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[Oops I accidentally dragon cosmology.]

The Gift of the Moon and Sun, as told to Yarrow White-Eyes by the dragon Half-and-Again
On nights of the full moon, though the Blighted were tireless and dragons seldom slept, Half-and-Again insisted they stop their work on the eggs and take time out for stories. Sometimes she pestered Yarrow for them, and haltingly, in language plain and graceless, he told her: half-remembered stories from his own childhood or the childhoods of a hundred-hundred other Blighted, or memories of better times worn so soft and frayed around the edges that they might as well have happened to someone else.

More often the dragon herself held forth, producing stories like a merchant would pluck pearls from a velvet pouch and hold them up for her audience's inspection. At first Yarrow simply thought she was such a creature as loved to hear the sound of her own voice, until one of her many husbands had come visiting and she kept them up all the night listening to his stories, and she chortled over the fine additions to her collection when he was gone. It was the getting of stories that pleased Half-and-Again the most, though she took great delight in having a house-guest to display them to; it was simply she was a consummate hostess, and did not wish to discomfit her guest overmuch, shy and halt of speech as he was.

So it was on this night Half-and-Again led Yarrow to the garden outside her lair, and plumped herself down like a great cat with mane and ruff on end against the early autumn chill. She arranged her solari guest against one huge flank, solicitous as ever of his comfort (he could scarcely feel the wind and told her as much, but she insisted on making of her tail a windbreak anyway), before settling comfortably in on herself and beginning her story.

"Tonight," she said, "I am hopeful in our work, so it is auspicious to speak of beginnings. You are a Child of the Sun, and the Moon is full-gravid; thus I will speak of how your gods came to live in them.

"As you know, the Moon and the Sun were not always the homes of your Mother and Father." This Yarrow did not in fact know, but he knew better than try and stop Half-and-Again in the middle of a story; he more easily might have redirected a river in full spate with his bare hands. If she wished to wax eloquent on nonsense, when everyone knew the Sun and the Moon had watched over Urd from the beginning--well, it wasn't any stranger than her other stories. He made a noncommittal noise, closing his eyes and leaning back to bury himself in her fur.

She took no notice. "When Island was first formed out of the mud and the dust in the Vast Black Deep, our Celestial Parent kneaded it with His claws and breathed the sweet breath of His nostrils upon it, and at last when it was round and beautiful as a pearl, He folded Himself about it to brood it until life burst forth. The bright polished scale of His belly became the firmament in the day; His right great-eye roamed it as the Sun, while his lesser eyes were the stars that spangled the darkness of his midnight fur, and He rolled His left great-eye among them as the Moon. 'Why,' you might ask, 'would He let His eyes wander about so? Had He not so much control over His members as the least child?' Of course He did! But there was much to watch in those first days, as the first and smallest lives kindled in the seas and beneath the stones, creeping ever forth to bud and bloom and grow. He would not miss a moment of it, and so the light of His eyes shined ceaselessly, night and day, as He looked down upon what He had engendered.

"Life fought with life in that greatest, most sacred, most auspicious of battles, and the greatest and strongest of lives survived to glorify our Parent's handiwork. Soon the first child in His image walked the face of Island, then another, and another, until our five first parents--Mother and Mother, Father and Father and cherished Begetter--beheld each other and embraced at last. With them began the great work of Becoming, and their second-children multiplied and coupled and refined themselves until here we are today. We have made much of ourselves, but still have much yet to Become.

"But the great work is more suitable talk for spring, when our eggs are all safely gathered in and our second-children secured from the plague that dogs their heels. Tonight, we speak of your Moon and Sun and how they came to Island.

