think it works? These social events the Lost put on?" Miranda sounds doubtful and fearful all at once, as if apostasy might be contagious.

Ezel thinks of the mother and her tiefling, out in the open among those who wouldn't judge.

"Yes. I think so. For some people the Athar must have a certain appeal."

This time it is Miranda who snorts in disgust, thinks to provide a description of that kind of people - but then she clamps her mouth shut when Ezel gives her a look.

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How Many Angels Could Fit In

How Many Angels Could Fit In A Soup Kitchen?

Two things that always ensure raised voices and what-passes-for-people getting thrown out of bars are the topics of celestial population and occupation. How many are there? and What are they doing with their time? are subjects actually forbidden to be broached in certain establishments.

These are questions that invite sides to be taken, even in as unlikely a place as an Athar picnic luncheon. Before you read further, please remember I am a neutral purveyor of argument, that none of the positions given below have won anything from me but a passing affiliation. Even then rest assured those past infatuations have long since surrendered to my journalistic integrity. And now, as you cutters have taken up my bar tab for the night, allow me to lead you through the posts marking the possibly over-treaded trails:

1. There are infinite angels competing with infinite fiends.

The idea here is that while there are celestials aplenty to help you with your myriad life problems the sad state of affairs is that there are equal number of innumerable fiends that have to be countered at every moment lest Evil triumph and turn creation into an unending nightmare.

Go down this road and what you'll find is that once we're talking about infinities we're bound for some headaches of the skull splitting kind. I mean, do the two infinities cancel each other out? If you have an infinite number of any group dedicated to any single task, should they not achieve it if the task is at all possible?

Even if you divide fiends and celestials by type, you still end up with infinite groups working counter to other infinite groups. (Though maybe some groups are finite, in which case should they automatically lose?)

But perhaps, for example, the infinite guardinals and infinite yugoloths are not cohesive groups but separated by infinite distances of Elysium and the Lower Planes of Conflict respectively. So while most of us think of these exemplars as coordinating their actions on their respective home planes, what is actually happening is you have cells of varying sizes working toward common goals but unwilling and/or unable to work together to achieve these respective triumphs of Good and Evil.

This one isn't going to be settled without some Mathematicians around, and as it does the head in before the onset of intoxication I'd like to move on...

2. Clueless lives are a bulwark against the fiends.

This idea puts the burden of the Alignment War's outcome on the Clueless of the Prime Material planes. Yes, there are mortals (and their derivatives who've found some measure of immortality) with homes on the Upper Planes, and some are cared for by a parenting celestial being, but these guys are the lucky exceptions to the stark nature of reality - whoever wins the world of the Prime Material Plane wins the Cosmic Game.

This is one of those ideas that sends the average uppity planar into fits of pique. Some will point out that the Primes are actually a burden on the heavenly hosts, because it is their ignorance that makes them susceptible fodder for the fiends. The Prime's importance is a problem, one that might conceivably be countered by the primal Clueless getting their hands on the educational materials given to planar grade-schoolers.

Others will say that the Primes only seem to be more important because of the reporting bias that results from the current (meaning millennial) ratings garnered by Prime-based alignment conflicts. For some reason, despite the seeming disdain many planars have for primal Clueless (as opposed to the backwater planars that apparently have a rustic charm) the majority of planar gossip and journalism deemed entertaining is centered about various planets on the Prime Material Planes.

However, let us for a moment humor this hypothesis - that the choices of beings on the Primes carry more weight and so the angels focus more time there than anywhere else. One could see the logic that because these beings are so divorced from the planes, and thus do not see reality shift so directly from their choices of alignment, that their choices are thus more...puissant. Yet then one might wonder why the alignment choices of elementals does not seem to worry the angels as much, though one could argue that we simply aren't aware as to the extent of exemplar operations in any of these planes...

While no decisive conclusion can be reached, one has to wonder about the importance both Good and Evil have placed on those little Prime worlds whose continents are less than a drop in the Elemental Plane of Water...

3. A mass immigration of mortals to Paradise would taint the Upper Planes.

Instead of angels going out and bringing a little shine and spit polish to the rest of existence, why not let everyone join the party in Paradise? Looking out the window, seeing the begging urchins of Sigil, one has to wonder why the angels can't at least take the children...

Of course the question then becomes how many children? Actually, the question before that is why children? If a child commits an evil act, is that act somehow not thrown upon the scales of the balance? In the War of Alignments, is not a sin a sin no matter the inherited cruelty or brain scouring conditioning that led to its commission? And if it is not so, then at what age does Evil have its due?

The planes, especially the Outer Planes, do not have the dichotomy between setting and character, between place and person, that the Inner and especially Prime Material planes possess. The inhabitants of an area in the Outer Planes determine its location - gather enough evil in one corner of Heaven and that corner is no longer Paradise but someplace else entirely. Perhaps it is swallowed up by the Seven Houses of Evil, perhaps it is taken by Chaos or Law or Neutrality.

But regardless of its destination, what happens is that the Idea of Good is done violence. Yes, some can be saved by the celestials, but never enough to counter the Evil mortals do with or without the helpful guidance of the fiendish races.

4. There is a greater order to the Multiverse, and Paradise must be earned.

This is one favored by some lawful types, who explain that not everyone can simply go to Paradise because it is a gift for those who lived good lives. This is kind of hard to swallow, given the caprice of circumstance that leads to Evil. A child raised on a Prime world ruled by Abyssal princes is less likely to be good than one raised in a peaceful elven forest ruled by an eladrin blooded nobility.

Now one might convince me that a petitioner who arrives from a place not on the Upper Planes has more value or power than one who lived and died in Paradise but that is a whole different thing than "earn"...

5. Angels are Good beings serving the Good, but are not Goodness elementals.

Angels fall. We all know this, yet for some reason there are a lot of smart folks that think celestials are synonymous with Good, that they can't be anything other than slaves to their alignment. There's a whole nature vs. nurture argument to be had here, but for now let us take the incontrovertible fact that angels fall and note that this seems to indicate that angels are subject to temptation. Which means that they have free will, which means regardless of the cultural norms of Paradise angels are choosing, via this free will, to take up the sword (some Primes say "go to bat") for a bunch of whiny, ungrateful, forgetful, selfish, almost incorrigible mortal souls.

This must get tiring. I mean, sure, there are the soldiers who fight for civilization's light, teachers who bend over backwards to see children educated, politicians who risk their lives against corruption...well, actually, okay, there are lots of inspiring points of Light amongst mortals, but there's a whole lot of rotten apples overwhelming the sweet ones!

So, yes, this must get tiring. Which means that angels need to have their own personal lives, their own past times and relationships if they are going to fight the good fight. They need something to hold on to, and that thing is Paradise itself. They live in the goal, and because the foundation of this goal are those aforementioned points of Light, they can rise again and again to work toward our salvation.

6. Angels are not your bitch.

This follows from some of the stuff I've already said, but with a bit of a twist - see, angels are people too. They just happen to be people who live in Paradise. So if they decide to take up underwater basket weaving rather than solve the political woes of a bunch of Primes too stupid to avoid raising the latest evil mastermind into a position of power...well...too bad.

Because, again, angels are not your bitch. Some of them obviously enjoy helping mortals, some of them feel obligated to, and some of them might not give a cranium-rat's ass about diving into every screw up mortals manage to squeeze themselves into despite the myriad warning signs FROM THEIR OWN HISTORIES!

Some angels might really just like aerial ballet, or wood carving, or studying poetry written when the ruins of Pelion were not ruins but the architecture of High Civilization. And before we judge them, we should ask ourselves why we can't be bothered to take up some more effort into solving our own problems? Do they owe us because they lucked out in the where-are-you-born lottery? Because the petitioners that rose to the Upper Planes ended up choosing to lead good lives, regardless of the circumstances of their birth?

Is it so unjust that angels get to enjoy Paradise that this very enjoyment must implode in the fact of others' suffering?

Honestly?

I don't know...though I suppose I could have stopped at the fifth mug of ale and donated some of this fine currency to an orphanage...if only philosophizing wasn't such thirst-inducing work...

Well that's just great. I went and killed my own buzz...

sciborg2
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~The Selection of an

~The Selection of an Afterlife~

"It seems to me that we were, all of us, never meant to live a life decided by the fears and habits of others.

If we know our destination is Hell...then our job is not to think of sin and salvation. It's to shine as bright as we may, with skin like salmon.

So people will look up each moonlit night...and remember we were here."
-Secret Six #34

He looks down at his chest, wheezing impatiently as his flesh and armor go about their reknitting, remarking jovially to his companions about the advantages of the cheerfully damned.

They, in turn, stare in horror at the devil-pledged dwarf. In the indent of his imploded ribcage there is a wounded horned beetle pumping out ichor in place of a heart, an insect whose six legs have been traded for branching tentacles giving life to muscle and tissue apparently denuded of veins.

The paladin of Lathander is retching, the cleric of Mishikal has gone deathly white in prelude to fainting. The elven druid kneels to the level of his fallen companion, studying the devils' handiwork with amicable distaste.

