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.

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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.

Up in flames

Meldeen runes appeared on the screen. They were familiar, although Siph couldn’t read them. Nothing to misinterpret about a repeated game-over screen. The fire covering the virtual ground rose up and consumed the world. Siph confirmed. Up in flames, once more.

The screen went dark, and for a moment, the room was pitch black.

The optimistic drums and fanfare of Flame Generals blared out, and a different set of familiar runes appeared. Should he try once more? With his reflexes and his coordination and his perception being as they were after the failed augmentation that had done the opposite? Not even able to pass that level?

Simeon would do it for him once he got home from his negotiations. Or maybe he would fail and not mind. In any case he’d understand, as he always did, because something in his nature made him understand the pariah who had experimented with his own brain and lost some of his skills, as others subject to his research had lost their lives because they had not been able to panic and remove their own neuro implants. It had been a beautiful dream. Then Thereth Station had been in shambles.

And now here he was in a room on Hayes, a refugee on a slowly failing space station. Sitting in the dark, frustrated at a game he had shown Simeon on a whim when confronted with his love of Meldeen culture of all things. A novelty, back then. And currently the bane of his existence.

Simeon would understand. Because of that twisted something in his nature that made him understand the pariah over his victims; that had made him take him in instead of the innocent arriving on the same ship. Made him seek his company over that of those who would have deserved the attention. His eyes narrowed in a smile, the tip of his tongue darting out to taste the air this situation was in.

Too uncertain, still. Too much negative ghosting around. All in his head, of course.

Banking on the understanding of someone who appreciated Meldeen culture and yet tolerated his self-inflicted weakness was a shaky ground to walk on.

Worrying about it in the context of too many virtual deaths was comical. Yet that fanfare kept mocking him. At last, he turned down the sound. Too quiet, now.

The door slid open, and he turned around. There he was, with a smile at the screen and then at him, pale like those of his kind had become that had adapted to Jairra’s toxicity, here because he hadn’t adapted enough. Perhaps…

The door slid shut behind Simeon, and he turned on the light. Well. Really he had already done that moments ago.

Siph’s eyes were slits, he noticed. “Welcome home.”

“Thank you.” Simeon’s eyes wandered between him and the surroundings as he sat down next to Siph. “It was of course completely useless. Those people…” A pause, and Siph could see him gather his thoughts and words. “They don’t like sense. It’s too neutral. And they only like empathy in name. If they could just admit what they want, this would be a lot easier. But they can’t do that either. Empathy still sounds too good, in name.”

Siph’s tongue flicked out briefly. “So no progress?”

“None. There was no point in me being there. Not as Mrs. Thorne’s token refugee, and certainly not as anyone who…” He gestured back at the door. “Who has anything to say that they’d listen to. I can’t deal with those people.”

Siph’s eyes wandered over him and landed on those pale hands that looked as if they could be snapped by a gust of wind. He placed the controller in those hands. “Then could you deal with Sar’thrak’s armies for me?”

The Jairran’s lips curled into a different smile, his eyes took on an appraising note. “I’ll say. Next time I’ll take you along.”

Moonlight

Moonlight, strategically placed. Making her hair shine like the starry sky, flowing down into the grass, almost unnaturally.

Moonlight, set at just the right level of brightness to make her skin shine like a pale imitation of it, almost unnaturally. What lighting would it take to get a blush to appear? Moonlight, can you accomplish that, too, or is that my job?

Moonlight, setting that bright summer dress against the night. And the jeans she wears beneath for modesty. Almost unnatural these days.

Moonlight, a conversation topic, set up at just the right time when the starry, starry sky alone isn’t enough anymore. She listens to talk of the stars. The moonlight makes her talk. Her voice is still new. An even metallic melody with the occasional scratch. Just a bit stilted. Just a bit unnatural. But we’re getting there. We’re getting there.

Diversity

“Which of these are yours?” Siph held up two identical pill bottles, the blue scales on his bare arms pale in the dim, cold light.

“I don’t even care anymore,” Simeon said and laid his head back down, shivering. “Isn’t it…”

Siph put the bottles back down, the right one landing beside the table first. He squinted and picked it back up. “Isn’t it…?”

Simeon sat up with a subdued noise of displeasure, holding his head and closing his eyes. Then he opened the bottles.

“Careful. Side by side, don’t mix them up,” Siph warned. How his voice could still be this even, Simeon could not fathom. A Radzhi thing, most likely.

