The Scholar's Tale(Original Fantasy)

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Strigoi Grey
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Re: The Scholar's Tale(Original Fantasy)

Post by Strigoi Grey »

Interlude: One With The World

Aina thinks of herself as a boring girl.

This is not a sign of self-criticism, ironic or otherwise, like her friend Ryz is prone to. Aina know a caustic tongue and mind can help one to survive on Midworld as much as it can endanger them. She does not wish for such traits.

Aina is thankful to Vhaarn for being boring, and hopes to never change.

(She will. Hopes for good things are dashed almost as often as fears of suffering are made reality)

Exciting lives, she thinks, are dangerous and short. Take her parents, for one. They left Copper's Cradle, a perfectly safe, habitable island, to explore the sea, not in search of other islands to live on after disaster inevitably struck, but out of boredom. Life on the Cradle, they claimed, had become too predictable, wearing on them.

Aina only knows these things from the other islanders. She has never met her parents, whose names are never spoken, for they are cursed as reckless fools, wasting their lives when their fellows could have use them. Even her family name is unknown.

Aina is thankful for that, too. There are many Midworlders without family names! Why, some who do have one often have exciting lives, too, and Aina does not want that. She wants to live, for as long as she can.

As she, Ryzhan and the other children(the adults, save for the elderly or weak, who serve as foremen in the mines, are always on the lookout for raiders or animals, when they are not helping the mages with their rituals) search for the metal that gives their island its name, Aina muses that Ryz has a family name, like her parents used to do.

A hand rises to tug at her short, sky-blue hair-a nervous tick the adults have tried to beat out of her, for it annoys them, to no avail. She prays again, asking Lord Vhaarn to watch over Ryzhan, too, and give him a boring life as well.

Aina doubts Ryzhan will ever do something reckless, though. His parents scare him too much for him to be stupid, and beat him more than enough.

Aina knows, like all Vhaarnists do, that, in the beginning, before time and space, matter and magic, life and death, there was nothing except for Vhaarn and his brother, Fhaalqi. Vhaarn wanted to create, because he was lonely in the void with only his cruel, mocking brother for company. He created the infinite waters and islands of Midworld, as well as the endless stars above, and the sun and moon, always visible from everywhere on Midworld, regardless of distance. Their light is boundless without destroying everything through limitless energy, for Vhaarn willed it so. Midworld's moon does not reflect the light of its sun, as mundane moons in the heavens above do; its light is its own, despite some claiming it to be a mere sphere of rock.

Others have claimed the moon to be made of silver light and magic, though all who try to reach it, or speak and think too much of it, disappear. Or, worse, the moon looks into them, and laughs, and they laugh too, never stopping, until the chains Vhaarn wrapped around the shape of his creations break, and they become every monster ever imagined, and some that have never been.

Fhaalqi scoffed when his brother first began creating things, and sought to oppose him, as he had in all their contests in the void. So was created entropy, decay, as things were worn down by time or the elements, and became lesser, until they faded away. Vhaarn then created animals, and Fhaalqi was pleased he did not try to instill his beliefs into them, instead leaving them instinct.

After innumerable years, Vhaarn sought to create something more, like him and his brother, if lesser, and Fhaalqi agreed. That was how the Tetrarha, able to shift between states of matter, came to be; the Gzaalnokhs, who shaped the world by thought without possessing mana, bodies or souls; the Yvharnii, with their love for learning, and countless more.

Humans, too. No natural advantages over other thinking beings, save for the potential for magic even some animals had.

Whenever a species became too virtuous, or too vile, they were destroyed, by their enemies of by natural disasters, though some saw the Twin Gods in everything, and proclaimed they merely sought to keep each other in check whenever one gained too much of an advantage.

Aina was not particularly inclined, at the moment, to give a damn about religious intricacies. Midworld's religions rarely tended towards complexity, anyhow, as most of its inhabitants lived short, rough lives, and only believed enough to make sure there was a place for them to go after death, and gods or spirits to help them before it.

No, Aina was thinking about the creation of the world because, having heard it so often in her short, short life, it represented stability, familiarity, in her young mind. And she...she needed all t-the stability she could....g-get-

The moon wasn't looking away. Aina had hoped not becoming a lunatic, a term which meant far worse on Midworld than on the alien worlds that spun around stars, would cause it to become bored and leave her be, mind whole, if terrified and scarred irreparably.