"It was long after our own first parents had embarked upon Becoming, and the numbers of their second-children waxed great to fill its great roundness, so that the light of our Parent's eyes did not cease to behold the progeny He had shaped, and it was good to Him. And yet, though He had much to watch on Island in those days, He kept his lesser eyes upon the Vast Black Deep--for the howls of the Hunters echoed through it even then, and He would not have them steal Island from Him, nor mar its face. One day, He saw afar off a brightness in the Deep that was at once both familiar and strange, like the spoor of distant kin long ago parted from the same first-child. The brightness wavered and struggled and drew nearer, and at last became two brightnesses in the shapes of a half-sexed Man of your people and his Wife. Though they were like no creature of Island, our Parent recognized them as distant siblings enjoined in the same Work that He was, and He welcomed them and wept to see them wounded. They had with them children of their own Begetting, and these our Parent marveled to see, for they were formed so differently from us--small, half-sexed, unchanging in their essence but wonderfully arrayed across all the forms and types life can take.

"'Welcome, Sister and Brother, nephews, nieces,' He said to them. 'Though a sad welcome it must be, for you have been driven far from your Begetting and your own Island. What has happened?'

"The Man, bright as our Parent's Eye and as golden, spoke: 'It is the wolves, dear brother, come out of the Deep in vaster numbers than any We have known. They overran Our world in the space of a breath; We gathered all that We could and brought them safely hence, and now I will return to do battle against them though I know Myself surely doomed.' And at this, his Wife, fair and silver as a mirror, wept; for even then she knew she would be witness to the death of her beloved in the defense of all they had made.

"Though He had been made singly, being a perfect union of all things within Himself, still our Celestial Parent knew the love of mate for mate and parent for child, and He wept to see this woman weep. 'Do not weep, o Woman,' He said to her, and to him: 'Do not go yet, o Man. Your children will have a place upon my Island, and they need Your guidance. When the Hunters come in their numbers, We three and all that We have Begotten may stand together against them, and will not die.' And so saying He plucked His great-eyes from His head, and made of them homes for the Man and Wife; and together, the Three reshaped a part of Island so their children might live safely, though you were a sort of life so different from our own.

"So moved were the Man and Wife by this great gift, that they promised their own children would ever be friends to our Parent's, and should the Hunters come with their gifts of plague and fear and poison, the Man would stand to our defense as he did to the defense of his children. And when the Hunters did come out of the Vast Black Deep, the Man laid down his life as he said he would to stop them, and they were stopped, and so the gift of the Moon and Sun were repaid a thousandfold."

Yarrow felt Half-and-Again tilt her head to regard him as she pronounced the last word of the story, and he imagined her great-eyes catching the light of the Moon and shining back as silver as her god's. The Blighted could not weep, but it was still some time before he could force words around the lump in his throat: "Is it true?"

The dragon laughed her high, tinkling woman's laugh, a sound too delicate for the house-sized creature it came from. "Of course it's true, dear guest. All of my stories are true; I tell you so every time." She ruffled out her wings, the folded feathers hissing over each other with a sound of distant waves. "Do you mean, is it fact? For I tell you it is not your Moon and Sun that stood always in our skies, and you, Sun-child, are not of a sort of life that could thrive here on its own. I do think that you and your gods came across the Deep, and that much of the story really did happen as told.

"But," she continued gently, as Yarrow swallowed hard and pressed the heels of his hands against his sightless eyes, "I do not know so. There are some who say you are our Creator's joke upon us, because we ask too many questions of life instead of getting on with the great work, and there are others who do not believe in Him or any gods at all and make up their own stories about stones in the sky carrying life across the Deep to land on Island's shores. I wonder what they will say when you tell them of the miracle you were part of." Half-and-Again seemed to relish the thought; she loved contentions as much as she loved stories. Her avarice for it wrung a weak, involuntary laugh from Yarrow, though his own feelings on the matter of the miracle were yet tender.

"But--," he began again, then found himself without words. The dragon waited politely while he sifted through his thoughts for them, struggling around his own emotions to form them into something coherent. "It isn't how we were told it. I didn't know--not everyone knows, the priests and the skalds say that this world was ours to begin with, and the ulven ruined all but the smallest part of it. That's why there's hardly anywhere to live outside the forests, and the vampir and the rusalka and the d..." The lump was back, and he couldn't complete the thought.

"And the dragons, should they exist at all, wish you naught but harm?" Half-and-Again's voice was gentle still, with no shade of offense. "Because we were not children of your gods, but beasts twisted by the plagues of the Hunters, when all the world fell beneath them?"

