Hello, readers mine! As I said I would, I’ve finally started revisions on The Necromancer and the Reaping Spear. To kick things off, I moved the original first chapter to be the second, and started writing a new first chapter… which has now split into the new first and second chapters.
Pageblazing is glorious work!
So, since all three of these will easily be within the preview pages of the eventual Smashwords release anyway–15% of 300,000 words is 45,000, which even for me is seven or eight chapters!–I’m going to post the pre-final versions here on the blog as I finish them.
The better to whet your appetite, no?
Keep in mind that these first two are alpha versions. I may change a great deal about them by the time they’re published. However, since the novel as a whole is entering the second draft and I have a full idea of how they fit into the overall story, that’s not too likely. There are doubtless some typos in here somewhere, but hopefully none too obtrusive.
Spoiler Warning: This preview chapter contains massive spoilers for The Necromancer and the Revenant. If you haven’t read that yet and you want to do so with fresh eyes, purchase a digital copy here and come back to this post later. Otherwise, read on past the asterisks!
Enough dawdling–please enjoy the first chapter in its entirety, as we finally visit one of the demonic planes, meet Planelord Urzen, and see the dread splendor of a certain Cannoan god…
Lattice, Love, and Lessons Forgot
“It’ll happen sooner rather than later. You mistake the warmth in your heart for a warmth shared with another. You tell them, “I am yours,” and they say, “Forgive me, for I am not.’ There’s no shame nor spite, no need for apology… unless you turn poisonous over it.” -Kiresa Virneh
Urzen, lord of the Seventh Plane, feared little save the gods themselves. A venomous dagger through his heart meant nothing. His heart was surging energy. It would mend easily as a breeze, and burn the poison into speckled vapor. A mage’s scourging bolt meant little. It would burn and rip his silken purple skin. Its scorch and embers would lace ash amid the gemstone dust that served him for tumbling hair-locks. Yet these would fade, and he would mend swift as a lover’s wink.
By his three sweeping tails, one from above his shapely rear and one from each shoulder-blade, by the intricate antlers hung by golden chains that sprang from his glowing brow, and their mirror-bronze points that framed his flawless jaw and radiant golden eyes with nine slit pupils. And so too by the five interweaving pairs of chiming wings crafted from hovering stained-glass shapes, bound together and to his body by coils of molten gold and the heat of the forge, and his pale robes of gauzy fog that only obscured rather than truly hid his smooth-sculpt muscles and his ample member’s nakedness:
Urzen was Planelord of Flesh, mightiest of the Seven. Even if a peer attacked him, and the gods deigned not to intervene, it would mean only a struggle before a sure triumph—and best of all, a tale to impress the next mortal he favored with his touch. His realm’s folk knew these things. They watched him as he marched along the ever-shifting avenue that wound through his domain. Soothing crystal rivers carried platforms shaped as swirls, flower-petals, and sculptures between spires and mountains stylized into woodcut spurs all across an endless sky: dawn behind, day to either side, and rosy sunset ahead.
Loshfayns reclined on veiled balconies wreathed by heady incense that would inflame the coldest mortal guest with maddening lust. They were horned and crested, winged, tailed, and more, slender or curvy, muscular or plump and plush according to their tastes. Their bodies bore scales, silken skin, fur, crystalline nodules, and all conceivable forms of piercings beneath garments tailored to seem somehow more nude than nudity itself.
A willaches slanted their hips atop a segmented archway above; the asymmetrical construct was jagged copper and gold with lace-like cables twining on the air around it. Their move stirred an elaborate tiered garment imitating painter’s apron. The demon’s form marked them as aligned with Anseth’s art traditions: elaborate face-paints, orange on one side and blue on the other, with white zigzag patterns adorning skin comprised of countless intersecting facets. One half their features and body curved and rounded while the other half was angular and sharp. These asymmetries melded in striated lines down their face, front, and back alike.
They snapped their hands out as color peeled from their figure and streamed onto a canvas wide as a building. With its impacts the canvas rose and deformed until it became as much a sculpture as a painting.
