Greetings, readers mine! A week has passed–or near enough to it–and I’m ready to unveil the first few pages from the second and final pilot chapter. For those who haven’t had a chance to read the first yet, I’m writing up and sharing these to show what I hope to bring to the Expurgated Edition of The Necromancer and the Revenant.
To do that, I need your help! If you enjoy what you read here today, please share it with a friend or two, donate a like into the ravenous void that is my need for validation, and offer me your thoughts down in the comments.
This chapter is probably the longest I’ll ever write. But there’s a reason for that which I promise will be clear by the final instalment. In the meantime, allow me to serve the first portion…
Prisoners of This Sinful Earth
(Beginning 7th of Thair Onach, 1278 V.R.)
“To what end, the breath of life? To what end, the realms of flesh? To what end, such mortal strife? Is my name but chaff to thresh?” -Opening lines of the playwright Droven’s Anselm of the Ancient Hymn, spoken by Anselm
The child was born beneath a blood-red moon that scourged a stained-glass sky under midnight like the breaking of the world. The blighted orb’s glow spread as ten thousand smoky tendrils through the latticework seams of the unhallowed heavens where thunderclouds and cyclone howls sang mockery to mortal faith. An unnatural seamless giant unphased by the Cannoan ether’s segmented tumult. No sheen. No reflection.
Only corpse-glow under cratered skin.
The moon stood stark beneath the storm that should obscure it. Though glassine clouds wound sometimes like dying dawn-mist over the tiniest reaches upon its face or poles, always it bled through like an acid-eaten wound on shadow itself. Down on the rains rode the crimson gleams. Down upon primordial trunks and wind-lash vines and the deep bogs where fallen days decayed. Down upon a dark-metal mound of concentric spires spanned by promontory blades that rose to its core in irregular tiers.
Down upon many-armed statues with gnarled jaws and snaggleteeth at the third ring’s heart where fifty armored guardians clasped their spears, down upon the soak-robed women inside their circle, and down upon the one who lay there naked and straining. Muscled across her dark brown skin, dreamscape crevices across her silhouette filled and forsaken by pale light at each lightning-stroke’s passage over the inmost altar where she roared louder than the storm.
Mazul Chiir kept the old ways. The old ways of the northern Grast, who set their culture apart as Chiiraik when they yet remembered the ancestors who looked upon the untamed bogs and named them the Grast Kgor. When the paleness wrought by ancient caves and shifting shadows clung yet upon their skin. When loud shouts kept alive the fearful truths that lived now only in whispers. When the matriarch who would rule an enclave, rule the bogs, must be born in her realm’s true heart.
That heart’s wardens paced and spun slowly with rhythmic steps. At each lightning-stroke they stamped their feet. Twice before its thunderclap, then thrice after: steel-shod hooves or unworldly bone-prongs or rasping blade-tangles descending swift as striking serpents. They moved with limbs obscured beneath jagged-cut fabric. Their motions did not always bespeak the flexion of human muscles and joints.
Tuft-trimmed hoods. Gnarled masks and obscuring polygonal plates hiding the aspects behind. Sleeveless robes. Tassels tied around interlocking bands from every melted-together metal that gleamed without natural light. All billowed radially about them with a wind that was theirs alone. The gauze on their forelimbs bled incense and shadows that swayed, but remained shadows even against the storm-light’s flickers. Sometimes faces appeared at vision’s corners near them—twisted, never seen clearly.
Unseen hands played upon the altar-sprawled figure. She trembled, yet persisted.
A taller, broader figure stood near by Mazul’s left. Armored with dim-glinting plates over splinted mail with scars dividing her narrow face beneath a peaked helm and its silk tails. One ran across her left eye’s socket where an iron rim and faceted purple topaz held a cutting glow. Three ran ragged over her right cheek. Teeth crouched within. Her tongue prodded the voids. Two gauntlets rasped upon a spear’s lacquered haft. Their force shuddered up into its down-hooking blade like a crescent talon, and down into the counterweight studded by small beaks like mining picks.
A reaping spear named Kidorug Vulkta: Hideous Passage. Heilach Chiir judged all life and death by these words. She spread the lesson into all she touched.
