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.

 

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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.

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.

Delile’s Story Time: The Legend of General Ra’dzeot

Alright, I’ll try to be more coherent this time. But you guys have to listen! Don’t fall asleep again, Bryn, that was charming only one time.

So. We’re talking about Ra’dzeot’phra, or General Ra’dzeot for you plebs. Alright Simeon, two plebs out of three.

So we’re on Karmee. It’s in the old times. The really, really old times. When the fire was covering the ground. Should I get into the origins of the fire…? No, okay. I still think it’s better for the theme, though. Like it makes the story loop around and gives it a kind of cosmic coherence… Alright. Alright. So there’s fire on the ground.

But the Meldeen could take it, cause they have that flame-proof carapace and a flame-proof… skeleton… endoskeleton, that. Yeah. Still, unpleasant, right? Nobody likes fire.

And there’s also war. Lots of war. Like, worse than what our ancestors put up with before coming to the solar. Sure, some of our ancestors. Sorry Siph.

Anyway, it’s a massive-scale war. Not a chance at peace. And they say it’s all that anger and that wrath – and maybe some of their weapons, too – that got the fire started in the first place. There, I put it in. And then along came a general. Not Ra’dzeot yet. He was alive, but he was young and insignificant then.

Now Lera’ha, he was young and insignificant, too, but not for long. He was one of those super generals, those genius leaders that just take over everything within a short time, and the world’s theirs. That’s what he did. And everyone was so tired of all that war…

No, they couldn’t just stop. They were too far gone. But… No, I don’t know why they didn’t. Why didn’t they on Earth back in the day? Nobody knows. Cause you can’t, without… some kind of… some kind of… The kind of thing that Lera’ha gave them. There. They didn’t have that before. He just simply didn’t give them a chance, and so they were all conquered, and there was peace.

But he wasn’t good at maintaining that. I mean, he made sure they stayed conquered. For a while. But he was a bad ruler, and he didn’t really care about what you have to do for people so they feel good and don’t wage war.

And there was still fire on the ground, can’t forget that. So life was uncomfortable, and there was no enemy and no greater cause, so everybody really minded it all of a sudden.

Yeah Siph, that’s simplified. You want an economic breakdown of a myth or… Good.

So, they start to rebel. They think to themselves, more and more… You know, if life’s gonna suck, and there’s fire everywhere, and we’re starving and whatever, you know, war wasn’t so bad, was it? And this tyrant Lera’ha, it’d be good if he was gone, too. So let’s go for that.

So there were little cells of rebellion all over the world, and they became big cells of rebellion, and no matter what Lera’ha did, he couldn’t suppress them any longer. But they couldn’t get at him either. So it was massive civil war once more. But they’d had a taste of someone winning and ruling, right? So they thought, if only I was the one to do it, it’d be better for sure. But everyone thought that, so that didn’t help any.

And along came a small local military man. Stumbled into the general’s position by everyone else dying. Nearly got his people extinct cause he was so unprepared. And then a miracle happened, and the Meldeen say it was the gods interfering. Either cause they loved their species and wanted to protect them from self-destruction or because they were just sick of their shit. So this general starts winning. And people start flocking to him. And he gains power in the region, and then beyond the region, and somehow his people aren’t starving either.

So he gets it into his head to conquer everything himself, cause it’s clear the world actually would be better off if he ruled it.

Then a lot of war happens, you don’t want the details, do you? Mixed vote? Alright, no details. So. As you can guess, this guy is Ra’dzeot’phra. General Ra’dzeot. And he’s the perfect guy to go head-to-head with Lera’ha in the end, when they’ve both amassed enough power and influence and… Well, really Lera’ha’s was waning, but he had amassed it before, and there was enough left. But now there’s this new guy.

But the gods are shaking their heads at all this, and why does it always happen, and are they really all that stupid? They are. They’re living beings, we’re all like that.

So as a result, the conquering doesn’t go so well anymore for Ra’dzeot. Nor for Lera’ha. Cause they were both declared colossal idiots by the gods and dropped. So instead of victory and peace and prosperity, or even victory and tyranny like with Lera’ha last time, we get a long, bitter war of attrition. And it drags. And it’s hell. And there are still flames everywhere, can’t forget that for the atmosphere.

And somewhere in the darkest hour – only lit up by the flames everywhere – Ra’dzeot decided it was enough. And he was a colossal idiot. And the Meldeen gods listened up at that.

And Ra’dzeot decided to end the war, and the bloodshed, and the flames.

See, aren’t you glad I put in the flames part earlier?

And he thought he couldn’t appeal to the gods cause of what he’d done, so he appealed to the Forces in the Deep. They believe that’s part of Karmee itself. A power within the planet, and you shouldn’t trifle with it. But Ra’dzeot thought it’s not trifling when everyone’s dying and it’s partly his fault. So he made a pact. He had himself transformed into… “something that extinguishes the flames and the war”. That became his new purpose of existence. And he gained that power in return.

And he went and extinguished the flames covering the planet. And that led to peace because that was a miracle, and they’d had those flames for many generations. There was nobody alive that remembered a time without the fire. And then it was gone. So that’s the side you stick to, right? And he went and fought Lera’ha, one on one. And won.

Now – I know I said he wanted to get rid of the wrath and the war and all that, but he still killed him. It was the time, you know? And he could have been the next leader just like he’d planned, but he couldn’t actually, because of the pact. Cause his purpose was the extinguisher of the flames and the war, and there was nothing left to extinguish. So he perished.

The people made a huge fuss, and turned against the Forces in the Deep. Cause they’d done that. And if you have any decency, you let that kind of deal go when the world was just saved by it and the guy’s a hero. But the Forces in the Deep don’t have that kind of decency.

And there, they say the gods found that window of opportunity to gain ground, and intervened once more. They changed Ra’dzeot back into their own creature and let him into the afterlife after all, and he got the title of the Deep Redeemer, so the people could keep him as a folk hero. But they had to seal off the Forces in the Deep. The people thought that deal was alright.

So from then on, generation after generation, the Meldeen worked on covering the surface of the planet, and becoming less and less dependent on it. Now they’re so far they don’t even depend on natural climate anymore. And there’s prosperity, and more or less peace, apart from a bit of strife here and there.

And so the Meldeen were saved. And maybe something was lost. Some people say it wasn’t worth it. Some people say the Forces in the Deep will wait for their time and retaliate. Or they’re the real victims here. But I say fuck those guys. Ra’dzeot was too cool and had to be saved. And there’s peace, too. Happy end.