The Cursemaster’s Trial

The default is you lose everything.

Humanity has gambled away the surface generations ago. That was during the rise of Cursemaster Zaorath, the first one. People couldn’t leave well and good alone; they just had to stand up to the overwhelming evil, and so the great magician cursed the ground, cursed the living, cursed bloodlines, too, and the only habitable space remaining were underground cities. Still cursed, mind you.

Zaorath won, but our ancestors sure showed him that they disapproved.

Thanks to their heroism, I grew up underground in Farinay City, orphaned by my own cursed family in which nothing could go right. And because I couldn’t take a hint, I’m a curser.


 

It was Challenge Day. The fourth day of Challenge Day, to be exact. On these days only, you could challenge the city’s Cursemaster and his council of High Cursers for their titles.

That morning, the arena’s spectator ranks were half empty, the present audience largely hungover, and the announcer spoke in a subdued rasp. The High Cursers, who stood as judges, were only paying cursory attention from fatigued eyes, some adjusting the new ribbons on their wrists and arms that they had won in recent matches.

At last, Cursemaster Benneth stepped onto the floor, radiating serenity. A hush fell over the ranks.

He briefly raised his eyebrows at me. “Normally, a challenge spoken counts, but I’ll let you out this once, if you ask.” The “good morning” died on my lips. My eyes wandered to his wrists. One ribbon only, a bright orange one that was showing signs of wear. It had belonged to the former owner of the title many years ago. Cursemaster Benneth did not take ribbons from lower challengers.

The leaden feeling in my body, along with all the facts, told me this was a really stupid idea. At least as stupid as becoming a curser in the first place. But the lead weighing down on my heart made it beat faster, too, made me wake up, made me smile. And now I really wanted that ribbon.

“Thank you,” I said. “But I’ll keep the challenge.”

Was it a sigh? “I thought you were smarter. Alright, have it your way.”

At least that was sort of a compliment. Wasn’t it? I tried to ground myself through the light-headed feeling and reach out to the walls around me. The announcer recited the rules and conditions as before each match. The air was starting to get frigid. The walls responded to me. Cold earth, cursed and made to speak to us, trapped in its existence like the worthless people that tried to make use of it for arena games and politics.

The announcer’s tired voice rose and drifted back into my consciousness. “Finally, no touching nor targeting the opponent’s body, and no killing. Surrender must be accepted immediately and counts as a loss.

“It is the losing party’s responsibility to know when to surrender to prevent their own death. That is all. Cursemaster Benneth and Curser Sarendyne, get ready. The match begins now.”

The light-headedness got worse if anything, and my heart wouldn’t be still. I had to calm down, but my body refused. I tried to take a deep breath and couldn’t: the air was getting too thin. … The air. He’d cursed it. That bastard.

Alright, think. Breathe deeply. No, that failed.

Cursemaster Benneth knew just how to induce a panic. And in a few moments my body would be entirely useless, so that was not what I ought to rely on now. Really though. The air?

My mind reached out to the earth surrounding us, feeling along the walls, my own curse delving into the ground. Meanwhile, my reflexes helpfully let me know that the air supply was running out and I should remove myself from the situation.

I let the anger seep in along with the curse for good measure. What could I do now? My field of vision was narrowing.

Help me. The city had to help me. Would it? Against its protector? I should have thought up a plan beforehand. Somehow I had just assumed that I would find a way on the spot and Fortune would smile upon the underdog. Dizziness made it hard to remain standing. Help me. The earth was cold.

Cold and trapped, like me. I let my mind run along the walls again, faintly now. Didn’t we all want to be free? Were walls really what this cursed and abused ground wanted to protect? My vision swam, and little lights started dancing in front of my eyes. I’d understand you, I told the ground. Help me, and we’ll be free. I need to breathe. We both need to breathe. Get us air.

I didn’t have long until my surrender. In fact, I had to preserve some energy to even be able to surrender before I collapsed. My mind with its dancing spots caressed the oppressive walls once more. Come off.

A light, rustling sound. Then the sand came off, running down the walls, and then taking larger pieces of rock with them. My vision nearly gone, I stumbled into a crouching position. More rocks rumbled down along in sympathy. The ceiling, I thought, I need air. Cool ground reached up into my mind, infusing it with its awakening will, and helped me pull down bits of sand and rock upon us. I had to surrender. Just another moment, just take down a bit more of this prison…

“Surrender!” Cursemaster Benneth’s voice croaked into the destruction. Cold air rushed into my lungs. I coughed and took some gasping breaths, until dizziness finally took me out and my head hit the ground.


 

I woke up and felt a comforting cold presence recede into the earth. Well fought, I thought, or it thought, or maybe we both did. I blinked and rubbed the sand from my face. He had surrendered. We had won, hadn’t we?

I looked up to the Cursemaster and the council standing close-by. The spectators were gone. I pushed myself up and stood on shaky legs. Stern pairs of eyes turned on me, and not in a stern but well-meaning mentor-like way. They looked seriously displeased with me. Cursemaster Benneth set to speak but then turned around to another figure. “Mayor? Do you want to…?”

Mayor Ryphid stepped forward and mustered me for a while, during which nobody spoke. What? What was their problem?

“Curser Sarendyne,” the mayor said at last. “You are hereby banished from Farinay City until you have met the following conditions:”

“What?” I asked. “Wait.”

He stopped, frowning. “What did you think would happen?”

What did I… “Not this,” I said. “I won, didn’t I? He surrendered. And surrender has to be accepted.”

Cursemaster Benneth shook his head. “This isn’t about winning or losing. Do you still not get it? You almost collapsed the city to win. And you’d be its protector?”

Oh, so that was what they meant. Still though. “It wasn’t against the rules though, was it? Besides, you cut off the air. If anything…”

The Cursemaster let out a slow rattling sigh. “I did not target you individually. I cursed the air in the entire room. I couldn’t breathe either. It was not against the rules.”