“I hope your noise bespeaks an honest effort,” she yelled, louder than storm and screams alike. “A semester to conceive the first. Nigh as long waiting on your swollen belly. Drag us out in the dead of night for empty rituals and weakling tears? You’d best earn the trouble you’ve caused your house, my dearest daughter.”
“Find your care or lose your voice,” bid a robed woman behind her leering mask of steel and many eyes, with a neckpiece twined by tendons, bone, and dried viscera hanging over her tattooed breasts. “This is an old place of older powers. They will reward your irreverence after their own way.” When Heilach hefted her spear, the masked one scoffed and moved closer to her, then turned her back on the warrior to attend Mazul. “Your gods care not for the Garzdum Urtaga and will not answer you should you need them here.”
“If you’d threaten me, do it openly,” Heilach growled.
“As you will. My sisters and I attend this birth in good faith,” the masked one said. “Harm any of us in any way, and those who watch will repay all debts in kind.”
“That won’t comfort you,” Heilach sneered. “You’ll die before they do aught.”
“That will be enough.” This frigid, razor voice came from the woman amber-eyed and cavern-cheeked at Mazul’s right. She wrapped herself in deep mauve, gold, black, and white. She wore the crest of Enclave Chiir and the bursting-eyeball sigil of the Keeper of Affairs. “Lady Heilach, your sister has already spoken to this contingency. She will provide you foes from the foes of the Enclave if it’s foes you must find. We will not make war with you against the Hymnless Sisters.”
The armored circle stamped their spears against the iron-like floor. “Je-rah,” they intoned as one voice, “by the Matriarch’s order.
“I thank you, Keeper,” the masked one said, “but enough. The spirits of conflict and birth should never be invoked together. We all must mind our attuned places.”
When Mazul’s cries ended and an infant’s wail replaced them, Mazul Chiir turned first towards Uru. She panted and drooped. The storm whipped her clean.
“Uru,” she croaked. “Ill-omened. There was not enough of hardship in it.”
“Let’s not chain ourselves to assumptions before we must,” Uru answered. Once assassin, now spymaster, and a warrior of the warstock born. Such a woman was Uru Yag.
Yet a mother, too. Gently she lifted the sodden mass between the young woman’s thighs. She cut loose the binding cord with a careful stroke, and cooed to the little one she bundled against her breast. She held forth the newborn. The child cried louder. Still blind from birth’s runoff, tiny eyes fought to open. Small hands reached by instinct for a mother’s breast. They reached towards Mazul. She regarded the clutching fingers as she might at the first instant regard an arrow loosed toward her by an errant comrade: an untoward thing in need of correction. To the wails, she offered silence.
“Fah,” Heilach snorted. “I’d expected such spawn from you.”
A squalling babe. Ghastly white. The warstock Grast knew the hot sun well, even under the humid mists between the reeds. It found their forebears at every training pell and across ten thousand years upon the march. Their skin showed rich browns, sometimes red tints or deep olive. The oldest scholar’s oldest book could not now recall a day when they looked otherwise. Even the palest peacestock courtier, a scrapling hidden away all his years as a plaything soft, mild, weak, would remain pretty in his unwarlike way.
“He is still—” Uru began.
Mazul shook her head. She looked upon the child and saw that the Keeper spoke true: there dangled all the small features she expected from a male child. “Ill-omened,” she repeated. “A matriarch’s firstborn should always be a daughter.”
“Hasty words,” Heilach said. “My sweet sister’s the one on the Terase Throne, not I. And more than just she and I would have to perish to leave you as worthiest to rule.”
Mazul folded forward, hunching away from Heilach without a word.
“Appearances are mutable. They tell the truth of their shaping, if only you see that a false shape for you may be truer than truth for another,” the masked one said.
“Mystical drivel.” Heilach drawled. “Empty as a corpse.”
“My words are no spear you must deflect nor a foe you must slay, and you prove no strength by striking them down.” the masked one said. Wrath entered her speech at last—not a roar nor a snarl. A hissing rasp like the whetstone’s kiss against the eager blade. The storm did not drown it out. Its thunder seemed terribly quiet then, lest it force the one behind the mask to raise her voice. “If you desire to make them empty for yourself, you shall see it done. But your soul shall starve.”