"Hope...hope the others caught the bastard." This reference to the eldritch knight ogre responsible for the dwarf's caved in chest comes through as gargled out words, the oily brown substance that has replaced his blood bubbling out of his still healing lungs.

"You...you should probably stop talking." The druid isn't sure what to say, or what to think about this.

The dwarf seems to regard the reconstitution of the beetle's iridescent carapace for a moment, like a tinker examining the innards of a clock, then dismisses his companion's concern with a friendly enough wave of a gauntlet encased hand.

"Be fine...wound's deep, fatal enough back in the old days....before..." The druid takes this as an inroad toward sating his own curiosity. Words tumble out, as if racing each other across the track of his throat.

"Why did you do...who...how could...allow...what happened exactly?" The paladin, their fainted cleric's head in her lap, looks up at the druid's question. It'll do her well to listen. Already the judging fist of her conscience is rising - she knows she needs to justify traveling with someone so clearly and completely tied to the Evil of Hell.

The undying dwarf sputters a laugh, as though about to launch into a comedic story fit for a late night in a tavern, then drawing as much breath as possible begins to wheeze out the story of his deal with the devils.

=-=-=

I come from a world of clustered islands, the largest perhaps twice the size of the Cage. Between these tight-knit highrise plateaus is a deep indigo sea blanketed with frosted sheets of ice. At night you can sometimes make out yellow eyes peering back up at you, though its hard to say between how many creatures those ocular lamps are divided.

There are bridges of petrified wood, aboreomantic devices grown and calcified by the engineer druids who derived the invention from some lost Heirophant's attempt at empire. Most of these bark-stone pathways connect the links of the island chains, but some actually stretch across the inky waters to other disparate parts of the globe. Only the most powerful dirigibles do not rely on these fossilized arches, but then all seven of those of aerial vehicles are the property the archmagi, floating city-states better left to their own devices...or at least the witch-captains should have been left to themselves...

"Still, it's hard to stay mad at the young, and only a liar would say he didn't understand the roots of their foolishness. Better a child who falls outta the tree and breaks his neck than the one who's too much of a coward to climb, right?"

These orchards of roads, together, span most of my world in a web woven of tree-craft converted to stone. Each of them, in turn, has had sections claimed, sections hollowed out, and even sections repaired and sections still shattered. Scaffolding can stay up for years after a war, 'cause only the druids' defossilization alchemicals can enliven the wood enough to regenerate.

Seen from griffin-back an arch is an amazing sight. There are cities attenuated across their length, spires rising up to accommodate rising populations and batches of undead tree fungus creating their own approximations of forests. History moves on but remnants of the past are scattered on the ice below - skeletons of battlefields and the ruins of razed populations. Both the stonebark- and island-folk say that though Time grinds and grinds, neither the Ice nor the Dwarves allow the world to forget.

I could bore you with anecdotes from my childhood shepherding dire-termites on the stonebark, or years of misspent youth as a pseudo-shaman chasing fungal relevations, but the story of my hell-bond pretty much begins right after the end of the first global Bridge War. Even the guardian trolls got involved, the ascetics emerging from the monastic igloos they'd built under the arches.

"I know it won't mean as much to you all given the low quality stock you see on the Wheel, but try to imagine trolls as the most wise and egalitarian of the druid bred giants, and then imagine the one race they actually got right getting dragged into the territorial foolishness of shorter-lived races."

By the end of the war I'd given up on the fungus saving us from ourselves, seeing as I'd ingested certain species myself for the berzerker advantages they conferred on the battlefield. And the blood of the enemy, slain in honorable combat...there were scriptures to be read in his innards that no hallucinogenic could deliver or even hope to decipher. It was a good decision, taking blood lust as the new alternative state, my new way to get high. A more dwarven way.

Honorable war is still war, and even when family is honorably slain it doesn't cancel the blood debt. Mine were killed with flamestrikes mercifully delivered from griffin-back, my old village turned to ash stuck in the grooves of the stonebark. When we'd healed up enough to start thinking about repayment whole lot of us came to find we'd missed out on the sweep of political changes, came to find dwarven blood-debts are disagreeable to the entreaties of peace our rulers were eagerly exchanging.

Even dwarves were getting all soft, making much talk about the next generation inheriting nothing but violence if we kept to the old ways. "Violence always sounds bad when taken out of context." Hard to believe some of these had been far from the home front, dwarven veterans impossibly broken by the supposed horrors of war. "I would never use the term cowards...better to say they were tired, understandably tired even if they were wrong."

And the veterans were being coddled and propped up by the peaceniks. This movement was the folly of youth, generations born in the Bridge War's last century. We were off fighting when ideally we should have been raising out children, and so we'd ending up breeding a weak-hearted crop that believed in peace without honor, that didn't understand the harsh necessity of justice. Cultures got mixed up in refugee camps, racial ideals were unfortunately diluted.

The dwarves, as seems to usually happen, got the worst of it.

"Don't get me wrong, everyone's got a part to play - but when a dwarf starts thinking like an elf or a human no good's going to come of it. I mean, even the dwarves that were druids fought for their clans -and thus against each other- until the Heirophant slammed down her Censure."

Humans get old and like to complain about changing times, but they can't really see the epochal shifts in their culture like dwarves and elves. Most times, humans who complain just didn't have a good account of their own cultural history - the supposedly sudden change had been happening for years if not decades.

For us dwarves, needless to say, it was very different and far more painful. It was hard to swallow, but if that first world war had shown us anything is was that dwarves were nothing if not adaptable - we'd been the backbone of various ground units and ridden griffins over enemy skies. Some of us even took the fight to the trolls. We knew how to shift with the tides of war. That we might see the end of blood loyalty in a matter of centuries was, in truth, a larger cause than the claiming of the owed debts themselves. I found myself standing on common ground with those who wanted to kill me, and those I wanted to kill.

Sadly, it wouldn't be a large patch of ground if you were inclined to find one to hold all our numbers. A shard of a plateau if we counted our non-veteran sympathizers. We were warriors, not assassins, and caught in an era with an Heirophant strong enough to engineer a good long lasting peace. "Get a human to live long enough and apparently all the mistakes of the first ninety years are a good learning experience. At least that's the way it seemed to work with the female the druids elected as their undying leader."

Our clumsy plans to start some new wars were easily infiltrated, given our eagerness to trust any youngsters we viscerally needed to believe were upstanding traditionalists. We were caught at national borders, or turned in by children and grandchildren after being repeatedly warned not to go around corrupting the youth. Found myself sharing a cell block with a dwarf I'd sworn to kill for burning up a nice percentage of immediate family. After the first year in lockup I found myself reminiscing about the good old days with him before I'd catch myself and recall what he'd done to me and my kin. Thought about killing him often enough, but like I said there were so few of us now. And he was an honorable enemy - he deserved better than getting shanked in the showers.

Figured we could wait until the next war. Even Heirophants got greedy - for what else but imperial conquest were those ocean spanning bridges made for? When we were released back to the care of our ungrateful spawn my blood-enemy and I swore to keep in touch. He must have known, by the end, what he meant to me but I like to think we both hoped it would settled one way or another on an actual battlefield.

Prison actually formalized and forged our conspiracy, but the Heirophant was unassailable in her quest for a less violent world. We kept in touch with each other, but all we had to talk about was how peaceful things were.

As we got older we got antsier - we seemed to have entered into a halcyon age that would never be broken. When we saw our blood-enemies at weddings - well that was the worst. A nightmare, the prohibition on kin-killing assuring us blood-debts would now never be paid. Got it into our heads to start publicly taking some life-binding oaths, the kind that hold to this life even past death.

To die without at least one blood debt unpaid was to not die at all.

My world saw a rise in dwarven banshees but no end to the Pax ín Tellús. Instead of being seen as heralds they were yesterday's war wound, addled undead veterans trotted out to show the new "thank the gods you were born after we fixed the world for you" generation the folly of hatred and the unending nightmare awaiting those who harbored notions of blood debt.

I saw one of these traveling peace ministries when it came to my town, found myself relieved the banshee wasn't the veteran from our shared incarceration. Hadn't heard from him in years and of course you can't help but wonder, can't help but feel a noose tighten every time one of us falls and then rises.

The banshee was a hero, a martyr who died into unlife for the sins of her child. Her son had already married into a clan that owed blood to his mother, but she'd went and sworn the oath anyway despite the futility. I tried to thank her for her racial patriotism through the warded glass but she just stared at me with a blank sort of hate, looking for all the world like one of those aquatic mysteries that watch us from the other side of the ice.

My own great-nieces swore that while they believed in the new peace they'd never go and dishonor my years in the war. I wish I could believe them, but I knew their loyalty was born out of youth and convenience - I'd lived and been stationed in such distant spans they'd have to cross the world to mate with one of my blood enemies. My nephew and his wife tried to broach the subject of my own impending banshee-hood, my nephew even offering to try and hire assassins ("God, what a wood-skull! What would a bark-miner know about contacting assassins? And what kind of dwarf would make use of 'em?!").

