Incoming

Edit 5/3/2020: I gave this heads-up, and then the length of the story increased by like 50%. It’s done now. Transcription/minor editing is in progress, and I should have it posted here within the week.

Apologies for the brief lapse in activity–there is a very long story incoming. Stay tuned. Have an inspirational Chimera doodle, courtesy of Rae.

The Twin Decrees

Two decrees, issued under the authority of Her Majesty, [————], Right-Hand Queen of Spar, presented below as they were circulated, in their original Diarchian.  A translation is included as well:

Dacreem Goetcia

Al kinderseiztentreyundtcan enten brainenger Goetcia

Sonaftdoon al Citizia trin hidcitfia Kinder entin deta

Goetria exa entin fin Sonaftop

Translation: Decree of the Goetia 

All children over the apparent age of 10 are to be brought to the Goetia.

After sundown all citizens attempting to hide children from the state will be arrested

The magical propensity testing will be completed after sun up

Dacreem Goeci

Goeki destrin citiociticzia, al Goeionsaf ent detenenger

Excle Goetia entin kain Goei protreyrciticzia

Al Goeccioltrakai entin pena dairith

Decree of Magic

Because magic is killing the state of all citizens, all non-safe magic is to be stopped

Only the Goetia may use magic for protection of the public

Any other use of magic will be punished by death

Three Gifts Given Under Night

A very long time ago, when the world was still a place where one could get lost, entangled in the manifold everything of whose destruction none had yet dreamed–indeed, when there were yet no men to dream of such things–a shadow wandered peacefully across the earth.  Some say this shadow was Nature, some say Magic, but I tell you it was the Night, progenitor of both. In the quiet of his passing, flora grew, birds fluttered, insects chirped. There was life and death, of a dreamlike sort, but the only dreamer to perceive it was Night himself.  He wondered: What if there were others to share the dream? All the Night had ever known was solitude, but perhaps he wanted more.

His dream changed.  In those hazy shadows, he envisioned great trees, twisting and contorting boughs to form houses arranged in whimsical spirals, a dreamlike village for his would-be dreamers.  And then they emerged as well, fully formed, with histories and origins and thoughts. When the Night walked among them, they would dream together, living, however briefly, a greater existence in their communal unconscious.  When he left, and the haze of his presence faded, they would rest and prepare for his return.

One dream, as the Night approached the village from the east, he was met by a fox emerging from its burrow.

“Greetings, Great Darkness,” it said.

“Greetings, lively one,” the Night replied.  “What business have you with me?”

“I awoke as you dreamed me, Great Darkness,” the fox said.  “I have seen what you have created, and I wish to help you?”  The Night paused and pondered this.

“How would you help me?  What is it you would see improved?”

“Great Darkness,” the fox began, “these humans you have created are soft and ephemeral.  When you arrive, they breathe and animate and partake of borrowed life, but when you depart, they collapse to mere image.  They shift and waver, and I fear a strong wind may wipe them away. If you so permit, I would protect them, give them a place where they might bring to your dream things you have never considered.”

The Night thought on the fox’s proposal.  It was a step into the unknown, and even he could not say what might become of it.  But it might yet better the dream, and after all, what had the Night to fear of the unknown?

“Very well, lively one,” he acquiesced.  “You may help me.”

Excited, the fox scampered ahead, eager to fulfill his promise.  When the Night arrived at the village, he found the fox to have been as good as its word.  The creature had given of its liveliness, inspired the humans with physicality and space, and, sure enough, their dreams were rich with silty experience.  It was good, the Night decided, and he resolved to make the fox a guardian of his creation.

The very next dream, at the edge of the forest where the humans dwelled, a flutter of wings greeted the Night’s arrival.  He gazed into the boughs to see a lark, perched at the edge of a nest of twigs and dead grass.

“Greetings, Father Sky,” the lark sang.

“Greetings,” the Night replied, curiosity aroused.  Though he had seen the larks of the forest flitting and nesting upon the forest floor in dreams past, he had never seen one venture up into the trees.  “Tell me,” he said, “doesn’t your kind nest upon the earth? Why have you abandoned your place?” The lark furled its wings and cocked its head.