Below, forge-fires and glassworks sent their glows upward on multicolored smoke-plumes. Superhuman hammer-strokes reverberated the clouds as the bainjests honed the crafts that lent them power. And, as always, the syustfayns laughed and squealed as they reshaped their palaces, fitting terraces to towers and unfolding wine-cellars up the sides of walls in defiance of gravity. They glittered and whirled, covered in finery. Though they wore the same paints, scales, tails and other embellishments as the other demons of the Seventh, theirs were flamboyant rather than sensual and eye-catching rather than artful.
Always, his subjects practiced for the passions, the art, and the revels they might soon conduct on Canno. Always, Urzen cherished these sights. Here there were no demon-hunters nor haughty mages drunk with the power to make immortals kneel. If the gods disdained his kindred, then at least that disdain made them loathe to visit the Seventh Plane. An illusion of sanctuary? Perhaps. But it always felt real enough.
It always had.
Why, these demons must wonder, did Urzen the Gossamer look so stricken? Why did he furrow his brow and strain his eyes at nothing? Why did his lips droop? Why, in this plane where only a god wielded greater dominion than he, did he close his aura today?
Urzen offered no answers for them.
Running his triplet tails over his limbs with each step, fitful and silent, he passed to the point where his mightiest vassals linked their realms to his. Each planar merge expressed itself according to its ruler: for some there were auroral rays, others countless wind-gusts laden with blossoms, but always creating the impressions of tendrils latching in and holding on. Sweeping walkways and many-leveled palaces sprang from grand hovering domes, while scarlet cathedrals covered with reliefs of tumbling lovers bobbed atop isles with undersides like down-grinding ivory fangs. Close friends among the High Seductors blended their styles into bridges or islands like stepping stones, as at the place just ahead where sandstone merged into greenish metal whose surface glinted with oil-paint swirls. Even as it occurred to him he soon must do so, Urzen drew even with a towering iron fortress. It jabbed out in sharp ridges at every corner and join from which there poured lilac fire. Atop its ramparts gusted ten thousand veils like ghostly banners, and wind-chimes rang about its battlements.
The Planelord’s gaze moved by habit to the magnificent palace beside it. He started to smile, even if it was a strained smile, with the expected joy of seeing it.
Its translucence lent further depth and color to the light it reflected. It was linked to the iron fortress by bridges of crystalline nodules with layered lamellar bands for their flooring. It featured ornamental alcoves and graceful buttresses of lapis-lazuli, engraved steel inlays set with blue and orange topaz, wreathed by gleaming amber mist—Urzen’s eyes now drooped as deeply as his mouth. There was no such palace. She was gone.
“Urzen,” Azukai greeted him, and startled him so badly that his form wavered.
The zhumozhe hovered into place alongside him. Her sparkling deep-mauve robes swirled about her. The gold lines inlaying her snow-white face gleamed brighter even than those trimming her raiment, and her lamellar bands flowed in lustrous arcs about her slender body. Yet the three triangular pupils beneath her black hair and black brows held a fell glow in their amethyst cores. Her eyebrows, the lower pair fine and long, the upper shorter with soft swells at their inward ends, drew down as she regarded him. The silk bands and hair-twinings that webbed the three pairs of bone-crests marching back over the curve of her head twanged and thrummed as though about to snap.
Urzen accepted that though he feared little besides the gods, Azukai was at least unsettling to him. From her too-fluid grace to her cheek-distorting grin with her white-steel fangs, she looked little like the pleasure-demon she claimed to be. Keshohai, in the north Ton tongue.
“High Seductress Azukai,” he greeted her. That was the rank she held here. He wanted to feel it was the one that mattered. “It is appropriate to greet me as Planelord Urzen,” he dared to add. He firmed his brow and tightened his lips.
Azukai nodded. “You’re correct. That would be appropriate, Urzen.”
“Azukai,” he started.
“I’ll bide no scarp for your posturing this day,” she said. Her voice hardened, chill and sharp. “The Pantheon grants that you hold more power than I. So be it. When the Loar drove us from Tuha-Lin and I was a fledgling crying out for your aid, where were you and where were they?” She leaned towards him. “When we entered the Redoubt that day, where were you? The current Duchess von Graufeld, perhaps? You’ve always liked the women of that family. A miracle it’s not turned incestuous after so many generations.”