I went far down the fossilized curvature that night, saddling over the fences and their warnings, and looked down at the lamp eyed ocean dwellers. Did they have families and traditions all their own? Were they locked beneath the ice because they were demons, or did they seal the ocean to get away from land dweller wars? Were they near mindless things, and if so was the banshee I saw that afternoon sharing the same mental state?

"They can't see it, your relatives. They can't understand why you have to kill me." I turned, though I can't say I was overly startled - not by the presence anyway. Part of me had wanted to get alone in the hopes that one of my own would come find me. The voice, now that was a punch in the gut. I'd thought it'd be one of mine, someone who needed to clear the ledger of one precious line. I'd been thinking the same after today, but it seemed sad to hunt down my fellows when I knew their children would weep but never come calling. That either me or the other would die knowing the chain was broken, and that the other might rise up as a banshee because of it.

"It's good of you to help me pay one of mine - but don't you got debts of your own?" I still hadn't turned around. For some reason I was squinting, trying to make out what our oceanic witnesses were making of this meeting. They seemed to be moving away from us with some haste.

The man who'd made ashes of my wife and child laughed and in truth for all he'd done that was the first and only time I actually hated him.

"Not here for that. Not here for dying at all actually." I turned. He was covered in black metal that made a tight fitting carapace over his skin. The flesh of his face, the only part of him uncovered, seemed to grow out of this armor. He smiled and it looked like he had blood on his teeth. But it wasn't blood. It was light welling up from depths of his throat.

Seemed to me there were things worse than a banshee. "Course I wasn't looking properly then. Wasn't aware of the gift being offered."

"What are you here for then? You're scaring away all the fish." I gestured to the unknown entities swimming under ice miles below.

"I'm here to make you killing me matter."

=-=-=

If you told me one of the witch-captains was once a dwarf I wouldn't have believed it. Even now, seeing as all I saw were his bones, it's hard to be sure. But then dwarves were nothing if not adaptable - we'd strike out from a hundred directions, never giving up until our enemy lay dead at our feet or we'd accomplished our goal.

The dirigible came down at night, alighting down on an actual island. "Feeling stone under my feet - real stone - made the weight of the lich's proposal all the more real." The fish - or whatever they were - gave the island a wide berth, the ring of their eyes growing wider with every foot of the witch-captain's descent. The script running along the ruins here seemed to quiver in anticipation.

On the way here my family's killer explained that the culture war was as good as done, that the banshee "stunt" had been the last charge of a failed resistance. The very concept of clan was vanishing, thanks to the progress brought on by the druids' bioengineering. Travel was getting easier, more bark roads were being created. There was even talk of descending onto the ice. People were moving away from their family homelands, taking up new jobs created by the development of all kinds of arcana. The Heirophant wanted civilization to be a world-spanning organism, one that would never think to make war on itself lest it injured its limbs.

"It was a sick joke that there was room for crime families in her future but the blood of honorable dwarves would now never be paid in kind."

The witch-captain, a skeletal man clad in silks from bygone millennia, had watched these developments with resignation and consternation - loyalty to the blood of the clan had been a venerated tradition before he'd died his first death. "It was a strange thing to think I had more kinship with this undead horror oozing ethereal pus than with my nieces and nephews."

The lich stood before us like a once interred priest dug up and reanimated for the quality of his sermons. Ringed by his banshee attendants, he explained to us the way it was going to be, the way we could save the past from the future. The politicians and diplomats who'd started the war had somehow marched History past us before we were even quit of those now healed-over trenches we'd carved into the petrified wood.

We could fight to the death here before him, trying to settle as much as debt as we could. We could fight in gladiatorial arenas or we could hunt each other down like gecko-stags in the fungal forests. Regardless, no matter, it would all come to nothing. There'd be funerals, and weeping, and then the world would quickly move on, traveling new roads as they grew to better leave us behind. The future would sigh in relief at our passing.

The debts would never be taken up, and thus our deaths would be nothing but darkly humorous jokes. Of those who fell many would be condemned to spend eternity as banshees until released by an act of guilt-laden mercy. Then their souls would have no choice but to slink toward the Mountain of Moradin. How could we face our god knowing that our world had failed to uphold the tenets of his divine revelation?

The alternative, damnation, was the only way to squeeze meaning from generational stones. We would be hammers shattering hearts made of barkstone, immortal crustaceans forever bearing witness just under the ice. We would raise the stakes in a way that would give answer to the miscegenations born from the intermingling of blood feuding clans.

This is what the lich promised us, the devil-bound oaths that he would spend his immortality guaranteeing. He did not foresee betrayal, telling us the devils were too proud to cheat at this challenge.

The witch-captain uttered the Diamond Oath pledged to Keeper of Secrets Under the Mountain, its potency assured by the veteran chaplains among us. The bargain was struck on this side of Hell, all that was left was to clasp hands with the infernal Other. If we were still here three nights from now there would be no turning back.

As the undead dwarf walked back to his airship with a cheetah's casual grace I called out a question - "What binds your banshees to you? What oath did they fail to uphold?"

The lich turned, its pinpoint green eyes boring into my soul. At last I noticed his teeth were all black-silver agates.

"They thought to stop what they believed to be a descent toward undead corruption, but by taking action against the Chief Necromancer they betrayed their oaths to their king."

To our credit, all of us were there three days later. The world had gone mad, but us dwarves were nothing if not adaptable.

=-=-=

The kocrachons draw out my surgery, and never once do they offer me anesthetics.

=-=-=

I come from a world of clustered islands, the largest perhaps twice the size of the Cage. Between these tight knit high rise plateaus is a deep indigo sea blanketed with frosted sheets of ice. At night you can sometimes make out yellow eyes peering back up at you, though its hard to say between how many creatures those ocular lamps are divided.

Every dwarf has an ancestor now tied to Hell. Some of them still wander the planes, undying warriors aiding adventurers and angels in the fight against Evil. They are not easily injured and definitely not easily killed, their iron armor grafted onto them by the powers of Dis. If one of them should encounter any others of their kind, the first respite from their respective causes requires a duel to the death. Following death, the spirit of the dwarf is claimed by the Infernal Father.

The dwarves of my world worship these Hell bound veterans, making temples to them to honor their valor and their loyalty to traditional war. Every dwarf can claim at least one such damned ancestor, and thus every dwarf is touched by the history of their originating clans. Every dwarf feels the ache of the past, the honor of the warrior that overshadows their steps as a goal to live up to. This shared pain, the touch of Hell that leaks out from every ancestral shrine, is the heart of their racial pride, the blood debt that binds every dwarf to every one of his brothers and sisters.

The shrines are what hold together the united dwarven race. These foundation stones of their past are the corner stone of their future.

=-=-=

One year after this story, our narrator was finally, seven centuries after taking the Hell bound oath, killed by a rabid gorristo. The tanar'ri in turn was killed by another of the dwarven Hell bound - the two were supposed to duel after they'd completed their defense of a Hinterland orphanage. That is the site of their burial, their final rites overseen by an elven druid, a cleric of Mishikal and a paladin sworn to Lathander.

Their descendants pray that the pair find their way to Dispater's back alley of godlings, that once there their courage, loyalty, and honor will someday poison Hell from within.

"It wouldn't hurt to light a candle for Jona - We are, all of us, feeling for the worlds that move between the cracks in our senses. Light a candle for your friend. Good hearts push through many boundaries. Have faith, Christoff.

Have faith in something."
-JM McDermott, Never Knew Another

sciborg2
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The Medallion of Time and

The Medallion of Time and Place I

The Medallion of Time and Place weighs heavy on my neck, forever showing me shadows of myself that branch out from possible pasts to possible futures. I am a watchdog (get it?) set over Sigil in all its myriad forms.

Wait. You didn't think there was only one in existence? You think one city could visit all the Great Wheels?

Oh wow. You only know the Multiverse of your birth. Platonic Ideas and Forms, you're a tour group of Meta-Clueless!

Well that's great. Just great.

I thought anyone wielding a Subtle Knife would have a better grasp on the reality of fractal realities. You lot are a bunch of those got-lucky-in-a-mysterious-pawn-shop type blokes aren't you?

Oh sorry, you picked the knife off of a demigod's corpse. I don't why you think getting a hyper-real artifact on a lucky draw of the Dungeon Encounter Lottery is cause to put yourselves above the noble profession of kids who visit pawn shops. Some of them turn out to be heroes you know?

Alright, well, let's just worry about the present circumstances shall we? Sigil is a forest here, and the Lady of Pain - yes, OF COURSE she's the same in every Cage! - is attended by the silver walkers - think sculptures roughly woven together from refractions of moonlight. There's a city, of sorts, but it's a somnucropolis under the soil. The tree roots have impaled the Sleepers and drunk from their dreams, that's the whispering you hear from the leaves and rustle of bark.

The silver walkers attend the trees - pruning, watering, plucking the dream fruit whenever each one enters its individual season. Do NOT touch the fruit. Not because anyone will hurt you, but you'll lose a piece of your heart to the dreams and always be lonely. You can't imagine how much more real the Sleepers are than you or even your gods.

