1c Leaf

The ancient and venerable sage Tsiplo bowed his head to bring him closer to what he held delicately in his hand: a small three-symmetry leaf. Vibrant living green, rough rounded edges, a fine fur on the underside, a texture much like skin on the surface, the whole thing spanning little more than the width of his finger, the stalk held between his fore finger and middle finger, curling down to branches leading to identical leaves, down to the rich soil, rooted into and off the land.

His eyesight was on the decline, and he had to whisper a few words to bring the leaf into tight focus. It was not that he was overlaying the plant with his own projection, which was only so good as to recall his mind’s eye version of the plant — hardly useful if his intention was to see the condition of this particular leaf and plant right here and now. He had worked out a way of transposing his sensory input by imagining an image further away, and then bringing his mind-focus to his secondary attention. He wasn’t correctly looking at the leaf itself, but was observing it obliquely. Not ideal, but the method allowed him to sense this leaf right here and now in his hands, albiet with a slight diminishing of chroma.

Colour was so important, however. Compensating for the deterioration that accompanied age was a pain, literally. Yes, many spiritual gifts as a result, patience, temperance, perseverance, pruning of priorities, and enough failures to flesh out a world of what could be, granting an open-mindedness of which he was particularly appreciative. Loosely held convictions, a plasticity of mind that was almost entirely unbounded, freed from the articulated restrictions of physical limits and laws. A union, let’s say, of mind. Such that this little leaf he held in his hands, was part of this little plant, held within the soil, which also held these other herbed plants, roots knitting with each others, the fungus and molds, the roots of the nearby oak whose shadow he was under. Rightly speaking, it was he who was held. Rightly speaking, there was a complicity in the flowers and bees, and this garden and himself, the innumerable invisible workings of cells — yes he knew about cells — around him, of which he was composed, and more importantly the network of processes enabling the flows of water, sugars, light, and life energies. An undifferentiated union, but for the thinnest of distinctions for which he retained a sense of self, seldom used. Yes, he would get lost on numerous occasions, forgetting to feed himself, sleep, and urination and defecation sometimes came as a surprise to him. A side-effect he was not overly concerned about for he lived mostly outdoors, secluded in the forest. As nothing compared to the strict exercises he had imposed upon himself in his youth, but that’s of another time and place, to draw attention for another purpose.

This leaf in his hands, delicate, precise, exact in its own way. The solid thing he could hold, the leaf. It was like a little hand, a hand of this child, or a baby’s. And as everyone knows, holding a baby’s hand is not a passive thing even when asleep, it tightens and relaxes, and when awake perpetually active. Alive with something more than the solidity of it. Alive with curiosity, exploration, within itself as a hand touching and feeling, but as part of something larger, with its higher level volition and intention. Of course, this plant didn’t have the same sentience as a human, not even a baby’s, but a mind-enclosed by its physical boundaries existed, of a form. With that thin boundary of mind, so it colluded more closely with the bees for pollination, its growth in the soil right here for its uptake of sunlight from above and water from below, along side other such thinly-minded creatures. Like individual fingers of a hand, perhaps, or cells in skin?

Whatever the physical boundaries of this leaf, of this plant, there was something of overlapping unities, the mathematics of which the old man had come to terms with long ago. And drawing attention to this small thing, here, in his mind’s eye, was not for the benefit of the leaf, nor the plant. Not directly, as such. But, as thinly minded as this leaf and plant were, for the care of its own continued growth, so there was an overlapping of mind with the old man, again with the care of its own continued growth. An expansion of mind, perhaps, though the old man was duly wary of that.

He let go the plant, which sprung out of his hand to regain its natural upright nature, leaf to the sky, gently lifted by the wind, tickled sometimes. A joyful plant. Certainly sweet tasting, a faint citrus flavour to it. Good for nails, hair and joints. But it was not as… vibrant… as it was. There was definitely a malaise to the growth of the plants, not just this one. The more delicate ones, perhaps the most sensitive, were showing it more. Smaller, weaker, one generation following the next. For years now. And this one, at this time of year, should have been a few fingers longer, with more branches sprouting from the bulb. Not this year. It was getting close to a threshold, where it would become visible in the richer cultivated grasses. Lower crop yields perhaps as soon as next year. What he had known was coming for years, was now immanent. Not a shadow, but a sickness. A fever was soon to break, a fever they may not survive.

He sighed as he raised himself, looked up at the sky, a thin dusting of white clouds, distant, so distant. It was going to take a while, beyond the years he knew he had left in him. The leaves on the oak tree would dry, turn brown, fall, and not grow again.

Of course, they would come. Perhaps only a few, perhaps many. He would be ready for them. Not today. Not here and now. He was too… demanding… Not him, per se. The task before us was too demanding. He’d have to break it to them a little at a time. Set them intermediary tasks which they could comprehend, quests which would prove their conviction while equip them with the skills to… not achieve, but at least grow together. It was the last journey he might take, and despite his passing, there may be others to see it through, to arrive at the destination he could not see, not with all the garsu crystal at his disposal, not even the heartstone. The thought passed as quickly as it came.

It was not quantity, that was for sure. Quality. A quality of mind, thin-minded like the leaf, like the hand of a baby. The social equivalent of this network of roots beneath his feet, whatever the delights were above ground. At this very moment, or correctly speaking, preceding it. Following the follower…

So the old and venerable sage Tsiplo smiled to himself, for we are each but leaves, and there was some comfort in knowing this.

1b Awake

He felt his breath come back to him. His own lungs, his body. He hardly had to move at all, the sleek coolness of silk on the back of his hand, around his foot. He detected the delicate odour of vanilla in the air, the warmth of it. He lay there, eyes closed, breathing his senses back into his own body, luxuriating in his own bed, his mind’s eyes taking in his own bed room, a room with one bed in it, the luxury!

