Injustice

(A turn for the worse. The events herein occur in the same world as and are subsequent to Upheaval. These events occur before and simultaneous with the events of Dread and Sorrow).

I awaken. It hurts. But, on the bright side, I have not yet been consumed by the Hunger. By that huge growing mass of roots and tendrils that had chased me from my latest brief refuge. I try to roll over and my shoulder explodes in agony as whatever efforts my skin had taken to start healing around the burn are stretched by the movement. I’d given myself that burn. A necessary precaution to prevent infection. I am paralyzed by the pain for what seems like a long time, gasping and panting. The pain doesn’t really subside, but rather it seems to wear itself out, a troubling experience which suggests to me that my body is starved of basic resources. I am in bad need of water.

I try to push myself up into a seated position. Some of the pain returns at the movement, but not as much. I can’t really see what is around me. It is just tall grass, some of it flattened in a line by my crashdown. There are dark clouds roiling overhead, but there is still some daylight. I start to draw my legs up to my torso to get up, but my right leg suddenly locks up in a painful cramp. I try to stretch it back out, but it won’t go. I add the weight of my good arm on my knee and I manage to push it down and straighten the leg. The calf is still cramped and my foot is locked in a point. After the hamstring relaxes, I pull up the other leg, hoping to stand so that I can use my body weight to stretch the calf back into a relaxed position, but my other hamstring cramps up instead. I sit there, pushing down on my knees for several minutes. It is the lack of water that causes my legs to malfunction in this way.

When my leg muscles have calmed again, I very slowly draw them up and then use my good arm to get up into a crouch. From there, I manage to straighten up. The exertion triggers my hamstrings to try to lock up again, and I have to stand erect for a time until they give up and relax. I’m looking in the direction from which I had flown. The roiling clouds are coming from that way. Could be a bad sign. In the distance, I see bands of lighter color on the ridges. They are the giant roots of the Hunger which had consumed Revak’s dam sanctuary.

What had happened? I’ve seen the Hunger before, and it has never behaved like that. The Hunger is usually slow. I’ve seen samples of the Hunger infect living plants and animals before. The disease is called consumption, and it leads to wasting, then ravenous hunger, then death, and then often undeath as the disease attempts to use the afflicted to spread itself. It is a process that takes hours to days depending on the severity of the initial infection. The Hunger can consume most materials, but it acts very slowly on materials that aren’t soft flesh. This is the main reason that necromancers choose to become enliched. The Hunger that they like to employ as a weapon acts much slower on their dry bones.

What had I witnessed? The Hunger doesn’t just come out of nowhere. Revak had seemed so surprised and confused. There was that horrible sound. Perhaps it was some failsafe? Some trick that Revak had rigged up to dispose of the experiment if it went wrong? But then why had the lich moved to shield the poor creature? If one had set up such a device, and knew of its danger, then wouldn’t one just step back and let it run its course if it was mistriggered? And the speed, the horrible speed of it. This morning it had grown from the size of a table to the size of a foothill. Did Revak’s experiment somehow release some new form of the Hunger that he had created? But he’d claimed not be a necromancer. Indeed, he’d claimed to have warred against them with the magisters. There were too many questions, and no way to get them answered. Perhaps some God might know. It is said that they made the world after defeating the Hunger.

I think my legs can work again. To my left there is an edge to the grass. It could mark a depression which could be a creek or pond. I walk carefully in that direction. The grassy ground feels spongier as I get closer and there is a squishing sound to my steps. There is a wide, slow creek where the grass ends, I fall to my knees in the shallows and take a mouthful of water. I realize how dry my mouth is by how it feels now. I shallow a little. It hurts. Well, to be technically accurate, everything hurts, but in this case, the hurt of immediate concern is in my exceedingly dry throat. I swallow some more. The pain is less. I gulp down several mouthfuls. The water sits cool in my stomach. I try to get up and I am surprised by another round of cramps which cause me to crash down into the shallow water. My burned shoulder lands on a stone and a new shock of pain hits. It’s not a good day.

I lay in the shallow water for a while. I notice lightning flashes in the unnatural clouds above. I should get back to fleeing. I thought I’d escaped my doom earlier, but it has only changed forms. It has worsened considerably. I get my feet beneath me and stand. The Hunger roots in the distance appear to be more widespread, but the spread seems to have slowed for now. I pick my way back to the shore and follow the creek away from the Hunger.

“Where are you going?” I ask myself internally.

“Just away for now, just away.” I think.

“You should find help.” I tell myself.

“Help? Yes. That’d be nice.” I agree. This seems to end the odd inner dialog.

I walk until the light fades and I can no longer see a path. I focus my will through a headache and weave a thick blanket from the grass. Some bugs come out in the darkness, but I’ve got bigger concerns. I probe my burn with my will. It seems bad. I’ll try to address it in the morning. It’s hard to find anything near a comfortable position, but I fall asleep eventually.

I dream of the Hunger, and of the horrible sound that came when Revak’s creation awoke. He was trying to bring back the First People. That horrible sound. The growing Hunger. That poor person. The sound. The Hunger. I dream of the massive size of it. The way it spreads across the land, digging in, and infecting. I dream of people, shambling amid huge Hunger rhizomes that have broken into the walls of a city. Their skin is shining with a network of silvery Hunger, their mouths are gaping with insatiable need.

In the morning, I sense a fish in the creek when I go to take a drink. I will the water to hold the fish and I scoop it up. I kill it with a stone, and use my will to separate the meat. I place a large flat stone on three round stones to form an oven, and I will my grassy blanket to compact itself into a denser wood-like fuel for it. The flames heat the flat stone slowly, but the fish starts to sizzle. It cooks quickly and I pick off chunks of the flesh with my good hand to eat. It’s good and welcome, but I’m still so hungry.

“Eat more.” I tell myself internally.

“It’s all gone.” I reply, bemused.

“There is more.” I think, and I sense more animals around me. Rodents, rabbits, insects, and fish. “Eat.”

“I have to tend my wound.” I remind myself. “And then we’ve got to get moving.” I overrule the hunger and I shift my focus away from the animals and to my wound. I break up the destroyed flesh, and feed the nutrients to the living flesh around it, speeding up the healing. This method seals the wound quickly, but it leaves a nasty scar as there is no attempt to replace the destroyed flesh. But out here in the wastelands it’s more important to stop bleeding and prevent infection. This method also doesn’t do much for the pain, but in my rested state I can suppress that with my will if it gets too bad.

The clouds have spread far ahead of me, but they seem calmer and heavier. It looks like it will rain. I continue my trek down the pass, and after a few hours I start to feel droplets. I will more grass to form a hooded cloak for me. Not just woven this time, but with the tiny fibers separated and then closely tangled together to make a continuous fabric. I wonder at the source and contents of the rain. I suppose it could just be normal rain, but I have a strange feeling that it is alive somehow, that it, like me, hungers.

My senses search out again for food involuntarily. There is a family of groundhogs holed up in burrow not far away. I feel saliva flood my mouth as I study them. “No.” I think. “This rain is too suspicious, given the direction from which it came. I have to do everything I can to avoid infection with the Hunger.” I start walking again. “I’ve got to get to other people.”

“…To eat them.” The voice of my hunger suggests.

“No.” I argue. “To warn them. To tell them what has happened. To tell them what is coming.”

“Ah.” My inner voice chuckles, “But wouldn’t eating them tell them what is coming?”

“No. I mean, sort of. But no.” I change tactics, “Maybe they’ve got some food, eh? More like that fish?” My hunger seems pleased at the suggestion.

The rain continues. I notice that there are less signs life around me now. I dismiss the observation as being the result of critters buckling down to hide from the rain, until I spot a motionless duck next to the creek with a wing outstretched in the mud. I approach and use a twig to shift some of the feathers. There is a web of silvery lines on the skin. A telltale sign of death by Consumption. I prepare to incinerate the poor creature, but then I stop myself.

“Better to conserve your energy until you can feed.” My hunger suggests.

“Hmm.” I agree aloud. I look around the creek some more. There are some fish floating sideways in the water and some of the tall grass nearest the water has taken on a silvery hue. I hike up away from the water. “No more water, no more food. Not until we get away” I think.

“Why worry so much about it?” My hunger asks.

“I don’t want to end up like the duck.”

“You won’t.” My hunger states confidently. For a moment, I believe it.

“Nonsense.” I declare. “The Hunger always does the same thing, it’s simple and predictable.”

My hunger is incredulous, “The evidence suggests that statement is false. Do you feel well?”

I do. I feel great. Stronger even then before all of this. I look at my skin. The web of silver there shines in the light as I move. “I’m okay.”

“That’s okay then, let’s carry on.” the Hunger suggests. We move further down the pass. Feeling good, I start to jog.

