1 Old Man

The old man rocked back and forth in the corner of a doorway of an abandoned house. People walking by, left and right, along the narrow alleyway, one of several that connected the two main market roads. The alleyway was too narrow to set up a stall, just enough width for two people to pass, a central channel for water and household discharge, sided by high walls with gates serving as back entrances to courtyards, many permanently locked. An alleyway between places, never a place to be for its own right. And here, the old man sat, pressed against an old wooden door, both grey and faded.

A boy stopped beside him and looked down at the disheveled old man, his stringy thin hair, his gnarled hands hugging himself. He didn’t say a word. Adults passed by, navigating round him like he was an obstacle, one glanced back and swore. The boy stood over the old man and waited.

The old man continued to rock back and forth, but noticing the boy’s feet and legs, he lifted his head. The boy looked down on a face ravaged by age, skin wrinkled and stained, eyes rhuemy and crusted, matted dirty beard.

The boy reached out his hand, the old man eyed it, seeing it empty, and returned his gaze to the face of the boy, rocking back and forth.

The boy opened his mouth to speak, but couldn’t bring himself to wording. He sighed, tears in his eyes. He dropped his hand, and after a while turned away and walked down the alleyway, the old man’s eyes following him until he was out of sight. His head dropped and he continued his rocking back and forth.

The old man shook his head. He sat for a moment dejected, crumpled in his rags under a cart. He had tried to find a space under the bridge, but it was taken by several others, younger and stronger than him. There were few places to offer shelter from the rain. The cart was temporary of course, and the owners could move him on at any time, or if they were less generous, harm him for staying there in the first place. He had gathered plenty of wounds during his time on the streets.

The old man shook his head. He sat for a moment dejected, crumpled in his rags under a cart. He had tried to find a space under the bridge, but it was taken by several others, younger and stronger than him. There were few places to offer shelter from the rain. The cart was temporary of course, and the owners could move him on at any time, or if they were less generous, harm him for staying there in the first place. He had gathered plenty of wounds during his time on the streets.

It didn’t matter what he tried to do, it never worked out. There was a tendency for his mind to roll over the same old things in his head, the stories of his youth, the intentions lost, relationships gone, over and over in his mind. That was just an undercurrent, while his surface thoughts rolled over how even seeking shelter hadn’t panned out. It was remarkable how little food was needed to keep him alive. He might be lucky to get food from the same person over a few days in a row, but mostly it was about doing the rounds. There was no expectation when he appeared at the shopkeeper’s doorway, the servants entrance at the back of a rich house. If food came, he ate, and when it didn’t, he wouldn’t. Enough had come for him still to be alive. That was all.

The boy had approached him again. Nothing in his hand. He shook his head. It didn’t make any sense. The memory rattled around, dipping below the vacant stretches, churned through childhood memories of his own, what had gone wrong with his friends, and the bitter taste of disappointment — his mind rejected those. Such memories had been rich with anger, frustration, but over the years they had given out all their passion, and all that were left were bitter seeds, not seeds but stones, grit in his mind which he ignored like sand in fish skin he had picked from the dirt.

The boy. What did the boy want? What did the boy want from him…?

“Help me boy,” said the old man.

The boy knelt beside him. It was a dry day, and they sat in the shadow of a townhouse.

“Do you want to help me?” asked the old man.

They continued to sit together. The boy drew shapes in the dry dirt of the road. The townsfolk continued with their busy daily routines, oblivious to them. The shadow lengthened into late afternoon.

“If you are not here to help me…” said the old man. “What do you want from me?”

The old man shook his head, incredulously. Tears welled in his eyes.  He rubbed them, grime smeared on his cheeks. Didn’t make any sense. There was nothing he could contribute. He didn’t even know why he was living. HIs life consisted of long stretches of absence. Hadn’t received eyecontact for so long he had disappeared. Without reflection, and aspect of him had vanished. Thought was as continuous as an animals. The thought was thinking him. Memories, sensations of hunger, aches in his joints, the pain in his head, literally the hole in his gums. His movement instigated by the time of day, weather, hunger, the need to shit and piss. He was alive, but barely. This boy, the presence of this boy, appeared in his mind sporadically, but it had no movement to it. It was like a boat on the current of the sea, tossed around, not part of him, no imperative to it. So when it surfaced, there was nothing to it, no historic reason or future purpose. If anything, his memories would trigger, his nephew, the responsibility he had for him when his sister’s partner had been taken. Of her three children, he was responsible for one of them, but he had failed him, and so he would sink into another soporific trance.

“I have tried,” said the old man, to the boy, to himself. “I have tried. But each time I try, things go out of reach…”

He searched for his words. His mouth had forgotten how to form words. His tongue pressed against the two teeth remaining. The slurred sound that came out didn’t sound like words. Like a broken flute, a torn drum. His head ached, his knee throbbed, and again he was into the swamp of his memory, the injury to his knee when he was young. His job was to climb through a venilation tunnel, and listen to what was said on the other side of a grille. And as she shuffled his way backward in the tight shaft, he would have to navigate a corner, and thump, he’d hit is knee. And then later with some boys, fighting, thump, the same knee.  

Nobody would know about his knee. Only him. His life, all gone. Nobody paid attention at the time, except him, and even him barely. Life was just lived, like he was living it now. Nothing more to it. And yet, he had spent years trying to reach beyond himself. When meeting people, something always… beyond reach. Friendship, work, partners… never enough.

Its happened again, he thought. He puffed out some air, a wordless expletive.

Nothing will come of it. He was like an old dried leaf, abandoned, discarded, tossed around the street, nowhere to fall, no soil to add itself to the mulch. Just here. Just….

The old man opened his eyes weakly. His breath shallow. He hadn’t eaten for days. His body was numb, his heartbeat like a throbbing ache.

The boy was sitting beside him. His spirit rose, enough for the faintest smile, a slight upturn to the corner of his mouth. His spirit faultered, sadness, his heart rate rose, his breath ragged, and his left breath left him. His chest did not rise, his eyes rolled back relaxed, and he felt himself go, falling to sleep knowing it was for the last time, the anxiety in his body mixed with excitement. A memory, not reviewable, a passage of his spirit had come this way before, in his formation. He did not know it, but it was his awakening during birth, the rise, the fall which accompanied the experience, coming into this world. With excitement, with fear.

The boy whispered beside the old man, rolling a grain between his finger and thumb, breathing over it. It was not the words, for they went unheard. It was a formula which triggered associations in his mind’s eye, a formula he was solving concurrently as the old man passed. The grain between his finger, the seed of a garsu crystal.

The spirit rises, the spirit falls. And between them, there is a note, a spiritual note. The boy had heard this note in the old man. He rolled the garsu crystal in his fingers and held the note of the old man’s spirit, rising, rising, whispering, with tears in his eyes, rising. 

1 About a Boy

“Are you insane? You want to take a child into the Valley of the Dead?”

The old man sighed. “Insanity is what is happening around us,” he said patiently.

They were sitting at the back of a public house, the place filled with field workers and townsmen, the low hubub of voices, the relaxed flow of life which repeated tomorrow and all the tomorrows to come.

The old man nodded at them. “They all think it is normal. Everyday is the same. It makes sense to them. It is internally sane. But their behaviour is what is making the world sick.”

“But taking a child to the Valley of the Dead! What could a child hope to achieve there?!” The younger man asked incredulously. He was a man-at-arms dressed in assorted brined leathers, a sword blade at his side, a swarthy face topped and chinned by rough black hair, blue eyes shining.

The old man shook his head and sighed again. “Nothing,” he said flatly, “nothing.” It was not so much the young man’s questioning, for he had thought this himself many a time. He sighed because of his own answers, answers he did not himself believe. But it was a thought, arrived by deduction, a thing the clerics called logic. He didn’t believe it, hardly trusted it, but there it was nevertheless.

“Nothing,” echoed the young man, deflated, empty of passion. He had expected more of a fight, a reason from the old man. He sighed and let his gaze defocus into the room. He took a drink from his tankard.

“Where everyone else see the dead, ghosts, wraiths, demons,” said the old man, “the child sees only shadows in the trees. He sees nothing.”

The young man hummed in acknowledgement. “Figures,” he murmered and wiped his mouth.

“Not just any child, mind,” said the old man. “A child who is not afraid. A child who has not heard of the Valley as others have, who has not grown up with its stories. A child who has never lied, or cheated, or taken the wrong way to anything.”

“And where would you find this child? This good-natured child? This child who hasn’t heard of the unspeakable horrors that exist in the Valley,” asked the young man, his eyes diverted from the old man, softly in the room of villagers drinking their evening away.

“I have already found him,” said the old man. “But there is a catch.”

The young man nodded, then shook his head. “And what’s that?” he asked. Progress was at least being made, he thought. Not looking at the old man seemed to help. Just passing time, while gazing gently at the people before them, like a slow moving stream.

“He’s looking for a dragon,” said the old man.

“A dragon?” The young man snorted and shook his head. “You want to take a boy into the Valley of the Dead to look for a dragon?” He glanced at the old man. “This is going to end well.”

The old man raised his eyebrows to concede the point, a rare expression from him. “That would be a foolish venture.”