We just need to find the right tree, and once we're sitting comfortably we will sink into the soil and enter our next destination - in this Multiverse your knife works as a skeleton key...not very secure when you think about it. Using real people, real identities, that makes more sense...

=-=-=

What's that? Hell looks sort of empty? Right, I should have told you, the elementals run everything here. Got sick of the Alignment War and turned all the exemplars to currency.

Heh, coins out of their bones? They wish. No, they are pretty much what you'd expect from living specimens, save that the elementals blinded them all.

Honestly, I'm not sure why, but I think it was a punishment for upsetting the integrity of this Multiverse. Can't really blame them, not after seeing Sigil-as-Torus shattered around the base of the Spire, its walls squirming as they try to punish, to form ineffectual mazes. The Lady doesn't bother with that failure, left the dabus to dodder around making up nonsensical rebuses...This was in another Wheel mind you. We're still good to go with Forest Sigil, though inter-Sigil travel will put you all in for a bender -

Ah, here we are, an entrance to the Mineral Deposits of Dis. Ladies first.

I insist.

=-=-=

Yeah, every lotta'em has their own way of doing things. The Mineralites aren't much for plucking, they turned the fiends' eyes to jewels. Yeah it is weird to see their eyes frozen in terror, knowing their sight doesn't work anymore...

No, I don't know what I'm going to do with a blind advespa but I'm sure something will come to me.

Wait. Let it out of its soul gem...no. No. Look I'm sorry you feel bad for fiends, but you're going to have to settle for being glad I didn't buy what I needed with angels. And I wasn't about to not get the change I was owed for those two arcanaloths - before you ask, it was Salties, not me that dessicated their eyes until they went blind.

I really think instead of worrying over the natural born rights of the fiendish you should concentrate on the task at hand. The chisels were crafted from the hyper-real Tower of Dis, we're going to use them to fix up some runes in another Wheel's Deep Etheral to seal in their Unseelie Court...

sciborg2
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Communion

Communion

When you first enter the crystal sphere you think you see canyons and gorges as pockmarks digging deep into the black inner surface likes scars on the inside of skin. Indentations where cities grow like tartar in teeth, gith inhabitants living off the power of the fiery blue megaflora roses that function as this accursed sphere's stars.

Only when you are far past the curves that demarcate the length of the sphere's radii do you see with the clarity offered by distance. The inside of this crystal shell adrift in phlogiston has been carved with the same runes that mark the silver of your step-daughter's amulet, the same runes that you have been told keep the god confined to the world in the center of this particular instance of dark Wild Space.

The god of your dreams, the sleeping god to whom you have come to offer your family's allegiance.

Still, it unnerves you to be confronted by the scale of the deity's incarceration. You'd thought it was trapped on its home plane or perhaps shut away in an artifact only to find an entire crystal shell has been reworked to serve as the prison of a god. These thick clusters of asteroids born from shattered planetary crusts - you know you sail through the remnants of worlds...

The way the shadows the fall on the pocked marked rocks, it almost suggests -

"The faces on the stones look like they're angry." Your stepdaughter's gone quiet, wrapping her one hand around her stomach even as the other goes to the amulet. Someone talks to her through the jewel, and it seems to soothe her.

It is still hard to think of Alysia as connected to something divine, but the acts you've witnessed bar everything now but the willful ignorance of the damned. And how could you dispute her last miracle - the resurrection of your wife, Alysia's mother? No, the girl's connection is proved every night you hold Leera in your arms.

"The faces - who are they?" Your brother Ahmed asks nervously. There is something unsightly in the expression of his faith - a man should bow to the god, not to the girl-child. Ahmed is too impatient, or perhaps too desperate, for Truth - his questions are always colored by the pleading nature of his tone. But he makes a good protector, and he's really only been like this since the burns cost him an arm.

Alysia smiles, relieved and eager to share her latest revelation. "They're harmless Uncle - and don't worry, they aren't like us. They are the angels that didn't believe."

=-=-=

Leera braces herself against your body as she sinks into sleep. You look at her with a husband's compassion while knowing the night brings the same dreams to all of your family.

Dreams only your stepdaughter delights in.

=-=-=

With a final gesture the six intertwined sequoias are swallowed by a column of fire, a golden cyclone that blinds your enemies even as the illuminating pillar cuts darkness from the night as its shining length extends towards the sky.

The false daylight shows you the Mantis Court's numbers extend back to the eastern horizon, waves of thrikeen astride the backs of grasshoppers and wasps. Your fellow were-jaguars will not hold them for long but hopefully it will be long enough.

The burning whirlwind unfurls into and across the sky, the aurum flames devouring the thunderheads the Mantis Court had shepherded over your temples. Freed from the fear of lightning, the lycanthropes below fight with renewed vigor.

That was a side effect of your spell, its true purpose revealed only when the ten summoned dragons spiral around the girth of your mountain to ravage the insects below. Their ruby scales shine in the burning exhalations rushing past the grins of their maws.

The cloying sweet smoke fueled by the burning of chitin and ichor is stinging your eyes. That it reaches you is not a good sign despite the blinking out of stars serving as an auspicious omen. Despite the aid of your dragons the thrikeen's numbers are too many to cull. The wyrms are fighting for the sky with unexpected frustration, their draconic bodies harangued by the Mantis Court's wasps.

The curvature of time-space is riddled with hairline cracks but the thrikeen have ascended so much of the mountain. Never has the faith been so close.

You return your attention to the jade jaguar altars and the still shallow basin they surround. You take up the chanting of the others as your raise up your knife of obsidian and drive its length into another sacrificed martyr. As the sounds of clashing metal and thunderous evocations grow ever closer, you find yourself desperately wondering just how much blood it will take to tear open the way between worlds...

=-=-=

In what passes for morning in the eternal night of Wild Space the usual quiet extends among the crew sharing your blood, forcing those hired onto the family business to similarly reign in the impulse for conversation. (Bringing them here you've already bought their lives from them so it is a little thing to demand their politeness.)

It takes a few hours for the horrors of the dream to break their echoing hold on your minds.

Into this calm comes the voice of your brother Ahmed, always attempting to glean details of the dream from your stepdaughter. He figures knowledge will stave off his revulsion, as if he were an apprentice at an abattoir attempting to deaden his sensitivity to the slaughter of livestock. The one massive fist left in his possession is curled around Alysia's tiny hand, but for all his corded strength it is she who leads him to his tasks of rigging and checking over the sails.

You look away from them while others strain to hear the history of the god delivered in the cheerful, innocent tones of a child.

=-=-=

You whoop in exultation as what is of the Prime gives way to what is Holy - the tracks of Being are flooded, the laws of reality struck down as the mold of the world is recast.

You exit the temple, your tears sliding through human wrinkles into the groove of your smile. The thrikeen and their mounts suffocating at the foot of the temple steps, their corpses piling all the way back to the eastern horizon, heralds a conclusive termination of the Chitinous Age.

And what is this triumph but a dowry? A miracle offered as a promise of the Empire to be delivered as your god writes the scripture of His presence into the phlogiston.

=-=-=

"This god...frigthens me." You whisper, as if that might keep the god from hearing you with Alysia's ears that rest on the other side of the wall. Leera raises her head to her elbow, blankets sliding off the slope of her breasts. Your eyes flicker over them, but your memories of intimacy cannot pierce the grey that has soaked into your soul.

(When was the last time you made love to your wife?)

Her sigh communicates her agreement as well as her impatience. You've been over this so many times. You think she'll ignore you but then a hand reaches out, brushes away one sweaty lock stuck to your forehead.

"Our people...we need a place to be safe. A new home world. This god promises us all this for our service."

These words, these justifications - they are the new prayers nightly repeated. You suspect they will not be replaced by the traditions and rituals of the deity you speed toward.

"The others will come. They will. It won't be like the dreams." she says as she kisses your forehead, as though it is her and not her daughter that has been given leave to speak prophecy. You hold take her in your arms then, your mouth pushing apart her lips...but the dance of your tongues only lasts for a moment. This is the last place to rekindle old passion, surrounded by angels imprisoned in the worlds long ago broken by wrath of your god.

Your wife and you sleep in an enclosure of interlocked limbs, and it occurs to you that perhaps you and Ahmed share the same weaknesses.

=-=-=

The god's disbelief cuts through all the thoughts of your skull, so many irreplaceable memories cleaved by its ire.

The thrikeen population of your world were naught but distraction. You feel Him running Himself along the miles-long wards carved across a vast black sphere - the crystal shell that surrounds your world. A lifetime of acolytes, childhood loves, even the comforts of faith - all gutted as your mind tries to share in your deity's awareness and mounting displeasure.

In moments you are little more than a drooling idiot, what remains of your mind sharing the experience of hammering apart planets and moons. Your eardrums unravel from the sound of the screams alone, the last terrified yells of peoples unimagined inhabiting worlds whose use you limited to the work of astrology.

=-=-=

"The a-asim-aasimon betrayed Him," Alysia proudly gets her mouth around the word even as she speaks it with hateful pronunciation, "The celestials who were supposed to herald His coming helped...someone...carve out the wards. They helped the bugs and shut Him away in His temple."