Urzen opened his mouth to order her silence. He was stronger than Azukai. Only, Azukai was right, and had a right to her anger—and besides that, Iron Azu was an untamed thing who knew no fear.
“There’s no threat I can make that will humble you, is there?” Urzen asked.
“You know who I’ve served, and for how long,” Azukai answered. “What do you think? Would I ever let you, or anyone, control me simply by saying what you might do?”
Urzen drifted into silence at that.
Soon they reached the first of the pillars that rose higher, row by row, as they approached his palace with its nine interlocking roofs of black jet and its mottled walls of jade and emerald that sprouted off level by level into many wings, windows, and hovering platforms.
“I didn’t want her to die, Azukai,” Urzen said.
“You didn’t want her to die by the time it happened,” she agreed. “I also don’t want children to starve in the Barrens Feral. Only, they aren’t my responsibility. The Seventh Plane is yours.” She glared down at him. “If you don’t want your children to die, then do something to stop it.”
“Azukai—” Urzen began.
“Let’s be clear about where we stand, you and I,” the zhumozhe cut in. “For now, I can neither sunder you nor match your onslaught. But…” She tilted her head back and closed her eyes. A twisted wistfulness tugged her lips. “What do you think will happen if you kill me?” Her eyes opened. Those warped twin amethysts lanced him. “Do you think I’ll rest forever in some haz’d painting of an afterlife? Eternal bliss, as all turns to silver glass?”
“Kill you?!” Urzen demanded. “Kill you for arguing with me, what madness is this? The worst I would do is cut you off from Canno for a time.”
“I’m sure that’s the lie you believe,” Azukai said.
Urzen stared at her for a moment. Then he said, “If you’re asking my oath not to kill you because you have nowhere to go, I’m already in agreement with that. I understand that you’re angry, and can forgive—”
“But you overlook my anger’s drive,” Azukai said. “I’m not asking for lenience. Understanding? Why would the understanding of a gutless slug mean aught? I’m warning you. You, and I hope my soul-sister never gleans the speaking of this cliché… you, Urzen, lord of all the Seventh Plane,” and she leaned towards him with a slight yet dreadful smile, “cannot kill me in a way that matters.”
Urzen’s temper rose. “I may test you on that if you continue to test me.”
“You see? The moment I tell you that you lack a form of power over me, violent promises flow forth. Kill me over insubordination…” Azukai said. She reached out and seized a nearby pillar, scrambling around it and then launching herself in a gliding spin past him. She flitted three swift circles around him while he walked, his own teeth gritted. When she halted, she whispered her words like a dagger in his ear: “Kiresa would love that.”
“Kiresa was not like you,” Urzen said. “Kiresa was…” He trailed off. Kiresa was what? Docile, except for the one request he most wanted her to grant? Obedient, except that she never smiled in it? More beautiful for the sorrow of their plane’s bondage? The things he wanted to call Kiresa would hardly please Azukai—or Kiresa, for that matter.
“That was the point,” Azukai said. “Rays and I didn’t need to be mirrored spirits to care for each other. You might learn a lesson from that, primordial lord.”
“And is that it? Is that your point?” Urzen asked.
“No, actually,” Azukai said. “I’m testing a method pioneered by my dear niece. My point is this: why do you wreathe yourself in misery and shadow when Canno destroys us? Or rather,” she tapped her lips, then spread her hand towards the four-way sky, “why do you do this with your sorrow about you as a shield, somehow making your expression alone say, ‘I feel awful, so don’t ask me why I didn’t stop it?'” She drifted to a halt as they reached his palace’s entrance. “You feel awful in the depths of a remote plane. Nothing that you feel awful about will ever be real for you; you never let yourself witness it. You may say that’s unfair. A gilded cage is still a cage, and so on. I say…”
The zhumozhe bared her fangs, and a hot, ripping tide of an emotion surged out between them. Urzen had never felt it from another demon, and though he knew himself the stronger, he staggered back. It was a searing urgent yank. A need to cleave and rage held back by a restraint so fierce that it tormented the zhumozhe: herself, tearing herself.
Azukai hated him.