He opened his eyes, blinked, closed them again. He smiled, then opened them again, breathing deeply. He rolled his head to one side, his cheek against the smooth pillow, dark blue the colour of his dreams, closing his eyes again to feel the pillow soft with down. Each sensation coming to him new, a morning of first-times. The light from the open window, a slight breeze billowing the diaphanous curtain pale yellow in the sunshine. He felt impelled to rise, and as he did so took a bowl of water from hands outstretched. He sipped, delighting in the wonder of cool liquid in his mouth, played with it around his tongue, the curious way it slipped down his throat, absentmindedly returning the bowl to the air, effortlessly taken from his grasp by unseen hands. He rose to his feet, wiggled his toes — his own toes! — and stepped cautiously to the floor-to-ceiling opening and on to the balcony, his flowing pastel green kaftan rippling behind him. He opened his arms to take in the vast pale blue sky, the widest sky he had experienced in his life, again, his face upturned and warmed by the joy of sunshine. Miraculous. Born again, he thought. He savoured it, then felt some phlegm rise in his longs, and he cleared his throat, and now became aware for the need to urinate, then a general ache of his body — less ache, more the sheer weight of his own body. As if he was carrying this thing. He tightened his shoulders, then dropped them. Brought his hands to his face, rubbed his eyes, the strange simultaneous sensation of his eyes and face from the inside, and the continuous feedback from his fingers, palms of his hands, back of his knuckles as he rubbed his face.

“More realism,” he mouthed into the air.

“Yes, my Prince,” came the soft reply from behind.

He took a cursory survey of the city sprawled beneath his balcony, below the citadel walls, the haphazard arrangement of rooftops extending to the city walls, became aware of its distant susurration of morning hubbub like a dog sleeping, a mangy dog by contrast with the plains beyond the walls extending to the horizon, a hazy savanna of dry grasslands but for the divine clump of boab magnificent even at this distance, a distant patch of shimmering brown indicating a herd of gipo, and the raised highway pointing west, impossibly straight, the ultimate mark of mankind upon the world, simultaneously connecting cities and dividing land. His eyes roved over the vista. He was bored of it already.

“I want more detail, Ubarakhan.”

“I understand, Prince Ubarak” came the soft reply, formally.

“You understand, but can you deliver?” He turned around to the man behind him and fixed him with a stare. Ubarakhan was not a short man, but against the height of his lord and in the palacial surroundings of his royal bed chamber and its tailored furniture, he appeared diminutive, as did the four servants who silently and invisibly carried out their lord’s bidding; one holding out the bowl of water, his eyes ever lowered, another repairing the bed linen, another awaiting his lord by the washrim; the fourth studiously attending some task at a table covered in phials, jewelry, parchment scrolls, and intricately made wooden boxes. This last servant wore grey smock unlike the pale linen of the others, as did Ubarakhan who wore a plain grey robe, loose fitting to the floor, the rough silk woven to bunch alternately concave and convex at the resolution of a coriander seed producing a dimpled texture, effecting an overal rustic look. It was the only extravagance that the Meherim permitted, a concession demanded by Ubarak — his Meherim was not to be seen in court wearing plain sackcloth even if that was standard Meherim apparel before nobility. Nobody had remarked on his stylistic upgrade, yet. Ubarak smiled to himself; such open rebellion in the house of his father, and an uncharacterisitic concession by the meherim.

“If you may permit me, my prince,” asked the Meherim, lowering his shaved head by way of a bow.

The prince signed accord, and engaged Ubarakhan while he was assisted in his bodily ablutions.

“In order to effect the quality your station deserves, my Prince, care must be taken not to introduce unnecessary architecture.” Ubarakhan noted the Prince’s raising of his eyebrow. “Such as the coin you passed on to the boy. It is an added burden to our burax contingent to maintain that coin. Such resources might be better allocated for the discrepancies you unfortunately experienced, the lack of response by insects for example.”

The Prince smiled. That wasn’t a detail he had noticed. Or rather, he hadn’t noticed the discrepancy. It was good to keep the meherim on their toes. They were in a race, and his Meherim knew it. It was mutually advantageous to push the boundaries of what was possible. Far more was at stake than the detail of a mere rax adventure.

“The issues you experience may be resolved in the standard way by increasing our burax contingent, however a more economical method is within our grasp.” The Prince’s attention piqued, and the Meherim breathed in a deep breath, stretching out the moment of their mutual attention. “There is a shipment of stable che-garsu making its way to the capital. I believe I have the resources to reverse-synthesise our own.”

The Prince noted the swaying grey sackcloth pause in its movement at the table, the servant was listening. This was new even to him, he thought. Although Ubarakhan vouched for this Meherim underling, his Aduherim, it might be wise to ply him with some slight luxury, scented soap or softer bedding or finer food, or if they were fortune, initiate ronig addiction — just enough to hook him, certainly not to impair him, for however much Ubarakhan was indispensable to his ambitions, it was a role and contingency plans were a necessity. He considered the secretively attentive aduherim’s competencies as a substitute. Ubarakhan himself would approve of his prescience.

“Make that a priority,” the Prince said flatly. “Although the visuals are passable, it is like the rest of me is dead. I want to feel it. All of it.”

“Che-garsu will actualise full sensory feedback, my Prince. With it in effect, we will be able to redirect perhaps ninety percent of our burax to solidifying ambient mindmass. Your rax will be unshakably convincing. And your adoption, indeed immersion, of the Twilight culture is… exemplary.”

The Meherim spoke with obvious pride in his work, which blended naturally to an almost familial pathos with the Prince. Ubarak forgave the indiscretion, and was rather touched by it. To have this level of companionship with his own Meherim was unusual, as stark contrast with how his friends spoke of theirs. They saw their Meherim as just another kind of servant, marginally better than a teacher. But they were oh so much more.

“My father is set in his ways, Ubarakhan. All honours to him, but My Lord is either not aware of, or does not care for, the Twilighters and the effect that ver-garsu will have on them. I have witnessed the movement of garsu crystals into the Reaches. It reminds me of my childhood, the delight the peasants take in mere sang and xan lightshows. They are children unaware of what is to come. They have no inkling what is going on here in the heartlands. The transformation that will occur in the Reaches will have a profound effect not just on us, but on the geopolitics of the entire Empire.”