I run all day without tiring. My leg muscles don’t burn, my heart doesn’t pound, and I’m never short on breath. In the evening, the rain has subsided. I stop and drink from the creek. There are more dead fish and there is more of the silvered grass, but these things don’t trouble me. I scoop up some of the fish and open my mouth. I find that I can open it much further than usual and I swallow the dead fish whole. Convenient. After the day’s running I’m visibly thinner. I reach out my senses to search for food.

Most of the animals are dead, but I sense their remains, and I feel the mass of plant life as well. I open my maw and will the food to fly in. I can feel the Hunger lending strength to my call. The matter rushes in and I leave a wide swath of land in front of me stripped bare of organic life. I’m certainly not thin now, and as the Hunger consumes the new biomass within me, I will it to enlarge my body. I grow several inches taller, my clothes strain. I turn and open my maw to feed again, taking in more of the available energy.

“Is… this wrong?” I ask the Hunger.

“Wrong? No. It’s this world that seems wrong. What is all of this stuff? I swept this world so clean, long ago. So clean that I could sleep in peace. But now… Look at all of this. None of this should be here.”

“That sound. What was that sound?” I ask.

“Just a minor alarm, triggered by detection of the enemy.”

“Like me?” My body grows another inch taller as the recently absorbed biomass is converted into my flesh.

“No. You are not the enemy, of course, though you once shared their form. I don’t understand why. You will help me to investigate this phenomenon.”

“I don’t know how I could…” I am interrupted by the sight and roar of an enormous fireball streaking across the sky above me, flying towards the direction from which I came. I can’t see the impact, but I feel the Hunger react to the attack on its main mass.

“That’s odd.” the Hunger states as it reaches my senses out in the direction from which the fireball came. Several miles away, there is an enormous will accompanied by a sizable group of smaller ones. “One of those you think of as Gods. Show it to me.” I start running toward the unknown God.

More burning missiles rise and start to fall from the sky ahead of me. These are smaller, and they explode some height above the ground, spreading a burning fluid across the infected wasteland. I speak to my internal companion, “Perhaps it is trying to contain and sterilize you.” Another huge fireball streaks overhead as the smaller ones continue to rain down. I get caught under one of the small ones and I am coated in the clinging fire. I feel it damaging my flesh but not as real pain. I stop and will the dirt below me to rise and cake itself around me, quenching and cooling the flames. I redistribute my remaining unburned flesh to be a more human form. Then I take flight, rising above the scorched pass amid the streaking fireballs. From my new vantage point I see the sea and the source of the fireballs.

There is a giant ship anchored off shore, with great metal tubes pointed towards me, flashing as they belch fireballs. “Endeavor.” I think.

“The ship?” The Hunger asks.

“No, the God.” I have to dodge a fiery missile. “I think the ship is named ‘The Brazen.'” I fly down towards the shore and land on a large rock. Waves crash against the stone below me, and I am illuminated by each burst from The Brazen’s tubes as if it were some rhythmic lightning. Down here the land is not infected, I cannot feel the Hunger all around me. Only within me.

“Get closer.” The Hunger demands. I dive into the sea. Beneath the waves, the sea is teeming with life. Clinging mussels, barnacles, algae, urchins, and starfish. I open my maw and feed on the sea life, taking on mass. The water complicates the process, but not terribly. I start to swim towards the ship, staying deep. I’ve never known such pressure. It causes me no harm. As I approach, two mechanical things detach from the underside of The Brazen, but they don’t seem to notice me.

“Seems Endeavor has sensed something, but he doesn’t know what to make of me.” I think. The mechanical things are squid-like, with bright shining cores that remind me of the scythe-beasts. Magical constructs.

“Let me try something.” The Hunger says, and my arms reach out and then separate from my body. They stretch into long silvery eels that swim at the constructs. New arms begin to emerge from my shoulders.

“Lots of new experiences for me today.” I muse.

“Oh yes.” The Hunger agrees. “For me as well.” The constructs react as the eels approach, suddenly brandishing bright steel stingers on the ends of long multi-articulated whips. One of them lashes out and chops an eel in half. Silver particles fill the water instead of blood. The too halves of the eel morph into smaller eels and dart in towards the construct’s body where they glom their bodies up against it and begin to liquefy. The Hunger spreads over the surface of the first construct. The second construct shoots away from its eel with a contraction of its body.

Above, the booms from The Brazen’s firing tubes stop and shortly after the massive anchor starts to rise. I swim to it and grab on. When the anchor is some distance clear of the bottom, a new vibration starts and two great impellers near the aft of the ship start to turn in opposite directions. I see the silver Hunger finish enveloping the first construct, the shining core is no longer visible, and it sinks towards the sea floor. The second construct continues to evade the second eel, trying to draw it away from The Brazen.

The anchor ratchets its way up to a stop near the surface and halts. I climb up the huge chain to a hole high on the side of the hull. It’s easily big enough to climb through but I search ahead with my senses first. There are several people within securing the anchor chain winch. I reach my will out to the anchor chain below my feet and begin to dissolve the matter into dust which I gather in the air above my shoulder. As my void roots weaken the chain link, the metal starts to bend and strain. It gives with a loud snap and the chain below the anchor falls to the depths.

The Hunger within reaches through me to the dust I’d gathered and it begins to become silvery. I sense that the people within are distracted by the noise of the link snap and the sudden change in tension. I will the now silvery dust to fly up into the chain port and disperse into their faces, as I climb my way up after it. I pull myself in and I see the uniformed crew clawing at their faces and screaming. By the time I climb down from the winch apparatus, they are all lying on the floor, twitching silently. I reach down and place a hand on each of their heads, using the trick that the Hunger showed me on the chain dust to transform more of their flesh directly into the Hunger. I feel it spread quickly within them and it takes control of the lifeless bodies. I will them to stand and I send them out to feed and spread the infection. These are not the shambling Consumption victims I remember, these run recklessly, locking onto targets and pursuing them relentlessly.

I reach down to the wood floor and will more Hunger to form from it. It grows out in a radiant root-like pattern from my palm. I have infected The Brazen now. It will be the Hunger’s ship. I walk out into the hallway belowdecks. There are shouts and screams as my new crew feeds and spreads. I feel Endeavor’s crew fighting back, but their blades and crossbows do little to dissuade their attackers. I sense some stronger wills fighting with more effective weapons. Endeavor’s officers fight with magic, but they avoid the use of fire in a mistaken hope of saving the ship. I drag my hand along the wall as I head up to the deck, creating and spreading more Hunger. I feel it growing around me and it makes me feel stronger.

I reach the deck and turn to look upon the bridge. A stony-eyed mustachioed figure stares at me from behind thick glass. I feel the God’s disapproval as if it has several hundred pounds of weight. But my body is much stronger now and I step forward. “Hmm…” The Hunger within me muses. “So this is what you call a God.” The God raises a hand, signaling to someone behind him. There is a sudden hissing sound as hatches open above the bridge and some sort of fabric inflates into huge rope bound balloons which float upwards and start to lift the bridge away. I try to move faster, try to reach and infect the hidden airship before it gets away. Endeavor frowns and the weight upon me increases. The bridge rises away from the decks of the ship. Fleeing human crew divert to diving overboard or fleeing to some of the vessel’s dinghies. They seem eager to clear the deck. The weight of Endeavor’s gaze is still upon me but it is getting lighter as the airship gains altitude.

On the underside of the airship, doors open and six of those firing tubes appear and start to swivel towards me. They belch flame and the missiles burst overhead, spreading the liquid fire over the deck and my body. I struggle to the rail under the weight of the God’s anger. The liquid burns and burns. I manage to flop over the rail and fall into the water. The liquid keeps burning. I swim downwards. The pressure builds and eventually snuffs the fire out. I shed the burned flesh and find myself much smaller than before. A shark catches me in its mouth. silver spreads out from my flesh and coats the beast’s teeth, and then moves into its flesh. It reopens its mouth to get rid of the problematic meal and I take the opportunity to swim deeper into it. The silver Hunger envelopes the shark and I will it to reshape the mass into my humanoid form. The airship thoroughly bombards The Brazen, and I see flames raging all around the shadow of the vessel above me at the otherwise black surface.

“You have done well.” The Hunger assures me.

“What are they then, these Gods?” I ask.

The question hangs without a response in my mind for a moment. “A nuisance for me. For you, they will be food. Let’s see if we can create more servants.” I swim back to shore, and I pause to watch the burning ship break apart and sink. I cannot see the airship, but I hear explosions from beyond the coastal highlands, as Endeavor continues the fight. I run back up into the pass, to the infected wastelands.

It’s late in the night now, but I feel no need or desire for sleep. When I get back to the infected lands I sit in the silver grass and I reach out to the Hunger. Its senses are enormous, too much to handle all at once. I concentrate on a familiar landmark, miles and miles away. A fortress in the hills on the border of the wastelands. Banonope. An ancient stronghold of the necromancers, conquered by the Order of the Magisters during the latest War of the Gods and converted into a prison for the immortal lichs that had survived to be captured and later for other magic using criminals. If any would make fitting servants of the Hunger, it would be them.