“I say there are no poems or portraits to be made about what happened in the Redoubt, or beneath the burning sky the night Tuha-Lin fell, or a thousand battles just as bitter when the law and justice of the gods was nowhere to be seen,” she said. “There’s no allegory or metaphor or distance for us to hide in. We,” and as she pointed to herself, she snarled and dug the sudden claws on her fingers into her own chest, “don’t get a chance to be cowards. We are summoned, we are bound, and we serve until we die.”
She snapped out her arm, summoning forth the spectral reaping spear that defied all Urzen knew about his own plane’s powers. She did not point it at him, but swept it about to enlarge her arm’s grand flourishes. “So here’s my challenge unto you, most ancient and admirable Planelord: the next time you see a demon you purport to care about in need of your aid, you do something,” Azukai said. “I’m not counseling you to violate the Pact. Just make the frailest effort.”
“And if I don’t?” Urzen asked.
“Then you’ll stay perfectly safe, and can continue staring at all the pretty things here in the Seventh Plane,” Azukai said, drifting closer. “You’ll continue to quietly despise yourself and yearn for oblivion. You must. Nothing is as anathema to love and passion as cowering while both are trampled by beings that just happen to be stronger.” She shrugged, turning side-on to him so the conjured sunlight turned her profile aglow. “I’ve learned so much about the roots of courage through the mortals of my house. So few of them are born matching the warstock ideal: excited by violence rather than frightened of it. Most only learn to live with the fear. You can be the same. Face death a few times. You’ll find the abyss rather appealing once you learn what you’ve sacrificed from terror of it.”
The rebel zhumozhe turned, still hovering, and drifted back the way she’d come.
“What if you’re wrong? What if it never feels worth it to me?” Urzen asked. It was such a pathetic way to phrase all this. He knew that, and he knew Azukai knew that he knew it, yet he’d never admit it to her. That was the most pathetic thing of all.
And, damn her, the lazy ring of her voice proved she knew that too.
“Then your soul contains no worth whatsoever,” Azukai said, neither turning back to look at him nor slowing her pace. She dispersed her spectral reaping spear. “It’s been twenty thousand years of this, primordial,” she called. “Do what you’ve always known you should, or cease feigning a listener’s ear. No words will convince you if you hope to find them unconvincing.”
She disappeared in a pulse of lilac fire. Urzen entered his palace.
He passed in shameful silence beneath the gateway, with three smaller frames set inside it and geometric cageworks binding them together. He walked with a heavy tread over the plush, shining silk of the carpet. He took no joy from the copper sculptures showing frozen moments from trysts and romances past, and ignored the pining coos from the loshfayns who lazed about in the cushioned recesses and interior balconies to all sides.
Finally he arrived in his throne room, and bid his attendants leave him. He barely felt it when cheerful Murabe kissed his cheek, and the younger demon’s pout won no response. All the Seventh Plane’s essence converged on this frescoed chamber. Rainbow currents of fire interwove with mercurial silver streams, and pure light spun out rays from its in-shifting coils as of radial cloudbursts from a serpentine sun. Sweet-spice aromas and tingling warmth, steely drive and impassioned song: Urzen was aware of it all!
He just couldn’t make himself feel it.
He kept neither clocks nor calendars here, preferring to put the march of time from his mind. Thus Urzen, silken-souled and made for sensuality, had no way to reckon the hours, or days, or weeks that drifted by while he slumped on that throne. His form diffused throughout. Purplish grain-whirls drifted about the many-leveled jade sconces, and seeped into the golden glow that poured from them. He lost himself in the pure reverberating energy and emotion. Yet he could not shake the sensation of chill-dragging mass upon his shoulders: something lightless and unmerciful that splintered him and crept inside.
Thus, even when scarlet cacophony rang through his mind, he hardly twitched.
Faint primal impulses flooded him. They called him to stand. To clench his fists. To bellow and stalk and hunt until he found prey worth the killing! These desires were not his, but neither were they anathema to him. Such deep drives could as easily foster love as extinguish it. The same ardor of artistry that spawned a legendary sculptor made its home in the heart of the armorer, and the bowyer, and the swordsmith.