“Uhu,” remarked the young man, “foolish,” he quoted and turned away. “That would be one word for it.”

“No,” said the old man, “he wants me to help him find his dragon before we go to the Valley.”

“Riiiiight,” said the young man. “I’m not sure they have enough beer here for this ever to make sense.” Nevertheless, he rose to his feet, steadied himself, before making his way to the bar.

The old man watched the young man’s back as it receded. How much does he understand of what they were talking about, he wondered. How much real? How much rax? Even he was getting close to the point that he no longer knew. But then again, that was the nature of what they were exploring, and it was the only way they would survive passing through the Valley of the Dead. Putting their lives in the faith of a boy’s innocent, came at the expense of his belief in dragons. Correction, a specific dragon. A dragon which existed deep in Everdark. A dragon the size of a mountain. The dragon known as Argentis, the creator of time. Rax, or real? The old man shook his head and wryly noted he was responding as the young man had. Disbelief was a necessary part of the journey, it seemed, for the only one who needed to believe was the boy. The boy who had never lied, who was still true.

1 Beacon

The sparrow fluttered rapidly and rose, then swooped, fluttered and swooped, winging its lonely way across the blue sky. The canopy of the trees below, the mounded green variation, textured by the different type of leaf.

As the sun rose and fell, the bird flew on, the forest tips now a dark green sea of pine, the undulation of the land breaking out as an exposed cliff edge, the veins of rivers and streams passing below. Alert to shifting shadows, the danger of a bird of prey from above, so the little sparrow fluttered and swooped, its heart racing.

Finally, ahead, a grey stick rising from the green sea of pine, soon a column of stone rising from the forest, over a lacuna shadow cast from an escarpment, swooping into the valley, then rising towards the column of stone, clean, grey, immense.

Alighting on it top, the sparrow hopped once, grew double in size, twice doubling again, the barbs of its feathers merging, another hop, doubled, legs thickening beak rescinding. By its sixth hop, it had fazed into a grown man, robed in grey a staff in his hands, bald with a self-seal on the back of his head, breathing hard. He felt dizy and bowed, placing his hands on his knees, felt his stomach churn. He was far away, in truth, but the transition felt gut-real.

He breathed deeply and looked about him, over the edge at the forest below, the trees thick with shadow, a black shadow hugging the rim of cliffs all the way around the valley not just below the low hanging sun in the east. He felt his chest tighten. He stood above the Valley of the Dead, a place filled with dread. To the south, a notch cut into the cliff, the Unseen Caves. Once the sun set, all manner of fearful things would spew forth from that hole, and this valley would overbrim. He would not survive up here, high on Angel’s Pier. Survival was not his objective. But still he had to work quickly.

He scouted around the surface, uneaven and rivened, only the most hardy of mosses growing in the cracks. He found two pockets in the stone, the third he had to scrape away moss and grains of stone. From his pouch he took three garsu gems, placing one in each pit. It was acting proxy to the crystals he had many miles to the east. Coach House was as close as he could manage, any further and he would be risking further encounters with more powerful rax. Soon, it would be overrun. The darkness was rising, it would soon fill the entire Hope Valley.

He acknowledged the effect on his mind, and he took a moment to push the dark thoughts aside. He stood in the centre of the triangle of garsu crystals and lifted his staff, the garsu embedded in it. He judged the distance between the crystals to be about equal, and then held a fifth crystal at his sternum. He closed his eyes and concentrated his mind.

His mind’s eye observed the pure form of the tetrahedron he was forming with the three crystals in the rock and the fourth crystal in his staff held above his head. He brought the staff lower until the distances were perfect. Detaching a second attention, he focussed on the crystal he held at his sternum, lifting it until it was within the centre of the tertrahedron. He held both in his mind, the centre, the four corners of the tetrahedron. While keeping his primary attention in this state of duality, he performed the required spiritual formula and slowly his secondary attention softened, grew, became aware of his position on the surface of Angel’s Pier, the sky around him, softly permeating the rock below, and careful not to lose his mental balance, he detected it within the rock. Placed there by an unseen hand, hundreds if not thousands of years ago, before history began, a garsu crystal the size of an egg. He performed another formula, repeatedly, incanting with his inner voice, and like an overtone inducted a secondary calculation. The two harmonised.

It was no longer an image in his mind, the crystals reflected his psychic shape, the triangulation simultaneously expanded and shrunk, and attuned his consciousness to an intense spiritual frequency. The centre, the corners, as one. We conscious intent, he inverted it, the corners the centre, and he entered into the eye.

Within the mental reflection of words, thoughts range to deep unwordable belief. Between thought and belief, the turmoil of personality through time. Once stabilised, higher harmonics of spirit were enabled, continuously, momenting. And what he had performed upon himself, was his own annihilation. Despite the proxy of rax garsu, the power of his mind amplified by the garsu crystals were sufficient to activate the garsu crystal embedded in the rock.

 The beacon that was known as Angel’s Pier, or Gordia’s Gateway or other names, was lit.

Here, in the deepening darkness of the Valley of the Dead, the light of hope. A beacon for consciousness.

Far away, in another world, deep in the blood and bone which gave rise to boiling thought, a thought for what could be. Triangulation was required, to bring to attention that which can not be put to word, and yet can be acted upon. The thought, right here and now, of a stable shape of psycho-social dynamic: where the thought-form is stable enough to act upon, and in the collective of these actions, a stable social-form emerges, concurrently. The fractal seed of which is tetrahedral, composed not of crystals, nor molecules of water, but psychic and social complementarity. One gives rise to each other.

The beacon is lit. The servant who gave themselves to this task, is spent. They no longer exist. They pass unknown. As rax atop Angel’s Pier, there are no remains, for they were not there. Their presence was borrowed. Carried there by the lightness of feathered words, the weave and warp of barbed letters, the algebra of meaning.

2 Giant-Killer

“Get out of my way,” he growled.

The five Gal brigands surrounded him. Two in front two behind, and one amidst the trees to one side armed with a sling. They had thought that their show of numbers would be enough to part some coin from him. He shook his head.

“Once I unsheath my sword it will end badly for you,” he growled. “All of you,” he emphasised.

The lead ruffian wiped his nose with a snort. “That may be. What’s your business in these parts?”

“My business is my own.”

“That may be, but perhaps I can help you on your way.?’” He smiled gruffly, revealing his browned rotten teeth.

“”Is there a giant in these parts?”

The brigand narrowed his eyes, glanced at his companions, reappraising the situation. He shifted into a more relaxed conversational stance,  “Giant, eh? Like you?”

There was a snort from behind him. Uneak stood a good foot taller than any of them, but even a bear could be downed by a pack of hungry dogs. They needed a little goading, a show of dominance, confidence, and the alpha here was building up to it. At least with his yapping.

Uneak elbowed his cloak wide as he drew his sword, just at the briggand nodded and leaped forward with his club. Uneak side-stepped and ducked lifting the sword tip to the side of the briggand’s abdoment. From his heel through his leg, rotating his hips, he drove the sword up through the abdoment into his chest, sewering the brigand mid-step, his face transfixed with shock. Uneath stepped away removing the sword from the wound with a wide arc till it was raised high above his head as a warning to the others, the body slumping to the ground like a sack of bones, which was hat it was. The others stepped back, the slinger winding down his spin.

Uneak took a wide crossstep, the blade fell, he rotated his wrist and lunged into the second man through his gut. Like an elestac, he sprung back, the sword flashing high and wide in a great loop, slashing into first one man behind, and as the fourth stumbled backwards, Uneak leaped forward athen with counter-rotation swung the sword from the gash made in the third, slicing leather and skin into the spine of the retreating man. The slingsman, barely a man at all, was scramblin gpu the grassy bank, his way to the road blocked by his fallen comrads. 

Uneak raised himself to his full height and commended the boy to stop. He glanced both ways of the road, then knelt to first rip then slice off the remains of a wasitcoat from one of the bodies. He carefully wiped the blood from the blade, being sure none had dripped into the hilt.

“Were any of these relatives of yours?” he asked.

The young man nervously eyes the bodies, and Uneak who stood calmly. He shook his head.

“Find me my giant, and I shall spare you your life,” said Uneak and the boy nodded. “Speak it!” barked Uneak. 

“Yes, I wil, thank you Sir.”

The goat herder jabbed with his chin, indicating it was close. Uneak stared at him coldly. The goat herder shrunk and pointed up ahead. “Just there,” he said, his voice thick with dis-use. He lived a lonely existence up here at he edge of the trees, leading his herd in and out of the forest, scrabbling for the outcrops of grassses which thinned and gave way to the mountain rock..

UUrak approached the opening into the forest. It was as he imagined. A trail thrinto the forest, tree trunks snapped like twigs, flattened likground, branches trailed through the dirt, as if a herd of gippos had passed through here. By its’s width

A trail through the trees, heavy branches broken and strewn o through the dirt, a tree angled, roots partially excavated. By thwidth, he estimated the passing of something taller than the trees, perhaps forty feet in all.

He turned back to the goat-herder who was already making his way back, smotes of snow swirling in the wind. “Have you been  How many more of these have you seen?”

