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(This is version two; version one is below the cut.)

Prologue: The World Beyond the World 

There is a world beyond the world that is seen, a dark and bodiless world where souls reside. Some call it the World of the Dead, but it is as much the World of the Unborn, where those who have yet to be on their way to be born pass those who have been on their way to the Mother’s arms. It is a quiet world without matter or strife, where the dead may rest until their hearts are at peace, where the sinners and the troubled may shed the stains of the world and reconcile themselves to the gods.

Most do, and pass stately into that repose that lies beyond the darkness. Some hesitate in fear or pain, and stay a long time in the dark. Others rage against the injustice of their own deaths, unable to return until time sees the fire in their hearts turned to ash.

A very few refuse to be reconciled at all, and remain forever in a cold hell of their own making.

Koschei—called the Deathless—hung in the blackness beyond the world with the light at his back. He would not look at it. Had not, in all the ages he had been suspended here, glanced at it once. The light had made him promises in life, and broken them. The light had forsaken his people, and did not deserve them, nor so much as an acknowledgement from him. One day he would depart its presence permanently, bursting through the surface of the world from death back into life, never to die again. One day, he would redeem his people from this place and make them eternal, supplanting the gods who had betrayed them.

Memory was his only companion in the dark. The ghosts around him existed as targets for his rage and little more; they were scarcely aware that they had died, let alone that there were others with them in the dark. Sometimes the newly dead were a source of information, wearing memory and emotion like dust on their skins. He was still táltos enough to peer dimly up through the surface of the world at the realm of the living, watching the events that played out distant and muted overhead as if through deep water; but he could touch those who had just come from life and be them for an instant, seeing all they had seen.

Any fresh influx of spirits was a chance to reconstruct the means of their dying from vivid memories, to live and die again vicariously. If his own losses had not been enough to harden his heart against the gods forever, those stolen moments would have done it: He lived out every injustice, every massacre, every horrific death from war or disease or murder. Those who had passed peacefully were of no interest to him; their presence in the dark was fleeting as they went willingly back to the Mother’s embrace.

Koschei despised them in their weakness. They loved the architect of all that was awful in the world and wanted nothing more than to be reunited with Her. He fed on that despite as he fed on the pain and horror of those who died badly, and he grew strange and tortured and mad.

He had come close to escaping many times in the past, called forth out of the dark by desperate magic or the impassioned plea of a distant descendant. He had walked the realm of the living as a ghost, or hovered in the back of a willing mind and breathed knowledge into it. But without a body of his own the world soon became as insubstantial to him as he was to it, and he slipped back into the darkness.

He could not simply take another body as his own. Though the weak-willed heard his whispering as their own thoughts, no force of will would let him displace their spirits outright. It took power he didn’t have to break a living soul in half and unseat the spirit from its flesh; whatever Her other failures, the Mother had made her children well in that regard.

The bond between spirit and body could be broken, he knew; it was severed on death, and the force as it snapped threw the dead far into the darkness. If he caught a soul in the instant of its dying, he might take the power of that death and reforge his own tie to the world. He had ridden the unfortunates who called on him down into oblivion and wrested magic from their deaths to take their flesh for his own; each time, the stolen body had turned to corruption around him without the living spirit for which it had been made. Each failure stoked his rage and drove him to new tactics.

He tried letting the spirits keep their bodies, but pushed them down below the level of conscious thought—still they fought him off, for he could set no hooks in a soul that did not invite him willingly. So he lied to them and entreated them to invite him in, and found he could not inhabit the bodies of those not of his own blood; the sympathetic magic between spirit and flesh would not permit a stranger to use it. Spirits who did not hate as strongly as he hated, who were not filled in the instant of their deaths with the same rage that burned in him, slipped from his grasp before he could make use of them.

The path back into life was hedged by so many difficulties that a lesser man would have quailed at the impossibility. Koschei did not. He overcame each obstacle methodically, watching for the next confluence of events that would deliver to him a soul he could use.