Knowing this, Urzen sighed. The sigh reverberated from the hazy impression of his face out through the drifting fog of his body. He drew his scattered essences back together and called upon the power of his plane. Not to keep the visitor out, but to conceal the martial stirring his aura cast wherever he marched. And march he did—heralded by the echoing war-cries of a thousand foregone wars as blood and fire unfolded into Urzen’s throne room, and the glittering walls warped to meet plane to plane against a burning eve’s sweep of shattering banner-staves and tumbling butchery beneath a blood-red moon.
First as a shadow in the smoke and embers rising from that spectral sea of slaughter. Now a glassy silhouette, and now a surging bulwark of divine sinew stepping into the utmost heart of the Plane of Flesh: a titan girded upon the immortal brawn of his limbs by black plate armor. Gouges and hammer-blow deformations covered the glinting night-steel, and bled crimson power. Over it he wore a white surcoat wreathed in fire, continually charring and reforming. A golden shark, twisted and fanged, supplied his sallet-helm’s crest, and spirits matching it swam through the air around his waist.
Firmly did his right fist clasp upon his zweihänder, that wrathful blade twice over the length of the tallest mortal warrior’s pike and known in Shieldtongue as Sireless Glory. His power wrapped it, and often those ruby currents leapt high into spikes along the wicked undulating edges. Today he carried his stark-visored helm in one arm’s crook. Thus he showed a face so mangled and scarified that only the cheek and jaw bones retained a memory of heroic form. Dire gashes and rends exposed his teeth, yellowed and cracked unto jaggedness, sharpened to points.
Charred flesh turned his face’s center black, and from it gouted flames and boiling blood. Where his eyes should be yawned a single awful chasm, spilling his power forth. For such was the irrevocable wound that marked him. The war-god of the Helsic Trinity. The father of the Iron Breed. Bloody Stahrich.
Urzen stared at him, not bothering to hide his exhaustion.
“Was für Begrußung ist dieser Ruhe?” Stahrich laughed, striding forward. To a mortal’s ear his booming voice, with its serrated under-growl and war-drum echoes, would be nigh deafening. Urzen just found it divinely boisterous.
“Do you mind if we don’t use Hafensprache today?” Urzen asked, rubbing his temples. “I’m a little too tired to parse it.”
Stahrich nodded and cocked his fearsome head. “Hmph. When you will it so. Na… come on,” the war-god said. Without warning nor pausing to ask permission, he strode forward and took Urzen by one arm. The planelord’s entire limb vanished inside that mammoth gauntlet. “We shall go for a walk.” He set his helm on his head. “You need to go for a walk.”
“I’d rather not,” Urzen said.
“Ja, that is why we are going,” Stahrich said. “Am I not the warden of the wounded as well as martial of the host? I have seen this bleakness more than death itself.”
Urzen held his peace. No one gained anything by arguing with Stahrich once he chose his course. Thus he walked alongside Stahrich. He soon surrendered the cause for lost and took a small leap, flapping his ten wings to keep pace with the titan.
“Where are we walking to?” Urzen asked.
Stahrich shrugged, shifting his plate while the phantom sharks took to chasing each other around his shoulders. “Macht es—I apologize, does it make a difference? Movement is the first need. We will know where when we arrive.”
So saying, Stahrich flicked Sireless Glory upward. It sliced a bloody spatial tear before the god. Through it he marched, and through it the Planelord followed him.
“Now that I’m following, would you please release my arm?” Urzen asked.
“This I will do,” Stahrich answered, and the steel vise went loose.
They passed out into an airy expanse split by thousands upon thousands of up-creeping tendrils. They seemed at first glance like a kelp forest. Yet there was no water in this plane, only a thriving sporacular haze. Red-orange luminescence drifted along the multitudinous stalks from somewhere far below. Fronds with irregular flaps and secondary tendrils sprouted in chaotic spirals all along the twisting lengths.
These masses had a presence! A ragged thing, little sharper than the haze they cast, but a presence nonetheless. A muzzy contentment: to grow, and multiply, as long as there was multiplying to do. Their spores filled the plane with a grainy musk. It would’ve caused frightful sneezing to a mortal nose. They held no deeper danger than this.
“Is this what I think it is?” Urzen asked. “Wasn’t there some mage or other during the Age of Splendors… what was their name… Bajanur, that was them! From Hanir, I think.”