“Perfect.” The Hunger comments. “Would you like to attack tonight?”

“Impossible. It’s several days run from here.”

“Let me move you there faster.” The Hunger says, and I feel my body becoming liquid silver and flowing down into the grass. The Hunger pulls me along itself underground through a network of silvery roots and rhizomes along and just under the surface of the infected wastelands. I’ve no sense of direction for the journey, and I can’t quite grasp what is really happening as I travel. But shortly, I am reforming again, rising from the former flesh of a bear that was consumed by Hunger in an unfamiliar valley. I feel the same. I’m still me.

“Are you?” I new voice inside asks. “Don’t you even remember what you were thinking this morning?”

I remember that’d I’d been feeling a strong hunger in the morning. “Of course.” I respond and the voice disappears. I get the feeling that it had not achieved whatever it had wanted.

I reach out my senses and map the immediate terrain. I’m about five miles upland from Banonope. I exude a copy of my old magisters robe and I hide the silvery web that marks my skin. There is no God at Banonope, so I can just walk in under guise as myself. I start to walk down. It’s better not to use my unnatural running ability as I could be noticed by normal magical sense even at this distance, and I don’t want to appear to be anything more than a magister looking for a little refuge and shelter. The walk tests my patience, but I make it to the high walls of the fortress before daylight. The fortress was built from massive irregular blocks of granite that were inexplicably made to fit together perfectly. Nevertheless, the walls show age and battle damage, and a pile of fallen granite rip rap rings them.

A hooded magister waits in front of the gates, watching as I make my final approach. Two more wait on the walls, no doubt having prepared some magic to unleash against me if I should prove a threat. When he sees my robe he lowers his hood, and smiles, reaching out a hand to me. I smile back.

Dread and Sorrow

(Heed the title, this is no tale of mirth. This story belongs to same world as Upheaval. and these events occur subsequent to the events of that story.)

It’s not easy for an orphan to stay alive in the city of Dread and Sorrow. The gangs and cults want to use them, and the guilders mostly turn a blind eye. They’ve got their own children to look after, and bringing in orphans often creates troubles with gangs or cults. If an orphan child should make it to a healthy youth, then there are work crews that recruit in the city for soldiering, farming, mining, or sailing. I, for one, got roped into a gang of toughs. Quite literally at first, but I managed to talk my way out of the restraints and into some time to heal my wounds. It has cost other people for me to keep myself alive in the gang, but I have peace with that because I steer the gang’s activities toward people that are no good. I don’t consider myself a big hero or anything. More like I scavenge or predate from the predators.

I’m with Cutter on a bit of a stalk. We heard a few nights back about a big stir up in the cults. Decrees from Dread and Sorrow themselves, supposedly. The cults are mustering up, getting ready to join together for some holy war or something. Not really our problem, but we heard that a small cult’s been rounding up children as recruits. It is supposedly a trick to give the cult leader a higher rank in the new army, because of a rumor that the ranks are based on follower counts. After we heard that I got to talking with Cutter about how we were once wee orphans and what we would do to be saved from being forced into some cult army, and how we could use some trustworthy little ones for casing and spying. Cutter liked my talk well enough and now we’re tracking the cult leader.

He’s a lanky one, the cult leader, taller than both of us, and easy to pick out in a crowd, even in the city’s near perpetual gloom. He’s covered in a black robe with figures of flame and strife in red stitching, indicating a worship of Dread. The faithful of Dread can be dangerous sorts, seeking in their services to inspire in others or themselves a feeling of deep dread. This is not to say that every Dread worshiper is sacrificing the innocent on a weekly basis, more often they just recount tales of horror to eachother. But there are those that prefer to create the tales of horror themselves, and those in the cults that protect such monsters from what little justice can be had by appeal to the city guard or the Order of the Magisters. I think that this one is closer to the monstrous variety rather than the storytelling type.

The lanky one ducks down an alley, and Cutter gives me a nudge. We push faster through the evening throngs to the alley, and we see the lanky one standing with a heavy door open, watching us. I meet Cutter’s eyes and give a little nod towards the cultist. We approach him looking friendly and curious. “We meet in two days, but it’s not a good time to join up just now.” He calls. “War’s on. If you join up now, you’ll be called to march with us.”

That bugs me, and I drop the smile. “I heard you’ve been looking pretty hard for new recruits. Little ones especially. Figured I’d inquire.”

The lanky one’s eyes narrow, and he practically snarls, “Oh, really. Best we carry this on in private then.” He holds the door open and gestures in to us. I think about punching him in the face right then, but it’d be better inside. I place a hand on Cutter’s shoulder to gently press towards the door so he doesn’t try to shiv the cultist too soon. Cutter reaches a hand into his coat as we step through the door.

There’s not much in the dark interior to suggest a cult meeting place. I don’t see a lamp or candle by the entrance to light, which is an odd oversight, but the darkness serves us alright for now. Cutter sidesteps into the darkness next to the open door and waits in ambush. I stand a few steps in, facing the door, looking relaxed. The lanky one steps in and turns his back to me as he pulls the door closed. When I hear the latch, I surge forward and slam his head into the door. I press it against the wood as I grab his wrist and twist his arm behind his back. “Thought you could get away with stealing some kiddies, eh?” I hiss into his ear. “Cutter and I don’t like that much.” Cutter steps up behind me, a short, sharp blade clutched in his hand and held low near his waist.

It takes a moment for the lanky one to say anything, “You’ve got it wrong. I thought you were the ones that came for children.” Something gritty suddenly flies from the door into our eyes and I have to pinch mine shut. More of the stuff comes and tries to flow into my nose and mouth. It’s got a woody smell and flavor. I try to heave the lanky one over and down so I can free my hands to defend my face, but instead he pushes off the door and shoves me back into Cutter. I fall to the floor and try to cover my face as the stuff keeps trying to get in. I hear the lanky one’s now calm and confident voice, “I’m a magister. I’ve been getting those children out of here. Now, are you going to stay calm?”

“Oh Aye, enough of this.” Cutter gasps.

“Yeah alright.” I agree, and cough as some of the stuff gets in when I speak.

“Good.” The gritty stuff stops trying to get into our eyes and lungs, and I see it fly up to a point over the lanky one’s shoulder where it condenses into a ball and lights up. In the new light, I see a strange pattern of gouges in the door radiating out from where I’d had him pressed up. “Now tell me who you are and why you’re here.”

“Just as we said.” I hauled myself up from the floor. “We didn’t like what we heard about what you were doing. Still don’t.” I look around the room and see little more than small living quarters. There are no alters, no statues, not even a pennant indicating any fealty toward Dread. “My associate and I are concerned citizens.”

“Uh-huh.” The lanky one sounded unconvinced. “Suppose you are concerned citizens, are you concerned enough to help me out tonight?” Cutter shakes his head.

“Suppose we just get out of here…” Cutter says, trying to shove the lanky one out of the way of the door. The lanky one holds his ground, and where Cutter grabs him the cult robe bunches up around his hands and starts flowing over his arms. Cutter tries to pull his arms back, but they’re stuck firm in the cloth. The lanky one shrugs out of the robe and leaves it flowing up Cutter’s arms and over his head and body. He watches me closely and I see more of the strange gouges appear in the floor at his feet and light brown dust flies up from them into a flat swirling disk which forms between us. With his strange cloud up, I see him walk to a wardrobe and pull out a magister’s robe. I’d seen the like before, and I usually try to steer clear of them, given the frequently illegal activities of the gang.

Cutter keeps struggling inside of the flowing cloth trap, but I hear his rapid breathing and cursing, so I know he’s not suffocating. He manages to get a little rip started and the magister grabs a few shirts from his wardrobe and tosses them on Cutter, where they sort of melt into and thicken the cloth mass and seal the rip. “You really are a magister.” I say, trying to keep eyes on both the wriggling and gasping cloth mass of Cutter and the magister and his ominous dust swirl.

“Just as I said, and if you won’t help me tonight, I’ll need the two of you to stay right here until the job is done.”

Cutter’s curse filled retort was largely inaudible from under the cloth mass, but the magister and I understand well enough. The cloth mass pulls him down to the floor and then stretches him flat on his back before the cloth fibers sort of meld into the wood flooring, trapping Cutter snugly. I raise my hands non-threateningly towards the magister, “What’s this business of yours, then?”

“Some Dread cults are gathering tonight for a human sacrifice, they think it’ll give them luck in the coming war.” The magister meets my eyes, “I aim to interfere.”

“Just the two of us? Against several Dread cults? Bad odds, those.” I eye up Cutter’s cozy looking cocoon.