It was good that the Prince could confide in Ubarakhan. Although a few of his friends were also exploring rax in the Reaches, most were centre-facing, spending most of their rax-time participating in the wondrous worlds created by Pharohim and his legion of burax, incredible as they were. None of his friends shared his interest in immersing himself in the culture of the twilighters, living their lives, day to day. It required a self-discipline, a commitment to execution which he knew was rare among his rich friends. They were keen to import the fantastic, a necessity for quick stimulation, but his target was realism which meant slow and patient. There were rewards ahead if he was right, rewards that might surprise even what the Pharohim’s ancestors had achieved at the advent of the Urb Empire itself. Garsu wasn’t a toy, a fancy, and rax was certainly under-utilised as Pharohim’s playground. It was rare to find a Meherim who aligned to his vision, who was not afraid of thinking outwith the confines of his religious order, just as he was thinking beyond the luxuries and responsibilities of being a Royal Prince of Urb.

“I do find that the change of day to night and back again… challenging,” admitted Ubarak.

Ubarakhan nodded sympathetically, then angled his head. “That, we can not change. It is the source of their anxiety, deeply rooted in their physiology and psychology. It is a desperate plight they suffer from. And simultaneously a source of their resilience and peculiar genius. It is a necessary burden to bear if my Prince is to penetrate the veil of our future.” 

“Is it impossible that we devote some of the liberated resources to bringing a touch more spice to the experience? The Forest Guardian, for instance…?”

His Meherim cocked his head and what passed as a smile teased at the corners of his mouth. “Certainly, that would be one use for our surplus burax, my Prince. Such adornments will inevitably follow on as other royal houses turn their attentions outwards. They will no doubt bring with them the short-term fancies they have accustomed themselves to here in the heartlands. You are aware of this tendency, however — need I remind my Prince of our goal?”

“No, my trusted Meherim, you needn’t,” remarked Prince. “I remain your faithful student.” It was a joke between them. It was absurd for a member of a royal family to study under the Meherim. Their dark arts of the mind, their reflexive mathematics required arduous and lengthy training, and besides the Prince knew it was covetously protected by the order itself. It was not his place to learn from the Meherim, nevertheless learn he did, for his future path was intricately interwoven with the objectives that the Meherim set themselves, with the awakening of the twilighters, and ultimately the latent power the garsu crystal unlocked.

“In which case, my Prince, may I draw your attention to a minor detail which will prolong your adventures with the twilighters? And it is this: do not feed them. Between towns and villages, you have fallen into the habit of assisting your band with hunting, providing rabbits, pheasants and the like.”

The Prince was being patted dry, he waved his servants away and stood imperiously in the centre of his room. “You want me to stop hunting?”

“The past-time might be agreeable to you and indeed bonding with your group, however the game you provide to your fellows — however delicious our burax make it — they are not nutritious beyond the satisfaction of feeling well-fed. Over time, their bodies will tire, your companions will become weak.”  

“Then make my foods distasteful. Wean them off it. As far as I have come to understand the Twilighters, they do love banter. They will no doubt hold it against me, turning my unpalatable meals into the butt of their jokes. One of their numerous charming mannerisms.”

Ubarakhan bowed his head in acknowledgement and stepped back as the Prince waved him away. Ubarak turned and faced his servant squarely. The servant’s eyes remained averted as they faced one another. Ubarakhan’s servant, his Aduherim, walked to their side and lifted his hands, his left hand holding his right wrist, and his right hand lifting up a sang-garsu crystal between the prince and the attending servant. The prince performed the mental exercise and a faint red aura surrounded the crystal. He defocused his eyes and focused his attention on the process of the crystal. The effect was second nature to him, and his vision immediately sheared as if he was watching a reflection in a pool, only he was now looking back at himself through the eyes of his servant. The Aduherim lowered the colourless sang-crystal and the Prince beheld himself naked before him. At least a head taller than the servants, finely defined muscled body, lithe and youthful. Although he resented the time he devoted to bodily training, his father had made it a condition for his bursary, and he could not manifest his rax exploration in the Reaches without his household of thirty or so servants. He observed the fine features of his face, strong jawline inherited from his father, a feminine upturn to his eyes from his mother’s line. Pure Solozo blood of the royal house of Toloese. The servant’s hand reached out to touch the skin of his shoulder, lightly. The Prince wondered what this mirror-experience would be like with chegarsu. Definitely a priority.

1a Coach House

Hungry, emaciated, delirious, the lone man waded across the river into the small village and the smouldering ruins of The Coach House. He felt a slap across his face and a charcoal smeared giant stood before him. He fell to his knees and wrapped his arms around their legs. “All gone,” he sobbed. “The gold… My friends… gone….” He was pushed back while several female villagers began to crowd around. “It’s Matrich,” called a boy. “One of the freebooters passed here weeks ago. The one with the barbaroi?”

Several villagers stared at the boy blank-faced. “You have a good memory, Dlinch,” nodded one of them, who then knelt down and placed his hand gently on Matrich’s shoulder. Matrich scrabbled away from the touch, as if surprised. He glared up at them. They were staring down at him like he was a trapped animal, like a bird which had accidentally flown into a room. “We must go back…” he murmured and raised himself to his knees once more. “We must go back!” he implored pointing west. “There’s gold, a great pile of it! We must go back!” The villagers looked at one another.

“What happened to Surd? Darcia? The barbaroi Iklentil?” asked the boy, Dlinch.

Matrich stared wildly as if something terrible stood before him, then garbled something unintelligibly. Seeing nobody respond, he scrabbled to his feet and grabbed Dlinch, then seeing Dlinch was a boy, he grabbed a nearby villager and shook them. “We must go back!” The black-smeared blacksmith yanked him back and Matrich fumbled for his sword, but it was gone. He spun around, confused and fell. The crowd took a step back warily. “Look out,” one warned. Matrich found his knife tucked in his belt — was that dried blood around the hilt? He became aware of his hands and arms black with soot and white with ash, he looked down at his own body covered in dirt, torn, ragged, his wet breeches in tatters, he wore only one shoe. Someone laughed. Alarmed, Matrich jerked the dagger before him, the crowd dispersing further. “We must go back. Can’t you see, there’s nothing left for you here!” cried Machus pointing at the inn. Dlinch glanced over his shoulder at the Coach House, the other stone buildings around the square. They were the same as they ever were.