Great protector he was. “And I didn’t target you either. I went to the ground for help.”

“There’s more to it than the letter! Are you really that dense? You can’t be the city’s protector and destroy it just to win.”

I shook my head to try and get a clear thought. This couldn’t be happening. And he couldn’t be talking to me like this. And banished? They couldn’t banish me, the surface was a mess; everyone knew that. Some protector he was. “I didn’t destroy it. I didn’t even really curse it. We worked together. So… Ask the ground what it thinks of your protection.” Perhaps that was a bit much.

Cursemaster Benneth clenched his teeth. “If you want to breathe so much, maybe the surface will be more to your liking.”

“Enough,” the mayor cut in. “Sarendyne, you seem confused. Were you really not aware of what you were doing?”

Here was a chance to get out of this, perhaps. Just go along, plead for mercy… My glance flickered over to my opponent again, and the anger at the injustice of it all rose up with new intensity. I looked back at the mayor. “I’m aware that I won.”

The mayor frowned. “I’ll say I didn’t expect an argument on the basics. Do we really not have a rule – does nobody tell the new ones that you can’t collapse the city, for Zaorath’s sake?”

Levyne, an elderly High Curser pursed his lips. “We do indeed lack such a rule. By the letter, Sarendyne won. If the city agrees to help him, the result is valid.”

“This is madness,” Cursemaster Benneth spat. “You can’t be seriously considering this.”

Mayor Ryphid raised his hand to silence the group. He closed his eyes and inhaled deeply. Exhaled. Opened his eyes and looked into mine. “You are already exiled. I pronounced that part of the sentence.”

And just like that your entire future is forfeit.

“But,” he continued. “The city worked with you, for whatever reason, so I’ll respect it. You are its lawful protector – from the surface.”

I meant to protest, but he cut me off. “I’ll add something else. Find us an additional city. Farinay City is getting crowded, and we need room to expand. If you manage that, you can come home.”

“That…” I bit my lip. It was impossible. And probably very convenient for everyone involved. Find someone for the dangerous errand without feeling guilty. But it had been pronounced, so that was it.

“That is ridiculous,” Cursemaster Benneth scoffed and turned away, coat flapping behind him.

Oh no. Oh no, not like this.

“The title is mine,” I said. “So is the ribbon.”

Several incredulous pairs of eyes landed on me. Cursemaster Benneth turned back around slowly. “Fine. Since you and the city get along so well… take a meaningless title and a piece of cloth. Meanwhile I’ll continue to actually protect the city and its citizens.”

The mayor nodded. “If you all agree to this, let’s do it like that. Cursemaster Sarendyne, we’ll supply you with everything you’ll need. You can leave today.”

Benneth tugged on the ribbon’s knot and let the piece of cloth flutter to the floor. “Enjoy your ribbon, Cursemaster.”

Very classy. And I would have to be just as classy and pick it up from the floor. Well, I could do that. I wanted that ribbon. So I stepped forward, crouched down and picked the ribbon out of the dust.

As I got up, High Curser Levyne leaned over. “Are you alright with this?”

A hint of concern from someone on top of all. Today was my lucky day. “Thanks. Well… If all I’m getting out of this are a title and a ribbon, I’ll take them.”

He shot the smallest of smiles. “Good luck out there. I’ll go and revise our laws now.”


 

The first thing I felt was the wind. None of the gentle, magically enhanced air I knew, but a cold force that whipped and chafed. Below, I heard the old metal protest as the guard locked up the lid that covered the tunnel. Around the lid, only sand, a few brown plants, and a faded wooden sign that read “FARINAY CITY”.

I looked around and let my eyes scan the horizon. Nothing.

That vast emptiness. All that space. I was alone now, and I needed something, everything. The partially guessed map they had given me was not going to be useful if I did not find a single landmark. I took it out anyway, and it almost flew away. I managed to hold on to it, the paper protesting loudly and trying to rip itself apart.

They had advised me to turn towards the sun and then go right, but pointedly without a guarantee. It was as good a guess as any, so I did that. There was supposed to be a settlement somewhere along the way, of which I was told to beware. No specifics, just beware.

I was cold, and the wind lashed my hair into my face from all directions, or at least it felt like it. This was awful. Air was good, especially after the match earlier, but not so much of it at once.

Looking down at the map fluttering and straining in my hands, I noticed the orange ribbon tied around my wrist. Good enough. I stuffed the map into my bag, took off the ribbon and gathered my hair in a ponytail against the wind’s best efforts. After a few attempts, my trophy held back my hair and I could continue onwards. It was a good thing I’d become a Cursemaster.

 

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At fault

 

The city was drowning.

It would have been reasonable to blame the witch down in the stocks in the marketplace, but at the time I found that in poor taste. So I did not blame anything but the weather and the general decline of the world.

Whatever was at fault, however, I needed milk. And so I found myself in a futile rain cloak and under a futile umbrella, splashing through the streets.

The water went up to my ankles all the way through the residential district. Those streets were still paved then. It takes us a generation or two to abandon unhelpful old habits.

I turned the corner to the convenience store, expecting relief, but found a commotion in the doorway instead. People arguing, stomping their feet and letting the water splash up to their knees. Yelling something about distribution fairness and residential rights and soggy bread and the witch. I decided I wanted no part in that and moved on down the street in the direction of the shopping mall.

 

Of course, you know what it’s like, and at the same time you don’t. Downhill. Big mistake. But an even bigger mistake when all the water that’s gathering in the valley can’t seep into the ground, can’t go anywhere, but up. Up as in, water level rising.

And down there in that unfortunate valley, the stocks. And the brave guard, standing a noticeable way off, keeping just-so watchful-enough eyes on his charges. There were only two occupants left, the witch and a pretty young girl I hadn’t seen before.

