“High Chancellor, welcome. I will be providing the tour you requested, so that you can get a better grasp on exactly what we are doing here. Now, if you will please, donne those vestments and allow the clerk to prepare the warding cant.”
“Thank you, Visaldi. A pleasure to meet you once again.”
“The pleasure is all mine, yer lordship. I hope that the capital can spare your time.”
“Oh, I doubt that the mighty state of Valdac will collapse with my few days’ absence. What about your vestments?”
“No, that is unnecessary. Shall we proceed, yer lordship?”
“Quite. Lead on.”
Visaldi and the chancellor exited the ante chamber and walked into a long hallway, the walls on either side made of stone. At the end sat a set of double doors.
“For what, exactly, am I so thoroughly enrobed?”
“You will see presently, yer lordship. I assure you, it is needful, given the atmosphere to which you will be exposed.”
With that, Visaldi pressed firmly on the set of doors, and revealed a chamber of substantial space beyond her and the chancellor. The two stood on a stone ledge, which sloped down on the right into what could be called the streets of the town, for that’s what it was: a small, underground town, composed of several tent buildings and temporary structures. The other was a large shrine, from which the aura of nora was palpable.
“That shrine is our main place of operation. Yer lordship is already familiar with the particulars, and the experiments have proceeded … mostly according to expectations. We have encountered some surprises, but such is the nature of magic, yer lordship understands. The other tall structure you can see just over there is the barracks. Do not be fooled by the array of shacks and tents -- they are all for individual operations, or serve as offices. The troop corps that constructed the basics here put us in communal housing, and I must say it’s been a bit of an adjustment.”
They were silent for a moment, as the chancellor peered around.
“How goes trade with Elsarin, yer lordship?”
“This and that, you know how it is.”
“Begging your lordship’s pardon, but I don’t, not these last three years. I ask out of genuine ignorance.”
“Oh, well then… They seem to be a bit jumpy, once again. They’ve stepped up border security, and are giving our merchants a pox of a time along the coasts. Word within the council is that they had another one of those prophecies -- you must have been up top for the last round of that, at least -- and it’s put them on edge again. Fifty years a chancellor, now, and not one of those blasted things has come true. Ah well, this one will pass eventually, and they’ll squirrel it away in some tome somewhere, and forget about it.”
“You say the coasts are rough -- have any ships been lost, yer lordship? You see, my--”
“Master Visaldi! Master Visaldi!”
An out-of-breath assistant mage, tall for a dwarf, had seen them from far away, and, calling out, pulled up in front of the pair. He made a cursory nod on recognizing the chancellor, but addressed Visaldi.
“Master, there’s another spontaneous change. You’re needed.”
“By heaven, who?”
“Analia… at least according to her tag. She’s in the ward already, but please, make haste.”
Visaldi turned to the chancellor.
“Yer lordship, remain here with Demetri, I’ll return as quickly as I can.”
“No. I came here to see everything, and I intend to; lead on.”
“Yer lordship, I must insist--”
“Lead on, I said, we haven’t time.”
They dashed through the town, making for the far side away from the entrance. A worried-looking woman caught Visaldi’s eye, and gestured to a darker, temporary structure. Visaldi altered course slightly and made for it, the chancellor keeping pace. They slowed down, and passed through the thick brown canvas flaps that worked as a door to the tent.
Visaldi didn’t bother to explain what exactly he was seeing, so the chancellor looked on with a mixture of horror, pity, and confusion. It was even darker inside than out, with scattered nora fires providing the only light, and the entire space was uncomfortably warm, like a terrarium. A low moaning pervaded the air, though more of sense than actual sound, and a foul smell slunk into the chancellor’s nose. He had been a soldier in the south east, fighting the Cyclops in his younger days; the scene before him now was not more abjectly terrible, but was of a different kind entirely. He straightened his back, unconsciously bent, and followed Visaldi deeper in.
Lying before them, on a mat, was a kind of creature he had never seen before. It spasmed without warning, and a blackish-green ichor sprayed from a gash in its shoulder. Drops splattered Visaldi and the two attendants -- kneeling down, casting some specialized magic -- but only the chancellor blinked. The thing looked almost human in shape.
Visaldi spoke rapidly to one of the attendants, who altered his casting, and then Visaldi herself joined in the chant, and gently brushed the creature’s forehead. The chancellor could see it more clearly now, and it did look like it had been human once, and might still be in some part; flesh showed around one of the robed ankles, but the revealed portions of its face and arms were layered with scales and soaked in that blood-like icor. The smell was especially strong this close.
At length the creature quieted, and Visaldi, visibly exhausted, rose and led the chancellor out of the ward. She wore an expression of concern, deep in thought. The chancellor cleared his throat and spoke.
“Will it be alright?”
“Yes, I expect she will pass through with minimal pain.”
The chancellor steeled himself. “Then that is this -- Alenia, I take it?”
“Analia, yes, that is her.” Visaldi had dropped the formalities, instead speaking in the same matter-of-fact tone with which she had directed the attendants and consoled the tortured woman. “Now you know to what I referred earlier.”
“Indeed. What is it, exactly? A backlash from the shrine? A product of the trials?”