The herder shrugged. The forest to the west of here is criss-crossed with these trails. Noone travels here. The land is cursed. The shadow deepens here, the night is long and dark.”

Urak stood silouetted in the opening, a boy in the space made by the passing giant. He pulled his hood over his head and turned to follow the trail. It whad entered the forest here, and though the trail was over a week old, it was a start. For the trail to persist this long, he thought, it was powerful presence, in the realm of the being he hunted. This was no hill giant. THis was a mountain giant. He gritted his teeth and clambered over the ruins left of the forest floor, glancing briefly to note that the boy dutifully followed.  A crack of a smile, the boy was more afraid of Urak than the giant. Wait until they met it. He would be hardpressed to know the difference.

After following numerous trails, whenever they crossed, he would carefully judge the time of passing, the lay of snow, the sap from the broken which seeped from the broken branches, the ice formed. In the footfalls. AllHe would gauge the level of detail, the scale of the passing, and make his decision. .

They were sleep ing when he was woken by the sound of birds, crows  complaining, the wrong time for them to be flying.  Something had disturbed them. He caught their flight in the silver light of the moon, and gathering his weapon, he jogged into the forest in the direction from where they came.

He stopped for hearing, only the beating of his heart in the silent silent trunks, the gentle swaying above. At last he heard something, breaking of a branc, perhaps a trunk, and then the slow thumping of steps. He headedin its direction. The sound was impelling, and soon he saw it, across tha gulley. The trees racked up the side of the gulley on the opposite side, the moonlight off the branches, and there was the disurbance, branches shaken, snow flurries falling to the ground, a dark trail from where it was going, heading up the gulley.

Urak headed up the gulley at a jog. He would have to press hard if he was to match its speed a.

He ran into a thicket of thorns and cursed, cutting away from the gulley before he could find a way thraround the thicket. He began running, risking stumbling over the undergrowth, slowed to heaving through fthe ramains of ernslayered with snow, srambling up a loose rock slope, and he stopped, his heart thumping, sweat rollion his face, his leathers clining to him, his legs burning. He held his breath and localised the sound of the giant — it was close. He burst through the undergrowth into its trail, and there to his left was the hulking great thing, wider than he expected, and sodouble tand as tall as the trees. It was pushing its way through the trees and hadn’t heard him or noticed him.. An advantage , one of the few advantages of being a sixth of the giant’s size. The floor of the forest was strewn with broken bracnhes, flattened ground, rocks flattened into the ground, he swiftly foollowed the trail as he brandished his weapon.

Mouthing a incantation as he ran to meet it, his voice rising to a shout as he shouted out the final wording, his mind becoming hard and edged like the iron of his sword, he hurled himself at the beast and sliced through its thigh.

A tramendous roar issued form the thing, and a great arm spun, and it spun around, a great arm a large as a trunk swatting Urak , spinning him to the ground with a glancing blow, his sword dislodged and twirling in the air to thud between distant trees. Urak lay concussed on the ground. , Coming to his senses, the great beast before him in the moonlight, its a, twisted back on itself, trying to gauge the damage to its leg.  Urak realised his sword was not at hand, and fear gripped him. He swore., and lay there looking up at the great beast.  It turned around and scanned the ground, searching for what hat cut him. In its automatic response, it had lashed out, and in its immensity had hardly felt he blow he had given Urak. A work, a bear, perhaps? But there was a single cut, it was man’s doing. A trap set in the forest, a spwswinging blade.?  Urak saw it calculate the possibilities,, and he lay silently where he had fallen. If it noticed him there, 

Holding his breath. He held his mind still, his eyes defocused. If the giant noticed, it could take a step and crush him underfoot.. The grotesque mishappen head faced one way, another, the steam of its breath from mishappen nostrils, until it finally turned its lumpen head to the sky and howled with anger and fear. , Before it turned back to its path and with greater vigour pushed between the trees, throwing its weight against trunks which bent and buckled, and uprooted, bracnhes snapping and falling in its wake.

Urak let out his breath and sank his head into the snow. 

He lay there, resting, feeling his injuries, how sore, how accurat ethe the damage to his ribs. It had been a glancing blow, spun him more than struck him. He had been lucky. He repllayed the vision of the thing in his mind. Its grey skin in the moonlight, the mishapen shoulder, the characteristic diffrence of left and right side of tbody, the lump of head,, its ears ha were so deformed as to be holes, themouth ful, the dislocated jaw, the squahed eye, the deformed skull. Clearly it was in pain, constant pain, having deteriorated over months alone, lost and deranged. And as he lay there, sizing up his inuries and considering the lot of the tortured giant, he felt an overwhelming sense of compassion. It was why he did the job. That this thing was alone out here.

Reluctantly he heaved himself to his hunches and searched and found his sword. He held it in his grip and shook his head. A  rookie’s mistake, parted from his blade. He checked the garsu stone remained central in the hilt, next time he had to reach for the spine. , Or hack through the leg clean, even at the ankle. He had inflicted a cut, that was all, a potentially defatal mistake on his part. He would not survive many such mistakes..

He was puled from his recollections by the eyes of the boy peering between wide-eyed from the shadows between the trees. Brave enough to follow, eh? Plucky.

He turned on his heel and slowly followed the trail THere was no point chasing, not at the rate the giant was travelling now. It was a matter of following until the giant tired, and hope that the it didn’t break clear of the tree line.

It was sitting forlornly like a sostrone outcropping in a clearing. A hazy steam rose from it which coallsced in the moonlight, blurring its surface. There was something of recognition in the thing that its time was up. How many were trapped in that thing, Urak pondered. THis was more than a couple of score. The level of detail, the persistence of trails. It was wanting to be found. But as many as there were that wanted to be foundthere were an equal number  which had mutinied, lost all hope and sense wwith it, driving it in a mad rush of survival, away from civilisation, out into the most inhospitable areas. Urak still did not understand its pmotivation. Why these most inhospital areas? It was hardly afraid of man. If vengeance was part of its make up, it wcould destroy villages, but they seldom did. THere was a general movement towqrds the Everdark, but ithey would zigzag to and fro, as if attractd and yet fearful of wht it might find in the darkness. Mad, for sure.

Urak stepped from the shadows ot eh trees and slowly rounded the clearing to stand before it, outwith reach., his sword held before him, ready.

He slowly intoned the incantation under his breath, his focus on the garsu crystal in the pmel of the sword, his intent hardening with the length of iron, his being thinning, weaponising. He knew only a few specific mathix calculations, without flexibility to modify. This was the purest form, knowngly, before his prey. His audience drawn in, all of them, along the edge of his sword, towrds this single point..

The thing heaved on to its feet, its great arms swinging like logs loosly at its side. It head turned slowly, its great eyestaring down at him. It throated something, like a stretched out caugh.

Urak ignored it, ignored the pteasing of curiousity, promising his future self he would rememcall the sounds, but for now he was one thing, single intent, his wil iron.

THe thing screamed at him, and jumped forward, its great arm swinging through down upon him. With iron confidence, Urak leaped into the air, agains the ar and redoubled his height and thrust the point of the sword into the thing’s dropping jaw. Hfelt the shudder as it slpenetrated sinews and momently paused at bone before puncutring the underside of the skull.. The thing twisted, Urak was flung to one side, but he remained gripping the hilt two handed, and was. Feeling the sword well placed, he fell to a roll on the ground as the whole heap of the giant slunk to the ground. QUickly, he rose and clambered over the limp limbs till he was at  its head, its eye upturned agains the moon, his shadow upon it. Breath gugled from its punctured throat as Urak lay his hand on its head, as big as he was tall. He slowly intoned the final mathix caclulation, as he saw the last whisps of breath escape into the night air. Urak breathed deeply, sadly, and wished them safe journey back to their home.

He leapt onto the trunk of an arm and rebounded high into the air, a miraculous inhuman leap witnessed by his attendant peasant boy, the sword gleaming in the moonlight, destinted to pierce the neck and enter through the spin into the skull of the giant, a single arspear-like thrust, as if the sword had a trajectory like an arrow, the flight as light as a feather.

Urak recognised the characteristic long-term deformation, the calcified joints, inarticulate shoulders, the kneck swollen with tendon, the solid overbrow. This thing had evolved into a rock giant, a thing of the wild open spaces. Whateer was inside it was polarised between fear and feirsome will, fear expressed as will. The more it was afraid, alien to this world, the more its spirit became enflamed with the willpower to live.  In this way, it troe its way through the forest leaving a wake of destruction.

He knelt at examined the fine details, the taste of sap from broken branches, the splinters from torn trunks, and rubbing leave, the scent of crushed foliage. It was It wasn’t quite there, Urak felt, but it was a good start.

He murmered as he crossed the trail, examining the remains, whispering whenever he met a new trail, and ain his murmering ruminations, he would rise to his feet and with certainty in his stride, change the trail he was following.

In a local outhouse, around the between the warmth of a blazing fire and a round of friendly bodies, and within him swirling the warmth of beer, Urak let himself go, laughing loudly at the local joker, swearing passionately with their prejudice of the neighbouring settlement, holding two lassies in his lap, one oneach thigh. He was expressive and warm-hearted, the heart of this makeshift tribe, amongst his own.