The mall was across that sorry scene.

Spectators were few in this weather. Not everyone was as foolish as me.

I considered turning around instead of wading through knee-high water past that, but then I’d decided to go buy milk, and once I’d be safely at home, I’d regret not having any. That was my train of thought then. You can laugh at your old grandfather. Go ahead. Means hopefully you’ll be smarter.

 

So I walked on. Well, “walked” isn’t the right word. Tiptoed, steered in wide curves, hopped over particularly deep puddles and splash-landed in shallow ones. Slouched when the path took me too close to the stock personnel, witch and pretty girl and guard, all there performing for an ungrateful audience on a rainy day, dispatched there by the government and the good sense of the people.

The girl was hanging her head. Didn’t look at me, didn’t look at anyone. That was easier. Sure, you feel bad, but you can avoid it, and tell yourself neither of you wants to make contact, too unpleasant, you’d just embarrass her further. Best to just walk past.

The witch didn’t have that kind of decorum, though. She looked straight at me. If you’ve ever had… Yeah, of course you have. Back then, it was still rare. We weren’t used to having a witch stare at us. We didn’t know, was it stupid superstition to shrink back, or should we in fact be more afraid than we were? Well, at least I was like that. And the paper columns were full of that kind of back-and-forth.

It was unnerving. It’s unnerving even knowing that stare, right? Now imagine being unfamiliar with it. I couldn’t tell what was in it. I froze, stared back into those dark blue eyes, and tasted metal cause moments had passed and I’d bitten my lip. I was going to tear myself away, but then something wrapped around my ankles in the water, and then she rooted me further to the spot, by asking in that hoarse voice. “You don’t want to be here either, do you? What’s your errand?”

Any answer would have been better than the truth, any, and I was aware of the situation, and what the simple ‘either’ implied, and I wanted to justify my presence in this spot somehow, and what I said was “I wanted to buy milk.”

I thought I saw a smile there, just a tiny one, and the stuff underwater left my ankles alone, and I could move again. So I did.

“Bring me some,” she rasped behind me. “Something warm.”

I froze again but pushed myself onwards to the mall, pretending not to hear.

 

The mall itself was blissful normality. Everyone worked really hard at maintaining that image. Dry floors, electric light, the same bad radio music we were used to, even if the chatter in between named a date in the past, and sunny weather. I remember I almost bought fresh bread and salad before remembering that was a damned stupid idea. So I got some cans, and the milk I was there for. And after grinding my teeth in front of that shelf for a while, I took some extra, and some honey. There was no point in the honey, I told myself. Her raspy voice just made me want some comfort for my own throat once I got home. I’d probably catch a cold anyway from this outing. I decided not to think about it any further.

 

The detour through the mall led me past a hot coffee stand. It was crowded. Here we could all admit what the situation really was like. I sighed and got in line. Stupid. I could warm my own milk at home. This was a waste of time and money.

 

I walked out with a ceramic cup of hot milk with honey to go. I’d paid extra for the cup; didn’t bring my own, of course.

 

When I got to the stocks, one of them was empty.

The witch was still there. She looked straight at me as soon as she saw me. Then at the cup I was holding. Well, so much for all of that. The water was covering her knees now, and the guard… The guard stood even further away than before, to where the water only went up to his calves, haggling with some middle-aged man who was surely none of the local authorities. The young girl from the stocks stood at their side, looking disinterested.

I turned back to the witch. Possibly of my own volition. I’d like to think so.

“I thought we’d get along,” she said in barely a voice left.

I waded up to her and raised the cup in my hands and… Then I didn’t know what to do. You can’t hand a cup to someone in the stocks. I frowned. Should I hold it up to her lips? Would that even work? Wouldn’t that be embarrassing for her? Or did that not count anymore when you were in that situation?

She gave me that tiny smile again. “For me?”

I felt caught. For a moment I wished she could have been as unobtrusive as the other one so I could have just walked on.

“Yeah. I…”

“It’ll be my last drink. Don’t let it get cold.”

While I was still taken aback by that, she awkwardly pointed her eyes at the water level.

“No, come on, it won’t be that… They wouldn’t… This isn’t what’s normally…” I said it for her as well as my own benefit.

“You could lace it with poison,” she went on in her barely-a-voice. “That would make this all quicker.”

“No, come on,” I said again, feeling increasingly helpless. Why had I left the apartment that day? Why did I care?

Those blue eyes mustered me, I saw, and she looked like she was pondering something. Then her eyes beckoned me closer, so I came closer, and she said in an even lower voice: “Or it could make this stop.”

I got annoyed and grit my teeth. “Isn’t that the same?”

She shook her head, and looked up at the sky, then down to the water that was steadily rising. “This.”

I felt cold, and my thoughts were frozen in place same as I was. “Are you saying…” Witches. The rain. “They’re right?”

Her smile was sad and appraising. Those blue eyes were serious as always. “You can talk to the guard, too. Make it quick. He wants to leave, too.”

I bit down on my lip again. Then I went and talked to the guard.

“Ah good,” were his first words. He was shivering. “Let’s cut this short, alright. No weather for this. I name you a good price, and you take this off my hand, and I… conveniently look away.” His teeth chattered through the word ‘conveniently’. He dug into his coat pocket and drew out a bundle of keys for me to see.

I glanced at the witch.

She was watching me. You know that look. The ‘Are you about done with your chores?’ look.

There are times in one’s life when one’s got to say, screw the city.

 

The ceramic cup shattered when she tried to hold it. Turns out your grip isn’t the strongest after the stocks. She looked sadder at that than she had all day.

“I bought milk and honey for at home,” I said, and felt like more of an idiot that I had all day.

Your grandma nodded. “I thought we’d get along.”

Those were different times. These days everyone knows better, people and guards both.