“Did you not know, Father Sky?  My kind did indeed nest below, but beasts and terrors roam these wilds.  My brothers and sisters became their food, but I survived. I used these trees and twigs to change my place.”

“Very well, resourceful one,” the Night admitted, moving to pass onto the village.

“Wait, Father Sky!” the lark exclaimed.  “I yet have a worry to bring before you.”  The Night stopped to listen, and so the lark continued: “The humans are awake now in this world, and when you depart, they fear the beasts just as my kind does.  They cower in the houses you gave them, but they know not how to change their place. Would you permit me to teach them what I have learned of tools and resources, lest their terror spoil their dreams?” 

The Night took a moment to think, though he had already warmed to the lark’s proposal.

“I think I may permit this,” he acquiesced.  “I do not desire that the humans should be imprisoned by fear.  Go, then, resourceful one. Let us see what their autonomy might bring to the dream.”  Without another word, the lark fluttered off to the village to share its wisdom, and the Night continued on his way.

As dreams passed, the Night watched the lark’s efforts bear fruit.  At first, it was simply as the creature promised: The humans grew beyond their fear.  They began to venture outside their shelter, made formidable by crude weapons constructed by the lark’s guidance.  But they didn’t stop there. Soon, they began to change their houses, their idyllic village sculpted of the Night’s dream.  They chopped down the trees, built dwellings–rougher, of their substance rather than the Night’s–close to the ground, allaying any fear of falling.

The Night found it bittersweet that his gift should be discarded this way, but the humans’ autonomy yet had purpose.  They had become something separate from the Night, and their dreams, accordingly, had become something novel, exciting, beyond any horizon the Night had, within himself, perceived.  Ultimately, he decided, the lark had earned its place as a guardian of his creation.

Many dreams passed from that point, but finally, in one of them, the Night found himself on the bank of the river to the west of the humans’ village.  As he lingered there, he saw one of them–an old man, one of those the Night had created in the very beginning–approach the water’s edge. The man paused there, searching the ripples for a moment until, wordlessly, he stepped in.  At first it seemed the current would pull him under, but then he grabbed hold of something beneath the surface and steadied himself. From his vantage on the shore, the Night watched the man drift, slowly but purposefully, into the mist shrouding the other bank.  Then he saw it: Beneath the river’s glass, a shadow returned from the mists and, with the same lilting purpose of the man’s departure, approached the Night in utter silence. The shadow surfaced, and a turtle’s shell breached the water.

“Hello, Moonlight,” the turtle intoned, soft, into the air.

“Hello, traveler,” the Night replied, cold concern plain in his otherwise polite salutation.  “What is it you have done with my creation?”

“I have given a gift, Moonlight.  I have given the humans time.”

Interloper,” the Night breathed, and ire washed over the land.  Chill wind swept through the grass, silencing the owls and cicadas, and dark clouds roiled past the moon above, but beneath the river’s surface, the turtle remained calm and still.

“Do you think yourself beyond cycles, Moonlight?” the turtle asked, curious, without a hint of malice.  “I would not have expected it, for I see your brilliance waver between fullness and shadow. You wish the humans to dream as you do, but you would deny them the wheel by which you yourself experience?  You would deny them experience itself?” The dark silence around the riverbank persisted, but the cold winds stilled. The moon shone down, casting the turtle in an eerie pallor. At last, the Night whispered:

“What have you done with this one?”

“I have given him an end,” the turtle said.  “Does not every journey require one?”

“You have destroyed my creation, then.”

“No, Moonlight,” the turtle replied, calm as ever.  “You have created life. Life begets life, and of such fecundity, death is an unavoidable consequence.  It is a gift I bring gladly, but by my will or another’s, welcome or no, it will be brought.”

The Night did not respond, and the moon’s pale gaze slowly passed on.  He turned and left, and though no more was spoken between them, both understood their accord.

Thus, by three gifts given under the veil of Night, humanity was born.

The Two Guards Riddle

This keeps coming up in my writing for some reason. The first piece is an excerpt from a novel I wrote some time ago. The second is a story I wrote more recently, featuring the Smile.

Espereza’s Riddle

“Let’s get to know each other, Samuel.”

“What the fuck is that supposed to mean?” Samuel yelled.  Espereza grabbed him by the shoulder and slammed him into the rock.