Simeon took out a pill each and laid them next to the bottle caps of their respective bottles, carefully segregated. “Isn’t it…” He frowned and shook his head. Nonsense. But Siph wanted to hear something, and Simeon wanted to talk. “After all these years and our species getting closer, this difference is a joke.” That wasn’t a bad start. Or perhaps it was. It was hard to tell in this condition.

Siph rewarded him with a smile from his narrowly glowing eyes. “That’s no reason to…” He faltered. At least he faltered, too. “Don’t make a statement by mixing up the remedies.” He held his left hand next to a pill forming a wall and picked it up with his right hand, holding it in front of his eyes. Then he laid it into his cupped left hand and regarded it again.

“There are worse hills to die on,” Simeon said, watching him, not caring much what he was arguing.

“Don’t die on any hills.”

Simeon returned the smile at last. “That may be best. Besides, we’d need a planetary surface with…” This was inane and not where he wanted to go at all, even when he didn’t care about much else. He leaned over looking at the pill in Siph’s hand. “Can you identify it?”

The Radzhi’s eyes widened a little, their light growing duller. So he was having trouble.

“Shall I help? You’re the doctor, but I can…” He could get away with mentioning the existence of problems, and he was too tired to dance around it.

Apparently, Siph was too tired to mind, too. He held his cupped hand with the pill closer to Simeon. “Is this grey and curved?”

“I think it is.” Simeon picked up the other pill. “This one is whiter and the edges are… No, the surface is…” Words failed him.

“Then this one’s yours.” Siph handed him the grey pill he was holding and took the other from his hand. “The rest is easier to tell apart. Your hands are cold.”

“I’m cold. How are you not?” Simeon laid the pill between his front teeth, gently holding on to it until he would get to a glass of water. The glass on the table was almost empty. He would have to get up for this. He sighed through his teeth.

“If we both were half-ill, we would have the same temperature perception.”

Simeon smiled and almost lost hold of the pill, but held on to it. Now not to bite down on it too hard. He got up and picked up both of their glasses to fill them with water.

“Think they’ll pick us up soon?” Siph asked in a seemingly disinterested voice.

Simeon filled the glasses and let the pill fall back onto his tongue, drinking it down after a few attempts, then re-filled his glass. He took the glasses back to the main room. “They probably will, once we’re back to health, conveniently.” He set the glasses down on the table. “I should fetch a pitcher. This is annoying.”

“Thank you,” Siph said. “I don’t really mind.”

“I’m glad it’s you and you know what you’re doing,” Simeon said on his way back to the kitchen.

“That’s debatable. My track record is…”

Simeon filled the pitcher with cold water and carried it back over. “Your track record with humans is getting good, though.” He put it down and dropped onto the couch, exhaustion flooding his senses.

From the corner of his eyes he saw Siph’s eyes light up and his narrow tongue flick out briefly. “I’m glad you think so.”

Simeon tried to think of something fitting to reply; instead he closed his eyes and leaned his head against the backrest. “I never liked climate.”

For the people

“And one day,” the street prophet declared, “one day, a man worthy of the blessing will appear in front of the Elected, and she will bestow it upon him, and there will be peace and prosperity for us all. So go forth! Go forth and be worthy, and remember that only worthiness will bring us deliverance from the curse. Go forth!”

Deovar went forth with a fellow listener’s wallet. It was too late for worthiness anyway.


“Buy this concoction from before the World’s End, and be free of the curse that has befallen us all!” The prophet stood on a box raising her above the crowd and held up a bottle that looked suspiciously like Sevnvik Moon Brand with the labels removed. Deovar stood to listen for a moment, hoping to disappear into the crowd and lose any attention he might have caught.

A young man raised his hand. “Can it free us of impure thoughts and cowardice?”

“It can!” the prophet exclaimed. “Our ancestors spit upon those things! And we can be free of them again!”

The young man reached for his wallet.

No way.


Deovar took a swig of Sevnvik Moon Brand and looked over the crowd. Not bad today. Putting the bit about the Elected into their act had been a good move.

Miafa strolled into their parked shuttle wearing her prophet robes. “That’s our salvation you’re drinking there.”

He grinned and screwed the bottle shut. “Sorry.”

She took the bottle and opened it again. “There’s someone who wants to talk to us, Temple police. Says we can’t do the Elected part, but he’ll make a deal with us.” She took a long swig herself.

“Ugh. Just what we need.”