“There’s blood on his blade if I am not mistaken,” said the blacksmith ominously. “He’s dangerous.” Several men arrived from the fields, and headed by the blacksmith, they herded him to the outskirts of the village. Against his desparate protests, they told him he was not welcome and if he came back they would kill him. The blacksmith removed an old bell from the Guardhouse and hung it from the corner of his shack. They were to gather if the madman Matrich returned, or for any other threat. For a few days, the villagers went about their business a little more nervously, until its retelling over warm beer made it less about the young man’s destress and more of the blacksmith’s courage.

Summer was waning, autumn beginning its long slow descent to winter. Nobody else came from the west way, only dry leaves on a cold wind. Nobody knew what happened to Matrich. He was never seen again in those parts. Perhaps he had died from starvation, or his ravings had attracted wolves or a bear? Or perhaps he had regained his senses and gone east, returned to Tapton or Bizapul or his home back in Urb? He was certainly not their concern, there was more to worry about. Talk in the town turned to darker days, darker thoughts, and what was rising in the west.

“Join us.”

The old man’s eyes shone with an ageless fierceness. His tangled grey eyebrows, unkempt grey-white-yellow beard, bald head creased parchment-like and blotched with sunspots; a thick doublet of cured leather, much marked with cuts and permanent stains, over ring-laced leather shirt and worn trousers; and ever at his side a double-edged axe, the handle propped against the table upon which the group’s tankards lay, the axe-edge glinting sharply in the firelight.

“We’re seeking a grey finger of stone encircled by a lake of green,” said the old man. “Help us find it.”

A motley crew of self-serving adventurers, plunderers, mercenaries. Freebooters. They had rolled in earlier that day. Four of them, on foot. The old man, behind him a man literally armed to the hilt with assorted armour from the Imperial and Royal Guard, a short haired woman wrapped in a leather travel cape, and following them, at least a head taller, a warrior as big as a bear, a Rone-blood barbaroi by the looks of him. Apart from the considerable pack on his broad back, the barbaroi looked as if he was walking into an arena at Tarabiz wearing little but sandals and a mitra skirt of slatted leather strips, arms as broad as a grown man’s legs, ritually and combat scarred, black clan tattoos visible beneath his pack strap, shaved head but for a ponytail, thick angled beard down to his collar bones, heavy forehead and fearsome kohl painted eyes.

Dlinch had roomed them and carried their provisions from the chandler’s, and had taken over his sister’s role throughout the evening, waiting on them as they got progressively drunker, louder and carefree with their banter. The Coach House had never seen such a band pass through the place. Dlinch has dreamed of adventure, of course. Every maverick that passed through the village he had pestered, and some would regale him and his family, and the few locals who favoured the House beer over their own, with stories of adventures further west. The last, a gentleman warrior by the name of Tsariq, whom Dlinch had pleaded to take him as an assistant, help with camp stuff, collecting wood and fire-making, hunting and foraging and cooking, in exchange for learning how to fight with a sword. Too dangerous, said the man-of-arms, the Far Reach was no place to take a child. Learn your sword craft, then set off on your own when you have come of age.

Sure, thought Dlinch, and where would he learn sword craft out here in Hope Valley, a week out of Double Tapton, nearly a month from Bizapul? The only people in the vicinity were woodfolk. Their greatest opponents were standing trees, and their greatest knife work was slicing cooked meat from a spit. Preter, the local drunk handiman and brewer was reportedly a military man once, but after a lifetime of drinking the old codger had forgotten what a sword looked like, most likely. Dlinch had practiced his own skills with what he had as much as possible, throwing a knife at a corner-post around the back, splintering it so badly that his mother had clouted him only yesterday. He was also proud of the fact he could walk around silently when he wanted, creeping up on the chickens and scaring them, and his sister, even over dry straw strewn floors.

But none of this mattered because these four hadn’t asked him one question, hadn’t noticed he was alive except to fetch more drink from the barrel. On this last round, Dlinch had thumped the side of the huge barrel which stood in the corner of the common room and it resounded hollow. It was a legacy from the old days when the Coach House had to cater for several score men at a time, tomorrow he’d have to help Preter empty a small keg or two into it. As he filled the tankards, a thought wormed its way into his consciousness: perhaps this party of freebooters might not have the coin to pay for their beer, or lodgings? He didn’t like the thought, it was like a white maggot-thought. He was brought up to trust people, he had no cause to think otherwise. However, this group seemed a little too rowdy. They weren’t entertaining his family, and the locals who had gathered on hearing they had arrived had got fed up with their raucous baffoonery and had left earlier than usual. No stories, no magic, just endless bickering and wisecracking between themselves even when Abery who played the gita better than father played… and this maggot-thought.

“Join us,” the old man had said.

Dlinch found himself back before their table, drinks in hand, when the old man had shot off his request. Instead of responding, Dlinch’s mind had backtracked for a reason why he had been asked. Had the old man noticed his mistrust? His mind hiccuped and was now caught by a lazy smile on the young woman’s face, her head bowed on the crook of her arm as if sleeping though her eyes were open and awaiting Dlinch’s response, a half-slurred smile caught in her angular face, mouthing a word over her hand flattened on the table, on her finger a ring with a single small gemstone stud. The phrase returned to him like a fine thread, a grey finger of stone encircled by a lake of green, and his imagination began to unspool.