But you know, sometimes wisdom is overrated.

 

A Jupiter Blood Feud

Runan’s brother lay dead in the dust, and droning music rang in his ear. He wanted to cast the comm device down to the corpses, but he didn’t.

This call was necessary.

“Please hold the line. The next available registrar will be with you shortly. Please hold the line.”

His brother’s eyes looked up at him; demanding or accusing?

No, just dead.

His servant scrambled past, sad eyes on his brother’s corpse. “Are you coming, lord? The attackers are still out there!”

Runan shook his head, still hooked to his device. Holding the line. “Deal with them.”

“Lord –“

Laser fire erupted in the distance; lingering was a luxury for a grieving lord. The servant left.

“Please hold the –“

A crack in the hopelessly outdated line.

“Welcome to the Jupiter Blood Feud Registry. Thank you for doing your duty to keep our planet safe. In order to ensure you the most efficient service, we kindly ask you to state your request. If you would like to register a blood feud, please choose option number one. If you would like to withdraw a blood feud, please choose option number two. If you would like to mark a blood feud as satisfied, please choose option number three. If you have any further questions regarding the Jupiter Blood Feud Registry, please choose option number four.”

“For fuck’s sake,” Runan grumbled and pressed number one for feud registry.

“Please hold the line.” The music returned.

There were shots in the distance, and the dusty air was darkening.

“You know,” said the man in the temporary laser cage. “It’d be quicker to just kill me.”

The cage holding his brother’s killer was buzzing. “And turn into a barbarian like you and like our ancestors.”

The man shrugged one of his bony shoulders. “Not saying you should.”

“Good evening, this is the Jupiter Blood Feud Registry. My name is Sinvan. How can I help you?”

At last. “I’m Lord Runan of New Marienburgh. I want to register a blood feud. It’s my brother’s killer–“

“I see you’re calling from Santa Maria Desert. Please be advised that due to the high volume of warlike activities, blood feuds in this area cannot be–“

“The bastard broke into our fortress and killed my brother! This is not a war, this is–“

“One moment please.”

Music.

“Fuck!” Runan took the device from his ear and glared at it.

“You could just let it go. Not worth it, is it?” Dark eyes under dark brows tried to look sly, but the dread in them would not be disguised.

“Oh no,” Runan said, finally feeling the anger that his brother’s death had failed to bring about. “Oh no. You will die. You will die here by my hand.”

The man pursed his thin lips.

Runan waited.

Nothing.

Music.

“Thank you for waiting. Did the attacker arrive on his own, or as part of a group or a concentrated attack?”

Runan sighed. “There was an attack. But that’s not the point. He breached the defences and–“

“One moment please.”

Music.

That slow, droning music.

Then, “He’s lucky.” His prisoner pointed at the corpse.

Runan strained to contain himself, pressure rising within him. “Pardon me?”

“My brother wouldn’t call a blood feud over me.”

“Are you fucking serious?” The fury wanted a vent, be hissed out into the world.

The prisoner shrugged again. “Last minute epiphanies.”

“And you think now’s the time?”

“Well, it’s not like there’s much time left, is there?”

The music droned on, suggesting there was all the time in the world.

Runan groaned and rubbed his forehead.

The music stopped. At last, an end to this –

“Thank you again for waiting. As it turns out, we cannot process this kind of request. Would you like me to forward you to the department specialised in wartime blood feuds?”

“Are you fucking serious?” Runan yelled into the comm device.

The prisoner grinned at him. “You going to ask that of everyone you talk to?”

“You shut the fuck up!”

“I’m sorry, sir,” the registrar said. “I cannot help you with this. I will transfer you to the specialised department.”

“Not you, dimwit –“

A crack in the line.

Music.

“Fuck!”

The prisoner bit his lip, bit by bit chewing back his grin until he looked almost serious. “Sorry.”

Runan exhaled slowly.

More shots in the distance. Screams. Belonging to anyone and no one. Life was as cheap as it had always been. And here he was, trying to keep order alive. Trying to keep the value of even one life intact.

His brother’s eyes were still staring. Always wanting something.

Or just dead.

“I’d have liked someone who’d call a blood feud over me,” said the prisoner. “Guess I blew that.”

Runan sighed.

The music was playing on.

“What did you even want? Is this war? Feud of your own?”

The prisoner smiled, silently. Then, “No, just to steal something. We figured, in that chaos, nobody would care. Wasn’t smart.”

Runan swallowed. “And why,” his eyes fell on his brother’s again. Accusing. “Why did he have to die?”

“It was an accident! I was trying to stun him, but the switch jammed, and then he screamed, and I wanted to silence him –“

Runan sighed.

“I’m sorry.”

Runan stood still, then sighed again.

“Would he have called a blood feud over you, do you think?”

A question to behead someone over. But a valid one. “He knew his duty,” Runan said at last.

“Duty, huh.”

He shrugged. “Life can’t be cheap again. That’s how we ended up here.”

“It can’t but it is, huh?”

“What the fuck do you know–” He broke off. Then he just shook his head. “A blood feud doesn’t mean you’re not lonely. No need to envy anyone.”

Silence.

“Welcome to the Jupiter Wartime Blood Feud Registry. Thank you for helping to ensure life has value even in wartime. My name is Andria. How can I help you?”

Laser shots in the distance. Some nobody screamed.

Somebody here was sorry.

He turned off the laser cage.

Dark brows shot up.

Runan grit his teeth. “I’m running out of men.”

“Excuse me? Sir, if you are under attack, I must advise you that it is not permitted to register multiple blood feuds at once for singular incidences, as those are covered under –”

“Nevermind.”

He turned off the comm device.

He knelt down next to his brother’s corpse and closed those eyes.

No more of that.

 

Just dead.

Restoration

A broken sword lay waiting at a sun-dappled crossroads.