“It’ll be okay. Let’s see what he has to say. Probably just wants money.”

“I wanted that money.” He reached for the bottle, but she held it out of his way.

A striking young man in Temple police uniform entered the shuttle. His eyes fell on the bottle and narrowed in unveiled disapproval. Great, one of those. “Hallav, Temple police. You’ve spoken for the Elected. I can’t let that go.”

“We don’t even have an Elected at the moment,” Deovar pointed out.

“The office has a dignity that can’t be besmirched, even when unfilled at the time. Besides, there’ll be a new Elected soon. The Council is convening as we speak.”

“Great. So the situation’s serious, we got it. What do you want to let it go?” Deovar reached for the bottle again, but Miafa drank from it instead.

The policeman shook his head. “We need people to help lift the curse. I want to take a shot joining the Elected, and I have to bring in people to do it.”

“Lemme guess,” Miafa slurred. “Nobody wants to after the last times so folks like us are your last resort.”

“You may have guessed correctly. Look, it’s this or five years in prison. And I have enough witnesses.”

“Well, shit,” Deovar said. “Can’t we just pay you off? Nobody else cares. ‘s rough times.”

“That’s why we need the Elected to succeed in eliminating the curse. And we need people for that.”

“Well, shit,” Miafa said. “You actually believe that.”

“Then it’s settled. Don’t make those faces, I just bought you out of jail.”


“How long are they taking?” Miafa muttered, sitting on a bench outside the Temple with her old and her new companion.

The summer air was thick, and breathing was a chore.

“The Election is an important matter that can’t be rushed,” Hallav said, wiping sweat off his forehead. Had to be dying in that uniform. Pretty though.

“Yeah, yeah,” she said, already too tired to complain.

“Think this one’ll bring us peace?” Deovar asked after a while.

“They never do. If she brings us pay, I’m content,” Miafa said.

“We must keep up hope,” Hallav said more quietly. “Despite all. There must be a plan in all this.”

Miafa rolled her eyes.

An insect chirped.

“You’ll make a good hero of legend,” Deovar said.

Hallav stayed quiet but there was a small smile on his face.


The Electors’ Council stood in a circle around the new Divinator as Sarvir explained the model to an audience less enthusiastic than himself. “It’s entirely randomised this time,” the Council researcher assured them. “So mishaps like the last time shan’t occur. We employed a matrix of…”

“Enough,” Rutholf cut him off. The Council Elder twirled the tip of his greying beard between his fingers. “I’m still sceptical. Can we really know the gods are speaking through this… instrument? Call me old-fashioned, but I think we’ve gone wrong somewhere.”

The Divinator blinked invitingly.

“What instead?” Grizir asked. “Ask a Council member with a daughter? Or one with a son that can be married off? Get them to do the auguries like in the good old days?”

Rutholf rolled his eyes at his former ward. “Once you have children, you will be more patient with that sort of thing.”

“As if that’s a good thing. Parents don’t admit their children are idiots.”

“Isn’t that a bit harsh? Sure, Amelia wasn’t…”

“She bestowed the blessing upon the shuttle repairman. Who was driving drunk. With the Elected in there. She’s dead, and that idiot is alive because of her gift.”

Rutholf sighed. “I know. I know.”

“I agree with him,” Sarvir said, pointing to the Divinator. “This is why we have the new model. Those stories keep happening. If the last Election had gone right, the Elected wouldn’t be dead, and we wouldn’t be standing here.”

“Are you saying,” Menrav’s smoke-strained voice interrupted the budding consensus, “that the last Elections didn’t go according to the will of the gods? That the gods are fallible?”

“Quite the opposite!” Sarvir continued his sales-pitch. “In fact, they may have been a warning, a message to set us upon the right path, to root out the corruption…”

Several Council members spoke up at once. “Are you saying…?” “That kind of phrasing…” “This is an ancient institution from before the World’s End, we must…”

“Silence!” Rutholf shouted and then coughed. “We will not have this discussion again. Very well. Let us see what this apparatus does. What the gods do,” he corrected himself.

“We can always vote for another when the next one dies or gets replaced,” Grizir said.

Ignoring him, Rutholf nodded to Sarvir, and the researcher pressed the button to begin the process.


The Divinator was humming and blinking along.

“So all the eligible young women are in the system?” the Elder asked, likely just to pass the time.