“Tell me, Samuel,” he whispered, the syllables rolling out wet and reptilian.  “Have you thought about my riddle?” Samuel scowled.

“Your riddle?”

“Yes.  A labyrinth.  Two doors. Two guards.  Do you recall?” Samuel sighed with disgust.

“Sure,” Samuel said.  “You ask each guard which door the other would recommend to get you out alive.  Their answers will be the same. You take the other door.”

“Really?” Espereza asked, his grip on Samuel’s shoulder still firm.  “I think a fair amount of the time, their answers will be different.”

“No,” Samuel said, annoyance seeping in over his fear for his life.  “You said one always tells the truth, the other always lies–”

“I didn’t say that.”

“What?” Samuel asked.

“I didn’t say that the other always lies.”  Samuel stared into the man’s black eyes for about ten seconds.

“You can’t solve the riddle if one of them only sometimes lies!” he said, finally.

“I know,” Espereza replied.  “Isn’t life just awful that way?”

The Smile’s Riddle

Care to join me in a game of riddles, my dear?

Suppose you find yourself in a passage you must escape. Before you are two sentinels. One tells only truth, the other only lies.

“I am Truth,” says the first.

“I am Truth,” says the second.

Behind them are two doors.

“This first door leads to terrible agony,” says the first sentinel.

“This second door leads to terrible agony,” says the second.

Your companion, thinking he has seen past the riddle, enters the first door.  You, under the same impression, enter the second. Some time later, your companion exits the passage with memories of torture, violation, and such atrocities visited upon him that he would sooner drown in an ocean of drink than recall.  In the same time, you exit with those same memories.

So who lies?  Is it the first sentinel?  Is it the second? Or is it me?

What, for that matter, is a lie?  In my homeland, it was a mismatch, words or images set against a reality that rejects them.  Our dead queen, immortal in the dark of her ziggurat, bade us–myself, your precious Rom, all of her shadowmen–bade us go and tell lies of fear and unrest to her people, our enemies, anyone who would listen, really.  It was all such a waste. Right there, all the potential in the world, squandered for a bad lie told by a bad liar.

The thing about a trick of the light is that it makes the trickster apparent.  Back to the riddle: There is no trick, no obvious mismatch of words to reality, but that’s because you have no knowledge of reality.  No, all you have is memories, and they lie more fluently than any sentinel.  If you believe them, in fact, there is no lie. Thus spoke the Man of the Clouds, the greatest leader I ever knew.

He proved it, too.  You see, all we ever needed to do to throw off the queen’s claim–that she was immortal, that she was Death, whom we all must serve–was to stop believing the lie.  He led us from that pit, into the sky, and the eternality of Khet just fell from reality, as dew from shuddering grass. It is not even that his City in the Clouds was any different–just images and sensations and words and dreams, sculpted of vapor and bequeathed to any who would believe his lie instead.  And of course we believed it.  It was idyllic paradise over dronehood before unending Death.  No, the turning point was what came next.

One day, the travails of my past life well and truly recovered from, I stood at the edge of that City in the Clouds and looked down at the great sea we appeared to pass over, and a single, ruinous thought thrust into my brain: I didn’t believe it.  Do you know why? Do you know what I saw, down there in those depths? It was nothing. Nothing below, in those waves; nothing in sight, save for our city; nothing real beside peace, goodwill, and the serene ephemerality of clouds. It was a pretty, elegant lie, but elegance is only of use against a particular problem, and my problem was not particular.  It was everything.  All of reality–the grim, beautiful, violent reality the Man of the Clouds had omitted from his paradise–I knew to be down there in that roiling Deep.

So I descended–and those who knew as I did followed–to go and imbibe the horrors and agonies of life, to create a new lie, a grand story of this whole, glorious, accursed world.  With what we learned, we would build a new stairway to the sky, a stairway of earth and blood, and we would prove the primacy of our lie, just as the Man of the Clouds proved his.  

Which brings us, as ever, back to the riddle.  Did your memories lie? Did the sentinels speak falsehood?  Or within those passages was there merely life, just as without, with its rocks and thorns and fears and pains?  And if everything was true, am I the liar for posing the question?