But just as he began, the old man broke the spell. “Come, boy. I’ve noticed your eyes haven’t left us all night,” the old man nodded and spoke with the resonance of long live-in truth. “I can tell you were caught. You are one of us. A searcher.” The man-at-arms and barbaroi had grown quiet now, and for the first time since arriving they attended to him, albeit with barely more awareness than they would a table or pebble. Dlinch’s eyes glanced at each rapidly, like a mouse caught out in the open all of a sudden. He had caught each of their names — Surd, Matrich, Darcia, Iklental, even the name of the old man’s axe, Adril! — but none knew his name of course, before returning to the old man who shrugged. “Then again, perhaps you are too young?” said the old man and took another drink, drawing the others with him, returning immediately to joking amongst themselves. At that moment, Dlinch knew hen wouldn’t even be a memory for them.

Dlinch tried to get the old man’s attention again, but he wasn’t listening any more. “Another drink!” was the bellowing response. Now, when the old man looked at him, his eyes heavy with drink, Dlinch felt shut out, a vacant sense of intentional dismissal which was far worse than not being noticed all day. He had been given an opportunity, and he had hesitated. He felt like an apple from last season, the ones left because they are unripe and small and hard, tossed aside at first glance. He was left with a bitter taste in his gut, only himself to blame. Dlinch turned away forlorn, not seeing the young woman’s sharp intent and unheard whisper before she was pulled back into the group’s drunken ribaldry.

Bearing down the stairs like a mountain storm, the old man shouting and swearing, glowering around the common room. Mother was up in a flash and planted herself before him in the middle of the room. “I’ll not be having any of that here! This is my place! The only hollering these wooden walls will hear will be mine!”

The old man man raised himself from his haunched stance, his fingers clenching and unclenching. He fixed Mother with his bright stare, alive with lightning.

Dlinch emerged from the shadows behind the fireplace. “Are you looking for this?” he said. The old man ignored him at first, locked in the combat of wills with Mother. DlinchHe held out the battleaxe with difficulty it was so heavy, stumbling over the mattresses left by the only other guests last night, a forgettable man and his lackey travelling to the Garsu mines. Brilliant entrance, thought Dlinch to himself ruefully.

When his eyes fell on his axe he smiled a humourless smile. “Breeding thieves here, are you?” he said, clearly addressing his mother and not Dlinch himself.

“You were so drunk last night, you must have forgotten to take it with you!” Mother said with an uncharacteristically uneasy tone. Dlinch couldn’t remember a time he had seen Mother like this. She was rattled.

The old man turned back to her. “To forget Adril would be to forget my own arm…” he growled. There was threat in his voice, and his manner. What could he possibly do? Attack his mother with his bare hands? Dlinch didn’t understand. It was just an axe.

“I took it, yes –” and Mother turned to him suddenly, fear and anger mixed in a hot temper which Dlinch could feel like a hammer “– but it’s not what you think, Mother!”

“May God-between forgive you — because I won’t!” invoked Mother. “Return the axe and apologise to our guest — and pray he does not use the axe upon you!”

It took a little more than Mother’s jibing to relieve the tension. Clearly the axe was not for Dlinch himself — he could hardly lift it. He had snuck into their room and removed it from the old man’s side himself, straight out of his hands while he lay in his bed. Dlinch had wanted to prove his proficiency, light on his feet, that he could be a useful addition to their team, win back the old man’s favour. The old man had grunted a few times, relaxed visibly as soon as his hands tightened around the haft of his axe, and by the time his companions had come down to join him for breakfast, the confrontation had dissipated completely. And with it, any hope of joining them either, Mother had seen to that. There was no way that she would let Dlinch go with this band of argumentative freebooters, not with this dangerous old man as their leader who had come to a hair’s breadth of threatening her in her own house.

Dlinch sat in the corner while the freebooters ate their breakfast of bread, sausages, eggs, their last for some time, they said. Mother served them frostily, and it was clear she would be glad to see their backs. She couldn’t afford to turn them away. She was locked in servitude to the coin, something he had noticed a few times in his young life. Some people used coin with gratitude, others reluctantly, and others still in a way which was disrespectful, as if who they were paying didn’t exist. Dlinch’s attention began wandering. The bright beams of sunshine from the open windows and door, no wind, another hot day; he identified himself with the dust motes floating in the air. Each tiny dust mote, here for a moment, then gone. Non-existent.

They had already bustled their way out and had gone, fully paid, only a whispered shadow from the young woman, her passage appearing to brighten the doorway as she left. Mother was already into her regular morning chores beginning with clearing the dishes, ordering her daughter to clear out the slop and reset the room, and reminding Dlinch pointedly of the barrel refilling and to raise Preter from his slumber. Dlinch dutifully pushed himself out of his reverie, his chair, looking around the Coach House common room, its cold grey fireplace which was his job to clean, the worn and uneven floorboards, assorted tables and chairs he had helped repair over the years, the old barrel and scored bar worn smooth by so many elbows, behind it the pegs of tankards in lines. These four walls which promised to be his workplace for his adult life, his inheritance, both the physical building and his servitude to the coin. He sighed and looked at the main doorway, and then the open hallway to the kitchen and back yard where he’d find Preter nestled in his corner of the hayshack, the tasks ahead of him later that morning, the rest of the day, again tomorrow and the rest of his life. He turned back to the main door, bright with sunshine, always open now because of the summer. He seldom used it himself, it was mostly for guests, locals and rare visitors. And even when he did take it the door it was always to come in, carrying bags and things for others. He had to reframe it mentally, the doorway out, keenly bright in the early sunshine.

He walked over to the doorway, his body cut in two by the sunlight; his legs and waist in warm sunshine, his chest and head in shadow caste from the extended roof. He looked out over the dusty road. East to Hopeton at the mouth of the valley, then Tapton and the city of Bizapul and the Empire of Urb beyond; it would take him a whole season of walking and he still wouldn’t reach Tarabiz let alone the capital. And in the opposite direction, south, along the river to Castleton and the pass to Wetton, the mudflats and Tabletop Plateau with its Garsu mines. It was a dead road. Since they had redirected the garsu caravane, nothing passed this way these days apart from supplies like ironwork tools, cloth and foodstuffs, and the last-hope miscreants selling themselves to the mines, like the traveller who had slept in the commonroom floor. The five stone buildings, chandler’s, mill, blacksmith, abandoned Guard House, and the Coach House, the surrounding old wooden houses of the settlement, most of which had fallen into disrepair, the trees beyond. Nothing came this far west into the Reaches.

