Expurgated Editions: Final Pilot Story

hi, readers. I must admit it feels strange to follow on from my previous post as though nothing’s changed. Yet for me… well… nothing’s changed. My friends and loved ones haven’t chosen to hold me to judgment. In hindsight I see that they’ve acted as most people would expect them too, even if I in fact badly deserved the judgment.

Still, I felt that I deserved to be punished, so I expected it. The people I care about have chosen to love this strange mess of a woman anyway. I’m moving forward with that knowledge.

So, for any who still want to, here’s the last instalment of pilot material for the proposed Expurgated Editions of my first two books.

A disclaimer: this post doesn’t contain a lot of the story I’d originally thought it would. Gratai’s childhood, because the nameless child of this passage is in fact Gratai, offers many opportunities I won’t get with either Syla or Morkui’s own starts. Sadly and rather fittingly, much of the space in the chapters slated for Gratai’s childhood belongs to people other than her. These pages are as much in service to the reigning powers and dramatic figures of the Grast Kgor as to the young warrior and necromancer-to-be.

Because of this, Chapter 2 ended up growing so long that I had to split it. Its second half, which I decided to make the one which keeps the chapter title “Prisoners of This Sinful Earth” as well as the associated quote from Droven’s Anselm, will likely end up well over 10,000 words even after the split. I felt that perhaps the point when Gratai is given to Matriarch Meilen Serai as a hostage deserved more room to breathe.

Chapter 2 now bears the Title “We, Who Inherit Ruin” and the establishing quote “”The keenest mind will show you no truth if you cannot find the sight to look inside it, and see yourself” from the philosopher Leizh Tith.

The new Chapter 3 also contains the revelation I originally thought would cap chapter 2. Those of you more familiar with trans identity have probably already noticed some important details about the way the prose narrative refers to “the child” born in chapter 2. Namely, that if I have to reference the child’s perceived gender at all, it’s purely through the lens of the characters perceiving it.

Mazul Chiir sees “all the small features she expected from a male child.”

Azrukain, who is a demoness far more insightful about the inner reality of people, doesn’t try to force a decisive answer. But she does encourage Mazul to think about a daughter in terms of spirit rather than body.

Not to put to fine a point on it, Gratai is a trans woman–girl, rather, in these early chapters. Chapter Three introduces her to the characters and lessons she needs to realize that. It culminates with a trip into the bogs where she invokes supernatural powers to handle her transition–and that trip’s consequences.

It’s all very flavorful and I’m obviously deeply passionate about this version of the story… and that’s why I’m ending the pilot material here, before we get to it. I want to be clear, I do cherish those of you who have engaged with the first two parts. But I’m an old hand at blogging now. I can tell that the momentum here is only dwindling.

I can’t do this to myself again. I told you all at the start that I needed help to make this work, as I’ve been telling all my readers in deeply earnest for a long time now. And… I’m sorry, but it hasn’t manifested. I can’t go through another cycle of posting a story I know in my bones has a song to it, has worth, and seeing it forgotten a day later.

I’m definitely not going to spend another year writing books this long when I’m the only one talking about them. That’s assuming I even got the chance without a fanbase to help me over the financial hurdle, which seems very doubtful this time. And I know that I want to finish these books eventually, but by this point they’ve gotten so wrapped up in my own trauma over trying, failing, trying, failing that I no longer I want to write them now. I need more time away to heal.

It still fucking hurts, readers. Please don’t read the above and tell yourself that means this is for the best.

So, I’m calling it here. The material below is the last you’re getting. I wish we could’ve gotten as far as Meilen Serai, who enters this story as a heroic underdog rather than a ruthless tyrant, and all the interplay between my lore about magic and demons with Gratai’s journey to understand her trans identity… but you can tell I do love these ideas. So I’m going to hoard them to myself instead. Safeguard them rather than put them into the world where it’ll break my heart when they don’t kindle the same kind of love in anyone else.

And if you’re thinking, “I would’ve loved that,” I’m going to be a little short with you this time: how would I know that? A like is binary and empty of soul. The comments exist for you to tell me these things in a timely fashion. That is all.

Unfortunately, all this means the pilot material will close on one of the most painful moments in this entire story.

CW: transphobia, blood and gore, child abuse.