“I am Truth,” says the first sentinel.

“I am Truth,” says the second.

And, of course, I am Truth as well.

A Smiling Man

“Do you see what you’ve made, my dear? Parity. As above, so below. The Deep has always been a mirror, but even I can admit it is a dark one. But you! You have darkened the heavens, made one great blackness of the whole affair! As below, so above, and tell me now: Are black sea and black sky one and the same?

“It depends, you say. They are alike as voids to shout into, but throw yourself along with your voice, and you shall know the difference. One will accept you, begrudgingly, perhaps, in its cold, airy breath. The other will pour into you, unrelenting to your separateness, ceasing only when you, too, are darkness.

“But I’ll let you in on a little secret: That will, that relentless, violent churn, that everything that will suffer no scissor, no duality, no self amidst others–it is nothing but a lie! Darkness is darkness, nothing is nothing, a mirror is but a trick of the devoured light.

“Ah, but another secret: Lies are to be cherished.”

Top Image: The Smile, concept by Rae Johnson, commissioned for War Torn/Rale

The Night Sky

A prose poem for an Old God.

The sun has set, twilight’s pastel aether faded to cool, thin air, and a vista like a vast sphere of ink hangs over the camp.  In daylight, the landscape had been unremarkable, hill after hill, trough after marshy trough, but the night has taken even those bland features, engulfed them in a void the campfire can only lap at.

At first you see nothing in the dark.  The fire is hot and blinding, and next to it, you surmise you must be safe, though you wonder if the light has simply made you terrified of the beyond to which you’ve been blinded.  In a moment of courage, you stand, you forsake the heat and security of your fire, and you take a small, timid step into the night. With surreal immediacy, pinprick glimmers blink into the sky overhead.  The hills, the trees, the cattails and rocks at the pond’s edge all fold into relief as the night stirs in its sleep, and, slowly, in a sense you can feel only in the space between your lungs, the Night Sky opens its eyes.  On the horizon, from shadow your fire could never reach, the moon rises.

Blight.  Aberration.  What do you dare bring here?

The words are not spoken, but nonetheless they are borne to your ears on whistling wind, the buzz of dragonflies, pond water slapping at its shore.  They are not spoken, but, somehow, you perceive a speaker anyway.

From the horizon, the moon approaches, wreathed by dead branches, clad in bark and tenebrous mist.  Atop an eyeless steed the color of coal, it regards you. You feel its presence, its vastness, its derision–for you–its hatred–for…something else–and as the pale sphere’s gaze moves beyond you, to your camp, your fire, your intrusion upon this dream so clearly not your own, you feel–deeply and certainly–unwelcome.

Children.  Gone astray.  Weak. Blasphemy.  Destroy. Devour.

The words are no longer coherent.  They still suffuse the air, spoken in that half-sense by which the Night Sky speaks, but they are not for you.  None of this is for you any longer, but the Night Sky does not lash out in violence like the creatures of day. It would have you understand your transgression, swallow it, have it writhe like worms in your blood, that you should go willingly to nothingness, for you deserve only nothing.

The moon’s steed turns to you, and its head splits into halves, equine silhouettes spreading like lepidopteran wings, baring yet more swirling constellations within their cranial span.  Then the nightmares begin. All around, you perceive the subtle, fearful shifts. At the shore of the pond, the tiny pebbles glinting in firelight reveal themselves to be teeth, erupting, bloody and irregular, from throbbing gums where ground should have rested.  Leeches wriggle at your ankles, crawling over one another for a taste of the blood you yet owe this place, and in the pitch beyond the moon’s sinister figure, the reeds and grasses flagellate the sky in ways that plants should not move.

The steed continues to approach, vaporous tongues lolling from its mangled wing-face, caressing your cheek, your eyes, the inside of your face, tasting what it is like to be you.  Its touch is icy, alien, shocking in its utter strangeness, and yet its intent cannot be misunderstood: It means to imbibe you, with the night, of the night; to extinguish your heat, your clarity, your definition; to purge from you any pretense of being.