Another lightning-flash illuminated shadows and glassy tendrils encircling the altar and the infant on every axis. They plucked towards and away from the crying child with such violence that even that brief instant showed a hundred different postures among them. “Those who watch are drawn,” the masked one declared. “Yet, they are pushed away. Powerful signs for a grown Grast woman, let alone an infant.”
“It’s a pale, puling waif that’ll grow to a pale, puling man,” Heilach said. “It makes me want to recoil just the same.” She laughed harshly. “Perhaps I and your aging powers have something in common after all.” A staccato lightning-burst picked out not shadow, but a sudden hollow against the rain behind her: a knobbled hulk with spindly shapes tapering from its core into many inward curves with clear edges. Arcs folding out and in again upon the scarred woman with the reaping spear.
The rain unraveled into the hollows and became nothing.
Other movement drew the watchers’ eyes. With the next light the shape was gone.
“Enough, Heilach! Matriarch Heigorel bid that I watch over this gathering,” the newcomer spoke. “Whether she bid that I must abide your poison soul’s effuse, I recall not. Make yourself my anathema if you wish. Still, this is not your home.”
“Nor is it yours, hell spawn, yet here you are,” Heilach said.
“My home lies everywhere and nowhere,” the demoness answered. “With kinship and motherhood wherever they sing. The Sisters are as Grast as you. Their flesh embraces a truth that yours denies. You should love them as you would another self.”
Heilach answered only with unsmiling lips and a slow-arching brow.
Three meters tall and too lovely for a mortal to call her beautiful, Azrukain glided closer. Devil-matron and warrior, eldest demon of the house. In her immaculate tawny skin shimmered hints of bronze and gold like the bronze and gold that segmented her narrow oval visage beneath two eyes: black sclerae and glowing amethyst pupils each of three triangles melded together. Sleeveless lilac robes and brazen bands close-fitted to the slow-streaming ethereal flesh seen between their geometric hollows.
Hanging all about her as charms and upon the ornamental comb behind two rows of three bone-spur horns sprouting back along her head, she bore the signs of fire, scourge, and the reign of the Chiir matriarchs. She held forth her hands with painted nails sharpened to claws. To Mazul. To Uru. To the child Uru now cradled closer.
“Does not the blood of your blood cry out within them, this child?” she asked of Mazul. “An echo unrequited and a love half unborn? Could not the soul you seek from a daughter, of power and resonant command, find succor in such flesh as this?”
“‘To hide a childish idea in words of many colors does not make it less childish to those who understand it, only harder to understand,'” Heilach said. “I’d thought you were an admirer of Leizh Tith’s philosophizing.” She glanced from Azrukain towards Mazul with snide eyes. “But perhaps my sister’s blindness has infected you. That’s her way, I suppose.”
Mazul hunched again from her mother’s gaze. She glanced suddenly away. Then, stared long into the infant eyes beneath a few furtive hairs as black and glossy as obsidian. Beseeching eyes. Eyes the outlining light around the blood-moon far above. Scarlet eyes. “He is born with the colors of Enclave Serai,” she said. Neither cold nor fierce. A hollow whisper in a voice born to bellow at ranks. “Ill-omened. I will not be made to say it again.”
“Well, that’s the end of that,” Heilach said, leaning her spear over her shoulder and striding off. The masked one gestured to her sisters. One bowed and drifted slowly around without moving her cloven feet. Then, swiftly, she drifted after the armored shoulders sinking into the night with Hideous Passage. “This should please you, daughter,” Heilach called back. “You’ve surely wanted a reason to open your legs to another husband. Suppose that Yul of yours is too soft to stir out the woman in you. Wherever that lies.”
Mazul hugged herself and fastened her eyes tight. Heilach and her escort faded away into the primordial vines towards the distant dark-green glow and rusty upward fires that marked the border between this godless land and mortal Canno.
She screamed then, clawing her scalp and breasts. She slammed the altar beneath with both fists until Azrukain caught her hands.
“Mazul,” the zhelmozheg said, “if you would speak something deeper, the Banner Marked shall not betray you before other ears. Or Uru could order them to withdraw—”
“I do not need your aid,” Mazul said. “I am frustrated. Nothing more.”
“And your child?” Azrukain asked.