It had not. Her resistance had, if anything, made it more curious, and more of its attention was on her than had been on any mortal for centuries. In fact, if Aina listened to the call of the void(the moon, the moon, a jagged, cracked corner of her mind corrected, laughing breathlessly) she could feel something more than its all-seeing, unblinking gaze.

Something like...

-a sMIlE-

But the moon was not smiling anymore. Aina was. Her face had become just as white and round as the silver sphere, bloating as her throat thickened, voice becoming simultaneously thick and choked, and shrill, sharp enough to make ears bleed, fit to speak words that meant nothing, so all they passed over became nothing.

But Aina was not smiling anymore. She was laughing, in time with the moon's voiceless, wordless call.

Ryzhan finds the creature while its shape is still roughly human, sitting-no, crouching-on the shore of the lake they always met to talk, and laugh, and...

Ryzhan's heart bleeds, literally, as it turns to grin at him. His eyes boil in their sockets, while his arcane sense gibbers to itself, trying to limit his perception, protect his human mind as much as it can.

Good, Ryzhan thinks, grinning with cracked teeth. No reason to let a present that should not be distract him from a beautiful past.

Ryzhan accepts the creature's embrace, though it makes his bones wrap around each other under flesh that shrivels like parchment, and turns his blood into dust the colour of old rust. He does not care about this. He, through instinct, arcane sense or Vhaarn's blessing, recognises this is, used to be(will become, once more, he swears to himself) his friend.

Ryzhan wraps his arms around it, and kisses what had been its mouth. Clumsily, as any boy his age would; lovingly, as only he would.

And, all the while, his newly-awakened magic churns through the creature's body, turning it back into a little girl that has always wanted a quiet life, as Ryzhan remembers Aina.

She gasps when her wits return to her, unfamiliar in her own old body. Her shock only lasts a few moments, as she sees Ryzhan fall on broken knees, using the last of his strength to raise a twitching, trembling hand, telling her to stay way.

Then, he remembers himself before the creature touched him, and heals.

It is not a gentle process. It will not be for many, many years. But, even though it is almost as painful as the mangling itself, Ryzhan remains silent, biting his tongue in half when it threatens to let a scream slip past. He spits the half on the long grass along with the blood, to prevent choking on it. It would be a thoroughly pathetic death, worthy of those dark stories he never liked, where the hero returned home victorious from adventure or battle, only to die shamefully, stabbed by a drunkard in a dark alley, or falling off a bridge.

When Ryzhan's body heals, he is not happy for it. Oh, he is thankful, of course; to Vhaarn, for allowing him to do one more good deed, this time for a person better than himself; to his magic, for being good enough. He is, however, far more appreciative of the way Aina wraps herself around him, hugging him so hard it almost hurts. He wishes she would not cry, though, and tells her so.

"Why?" She manages to rasp, eventually, deep purple eyes staring into his sharp green ones.

"I am leaving tonight." He replies, the meager confidence he built up shattering in the face of her sadness. The guilt in his voice cannot hide his savage joy at finally, finally paying his parents back, though. "And I do not want my last memory of you to be sad."

Aina swallows like she is about to break into tears, or perhaps go mad, again. She will talk him out of it after he stops being so damned dense, though. "No. Why did you tell me to...stop...?"

"Because..." Ryzhan tries to be charming, to push a strand of hair behind one of her ears, to tell her she is too beautiful to cry. "You're pretty." He finishes awkwardly, after almost poking one of her eyes out, and stammering apologies. Aina laughs, slapping his wringing hands away.

"I did something..." Ryzhan almost says 'bad', before shaking his head. "Something our people will judge harshly. I cannot remain, or they will kill me-at best. I...I would not want you to see that, Aina."

She does not agree. Ryzha, perhaps taking her silence and slack expression as understanding, gently pushes her away and turns his back on her, beginning his walk towards the docks.

After five steps, he feels the earth tremble underfoot. Earthquake? Tide? Another reason to get away.

After another five, the earth rises and wraps around his boots, rooting him in place. Ryzhan turns, baffled, and screams to see the moon creature in Aina's place, once more.

"Please, Ryz." It says in his friend's voice, and, through his haze of panic(half at the other islanders hunting him down after finding his parents, half at this thing being back), Ryzhan realises the unnatural effects caused by its earlier unsounds are gone. Its face, too, is softer-beautiful, actually. Aina's features, wrought from silver light, and an equally-luminous body. "Do not leave me."

Ryzhan almost glances at the moon himself, wondering if he's gone mad without being aware, and stops himself before doing something so suicidally stupid. In the back of his head, he hears a deep, inhuman laugh.