Across the river, wide and shallow enough to walk across, which is why the settlement had been built here so long ago, a fork with one track heading north, past a few outhouses, families he knew, which would snake its way to the hillsides separating Hope from Crow Valley; and west along the river, a track leading nowhere, to distant lands where the sun never shone. It was that winding road west that the travellers said they were taking. Beyond the Reaches, overgrown now. Only for settlers who drove their wagons in and out of the village for monthly supplies. The old man’s spell overlaid his senses and he imagined such a place far to the west: a grey finger of stone encircled by a lake of green.

It had been generations since Urb had pushed its frontier into this valley, the barbaroi pushed back into the lifeless outlands. They had been bright with hope back then, but as the sunlight thinned that far west so did the light of civilisation. Summer was certainly the season to travel west, the sun’s rays extending the furthest at this time of year, but would he ever see the old man and his party again, thought Dlinch? It had to be before the end of Summer, if at all. His mind lingered on the thought morosely, shading the western horizon though the sky was clear. The West. Everdark. Land that had never felt the warmth of the sun. He couldn’t imagine it. Tsariq hadn’t returned. With a sigh, he wished them good luck and turned back into the common room and the prison of his life.

“Behold!” called Matrich in awe, “the fearsome Forest Guardian!”

As was his style, Matrich had struck a fast pace well ahead of the party. In the open like this, he always wanted to be first. Surd and Iklentil began to unhitch their weapons warily. Darcia pushed past them and motioned for them to stop, shaking her head as she approached Matrich.

Matrich smiled widely at Darcia and stepped to the side flamboyantly drawing his sword and pointing at a strangely twisted tree trunk which he had previously shielded out of sight with his body. From the right angle, it resembled a person: rough legs grown from the ground, a somewhat warped face beneath a cowl and a waist-high protrusion at its side made it look like it was drawing a sword. “On guard!” said Matrich.

 “You’re a child, Matrich.” Darcia shook her head once more, sighed and looked back the way they had come. It seemed longer than it was. Iklentil was still looking at the tree with a frown on his face. She motioned for him to follow her round so that he was facing the tree correctly and when he saw the shape, surprise lit his face. What goes for entertainment hereabout, Darcia thought.

This was the landmark that indicated they take the next trail off to the right. There were many trails off the main road west, settlers dotted all over the valley. They mooted whether they should stop off or not. Somewhere up this trail, off a further side path, was an old shepherd’s hut which had been reappropriated by a local wiseman. Before the relationship had frosted over, Mother had recommended they visit him. The wiseman offered various potions and tinctures which provided remedy to ailments which the locals swore by, and this druid had asked to be fetched if any strangers came to town, or if there wasn’t time, to recommend their visiting him. The druid had helped her personally on a few occasions for no payment, relieving the recurring pain in her foot, and she swore by the tipple of health tincture she added to her water every day.

The group stood at the rock discussing whether they had time to stop off. Matrich and Darcia were in agreement about continuing. The days were shortening, and they needed to press on and cover as much distance as possible before the summer sun died away completely. Surd half-heartedly suggested that the druid might lend some insight into their journey, but Matrich was not interested in hearing another conflab, and certainly not one between grey-beards. 

“On our way back, I’ll be happy to stop off at every opportunity. My legs will be tired of carrying so much gold we will be carrying!”

Darcia looked askance at Surd. Each of them had their reasons for going on this journey, and Matrich made a point of making clear why he was with them at every opportunity. It was like he needed to remind himself, especially at moments of duress of which there were many, such as when the insects clouded and bit “gold, gold, gold”, when there were three consecutive turns to the left or three to the right “maybe the gold is just around the next corner”, when the bedding — the same he had used every night — let a cold gust of air in, “I can feel the warmth of that gold, it is so close”. Matrich was not the easiest travelling companion.

Surd appeared to give in to the youthful exuberance of Matrich who was impatient to continue. Politically motivated no doubt, thought Darcia as she watched their exchange. Surd gave the impression that he listened, but for as long as she had known him, Surd got his way. He was an old dog, that Surd, and she knew all his ways. Realistically, there was little that an old man in the forest could offer them and Surd knew this. There were recluses dotted around the Seven Valleys, many with epithets like “Forest Guardian”, all choosing to shun the ways of the world and instead wisen like old nuts in obscurity. Surd was old but he was different. He had as much fire in him now as he did in his youth. Besides, he wasn’t one for potions. Mind over matter, he was fond of saying whenever Matrich complained of some physical hardship, mind over matter. 

“This Forest Guardian is good enough for me,” said Matrich as he kicked the guardian-tree, and without further ceremony continued their journey along their road.

0b Forethought

Green Eye Binding, which includes The Frayed Thread; Almanac of Matrich of Bizapul, Former Guard of House Adukwe.

Forethought by the Venerable Sage Kirsus of the Hazad , Meherim Exarch, Specialist of Sang-Garsu Axim

Sang-Garsu injects the natural state of future-orientation into our historical records. No more examining history as a thing already written, but as a current of actions continuously presenting, where the momentuum of past decisions clash with the hope and desires of future states, where the living edge is everywhere a shore in flux. Future-history is a moving coastline of time, where we no longer cling to the fixity of the land, but courageously face the endless churn of the sea with the subjectivities we study.

This thread is presented as a preliminary experiment using the newly delineated re-appropriation of sang-garsu as fortified and upgraded by the discovery of the Blue Mountain garsu deposit. This volume serves to demonstrate the unprecidented level of resolution available remotely: geographically, chronologically and socially. We have chosen Matrich of Bizapul not for any historically critical reason, but for his undistinguished heritage and contribution to human progress. Matrich is a satellite subjectivity around a garsu held by a common magician, and fine details in his mental activity can be discerned and extracted despite the garsu crystal being fixed.