In a lul in the proceddings, while another round of drinks were sought, paid for generously by Urek’s generoristy, the peasant boy who had accompanied him coughed and woke him from his temporary slumber.

“How did you manage to fell such a beast?” Urak’s eyes blurred and he snorted and collapsed back to his slumber. “It was only what you saw,” he slurred.

“”I have never seen anyone carry a sword as you do. It is alwaost like it wasn’t there, so light it is in your hands.” Said the boy in awe. Villalagers encouraged him to speak, and the boy retold the scene in the moonlit clearing in the forest, the stone giant bearing down on Urak, the superhuman leap to sewer the things head. It was increudolous, but the boy spoke with the honesty of seeing with his own eyes, and his awe was infectious.

“We were told of there are several giants in this reach, how did you know which it was you saught?”

“I won’t get paid if I get the wrong one,” snorted Urak and swigged more beer.

“There were so many trails to choose from, how did you know which one would lead to the one you wanted?”

Urak eyed him and blinked the bluriness from his eyes, and turned to the villagers who were listening enrapt, hoping to learn something should they ever encounter such a thing face to face.

“Each has a name, you see. They are not monsters, as such. They are lost souls. And if you utter its name, you can its trail livens, sharpens… enlviens before your very eyes,” he said and fixed his gaze on the eyes of one of the girls who sat on his thigh. The brightness of his spirit shone, her eyes glinted, life sparkled between them. Here was the vitality of life. “You know what I mean?” he said, a wry smile closing one eye, the other winking slowly.

“To the those who were lost who are now found!” cheered Urak raising his tankard, and his companions raised their mugs in concert. “May all beings find their home!” To distant homes! May each day bring usbring them nearer.”

(How can he tell which giant is which?) naming it, trail has more definition. 

1 House on the Hill

The abandoned house on the hill is haunted. All the children in the town know it. The adults don’t visit the place, and they don’t talk about it. Dirgle says the adults don’t talk about it because they are afraid. It’s why they don’t go up there. Plisk says it is because it isn’t haunted, and they don’t visit or talk about it because it is just an old building of no interest to anyone. All the other children in the town agree with Dirgle. The abandoned house on the hill is surely haunted.

One day, middle of a summer’s afternoon, some children are exploring the forest on the hill and come upon the clearing and the remains of the house stand on the brow of the hill in stark daylight. They poke sticks in the ground, kick the dusty ground, lie around watching the ants carrying bits of leaf and seeds amid the long grass, while the idea is mooted that they should go up there. So they do. Dirgle is one of them. He’s first to push open a shutter and peer into the darkness, the other children asking him what he sees. He waits a moment while his eyes get accustomed to the dim light. There’s shafts of light from cracks in the shutters enough to see by, a door is open and light is visible on stairs probably from a hole in the roof. He climbs inside.

There’s a table, an assortment of chairs, tattered tapestries on the walls, a large stone fireplace, and what looks like a mound of cloth or leathers and furs stuffed into the fireplace. A strange smell lingers, thick, a waxy heavy scent. Another child pokes their head through the shutters, whispers to Dirgle who points at the mound at the fireplace and then carefully creeps over to the door and peers through. There’s a small tree growing in a hallway beside the stairs, a large shaft of light from a hole in the roof as he first thought. Dirgle is the first of three who explore the inside of the house, the kitchen and two other rooms on the ground floor. They pluck enough courage to climb the creaking wooden stairs to the balcony with three rooms on the floor above. Only one of the children had been on a raised floor, it was strange to think of the air beneath the wooden boards. There’s furniture in the house, old linen, but no ghost.

Once out in the sunlight, walking down the hill, the two adventurers talk loudly, their chests sticking out, confident, recalling how they courageously explored the house. There was no ghost. But the other children suggest that ghosts only appear at night, not during the day. The three valiantly declare they would go at night, that night, and by the time they reach the forest’s edge they decide on who would bring a lantern. But when evening came, the group did not reassemble, no lantern was brought, and of the two brave adventurers only Dirgle was present. He couldn’t go to the house however much he wanted to without a lantern. So, over the next few days, the children gathered in different groupings and the story of Dirgle’s adventure spread, and recriminations between them as to who was afraid of going up to the haunted house at night.

After many days, and deep into summer, a small group of three, two boys Dirgle and Plisk and a girl Merit, walked over the open ground up to the abandoned house which loomed large and forboding black against the stary night sky. It was Dirgle who was again first. He snuck in and was told to lay the lantern on the ground so avoid the moving shadows as he turned one way and the other. The still yellow light from the lantern woke shadows from the objects in the room, and once it was all still, the others crept in through the broken shutter. They waited in the silence. But it wasn’t silent. As their ears got accustomed to being indoors, they heard small creaks from the walls, rustling from the ceiling, creaks from within the house. They stood crouched for a while like this.

“There is no ghost,” said Plisk, though he was afraid. His voice sounded thin in the dark. Shadows flickered as the flame from the lantern’s wick trembled. The darkness seemed alive.

That was as far as they got. They were too afraid to continue, and so they left the house, scrambling to be out first, then running down the hillside together, their muscles pumping, feeling their courage return. Once they told them, the other children were impressed by their adventure, and it became the highlight memory of that summer.

Years passed, the children grew, the house on the hill passed from conversation just as it did with adults. Nevertheless, incidents were reported. Sounds from the house one night when a shepherd had gone looking for a wandering goat which had found the grassland on the hill. Illicit visits by travellers who reported that something was indeed living up there, but it was only heard not seen. And even once when a child went missing, the townfolk had climbed up the hill with torches and lanterns and stood outside the house while the father and his brother had looked within. There was a suggestion to burn it down before they left, but they thought this might bring something worse down upon them, it was Imperial property, and if the owners ever returned there would be hell to pay if they were responsible.

“Let’s burn it down ourselves,” said Dirgle one morning. They were young adults now, Dirgle, Plisk and Merit, grown to be good friends who dreamed of life beyond the town. Each had daily tasks to complete, whether Plisk’s endless weeding in fields, gardens and orchards, or Merit’s drudgery of collection of wood from the forest, or Dirgle’s town work at his father’s tannery. They hardly had any time for themselves. Yet the thought lasted throughout summer like a candleflame in their minds. Only when they decided that the following year they would leave and seek their fortune in the city, did the thought of burning down the house on the hill flare into a real possibility. It would mark the end of their childhood. It would get rid of the old house and the fear associated with the place once and for all. It would be their service to the town, a beginning of their new lives together. Nobody would find out, it would be an accident.

Towards the end of summer, the three of them met at the fringes of the forest as twilight fell. They spoke furtively, swapping their worries of whether they had been seen by their families, or whether any had witness their supplies of oil depleted. As the shadows deepened and the stars appeared, they talked of the long summers they had lived in the town, the surrounding forest, the adventures they had. They all knew it was going to end, and if they did not leave next year, they would remain in the town, working at their parent’s shops in town, their fields, they would never leave the town. The house on the hill was black as a hole, and it took on all their fears about staying, the certainty their parents had, the repeated days, the sameness of life. It became a symbol to them. By changing this one thing, they were doing something significant. They were freeing the hill and themselves. And so they spoke deep into the evening as the stars appeared, and they waited until the moment arrived that action was required or the moment would pass. None of them felt the urge to start up the hill, and yet between them, they found themselves hurrying up the hillside worried that they would be spotted. They knew nobody was out there, not without a lantern which they could spot easily. It was dark around them. They were alone. As they approached the black house, they crouched as the childhood stories of the ghost arose in their memories, competing with the fear of their intent — they were going to burn down the house — and the anxiety they all felt that if they didn’t, they would remain in the town for the rest of their lives.

They had discussed the plan beforehand. Once in the house, they were to spread oil around, Merit the tableroom, Plisk the kitchen, and Dirgle would take the floor above. The summer had been long and dry, the old wood would take to fire quickly. It was important that they start the fire in order, first Dirgle in the first floor, then Plisk in the kitchen and lastly Merit in the final room which they would leave. Each would light a part of the fire, each would be responsible for the house burning, each was commiting to their future together the following year.

There was a problem with the plan. The tree which had taken root in the centre of the house had grown larger, pushed against the stairs and breaking the wooden boards, so Dirgle had to grab hold of branches to pull himself up what remained of the steps. Plisk and Merit watched his precarious ascent from below, their candlelight casting flicklering shadows from the branches of the tree like black arms across the walls and ceiling. Dirgle finally made it to the balcony where he dowsed the wick of his candle in some oil and tried to light it. The three strained to make out any sound in the house above the sharp clash struck flint. Finally the flame caught and they all breathed a sigh of relief. Plisk and Merit separated to their rooms below while Dirgle walked tentatively along the creaking balcony to one of the upper bedrooms.

The door was jammed, the hinges must have rusted. Dirgle pushed twice until it gave with a groan and something collapsed behind the door. A white cloud rose suddenly and Dirgle stood stock still, hand frozen around his candle, his eyes wide, ears straining. The cloud blew over Dirgle and he felt it settle against his face and around his ears, on the hairs of his head and down the back of his neck. From behind him he heard a whisper, “Who…?”