“It’s complicated... We don’t know.”
“And you are sure they are safe to keep around after that? What do you do with them?”
“Oh, certainly safe. They stay on. The change is not always so violent or sudden as that -- it’s a blessing she kept her limbs -- but it is always painful one way or another.”
Visaldi rubbed the back of one of her hands; the chancellor caught the movement.
“And the vestments and protective charms? They only work for a time?” Rather than selfishness, there was a gentle concern in his tone as he scanned her face. Visaldi caught his glance, and smiled. Then she looked away, eyes on the horizon, and rubbed her hand again.
“They’ll need their own city, you know. Here, with people somewhat inured to the effects of magic and already associates at least, if not friends, we are prepared to care for each other. But on the surface -- just imagine how your average citizen would react.”
“It would be a bloodbath.”
The chancellor looked at the floor, Visaldi at the horizon, each thinking about the future. The chancellor took a deep breath.
“Goodbye, Visaldi. I’ll see to it that you get whatever resources you need. We’ll build a whole world for you down here -- you deserve that much.”
Light cuts over his head, then to his right, as he bounces to one side, then behind him, then in front, a rock shoots past his left, the crevasse opens around him, then he’s dashing back out of it from dark to light and still the spirit hounds him. Steak’s furious dash for his life has as much grace as can be expected from a Moga under duress, but beauty is not an abiding feature of the Peaks.
The G’hern is dead. None of the rocks even look like a G’hern. Steak didn’t know what to do, so he started running, and the Arroyo chased him. It was in the middle of breakfast -- some mixture of meat, and a dust that Chef had found -- when the black and silent thing had twisted into existence in their midst. Steak knew when something looked hungry. The spirit was hungry, a kind of primal hunger borne from weariness, and it set to work. Their G’hern fell, the Moga scattered.
So Steak keeps running. He isn’t thinking about Stew, his friend and probably-brother, except to wish that Stew were here so that the big spirit could catch Stew rather than Steak. But Stew isn’t here, and another rock splits silently in two, the only sounds from the pitter-patter of Steak’s feat and his labored breathing, and his squeals; the apparition makes no noise at all. A basic fear of death is more than enough to keep Steak moving, although it does little to make him any smarter.
No longer bouncing from stone to stone, Steak and the pursuing spirit have run into a tiny ravine, no more than a dozen feet deep and less than half that wide. A bit of water is at his feet, a trickle through the mountains. There is a much larger chasm up ahead, into which the water and land drop. The other side looks so far away. Steak can plummet to his death, or find another path and be sliced to pieces by the Arroyo.
Then it struck him.
Though Steak had not attempted the profession himself, Stew’s talents had been sufficient to survive the training process for aviators (survival being the gold standard of success), so Steak had often seen Stew engaging in that self-destructive but exhilarating practice. From this mental image, Steak now draws inspiration. Pitching himself left for speed and then back right, he clambers up the 10-foot rock face, hands over feet over teeth, scrabbling for purchase with every limb, feet slick from the stream, making way for a single, huge, dead tree on the upper bank.
Suddenly a keening starts up behind him. The Arroyo is getting closer. Rock sprays up from gashes in the ground. Something cuts through the end of Steak’s ear. He bounds up the tree and prepares to jump.
And then it’s gone. The ground, the spirit, the leaves, the tree -- Steak is weightless. He is somewhere hundreds of feet above the chasm floor, traveling with mystic stillness towards the opposite side. He lands, just barely, eyes popping out, hand clawing, and pulls up his legs behind him. A few moments later, he hears the tree far below.
Steak is hungry. Maybe he can make it to the swamp, and catch a frog, and eat its legs. Or even a Boghopper. His mouth hangs open in idle anticipation. He saunters, rather than sprints, now free of his assailant. Of course, Steak doesn’t realize that he owes his escape as much to luck as to any Moga-born bravado: the edge of the veil-tear coincided with the edge of the chasm, and the Arroyo was loath to risk its very existence for so scrawny a meal. Steak walks on, across the plain, oblivious to all but his growling stomach, and dreams of juicy meat.
The terrain opens to a rocky cliff, which gives a first and heady view of the descent down to Forglar. Steak squats low, torso between his knees. With Moga eyes -- flooded with visual information, at all times, from across the spectrum -- the expanse below comes with full force upon his sense after the relative barrenness of the peaks. There are blues and greens he has never seen before, a breath of haze, and a bright sun. He is in rapture, tongue lolling out and gaze going far, absorbing the myriad lights and sounds of the colorful world, experiencing simple wonder.
Something shifts behind him, and Steak’s trance breaks. In a panic, he spins and tumbles forward, ears wrapping around his head, limbs flailing, as he bounces down a couple boulders. He lands on another slab of rock, face planted, sprawled out. His elastic Moga body has prevented him from breaking any bones. The sound was just the wind. The Moga rallies, and carries on, and makes his way more carefully down the final, long mountain side.
The spirits aren’t here for the Moga, though, or for anything so innocent as food. They have arrived for a reckoning with the Djinn, and all else is but so much landscape to them. From far off on the horizon, come the cries of battle, intermingled with the disquieting silence of the Arroyo.