“A son is no failure,” Uru said. “It’s true he won’t carry your legacy. That can be wonderful. You need not prepare him for some fearful path. You’re free simply to love him.”
“I don’t need children to love,” Mazul said. “I need children to safeguard my line.”
“Why create a distinction?” Azrukain asked. “Will not a beloved child desire to safeguard your line for that love’s sake?”
“Why should I not?” Mazul demanded. “Love is unnecessary, and learning to depend on unnecessary things is peacestock weakness. Duty should be all that’s needed. ‘Let no daughter rejoice in her mother’s pain.'”
“You twist a truism of Ten Zul. You butcher her melody,” Azrukain said. “The Inferno Matriarch spoke it thusly: let no daughter rejoice for her mother’s undoing unless her mother disgraced her name.” She drifted closer. “But never mind that. Love is never unnecessary. Please, little crest, if you lack for joy—”
“I lack for nothing that I cannot make up through strength,” Mazul interrupted. “I have conceived. I have birthed. I am a woman. I hope soon to be a woman blooded. You will not steal my chance to stand on my own, demon. You will not bind me to your aid so you might hoard the wages of my emotion as you have done to my aunt, and my aunt’s children.”
Azrukain saddened and drifted away. “If you speak your true feelings towards me—”
“I do,” Mazul said, like a quarrel striking home. She looked slantwise towards the devil-matron. Nostrils vented steam into the warring darkness. She spoke at last. “That child is born of the warstock, and of nobility, and Ten Zul’s line. He should be raised as is proper. You may do so if you wish, zhelmozheg.”
By her title named and freed to choose, Azrukain inclined her head and took the child into her hands. “Come, little one,” she said. She glanced back towards Mazul with an open look and a soft smile one last time. Mazul set her brow, cleared all emotion from her skin, and shook her head. So Azrukain turned away, and the masked one sent no guide with her. She glided without fear into the forest depths where those forgotten by gods and demons held dominion. A few more words echoed from her, spoken to the child:
“My fire is yours also.”
Only the storm spoke while the zhelmozheg’s gleaming silhouette shrank into the nocturne paths. “An ill omen need not be surrendered to,” Uru said, speaking once more to Mazul. “If Azrukain and the Sisters favor the young lord, you should so as well.”
“The Sisters,” Mazul said, meeting the Masked One’s eyes, “know these ancient places and their powers. If the child were meant to rule here, I would beg their guidance in all things. But they do not know wider Canno. Not our present age, its peoples, or its gods.”
“It’s not the Canno you call wider that keeps us outside,” the masked one said. “Still, your words might carry truth. You have the knowledge to speak your needs best.”
Mazul inclined her head. “Thank you.” She looked at Uru once more and continued. “Azrukain is a demon. She knows the ways of demons.”
“Azrukain is a demon, and knows the ways of all feeling creatures—” Uru began.
Mazul Chiir shook her head. Uru folded her hands into her sleeves, now silent. “But of mortals and mothers?” Mazul spoke on. She accepted the broad robe and the noble’s torque presented by her handmaids. “Little from the first. Less every year.” Lightning lanced a nearby tree. Its radiance sparked in Mazul’s gritted teeth. “She can be as blind as any to the rigor of our lives. A boy-child is no fit foundation for a warrior dynasty.”
“My son had heard that.” Uru said. “It hasn’t forestalled him.”
“Then your son has much to learn of his people.” Mazul said. She sealed her robes with a surcoat of long steel bands falling beneath a ridged mauve cuirass. “And of the world.”
“Perhaps,” Uru said. “And yet, he’ll be my son as long as he wishes. None of us choose to be born. Our mothers and our fathers give us no say. I will at least make sure he is free to choose to live.” She took up her pronged spear. “As my mother did for me, so I for them.”
Mazul said nothing further. Uru was the enclave’s spymaster. Interrogator and bloodhound. She knew how to make others weak—to confess and kneel before their enemies. A poor path to teach her the meaning of strength, or how to forge it in others. A matriarch must forgive her people for faltering when they strayed into realms unknown.
Just so long as she remembered that, she need not be swayed by it. She need not speak to ignore the folly of her friends, or justify herself. If she was strong enough then fate would bend to favor her. She would be rewarded. She would be absolute.
She would be matriarch.