He wanted to jump round, turn to face it, but he couldn’t. He was paralysed. He had to force his body to turn, agonisingly slowly — and then he saw it! In the corner of his eyes a dark shape above the bed rising. His eyes flicked to it immediately, but it dispersed just as quickly. It escaping his vision, slipping into the shadows around the bed, along the edge of the door, and seemed to rise behind him. “Who calls me here?” came the voice again, louder.

Dirgle dropped his pot of oil which broke at his feet. The noise of the smashing pottery released him from his paralysis and he jumped back from the doorway. One foot fell through a partial hole in the balcony and he fell to the ground, he called out as he involuntarily dropped the candle which was in his hand, it flew through the air and rolled to a stop near the spilled oil. Dirgle’s eyes rose to the black rectangle of the doorway which seemed to swell and spread itself around the doorjamb and across the ceiling. Dirgle cried out in fear as a black form coallesced before him which the candlelight could not penetrate. The wrongness of it made his skin cold, a sickness in his stomach. And within the eyes of this black shape, for there was undeniable intent issuing from it, Dirgle saw himself, kneeling, his face stricken with fear. “You shall not leave this place,” came the voice like a whisper shouted loud. “You shall not leave!”  Dirgle struggled to his knees and leaped from the balcony.

Plisk saw Dirgle leap through a break in the banister and into the tree, his foot slip off a branch and his body spin and crash against the remains of the stairs which collapsed and they all fell to the ground: branches, steps, banister and Dirgle. Plisk ducked to protect his candleflame from the cloud of choking dust which filled the hall. As the last of the noise of the collapsing stair passed, Merit appeared at her doorway, fear in her eyes. Plisk passed Merit his candle who had to awkwardly nestle her pot of oil in the crook of her arm so she could hold both candles. Plisk stumbled into the pile of broken wood and began pushing away broken bits of wood. The shadows flickered around them madly, the arms of the tree seemed to reach out to grab them, as Plisk finally managed to take hold of Dirgle and began dragging him from the debris. “There is no ghost,” said Merit, repeating Plisk’s childhood phrase, trying to fight her fear. She stepped back into the table room momentarily submerging Plisk in darkness, the shadows pressing against him, the body of Dirgle heavy on his shoulder. Plisk stopped for a moment in the pitch black and breathed deeply. “Only Dirgle,” he said through gritted teeth. “Fat bugger should drink less!” and dragged him after Merit into the table room. Merit was already at the broken shutter, one of the candles on the ground before her. Her eyes were wide as she cried, “It’s coming!”, and she ducked out the window.

“We’re going,” said Plisk, as if to disagree, shaking his head. Sweating, Plisk dragged the lifeless body of Dirgle across the room, slumping Dirgle’s unconscious body over the sill and felt Merit pull from the other side. And they were out. Together on either side of Dirgle they shuffled across the grass down the hill to the safety of the forest. As their feet thudded against the uneaven earth, the weight of the body seemed to increase, while the further they got from the house and with the open sky above, their load seemed to lighten. Finally they reached the cover of the trees where they laid Dirgle’s body against a trunk and recovered their breath. Dirgle did not regain consciousness, his leg was damaged, bent the wrong way. Merit tried to put to words what she had seen of the living shadow, but Plisk didn’t want to hear it. They made their way back to town in silence after first ridding themselves of the oil and candles, and dunked Dirgles body in the stream to wash away some of the oil. Fallen from the bridge, they would tell his family.

Dirge was never to speak again. His leg healed though he limped for the rest of his life, but he was never the same again. He was a shell of himself, hollow, capable of only the simplest tasks, carrying things from place to place. His eyes were dead. Plisk didn’t want to talk about the experience, the loss of his friend weighed heavily on him. Merit told a few friends of what had happened, and but her friends thought what they had done was stupid and wrong, after all look at what had happened to Dirgle.

The following year, Dirgle, Merit and Plisk remained in Upper Tapton and never travelled to Bizapul. They did not talk of the house on the hill and when the children asked for stories of whether there was a ghost there, they did not answer them. Nevertheless, rumours spread and not a few travellers came to Upper Tapton to seek out the mystery of the house on the hill.

1 Garsu Smoke

“Are you not happy here?”

Filipina was pouring cool water from a large jug into a copper basin laid into a white marble table, the sound mixing with the playful burbling of children which wafted in with the cool breeze from the courtyard. “Yes, I have been happy here, Karazine,” she said flatly. 

Karazine was chopped vegetables on a black wood table. She stopped and walked into the sunlight to close three of the six shutters which formed one wall, glancing out at the children dancing and splashing in the pool, the cream-coloured canvas canopy stretched across the courtyard providing a cool glow. She turned to check the ambient light within the chamber, a mellow amber, closed another shutter and gauged the subdued light ideal. “Would you like to tell me what troubles you?” she asked.

“It is difficult,” replied Filipina, who barefoot crossed to the hearth and began piling sticks for a small fire.

Karazine drew the cotton gauze across the remaining gap to ensure privacy from the frollicking children and the other members of the extended household, the metal rings sliding along it rails like rushing water. “I understand. It is about your children,” Karazine said. “There is nothing to be afraid of.”

“It has been three years since I have moved to the Heartland. Three years away from my own people,” Filipina said with a sigh.

“Have I not taken you in and treated you as our own family? There is no distinction between you and the others here.”

“Yes, Karazine, you have been most generous. But I have not seen my children in these long three years and it pains my heart.”

Karazine was silent. She regarded Filipina kneeling at the hearth. “Yes, it must be very hard for you. I could not bear being separated from my children for an afternoon. I admire your sacrifice, your strength, Filipina.” She paused. “It must have been hard making the decision to leave them.”

“Thank you, Karazine, it was. But I always had the intention of making enough money to return.”

“You know we are not of hot of blood. I do not have the resources to spare. It is difficult enough to run this household as it is.” Karazine spoke curtly. Finances were not her favourite topic, though she was quite competent. They were her responsibility and she kept frequent check of the fiscal health of the entire extended household. It was not a Major House, but even a Minor house with its tens of members had substantial assets distributed throughout Terrabiz and Bizapul to account.

“I have not asked you for money, Karazine.” Filipina turned to look at Karazine who was pouring dark green lentils into a wide brimmed black charred pot.

“You know I hardly understand rax. Despite the difference of our blood, we are simple people. I have never pretended to understand your vision.” The Lady meant this sincerely, and raised her head briefly to assure Filipina appreciated her intent. “I have witnessed your rax, have I not? And the children too?”

“I promise you the garsu smoke exists. I have seen it. It rises from garsu use.”

“I’m sorry to say, I have not,” Karazine said, sifting the hard round lentils through her fingers.

“The skills of conjurers and magicians of the market are insufficient to detect the garsu smoke. They have helped me product a xanplay, but I have failed to secure an exponent of the Meherim to examine it.”

“I have helped as much as I can. Have you not been living here well enough? Enough to eat? A place to sleep? These are certainly not slave quarters. Beyond your service, what you do with your own time is your own.”

“In the three years I have been here, I have failed to form the necessary relationships.” Karazine lifted the pot onto the grill. Filipina could feel the brittle quality of her intensity fixed excessively on the pot, nevertheless she asked: “Have you spoken of the smoke or shown the rax to a House…?”

Karazine wiped her hands and fetched the jug of water. “Your business is your own. If it hasn’t worked out for you, I am sorry to hear that. I did as much as I could.”

Filipina tried to catch Karazine’s eyes when she returned to pour water into the pot. “I am cold of blood, not even Solozo. It is impossible for me to approach a Royal House.”

“So why not return to the Reaches? Try with your own kind?” It was a positive remark but as their eyes met, both knew it was empty. Karazine turned away.

“They do not have the resources. I can not return to them with nothing. After three years…” Filipina slumped beside the small spluttering fire, dejected. “I have failed them.”

Karazine resumed cutting the vegetables. “I am sorry to hear that, Filipina. But you may stay here for as long as you are a contributing member of the household.” And then she added cheerily: “We won’t let you starve!”

“My life is not worth living,” said Filipina, poking the fire with a stick, which spluttered ineffectually. She thought of the fire in the hovel she had left in the Seven Valleys. Her extended family living in poverty, the failing of the harvests year after year. She had seen it all in a vision. Black smoke issuing from the garsu crystal, turning and twisting like it had a life of its own, falling upon all the crops, blackening the ground, turning the rivers dark. A living death.

“You have been invaluable, my dear. You have brought much cheer to the children. They love the stories which you brought with you. They are so vibrant.” Karazine reminisced when Filipina had arrived at the household, the chaos at the time, the fierce competition with another family for attending a Minor House. It was a time of great distress, and Filipina had brought a mixture of down-to-earth service and joyful spirit that they all benefit from, her sisters and their lovemates, and all their children. “I don’t know what I would have done without you.”

“But I have nothing to show for it,” said Filipina forlornly.

Karazine reminded herself again: Filipina had indeed been vibrant, but something of that zest was missing in her these days, and it was starting to get wearisome. “What is it you say?” asked Karazine raising her head and fixing Filipina with a solicitous smile. “You have my deepest gratitude.”