There are twin suns around the world dragged to the center of the black crystal shell, and in their light you see your stepdaughter's eyes have gone lambent. You accept this change with more resignation than surprise.

Alysia looks at Ahmed with the cat's eyes she's 'earned'.

"But now we're here and what should have been will come to pass."

You know those are words spoken by something much older than the girl standing before you. Your hand clenches your sword, its edge easing out from your scabbard, but there it is again - the persistent touch of your wife's stubby fingers. Slowly your tight fist blooms open, your fingers uncurling away from the hilt of your blade.

=-=-=

You are dead but there is nowhere for your soul to go. Your god is with you in this world, the world you pried open.

Unerringly you place one foot in front of the other, treading on a path to a portal.

Now the long pilgrimage begins.

=-=-=

The angels and their benefactors have sealed this world off from action as well as decay. Your landing is nothing less than a free fall through congealed layers of Time.

Beneath you is a nation-spanning expanse of insects strangled by an elemental alteration of air, the lifeless black compound eyes all staring up at you. It is not the welcome foretold by the old ways written into the translucent stones.

This is the Promised Land. This is where the Diaspora concludes.

Never have you hated your old gods so much, the ones you never prayed to and about whom you know only scattered facts gleaned from surviving shards of the Book. There is a piece of it in the drawer of a desk in your quarters - a fragment of that codex that rose as many hued quartz, birthed out of the womb of a far away world lost long ago.

Because of Them your people were forced to seek succor amongst the stars, because of their failure you have been tossed to this fate. The destruction of the crystal dragon flocks set as guardians, that is the greatest miracle you know of and it belongs to the relentless gods of your race's enemies.

As you catch sight of the temple where He is waiting, the crew gasps as Ahmed's burns heal and his lost arm begins to regrow.

You meet your stepdaughter's dusky amber eyes, and in their black slitted pupils you read your future. It comes as relief to know that soon your brother will take your place as this vessel's captain.

You're confident you can make it out when that happens. You only hope that Leera will come with you, that she loves you more than the daughter she lost months ago.

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A Desperate Night of Selling

A Desperate Night of Selling Myself Short (Part I)

"Hello - Are you the one who bears the appellation of Suunia?"

Suddenly the bar got brighter right around my personal space. Tasting copper in my mouth, feeling the hairs on the back of my neck all simultaneously stand at attention, I turned and suppressed a groan behind a very weak smile.

God Unknown, only my %$#@-ing friends would think it hilarious to set me up on a blind date with a parai!

(Note to self: Stop the daily complaining to everyone about having gone through every potentially compatible man, woman, hermaphrodite and other in the Cage...)

"Yeah...That's me." Part of me wanted to run or shove a fire ball down this gorgeous porcelain creature's throat. A bigger part of me wanted to know when my friends decided this was the best way of telling me I thought too highly of myself.

The thing made to look like an pensive and exceptionally attractive woman bowed her head slightly in greeting. She was a slender thing but her maker had put curves in all the right places.

"I am Exa-Nat." I was surprised at that. Did Parai have names? Wasn't there something in the Planar Naturae about them having a hivemind? Admittedly, like every ill bred male, my mind dallied on the idea of courting an entire race of such beauties. Did they all look alike or would there be some variety - I mean surely the body I was with mattered nothing to them?

Was it true there was nothing beneath their simple robes?

Remember the absorption. Some wiser part of me whispered, the part that had saved me from similar situations involving fiendish temptresses I'd stabbed through the heart. Contract is a contract after all - discipline the corner stone of my earned reputation.

I ran my hand through my lustrous black locks - a habit I've formed when I get nervous. Four out of five eligible Sigilians assure me that it's cute. I stopped. I had to make myself less attractive.

Or I could do the smart thing and say this was a mistake, call the whole thing off. Or would that just mean she - I mean it would just catch me off guard and take me back to Mechanus for the significant contribution I would make to the collective?

Well, balls in Baator! If I'm damned either way, I'll take the one with the pretty lady on my arm thank you very much!

I smiled, careful not to display more than a rough quarter of my perfect teeth. Despite my prodigious muscle control, I fear her aura lent enough light for them to glint in the darkness.

"And which establishment would the lovely Exa-Nat like to grace with her presence this evening?"

The parai smiled, taking my offered arm as my free hand lowered itself, in the way of the descending spider, to the hilt of my sheathed blade.

=-=-=

I had worn my best shirt, opened just enough to give hints of my beautiful pectorals, though now I was quick to button even the collar though it chafed the skin of my neck.

I also walked with a limp, lest the parai catch on to my athleticism. I did my best to belie my own physique, however it is not easy to hide the swaggered grace of a master warrior.

Normally I'd light our way with clever illusions and spectral escorts, but again to divulge my knowledge of the arcane arts would only serve to endanger my life.

As such, a hobbled gait bereft of fanfare characterized our journey from the Clerk's Ward wherein lay the tavern Sword Swallower's Haven to the House of Ind in the Lady's Ward.

Unfortunately for my present, self enforced predicament I had quite the reputation among the young, successful and attractive in the wealthier districts of the Cage. This forced me to murmur excuses to inquisitive friends as well as former lovers on what I presumed to be temporary hiatus from my arms.

I could only hope my companion bought my act, that she didn't realize just how spry I really was behind this veil of false injury...

=-=-=

At this point you must be wondering why I didn't dive head long into chaos and rank foolishness, accepting a single night of humiliation in exchange for my life. You might think I sought to preserve my reputation amongst the higher echelons of the higher wards.

You would be right, but for all the wrong reasons. My ego is not so fragile as my genuinely boorish arrogance might lead you to believe. Just as the parai's understanding of the situation was not as a woman going on a date but rather a recruiter of a hive mind that had absorbed many canny cutters from across the unending span of the Wheel.

It, or better stated they, knew of my reputation and likely done their research - to act the fool would present me as a willful deceiver. Instead, I had to convince the woman on my arm that my reputation was unearned, that I wasn't nearly as amazing as my friends had truthfully presented me to be in order to arrange this meeting of myself and the hive mind.

My lie had to make her think I was lying about the truth, that I would lower the quality of the collective if I were to be absorbed.

How did I fare? Well I'm telling you this story so that should give you some clue berk, but sadly I must be off to complete another job for a new employer...

~to be continued~

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All His World Was A Fist

All His World Was A Fist

"What'd he do?" I ask, and immediately I am met with glares from my fellows. Our guide shakes his head, whispers 'clueless sod' loud enough for me to hear, and then proceeds to answer me but not my question.

"It's Carceri berk. Likely he's done nothing, been born the wrong way." The others give me looks that tell me to drop it and move on. I fall into step, knowing we have our own problems, but I can't help but glance at the young man - boy, really - dangling from the gallows. His eyes have been taken by ravens, and before that his last tears were likely taken by flies. The light's soft here, perhaps due to the wetness of the soil, and so the shadows of his toes dance on his once taut, now corpse bloated stomach.

Why was he killed? Did he steal something? Or commit some other crime? Fall in with the wrong crowd, or try to save someone else from that crowd?

I look to the citizens here, wondering how many slipped over from the last incarnation of Curst. There's elvish blood here, dwarven too, might be some of them remember the slide. Yeah, these are the kind of people that'd string up a boy. Why though?

Because of who he loved? Because of skin color, which seemed a shade of tan gold no one else here seemed to share. We were too far way, I should have looked for a holy symbol on the kid, but likely that'd been stolen and pawned before the body was cold.

I bite my tongue as we make arrangements to some demodand ruin. I know we need to find this Emerald of Ulganor, that it will helps us defeat the cultists plaguing the dark underground of Ysgard...but the face of that boy still troubles me. Caught in grief, in fear, all this so clear even without his eyes.

I am left to pray before we set out, and I do so with new found fervor.

Who was he? Who was he to deserve such a fate?

Pelor suffuses my body with his spells, but my god gives no answers to the questions I ask...

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Reinterpretations of Self

Reinterpretations of Self Part I

This was a mistake, what I did. I want to talk to the enriynes councilor, but I'm afraid to say anything. I'm not so replaceable that I have to be free of doubt, but this I think is too much, though suffice it to say I don't know the rules as well as someone in my station probably should. Still, I'm confident my violation would warrant something more than a long soak in the liquid cold lakes of Cainia.

The worst part is I don't even know if it was worth it. I don't even know if I'm me. So this looming worse-than-death sentence over my head might just be me compromised by someone else's memory core.

What can I say? It felt real, and I decided to take a risk, just like I took a risk seducing my cornugon commander when I was a hamatula and when I backstabbed the well placed, popular seductress of Hell's nobility who thought to usurp the Hag Countess...

I shouldn't have told you that. It's the old me, or whoever this is, infecting me with his bad habits.

I have to keep myself - my new as-far-as-I-know real self - at the forefront.

This isn't going to be easy.

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Reinterpretations of Self

Reinterpretations of Self Part II

I can't help but laugh, though I'm thinking I probably shouldn't. It's the maybe-old-me asserting itself.