Yarrow nodded, mutely. Though it did not beat, his heart had never felt so leaden in his chest as now.

The dragon was silent for a long time, though he could hear and feel as she moved her wings and claws by tiny increments. 'Hunting down the prey of thought,' she had told him in the past; she was thinking deeply. At last, she said, "If it is not grossly rude, dear guest, I will venture to speak your thoughts: If your version of the story is not the truth," and she paused to be polite, should Yarrow wish to voice the thought himself.

"Then there's no offense before God to love a dragon as a sister," he completed, though the words hurt to speak. "I k, knew you couldn't be varulf yourself if ulven would hunt you, too, but I have been so wrong before--and we were pledged to be your friends..." He stammered into silence and put his hands over his face again.

Half-and-Again thought over this, too, then gave a great gusty huff of a breath and rearranged her wings noisily to cover the sounds her guest was making. At length, she announced, "The horizon is halfway to the Moon, and there was another story I wanted to tell, before we might retire to speak more about truth and fact. For when your Sun saw that our Parent had put out His own eyes to make them welcome, he spoke a prophecy of one of his own children-to-come, who would be blind by his own hand..."

corpseknight: (Default)
(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 )
corpseknight: (Default)
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.
corpseknight: (go away i'm dead)

The Fall and Rise of Catelon

 

            It was the last day of spring and the kingdom of Catelon lay dying.

            Avenant Guillory stepped through the gates of his father’s palace with deliberate care, pausing once to steady himself against sudden vertigo. A carrion stench hung in the air: the royal guard, rather than abandon their king, had succumbed to the plague at their posts and lay in huddled heaps of armor and pikestaffs. I knew these men, Avenant thought, dizzily; and now they were so much rotting meat. There was no room left in him for grief over the deaths, only a species of distant annoyance that they had died and rotted here and so limited him to shallow sips of air as he tried to catch his breath.

            Swallowing bile, he pushed himself away from the gate and stumbled on. The city’s cobbled streets were perilous in his condition; he moved with the halting gait of a man much older, catching his balance against anything that came to hand. Nothing else moved in the streets: Catelon’s citizens died quietly in their homes, the carters’ horses in their stalls, the feral dogs and alley cats in the gutter. No one was abroad to see their crown prince in disgrace, staggering down the street like a common drunk as he struggled toward the Sanctuary of the Crescent.

            Some vague hope beat in Avenant’s breast that he would at last be able to rest once he reached the sanctuary. Surely the brothers with their chemia and their magic had discovered something that would fight off the plague, or barring that—he stopped, wobbling, at a corner; spat blood, wiped his knuckles across his mouth—the Mother’s blessing would check the contagion as it had in the past, and if only enough of his people could be moved inside the sanctuary’s boundaries, their symptoms would vanish… He did not truly believe this would be the case, of course. Apothecaries, alchemists, and priests alike had been baffled by the virulence of the disease, far worse than spring’s usual sendings; and that had been before the brightest of them began to succumb without making any substantial progress.

No, Avenant could not believe there was any hope for him at the sanctuary, but he had to believe, or else resign himself to wasting away in the palace alongside his family. He had to fight it somehow, and if that fight was all in dragging himself the mile to the sanctuary, then that was what he would do now that he had fixed on his course. No matter that every stumble threatened to send him to his knees, that he was dizzy with fever, that the coughing only got worse and wetter as he exerted himself: he would fight until he died of it.

It took twice the time it would have taken him, healthy, to stroll to the sanctuary as he might have on the Mother’s holy days. His vision had narrowed, so blackened with exertion he didn’t realize his destination until he sagged against the wall of it, the crescents set into the stone digging into his shoulder. In his daze, he had missed the front of the sanctuary—which was just as well, as he doubted he could have managed the broad steps to the Mother’s Gate, and here was a perfectly serviceable side door. He swallowed hard, rather than spit again so close to the holy presence, and began groping his way along the wall to the door. It was locked.

“Open up!” The words came out like the gurgle of a dying beast. Avenant coughed and swallowed again, then beat his fist against the door with what little force he could muster.