You feel the hopelessness, the isolation of the dark, but instinctively, you rebel.  You tear your gaze from the steed’s hypnotic visage. You run headlong back to your blaze, your bulwark against the night’s advance.  Behind, you hear the steed’s hooves bearing down upon you. You shudder at its rider’s curses, carried on the whistle and rasp of the breeze.  You thrust your hands into the fire and withdraw a flaming bough, and you fling it, whirling, frantic, back at the approaching moon. The flames lick your hands, leaving charred, smoldering marks on your palms, but your aim is true enough.  The branch strikes the rider across the arm, igniting its wooden armor, but even as the blaze engulfs the rider and its steed and the grass and the sky and the nightmare that has swallowed you, the moon’s gaze remains impassive.

You open your eyes to an undisturbed camp.  Your fire has died down, the sky is clear and starlit, and even your erstwhile terror, still ringing in your skull, cannot quite disturb the serenity of this nocturnal silence.  But the moon still hangs between the clouds above, and it occurs, quietly, buried between the ripples of your relief, that the eyes of the Night Sky have still not closed.

The Blaze

There was once a warrior renowned in the northern reaches.  Renowned for his prowess, renowned for his cruelty. In the time before the Great Southern War, he led great campaigns of conquest across the Gravestones.  Fortresses fell to his armies, villages were razed, countless lives were claimed by his spear, but in his journeys, he fell ill, and a great fear overtook him.  With so much more of the world to see, so much more that he must dominate, he grew terrified that the sickness would break him before his work was finished.

He sought out the Alchemist, Exelcis, whose expertise was said to be the bane of all disease, and demanded that he be cured.  This was, though, not all he demanded. In those days, rumor had spread that the Alchemist had discovered a deeper secret, an elixir that linked the body and the soul, conferring longevity–or imperviousness, or immortality; the stories differed with each telling.  The warrior demanded as well that the Alchemist gift this elixir unto him, that he may finish his work no matter what impeded him. For reasons no one will ever know, the Alchemist acquiesced.

One cannot say whether the serum he provided the warrior was given in good faith.  Perhaps he had judged the cruel warrior unworthy, deserving of punishment. Perhaps the hell that would come with the Alchemist’s gift was merely the price of its boon.  But as the warrior imbibed it, and his blood was turned to flame and his body transformed, made an undying Blaze, a prison and a pyre, invincible even in the midst of his perpetual, burning agony, he slew the Alchemist in rage, and any understanding of what ought to have been died with him.

The warrior suffered for years, but with time, he came to find truth–a sort of manic salvation–in his torment.  He no longer desired to conquer the world. No, he would not be a tyrant, for he had been made a prophet of his own burning heaven.  He bade his soldiers scour the Alchemist’s ruined library for the means of replicating the tincture that had so exalted him, that he may create creatures in his image, elevated men who would ever burn, would ever remain, would ever–beautifully, rapturously–suffer.

One Wing, One Eye

This piece was jointly written by Leland and I. He wrote the “primary sources”, I wrote the framing. The things being described are connected to recent pieces as well as one that will be coming soon. I’ll leave you to sort out how.

In my task, I found myself poring over the contents of the Great Library when I came upon a most peculiar scroll. I asked the librarian: “What do you know of this work?”

It seemed veritably ancient.  The parchment was thin, dry, the ink a charcoal black that seemed alien amidst the other works of the library, transcribed by the Mignikolai in their invariable rusty pigment.  Most curious was its language. It was neither the sacred tongue of Kol nor any of the earlier, forbidden dialects of the Diarchy. This was something completely different, making use of characters I knew not how to pronounce.

The librarian seemed surprised.  He apologized: I had evidently come upon an out of place original.  He bade me wait a moment while he fetched the translation. Upon his return he explained that this particular work was among the oldest held by the Kolai.  It had, of course, been inherited En Sacristi, though it was difficult to tell when the Goetia had acquired it. Curiously, the translation had also been inherited–the language was an archaic dialect of the Windwood that fell into disuse some time before the fall of Thago, and the librarian doubted there were any alive today that could read it.

He advised that the subject matter of the scroll was almost certainly unrelated to my research–and he was right–though I make separate mention of it here because it is curious to me.  There are, in fact, two distinct works represented in the scroll, and though, stylistically, they cannot possibly share a source, one cannot ignore the (somewhat unsettling) similarity in their themes.  Understanding the significance of folklore is difficult even with the best of context, but a certain feeling persists that these pieces refer to something of power.  Perhaps the half-creature of these stories is connected to the Gods which came before, those whose mantle the Blood God has so gloriously donned. 