The baatezu bought me off a night hag, one of the untold billions of larvae in the wastes of Hades. Must have seen my potential, and given my rank in Hell, it could be said they were on to something.

But the problem is that if they chose me for the sense of order they sensed in me, boy were they mistaken. OCD with a smattering of mathematical skill does not a Lord of Order make.

It's amazing how many promotions you can get from the battlefield, never mind the wanton violence you engage in. Throw in some instinctual pattern recognition, and a healthy awareness of who *really* doesn't like you in the workplace, and you can get past the lesser baatezu ranks with remarkable ease.

Cornugon is an admittedly grueling stage, but it's one I even miss at times. It is amazing how loyal these guys are too each other. We drew lots after fragging our commander on Carceri, and yours truly was reported most fit for the promotion. I think this one I deserved, given my skill in turning coworkers against mid-level superiors.

Amnizu and gelugon, well those are all about getting in good with your buddies, and always keep the osyluths happy as you climb the ladder. Really, Amnizu was an easy one, you just bitch about the pitfiends and keep the demons from sailing in via the Styx. A healthy sense of paranoia might result in a few false alarms, but you just shrug those off as the price of vigilance. Next thing you know, you're guarding the one portal from Cainia to Nessus, a pretty cushy position where promotions are long in the waiting but almost inevitable.

And that's how I, a (possibly) former accountant with a huge gambling problem, became a pitfiend in service to Asmo-

Sorry, I mean to the Anonymous Dark Lord of Nessus.

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Chosen

Chosen

"One day you'll know. Big change always starts small."
- Joe the Barbarian

The stranger entered the down, stifling a groan as she dismounted from her horse. She'd drawn enough attention to herself just being who she was:

As to be expected, given the quality of her armor, the townfolk regarded her with something between awe and suspicion.

Folk like her don't come to places like Cinder, never mind she grew up in a town just a few hundred miles down the coast. But then most folk in places like Cinder don't usually travel a few hundred miles anywhere.

And, truth be told, she wouldn't be here if it wasn't for the boy. Still, in spite of the hard ride, she smiled even as two men came over, hats in hand, to ask if she needed help leading her horse to the only public stable, located in the only public inn.

To be sure, there was condescension in this, given that she'd obviously ridden for miles, but again she had grown up a few hundred miles from here. Even this misguided politeness, one not being extended to her male assistant, made her arrival feel akin to a homecoming.

Then she remembered the boy, and this time it was a sigh, not a groan, that she corralled in the fence of her teeth.

=-=-=

She makes her way to the stable, assistant in tow, the men folk overly impressed by her handling of a horse but the sound of their accents is still soothing.

There is a girl at the entrance to the inn, sweeping. The young woman's eyes meet her own, and the what she finds in the gaze of the innkeeper's daughter recalls her own youth:

All the challenges against authority, the endless tests and questions of competence, all the resentment of the boys and the chiding of the fish wives. Her father's deep concern of what the other men would think, that she bore with ease, but her mother's look, that voiceless exhausted pleading....

Thoughts of the boy thankfully pull her away from this homecoming in memory. Once the horses are seen to, they are given a table at the inn and immediately they (she) find themselves the focus of all eyes and ears.

Sitting in armor is uncomfortable, but it keeps her from becoming, in their eyes...whatever it is they see when they look at the inn keeper's daughter.

Her assistant - a squire with a gift for channeling their god - eyes the girl a in different way, and gets a warm smile of interest in return. It was the boy's irises - even she had to admit they were striking, watching the world through the curtain of his sandy blond bangs.

They'd make a good match actually.

A kick under the table reminds the young man of his clerical duties. The last thing she needed was an angry father or a heartbroken daughter. They needed to win the locals over if they were going to find the boy.

So they sit, quietly, her quick glares keeping him from starting up conversation.

Eventually, someone asks them what they're doing here, and finally her lips part in a perfect, gentle smile whose warmth was, save for a hint of nostalgia, totally false. It was, after all, in a town much like Cinder that she'd first learned to lie with her face and her eyes.

=-=-=

The next day her unkissed assistant is sullen, and it is only after an hour of riding that his need for constant conversation drives him to finally speak.

"They're going to be pretty disappointed the Faith isn't planning to build a new temple here."

She glances back at him, then turns forward once more, her smile at his frustration unseen.

"They'll be thankful when the Cacophony is finally silent."

Naming the Enemy snatches the smirk from her lips. Even her assistant quiets, if but for a moment. For them, the Cacophony is both more real and more banal, for they are among those set to guard against its rebirth.

The boy is part of this story. Part of the Key.

A wolf howls boldly in the daylight hours.

We just need to get to him first.

The child was born to the couple who owned the approaching farm, they'd learn last night. The thought of the town being honored by the Faith with a new temple had been the first softening blow. Following that, she'd let her assistant regale the folk in the inn with tales of his far off land, where blond hair and blue eyes were almost as common as the young man's fair skin. He'd followed her instructions to the letter, bringing up varied religious practices (some fictional) that resembled some of the spirit-work the people of Cinder should have abandoned after taking the Faith.

As they'd eyed each other nervously, she'd brought up those very practices as things she'd grown up with. First killed chicken of the season left for the spriggans. Jugs of rice milk left near rivers for the nymphs. Virgins' menstrual blood staining pine needles to honor the unicorns. Afterbirths buried near the hills of the Sidhe.

Realizing she was one of them, and not one of the "fanatics", they were more than happy to point out the troubles one of their more remote brethren was having with wolves and the like.

If only they knew how much of a fanatic she really was.

=-=-=

Their arrival is greeted with a substandard approximation of surprise. Obviously word had been given to them to prepare for her and her assistant, likely delivered by one of the town crier's doves. It wasn't something she really minded though, seeing as the family had had time to prepare richer fare in greater amounts. There was even a nice sized pie, not to mention fresh cider and an extra sprinkling of spices on the vegetables and meat.

Her assistant ate heartily, and even she ate her fill though more of her attention was focused on the boy.

The pudgy son of a squat human male and a half-elf with long ears and a wan face, he wasn't much too look at. His tangled knots of jet hair were dull, his black eyes were beady, his face was overly long.

Was the boy possessed with even an inkling about his destiny? It seemed at first glance that he was most certainly unaware of it, given the way his attention was consumed by the promise of second and third helpings. The talk of elders around him, concerning the beasts that had gathered around his parents' land, seemed not to concern him at all beyond the fear in his eyes when the howls of the wolves could be heard.

The wife squinted out the window with concern, hoping to catch a glimpse of the pack. The husband looked over to the axe kept near the entrance to the house.

She and her assistant exchanged glances. Despite numerous delays accosting them through the course of their journey, they seemed to have gotten here just ahead of the Enemy.

Such improbable fortune would be nothing less than a miracle.

=-=-=

Her door opens in the night, and she notes its previous creaking is gone. But that is only one of Night's stolen sounds - the chirping crickets, the rustled leaves, even the howls of the pack have been silenced.

The Enemy, when it speaks, does so with thought rather than voice.

Waiting until nightfall? My your kind has grown quite arrogant.

She turns her head away from the window, towards the boy destined to serve as part of the Cacophony's Key. The boy is still a boy, but the night holds less light around his skin. His stocky, prepubescent body possesses an illogical confidence.

She doesn't speak, doesn't bother with niceties or questions. She is rolling out of bed, swinging her sword, seeking to cleave him in two.

The boy shifts, dances away with relative ease. Damn she is getting old.

They showed me the life I would have if I stayed here, and the one I would have if I joined them.

He's jumping back, leaping away, kicking off walls. No one can hear her swinging. She wonders why he has cast this pall of silence, and is answered by the swipe of iron fingernails. One set of claws bangs against her breast plate, but the other finds purchase in flesh only guarded by cloth.

The shift she is wearing is torn at the shoulder, and the wound is leaking out blood.

The boy smiles, and his teeth are the color of pitch.

The choice? It was easy.

He comes at her again, cavorting around her thrusts and cuts, gifting her with rake marks across her face and collar bone. The last one is deep, and she knows this child no older than fifteen just attempted to tear out her throat. She stumbles back, surprised how fast this one is despite being newly Awakened.

With his form framed by the window, the branches of trees swaying behind him, it's easier to see the shroud of darkness for which he has traded his innocence.

His eyes are lambent even inside that aura, even with his back to the waxing moon she can see his pupils are now vertical slits. His movements are those of a marionette played by the shadows that cloak him. He retains his predator stance despite the deep slash across the width of his stomach. The shadow maintains the feral smile of his lips.

Yet...there is something strangely hurt in the demon's expression. Despite the deal he has made with the Enemy, despite the stars and omens that led her to this Chosen, he is still just a boy.

You came to our house, ate our food, and even still you wanted to murder me?

She only nods. Once. Suddenly the sounds of the night rush back into the world. His face seems a wretched thing, boyish fear nipping at the edges of the shadow's demonic grin.

"Is it...too late for me?"

She doesn't nod this time. She charges, and both of them go out the window.