“I talked the other cult leaders into giving me some time with the sacrifice to make preparations before the ceremony.” The magister explained. “I don’t know what condition the victim will be in, and I might need another pair of hands to help pull them out. So you’ll pose as my personal torturer.”

“It’s a lot of trouble.” I realize. “Is this victim someone to you?”

The magister’s brow furrows. “The victim isn’t a sacrifice yet, and shouldn’t be one.”

The response seemed a little simplistic, almost childish to me. But I found myself liking it just fine. “Alright then, but I’m no actor.”

“That’s okay, we’ll let your disguise do the acting for you.” The magister said, eyeing me up and down and smiling as if he’d just thought of a joke. “You got a name?”

“A few.” I admit, “But none proper. Yourself?”

“In this city…” The magister turns to rummage through the wardrobe. “…I am properly called Canis.”

“A proper Canis, then.” I smirk. “Got it.”

The magister hands me a large black robe which flows over my body, covering me from head to toe. I feel my own clothes disappear into it. “This is the disguise, then, Canis?” I ask awkwardly.

“It is indeed.” The floating dust swirl flows into my robe and it starts to harden in places into a substance like leather. I see some spikes emerge, and raised red patterns in the style of Dread. I feel a belt emerge and on it various blades and hooks formed from some black material with little weight. Light as they are, I doubt that they would be of any use except as ornaments for the disguise. There is no looking glass in the room, but I imagine I look a fright. Canis asks, “How is the fit?”

“Best I’ve ever had. Don’t care much for the style, though.”

Canis smiles. “Help me well tonight, and I’ll make you whatever garb you wish.” I nodded appreciatively. At my best in terms of clothing, I’d recovered some clothes that’d been stolen from a well-off guilder. They fit poorly, but had looked and felt great to me nevertheless. Time and hard use had taken them from me eventually, but I learned the value of a good set of clothes, and I doubt I could do better than what Canis could produce with his magic.

As Canis donned his own attire for the evening, I kneel down next to the prone and cloth covered Cutter, and whisper in his ear, “You all right?” His muffled response sounds like assent. “Good. Did you hear the plan?” Again, Cutters muffled assent. “Right then, I’ll be back tonight to get you loose.” A less enthused grunt this time. I give him some reassuring pats and get back to my feet.

Canis has donned a scarlet robe hemmed with gold around the hood. He grabs a large staff from the wall which appears to be formed from a number of sticks that are twisted together. At the top, the sticks spread out to form a twisted spherical cage. Canis holds the top of the staff in front of his face and looks at it hard. The top spherical shape unravels and reforms into a more malicious looking twin prong fork with pointed ends. “Are you ready, torturer?” Canis asks in an assumed voice, laced with malice.

I growl wordlessly in response, practicing letting the disguise do the intimidation. Canis bobs his hood in appreciation and moves brusquely toward the door. “Then we’re off.”

I follow the cloaked magister through the alleys and streets, marking the path we take in case I have to return alone to cut Cutter free. I also mark the hateful or fearful gazes that we get as we pass through a wider birth in the streets than I have ever enjoyed. No one wants to bump into either of us accidentally.

Canis leads us to a low stone meeting hall surrounded by Dread cultists, more than I’ve ever seen in one area. They are packed in front of the closed double doors of the hall up to a semicircle of cruelly spiked barricades and black robed cultists with drawn swords. Approaching the edge of the crowd, and seeing that no one moves out of the way, Canis knocks the butt of his staff against the cobblestones and one of the sticks of the staff begins to glow bright orange. He then points the staff ahead of him and begins to walk forward confidently. The crowd parts.

Some of the cultists in the crowd are fully robed, and some are more plainly dressed with arm or head bands of red or black with various fearful patterns. Almost all of them share in common a predatory demeanor and gaze, as if everything that they see is a potential meal. I know that these are the worst sort, the sort that wants to inspire the stories of Dread.

We reach the barricades and Canis stops. I stop behind him, trying to look as though everything is going to plan. “Move.” Canis growls. Two of the cult guards pull a barricade out of the way to let us pass. We walk towards the doors and they open in front of us without anyone appearing to have touched them. I can’t tell if it is Canis’ magic or some cultist trick. The interior is torchlit, but dark. As we step in the doors slam shut behind us. Canis jumps a little in surprise at the sound. I raise my eyebrow invisibly behind my mask.

Four of the black robed cult guards stand in front of another set of double doors on the far end of the dimly lit antechamber. Canis strides forward and I follow at his flank. One of them takes a step forward and addresses us, “Here for the sacrifice?”

“Yes.” Canis hisses menacingly. “Where?” The speaker motions towards the double doors and two of the guards pull them open, and the others move out of the way.

The meeting hall is brightly lit with roaring wall sconces. There are no chairs or pews tonight, just scarlet carpet laid over the stone floor and tapestries of the same color on the walls. The smell of burning oil is strong. At the far end of the hall there is a raised dais where three scarlet cloaked figures wait near an empty stone table that is outfitted with various leather and steel bands and restraints. Canis walks forward to meet them and I follow, sweating in my disguise.

“The Canis has arrived.” One of the scarlet figures bobs her red hood towards us. This one is leaning on the stone table, and stitched in gold on the back of her robe is the image of an eagle with outstretched wings perched above an over-sized skull. A wide, muscular one turns to face us with an evil chuckle. His hands are joined in front of him, hidden inside of great scarlet sleeves. The third figure draws two long thin blades and steps effortlessly up onto the stone table and then leaps impossibly over us. I turn and watch the figure land lightly and start to walk towards us.

Canis taps the butt of this staff on the ground and releases some wave of force that I feel pressing my body back like a sudden gust of wind as it passes us. It’s not enough force to cause any harm, it feels like more of a warning. “I don’t have time for games tonight. Where is the sacrifice?”

The woman stands upright and lowers her hood. She grins toothily. “Oh, Canis. You ARE the sacrifice, and look, you’ve brought another victim.”

Canis lifts his staff in both hands and it starts to shine more brightly. The bigger tough-looking cult leader whips two knives out of his sleeves and they fly unerringly into my companion’s shoulders. His staff drops. I feel sharp steel pressed into the side of my neck. Evidently, the swordsman caught up behind me during the brief distraction. I see the muscular one pull another pair of knives out of his sleeves and hold them at the ready.

Around Canis’ feet, dust starts to rise out of the carpet in that same strange pattern that I’d seen on the door earlier, but much larger this time. The muscular one flicks another knife out. Some of the dust seems to try to rush to meet it but does nothing to stop it from piercing into one of Canis’ thighs. The eagle-skull woman steps forward and places a hand on the ground several feet in front of Canis. There is a rumbling and sharp stone spikes start to rise from the floor all around the magister. Most of them rise to form cage around him but some are angled to pierce through his arms, legs, and torso. Canis roars in pain and frustration. None of the wounds are aimed to kill.

Canis is now hung up upon bloody stone spikes in front of me, unable to move except for painful looking convulsions. The muscular cult leader walks up, smiling cruelly, and dust flows up from the floor at his feet and packs itself around Canis’ wounds, blocking some of the blood loss.

The eagle-skull woman’s head pokes out around Canis’ bloody stone stockade and stares at me. “Is the sacrifice properly prepared, torturer?”

“I reckon so.” I say and nod carefully, keenly aware of the sword at my neck. The magister and I weren’t friends, but I sympathize with his goals and I’m not happy to see him about to be ritualistically murdered. I also feel a strong urge not to join him in his condition.

“No.” The woman states matter-of-factly. “No. I think he could use another cut. Give him one for me, will you?”

I grunt and heft a small curved knife from the belt. I test the edge with my thumb. Whatever material it is, it holds the edge well enough. I feel the sword lift from my neck. “Good. Make the first cut, torturer.” I walk up to Canis’ side and avoid looking up to his face as I lift the blade and rake it cruelly along his side, producing a deep cut. Canis convulses in pain as the blood wells up. “Well done.” The woman congratulates me earnestly. “Stand aside now.”

The double doors of the main hall open and the cultists from outside enter in a loose line, each carrying a bare blade or hook. Each one cuts or stabs Canis and then moves to the side to watch the ongoing torture. My mask hides my horror, their faces seem eager, scornful, or gleeful. As more and more cultists join us in the hall, Canis is reduced to a bloody mess, barely reacting to each new wound. I avoid looking his way whenever possible, but the faces of the cultists and their leaders aren’t much better. It’s like they’re seeing and doing something else, it’s as if none of this really matters. I start to explore that meaninglessness. I think back to how clever I felt when I’d talked my way out of that first beating, and I see that it led me to here anyway, to nothing. I consider the thrill of fleeing after a good caper, and I see that those chases brought me to nothing. I realize that the nothing is better than the horror and anxiety. I stop thinking about what the cultists will do to me once they’ve finished with Canis. I stop worrying about what’ll happen to Cutter if I don’t make it back to him. I stop hating the uncaring cruelty of these cultists. I plunge into the nothingness.