Years crept by as he hung in the blackness and watched. Decades and centuries and ages of suffering, disaster, and death sent spirits reeling into the dark, and he took memories from all of them. Despite it all, mankind multiplied and spread across the world. He watched them reclaim the cities they had been driven from, settling to the business of being nations once more.

Some of these fledgling nations died early, crushed between avaricious neighbors or destroyed by a hostile environment. Some settled in once place only to be driven to another by outside depredations. One kingdom in particular was uprooted several times, driven relentlessly north until they were in lands no other people would possibly desire: the edges of the Godfall Wastes. They settled beside those very icefields, and there struggled to make an existence from the plague-raddled hinterlands. The ruling family of this starveling kingdom claimed direct lineage to Koschei through his son, and so he watched them closely.

The kingdom was doomed, he knew. The ulven, those enemies of life who had made the Wastes, delighted in suffering and would not miss a chance to wipe a people out of existence as a man would crush an ant. A people who would not even suspect their danger, for they were a special breed of fools who worshipped the Mother and believed She would protect them.

He could warn them, but he wanted to see them fail, just as he had--and he saw that the kingdom’s rulers loved their people fiercely. When those people began to die, how quickly that love would turn to fury at anything that harmed them.

Death, blood, and rage: the pieces were in place, and it was only a matter of time before this kingdom provided a soul to be Koschei’s path out of death.

Version one )
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In the time between cities, when mankind wandered the land in dispossessed tribes--for the solari had stolen their old homes from them, and Dalibor Conqueror had not yet united them under one banner--there was born to Moroz of the Yasen a child with six fingers on each hand. Had he been any but the tribe patriarch’s child, he might have been abandoned at birth, for great was the fear of deformity in those who lived near the Godfall Wastes. But the child was a son, and his mother died in bearing him, so his father declared him heir--should he survive long enough to claim his birthright. In defiance of those who sought to supplant his son, Moroz named the child Koschei--he would be tough as bone and as unbending.

It did not mollify the people of the ash tree, but they loved Moroz well and would not gainsay his word. Nevertheless they kept the freakish child at arm’s length, and Koschei grew to manhood in relative solitude. He was never for want of companionship, for even as a child ghosts walked with him; never for want of a teacher, for he had learned all he must know in his mother’s womb, though that knowledge rested lightly on him as a child. He learned to listen more than he spoke, to endure without complaint, and became hard and strong.

Though he knew much more of the world than any other man of the Yasen, he did not lord his knowledge over others; nor would he use it to take what he did not earn by the sweat of his brow. Though ghosts attended him, he asked nothing of them and always listened to what they had to say. So he proved himself worthy as his father’s successor, and became the war-leader of the Yasen by right of heredity.

In those times man fought against man, and man against solari, and man against the beasts of the wild. The war-leader was a man of courage but also of cunning, for no tribe existed that could field an army, and every man lost in battle was a hunter and husband lost as well. But Koschei was wise, and the ghosts of war-leaders past flocked around him, and he led the Yasen to victory time and again. Slave raids were turned back, their stolen people reclaimed; wives and horses and prized hunting grounds fell into the Yasen’s hands. They grew prosperous, spreading their influence far beyond the forests around the Wastes. Other tribes clamored to ally with them--but a position of strength breeds envy as often as it does loyalty and there were those of this world and beyond who took note of the Yasen and began to scheme.

The fertile lands of the Juhász bordered on those of the Yasen. Though they bore their neighbors little in the way of real ill-will, it was not uncommon for each tribe to raid the other for wives. It was on such a raid that Koschei met--and stole--his own wife-to-be. Women did not often truly fear to be taken in the wife-raids--for they often grew tired of the men of their own tribe--but it was their way to act as if they were terrified of their captors. Erzsébet showed no fear from the moment she laid eyes upon Koschei, for the Juhász had legends of men and women born with extra fingers, and knew them for the Mother’s messengers--the táltos, who warred for all mankind in heaven.