The shards called out to a young woman passing by, dressed in tattered rags that had been made of fine materials once.

She looked down at the elegant cut of the remains and saw her own reflection.

One by one, she laid out the pieces until the image of the sword was complete once more. “This is as good as we’ll get, you and I,” she said and turned to leave.

The specks of sunlight merged into a single beam running up the sword’s length and mending the gaps until the weapon shone as new.

The young woman clenched her jaw and then her fist and then bent down to pick it up. “Let this be it then. I, the former Lady Scinna, claim this weapon for my own. And I will right the wrongs –“

The sword glinted in her hand. “Be under no illusion,” it said. “What you saw is still as good as we get, you and I.”


The first to go was her uncle. The sound of his bones splintering was satisfying in its own way, but not enough.

Next was her aunt. Onlookers were just as guilty. As blood soaked the usual pompous up-do on her severed head, serenity hung over the room for a moment, but just a moment.

Some palace staff had to go due to circumstance. The sword made guards easy to deal with. Others were easy anyway.

She’d never liked that one servant.

The new wet nurse, who’d schemed against her, and with some hesitation, the new heir.

Her late father’s and then her uncle’s minister of war pleaded for his life and made a strong point, but was altogether too suspicious.

Ellia, her best friend, who’d simply continued living there as if nothing had happened. Some friend.


Enemies fell.

Advisors fell or fell in line.

Opposition fell silent.

All the while, the restored Lady Scinna sat on her throne, watching, her restored sword laid across her lap, ringing in her head: “Don’t forget what we are.”

She had liked the ambassador.

But he had asked for too much. Now his head stained her throne room.

Don’t forget what we are.

The palace was empty.

The few spoken words echoed in the hollow halls.

No one to fell.

No one to stain anything.

The occasional cleaning lady. A mute cook.

Until his lamb dish made her queasy. You never knew.


The restored Lady Scinna got up, took her restored sword, and walked out to the crossroads she had found it at.

She laid it down under a cloudy sky and picked up a sturdy rock instead.

“I’ve remembered what you are,” she said as she smashed the rock down into the blade.

Torchbearer

The cave walls are damp. Under the light of my torch they have a slippery shine. I have lost track of how far underground we are. But we should be at our destination soon.

Selrik stands and waves me over. “Isla.”

I join him, and he points at something in the wall. Glistening, not like the water, but a green shine. He removes the small pickaxe from his belt, and I light the area for him as he removes bits of precious stone from the wall. In between hacking away at the wall, he stops to drop the green rocks into the satchel I’m carrying.

At last he returns the pickaxe to his belt and claps the dust off his hands. “When we get out, we’ll pick the prettiest one of these and have it worked into your ring.”

 

Further down, there are more of the green rocks, and the satchel fills.

“Fantastic,” Selrik says. “At this rate we won’t even need the main attraction. We can just sell these!” Despite the bad lighting, his eyes are green and sparkling like the gems.

 

“Hah!” He drops a particularly large gem into the heavy satchel. “Forget old Jarrik’s crypt, we can buy us a house!”

My smile must rival the gems at the thought. “Then should we return? There’s still his curse, why bother with it?”

Selrik frowns and bites his lower lip in thought. “Let me think about it.” He points at another area in the wall. “Light?”

 

He studies the map again, and I stand next to him, the torch lighting up the parchment. I don’t have eyes for the map as much as for him. I see a small frown on his face, then a glint in his eyes.

“Did you find something?”

His eyes stay fixed on the map for a while longer. Then he looks up and folds up the map.

He sets out to walk, but hesitates, looks back at me.

His face breaks into a smile, his posture relaxes. He steps over to me, opens the satchel and drops the map inside. My heart skips a beat. He reaches up to my shoulder and removes the strap, and immediately I feel light. He slings the heavy bag over his own shoulder. “You shouldn’t have to carry that. Sorry. I wasn’t thinking.”

I smile at him.

He opens the satchel again, takes his small bag with lock picking supplies from his belt and dumps them all into the larger one. “Better.” He grins.

 

There is a steep descent in the path, and the walls narrow around us. “Shall I go ahead?” I ask, raising the torch over my head.

So we’re going to King Jarrik’s crypt after all.

Did he ever answer before? I’m not sure now.

“Sure, go ahead,” Selrik says. So we descend down the steps. I’m glad my burden has been lightened earlier.

 

There is a small hole where the door to the crypt was locked in mysterious ways generations prior.

Selrik walks around it and studies it from all sides, crouches down, looks through, shakes his head, gets back up again.

He musters the wall again. “I want to figure something out. Can you light the hole for me from this side? I’ll try to crawl through and see if I can figure the lock out from inside.”

Of course I oblige. “Shall I take the bag?” I ask.

He reaches inside the satchel, rummages around, then shakes his head. “All my stuff is mixed up in there. I was stupid earlier. But thanks.” He crouches down and wedges the bag and himself through the hole slowly.

I light his path, then crouch down myself and hold the torch at the height of the hole he disappeared through. “Like this?”

“Just like that. Yeah. Just a moment. I’ll have this…” I hear rustling and clanking. “Figured out in a moment. Hang on.” More clanking. Then silence. I wait and light into the hole.

 

Occasionally, I hear him fumble around with the door and curse under his breath.

When the position gets too uncomfortable, I crouch with my back to the door, holding the torch for him, waiting. I don’t want to sit down; the floor is as damp as the walls here.

 

Something large slams into the floor behind me. Clanking, clicking.

“Did you manage something?”

Silence.

“Selrik?”

Nothing.

I remove the torch, change positions, light into the hole again and try to peer through, but there’s nothing I can see. It’s blocked.

“Selrik?”

No answer.

 

There has been no answer for a while now. No more noises either. Just silence.

I get up, my back and legs aching. My heart just cold for now. I stand there with my torch lighting the glistening walls.