No response came. Despair gripped him, then flashed into rage; he punched the door so hard his knuckles split and bled freely. “Open the damn door!”

Another coughing fit shook him, so loud and racking he nearly missed the sound of someone approaching the door from the other side. He caught himself with a hand on the doorframe as it swung open suddenly, leaving him reeling so that he nearly bowled into the brother who stood behind it. A brother who had the hubris to look disgustingly well fed and healthy, or at least when compared to the rest of the dying population; Avenant eyed the man with sudden distaste. “So you did find a cure,” he croaked. “And you’re keeping it to yourselves.”

Clearly he wasn’t the first dying man to make that accusation at the door of the sanctuary, for the brother’s immediate response was a look of fury as he tried to slam the door shut in Avenant’s face. Not to be denied, the prince thrust an arm in the way and nearly fell over again; the door pinned his arm with bruising force that he scarcely noticed. “You—“ he began, at the same moment the brother recognized his error:

“Sire!” The door swung open again. Avenant fell to one knee, barely saving himself from sprawling on the floor as the brother stepped back in shock. “My sincerest apologies, I didn’t recognize you—“

“My father,” and here, Avenant levered himself to his feet again, swaying and struggling for breath, but upright, “—my father is not dead yet. You will refer to me as your prince, and explain just what in the frozen hells you’re doing locked up in here.” He had apparently found the door into the refectory, for the room before him was long and lined with trestle tables. A fire burned at the far end. The air was uncomfortably hot.

“M-my prince,” the brother said, and gulped, face paling. There were traces of blood at the corners of his mouth, Avenant noted; so perhaps he was not faring so well after all. “—Please, your highness, come out of the door and sit; I hadn’t meant to be so hasty—that is, I didn’t recognize you; there have been so many who’ve come to the sanctuary with violent intent, I’d thought you were a looter or a cutthroat…”

Fumbling, the brother dragged a chair over and thrust it in Avenant’s direction like an offer of peace. “I don’t care what you thought,” the prince said with ill grace, and sat himself in the chair. There was no concealing the relief that washed through him at no longer being upright, though he struggled not to loll back in it as the brother bustled past to close the door. And lock it again. “Have you found a cure yet? Has the Mother done--said anything?”

The brother’s expression crumpled so rapidly Avenant was afraid he’d start crying, and the very thought of that was exasperating. Either the prince’s annoyance at the thought showed on his face or the brother had a core of steel beneath his doughy flesh, because he recovered without bursting into tears. “No, your highness. Apothecary Preux had made some progress with aqua vitae and the skins of oranges but he died at his bench—his notes are covered in blood, and I didn’t dare move him. He was the furthest along of all of them. I—“

Avenant lifted a hand to forestall further babble. “Fine. No progress. Where are the rest of the brothers? The patriarch? Has he—“ He pressed his fist against his mouth and coughed into it. Something in his chest tore like rotting parchment and he felt suddenly light-headed.

“Dead. He’s dead. They’re all dead, except for me.” Now the brother did dissolve into tears, weeping freely. “I begged the Mother to take me instead of the Holy Father, but he said it was his time, that She was calling him and—and the wolves were nearly upon us, that I should run and take word to the rest of flock, if anyone still lived. But where would I go, your highness? Is anyone still alive out there?”

The wolves were nearly upon us. Is anyone still alive out there? A sudden chill settled in Avenant’s chest. The brother stared at him, anxious and tear-stained, and he felt a sudden pity for the fat, frantic little fellow: this was likely the only subject of his kingdom who would make it out alive. The wolves are nearly upon us. This plague wasn’t another spring accident brought in by a careless smuggler; it was a weapon thrust into Catelon’s heart by an old enemy. There wasn’t any hope left; they were all of them already dead, even those with the misfortune of still drawing breath.

All that remained was the disposal of the ruins. Avenant shook his head once, as if disbelieving, and cleared his throat. An idea had begun to form, but it would require the brother not panicking. He tried to soften his voice: “What’s your name, brother?”

“C—Cassius, your highness. Is there really nothing we can do?”