The line of cultists tapers off and ends. The three cult leaders approach Canis and lay hands on the bloody stone spikes. They dissolve into dust, and Canis slumps to the floor. The muscular one and the swordsman lift Canis up and lay him on the stone table on the dais. Blood runs down the gray stone as if the carpet were a catching condition. The room smells of blood, sweat, and burning oil. It is unnecessary to bind Canis to the table.

A darkness appears at the entrance to the hall, and the flames in the sconces lower. The cultists fall silent and turn to stare at the doors. Now, I see fear in their faces. I feel nothing.

The darkness moves into the room and in the dimming light I see a large humanoid with a body seemingly composed entirely of miniature humans somehow writhing in and bound together by viscous ink. Most of the cultists are holding their breath, the three cult leaders bow their heads. Dread itself walks into the meeting hall and approaches the dais.

“We march tomorrow.” The pressure of the god’s voice causes the gathered cultists to gasp or shrink back, many of them fall to their knees. My body registers the strange force of the words, but I feel nothing. “The Hunger has been awoken as it has not been for millennia. It will consume all if we fail to end it. This magister would undermine our war efforts and will now be made to serve Dread.” Dread stops a few feet short of the dais and stretches out an arm towards Canis. The arm elongates, makes contact with the bloody mass and starts to flow over and around magister. I am reminded of the trick that Canis had first pulled on Cutter. Soon the remains are covered in the God’s inky substance and he lifts it from the table as if the mass were an over-sized fist at the end of an impossible arm. The arm starts to contract and the mass that was once Canis disappears into the writhing inky flesh of the God, and the arm reforms into its more standard form.

I realize that the God is looking at me. All around me the cultists are cowering or kneeling. My body notes a pressure from the gaze, but it inspires no particular emotion in me. “Attend my wife.” The God commands. Dread and Sorrow are said to be wed, whatever that means for Gods. I know nothing of attending the Goddess, and I don’t really care about the command.

Dread turns and walks out of the hall. The cultists, even the cult leaders are still overcome with fear and horror. I wriggle my way out of the crowd and walk out of the hall. The streets outside are silent except for a weeping woman across the way. The sound attracts me and I approach. The woman is seated on the street, obviously overcome by the sight of Dread. I kneel down and envelope her in my arms until her crying subsides. The embrace starts to feel awkward and I release her and stand. There is something bright in her eyes when she looks up, but it disappears into confusion when she looks at my mask and my cold eyes.

I wander away. I almost forget about Cutter, but after a few aimless blocks I go back to the hall and then start to retrace my steps to the late magister’s abode. I turn down the little alley and see several of the black robed cult guards standing outside the magister’s home with torches, and flames are roaring out of the open door. Cutter is probably dead then. Burned alive in confusion with no hope for escape. I feel a little twinge of emotional pain at that, but it is brief, and the nothingness returns shortly.

The nothingness within speaks again, “Let me show you a new enemy.” My sense stretches to dizzying lengths, to distances which I never knew were possible, across landscapes that differ so completely from my city that I do not comprehend them. There, far away, is an enormous mass of bright, glowing, and growing life. I find it offensive. “This is The Hunger. Join me at the keep tonight, we will march with Dread tomorrow.”

I hear a voice from the nothingness, “Attend to me, my chosen.” The voice of the abyss is female and I drown in it. “I can show you how to bring the nothing into the world.” I become aware of the world around me as I’ve never been before. It is so active and so alive. It seems wrong. Ahead of me down the alley, I feel concentrated points of life. The Dread cult guards. The air is nicely cold and still. I close my eyes and will the air to gather around the guards. More and more and more until the concentrated points of life start to fade. I open my eyes and I see the guards burning in the thickened air of the alley, their eyes bulging and their skin blistering. This seems right to me.

I wander towards the keep. Dread cultists are running amok. Fires are raging all around the city. I hear intermittent shouts and screams. Blacksmiths’ forges are roaring and cultists are dropping off stolen iron and steel. The smiths work under savage guard to hammer out swords, pike tips, and arrow heads. Great numbers of the cultists line the streets around the keep in irregular units.

Some of the gathered cultists challenge me, and I will the nothing to fling them out of my path. I expect this to be sufficient to secure undisturbed passage, but someone tests me further by firing an arrow at me. I brush it away in flight like an obnoxious fly.

At the gates of the keep a well-armored and well-disciplined force is gathered. Some of them call at me, but otherwise they ignore my movement. Some women in gray dresses wait by the gate. The gray seems so bright amid the blacks and reds of Dread. Their dresses and hair move with an odd delay in settling down as gravity would pull them, as though they are having difficulty being convinced that they aren’t underwater. It is so beautiful. I will my torturer’s garb to the same gray and eliminate the spikes and hard leather bits. My newly gray robes flow in the air as if it were too thick. The women see me and begin to flow in my direction.

Expressionlessly, they place hands on me and I on them. Their hands are cold, as are their bodies. I feel the nothing within them and it is right. “Sorrow awaits.” One states hollowly.

Upheaval.

A blast of force and fire woke us. Likely from Wryan who’d had the second watch that night for our camp. I leapt out of bed, just in time to avoid the swipe of a bony scythe the size of a tree which tore through the tent canvas and my bedding before lifting the whole tent away, ripping away its tiedowns. I reached my senses out reflexively, so I sensed another scythe slicing in from the right and ducked. Marris was cleaved in half by the brutal swipe as she struggled up. I took off at a sprint away from the general direction the scythes seemed to be coming from, and I called to the dirt, air, and wood around me. The materials answered my call and dissolved into dust in whip like tendrils from the earth and trees that I rushed past. This matter chased after me in a cloud much bigger than my footsteps could ever have raised, ready to be formed to my purposes. I sensed I’d gained some distance from the monster, and turned.

The thing was all hard bone and magic. Numerous wide spade edged legs surrounded its shining core like a shield wall, and it held at the ready three long segmented limbs ending in the familiar deadly scythes. The spade legs were slicing forward in sequence as the monster built speed toward Wryan who floated among the trees with four swirls of matter rotating in the air in front of him. I rose in the air myself as two of Wryan’s matter swirls tightened their spins, flashed bright, and streaked towards the monster. The other magister immediately floated back to maintain distance, as one of his bolts shot straight and fast towards the monster’s bright core and the other followed an arcing path over the wall of its legs. I gathered more matter and shaped it into one great brown swirl above me. Wryan’s straight shot splashed into the creature’s foremost spade legs and the force and fire did little but rock the legs back and leave a blackened soot on the hard bone. Meanwhile the creature met the arcing shot with blurring swipes of its scythe arms, breaking up the force and flame before it could reach the core.

Wryan had paused in the air to draw some small dark objects from the pockets of his robes which he threw into his two matter swirls as he called up more matter from around him to start forming two more. The creature sliced on towards him. Wryan was adding some of his antimagic slugs to his next shots, small chunks of magic destroying material encased in an inert shell, one of the most effective tools in a magister’s arsenal. My own antimagics were lost in the tent, but I could help to give Wyran some time. I willed my large matter swirl to contract and ignite, and sent it forward with high speed and force. My large shot hit the thing’s spade legs harder than Wryan’s shot had and it had to pause to regain its balance. It didn’t seem to have been injured and after one of its scythe arms poised in my direction for an instant, an acknowledgment of my status as a threat, perhaps, it carried on towards Wryan.

There is a tendency, in a heated battle, for magisters to direct all of their expanded sense and attention toward one narrow area, in this case for Wryan and I, toward a vicious boney horror that had just slaughtered our friend. We train to reduce this sense tunneling, to set aside some small part of our attention to watch for certain threat indicators around us, but to achieve that successfully generally requires some preparation and focus. When a magister has time to prepare for battle, there is time to build enhanced attention structures and myriad weapon preparations which have historically made a unit of magisters able to challenge the Gods themselves. But there simply wasn’t time to prepare all of that this morning, and the creature might well have stealth abilities which had permitted it to sneak up on camp without giving Wryan time to alert us.

Regardless of the explanation, I was only alerted to the ambush when my call for more matter to prepare another shot met hateful, unyielding bone. I shot forward through the sparse and mostly barren trees and narrowly dodged the swipe of a scythe from a second monster. My heart felt like it would explode from my chest from the exertions of will, and I had to consciously force my body to take a breath. I reached sense toward Wryan’s position and encountered a wave of shock and pain from his dying mind. A scythe from a third beast had pierced his chest and his swirls of matter dispersed into brown disk clouds as the will which had called them disappeared. The third beast swiped its corpse laden scythe past a tree to dislodge its gruesome burden, and then all three monsters were converging towards me.