“You would know better than I,” Stahrich said. As he walked across the emptiness between the tendrils, ghostly tower shields flared out beneath his feet. They disappeared when he passed. Each time, the spore-clouds seemed to hesitate before closing back in.
“And you wore a great coat back then,” Urzen said, smiling and shaking his head. “Yes, that’s right. A black shroud of a greatcoat, with those epaulets, and that officer’s cap, and it was adorned all about with—”
“It rests easier with me to forget that uniform,” Stahrich interrupted. “Its likeness has been hideous to me for many centuries.”
“Why?” Urzen asked. “You liked it well enough then. And Sireless Glory was a behemoth of a rifle. Large even in proportion with you, and that absurd bayonet—”
“Enough,” Stahrich intoned. “I have not forgotten that either. Black great coats and officer’s caps with dread sigils upon them were poisoned by the knowing of another world.”
“Ah,” Urzen said. “I suppose you would know something about other worlds. You must have a presence on a great many of them.” He could not keep the bitterness from his voice.
“I do not,” Stahrich said. “War is a beast of plasma. The forces that give its form and soul are unique to each world. I assume it would be much the same for passion and art.”
“You still get to look,” Urzen said.
“Ja,” Stahrich said, “there is no denying this.” He looked down upon the planelord, and fiercer grew the red glow of his eyeless sight through his grim helm’s visor. “I suppose it is a matter of philosophy as to whether it is better to imagine the wide universe, and please yourself with the dream of it, or to see it as slivers and pieces. Tempting, but unfulfilling.”
“Like the corpse of an empire in the sands of time?” Urzen suggested.
“I would say it is more like a master’s painting, burned long ago, and only the smallest tufts are seen when the smoke carrying its colors grows thick,” Stahrich said.
Urzen absorbed this. In the end he could but laugh and shake his head. “We’ve spent too many years having these talks,” he said.
“This is unfortunate,” Stahrich said. “There is no end to them in sight.” He shouldered Sireless Glory with a clatter of metal on metal. “Since we are talking, why do you not tell me of what ails you? If some mortal has made an unright demand, I will seek to intercede.”
“No,” Urzen said, “it’s nothing such as that. I’m wondering whether…” He trailed off.
For his part Stahrich never pressed him. The war-god swept his doughty essence before him by the mighty arc of his sword, and again sheared a passage through the planes.
“It has always struck me as a folly, or worse, that the planes of demons are numbered as well as named,” he said. “It gives to the mortals the impression that there are no other planes touching Canno. There is a wider lattice for them to walk, yet they do not know it.”
Their wanderings took them now along a series of narrow tan ramparts overlooking air-reddened iron canyons that spread out over a bumpy landscape. With a hot wind and flecks of sands came faint press of a fond longing: the wistfulness of a place that served well and was laid to rest when its keeper moved on, or laid themselves to rest as well. Faded mounds and porous angles scattered themselves across the desert surround. In the canyon depths, and carved from them, nestled clay buildings—faintly translucent so that the golden rays from a hundred quirking sky-crescents turned them within and without into swift-shifting hues of ochre, amber, and cuprous-dappled brass.
“I don’t think it’s folly,” Urzen said. “Not in the traditional sense. It’s… you gods, you’re always shaping their thoughts by implication. The deceptive force and intent of a lie, but with none of a lie’s chance for backlash. They can never prove a cast against the Pantheon.”
Stahrich nodded, neither denying nor taking offense. “But perhaps, in turn, they will learn to say things without saying them,” Stahrich said. “Is there cause for us to speak around each other this way? Or is it perhaps that I am not the one you speak around?”
Urzen sighed, and went silent again. He held that silence all the way through the approach to an enormous bowl held above the shifting sands by the plateau it was carved from. The long-vanished masons had carved the supporting plateau’s upper margins into the elegant fingers of four enormous hands, and skillfully blended the wrist of each such that it grew rougher and more creviced until it melded back into the natural escarpment.