Weary annoyance swelled; Avenant fought to banish it as he tugged a signet ring—far too easily—off his finger. “There is something you can do,” he said, slowly, and offered the ring. “But you must leave now, and go as quickly as you can.”

Cassius took the ring, ginger and wide-eyed, and clutched it to his chest. “What, your highness?”

“Leave on the west road. Now. Take whatever you need from the garrison—show them the signet, if anyone’s still alive.” Avenant sunk back in the chair, fighting sudden weariness and disorientation. It was becoming increasingly hard to string his thoughts together in sensible order. “My father sent word to the solari. They’ll be coming. You need to meet them—tell them what happened. What the patriarch told you. The wolves—the ulven will come for them next.” Them and everything else living on the face of the world, but he didn’t have time—or breath—to explain the magnitude of the threat.

Incomprehension on Cassius’s face, then horror as understanding dawned. “The ulven did this? Y, your highness, I can’t—“

“You can. You will. Go.” Gathering the rags of his strength, Avenant heaved himself up out of the chair, overbalancing and catching himself on the neighboring trestle. “Go, Cassius. Take a torch with you.”

The brother looked between his prince and the door in an agony of confusion. “A torch, your highness?”

“Fire everything you find. We’re as good as dead anyway. Let the city be our pyre.” He felt the corners of his mouth turn up in a rictus grin; there was no humor in the situation but he had nothing left in him but the desire to laugh, or sob. “And pray the Mother accepts our souls. Go!”

 

Smoke hung like a pall over the city when Avenant finally dragged himself from the sanctuary’s refectory. He had done his own part to set the city to torch, scattering coals from refectory’s fireplace as far as his flagging strength would let him and begging the Mother’s forgiveness as he did so. He didn’t know how far the fires would spread, or if every corpse in the city would burn—but it would be a suitable warning to the solari if Cassius was unable to take word to them. Sick as he was, it was unlikely the fat little brother would make it far beyond the garrison before succumbing, but Avenant had done what he could.

There was little reason for the prince to return to the palace. He could have as easily lain down in the shadow of the sanctuary and let fever and fire take him, but whatever had made him fight this far wasn’t about to give up. Leaning, staggering from wall to wall, taking whatever he could for support, he stumbled through streets turned nightmarish with the onset of twilight. Faces peered at him from out the house windows he passed; corpse-white faces, eyes white and mouths slack with the shock of death. He didn’t know if they were real.

The pain in his chest had gotten worse, become a searing agony. He couldn’t get enough air, no matter how he gulped at it. Every gasping breath was wet and tasted of blood. He heard sobs and screams somewhere up ahead of him; the sounds retreated into the distance as he approached, as if whatever—whoever—despaired fled him. Shadows congregated in the alleys in a sick parody of the city’s missing life. Near the palace now, the faces in the windows seemed to follow him as reeled past, their eyes accusing pits. It was a king’s duty to protect his people; his father had surely succumbed now, and Avenant was Catelon’s king, unable to protect them at the last. I’m sorry, he found himself mouthing to each corpse he passed. I did all I could and still failed. I’m sorry.

A loose cobble caught at his foot, tripping him. He pitched forward, went down hard on one knee, then crumpled to a fetal curl as coughing wracked him. Tried to rise and couldn’t, rolled onto his side to gag and spit—more than blood, hot and fetid. This is it, then.

The moon had risen above the smoke and Avenant rolled on his back to see it. A sudden vast sense of injustice rose in him, bitter as bile, gagging as blood. “Do something,” he spat at the moon. Mother of Us All, do something. Don’t let it end like this.

And he died, the moon shining down into his unseeing eyes.

 

Death delivered Catelon’s crown prince to darkness. It was a darkness with weight, with taste, with scent, all-enfolding. Something—SomeOne—waited on the other side of it, bright as the moon, and he reached for Her unthinking. He had no body, no life, no name any longer, just a desire to go to that waiting Presence.

Prince Avenant, the darkness said, shocking him back to himself—and a recollection of his fury at dying. Prince Avenant, do you hear me?