Filipina could tell Karazine was trying to lift her mood, to push back her sorrow. It was Ikawe. She returned the smile cheerlessly, and added another brick to the fire.

Kazarine came over to stir the pot. “And you are such a fine cook, Filipina,” she murmured. “A genius with lentils — I can certainly recommend that!”

“Thank you, Karazine,” whispered Filipina.

“I don’t know what I will do without you.”

1 Namu

The mind of the Namu is unlike ours. It is fractured into millions of pieces. The structural density of each piece can easily lead to collapse. The discreteness of its internal and external boundaries necessitate reinforcement by social cohesion, a poor proxy to spiritual union. Their reliance on inter-subjective communication has weakened what little cohesion they are inherently capable of supporting.

In light of this, I suggest the utmost care in our approach. Our presence has triggered shears in individual psychologies in the past. Those lucky enough to survive such episodes as well as find their state embraced within a local social matrix have led to unfortunate regid or religious structures which persist beyond their time. We must avoid this if we are to achieve our goal.

 I would suggest we only attend in low intensity until we locate suitable personages and small groups who are capable of appreciating an intervention. Depending on the dispersal pattern of these constellations of individuals in cultural form and societal structure, can we ascertain the exact power of the entire network of couplings and derive a coherent strategy of intervention. 

Our objective is to raise to a level of awareness that enables a sustainable social cohesion so that first and foremost their impact upon the natural world is lessened, and second they are ready for engagement with our kind. Mistakes will be made, and particularly gifted and receptive individuals will inevitably begin the slow process of appreciating our nature, but it would be foolish to necessitate their understanding of us to achieve their social cohesion.

Let us fully concord that our immanent action of observation is necessary due to the accumulation of malign agencies which now threaten to enshroud their world. Should that happen to the Namu, then we shall be next. What’s more, owing to the discovery of garsu and their subsequent complexification of what they call mathix, the Namu themselves are nearing the minimal threshold to intentionally produce autonomous language machines. As a consequence, social agents will inevitably emerge. Their’s is a brute force approach, with little guile or refinement, as crude as their first discovery of fire, and to their current state of mind, destructively addictive. Their destructive practices amongst themselves bleed into the environment accelerating its deterioration which will inevitably threaten our own health. And despite the adherence to creating a super-conscious being by the collective known as the Meherim, they will not survive its sui generis. In all likelihood, neither will we.

It is therefore with the greatest respect that we ensure that we retain low intensity, spreading ourselves thinly over the ground. Assemble lightly, aggregate in intensity less than seven. We must spread as widely as possible, which necessitates only brief periods of observation, just enough to ascertain individual psychological intentions, and deriving the barest delta of their social cohesion to project feasible future integration. Only by casting a wide net can we then progressively explore select individual constellations with greater temporal depth, again with low density so as not to trigger any individual collapse or social breaches.

Let us step lightly. And once we have a denser future projection by fleshing out the future lives of those fated significant, we will then arrive at a time to gather and intensify our attention to action a simultaneous intervention.

And remember, if our following is noticed, redirect and remove ourself immediately before we induce a reflexive cascade. They can not sustain awareness of us if we are not present. Their memories can not contain us, even with vigilant reliving of their garsu records. We are mythical beings to them, angels.

0c Observers

“We are gathered here because we share an acknowledgment of the Observers. Whatever we think of them, or indeed whatever we call them, there is a baseline acknowledgment of their existence.

“We are not here to agree on a definition, or a term. We must be careful with any language forms because of the biases which they impress upon our intended meaning. Let us be warey before the words calcify our living sensitivity, before words become litany, fresh thoughts become canon, and our future selves and those not know to us yet find themselves imprisoned by our misrepresentations.

“Or indeed any representation. Any re-presentation is to be handled lightly. We must use words, and images, and the like, but only as reflections, to improve our ability to perceive and engage and witness and resonate with, the Observers.

“The Observers may return here as many times as they wish, or return to the origin or the end as they wish.”

They stood in silence, huddled around a candle, the world dark around them, their shadows thin as ghosts against the rosy candlelight cast on the plaster walls, wooden beams and leadglass windows.

“It goes without saying they are present now.

“One is present.

“One as the only ever possible.

“One as the many, those who were, and those yet to be, each in their time here and now.

“Returning here as many times as they wish.”

They spoke in turns. One phrase or sentence at a time. A pause, and continued by themselves or another. It was not important who was doing the speaking. It was the listening which was important, and at any instant the listeners outnumbered the talker.

“As each of us talks, so the others listen.

“And in our listening well, we may increase in number without restriction.

“Listening. Just as the Observers are listening, watching, thinking, breathing.

“What may be said that brings us to shared attention?

“The troubles we individually face? No.

“The troubles we face collectively? Not just us here, but the Observers.

“What do we share that the Observers share in their world, of which we are but a small part?”

Silence brought them closer.

“Of the Observers there is an original, just as the talker gives voice.

“The original is not important just as the talker is not important.

“Everything is given for our mutual benefit, as service.

“And to what end?

“We have differences as to what we serve. Some of us God, others country, others work. Is this the same with the Observers?

“Can we be of service to the Observers? While maintaining what is needed here to maintain ourselves as individuals, what more we do, is in service to the Observers.

“And what purpose do the Observers possess?

“Our guesses conflate and collapse back to our own objectives. How can we discern the purpose of the Observers?

“Unless the Observers face problems themselves, that they can not resolve in their world. Which is why they are here, following us.

“For them to follow us, they must have sufficient to maintain their own personal needs.

“All Observers?

“All Observers who witness this. But perhaps there are Observers who are not capable of joining us here, just as a homeless person can not attend the royal court. They do not possess the particulars, the privileges.

“Is our objective to unify the Observers? Such that there is no homeless amongst them? Everyone has the capacity to witness us, here and now.”

They stood contemplating, the flickering of the candlelight between them. A single candle. One flame. One flame pushing back the darkness. One flame bringing edges to the furniture, surface to their clothes, expression to their shrouded faces. Their quiet wording like a lone flame between them, bringing voice to their intent, shape to their personality, and form to their future.

“There is a mirror. It has many faces. Like tiles of a mosaic. Each tile mirror reflects an individual’s mind. And the mosaic mirror embodies the collective reflection.

“The Observers brings the world which they live in, in reflection to the tile-mirror we present.

“We present multiple mirror-tiles. Into each, the Observers looks. And some reflections they like, others they don’t. Some match their world, others don’t.

“It is not the mirror which is accurate, it is their looking in the mirror. A combination of how the tile operates, and how the mind of the one looking operates.

“A compound mirror.”

They were hovering around the construction of something like a compound eye, but instead of a physical eye, like the compound eye of a dragonfly, a psychic all-seeing mind’s eye. Like the operational psyche which created primary attention, the ability to focus on things not seen, on memories of events past, or images of events yet to be. Just not of one person.

“There is such a mirror. I have heard of it. It exists in this world, but in a city far from here. It exists in multiple worlds at the same time. And it has a strange property. Once touched, it resets all the worlds to that world.”

There was silence. Waiting. The speaker continued.

“Once touched, as soon as the finger is removed from the surface of the mirror, all worlds become the same. As the person in one world decides to return home, in another world they decide to go for a walk. Or some event befalls them. The one world separates into these multiple worlds. In some worlds, the person dies, through accident or perhaps because they take the risk of performing some difficult task. They see someone getting mugged and intervene, in another world they pass by. And in the world which they intervene, in one world they successfully protect the victim, in another they fail and the victim dies, and in another they die themselves. All these different worlds multiply.”

The image was difficult to stabilise, for the speaker, but on listening it was easier. Freed from the effort of putting thought to word, the listener could apply all their ability to allow these worlds to multiply in their mind, wordlessly.

“And at the end of the day, they would return to the mirror. If any of them touched the mirror, all would reset to that world. So, in the worlds they died and did not return to the mirror, those worlds would be lost as all worlds would reset to the single touched world.

“Making it almost impossible for the person to die. For only those who survived that day could touch the mirror.

“And the question facing each of them — standing before the mirror and knowing all the other versions of themselves standing before the same mirror — who amongst them should touch the mirror?

“The person who had decided to go for a walk, or return home? The person who saw the mugging and intervened? The person who intervened and saved the victim and they themselves were unhurt. This one?

“But what if there was another person who saved the victim as well as disarmed the attacker, and did more? Took them to a foodhall, bought them a meal, listened to their story and decided to help that mugger overcome the poverty which had instigated that mugging. If the person who touched the mirror who had only saved the victim and not the transgressor, this world of even greater success would be lost.”

They stood and pondered. It was a difficult one. Faced with such a mirror what would they do? How would it reflect their lives? What had they done that day that deserved they touch the mirror? If they had this mirror, what would they have done differently that day? Would it make them more courageous?

“It would be essential to have a means of communication between versions, so they could decide who was best placed to touch the mirror.


That one word was enough warning for them all to avoid that path. Discussion was noisy, full of submerged conflict which could easily erupt into open heated debate, argument and escalation of wills. Their route was listening, silence, acknowledging the truth of each other, and being sensitive to difference, cultivating a diverse ecology while recognising similarity. A union of differences.