Inside the bowl rose eight sets of benches and seats. These further split into many small groups facing each other, though at different heights, some reached by ladders and the others by winding stairs. Urzen imagined that this was some peculiar breed of age-graven forum. Whether true or not, it pushed him to confess. Though a cold, choking pull rose up through him, the muting terror of the retribution Stahrich might unleash, Urzen told himself that for this one moment he would make his gossamer into iron.
“None of us asked for any of it,” he said. “Not the summonings, not the Pact, not the gods. We never asked to be bound to Canno or its peoples. I don’t remember whether we did ask for anything, I just know that we didn’t ask for this.”
“It would have been many ages ago,” Stahrich agreed. “Though… are you sure it is not that, now you have felt what you agreed to, now that it is become real, you wish to take it back?”
“Does it matter?” Urzen asked. “If we accepted under false pretenses, if we made a bargain we’d never have considered had we learned its true burden, should we be held responsible over those who deceived us?”
“You should not,” Stahrich said, “but you are. That is power.”
Boldened by the war-god’s calmness even and angered by his candor, Urzen said, “And that’s why Kiresa is shattered. The most powerful beings on Canno said that she should be a slave for humans, and that’s what she made herself. Because that is your power.”
Stahrich stopped and turned slowly. “She… a slave for…” The war-god radiated no wrath, only a tickling pierce of a sensation. His black armor rattled as he shook his head and said, “Do we speak of Kiresa Virneh, the Lady of the Amber Lash, High Seductress of the Seventh Plane and survivor of the Loar War?” Even as Urzen opened his mouth to answer, Stahrich interrupted. “Sicher nicht. We speak of Kiresa, the perfect consort who exists only in Urzen’s mind. Bloodlust and scorn, boy, grow up.”
Urzen flinched, stricken speechless.
“Are you upset that she died because it is the end of her joy? I think rather you are sulking because you cannot pine over her now that she is gone,” Stahrich said.
“And what about you?!” Urzen said, soaring up and raising his voice to the war-god’s visor. “How many times have you watched a party of adventurers, good people trying to do good, die horribly against some cheating evil? How many times, and you do nothing?”
“Too many,” Stahrich said.
“Then do something about it!” Urzen growled. Opalescent fire streamed from his wings and shuddered beneath his skin. He gritted his teeth at the war-god’s visor.
“I am,” Stahrich said.
Urzen’s fury fled him. “What?” he asked, now greatly confused.
“I am ordering the ranks of my faithful in preparation to distance from the Pantheon,” Stahrich said. “I agree. The situation of Cannoan warfare—”
“Oh, enough about Cannoan warfare,” Urzen snapped.
“That is my sphere, and I will look to it,” Stahrich said. “I will not hear further spite from you unless you find a way to look to yours.”
Urzen glided back and settled to the stonework in morose quiet. “It’s not that easy for us,” he said at last. “You can prevent your peers from watching where you tread. If we try that, if we try to put the Pantheon’s touch apart from our essence…”
Stahrich nodded. “Ja. I know this.” He rolled his shoulders and pivoted.
Once more they proceeded in silence, and once more Stahrich slashed his dread sword through the air before him. This time their course took them into sparkling veils spun out between gleaming quartz towers with parapets of gentle curves and divots that, in turn, flowed into the many ovals and capering lower platforms of a calm, empty cityscape. Down it dove, almost further than Urzen’s eyes could see. Through fifty levels of weaving bridges with lateral geodes and lustrous red-brown wood for their walkways, to verdant forests with leaves and fronds and blossoms in every shade of red, orange, and blue as well as green. This realm needed no sun to light it. Innumerable globes, glasses and ceramics and cloth bands shrouding the unseen fonts that poured out glows like moon-kissed clouds: such were the luminous blooms that dangled on silken nets woven between the towers.
And for all its abandonment, its aura enveloped the planelord with the warmth of home and hearth, and a floral scent not of perfume but of a clean and docile meadow in spring.
Stahrich cleared his throat. “I will be the one to stay in the air, now. It does not sit well with me to sully this haven with my sabatons nor my bloodied hand.”