“Yes,” he said without a voice—then shut his mouth, suddenly afraid the darkness would climb through it down his throat. Yes. The feeling of desire, of unstoppable motion toward the Presence ebbed; he hung unsupported in the black.

Good. I hear you. Cling to your fury. Don’t let go. I can help you, if you don’t let go. Your kingdom does not have to die.

The hope he’d lost burned bright of a sudden, bright as his rage. Who are you?

A friend. An ancestor. Your people are my people. Something else drew close to him, neither as bright nor as incomprehensible as the Presence. I would help you. Will you let me?

He hardly had to consider it. Yes!

The new presence seemed to laugh, and asked: Will you let me in?

            Didn’t I already agree? Yes! The distinction a single word might have made was lost on him, in his desperation to do something, to save his people.

            Very well. By your leave— And the new presence grew, and grew, engulfing Avenant before he had a chance to scream or struggle.

 

            Light—the moon’s light—and pain returned together. Avenant had a moment to blink and draw a breath before the thing that had found him in death flooded into his body after him like a wave of black tar. It crowded into his mind with irresistible force, prying up his wavering grip on himself as if he were a child clinging desperately to a toy. He fought to cry out, to move an arm, raise a finger, and it shoved him into a corner of his own consciousness. Sensation vanished, and with it pain, leaving him with sight and sound strangely attenuated, filtered through the invader’s perceptions.

Mine, the thing crowed. Mine, at last! Avenant could feel as it took rapid stock of his mind, tearing through his thoughts with unkind hands and examining each of them in voyeuristic detail. Memories flashed past his mind’s eye—his childhood, his parents, his first horse, engagement to Elissa, Tancrede drilling him in the sword—as it held them up and then took them for itself. It—he—the thing left echoes of himself behind in his haste and Avenant snatched at them, dazed and adrift. Another childhood a thousand years ago; a different horse, ugly and ill-formed; a different beloved, a wife, a child, another name—A name out of myth.

Koschei. Koschei the Deathless. A ghost had found Avenant in death, dragged him back into life—a ghost and a myth. Koschei wasn’t real—he was a story to frighten children—he couldn’t be real—!

The presence—Koschei—turned his attention from his ransack of Avenant’s memories, his regard intent and ice-cold. And amused. So you recognize me. Your people remembered. I’m flattered.

Let me go! Avenant retorted, furious and sick. Get out of my head!

Let you go where? Back into death? You’re too useful for that. Besides, I did promise to save your kingdom.

Unwilled, Avenant’s body pushed itself upright in the street. It—Koschei—lifted one of his/their hands, giving it a cursory examination. Good bones. Sickness has made you frail. We’ll fix that. But first, my promise. Virulent amusement lurked behind the thought, and Avenant caught the barest shape of Koschei’s intention in it: he could bring more spirits back from death with him. He could raise the dead.

He would raise the dead.

Necromancer! Penned into a corner of his own mind, helpless to act, Avenant shrieked his outrage and fear. Don’t! Mother of Us All, don’t—!

“You’re in no position to tell me what to do,” Koschei said, and stretched Avenant’s face into a hideous smile. “This is what you asked for, besides.”

He rose smoothly, the body he wore like a suit of clothes giving no indication it had been dying of plague mere minutes before. He strode the last hundred yards to the palace gates, unhurried, examining the city with a critical eye. “Your people were foolish to return here, young prince,” he said, conversationally. “The Godfall Wastes have been the death of greater men, and you thought you could live beside them? Hubris.”

Avenant clawed ineffectually at Koschei’s presence, unable to get a hold or budge it. Anger welled at the ghost’s slights, and he threw that into his efforts—to no use. We survived, he spat. For centuries, where no one else would. We did.

“Until you grew significant enough for the ulven to notice, yes. But for their own hubris, they would have taken the devil-elves down with you—slavers deserve no less.” Koschei stopped before the gates, turning his attention to the corpses of the guards Avenant had so lately passed. Bending, he laid a hand on one’s head and—reached—into death, an effort Avenant felt like a stretching of muscles he hadn’t been aware of. The guard’s spirit lay close beneath the surface of the world, shackled to its body by the agony of death. And he will return more eagerly for it, Koschei purred. The dead are often desperate. We can use that. Even as he spoke, he hooked the spirit with his will, dragging it back—and the ravaged body beneath his hand shuddered and gasped and lived once more.