***

The infant passed from lulling warmth and rhythmic rush to storm howls, thunder, and hateful cold rain against tender skin. Instinct found its way to untested chords and became full-throated cries. The darkness shuddered. Fell radiance through uncountable jagged shapes. Branches and windowed walls without roofing arrived in the forming mind as utter chaos. Fear and shock as a tearing within, needle-gouges demanding flight from a body too frail even to stand. Firm yet soft, yet also without succor, an unspeakable strength grasped the helpless body and pulled it away from the warmth’s last traces.

Sight blurred by birth-dregs cast the slow-stirring figure on the altar as a hulking mountain. It was haloed sometimes by storm-light flickering through rain-spray smashed apart on shivering skin. Of course the child knew no words for any of this. Only raw sense and a pulsating hollowness somehow warm and heavy within. It fiercened with every breath away from the warmth, every wail unanswered while huge voices volleyed staccato bursts back and forth around the little form orphaned from meaning.

Later, the child would name this hollowness yearning. Little hands fumbled to fill it while encircling titans rumbled. Only the rain-slashed air met the small pale fingers’ hold. Hollowness untended became an ache, a sting, an eye-wrenching squall from the little form.

Clashing shadows spat emptiness that cut through sound and jarred newborn ears. Nothing, nothing, and more nothing sliced through the night’s facade wherever the newborn eyes looked. All the world became serrated cleaving. The hollows where the shadows ate through the oncoming rends only drove the soul-teeth more wickedly where the hollows failed to unmake them. Hues of violet, and crimson, and terrible ring-burns blotting through the all-fabric with an abyss blacker than black behind.

Rising. Roiling. Whispering—blinding light. Cuprous tang. Burning, burning, burning—

Then a gentle whisper and soaring warmth. Rustlings and a full-throated chuckle. Sweet scents, one balmy and the other a heady tingle. Later they carried the names of lavender and a Grast incense called ulsot. Swaddled with robes and a clean rush like spring rain, the whispers and the hues and the emptiness fled.

A raw little throat ceased tearing for shrieks. Scarlet eyes dared to open. The child-mind knew naught about words, names, and memory then. No knowledge lingered about the world and the world’s fey dictums. No remembered voice said that the glowing eyes and ranked bone-crests and fangs behind too-pretty lips were evil. So, the child saw that they were not.

They caught the delirious softness on two eyebrow pairs, the lower long and tapering inward to graceful points, the upper short with soft inward swells. It spoke kinship. Here: an easy quirk at each lip-corner. Here: hooded eye-lids, and within an endless promise gleaming. The child needed no name for the feeling found then. It answered, and ended, the hollowness called yearning.

A strange guide: the quick-fading memory of a suckling babe. Only scattered flashes survived to later days. Steadiness, surety, comfort: sentiments born from continuity. They seldom survive as driftwood in life’s storm.

Yet, somehow, the child did not forget this answer.

Perhaps the truth survived because the child relearned its need anew each day under Heilach Chiir’s roof. The scarred lady and her three fever-eyed husbands lived within a half-crumbled fastness. Undergrowth clung inside the recessed rampway that spiraled up through ravines overhung by decaying walls and half-collapsed towers. From the thin-windowed manor grafted into the aspirant ruin’s northwesternmost corner, the child sometimes looked out on the bogs below.

Fog crept through the sparse trees all through the day, and clung heavier at night. A single torch on the moors scattered between with the golden reeds and blackish algal mud could cast its light as rays and spheric false-dawn for a hundred feet. Sometimes at night, the shrunken shrubs cast their shadows this way. Sometimes, there were shadows for trees and creatures that never otherwise stirred the fog.

The child learned to walk surrounded by these sights.

Growth came under Azrukain’s care. True, she often disappeared for reasons the young mind ill understood. True, she spent more time elsewhere than present. Yet she seemed so permanent when she returned that the child never worried whether she would ever be gone forever. No peril felt close whenever the zhelmozheg’s long hand clasped the small pale fingers. Walks around the bogs upon muddy roots became natural. It was within the house that terror lurked.

And when the child had only nursemaids sent from some distant place in Azrukain’s stead, they quickly crafted a habit to raise their voices at the first unknown clatter. Ballads, tales, and lullabies too loud and fervent to ease.

Sudden shaking and distant wails at night. Furtive looks between retainers all grown and fit. Though she would grow a little taller and swell further with muscle over the years to come, Mazul cast glances more harried than any. Nascent fear conjured hunching carnivores between the ancient rafters. Wretched specters scuttling, sobbing, through the halls late at night. Sometimes Mazul passed the child by with evil blotches over one eye, or fatting cheeks and lip. Strange raw marks and swollen yellowish mounds.