With no allies left and no weapon but my will, I flew. These hills were filled with dangers beyond the immediate threat of the scythe-beasts, and it is unwise to stay airborne here long even if it weren’t an exhausting means of transport. I flew up and over a low ridge and circled around a hill and down into a shear sided valley. It was probably only a mile from the camp but, it’d be a much longer hike, even for the shovel-legged scythe-beasts. I came down by a creek, gasping from the exertion of battle and flight. My mouth was dry and I scooped up some of the cool water without stopping to check if it was tainted. The water tasted sweet. I crawled up against a stone which blocked the early sun and put my back against it, crossing my legs in front of me. I closed my eyes and waited for my heart to settle. Not dwelling on the morning events yet. Not recalling the last mildly annoyed look on Marris face, nor the echo from Wryan’s dying mind.

The scythe-beasts’ shining cores belied their purely magical origin. Those things were built by the Gods or their clerics to battle against other Gods. This region had been the site of huge conflicts in the last great war of the Gods, and had been left a blighted wasteland after the fighting died down. That had been a over a hundred years ago, and the land had barely recovered. There were still leftover traps and pollutions, no less dangerous today then on the date they were placed, and some of the more monstrous warriors had gone feral and settled the territory, their descendants evolving to become this wasteland’s natives. Worse still were the constructs, like the scythe-beasts. These patrolled ancient paths in accordance with ancient schedules or simply lie in wait with orders to ambush any passersby. The Gods were rarely conservative in the creation of such machines, sometimes imbuing them with power matching that of demigods or otherwise giving them singularly powerful or insidious weapons to accomplish special missions. And rumors placed a few demigods or even gods hiding or bound somewhere in these treacherous lands.

It was one of these rumors that had brought us here. A tale of a demigod holed up in ruins. Not ruins left from the war, nor from some pre-war settlement. These were ruins from before the Hunger had washed over the world. The Magister’s Temple of Justice was built near such, and I’d walked among the alien seeming constructs and studied their works and methods. Such ruins provide the Magister’s best weapons against the Gods and their monsters, antimagic materials. These materials either ignore magical power or actively destroy it (and any living thing in general). The Gods’ power cannot directly act upon or defend against such materials, making them a great source of power for the Order of Magisters, and making them forbidden contraband among the Gods and their followers. It was mostly unheard of for Gods to wield such weapons themselves, and those instances which had occurred were decried as the most hateful betrayals, typically resulting in the rogue God’s rapid defeat at the vengeful hands of its peers.

This made this particular tale all the more intriguing. The previously unknown ruins were excuse enough to investigate, if only to secure another potential source of antimagics for the Magisters. But why would a demigod place itself so near a source of the deadly forbidden? The High Magisters wanted an investigation and so had I. I’d hoped to uncover some devious scheme or at least stock up on some antimagic weaponry. Marris’ motivations were more academic, hoping to discover something new about that lost ancient world. Wryan enjoyed adventure and exploration, but I think that he had come to discover more about Marris. But all of those hopes and goals had been destroyed, shredded like canvas by a boney scythe. Now there was little left to do but try to survive and escape to friendlier territory, and that is what I resolved to do up there with the cold stone at my back and the sound of the creek in my ears.

The scythe-beasts had different plans for me, however. I didn’t notice them as first when I reached out my senses to map out my new environs, but a nagging suspicion that they had some kind of protection against magical detection made me search not just for the monsters themselves but also for signs of their passing. I found no rhythmic thumping of the earth, nor suspiciously large eddies of air. What I did find was stones rolling down the hillside, below the path that I had flown over. It was odd thing to perceive, stones rolling down the hillside, originating from three concentrated points in a sparse line formation, with no associated disturbance. The scythe-beasts were very cleverly camouflaged from magical perception, but not perfectly. I was lucky to have noticed them, but unlucky in that they seemed to be tracing my flight path somehow, straight towards my little sanctuary, and their shovel legs were making pretty good time on the difficult terrain.

It was time to get moving. The more distance between them and me, the better. I located a path down from my position and I set off, mostly on foot. Bare foot in fact, and still in my thin sleep-wear. I called for wood fibers and wove them into soft shoes and garb. The quick clothes were rough, but I could tune them up as I went.

The scythe-beasts were tracking me without relying on any obvious physical evidence, so calling softly to the matter around me to hide the signs of my passage wouldn’t slow them down, but they aren’t the only danger here, and my earlier flight could have attracted the attention of more of the old battlefield’s remnants and denizens, so I took the precaution and picked my way down along the path of the creek, deeper into the mist-cloaked valley.

I set up my perceptions to watch for dangers around me, to track the scythe-beasts as well as I could, and to scout out the path ahead. The mists reduced conventional visibility, but that didn’t slow me down much. With my senses I traced the path of the creek to a lake below. Foliage grew well around the creek, but seemed to give the lake some space, suggesting fouled water. A seasonal outflow from the lake cut a path further down into the wider pass that we’d been following before the attack.

My senses detect life around me. Some of it familiar, some less so. I pause to investigate some suspicious movements parallel to my path. They pause as well. My mundane senses feel the morning chill, the mists reduce visibility, and I smell wet cinder. My magical senses detect the motion of a body a little under the size of an average human, but no heat, no breathing, no heart beat. It stays still, I sense a wariness, but the other will detects my own and blocks me out. Something with some intelligence. It makes no hostile move. I continue on my way. The watcher doesn’t follow. If my companions were still with me, I would investigate further, but now that I’m on my own and on the run, I decide it’s not worth the risk.

After I go a short way the unknown thing sends me an image. It is of myself, looking somewhat nobler than I suspect I currently do, with a mossy skeleton standing before me with palms up and open, and with its arms spread. This was no mere animal. The image suggests a request for a peaceful meeting, and also suggests that my new pursuer was some type of reanimated skeleton. I’d seen many types of animated skeletons, ranging from mere magical puppets to real lichs with their full and dreadful intelligence and magical powers intact. In between were various sorts of magical constructs with varying degrees of intelligence and power. Crueler Gods sometimes amused themselves with creating weapons, traps, and servants from the remains of their enemies. This creature could be a significant threat.

I send back some images of my own. Me sternly pointing away, and the mossy skeleton walking away, and then an image of that first scythe-beast as it had looked on its march towards Wryan. A dismissal and a warning.

I receive a response in the form of an image of myself and the mossy skeleton hiding behind a boulder as the scythe-beasts passed. Another image comes of the mossy skeleton beckoning me down a path to a golden bright valley. I sense that the unknown thing is approaching me again. Another image comes of me lounging on a throne among riches, being served wine by the skeleton. The thing picks up speed in its approach and I block it from my mind, and sprint out of its path. As it leaps with an unearthly roar to my former position, searching for its prey, I see its true form.

My new foe indeed consists of mossy human bone, but quite a few liberties were taken with the assembly. This construct is like a large cat in shape and movement, but its body is all closely packed ribs and limb bones, and its back and sides had ridges of sharpened bone ends protruding outward. Its head swivels around searching for me and I call up a small stone and fling it away from me. When the stone clacks against a larger stone outcropping, the thing’s head locks on the direction of the sound and it opens its maw and roars again. The head consists of three split skulls which part to reveal rows of sharpened flanges and carpals, which spiral down into the hollow core of the monster, promising an unfortunate fate for any flesh which enters there. It bunches its body up and flings itself toward the sound of the stone.

I call for more stone, thick invisible cords like roots writhe out from me, dissolving stone into thick dust clouds where ever they touch it. The dust flows to me and I will it to condense in the air into tight

spheres the size of my head. The creature is hunting for me again, and a zephyr clears enough of the mist to reveal me to its visual senses. It bounds towards me and I fling two stone dust spheres at it. They hit, but do not bash or explode. Rather I will them to expand a little as they make contact so that they pass around the creatures bones and then I tighten them again. The sudden weight knocks the thing down, and I send more dust, piling mass on it. It struggles in vane. I call to the matter below it and ask it to dissolve into dust and vibrate. The thing sinks deeper into the stone dust column that I made for it. I release the dust now, and it all goes still. The only sign of the struggle is the odd patch of grey dust before me in the stone, and the void root pattern of my matter gathering carved into the stone around my feet. My senses detect tiny vibrations as the newly entombed construct struggles vainly to move inside its dust locked tomb.

I am terribly tired now. My head is swimming. I can’t reach out my senses to check on the progress of the scythe-beasts behind. I stumble on, down towards the lake. Away from the known danger, but perhaps toward more horrors.