It’s time to leave.

A Professional

It is said Grandmaster Sahnadu was called upon when the sludge arrived in Mistarra.

He frowned deeply underneath his bald pate as the dark substance oozed through riverbeds and covered up tinkling streams formerly lined with the delicate greenery of spring.

He stood still as a rock when life was sundered senselessly, and only turned away from the spectacle when a robed man beside him cleared his throat and bowed in a ducking manner, and said, “We called you because you are a professional. And this…”

Sahnadu raised his hand. “Say no more.”

And the man said no more.

 

It is said that in his quest to understand the sludge and its underlying principles, Grandmaster Sahnadu stood knee-deep in the rising swamp, dark splatters all over his skin and his robe which would be forever ruined. He did not mind.

 

When all attempted sorceries proved to be of no avail, and the sludge reached the Temple of Light, it is said that Gandmaster Sahnadu stood stoically, watching the sacred grounds be devoured, and with them, another hope of deliverance from this evil. The others gathered around him like to a rock in a stormy sea. But this sea was dark and creeping, unstoppable in its lethargy.

 

When a young monk who had studied under him flung himself into the floods to save something, anything, perhaps a statue or an artefact that might help us, and was instead torn asunder and blackened, it is said that Grandmaster Sahnadu betrayed emotion for the first time. He flinched, as if to stop the brightly robed young man, but then resigned to the inevitable and let him go, grief lining his face. Then he got back to the work that they all must have known by now was pointless.

 

In the end, it is said that Mistarra went under completely, a beautiful land destroyed and besmirched by a substance of foul origin.

It is said that the substance did not pass the borders.

I stood at the Southern border. I saw him and his followers still flocking around him in desperate hope. I saw him raise his hand to the sky as the sludge stopped its advance, and I saw him smile.

Initiation

The last day of being sheltered in the convent’s cold stone and red glass, and the last day the world is sheltered from me.

The elders are standing around me, the highest ranking of all the elven orders, though we only got to learn about a few. If I mess it up and they can’t withstand me, nobody can. I wonder if they make such a fuss for the other orders as well, but I doubt it. None have quite the reputation of poisoning their listeners, after all.

I straighten my shoulders, knowing I’ll slump them forward again the moment I get distracted.

“Initiate of Cirrunan, step forward.”

I take a pointless but ceremonially relevant step forward. Nevermind I’m the only initiate of anything in the room.

Cirrunan, I pray, since it seems the time for that, I know you like to mess things up, but can we work this out? I really want to succeed here.

“Initiate. Before you speak, let us know. Have you ever broken your vow of silence in the ten years you have been learning in this order?”

Here we go. I nod.

They don’t look surprised.

“How many times?”

I shrug. No idea.

“At what opportunities?”

This would be a lot easier if they let me speak already. But protocol is protocol. I make a gesture of cutting into my hand, then raise my arms and simulate something falling on top of my head, then, how do I do the others…

Another elder smiles and speaks up. “Let us leave out the cases of injuries and mishaps and other accidental raising of the voice. We expect those. Were there any others?”

I nod.

“If I may,” Birnan, our own elder, says. “It was near the beginning of his training. Another boy talked to his plant, and it died. Nandred tried to complain to me. I tried to discourage it because we regard the telling on others as part of what makes our words venomous. Something we have to guard ourselves against. But he was young and didn’t understand. He thought he wasn’t making himself clear, so he spoke up.” Birnan’s smile is fond when he continues, “I had the flu for some weeks. He didn’t talk again after that.”

Some of the others join in the smiles. It’s not quite correct, but what a charming anecdote it is.

“Is this correct?” another elder asks.

They just had to ask, didn’t they? But now’s the time to be honest. Lies are poison, et cetera. Cirrunan, if you want me, you’d better make this work. I make a vague, weighing gesture.

The elder raises his massive eyebrows. So does Birnan.

“Which part is untrue? Is it true that you did not speak up after that? Again, injuries and such exempt.”

I nod.

“Then is it the circumstance of your speaking?”

The circumstance… No, that was quite as Birnan had said. Vague weighing gesture again. Headshake.

“The motivation, then?”

I nod.

Birnan is looking puzzled.

Another elder smiles. I recognise her robes. Giskri’s order. “You’re raising little vipers and think them innocent? Come now. I say all’s as it should be. Ordain the lad already.”

Cirrunan’s sister’s order would be the one to accept, and to know how things are.

They murmur amongst each other, and then Birnan steps forward. “Come forth, then, Nandred, and be anointed a priest of Cirrunan. You will go out into the world and counsel the mighty. But always remember that your words are poison if you do not guard them. Do you vow to speak on behalf of Cirrunan in all things or not at all?”

Here is the time, then. Constrain the poison, and speak. “Yes.” Simple, scratchy, and not sounding like me at all. I cough.

They’re still standing. That’s good.

Birnan smiles. “Then we welcome you into our ranks. But before you leave this room, tell us: Why did you break your vow back then?”

Of course, until we leave the room, they’re entitled to the truth. I shrug. “You didn’t help me. He killed my plant.”

Birnan blinks.

“Why,” Giskri’s priest drawls. “You’re just like our little brother.”

And I’m saved. By tradition, they have to accept that assessment from her, even if to many of them it is not a good thing at all.

Digging Deeper

The convent walls were radiating cold even as they kept worse cold out. Barren and white-washed, they reminded us of the scrubbed-off purity our minds were supposed to hold after enough training. I knew there was still plenty to scrub off for me.

Master Jaophi was resting his head on his leonine paws, watching over our meditation through slit pupils. We did not question his appearance. He held deeper mysteries in these paws, behind these eyes, mysteries that transcended what we could grasp at our current pitiful stage.

Or so I told myself. Often.