A few notices. The account is not a pure thread, but interweaves accounts from several subjectivities as the Purple Eye Binding. This is partially because of the fixed state of the target crystal (xan) and also the tight cording of four subjectities who live closely together as a social unit. A sang garsu crystal lays down experience continuously at an atomic scale, whereas garsu set for other purposes have an irregular mapping. And though we expect improvement in our techniques in delineating and extracting singular background threads, it is evident that actual psycho-social experience is inherently merged in nature, and not discrete threads as we tend to think of them.

In terms of world events, our subjectivity visits the Valley of the Dead. We hope to show what the area was like before the Orx manifestation. This may also be read as an invitation to ascertain the genesis of the Orx as their presence poses a threat to our current political stability. Further, while we acknowledge the wisdom of the Council of Epituria which prioritises the capture and examination of native Orx, we would hold in equal measure the collective effort in the defragmentation of aberrant atarax, the so called Dark Ledger.

Despite the unique insights which sang-garsu evidently provides, the investigative work of the historian remains. We are still left with the challenge of sifting through the immensity of social fabric available to us, in order to discern exactly the subtle psychological originations of many large scale social effects. We hope this volume may provide interested parties with an overview of current practices and the challenges which face scholars on this exciting frontier of exploration.

May the coming of Machus retrospectively bless all those who pass this way.

3 The Way

Old woman Myra’s journey was mundane and momentous at the same time. Taking to the road every day was a task she was not prepared for. She walked slower than the other pilgrims and was soon left behind. For a while a middle-aged man accompanied her named Tarwin. There was no rush, he had said. Tarwin was a kindly man with a heavy heart. He spoke for most of the two days they travelled together, unburdening himself of his life’s story and why he was taking the Black Pilgrimage, how he had followed his father into carpentry, had helped build several halls and castles, and the various loves he had throughout his life, but nothing had come of any of it. There was nothing dramatic about it, much like her own, but there was something strangely satisfying in sharing it. It was as if it was the first time she had really listened to someone, a heartfelt transparency they both shared as pilgrims together. She heard every word he uttered, and if she did not hear a word or her mind was distracted she would ask him to repeat himself, and by doing so Tarwin knew that she was listening deeply. When they passed a family of birds which were giving themselves a dust bath, or came across the vast height and girth of a rivertree, named so because of the grooves which gave the thick bark an impression of fast moving water, or some other remarkable aspect of nature, they would stop together and witness together in silence. At first Tarwin would reflect on his thoughts, the momentuum of his mind rolling on in his memories, until he noticed how avidly and calmly Myra would look on, and soon they would take these breaks together, silently, listening to the bounty that nature provided. Once he had related his life, and they had mixed with other pilgrims, he thanked Myra for her company and headed off with them, leaving Myra to journey alone at her slow pace accompanied by another pilgrim for a few hours or a day or two, or sometimes by herself.

The journey was hard, hunger came to her on a number of occassions, but she did not complain. It was what it was. In some villages the Black Pilgrims were welcomed, in others they were shunned. She was given cheese and bread in one village, and nothing in another. She was going to die, so it did not concern her if she died on the Pilgrimage itself, something which came to many of the old especially during winter. When asked why she was on the Pilgrimage, she answered simply, it was time.

Pilgrims took different routes through the roads and forest trails. At first, Myra simply followed the trail of other Pilgrims, they seemed to know where they were going, talking of signs on the journey. She looked out for a sign of her own, and she found herself drawn to birds and butterflies. Whenever she was faced with a crossroads, there was a bird which swooped over one path, or landed on the trail itself, or a butterfly would appear from behind her and float and tumble its way down one of the routes. When she walked alone, she would follow these signs, and when with other pilgrims of her age it was often in the same direction, until her confidence was strong enough that she could made the decision to take a route which her birds signaled and depart from her fellows, who were to a fault younger. It was a liberating experience, and seemed to confirm to her that the Black Pilgrimage was indeed what she should be doing, and her road was the right road.

At last she came to what was called the Gate, where she joined a steady stream of pilgrims aged like herself, hobling criples, and a small group dressed in stained rags bound around their limbs who apologetically kept to themselves, those cursed with rotting flesh. All together, they felt guided to the place. Tired and sad, old Myra found herself curiously uplifted for having finally arrived. What would become of her? What would the Dark Lord do with her?

2 Waking

No-one saw the old woman slowly open her rheumy eyes, glistening in the dim light of the single-roomed hovel. She lay on her side on a straw matress, a woolen blanket pulled tight around her shoulders.

She closed her eyes and heard the clucking of the hens outside, her grandaughter reprimanding children in the distance. Felt the rise and fall of her chest against the weight of the linen dress and woolen overdress she had not taken off for years. The thump of her heart in the darkness of her mind. She felt small, nested within herself as if in a tree. It was such a cumbersome effort to move the tree. Far easier to take wing in her thought, or hop from branch to branch in her memory, often settling on the days her husband was alive, as she did now. She missed him. A sigh came to her, a double breath which embraced the emptiness, and as it passed she felt the passionless horizon of her life in all directions, a vast black sky, unwelcoming. Her regular breath returned and she prepared herself for rising. Today was different, she had purpose. Today she would leave her family, and begin her final journey, on the Black Pilgrimage. She would no longer be a burden to them, and soon her soul would find release as she entered a final sleep from which she would never wake.

Slowly she rose to her feet, carefully drapped a thick woolen shawl over her shoulders, her widow’s cowl, and tucked a few thin whisps of grey hair under her wimpole. Some people aged well as if harboured from the wild visiscitudes of turmoil and strain, and others weathered like exposed crags, back bent, limbs ascance, skin creased and scored. Her’s was a life of sufferance. Though the old woman had lived a life of kindness and gentle attitude, she was wracked by regret and guilt. The early death of her mother birthed a bitter shadow which followed her every step in life. As the youngest she was cared for by her siblings until she was torn from them, barefoot until an adult, her only luck was marrying a frontiersman. Though gruff and showing little patience to the children or herself should they they ever demonstrate slackness, he loved her dearly to his end. The relentless vigour he needed to eek out a living in the Outer Reaches was the same uplifting enthusiasm he met all people including his children. And it was the same vital energy which made him fiercefully protective of her, even against herself.  When she had lost her baby, it was he who had pulled her through her grief. His death had very nearly extinguished the flame of her own spirit, and a year hence her spirit had grown fainter and fainter until the motions of her body were pulled from her by routine: a spoonful of food shakely brought to her mouth not for hunger but because the spoon acted on her as it had done all her life, just as her hand was lifted to the latch and it was the door that made her pull it open.