I pause to take water from the creek. The cool wetness feels good, but it does little to settle my frayed mind. I see some light bruising on some of my exposed skin. Extreme exertions of will for a magic user have been known to cause breakdowns of the mind and body. Fits of rage or despair or states of disassociation are relatively common. Breakdown of internal connective tissue leading to bruising, however, is less so and indicative of a worse case. These thoughts swim past my mind’s attention without attracting it. It simply didn’t matter much. I’d flown today and fought in two surprise battles, and if need be I’ll fight again and fly again. As I think that, I imagine calling the matter around me to fight again, and the mere imagining sends a lance of pain into my forehead. No matter. I have to keep moving. I tell my body to lean a little so that I can pull a leg out from under me so that I can plant it and haul myself back up. Instead, my leaning just seems to keep on going and I find myself lying on my side on the stone near the creek. Suddenly the thought of standing just feels so wrong, and I close my eyes. What was I thinking trying to move from this spot? I lose consciousness.

There is a crashing sound. I roll over even though my whole body hurts, and I open my eyes. There beside my a pale red tree is sticking out of the ground. Not a tree. I roll again, harder, but too late and a second scythe scores my back and pins my shirt. I will the shirt to fall apart and lurch up, and leap into the air in an impossible jump to avoid the swing of the third scythe. I take on altitude and see the three scythe beasts with their scythes held in the air in their ready position, with the points towards me, as those unstoppable bone shovel legs carry them forward.

My head hurts, and I feel woozy. I shouldn’t be flying. Blood drips down my back. I fly over to the high edge of the valley and land on shaky, numb legs. The pins and needles feeling in my feet almost brings me to my knees. But I turn and watch. The God-made constructs try to scrabble up the steep wall to reach me, but the stone is too shear, and their sharp edged legs can neither puncture it nor find purchase. They don’t stop. They just keep trying to pull themselves up, lose hold, and slide back down. Over and again.

It’s colder up here and there is a breeze. The fog of the morning has been swept away and I can see the lake below. The sun is getting low, it is late in the afternoon, and the peaks and ridges cast long shadows over the lake. I can see something strange on the lake edge, where it drains down further down into the pass. Huge outcroppings of old world stone. More than I’d ever seen. An ancient dam. With a great jagged vee cut down its middle by ages of water outflow from the lake. An undiscovered ruin. The one that had inspired the cursed rumors that had brought us out here.

My arms and upper body now show large bruises. My brief, involuntary rest had done little to heal me and I’d had to fly again. I ripped off a part of a pant leg and hung it over my back. I willed the matter into my wound. and it stopped up the bleeding and formed a crust to keep out the elements. The exertion of will sent lances of pain into my forehead.

The scythe-beasts keep trying to scrabble up to me. Over and over.

The path along the ridge is rough. I see no way to climb down, no way off this cold, inhospitable ridge. The constant throbbing of my head warns me against extending my senses to search better. I struggle forward, slowly, deliberately.

I spot a strange bird rising up the cliff face. White, and round. It hovers in the updraft. I test some of my weight on the next rock and pause. No. Birds aren’t round. I look back towards the hovering skull and it moves a little closer and revolves around me to my front. It’s not fast, not threatening, but it keeps its eye sockets locked on my eyes as it moves. I am its focus. I’m too weak for another fight.

Too weak for another flight. But I’ve no choice. I call to the matter around my feet, sending out weak thin roots to dissolve the stone into dust.

“Wait.” The voice is only in my head. “You are injured, Magister, and willsick. I’m not here to fight.”

“What… then?” I send back. The effort pains me.

“I think I will help you. It’s been so long since I’ve spoken to another member of the Order. Though… perhaps I am no longer considered so. Have you heard my name? Do you know High Magister

Revak?” The voice sounds so calm and pleased. It’s jarring to hear such in my present situation.

“Revak? Not sure I believe it.”

“Believe it, young one.” The voice has a hint of reproach. “Now, permit me to heal you.” I feel the will probing at my flesh. I don’t actually grant consent so much as put up a token resistance. The other’s will is incredibly strong. I’m not sure I could actually have stopped it at my full strength. Permitting other magic users to meddle in one’s flesh is extremely dangerous. One need only to see the void root structures that I’d carved into the stone at my feet to understand why.

The being calling itself Revak wills my flesh to heal. The reduction in pain is disorienting. It becomes a feeling of warmth. I sit, and lower my head. Revak is reducing my adrenaline, and rebalancing my hormones to drive me towards sleep. This sleep is welcoming, and I embrace it.

I awake to the smell of wood. I’m in a bed. Warm and soft. Brown blankets lay over me. Lifting them away stirs up more of the wood smell. It’s the fibers of the mattress and blankets, recently reshaped from living wood. The room is pitch black. I reach out my senses hesitantly. There is no pain from the exertion, but I’m suddenly aware of hunger and thirst. The room’s stone has the tell-tale serpentine patterns of willcarving. There is a single exit passage that curls down through the bedrock into a larger chamber. My senses feel an absence in the large chamber where there should be more stone. It’s how the stone of the ancients feels to magical senses, completely absent. My senses brush against something else down there.

“Ah, you’re awake, young one.” Revak’s voice sounds in my mind. “Come down and join me.”

“Is there any light?” I ask.

“Hmm…” Revak pondered the question as if it were an unexpected oddity. “Yes, I can do that.” Light crawled up the passageway into my bedchamber, emanating from a line on the ceiling that spirals into the center of the room.

I stand. My muscles are sore, and my skin retains the darker blotches but not the tenderness of fresh bruises. I get up and will the blankets of the bed to become my shoes and clothing. I move down the passageway, following the light. I send to the skull, “How long have I been here?”

“I’ve been tracking the time closely since you arrived.” Revak sent back proudly. “I know you need regular sustenance, and I’ve watched over you for two days.”

I paused in stride. “What of the scythe-beasts?” I asked, and included an image of the things’ vain attempts to scrabble up the cliff.

“I’m not sure…” Revak replied, concerned. “I’ve never seen those.”

“They employ some sort of veil against magical senses,” I continue to walk toward the main hall. “But they can be seen and heard easily enough as they try to slaughter you.”

“That could explain why I do not know them, and perhaps why I get so few visitors.” Revak sounded pensive. “I rarely employ such physical senses. No matter. There is no danger to you here.”

The passageway opens up to the main hall in front of me. I step out and see a huge hall, half carved from magic, and half formed of the pale ancient stone. The magically carved half is illuminated from above, but the light stops at the ancient stone and as it fades to black down the ancient hall, I can only barely make out large shapes in the center. Down the magically carved extension of the hall, I see an astonishing array of giant, nearly silent machinery formed of stone, bronze, steel, silver, and gold.

“The ancients used this place to harness power from falling water.” Revak explained. “I do the same, but much more modestly.”

“How long have you been here? Are you truly the High Magister Revak, Lich King?”

“Lich King? Am I called that now? I never liked the term Lich. I invented this method of transformation to further my scientific pursuits. I fought with your forbears against those rebels who copied and perverted my techniques and styled themselves necromancers. Is it not remembered so?”

“Mostly it is not.” I pass further down the magically carved portion of the hall, past machines whose purpose I cannot determine. “Newer histories list you among them, but your name is carved among the honored names on the walls of Justice’s sanctum, set there by the Goddess herself.”

“Justice” Revak’s voice in my mind sounded reverent. “How is our beloved Goddess?”

“Justice is dead.”

“Impossible.” Revak commented.

“The Goddess was gravely injured in the last war, and though she survived, she did not return to her former glory, and instead faded away over time. One day her body was found still and unresponsive.

The Order is holding her body pristine in her sanctum. Officially, it is a wake ceremony, but it has been decades. She has passed on.”

“You’re wrong.” Revak stated, matter of factly. “Justice will not die as long as the Order persists. And we remain, do we not?”

“I know of no link between between the survival of the Order and the survival of Justice. What have you been doing here for all of these years? Why have you not tried to return to the Order?”

“I’ve been studying and creating. So many beautiful problems and questions about the world have I explored and solved over the ages, but just now… Well, come and see.” The hall widens into a large workshop area, and the area behind it branched into multiple storage rows, the ends of which I cannot make out. A body lies on a large stone table before me and a giant thin figure in a shimmering black robe leans over it. Thin, dark, metallic arms stretch out from the sleeves of the robe and hover over the body, and the skull of Revak floats under the hood of the robe. “Your presence here has been instrumental. It’s been some time since I studied a working human body, and there were things I’d not realized. Such a complex system. Truly fascinating.” The skull rose slightly. There were no eyes but I got the impression that Revak was now looking at me.

I clear my throat. “Is this not a human body?” I ask out loud, studying the form and thinking that Revak certainly was not striving to distance itself from necromantical stereotypes. The body is of a young adult. Perhaps beautiful in other circumstances, but just too cold and still here on the slab to be anything other than disturbing.

“I think that I have found, among these ruins, traces of the First People. Not the ruins themselves, of course. I mean tiny, fragile traces of their bodies. Mostly too damaged by time, but some very few

are complete enough.” Perplexed, I extend my magical senses to the still form, and hit a solid wall. Just as the ruins of the ancients, this body is antimagic. My mouth drops open.