That he should be such a thing came as a shock to Koschei--as did his wife-to-be in declaring they must be married, for the Mother had told her she would marry a táltos and teach him those secrets he did not yet know. He resisted the thought at first, for the Yasen worshipped the ash tree and the moist growing earth, and knew the Mother only as a distant presence; he did not like the thought of a foreign god interfering in his life. But Erzsébet appealed to him, both with the Mother’s wisdom and her own wisdom of the ways between men and women, and soon they were married. He would not yet accept her god as his own, but he had grown to love her and would not be parted from her.

Their marriage feast was a thing of legend, for at the height of the feast, as Koschei raised his cup to pour out a blessing upon the earth, the ghosts came to him. Many at the feasting board did not see them; some did; but all saw as their war-leader’s eyes rolled back in his head, as he shook like a man palsied, and all heard as he proclaimed the Mother in a voice that shook them to their cores. He spoke of wonders that could not be repeated, and of his own purpose in being placed among the Yasen at that time: He was to go into the Godfall Wastes and heal them, and raise the Winter Sun Khors from His long death.

 That night the Yasen learned for good and all that the Mother had sent a táltos among them, and he would be their war-leader in heaven as on earth. None who had seen it would deny the miracle of the wedding feast, and if any still harbored resentment or suspicion of Koschei it was gone in that instant.

They were ready to make him their patriarch--but he would not, for love of his father. Moroz, for love of his people, knew that his own time of strength was long past, and so urged his son to lead the Yasen in life as well as he had in war. Reluctant and overwhelmed with the sudden sense of his destiny, Koschei accepted--though Moroz was to stand as his voice for years more, as Koschei turned to Erzsébet to learn what a táltos must do. He sent gifts and entreaties to the Juhász--and the Lakatos and the Varga, and any other tribe who had táltos among them--inviting them to join the Yasen as brothers. His war, he realized, had grown far beyond the mere clash of tribes; the forces arrayed against the Mother, the ulven and their foul varulf, grew fat on the strife between man and man, and laughed to see them die fighting each other.

That strife must end, he knew, and so he made allies of all who would be his allies, and summoned those older and wiser than he to teach him to be a táltos.

And Erzsébet taught him as well, and he loved her, and in time she gave him a son--a six-fingered son, whom Koschei named Dalibor for the far-off war the táltos would fight in heaven.

The brotherhood of tribes grew, and grew prosperous. No longer bound to war against one another, they settled to farm and herd and raise children, and prepare themselves for the greater struggle to come. Many children were born, and Koschei and Erzsébet added many of their own to the increase of the Yasen and the Juhász. Koschei grew wiser still, in war and leadership and fatherhood, in the knowledge of the ghosts and the ways of the táltos. For a time, under his guidance, there was peace and true prosperity, enough even that some began to consider retaking the cities.

Few things attract a wolf like an abundance of prey. The solari, their hearts long-darkened by the ulven, grew aware of the thriving nation of men on their borders. Some among them saw it as a threat, and counseled caution or war by turns. Others still remembered mankind as their cousins, and pled with their brothers to do no harm to those they had already badly hurt. But most saw it as an opportunity, for here there were slaves to be taken, young and beautiful and malleable. Long had they left the human tribes in peace--not out of desire or recognition of cousinhood but because they had been too difficult to easily overcome--but the presence of so many in one place was too much to bear. The solari gathered in their strength and drew upon their magic, and marched forth from the Sun-wood to take slaves once more.

The Yasen, and the Juhász, and the Varga and Lakatos and all their allies, knew nothing of what stood arrayed against them. Secure in their strength and alliances with their neighbors, they had grown lax in the habit of watching their borders--and so the solari came upon them unprepared, as a wolf on an unprotected flock. Many were slain who fought, and many more--lovely daughters and strong, stalwart sons--were carried off captive to the solari lands. Among them were Koschei and Erzsébet’s own beloved daughters, and long did the mother weep over her stolen children.