Urzen nodded, and alighted upon a balcony framed by reliefs etched in lapis-lazuli. Though crisp-chiseled, the unknown sculptor used no hard angles. Their style turned even the sharpest of the strange and wonderful beings it depicted into whimsical creatures, and friendly. An immense serpent formed by what looked like glassine shards and light-rays that split into many smaller tails and frills. Insectoid beings crafted from plates with but the impression of wings and faces of geared joints and wiring. Creatures whose bodies were winding arrays of gaseous bladders which split off on the ventral side into a secondary, smaller row with a spade-like shape shielded by articulating plates, and just two limbs, yet four-jointed and with seven digits: no matter how alien, the sculptor made them charming to look upon.
These and others, as many as forty in total, appeared together in every scene of communion and friendship Urzen could imagine as he walked and drank in the reliefs. From these scenes he felt a faint, clinging regret, yet also love—the emotions of the sculptor who in some elder age made them in the memory of friends now gone. Even when the reliefs depicted squabbles, or some among the fantastical races who seemed more standoffish and stubborn for their distance from the groups of the others, the sculptor’s gentle shaping gave a sense of curmudgeonly cheer.
And, looking on them, Urzen found it possible to admit the truth to himself at last.
“The reason that I’ve been acting as I have,” he said to Stahrich, as the war-god walked on the air outside the vibrant gallery, “isn’t that I miss Kiresa. Though, I do.” He closed his eyes and folded his stained-glass wings in around himself. “But, in truth… in truth, now that she’s shattered, now that I know I’ll never see her again… now I have to accept that the mistakes I made were forever.” He chuckled, and silver tears rimmed his eyes. “I’m utter dross, am I not, for a demon of love and passion?”
“There is no arguing that point,” Stahrich said. “But I think you have just started to be worth something in it.”
Urzen could only laugh, and nod, and wade through his own memory even as he waded through the soothing kiss of the gentle plane against his spirit.
They walked in silence for hours, or perhaps days, or weeks; there was no need to ignore time here. Here, time and all its loss and weight were no heavier than the hand of another, palm to palm in apology. Their path brought them to a speckled moonstone gallery looking out upon a calming sunset glow, a band that was both sky and horizon.
“Is this what the outer edge of the lattice looks like everywhere, do you suppose?” Urzen asked.
“An endless barrier of warmth and safety?” Stahrich asked. “I am sure it could if that was the desired thing. Planes are separate spaces. They have no natural shared shape.”
“Nor connections… yes, I remember learning that from someone. Only the connections, and the shapes, that we choose for them to share. ‘A universe not held in one great hollow sphere, but an infinity of little asymmetries. When each of us yearns enough, we reach out to clasp one another.’ I wish I could remember who said that,” Urzen said, and took a calming breath even though he need not breathe. “Their soul must have been beautiful.”
Stahrich nodded, and said no more in answer. They gazed at the planar lattice’s broad embrace, and drank their fill of the sacred city.
“It’s time we returned,” Urzen said, though he regretted the words instantly. “I thank you, Stahrich. You were right. Movement was the first need.”
“It always is,” Stahrich said.
Urzen took one last look at the bittersweet reliefs. Even as he took to the air, he let his form and his mind and senses spread throughout the plane. He drank in its reverie and its abiding love for just a few moments longer. Then, feeling for all the world as though he’d parted from a lover, or a lover who could’ve been, he drew in on himself.
“I’m ready to return to the Seventh,” he said.
Stahrich took a last look of his own. “Would that I could have felt this place you did, and not taint by that feeling,” the war-god said. Then he shook his head. “Fah. There is no helping that.” He did not swipe Sireless Glory this time. He held the zweihänder before him in salute. Then he turned one wavy edge downward and cut slowly into the space before him. His bloody might cast no light, nor did fire accompany it. The portal shear opened.
Then it exploded out around them, and an unbidden emptiness encased Urzen. Whistling pale glints and a cold without wind nor touch closed in upon him. He tried to fly away, but there was no substance for flight. He reached for the Seventh, but he could not feel it. He shouted to Stahrich, but no sound emerged. He hurled his power against the emptiness, and in return, the emptiness encased him.
When he could again see himself, and Stahrich, and a realm about them, it was not lust, nor focus, nor warmth and light that met him. Before he saw or heard or smelled any of it, he knew in his inmost self the nature of the domain they were entered upon.
This was a dead plane.