To no avail. My glance flickered over his strange form even as I tried to tear it loose and back onto the walls. Scrub it off. Scrub off the questions, the defiance, kill those thoughts before curiosity kills the cat. The cat. You get it? Like the paws.

With a rumble, Master Jaophi cleared his throat. I flushed and stared harder at the walls. White. There was a growl, and I looked over. A might paw beckoned me over. I swallowed and unfolded myself to get up.

“Later,” Master Jaophi’s scratchy voice said. “See me after the meditation.”

I nodded and folded myself back up. Then I continued to contemplate the walls for another eternity while trying to scrub off the anxiety, but my nerves were only raw and frayed from the exercise.

 

When the time came at last, I approached Master Jaophi, who looked down at me with those wise cat-like eyes.

“You are curious,” he said.

While I was still wondering what the less wrong answer was, he continued.

“I have a task for you. We shall see if you can temper your spirit. This could be your chance of gaining further insight, but for that you will have to forsake that which you will naturally want.”

I did not sigh. Ever since my parents had given me to this convent as a youth, that had described my entire education. I did not sigh. I nodded.

“Good,” said the raspy voice. “Go to the basement and find a wooden box in the wine shelf. Its contents are as forbidden as the wine. It is a constant reminder of temptation and that which we give up voluntarily for a higher goal.”

Wondering what the purpose of this exercise was, I nodded slowly. “Shall I bring it to you?”

“No.” There was an odd smile on our master’s face. “There’s no need. Just take it, and hold it in your hands. Set it down on the shrine at the other side of the room.” His smile widened, and these feline eyes flickered. “Then leave it alone and go to bed.”

I decided I could do that. I had resisted many things for the sake of this so-called enlightenment. I could place a box from one surface to another.

“You think that is easy.” Master Jaophi’s voice startled me. “Wine does not tempt you. You are too far evolved for that. What this box holds is the secret to my form. Even I must not look at it.” He smiled that smile again. “Do you still think you can do this for me?”

Shivering, surely from the late winter cold, I nodded.

 

Soon after, I was down in the convent’s basement looking around in the candle light. Indeed, there was the wine shelf. And indeed, there was a wooden box in it amidst the bottles. A box even Master Jaophi was forbidden access to. This was what he did. He resisted. He forsook that which he must surely want, for the sake of higher enlightenment. Perhaps if I grew in awareness as him, I would gain such wisdom, such discipline, such slit pupils, and such paws. Or perhaps he was only able to be this way because of that form. Perhaps he was none of us. Never had been. I looked around me and closed the door to the staircase. It was cool down here. A draught would not be good.

I approached the shelf. I turned around. There, on the other end of the room, was indeed a small shrine with a large empty space in the middle that could hold the box.

I arrived at the shelf and picked up the wooden box. It was rough beneath my fingers. I hoped I would not get a splinter from it. A splinter when really one wanted insight. But I really wanted a different kind of insight, and for that I would forsake that which I wanted at this moment.

I carried the quite heavy box over to the shrine and put it down.

That which I wanted. The insight. The insight that had been forced upon me since before I could decide on these things. That would have my mind scrubbed clean and raw and frayed as a price.

I was all alone in this room. Nobody would ever know.

Or perhaps he would know. This was an exercise of will, of restraint, of discipline. Perhaps there was a hair tying the lid to the box, perhaps there would be something splattering the contents and creating a mess, perhaps something mystical that would make a hideous noise or alert Master Jaophi telepathically – who even knew what he was capable of, what he was?

And if I failed? What would happen, would I be expelled? Surely a tragedy. It would only be the first choice I made in my life.

I opened the lid.

Nothing snapped, nothing broke, and nothing spilled or made noises. What had been the purpose then?

I placed the lid on the side and peered inside.

Dust and bones. I could not make out what they were of. I shivered. This time it was definitely not from the cold. What was going on here?

While I was at it, there was no reason for restraint now, was there? My fingertips brushed the dust. It was dust. Underwhelming. And yet… There was a suspicious set of little thin bones… human finger bones? I laid my hand against it. As if in gentle contemplation. As I was taught. It was quite different from a paw, wasn’t it? I slowly pried at the bones, then I dug deeper.

My hand reached something larger, even, curved at the top. It was a skull, wasn’t it? The box lit up in an eerie red light, smoke formed, and the dust came splashing out at me before I could react.

I was stunned. Belatedly, I pulled back my hand and wiped the dust off my face. And stared at the spectacle that laid itself out before me.

The smoke and dust rose up until a tall human form covered by a hooded robe looked down on me from atop the shrine, lit in red from below.

I took several steps backwards but still faced the creature. Looking back, I don’t know why I didn’t run. Perhaps it was the peculiar way we react to shock. Or perhaps my mind had been scrubbed too clean to muster fright now.

The figure laughed. So it could produce sounds. So now the box made noises. And there was quite a mess here, too, now. All that dust. I broke into laughter along with the creature that had risen from the bones.

“Good,” the creature said at last. “Good, mortal. At last I find one.” His voice resembled Master Jaophi’s without the rasp in it. “You freed me of your own accord. At last one of you sheep finds me and digs up my bones of his own free will. I thought it would never happen.”

I contained my laughter at last, with some effort. Nothing is as funny as that which is inopportune at a time of shock. I swallowed. “Master Jaophi, I suppose?”

“Good. You still know whom you serve. Are you pleased with your insight? Although I suppose you won’t want what follows.”

Now the panic struck me, but of course it was too late. As my heart clenched and my breath became forced, the Master Jaophi from the dust looked around. Then he peered at me. He probably peered into my eyes, but all I saw was darkness and swirling dust under that hood.

“I will be generous once, my student. Run for a day and a night. For you have helped me. Then I will commence my work here. You shall be spared, and you shall remember me.”