Each was left to their own devices, making their own decision.

“Submitting what their own result was. And upon hearing another, acknowledging the priority of the other.

“The removal of their submission.

“Submission. To submit. Two meanings. One is passive, the other active, in my mind. To acknowledge the power of another, submission. To propose for another with power to decide, to submit.

“The temporal aspect of this requires examination.”

They were moved to silence. One thought that they each faced their own internal mirror. They took a journey in their minds and returned. Was their journey worthy enough to be shared? Should they submit it? Or withdraw it? They chuckled to themself.

“If we were faced with such a mirror, we shared the same mirror, how would we determine who should choose to touch the mirror? Let’s say one of us does not arrive here before the mirror. Perhaps they have been killed. So by touching the mirror….

“We can not touch the mirror if one of us is not present. They have taken a risk and failed, so we must share that failure. We must wait for those in another world where all of us return.

“So, we must revoke our world from those to be chosen from? Submit to the worlds of others for they are in a better position than ourselves.

“Leaving only those worlds where we are all present.

“And of these present worlds, how do we decide amongst ourselves which world should we all reset to? We are faced with the same question.”

They stood ahead of their shadows, the candlelight between them. The light of their souls shone, and drew light from their companions. 

“Upon hearing one of us talk about their achievement of the day, I would compare it to my own and decide whether to remain silent or submit my own. Promote my own.

“Listening may be done in parallel. If we each submitted our own, it would soon become unworkable. With a thousand of us, we would spend the entire day sharing and not doing anything.”

There was amusement within them. They all knew this was the way of the world. So much sharing, so much gifting, not enough listening. The feeling passed. The candle continued to burn, the limit of time was set as always on the length of the candle, just as the limit of daylight was set by the sun.

“Depends on who speaks first.”

Waiting filled the dark room.

“Once a group becomes practiced, know each other well enough, trust one another sufficiently, that they can regularly evoke the occurence that the first person to talk happens to be the one who touches the mirror. Such a group may grow.

“If a second or third person is required to talk, and a second or third submission is accepted, there is still work to be done.

“Reflections are required to ensure that events are not harboured which should be submitted, voiced, for others to evaluate and compare.

“As a matter of record which can be reviewed by one or other of us.

“Not in the medium of standing before the mirror. Such reflections can be conducted by one or other of us, and shared before standing before the mirror.

“Sitting, perhaps?

“I have heard of this practice. Our ancestors. The reason why we stand.”

They considered in silence. They knew why they had decided on standing in their meeting. A rather crude reason. Sitting was too comfortable, too easy to rest, spirits flag, like the wind of the day gone, they would go limp and sleep. Standing forced an alertness. And they were all strong enough to be able to stand for the duration of a candle’s burning. What was being suggested was that there was a deeper reason to standing, and they contemplated the truth of it now.

“With such a mirror present, we might sit beforehand, and those who wish to be active may do so, to remind others of the brightness of their day which they neglected to present at a previous meeting.

“Or to reflect on our own evaluations, requesting others touch the mirror because we ourselves know in reflection that our submission which was used to touch the mirror was inferior, and discounted the greater truth of others who chose to remain silent.

“We face a dilemma similar to the individual before the mirror. How do we know what the others have experienced? Once we touch the mirror, all the histories of other worlds are gone too. The only history of alternatives are those of the reset world. 

“The trail of history bypasses all those which were not chosen, like a single stem headed by a bud, and all the flower buds unblossomed along its length. The only living bud is that which leads. It may grow in any direction as we face the mirror, but only one of us touches the mirror.

“If there was only one world each, this is manageable. But so doing, we lose the multiple world privilege, and we must choose between those present or else those who are not present are lost to us forever.”

They reflected on the situation. It was still challenging to get lost in the maze even when their mirrors were kept to a minimum. Their alignment and continuity and resonance was strong, but it was easy to lose track. Their only real tool, silence.

“If this is challenging to us, here and now, then it may be too challenging for the Observers.

“We must have faith that our explorations are moving things forward. That at least our skills improve.

“We need results, for as the candle burns down, so another day comes to an end.

“Civilisation continues full tilt to the fall. The cities swell, the earth whithers and dies.

“Words multiply. I will apply greater discipline.”

The candle was almost spent. Around the remains of the wick, a pool of wax. It spat once then was snuffed out by the melted wax. No smoke of an extinguished candle. An immediate switch from a lit room to a dark room. They stood still in the pitch darkness, before the sensitivity of their eyes could trace the faint outlines of the furniture silvered in the moonlight from the window. Navigating the still shadows, they left the room.

4b Reception

Celeste stood upon the dias at one end of the great hall wearing an elaborate white costume flanked on the right by Lord Maritan, his Lady Intiti and the Fathers and Mothers of Celeste’s adoptive family Adukwe, and on the left the regional officials of the Reach of Ashitlan.

Her costume was heavily starched and internally framed in wicker to maintain its shape, fluted to the ground and arched extravagantly upwards from her shoulders, precious pearls from the distant coast of Danke dangling like dew drops around her head. Its entire surface was covered by thin white Cithra petals, each painstakingly applied by hand. She resembled a great white flower, her head within the petals, her hair bound up like black filament, her arms elegantly raised to either side like sepals. It was all show, of course. Celeste had been helped into place, and only with supreme effort could she push against the shoulder-yoke and lift the entire costume herself. It was like wearing a heavy tent. The rehearsals had not accounted for the midday heat and a hall full of dignitaries, and being the first time she had worn it at a state event, droplets began to prickle on her skin, sweat soaking into the chemise. Thankfully, the white base mask applied to her face seemed to block her pores and cover the blushed exersion of her face.

“We can not compete with the Inner Ring,” Yidran had said. “So no magic, no masqs — real not rax!”

Celeste patiently held her pose, remembering only to breath through her nose. She had to keep her jaw ajar while keeping her mouth closed, in order to bring just the right hollow indent to her cheeks. To avoid puckering, a red sticky balm applied to her lips helped them stick together, accentuating their lush and full character. She resisted the urge to lick her lips and even to blink. Her eyelashes were coated with crystal filaments, a sparkling effect which echoed the great hall’s stained glass windows behind her, and she was afraid of repeating the disaster during rehearsal when the lashes had become entangled and one of her eyes had become sealed shut. So she retained her poise, not blinking, hardly breathing, her eyes completely still.

Below her, filling the hall, were the extended Royal family of Adukwe, assorted dignitaries and well-to-do from the city of Bizapul, all dressed in their feathered courtly apparel, shimmering in a magical haze of colour. The banners of Ring Adukwe were displayed prominantly across the dark walls and hanging from the rafters high above: a row of three black mountains.

“Of the Royal Ring Toloese, Lord Mbolo, Third Father of Terabiz,” announced the usher loudly, and a hush descended upon the hall.

Leading his retinue of attendants, the imposing stature of a Solozo Lord wearing such attire as put the local Royals to shame, a sequined kaftan embroidered with gold thread and countless tiny gemstones. Light did not just reflect off him, but emanated from him, a beguiling shimmer that brought to mind the effect of running water. He flowed through the middle of the court with such an aura of superiority that those he passed reflected on their mundane clothes by comparison and visibly wilted. The Lord climbed the three wide steps alone to stand before Celeste.

“Please accept the full hospitality of Ring Adukwe, and Family Adrienne,” said Celeste, faultering slightly as she spoke, then placing her hands before her to welcome him. What she wanted to do was tear her way out of her own costume, a flimsy thing made of sticks and starch, a tawdry affair in comparison to the garment her guest wore and the authority with which he wore it. It was the first time she had used her family name formally, family Adrienne, and despite all the practice she had faultered, hardly noticeable to anyone else no doubt but like thunder in her own ears. And Yidran, her tutor in courtly etiquette, would be furious. All this boiled in her mind as she stiffled in the heat of her costume. Real not rax, indeed!

“I hope to find them adequate,” Mbolo said barely laying his hands on hers, and without pause addressed an official to her side. “Are you the Ashitlan Sheff?” The man addressed gave a quick glance at Celeste and seeing that her face was shielded by her flamboyant shouldermounts, he stepped forward and bowed his bald head. Before he could utter a word, Mbolo continued: “Show me my quarters.”

The man gritted his teeth, bowed and stepped back to allow Mbolo to pass. He then dutifully followed Mbolo with a curt nod to excuse himself from the Prince-Elect’s reception. Mbolo clearly knew who he was addressing, thought Celeste, and to treat Aclimas like that… with such contempt, and ignore Maritan and Intiti, indeed the whole Adukwe court… This was not Bunto. Certainly he was from an Inner Ring and deserved the proper respect for it, but this was not what she had learned Bunto to be.

“Of the Royal Ring Beredin, Prince Mboktiz, second son of Bizasbuk,” called the usher.

A tall young Solozo strode purposefully through the crowd of dignitaries, managing to hold his own after the majesty of Mbolo before him without striking those around him with his wealth or ostentation. A handsome man, laid out in Imperial Guard battle kit, his less lavish retinue behind. He stepped up the dias and close enough for Celeste to see his clear and handsome face, his striking green eyes which shone with a lightness of joy and strength. He smiled confidently and bowed low before Celeste.