“Yes, with some recent additions,” Sarvir said. “I double-checked it would run as intended…” Then he turned pale. His hand froze in its spot in mid-air. Then he caught himself. Grizir could see him steadying his breathing. The researcher cleared his throat. “We ran a lot of tests with test quantities. But the… The real will of the gods is inscrutable, of course.”

Rutholf was just nodding tiredly. Nobody else seemed to have caught on. Everyone was bored and lethargic. But something was up. Well. Wouldn’t be the first time.


The machine stopped. Everyone woke up at once, looking at it and at Sarvir, who would be the one to announce the result.

The researcher’s face was set in stone. He cleared his throat and looked at the round. “Grizir…”

“Yeah? What? Need help?”

“Grizir.” Sarvir would not meet his eyes. “Congratulations. The gods have chosen.”

There was no uproar. There were only faces settling into dignified expressions with more or less difficulty.

“You’ve got to be shitting me,” Grizir muttered.

Menrav looked around, lips pressed tightly together. “I suppose,” he snarled, then banished the emotion from his voice, “that this all went as it should.”

Sarvir straightened his posture. “Are you saying the gods are fallible?”

Grizir bit back a smile.

“Do you accept the Election?” Rutholf asked him. “If we run it again, there will be dire consequences for those responsible.”

The smile disappeared without any effort on his part. “Fine. Suit yourselves.”

Sarvir exhaled audibly.

Rutholf raised his hand in a tired-looking gesture. “The gods have spoken.”


The Elected ought to feel invigorated after the ritual of receiving the blessing to bestow upon the hero later, but Grizir just felt drained. When he stepped out onto the hallway, Sarvir was waiting for him.

“Are you alright?”

“Guess.”

“I…” Sarvir cleared his throat. “Thank you. That spared me a lot of…”

“Don’t worry about it,” Grizir said. “We’ll get this over with, and then we vote for the next one.”

Sarvir nodded.

“So who was on the list?”

Sarvir sighed. “It was a trial list. Forgot to swap it out this morning.”

“Who?”

“All of the Council. The Sundvik Raiders and Bears. The girls at Lurna’s Dream. The cast of Before our days.”

“And they say the gods don’t choose wisely.”

Sarvir smiled. “There are people here who’ll accompany you. A Temple policeman who wants to win a seat on the Council, and two criminals who spoke in the name of the Elected and who he recruited.”

“This is getting less glamorous with each iteration. You think we’ll ever lift the curse?”

“Sometimes I wonder if we’re not the only curse there is.”


“There’s nothing there, I’m telling you,” Deovar insisted. “We’ve searched the libraries, the databases, we’ve talked to most of the Temple till they got sick of us, we’ve talked to the fucking Madame of Lurna’s Dream and her connections to the underworld, there is nothing there.”

“There has to be,” Grizir said. “We need information on this damn curse, and this can’t be all there is. What the fuck have people even been doing up until now?”

“Don’t know, you’re the one on the Council.”

Grizir sighed. “Fuck off.” He looked up. “Wait.”

Deovar grinned, not moving from his spot in the alley where they were supposed to meet up with the others again. “I’m waiting.”

Grizir leaned against the wall, not caring for the moment that it was dirty. “So’m I.” That didn’t even make any sense. “Do you have some of that stuff enchanted by the Elected?”

“All out. Business is bad since we can’t speak for you anymore.”

“Damn. I could use some supernatural help.”

“We could go back in,” Deovar pointed at the seedy bar they had just left after a fruitless conversation.

“Can’t. Next one we come across.”

At last, Hallav and Miafa reappeared.

The prophet shook her head. “Nothing. We should give this up.”

Grizir brushed off his coat. “We’re doing this for the people.”

“The people can fuck off,” Deovar said.


“I’ve got something!” Miafa slapped a piece of paper on the kitchen table. “We know it’s tied to Endrov’s descendants, but did you know that includes Bidrar the Careless?”

Deovar’s eyes fluttered open, and he pushed himself up from his half-lying position on the table. The other two did the same. “Bid… who?”

“Bidrar the Careless!”

He wished he had her energy.

“He’s connected to that fella we talked to in the Lantern, the one who…”

“Ugh, don’t remind me. So what now?”

“Can you give us details?” Hallav asked, blinking sleep from his eyes.

“I can. In a minute. So what does happen? We find someone who carries the curse, and then? We kill him?”

Deovar grinned lazily. “Grizir bestows the blessing upon the hero of legend, the worthy one, and the hero goes forth and slays the cursed one, and then we’re all saved.”