I could have done many heroic things. Some suicidal things. Honourable things to contain this thing that I had freed, to try to avert the destruction I had brought upon my temple and my world. But I didn’t. I listened, and paid my respect, and ran for a day and a night.

 

In the white-washed wasteland that we live in, resources are scarce, but a modest living is possible. We are those who remember, and who carry on the word so that the chain of remembrance will not be broken. Belatedly, the terrors have set in and haunt my nights, and I wish I could scrub my mind clean like raw white temple walls, but it stays alive and filled in brilliant red and swirling dust, solid and noisy like bones rattling between my fingertips. When I look into the mirror, haunted eyes look back at me. Sometimes I think my pupils are growing narrower. But my sight only improves.

Unhealthily dry air

“I swear, I didn’t mean to do it!” The development associate’s eyes darted wildly between them. Gevuyn held his arm in a vise-like grip. “It’s like he made me do it! He kept…” The man was hyperventilating.

“He kept saying stuff,” Gevuyn offered.

“He did! Kept… taunting me.”

Yurtoril smiled his thin smile at him. The one that wasn’t reassuring in the slightest. Of course he had to do that now. Gevuyn rolled his eyes. The associate struggled in his grip. Yeah, great. Gevuyn laid his left hand on his shoulder and turned him around to face him. “What did he say?”

The man took several laboured breaths. “He said… He said…”

“Lemme bet. Cause we see that a lot. Stuff that shouldn’t even bother you that much. But it did. And all that stuff came welling up, and next thing you knew…”

“Yes! Just like that. Do you… You said you… I’ve got…”

“A family,” Yurtoril said. “And funds. And high responsibility. That’s all accounted for. That’s why it’s us you see, and not the police.”

The man’s breathing finally calmed down. When Gevuyn let go of his shoulder, he turned around to Yurtoril. “And…”

“The order is aware of your importance. They are willing to let you get away with it. We can work with the director’s accident. Provided…”

The associate tensed up again, and Gevuyn tightened his grip around his arm, then relaxed it, suppressing a sigh. Why did he have to be the human one again? “You want it to go away? The thoughts, the stuff welling up? You’ve been inside a lot, haven’t you? In your office? Bet you didn’t even have time to refill the humidifier.”

The man’s eyes widened, then fell. He exhaled, and the tension left his body. The image of resignation, and its small voice: “I’ve been really busy.”

“That’s what I thought. Don’t worry, sir, we’ll have this taken care of in no time.”

“I’m sure you will,” the man said with that tiny wry smile. Gevuyn hated when they did that. It looked intelligent and called up his sympathy, one of the few things that still did.

Yurtoril took the man’s other arm. Didn’t miss a beat. “Let’s take a walk in the rain. It clears up the thoughts.”

Delile’s Story Time: The failure of Kir Perthyr

Once there was a beautiful Radzhi woman named Kir Perthyr. Her scales were as green as… that plant, you know the one.

By the way, Siph, can I ask you something? Why is green the ideal? Wait, is that tactless cause you’re not green at all, like is that hard, cause I think blue’s just as good but I’m not a Radzhi, and –

Right.

Her scales were… yeah. Her eyes glowed like the moonlight… that’s too pale?

Okay, not to you personally, but –

Rich yellow? So like you then, oh I see, so you make up for the scale colour with your eyes. What glows yellow? A dying sun?

Right, moving along.

Kir was told by the prophetess of her village to undergo three trials. If she succeeded even one of them, great power of legend would be hers, and she would fulfil an ages-old destiny of her people. Her mother had trained her for all her life, she was brave and educated and pious, and basically nothing could go wrong. So she went to the temple between the pillar rocks to ask for her first task.

The right pillar told her to solve the Equation of I Tirze. As I understand it, that was cheating, cause nobody solves it. That’s the point of it. Not that I’d know, me and equations… But Kir tried her best, but she had to give up. No problem, two more to go. But Kir started to worry if the tasks would all be like that.

Then the left pillar said she had to outrace a Zikzi worm. Again, nobody outraces a Zikzi worm. But she tried her best. Siph, have you ever seen a live one? They sound kind of horrible, but I think I want to see one – no huh? Alright. So for the rest of you – they’re telepathic. And the worm sensed her honest struggle, and she did come rather close a few times, which is impressive but she was destined to be a heroine. Just before the worm won, it implanted this thought in her head: “It’s better if you fail, if you don’t want to give all of Thizha to us.” That gave her pause, of cause. In any case, the worm won the race, and Kir only had one more trial to go.

But the second one had been fairer than the first, so there was still a chance – but what had the worm meant?

The right pillar spoke up, and Kir was disheartened cause that was the cheating one. The last trial was a test of her will. She had to sit in front of the temple doors, and when she was ready, the instructions would come.

Kir decided that was a weird and stupid test, at least the other ones had made sense for a heroine to have to pass, but this? But she sat down in front of the temple door and waited. No instructions came.

After a while she started to wonder about food and drink and sleep and whatever else you need, and wondered if she should ask the pillars if she could take a break and come back to waiting for the instructions or what. But she didn’t dare yet. But it was getting really uncomfortable. And the days were long and harsh from all the impossible trials. Was that the test? And when was it enough discomfort? If only the worm was here for company. Or even I Tirze with his assholish equation, even though he was long dead. But she had the words of the worm. Should she fail?

Or was that part of the trial? What if the worm hadn’t just been a willing opponent in the race but was further in league with the pillars? What if he was meant to plant that doubt in her mind? She couldn’t let him beat her twice in a row, could she? So she had to hold out.

But then she thought of her home village, and her nest siblings, and the next generations, and what if the worm was right? It wasn’t worth the risk. So she stood up.

The pillars sighed. “Another failure.”

And that was that.

But the village still stands. It’s named Kir now, as a reminder to future generations that it’s Radzhi against pillars, and you shouldn’t bend to the will of the pillars under the pretence of proving your own.