No, not lived. After that first desperate gasp the guard quit breathing, but still pulled himself to his feet, picking up his pike as he did so. The other guard responded similarly as Koschei raised him from death. “My prince—you live,” this one said, voice clotted, ragged with the cough that had killed him.

“Your king,” Koschei said gently, with Avenant’s voice, composing Avenant’s face in a mask of sorrow. “My father has died of his illness.” A frisson of shock ran through Avenant as he felt the truth of this; King Galien’s spirit had fled past Koschei into death not long before. Father, he grieved soundlessly, and felt Koschei’s black humor.

The guards murmured sympathy, pressing fists to their hearts. “What must we do now, sire?”

“Open the gates and remain at your posts. There are others I must see to. I will return soon.”

Koschei stepped through the gates as they were opened, nodding once to the reverent guards as he did. Avenant shook himself from his numbness as he realized the necromancer was headed to the palace itself, horror chilling him once more. You wouldn’t—you won’t, don’t you dare visit this abomination on my family!

Oh, have no fear, young prince. I quite like our being king. I have no intention of raising direct competition. Koschei smiled fit to split his face, appallingly pleased with himself. But for now, I think it’s time you slept off the nasty shock you’ve had. I’ll need you in good condition later.

The necromancer’s will, vast and cold, wrapped around Avenant again and thrust him down once more into darkness and nonbeing.

 

Now alone once more in his own—stolen—head, Koschei permitted his manic smile to lapse into a grimace of irritation. The boy was strong-willed—a useful trait, to be sure, but it would be annoyingly difficult to break him into something usable. If his hold on the prince’s body hadn’t required the host spirit to remain present, he would have simply evicted the boy into death—but there was little use in wishing for what wasn’t so.  He had more important tasks at hand, the raising of an army among them.

Freed of distraction, he strolled through the palace gardens. A profusion of well-trimmed hedges and flowers exotic to these climes lined the paths; he sneered at them. The prince’s people had not only been fools, they’d been soft, spoiled in their security. A disgusting length for his descendants to have fallen; it mitigated any guilt he might have felt at using them. They would be fine soldiers as any in death, and lose interest in their pretensions beside.

A suitable clearing in the gardens presented itself, set with an ornately carved bench that Koschei disdained in favor of sitting on the ground. Letting his spirit be still, he reached deep beneath the surface of the world; the spirits of Catelon’s citizens milled there in death, confused and bereft. Few of them had escaped to Her clutches; it would take a very long time for any of them to achieve the peace required, which served Koschei well. If She wouldn’t save these people, as She hadn’t saved his, She didn’t deserve them.

He touched the nearest spirits with his will, turning them back toward life and their bodies. The intangible chains binding them to Her will snapped, freeing the energy of their deaths anew; Koschei took it into himself, using it to reach further and bring more of them back into life. It worked exactly as he had imagined; raising the whole of the city was an effort of hours, but scarcely wearied him. The difficult part would be binding them all to his will, and that hardly a trial: they had died terribly, and were desperate for comfort and direction. None of them resisted when he reached into their souls and minds, setting his words there: I am your king. I am your king, and each of you owes me his soul.

Tell us what to do, o king, they clamored to him—and Koschei smiled. He had plans to make yet, but there was one task they might be set to while he laid them.

There is a man on the western road. He is varulf, dressed in the clothes of a brother of the sanctuary. He has stolen our royal signet and brought plague down on the kingdom. Find him and kill him.

He felt their acknowledgment, their eagerness for the hunt, and he let them go. Felt them surge away from him like a pack of hounds on the hunt, slavering for Cassius’ blood. It was only a pity that Avenant wasn’t conscious to see his plan to warn the devil-elves fail.

 Koschei would be sure to tell him when he awoke.

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Larkspur Plagueheart

March 2017

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