Once the child peeked into a washroom to see Mazul pop one upon her forearm with a dagger. Clear fluid spilled out with pink streaks sickening it. Then, snarling, she drove the candle-gleam point deep into the wound and snapped her elbow up over the breach. Her hand shook. She shut her eyes. Slid the blade. Stopped. Steel, barely reddened, clattered into the basin. Tears joined it. Mazul did not see the child slink away.

The child gathered wounds as well. Invisible, but all the more poisonous for it. Sometimes robes itched and stabbed with their inner seams. Sometimes small changes brought the little mind to tears or rage and shrieks. The child marked these only as a child’s raw urges—until one frown too many, one whisper a little too loud to go unheard, one too many harsh tugs by a nursemaid muttering, “It cannot be so bad.” Early notions took hold. These caretakers must feel the same quiet tortures as the child and simply ignore them.

How else would they know how bad it was, and speak with such certainty?

Mazul bestowed no name. Azrukain chose not to fill the void, and all others followed their example. Always she called the warborn infant ‘my dear one,’ ‘my heart,’ or sometimes with a wry look, ‘little soldier.’ Servants bowed. Courtiers scraped. They spoke many names, ‘young lord’ most often. Days became months with youth’s unrighteous haste. For humans and those who feel about time as humans do, Canno’s years always felt long past their length. They learned ages ago to measure them by semesters as well.

A second guardian entered the little one’s life. Tall and muscular, raspy-bearded with scars and a broad livid burn over his shaggy brows that cut deep into his dark brown hair. He often accompanied the tall woman called Mazul. But whenever he stayed in Heilach’s domain, even if the daylight through the dust-hung windows showed him as but a harried wraith hurrying on some errand of the adult world, he always played with the child at night. He taught the little one the first lessons on the warrior’s path: stances long and short. The earliest drills of palm against palm. To punch, kick, and grapple.

Other than that very first night under the elder construct, the first clear memory with Azrukain included him, and his calloused finger under the pale clasping hands. A gravelly voice choked with emotion.

“Now, that’s a warrior’s grip,” he said, wiping back a tear. “That’s my son.”

“Son” meant nothing to the child. But the tall man was Yul, and ‘Yul’ meant ‘father’ long before any word for a father did. With a book, with a swaddling blanket, with a deep laugh from his belly that shook the little one until a tiny peeling giggle joined it—Yul was there whenever he could be.

The child reached one semester’s age. Footsteps came soon thereafter. Words meandered in and out of little ears, yet one by one they took root. Chieragt first. “Zhelmozheg”, the child learned, meant simply “devil-matron.” Its first and last parts came from the older zheyeragt, meaning devil, and that in turn from the phrase zhulgi agtkar rolvag: “demon speaking wrath.”

And ‘lmoz’, matron, came simply from lmoshe: mother.

The growing child scarcely understood these meanings within meanings. Yet Azrukain offered them so often and with such clear delight that some etched into memory. Every word dragged layers of meaning behind like a tail through an unfathomed deep. Azrukain’s dear one learned that anyone who claimed that their words could have no deeper meaning was a liar, even if they taught themselves not to know it.

Few could be trusted to break that chain once they fastened it. The child must sound out the abyss—even, especially, if the more they learned, the more they learned to fear.

First words learned led to first words spoken: “Azwu”, and later the same day, “Papa!” put the mighty Yul to tears. Growth brought its own steadying. The child learned what “I” means. By the self’s anchor came sound footing, and the world’s madcap tumult slowly became knowable. Emotions took their names and began to bond with their causes: happy, sad, angry, scared, and more. By learning their names the child learned the name for the strange bubbly energy felt all around, yet unseen.

“The radiant current, creations yet uncreated? You feel it?” Azru asked once, as she rested her hand on the child’s head while they looked out upon a foggy morn. A cool wind coursed over the bogs and tousled their hair. “That is magic, my dear one. You have the Gift. I feel it. Other mages feel it when they draw close, for magic, too, burns as your birthright.” She smiled a new smile then, one that drew her brow in and down. One that bared her fangs. Pride, but something else too. “You’ll be stronger than any since Ten Zul.”

More semesters passed. When five came and went since birth and entering Azrukain’s care—though now the child always called her Azru, and the demoness smiled brightly every time—new lessons began.