I have made myself a separate copy.  See here for both:

The One-Winged Lark

The lark has dreamed another night for me.

It flapped up to my window.

Tapping the glass

Tap tap

Tapping me to open it.  Tapping to follow

It’s one winged flight

Up and down and around and around

Circles up and down and around and around

It flew up like a whirlwind

Like a pretty petaled whirlwind

Swirling

And I followed it.

And swirled upwards, flapping my wing.

My one wing.

My one sweet wing.

And it took me it took me.

It took me to the moon.

This opalescent ball of crystalline light

Swirling in front of me.

Pulling and pushing and undulating and wrapping 

Warping around itself

This icy light that poured on my skin.  Rubbed me down.

And cleansed my pores, leaving them oiled and clean. 

I was bathed.  I was bathed by the lark.  This little one winged lark.

My little one winged friend

Who flies like a whirlwind

Made of soft feathers, and moonlight.

The Fable of the One-Eyed Crow

Once upon a time, there was a big black wood.  With slim tall trees and thick black moss. And in a tiny old house, near a tiny old town, there lived the hag of the black wood.  And the tiny old town loved the old hag, more and more still. She’d take sick little children and she’d fix them up well. Broken limbs and sniffles and little snake bites all would be fixed in her cottage at night.  And the things that happened there were happy and happy, until one day, when the blue marks started.

Tiny blue peck marks, like chickens dipped in ink, appeared on children’s underarms, in their mouths, in their stink.  And then they started coughing, and then they couldn’t stand, then the people from the tiny town, went to the house for a hand.  They went to the old woman, the old hag of blackwood, and told her of the blue marks, and she just stood. They asked her to fix them.  She said no. They begged her to fix them. She said no. They threatened her to fix them. She said no. And the children started dying.  And grieving came full storm.

And the town became a thunder cloud.  Ricocheting anger. Every child dead. Little blue marks all over. 

And the Blackwood hag, who had fixed so many bug bites.  Had stood there and watched as their children laid down, coughed, and died.

And then a young boy, not ten years and twenty, yelled she must have done it.  That’s why, that’s why.

And the men and the women and those undecided, all were so sad, so angry, they bought it.  That’s why. That’s why.

And the thundercloud crashed, through the woods, with metal pots.  With torches and fire, and anger and plots. And dozens of angry fathers, and dozens of angry mothers with the faces of their children in their eyes came to find her.  The hag of blackwood. The one that watched them die. The one who must have done it. That’s why. That’s why.

And they found her.  In the wood. Near her tiny old house, near the tiny old town.  And they pulled her body open. And gave her tiny marks. Marks of red all over her body.  Marks of red, to pay her penalty. Marks of red to match those of blue. Marks of red for her to scream to. 

And they ripped off one foot.

They cut off one hand.

They gouged out one eye.

And sliced open one breast.

For the woman half there for them, and half just stood.

And they left her there to die.  That’s why. That’s why. 

Micropost: A Visitor to the Crossroads

The figure seemed to glide across the street, its thin cloak swaying in the breeze but betraying no motion beneath, as if to convince onlookers of the materiality of the cloak, with no regard for the appearance–or lack thereof–of a body within it.  Onlookers–for there were many that day–were not eager to greet it. The people of the village were well familiar with the trappings of powerful magic, and this foreboding individual stunk of it.

It approached first a housewife. She was sweeping her doorstep, aware of the thing approaching her just as she dearly hoped it would pass her on.  It did not. Instead it spoke, in saccharine, reverberating tones like song in a metal cavern: “I carry a message. Where is one with authority to hear it?”

The housewife was taken aback for a moment.  The strangeness of its voice, its curiously still visage hidden behind its hood, everything about it was alien, of course, but what stayed her tongue was simply that the figure’s question, in its echoes and vibrations, was difficult to understand.  There was a moment of silence before she pointed, suddenly, firmly, to a taller house at the end of the street.