“May the luxuries of Bizapul delight the Prince on his visit,” said Celeste, her hands palms up to him.

The Prince smiled warmly as he laid his hands gently on hers, saying, “The delights are already evident, Princess-Elect.” He bowed and made his way to one side, addressing Lord and Lady Adukwe formally.

Celeste felt assured by him, calmed. She pondered on the Prince’s eyes. They were alluring, like falling into a spiralling tunnel of green crystaline light. Despite living amongst the Adukwe as one of theirs, she had never met royal blood like this. As a child she had heard stories of the Solozo, the imperial race of the Adukwe and all royal families, the divine confidence they possessed, their dignity and warmth. Unlike the masterful power of Mbolo, here was what she had dreamed of: a deep and benevolent authority. Celeste felt a shiver run down her back, the pearls suspended from threads on her costume quivered.

“Of the Family Adrienne, Master Dliston,” declared the usher.

And here was her brother, smiling brightly, wearing his formal dress with pride though Celeste noted it did not carry the Ring Adrienne emblem, an oversight to be corrected before the festivities that evening. He stepped quickly ahead of his attendants eager to cross the distance to the dais. As he skipped up to the platform, it was easy for her to superimpose her father’s face on her young brother: the narrow chin, almond eyes, high forehead.

“Welcome home, my brother, we have much to talk of!” said Celeste, and resisted the urge to step forward and hug him, which her costume would prevent should she try.

He paused, deciding whether to alter his prepared greeting, then said: “My sister shall make a home of wherever she is,” and he lingered there gently squeezed her hands. There was brightness in his eyes, excitement in seeing her, and also a nervousness. What was he afraid of? Was it the occasion? Was he overwhelmed? She squeezed his hands in return, to assure him that it was his sister beneath all this extravagant pomp. Dliston moved on and Celeste was pleased to see how Lord Maritan’s formal greeting was softened with an expression of familiarity. He had taken special delight in Dliston as his favourite, to which Celeste had never taken offence. 

“Of the Magestry,” declared the usher. Whether it was the word or the manner of enunciation, the hall fell into a deeper note of silence, as if every movement and motion of the assembled royals and dignitaries was stilled all at once. 

A thin man wearing a plain grey feathered kaftan walked alone, lightly handling a sabalwood staff topped with an opaque white stone. For all the splendour of the Major Houses, and the warmth for receiving their own in Dliston, there was an unmistakable intake of breath from the whole court at the simplicity of the man who walked between them. Inspiration as well as trepidation, for there was no greater indicator of the changes to come than this man who was to take their Princess-Elect, whose part to play as her primary advisor would bring prosperity or ruin to the Adukwe family and the Ashitlan region as a whole.

Once he had carefully walked up the three long steps to the stage, Celeste was surprised by the man who confronted her. He was younger than she expected, sallow skinned as if he had lived most of his life indoors, or below ground she thought. She observed him acutely, trying to discern some clue of his thought or feeling upon meeting her, but his face was expressionless, his eyes vacant. 

“Your servant awaits your instruction, my Princess-Elect of Family Adrienne.”

He bowed and remained there, subservient, revealing the self-seal tattoo on the back of his head, a blue triangle.

“The Princess-Elect of Family Adrienne welcomes her Mage, Celestsel” she said formally, and hesitantly laid her hand on the tattoo. It felt smooth and cold, like wet stone, not like skin at all, before withdrawing her hand. He raised his head and Celeste suddenlyt felt cold and isolated, as if shrunk, the warmth of her body far away, the many people around her distant. She somehow felt sealed within, and cold fear gripped her shrinking her further within herself.

The Mage Celestsel lifted his hands and placed them on the starched shoulder flutes and pulled them apart suddenly. The starched cloth material tugged and tore. Celeste returned to the present, frozen in place, shocked.

The Mage grabbed another two parts and tore them apart again, ripping the chest cavity open. Celeste remained frozen, horrified. What was he doing? How could he be doing this? Calmly he ripped open the dress again.

Celeste looked around and saw everyone still in place. Nobody came to her rescue. They seemed as shocked as her, hands to mouths, their eyes wide.

The Mage placed his hand flat on her face and pushed, pressing the makeup across her cheek, her mouth smeared, the crystals of her eyelashes caught on her eyelid and scratched her skin.

Finally, the Mage Celestsel stood back from his destructive work, took up his staff and found his place in her royal retinue, behind her and to the left. She wanted to turn and look at the Mage, but the costume’s structure prevented it. He stood behind her. For the remainder of her life, he would be there, making a shadow of her, and she knew that even face to face his deepest motives would be hidden from her. For it was well known that the motivations behind the Magestry were inscrutible.

Celeste stood upon the stage, her costume in tatters. She felt naked though the inner chemise remained intact, her face a smeared mess of makeup and tears. She felt exposed, violated, and alone.

2b Arrival

Celeste reached over the silver-engraved stone ledge and caught a glimpse of the royal retinue disappearing into the east barbican. It contained the dignitary Mbolo who had the authority of Ring Toloese to seal her future as first Gal Princess-Elect, Haradan to the Pharohim. Today was the Day of Appraisal, today her life would change forever.

She had climbed onto an archer’s alcove between two huge crenellations which provided a view over the east wall. She had managed to give Lady Yidran the slip earlier and had shooed away her servant, while the patrolling guard had taken a position further down the wall out-of-sight. Amid the cheering crowds lining the walls and peaking from windows, Celeste was alone. Soon the formal welcome to receive Lord Mbolo, a final lesson with Yidran, and the excruciating preparations for the festivity and feast that evening.

The landship’s sails had been furled revealing its arched masts, the crow’s nests in line with the height of the wall, men crawling over the rigging like ants. After its windspeed across the eastern plains, it had been sluggishly towed into place, its massive flat wheels designed for far-off sands groaning under its dead weight. A gangplank four-men wide had slid from the upper decks and the landship was disgorging the remainder of the Royal retinue directly onto the upper rampart which lead up to the Fortress of Bizapul. Celeste observed the five-sun banners of Ring Toloese flapping above the orini which cantered impatiently side to side, the gold painted armour of the Royal Guard flashing in the sunlight. Somewhere in the offboarding passengers was her brother and she immediately felt her spirit rise. It had been over a year since she had seen him and she couldn’t wait to hear about mother. For a whole year she had lived alone, to help her grow independent they had said. Not for the first time Celeste suspected there were other reasons behind her mother’s departure, but she quickly pushed aside the thought; she did not want to cloud her special day.

A pendant slipped from the chemise beneath her cote and hung from her neck by a silver chain as fine as thread. Her hand involuntarily caught it and instead of tidying it away, she rolled it gently between her fingers pensively. It was a gift from her mother on her eighth birthday soon after she had been chosen. It was a simple thing: two silver branches intertwined and tipped with a little clear gem seed. She had received much more expensive jewelry since, but this reminded her of all the changes in her life since moving to Bizapul, taking the city as their home, the tiny precious moments of joy during the interminable lessons, regulations, courtly duties. Moments like this, alone, at the edge of the mighty city of Bizapul, a city at the edge of the Urb Empire; so she was at the edge of her own childhood, a child at the beginning of adulthood.

At this moment she felt small and young, like the eight-year-old who knew nothing of the future that awaited her. If she had known, would she have chosen this path? Had she even chosen….? Of all the luxuries of her station, choice was not one of them. She hadn’t made one decision in her life, not what she ate nor when, not clothes nor how her hair was done up, certainly no affairs of state, none of it. It was all decided for her, even when her mother had been there. She had been foolish back then, had secretly resented her mother’s overbearing presence, but now she understood her mother meant to protect her. Without her mother, Celeste became a tool, a maniquin, a puppet caught in the catscraddle of state ritual and routine for the role she was to perform as Princess-Elect. And it was all to culminate in today’s ritual of Appraisal.

She gripped the pendant, felt the indentations press into the skin of her fingers. Memories of her mother holding up the pendant between them, her eyes fierce yet loving, warning her: “May your heart remain whole, my daughter. Whoever they teach you to be, may your heart remain whole.”

Celeste’s eyes were drawn to the horizon, the green undulating plain eastwards under a warm blue sky. Her destination lay beyond, across dry plains under a sun which never set, to the hollowcity of Terabiz to be reunited with her mother, and together they would venture into the homeland of Urb, to the capital. All her years of training to become an Imperial Princess of the Pharohim, the progenitor of a royal lineage. Would her heart withstand the awesome gaze of the Ever-Giving? Would her Gal blood survive the fearsome divine power of the God-Emperor?

She tightened her fist around the pendant and prayed to the ancients. For if she failed, it would not only be her family who would suffer, but her people. Her native beliefs had been replaced with a mindset suitable for her role amidst the Solozo, nevertheless she retained an awareness of her blood-tie to her people and the Sickness which was now tightening its grip on the land. And so, feeling like the eight-year-old peasant girl she once was, she prayed to the earth-angels to give her strength to fulfill their mutual hopes.