=-=-=

Her assistant is waiting for her as she falls from the second floor to the ground. The thing beneath her untangles itself from her, its kicks managing to strike a just broken bone in her arm.

Though it bore the brunt of the fall, the child's body is already healing. It raises its red shining eyes to look on its new opponent. Her assistant is holding his holy symbol high above his head, its silver glow flaring to rival the moon.

The shadow releases the boy from its smile once it sees the young cleric stands at the forefront of the growling wolves.

=-=-=

Just beyond the house's front entrance the boy's parents are held in place by the divine magic of her assistant, but she has him blindfold them and cast his spell of silence to blot out the screams. Just in case he also removes the axe from the hand of the father, and the knife gripped tightly in the mother's fist.

Only then does she have him heal her. His magic is enough for her to stand with his help, and slowly in this manner they stumble away toward their horses. She stifles a groan as he helps her into the saddle.

=-=-=

"Why did he stay here? Why not run out into the forest, where we wouldn't find him?"

She doesn't turn around, keeps her eyes in the direction of the next child that awaits them. They'd come too late to this land. The rest of this journey will trod upon the hoof prints left by the Enemy's steeds.

So many seeds to root out, so many faces to remember.

His eyes were...black? His lips were...thin? I always recall his skin at least. It was the same color as mine.

"He'd never left home before. Whatever the Enemy made him, it didn't stop him from being a child."

She looks back once as they gallop away from Cinder, once she knows that any part of its farms and homes are too far to be seen, and she remembers how her brother would tell tall tales of the fabled Cacophony around a campfire not more than a few hundred miles from this town.

Her eyes then shift over to her assistant, and seeing the despair in his face she forces herself to lie with an encouraging, matronly smile.

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The Uncharmed Life

The Uncharmed Life

He wakes in the middle of the night, as he has done so many nights before. His wife is sleeping. He looks at her, and thinks of how much he loves her - no, he reminds himself how much he loves her.

He brushes a strand of strawbery blond away from her tanned face and thinks about how beautiful she is. How kind. How loyal - how she waited for him during his time served in the Blood War, how she raised three boys while he was off parting the heads of demons from their necks.

When he first came back she would wake up in the night, calling for him even as she was clutching him, demanding that he was there lying next to her. Sometimes she wouldn't even be awake, wouldn't be looking at him with tear reamed cornflower blues.

The boys have learned not to ask for war stories, at least not when their mother is around. And he has to be careful himself, to leave out names - no, one name.

It wasn't really an affair, given that the enriynes didn't ask when she bound him to her. It wasn't really suffering either, no matter what his broken heart said concerning the matter of his broken vows.

The not-really-confession has sat on his tongue, buzzed like a bluebottle in his mouth, almost come out like vomit after making love, in the midst of making dinner, or even before the day is set to begin. He's held her in his arms, looked at the warmth of her smile, and stared at the cascade of curls that fall down her back.

It wasn't real, what he had with the enriynes who didn't ask. She was an addiction, a high running through his nerves by virtue only of arcana.

He doesn't want the devil back in his bed.

He just wants to feel what he felt for the devil.

Wants to feel it when he looks at his wife.

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Reinterpretations of Self

Reinterpretations of Self Part III

One thing to note is baatezu are much more willing to obey suicidal orders when not on their plane of origin. You just have to make sure you are ordering them into situation where these temporary deaths will lead to cushy promotions that might help you down the line.

Because becoming a pitfiend does not mean you get to lord it over the other 99% of Hell. It means you get to play in a game where all your past forms were nothing but a warm up.

~to be continued~

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A God Eats with Its Gaze

A God Eats with Its Gaze

Upending the soda cup, I drop the mouse into the cage. It tumbles through space but lands on its feet, nose twitching as it attempts to understand the sudden expansion of space and light in it's world.

For a moment it must think it's been returned to some approximation of it's ancestral horizons, a racial memory that uplifts the heart, but after watching this same scene dozens of times now I swear I can pinpoint the moment it realizes its freedom's restricted. That moment right there, when it stops and perks up its ears, that's when Enlightenment comes, when it knows its bounded by the unnatural right angles of glass meeting glass.

And then the next moment, a glance in the direction of the heat lamp and the Revelation of coils, when despite it's predicament the mouse always chooses to live.

Then the world's boundaries are so tight it can't even draw breath. Black eyes of pure pupil bright with the mouse's furious rage. There's a courage in mice that we don't fully appreciate, a mammal's will to live that lab-geeks should try to distill.

About two minutes later my snake begins to swallow, and soon it won't need to eat for another week-and-a-half. It'll lie in its cage, lost in reptilian stupor, untroubled by the loneliness that afflicts warm blooded things.

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The Object of Infinite Mercy

The Object of Infinite Mercy

We found him, by which I mean the Object of Infinite Mercy, on a cube in Acheron. Whether the Jade Emperor's former servant was a man or thing by this point I leave it for you to judge:

There is wire caught flesh at the center of this hexagonal hollow, seven layers deep in this great iron die that will never, ever turn in the name of Chance lest the End of Days is sounded.

A web of hot metal thread glows in an incandescent cat's cradle, weaving through organs and bone, each entry and exit wound leaving a circle of black char on the skin. The air wavers, trembling with heat and the weighty scent of pork, while the tiniest flakes of ash fall to the ground beneath the Object and his inscrutable possession of an arachnid's silent stillness.

Our footsteps trod on a carpet of black and grey, and days from now Guvner Mathematicians would confirm the fractal patterns in the skin-snow. Snow that would, for some years hence, contain the impressions of our boots.

Unless, of course, the Emperor found the tracks of our hasty retreat too disorderly to bear.

=-=-=

No mortal can stumble upon the Object. Our encounter with him necessitated nothing less than a miracle.

My crew and I are not ones for pilgrimages of this sort, but the machinations of Estevan allowed our conversion from operatives to commodities. It's a long story in and of itself, but let me say that somehow someway I intend to make the ogre (or whatever he is) pay for delivering us into the services of Sun Chiang.

Without the thief god's involvement, we would never have found our way to the Object. He provisioned us, gave us our destination, and into my flesh his own incarnate hand traced the Compass Rose that left flattened patches of scar tissue where nipples once graced my pectorals.

The rose suckles directions in place of water and sunlight. You see, when thief-turned-god had us sail into Acheron we had a destination but no route and no hope of a map.

We were lost. The prisoner could be anywhere, and our every movement would thus be predicated on nothing but whims and intuition. Chaos, born of the Jade Emperor's hand, the very thing that is anathema to the Celestial Bureaucracy's Lord. That is the impetus of the rose's arcana, taking shears to the very idea of directionless wandering.

As possibilities were cut away before they could metastasize, it was only a matter of months before we found ourselves at the geometries that bound hi- that bound the Object of Infinite Mercy.

=-=-=

Sun Chiang had used the intent of his Emperor as the skeleton key, the addiction to order as impetus to our arriving at the vast iron hexagon. Stolen possibilities, places we might have gone and people we might have bee - met...

All thrumming like desperate blue bottles under my skin where the canvas of my chest and abdomen were traced with the burned in Compass Rose. All sacrificed to the redirection of time and place, in accordance with Acheron and its demand for an economy of exchange.

The Rose blazed with the light of a new setting, painting over the deck of the ship on which we stood until, in the span of three heartbeats, we found ourselves as visitors and witnesses to the man turned to exhibition by Shang T- by the Jade Emperor's hand.

=-=-=

We came with no gifts in hand, no offerings of relief with which to bribe the prisoner. Sung Chiang had assured me that the sight of the Compass Rose, with its eight arrow-petals, would be enough to guarantee the Object's compliance.

"Tell us the story of your sin, how you betrayed Law for the love of Law."

I expected the threaded figure to raise its head, to somehow mouth a story despite what I presumed to be the agonies of his entangled person. Instead when h- when it spoke the voice came from all around us, made us feel the tale like a lover's sighed breath on our skin.

=-=-=

I lived for perfection, a proxy of the Celestial Bureaucracy. I was made to worship it. To demand it in myself and in those beneath me. I worked to ensure those in my service submitted to the Law, that they let Order pith their minds and their hearts.

As for above, there lay both my Sun and my Measure. Shang Ti, the god who made me with slivers of poetry and a breath passed through woodwinds.

I carved myself from the wood of my follies, chiseled myself from the marble of my wayward emotions, in hopes of bringing myself to heel so that I might be as perfect as that god whose Being was a mirror to clockwork majesty of our home.

Even then I knew this to be an impossible striving. Had my name not be struck from the pages of history, preserved only in my Lord's innermost thoughts, it would have engendered itself into an adjective used to describe the punishment of that other who was condemned in an echoing manner, that boulder rolling king who once served the pantheon of Olympus.

Ages passed, and I knew the bliss of the mountaineer who seeks not the peak, the sailor who has no destination in mind. Was this not proof of my very self, my very soul, that there was always sin to slough off, always more fat to be cut from the bone?

Secretly I believed it was the effort that made us more than the modrons around us, that it was our Will to Order that would conquer the Chaos beyond the Mechanusian gears.