The Crossroads

The village had always been between.  In the beginning, Old Marie’s stories said, it had been a trading post, a depot connecting the waterways of Riverlands to the woods and mountains of the north.  Merchants and enterprisers would enter, transient but somehow still fixture, carrying lumber and pelts and cloth and ore. Sometimes they would pass through, sometimes they would return the way they came.  Those that called the village home did well for themselves in those days. They made fortunes in trade–anything they could want somehow found its way there from afar. And, of course, those plagued by wanderlust had no shortage of opportunity to escape.  All they had to do was jump in with the next caravan that came to town, and they would most assuredly see the world.

The War was not kind to the place, but even that was mitigated by its betweenness.  The village was far enough south that it saw the horrors of the roaches but still northerly enough that its people, broadly speaking, survived.  Its young men and women proudly aided the Harmony resistance in the Battle of the Ouroboros, and then they returned to a peaceful existence at their crossroads.  For a short time, things were as they were before. But soon, new wares began to make their way through the village, and with those wares came news.

It seemed Lord Ka had kept a secret from the world.  It was a stone, rough, heavy to hold, unimpressive to the eye.  But the power.  To the mystics, the magically inclined–no matter their inexperience–it was a sun.  At the fall of Bloodhull, soldiers of Harmony who had never once in their lives channeled mana held this stone–the Hellstone, as it came to be known–and felt that power, that gruesome possibility thrumming in their hands.  They said that Harmony destroyed the Hellstone, that its power might never be unleashed upon the world again. Some did not believe that story, but they missed the point. The Hellstone’s legacy was not its power–rather it was a realization: Such objects could exist, objects that would make gods even of petty fools like Lord Ka.  

The art of putting magic into inert things was not new–hedge mages had been quietly crafting oddities for centuries.  None had possessed such power as the Hellstone, but after its discovery, that hardly mattered. A plain man with ten or twenty weak but useful magical artifacts could play at the same superhumanity.  A new order was materializing then about a delicate but ruthless balance between mankind’s lust for power and a fear among the powerful that they may at any moment be devoured by those seeking their possessions.  In this order, the village, which had always been a crossroads, became a hub of a different kind of resource.

At first, the artifacts were simply commodities.  Merchants who previously sold spice or textiles would arrive at the village, carts laden with curios and magical knickknacks they had bought at a pittance from looters and refugees.  Most of them were useless: stones that would chirp birdsong when thrown to the ground, a silver fish sculpture that bled an endless stream of effervescent crimson from its eyes; but the ones that weren’t found purpose with alacrity, after one villager–Sam, the cooper’s son–was murdered in broad daylight by one of the merchants’ customers. The killer had used a pair of gloves that rendered his hands–and their activities–unnoticeable, and when he escaped the guards following this grim test of his new purchase, the proper merchants saw the signs.  Most left the trade. Many left the region entirely. Either way, the village saw little of them from then on.

Of course, lust for power and the knowledge that enabled it would never fade away simply for lack of sellers.  Even then there were those hovering at the fringes of civilization with fearsome arsenals and stores of wealth, willing to make very rich the one who brought them a means of surpassing their rivals.  But they were murderers. For all their wealth and power, everyone knew they were cutthroats, and no trinkets, no magical elevation could change that. It was no secret they would just as soon save their money and kill for what they wanted if it was an option.  What was missing was a class of trader capable of persuading them toward the latter.

It was Marko who solved this problem for the village.  He had always been a scoundrel, well connected in spite of his sclerosed reputation, surviving on his ability to find buyers for the occasional item the merchant overclass knew it should not have.  His arrival had been timely. In another era, Mayor Bergen would have had him jailed for one of his violent altercations, his lewd demeanor, any of his all-too-public vices; but with the village’s mercantile lifeblood all but vanished, Marko’s ability to sell the artifacts–which, for a time, looters were still attempting to offload in the village’s streets–saved the livelihood of everyone there.

The village remained between, even as the world had changed, between the abandoned manors and shrines of mages long dead, the looters that trawled them in hopes of a windfall that would raise them from squalor, and the elusive buyers that Marko sold to, petty thieves and killers made greater than they ever ought be by the panoply of lies they carried.  They called themselves gods, but that wasn’t precisely true.