A day remembered by the red-gold light of late afternoon upon sodden sand in a half-collapsed ballroom’s belly. Yul passed a wooden spear into the child’s hands. A slender thing. Lovingly carved, though small. “Try that, son,” he said. “Simple and slow first. You don’t have to prove anything yet. Give yourself time to learn.” He showed the first simple posture, and the little soldier mirrored him:

Viper’s Guard with either hand leading with its kindred foot. Left hand with left foot, right hand with right, spear’s point straight forward. Eel’s Reach with the spear pointed backwards over the lead hand’s hip, either foot forward. Ironwood’s Poise had two forms, one with the trailing hand tight near the lead hand’s breast and the spear’s point aimed straight upward, the other like an inverse Eel’s Reach with the spear cocked back above the lead hand’s shoulder.

“The right time to arrive is the time you arrive strongest,” Yul said, when exuberant hands took to whipping the spear about and lost control. “Don’t be in a hurry to make a strike you can’t push through.” He gestured with his left hand from his spear-clasping right, to the wrist, to the elbow, the shoulder, down through hip to his foot. “Every joint has its own muscles. The more you can stretch into a single straight line behind the weapon, the stronger your moves will be. You won’t wield the reaping spear, but you may fight one. You make a flicking cut with your wrist against a full-body strike…”

Yul cleared his throat. “Well, just don’t try it.”

The child soon loved the spear, for its wood remained the same. If it felt different under tensing fingers, then sweat, blisters, or small aches within those fingers caused it. When the child tried to move it in different ways, it moved in accord with the difference, and if they made the same mistakes then the correction remained the same as well. Yul taught well.

His little one learned well. How to fight the instinct to tense and pull the spear back as though it were a bowstring before driving it forward into each cut or thrust, and instead move the spear by torsal shifts and lifting or dropping it around the small form until it reached the perfect place to spring forward. How to shorten the spear’s reach by pulling it back with the trailing hand until the lead fingers tightened as the desire spot brushed them. How to sense where its piercing point and blunt base traveled without watching them.

If only the great power Azrukain foretold could feel as certain as the spear.

Soon after, a slender woman with greying hair and tired kindness began attending the child. She taught breathing and focus. To look within and see without the eyes, feel without the fingers, then clasp that radiant current called magic. “Don’t try to wield it yet,” she said. “Magic can be dangerous, young lord. Practice letting it go first. That’s what every mage should master. If your spell begins to go awry, you might be able to let it go in time.”

Magic carried many ifs, mights, and maybes with it. The child learned to fear it. For reasons ill understood then, that fear came mixed with yearning. The slender woman insisted on many strange trials. Locking fingers, pushing, pulling. Bidding that the child mind the way the stones shook and water rippled and carpets moved when stepping upon them. Then a quiet day when every eye watched Azrukain and the slender woman lead the little soldier from the manor. The zhelmozheg cast forth nine broad bands of crescent-shaped platelets bound together atop lilac silk to envelop them.

“You need not fear, youngling,” the slender woman said. This made the child afraid.

Time warped under that fear. They arrived too soon before an eerie facade carved cruelly into an unknown mountain’s slope. Alien streets with meandering ridges and unfinished bridges bolted at off-angles beneath dark buildings ground out by corners stacked on corners and wings that sloped downward to meet the ground as archways and windowed buttresses.

Forth through a glimmering door of marbled pale blues and steely silvers. Glowing grooves covered it with smaller lines splitting from their edges into hundreds of symbols. It disappeared when the slender woman pressed her palm against it, and reappeared six breaths after they passed by its threshold. Onward through echoing halls wrought from striated dark rock and porous pale-stone runs. Occasionally, a geode glittered. Engraved bands, not copper but brightly-polished steel, gleamed inside every arch with symbols the child had never seen before. Robed figures whispered and shifted.

Now through a thick-hinged door deeper and wider than any castle gate. It thundered when it sealed behind them. The slender woman bid that the child pass alone through another just like it with Azru beside. She remained behind within a squat, slant-walled room with walls as thick as she stood tall. A crystal slit allowed her to watch. Within the room stood a table, and on that table waited a simple clay vase.

Runic lines pulsed. The slender woman’s voice echoed out to the child.

“Now, touch the current. As you touch it, think of all the things that mean movement to you, and strength.  Think those things at the vase. Let the current follow.”

The child looked back towards the slit. Uneasy, fearful, sniffling. The slender woman merely watched. Made a shadow by the dim light, she spoke no more. Azrukain’s dear one could hardly say how long the wait lasted. Dragging feet brought the table and the vase closer. An empty mind found meanings: Yul’s strong hand on a small shoulder, Azrukain the day an old tower collapsed and she swatted aside a falling stone larger than a man as though it weighed nothing at all.