As she shuffled out into the sunlight, her spirit rose. Tens of thousands of days encased her aged body, yet a tiny part of her felt as spritely as when she was born. It was this faint but undeminished light which would navigate the tidal force of the day ahead, would pull her free from her family ties, and set her on her final course. She had yearned for an ending for too long, eating less every day, weakening her body and mind until she had heard of the Black Pilgrimage and her soul had acknowledged the truth of it. So, when six pilgrims arrived the previous night, it had taken little to find the necessary resolve. The group would be leaving with two more pilgrims this day, and one of them would be old lady Myra.

1 Unliving

Humble trees below brooding mountains and cloudstorm sky. Carapaced wagons, improbable biped insects, black dots filtering through green forest. Particles of soot belching from the furnace of civilisation, the flame of consciousness dulled, blackened and burnt-out by disappointment. Human sludge seeping its way to my gates, filling the cesspit of unliving. The Black Pilgrimage, they call it.

This was not the plan. Exiled from my brethren, the mathematical procedure of intentional unrooting deemed unethical, or at least politically dangerous. When were the concerns of the royals of more prominance than garsu research? Such short-sighted fools! I’ve had to work in isolation, deprived of fine bright young minds which are exclusively drawn to their monasteries, while I have this human ditritus to pick through, like a monkey picking through excrement for seeds, searching for that rare core consciousness which has survived the soul-rot induced by the gut of civilisation. Agh, it sickens me!

And not only that, I assign too much of my collective mental processing to the building up of my army. An army, for Machsake! What a waste of resources. They are spiteful, the Meherim. They are not content with leaving me be. On more than one occasion their agents have come close to ending me. Assassins with garsu-studded blades, gigantic rax warriors, and now they turn to poisoned minds. For every hundred who take the black pilgrimage, there is one set to kill me. And so I must build my army, the legion of atarax which protect my halls. Such a waste of resources, this needless waste of unliving. But there is a chance I may yet bend this Black Pilgrimage to my purpose. Now that the unliving ranks have swollen with such unwanted intake, I see they may serve not only for defence against the Meherim, but for attack.

A quaint term, the Black Pilgrimage. They leave their underappreciated lives, the destitute, failed merchants, mutilated soldiers, the terminally sick, the aged, and seek an ending here with me, their nominated Dark Lord. Since the Black Pilgrimage has begun taking up the aged, the draw has spread quickly and widely beyond Bizapul. Tired of life, desolate widows, and those long steeped in loneliness, think this journey on the dark road their last. Most come with the thought of ending, but there are some who believe they come to be immortalised, and still others believe they will be rejuvinated. They are all correct, after a fashion, for their belief influences the character of their derooting. Those seeking ending make the best troops, as mentally solid as the flagstones of any stone keep. Those seeking immortality generate a more pliable servant: those edged with invective make diligent soldiers, those of placid manner useful daily minions. And those seeking transformation are the most promising for they possess the greatest potential to achieve third stage atarax, far in advance of what the Meherim can manufacture using their ethical procedures.

Such fools for ignoring my method! What is the loss to the world of a few high born princes? Such an antiquated sociology anyway, Royal Houses indeed, their days are surely numbered. And such hypocracy! Princes have been unrooted throughout their own development of fourth and fifth stage rax. Arrived by accident, those Meherim academics did not see what they had witlessly achieved: the separation of mind from body. Blind fools, even when I showed how the mind could survive the death of the original host — an undeniable route to atarax — and a legitimate path to Machus! I have made advances of me own since then. Retaining the atarax within the very same body, unrooted but locked to the same body, such is the generation of my own emobided rax, half atarax half golem. The Unliving, the called it. What they meant as slur I now take as compliment. My household of Unliving. They are an extension of me just as these walls are, this land, all mine… 

Bah! What I miss is young, fresh mind, open and receptive, in the full bloom of growth, low conditionality of acceptance, naive, the processing of awareness raw and close to the surface. Especially those who are particularly bright, capable of operating the mathix required. These shall become my adjutants, my shadow meherim, my order of litchen. But they are rare, so rare. Such high quality minds do not come to me out of their own volition. I must seek them out. I must send out my emissaries and locate them in their native lands, before they are caught by the sparkle and tricks of the Meherim. I offer them lordship, a rank of mastery of mathix which puts them in charge of a powerful army. The procedure is painful, no doubt, and the fatality risk remains too high. Of the handful of hopefuls who happen to arrive at my door — a handful in the last decade! — none have survived. All die, except my faithful servant, but he is the exception. He is hardly young, who would have thought a Guise would take the Black Pilgrimage? Only the fiercest spirits can transcend the pain. It is unfortunate that the quality of sensitivity I seek is rarely matched by fierceness of spirit. Sensitive and puny, completely worthless. I am better off with the clods of meat manning the walls, dulled by life, they can endure fathomless levels of pain. Even a division of the Pharohim’s Imperial Guard will not break my defences. But a standing army is insufficient. I need wayfairing troops, and inspired lieutenants capable of leading them. I need bright young minds! If they are not drawn to me, then I must reach out and pluck them from the greedy grasp of the Meherim.

I curse the Meherim! Their noses pressed so close to the dirt, they can not draw their eyes from the mud of consciousness to the sun that is Machus! They hold up their paltry achievements, their pathetic golem, play with their puppets of living clay. They are but children! It will take years before golem reach the operational functionality of the unliving I have now. I will show them! I shall manifest Machus, and He shall adorn me with all the gifts of humanity, honour me as His herald, His gateway into being.