Koschei’s heart became a black thing on that day. He raged against the solari, against their god, against the Mother for countenancing such an evil to live. He vowed to take his daughters back; he raised an army of every fighting man who remained to the brotherhood of tribes, but no way could be found through the killing wards of the Sun-wood. Frustrated, sick at heart, he turned then to his visions to divine what might be done. Time had dulled them--time and distance from the Mother, as he would not listen to Her in his grief--but he clung to them nevertheless.

One evening, as he meditated, a new vision came to Koschei: Should he fulfill his destiny to heal the Godfall Wastes, the solari’s magic would be broken in that same hour. Black joy welled in him at the thought; without their magic, the solari were too few to stand against all the brotherhood of the tribes. He would shatter their magic, redeem his daughters and all the stolen children, and wipe the solari from the face of the earth. He hastened to tell Erzsébet, certain the news would lift her from her mourning. But she did not rejoice to hear that their daughters might be returned, nor that the enemies who had stolen them might be destroyed. She did not believe such a vision would come from the Mother, nor that the Mother would countenance the destruction of the solari--for they, too, were Her children. Do not go, she told him; he had other children who needed a father, tribes that needed a leader, a world that needed healing if only he could become right in his own heart.

Koschei would not--could not--listen. If the Mother countenanced the taking of slaves and would not destroy the slavers Herself, then She did not deserve his obedience. He called all the táltos of all the tribes to him and told them of his vision--that the time had come to cleanse the Godfall Wastes, and once they had, a way would be opened for them to save all those the solari had stolen. He did not speak to them of his own designs on the fate of the solari, believing them blinded to the true course by their own worship of the Mother. In due time, he thought, he could reveal to them the course to see their people freed forever from the threat of slavery.

They made preparations and in due time took their journey to the Wastes. Koschei’s vision of exactly what he must do to cleanse the land remained elusive, and he would not ask the Mother to guide him. The ghosts who had long walked at his side had abandoned him when he did not listen to their words of caution; nevertheless, he believed the knowledge of his task would come to him as they reached the Wastes.

But they did not reach the Wastes.

The ulven and their varulf servants had laid a trap for the táltos on the way. The road into the Wastes was long and hard, and the táltos were stretched to the exhaustion of their magic--and one night as they lay in exhausted slumber, the varulf came upon them in the dark, slitting throats and breathing plague into their lungs. One of the ulven itself appeared in their midst, striking terror into the hearts of those who saw it and sending them fleeing in every direction. Many were lost in the Wastes, never to return. The survivors--Koschei among them--returned home in terrible disarray, bringing with them unbeknownst the varulf plague. All among their tribes they touched sickened with it, and all who sickened with it, died in turn. Erzsébet died in Koschei’s arms, and their children followed soon after--all but Dalibor, whom the gods still planned for.

On the day he buried his wife, Koschei swore an oath against the gods, a black and terrible oath that he would oppose them as he opposed the ulven, for all his life that remained and into death. He swore against the Mother for Her faithlessness to the Yasen and the Juhász and all those who had trusted Her; against Khors the Winter Sun for loving the solari and giving them power over mankind; against the damp growing earth and the ash tree and all the others who had stood mute and refused to aid him in his time of need. He swore he would redeem his people from slavery and from death; he would make them eternal, and establish them in the place of the gods who had betrayed him.

And then he walked into the wilderness, and was not heard of by the Yasen again.

It is said he walked to the other side of death then, and learned its secrets. It is said he did not die, but passed alive into the world beneath the world, growing in power and wresting secrets from the ghosts. In the years that followed, many would attest to having seen him--a vengeful figure from out the dark, come to aid those forsaken by the gods with an army of ghosts at his back. Many still call on him in direst need, when dying of plague or overwhelmed by their enemies, and it is said that he answers still--but at a price.

And the price the dead demand for their aid is a terrible one indeed.


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Larkspur Plagueheart

March 2017



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