“It’s alright, my dear one,” Azrukain murmured, squeezing the child’s shoulder. “I’m right here beside you. You’re strong. This is a trifle for you.”

The pulsing, thrumming invisible something poured into the child’s flesh for the first time. They seized, expecting some dreadful shock. Instead it passed as thrills and hearthside warmth. A blink later it rushed through the air. The vase skidded from the table and shattered upon the floor.

“Well done, my lord,” the slender woman said. She opened the strange thick doors by some adult magic and beckoned the child back to her. “Very well done. I am Head Invoker Jihazh. And from now on, your personal tutor in invocation.”

Afterwards the child remembered that moment alone. All else became a haze.

Something changed after that day. The big woman who everyone called Mazul or Lady Chiir came with Yul sometimes when he visited the child. Yet she flinched when the child tried to touch her. Once, the little one remembered a fable from Azru about a young princess who found a mysterious floating island and a palace atop it woven from silky clouds. The child fumbled for words as big and beautiful as the fable, words to express the strange and wondrous feelings born from hearing about how the cloud-palace had doors leading to a hundred dreams. After a few babbling minutes Mazul stood up suddenly.

“Who would gain anything from such stories,” she said. “Doors to dreams. When you grow, you’ll see. Canno has no place for such things. Our dreams don’t save us.”

The child knew only that the fable brought joy when Azru spoke it, and felt guilty because Mazul showed no joy. Azru would’ve told the fable the right way.

Once Azru was elsewhere, and Yul was elsewhere, leaving Mazul and the child alone in a small, musty dressing room. Her calloused hands carried chill against the tender back. Her nails, though short, dug in often with each terse pull on the robe. The little one squirmed. Mazul vented her frustration through her nose with hissing puffs. The child wanted to flee, to escape the controlling pulls and irritated grunts.

“Hold still,” Mazul muttered.

The child tried. But the knots tied upon the bronze bands Mazul shunted carelessly up the pale arms dug in deep. Silks just a little too coarse itched on skin-patches rubbed raw. And the child whined. “It hurts.”

“It hurts?” Mazul echoed. Her lips wrinkled up into her pretty nose. “You’re spoiled. You don’t know what that word means. Hold your tongue and stay still.”

Whatever the child said next, memory found its meaning empty. More shifts. More words. Rising bile from Mazul. Then a hand’s blur towards widening eyes. An echoing slap, and ringing, and a spreading burn across the dizzied child’s cheek. Seconds passed before the little one understood. It seemed so outsize and impossible that the young mind couldn’t close upon it. It burst out as tears.

“Stop that!” Mazul snapped, and swung again. Pain and bewilderment washed out her words. The child cried louder, and Mazul sped her hand. Twice, thrice, until she seized the child by the small shoulders and screamed with her glistening teeth a thumb’s length from the tiny, terrified eyes. “SHUT UP! SHUT UP!” She threw the child with a grown warrior’s strength. A statue cracked against small ribs. Aches and splitting rip-sense.

The child bawled, staring up at the raging behemoth who stamped close. Fear and hurt set thoughts racing. Words tumbled out. Words that were supposed to heal everything.

“Mama,” the child wept, snot nosed and afraid. “Mama, please.”

Mazul ground her teeth, breathing heavy. The child froze, watching her and shaking. Slowly the furious knots unwound from Lady Chiir’s brows. Her eyes loosened into wideness. Her mouth worked while she stared at the fallen child as though woken from a deep sleep by crashing thunder, or a blade through the belly. She took a step back. One foot caught on the other as she turned and plunged away from the room.

When Azru returned later the child could muster no words. The zhelmozheg palmed the swelling cheeks. Cool lilac mist swept away the stinging. Later that day one of the child’s nursemaids was missing and the child saw Azrukain speaking quietly with Mazul outside the manor’s entrance. For many days after that Azru took on a strange furrowed-brow look when she and the child sat alone together.

“You know that if any power ever threatens, you need only call for me and I’ll protect you,” the devil-matron said. “Demon, god, or mortal. I’ll always believe you.”

“I know,” the child said each time, and hugged Azru. The demoness’s dear one recognized the furrowed brow meant worry. That called up worry in the child as clinging, sickly tickles through breath, throat, and brain. Worry felt bad. The child wanted it gone from them both. Eventually Azrukain ceased asking, and after she ceased asking the child saw that she worried less, so the little one decided to hide any cause for questions from her.

Mazul never approached the child alone again. Her visits alongside Yul grew scarce.

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