“You mean… but how?” My voice is raspy from disuse. “How could you even study those tiny remains that are invisible to magic, let alone make this?

“Machinery was the key. Young one. The antimagics do not respond normally to magic but do respond somewhat similarly to other physical excitations and forces which can be produced by our matter. I’ve mastered these forces, and I use them to shape wonders from antimagic materials. Most lately this.” The dark metal hands open and spread over the still form. “It’s not really one of them. I modified the structure and mind to permit it to be created in this form. But… I believe that I’ve designed it properly so that the children of ones such as these would be real First People.”

“Is it alive?” I reach out hesitantly. Revak does not move. The body is as cold as it looks.

“Not just yet. Would you like to see me awaken it?” I am curious. Hungry and thirsty, too, but mostly curious.

“I do.”

“Me too.” Revak’s robe drops to reveal a thin metallic form like the arms, but containing mechanical belts and gears and rotating elements which now spring to life with a significant whirring sound. Revak brings his hands near eachother, and as the whirring builds a blue arc forms between his nearest fingers with a snap and a flash of light. It disappears almost immediately but then restrikes, disappears, and restrikes again, lasting longer now. Revak pulls his hands apart and the arc dissipates. The whirring continues and as he lowers his hands toward metal disks that are inlaid in the table, thin arcs leap up to meet them, growing thicker until true contact is made and they disappear. Now the slab starts to glow blue in strange patterns that I cannot recognize. I feel a warmth from the slab and a static charge that causes my hairs and the fibers of my clothes to rise towards the body. I step back from the unknown mechanisms and energies before me.

The body on the table rears up and gasps, eyes wide with fear. Suddenly there is an otherworldly sound tearing through the air. I will the air around my ears to be still, but I still feel the vibration in my bones. I cannot pinpoint a specific source. The person on the table is screaming in pain. I move towards the great hall, hoping to escape the sound, but it seems to be the same everywhere. Revak swivels his skull around and places his mechanical limbs defensively around his creation. “What is this?” He asks in my mind.

The sound abruptly stops. The table top under the screaming person begins to change, as do Revak’s shielding arms. A reflective silver spreads down into the stone from the table and up Revak’s arms until it reaches the shoulder joints where it branches down his body and up to his skull where it slows, but still intrudes into his bones. “Oh no.” Revak sends. “Oh no.” The new metallic shine of Revak’s arms begins to fall off in large chunks which seem to leap towards the awoken First Person. I can see that liquid-like metal chunks from the table top do likewise and the First Person starts to thrash. Where the poor person scraps off the mercurial substance there is blood, and large chunks of missing flesh.

I’ve seen this silvery substance before. This is the all-consuming Hunger. But I’ve never seen nor heard of The Hunger appearing in this way before, nor it being so aggressive. The whole table is silvery now, and the shine is spreading out into the floor. Revak’s whole mechanical body is now silvery and leaping off in chunks. Revak’s skull has floated up and away from it but the silvery Hunger is still eating his bone. His jaw falls away. “I’ve made a terrible mistake, young one.

You must flee.” The liquid metal on Revak’s skull starts to burn with white hot flame. The old magister is trying to purge the deadly contamination. The thrashing of the First Person subsides as it sinks fully into the mound of deadly silver that used to be the slab. The silver spreads across the floor towards me.

I take off running towards the great hall. I don’t see whether Revak’s defensive efforts are of any use, but the light from the ceiling dims and I can hear some of the machinery in the hall ahead screeching and crunching as the will that drives them disappears to distraction or death.

I use my magical senses to seek out carbonaceous matter around me, ignoring my flesh and clothes, and I call for it to gather well above my head and swirl into a slowly burning sphere that casts light around and before me. Most of the shadows on the walls move backwards as I weave through some broken ruins of a great bronze wheel. Others move forward like searching tentacles. Great thick rhizomes of The Hunger chase after me. I reach the ancient antimagic stone portion of the hall, and The Hunger does not slow. Ahead of me there is an enormous mass of red oxidized metal.

The Hunger is closing in. I dodge around the metal ruin and leap over a Hunger rhizome only to plunge down through a break in the floor into a horizontal shaft. I catch myself in the air, I glance right and see the way is blocked by some large mass of rust. Hunger rhizomes have followed me down so I fly off down the shaft to my left. The shaft angles down and I see some natural light ahead. The Hunger rhizomes fully choke the shaft behind now as I plunge down at high speed.

I hit the edge of the shaft and burst out into the sunlight over the lake. I gain some altitude and glance back to see if The Hunger still pursues me. It seems to have lost interest in me, but the huge silvery rhizomes are spreading out from the shaft and in a larger mass from the ridge which had once held Revak’s laboratory. The mass on the ridge grows so large that it compromises the hold that the ancient stone had to it, and that whole half of the dam shudders and topples over and down towards the pass below. The damage triggers a roar of water as the tainted lake drains down to half its normal size before The Hunger rhizomes slump over into the gap, stopping the flow, and begin growing rapidly out into the lake and down towards the pass.

I fly towards the far shoreline, and my heart falls as I saw the accursed scythe-beasts churning out into the water towards me. As I fly overhead they turn in pursuit. I fly up towards the ridge on the far side of the lake from the massive dam. It is a long way and leaves me fully drained by the time I alight on the high stone and turn to watch.

The great silvery rhizomes of The Hunger keep spreading in all directions. The scythe-beasts that had been my nemesis and impending doom are shattered by the thick reflective roots as though they are nothing, and the searching rhizomes continue up the ridge toward me.

I take to flight again and make it to the next ridge, gasping for air, and stumbling as I land. I turn and watch the ridgeline I’d just left, hoping that The Hunger would just stop, that its end here would be as rapid and bewildering as its beginning. When I regained my breath I notice a stinging pain in my shoulder and see to my horror a pattern of small holes that had been eaten through my shirt. I will the shirt to part and see my flesh below is marked by little metallic patches with thin silvery rhizomes spreading out from them. I will my shirt apart and gather it on the spot before igniting the mass violently. The burn is excruciating. The damaged flesh is charred black and it is impossible to tell if I’ve destroyed the contamination. The air seems to darken past the far ridge which now shields me from the lake, as if The Hunger has taken on some dreadful cloud form. The rhizomes peak over the ridge and down into the valley before me. I turn and see another large pass behind my current perch.

My head hurts nearly as bad as my screaming shoulder when I imagine flying to the next ridge, so this time I take to the air in a more conservative way. I prepare a wide cushion of air below me and glide it down and along this new pass. The new pass is long and my glide runs further than I hope. I pick a nice spot of soft grassland to land in and crash down. I hit much harder than I intend and flip onto my back. Everything hurts, and once again I can’t hold on to consciousness.

**********************************************************************

In a pristine room, formed entirely of non-homogenous translucent and white stone with ragged swaths of scarlet and gold, like ribbons frozen within, a robed woman lies motionless on a raised slab of stone. An old man kneels before the slab with head bowed, silently willing the Goddess to rise as is his habit this time of day. He hears an intake of breath from above and raises his head to see the Goddess suddenly standing, staring beyond the stone wall before her as though it were a lens. Her robes morph silently into polished, mother of pearl plate armor with a robe with the same shifting colors. Her hand lifts gracefully from her side and a burning long sword unfolds from the air. Her head moves slightly down and towards the old man.

The voice of Justice carries force with it, as though it were produced by some enormous instrument, but it does not deafen. “I have felt your faith, Olin. I feel that an ancient enemy has risen, and I must to war. Will you rouse your Order to join me?”

**********************************************************************

A cloud of dark dust descends from the swirling storm clouds over the city. Lightning occasionally lances down, but there is no rain. The cloud begins to gather on the balcony of the keep in the city center. A humanoid form emerges, its flesh dark and writhing, as though formed from hundreds of ink soaked humans crushed together and striving to escape. Dread stares into the distance, and then enters his private quarters. Sorrow stares past him, her flawless face unmarred by expression. Her words seem to echo with an emptiness, a vague sense of falling eternally. “The Hunger returns, and again we must destroy it.” Her robes swirl slightly in the air around her as though it were as dense as water.

“Hmm.” The rumbling agreement of Dread recalls the face of a dying lover.

**********************************************************************

“Captain on deck!” A crewman cries as Endeavor strides into the cabin and up to the large wheel.

“You are relieved, helmswoman.” The mustachioed God decrees with a pleased smile and bright eyes. The helmsman steps back and the God seizes the wheel with large gloved hands and begins to heave it around. “Full steam and signal alert stations! We’ve a fight on our hands now!”

His huge ship turns and steam bellows from the pipes amidships. Through the thick glass in front of him, Endeavor sees a wave crash over the bow, and he launches into a sea shanty.