I was content to endure my eternal refinement, to struggle forever with my soul as my Purgatory, until I came to find that the grace that could never be won could be given.

Even now I cling to my blasphemy: Salvation as absence in the shape of a woman, porcelain faced and aglow with light...

=-=-=

Many hours passed in the telling of its Fall, and every word of the man's descent into Object was caught on the scar tissue of the Compass Rose. The first days of the Parai at court. How the steel haired women had seduced him with their synchronous motion, how in the darkness of the Emperor's corridors he'd made plans to steal away with them. How he'd actually been allowed to leave, on a supposed reconnaissance mission. How he'd been dragged back to palace, his old form reconstituted, shamed and sentenced before the proxies and gods of the Emperor's court.

An example had to be made, of course, from the one who'd lost a shard of the Most Divine.

It might have gone quicker, had the Object not peppered his speech with self-pitying lamentations and confused rationalizations for exegesis. Eventually our task as pirate-bards was done, and all that was left was the pilgrimage through the labyrinth that lay between us and the ship docked beyond these accursed prison walls.

Yet one thing remained, something our employer had not requested but I believed was the heart of the tale to any thief...or at least, the heart that blossoms like a blister once any of us filchers are caught.

"Is it not agony, to be interwoven with threads of hot metal?" I asked. There was a pause, a near silence broken only by the sound of sizzling meat.

Sometimes. It was clear the Object did not wish to speak on the matter, and had I not endured the transformation of its life story to long winded oratory I might have been content to let it drop in the name of compassionate courtesy. Instead:

"Explain."

Near silence and the sharp whisper of steak held over flame.

"Remember the power of the Eight Petaled Rose."

Invisible - yet definitively impotent - anger curled around my frame. This poor thing couldn't scratch the zits from my face.

My Lord allowed me the power to leave my flesh, and so I did the moment the threads were touched with heat...

Yet once I was on the other side of my skin, I found my soul still clinging to grooves I had spent eons carving into it when I was the Jade Emperor's proxy. All the cues I'd used to measure my adherence to Law were still sought by my spirit, and so I yearned to breathe without lungs, demanded a heartbeat despite the lack of a heart, wished to blink my eyes with all the faithful timing of the metronome....

Madness built inside me, and I knew I must return to my flesh, knowing I would once again break and depart...But it had to be...regular. Both entry and exit, for all Time. Like the meeting of gear-teeth.

"Fair enough. And why do you bear this name? Why are you the Object of Infinite Mercy?"

Justice would have meant throwing me into the Chaos of Limbo, as Chaos is the thing I most abhor. It is the opposite of all that is in me, all that Shang-Ti made me to be and all the Parai refashioned me to despise. Yet to do so would have been a victory for the likes of Ygorl and Ssendam, whereas my crime was the belief that I might decide my own place in the Law.

"And this eternity you endure. This is what the Jade Emperor calls 'Mercy'?"

Did you not hear me? Have I not spoken of the soul's limitless nature? My own soul's dedication to Order, how I am twice born of Law?

"Yes, but --"

Is not sparing me from exposure to an immeasurable anathema by its very nature an act of Infinite Mercy?

It occurred to me then that despite Sun Chiang's reassurances my crew and I were most definitely trespassing in a prison erected by a god whose heart was chiseled perfection; A divinity who had either never felt pity or had excised it from his being long ago.

Sun Chiang had promised a (small) portion of the (vast) rewards Shang Ti would shower on him, once the information in the Rose allowed him to prove to his worth to the Emperor's court as one of the Multiverse's ultimate thieves.

Yet it seemed to me in that moment than any reward would be a finite, and thus paltry thing. It would not do to dally here any longer, and with this in mind me and my crew began our hasty retreat.

Before we are through the maze, we hear the Obj- we hear him screaming. The sound is a raw, staccato thing that marked the quarter notes of an unheard music.

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Messiahs and Prey

Messiahs and Prey

I've watched my quarry for some time, enough for the black spirals of her dreadlocks to be threaded with white-silver hairs.

Watched her confront my brethren, speak to them, conversations that last until morning. They come to her willingly, stay by her side as death gilds the world with the coming of dawn.

Watched her gather then bury their ashes.

Is it fear that keeps my thirst from her throat? Perhaps. I want to hear what she says, know what words can draw such surrender from the ultimate predators, exhume regret from the immortal Kings and Queens of the Night. But do I dare to let her words make an attempt on my heart?

That, I think, has caused me to hesitate for all these increasingly long years. America's hegemony was born in an eye blink, but this last decade has taken up half a century. I had a heartbeat the last time I thought moments were something borne on one's back.

I could kill her. Even now, in daylight, I could send forth my slaves. But then I wouldn't hear the sermon, those mere words that should weigh less than nothing against the gift of infinite life.

What she does, it shouldn't be possible.

Tomorrow. I'll decide on this tomorrow. I just need sleep and arterial wine, need one more day and half of a night.

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Resurrectionists of an

Resurrectionists of an Alternate Nature

He stands over the corpse, doing his best, but it feels like he is struggling to reroute the tides.

He looks around, at all the noble children who want him to go home, who want him dismissed from the School. He glances down and it seems even the sea ravaged cadaver is impatient for him to be gone.

The face of Professor Joren is a mask, an emotional visage frozen in what might as well be rigor mortis.

(Our hero refuses to look into the eyes of the youngsters with blood as base as his own, all those who are depending on him to pave the way for their own egalitarian dreams.)

A shadow falls over them. Someone is on the balcony. He looks up and into the pale green eyes of Princess Marencia. Only Royalty would be allowed the freedom to intrude upon an examination. They might have barred her still, if a noble were being tested, but what was the point of peasantry if not for show?

(Yet here the keepers of the gilded gates have erred, for Marencia had confessed her love to our hero just two nights past!)

He looks down again, at the corpse, tethering the nercomantic ethers as best as he can. He tugs again, as hard as all his failed attempts, but this time he tugs not with his shame but his heart.

The corpse on the table coughs, and if not for its stench and fished pecked flesh one would believe he'd saved the man from drowning. The peasants cheer and even the noble children give our hero their grudging respect as the dead sailor begins to dance a jig.

(Everyone knew the Headmaster had selected the old corpse against Prof. Joren's wishes - First Years are supposed to be tested on peasant babes whose souls have been freshly disavowed from their flesh due to crib death.)

The princess is already gone, but our hero knows he will see her later. For now he enjoys the accolades of his peers. Already he dreams of children born to Marencia, little ones born too high to be touched by the Smog.

The corpse, settled back onto the slab, is perfectly still now, but the recaptured soul within it is screaming in horror.

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aith...in any Presence...it's

aith...in any Presence...it's funny, there's a voice that when it
whispers in your ear feels so
Close you could swear what you're hearing is an echo that blossoms
from heart through locked sternum.

and then, you blink. ~ and with that brief curtain call It's gone, and
you never knew how much...space...a cavernous acre of silence...there
was on the other side of your skin. the side no one gets to see.

(it's like you're singing that favorite song but it's not the same
when it's just You ~ no instruments / no beats ~ all off key and
unsure words)

you think, 'that orchard inside is nothing but ash'

- but -

it's just soil that's fallow and some day, month, year, epoch later a
fragile green thing with a little blossom (pregnant promise of fruit)
pushes out for a gasping breath of sun lit air. you blink again,
struck, and a humming bird thought blurts across the Mind:

'when was the world this Colorful'? you ask yourself.

and you Smile at the memory of forgotten Newness.

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I'm looking at something that

I'm looking at something that is both green-fly and squid on the other side of gold-framed soap bubble skin. Nothing in my anatomy should respond to Its horrid form or Its thunderous cicada anthem...my meat is loyal to this world...so it must be my mind that moans with starvation, my soul that drags me to the archway that joins Them and Their prey, my heart that has made the softness between my legs so painfully solid I fear my blood gorged member might burst if not soon relieved of the psyche's boiling desire.

The animal in me wishes to flee until it exhausts all its strength, but knowing this They have seduced and ensnared the higher parts of my mind.

The part that *believes* in things.

I'm not strong enough to resist the call, that buzz-gargle of "obyrith" intelligences. I'm barely strong enough to draw the gun now aimed at my chest.

So weak, the mind that is me. Thank the gods, the zonei who guard Earth's veil woven in space-time, the star watchers to whom we pass messages of lamb and bull through the fire, that I am wise enough to know the measure of my weakness.

Thank the gods, the zonei who use our prayers as mortar in the walls between this world and the Other, that I chose needles over bullets when I selected my gun....

When I wake up, the conjunction of comets and planets is passed, and the gate before me shows nothing more than a pitted mosaic set on an old temple wall.

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My gums are like mosaics with

My gums are like mosaics with tiles fallen out. My tongue is telling me that while my smile is scragged I might still enjoy chewing with the teeth that remain.

Sad thing is, I told them everything I knew ten days ago.

Funny thing is, I'm the Anarchist that taught this world's slave-caste the concept of decentralized rebellion.

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