Grizir sat back in his chair, nearly tipping it over but catching himself on the table. He frowned, looking down at the chair’s legs and sat up straight. “Not as easy. First the hero has to be in mortal peril. That’s what the prophecies say. Then the Elected saves him from certain death with the blessing. One use only. Then the hero slays the cursed one and we’re all saved.”

“Almost,” Deovar said. “So Hallav, ready to get in mortal peril?” He frowned. Suddenly it didn’t sound so good anymore.

“I am, for the people,” Hallav said. “Always been.”

Deovar nodded, slowly, and pointed to his uniform. “You people aren’t all bad, are you?”


The night air barely differed from the one at daytime, hot and thick and stifling and not giving them any break to speak of. The others had gone to bed, while they were out here staring at the sky and getting headaches from the heat and Sevnvik’s Sun Brand. The good stuff. Grizir passed the bottle back to him, and Deovar took a swig. The glasses had fallen over in the dirt sometime earlier and been forgotten. The plans were all hashed out, so were the opinions, and so all that was left was this. Deovar smiled at the sky and the Elected. Not half bad.


The mansion’s alarms were shrieking all around them.

Miafa swung around to Hallav. “I thought you know what you’re doing!”

“I thought so, too!” He ran down the corridor. “We have to hurry. Bidrar should be up there. Grizir, I’ll need you.”

“Sooner than expected.” Steps approached rapidly, then a door in front of them opened. “Fuck. Run!” Grizir yelled at Hallav. “Do it, nevermind the prophecy.”

Hallav nodded and turned around a bend in the hallway.

Moments later, they were surrounded.


When Hallav returned to the others, blood dripping down from his brow, the guards had gone down, and Miafa was standing in the front door. Relief washed over him. Taking criminals along had been the right idea after all. But then, what was he?

Miafa turned to him. “Is he dead?”

“He is. Do you feel uncursed yet?”

“Not yet.”

“Thought as much.”

“We have a problem.” She stepped aside and gave way to the doorstep outside, where Deovar was lying on the ground motionless. That was a shame.

“Is he dead?”

“We don’t know. Grizir’s trying to phone in help.”

“So much for getting out of here unknown.”

She smiled, then the smile faltered and died. “Don’t think it matters anymore.”

As Hallav stepped closer, Grizir came into view, tossing the phone into the grass. “Didn’t work, did it?” the Elected asked. His voice was unsteady.

“Don’t think so.”

“Thought so.” Grizir bit down on his lip. “Oh for fuck’s sake.” He dropped to his knees and slammed the palm of his hand on Deovar’s forehead. “Come back already.”

A glow emanated from his hand and surrounded them both.

Finally, Deovar’s eyes blinked open. He turned to his side coughing, then looked up at Grizir.

“Good,” Grizir said. “There’s no one left to kill, and we blew it, so just… stay around.”

Deovar broke into a grin, then winced in pain. “Can do.”

Miafa picked up the phone from the grass and tossed it at Hallav. It was wet.

He did the only thing he could think of and called up his department.

“Yeah. Hallav here. We’re at Bidrar’s mansion. Got a situation here. Come pick us up before the state forces do. And you’ll want to prepare an Election.”

Destined Land

The young witch looked into the pond and saw an arid landscape. She saw herself ruling over the people and the strange beasts of the land.

Not one to foolishly shun her destiny, the witch turned to her books and her elders and learned all she could about the different regions of the world and what was alive in them. But in all the lore she could not find what she had seen in the pond.

The witch set out to travel the world and see for herself where her people’s wisdom was lacking. She saw hostile regions and great atrocities and learned of spells the like of which were not known at home. She thought she had become fit to rule and bend nature itself to her will, and as a price she had lost most of herself. But still she could not find her destined land.

The witch grew older and weary and decided to go home. But she carried all she had learned and become with her, and her homeland was trite and simple and did not welcome her. Instead of gaining her destined land, she had lost even her home.

In her frustration, the witch turned her newfound powers on the lake that had made the poisonous promise. She drained the lake and felt a small degree of satisfaction. But it was not enough to make up for all those years and all the loss. So she drained all the land and everything alive, until the ground was dried-out and dead, the plants that grew were different, and the beasts that ate them were different, and the witch had the power to rule over them all.

The spirit of the lake rejoiced at its new vessel and the new world to rule over, so unlike its former prison.

Centuries later, a young witch saw a lush landscape in a mirage.