"You saved me, when everyone knows not to stare into the light too long, lest they become monsters; I did it because...because I had nothing else to do, I suppose." Aina laughs self-deprecatingly, and Ryzhan cracks a smile, though his eyes are on the horizon, alert for signs of torches and spells cast in rage.

"Don't you always tell me to stay away from exciting things?" He quips, and she shrugs, chuckling sadly.

"Seems I', better at giving advice than taking it. I...I did not deserve to be saved from such a stupid fate, Ryz. Please, do not leave." She repeats, clasping her hands in front of her. "Together, maybe we can convince them not to..."

Ryzhan turns away, remembering being free to walk, and suddenly is. "I'm sorry, Aina. But I will not die for you."

When Ryzhan breaks into a run, it is the moon creature he hears roaring, amidst his friend's pleas for him to remain. Reality cracks around him, but, he notices, Aina does not harm him, or even try to stop him. Not even once.

Years later, when a proud Ghyrrian swordsman looks into his mind, he will not see his memory. Ryzhan will force himself to forget, not from fear of going mad, but from guilt of hurting his friend.

And so, Ryzhan Yldii reaches the docks, steals a boat, and sets off on his journey of Midworld, while running away from pursuers he only imagines.

For that night, in her grief, the monster that has become half of Aina takes over, harnessing her grief and newly-awakened magic, meant for shaping the world, and combining them with its own. That night, the nameless island inhabited by the people of lost Copper's Cradle does not sink: it folds and crumples onto itself, as does reality around it, allowing for the things behind the curtain of what is to reach through, and grasp at the panicked humans.

Aina is spared, for she is the worst monster, and predators avoid rivals.

However, when she comes to, finding herself standing on water in the middle of the sea, and realises she let Ryzhan go, and allowed the monster to kill her people, she wishes the monster had taken her, too.

She sets out on a journey of her own, far more attuned to the world than Ryzhan will be for years, shaping the elements, space and time with her will, moving them as if they were additional limbs. She meets many strange people while searching for her lost friend. The Swordsaint and the Bladefiend, who see her monstrous guise for what it is, and train her to control it, just as the Swordsaint helped her wife shackle her worst impulses, after she freed it from the fate meant to keep a bloodthirsty monster; Mendax, who sees creation as the punchline to a joke only it knows, and who makes her feel almost normal. A little, dark-skinned man in colourful clothes, who makes her laugh and cry with tricks whose nature even her inhuman senses cannot discern.

Finally, she meets the Clockwork King and the Weaver Queen, who welcome her. Just another strange being in their shared domain, another traveler who has lost her home. They understand, and sympathise, for they have done far worse, and not by mistake. There, they promise, she can search and study all she wants, while she waits for Ryzhan, or until she finds her way back to him.
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Stories I'm co-writing over on Spacebattles: Halloween Knights;Tales from the Halloween Knights (Anthology) ;Memories from the Halloween Knights (Anthology) ; ... s.1039239/
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Strigoi Grey
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Re: The Scholar's Tale(Original Fantasy)

Post by Strigoi Grey »

Book III, Chapter 1

"A man." Ib echoed. "We only have two of those, though don't take my word on the captain. Or did you mean 'a person'?"

"I do not believe it would work on you." Theo replied. "For all my fears it could destroy you. You are all but immune to esoteric outside influences. As for the ghosts, their kind has always been unpredictable."

"So, you want a test subject sure to be vulnerable." Ib crossed its lower and middle arms, steepling its upper hands. The grey giant was thankful its face was featureless unless it wished otherwise, because, were it human, its ugly smile would have likely made Theo take back their offer-bribe? They had promised to truly, permanently restore its mind.

"We work with the tools we are given." Theo said mildly, ignoring the way Ib's body rippled at the phrasing. "But it is only human to wish for better ones."

Greed is shared by all species, actually. "I'll ask them." Ib grunted, uncrossing its arms and beginning to walk towards the exit. "But don't be surprised when they refuse."

" 'Course I'll go! What's it even gonna do, kill me?" One of Three's selves scoffed, the other two elbowing each other. "At least this time, I'd know the cause."

"You are not going anywhere." I frowned, giving the ghost a stern glare, before looking at Ib. Three had only volunteered first because he'd spoken faster than me, as he often did.

We weren't in the interrogation cham-ah, Electoral Council meeting room. Instead, we had been escorted through a confusing series of featureless, twisting, identical corridors and into a small, empty room, by a squad of Freed and one of the blue Ib lookalikes. Probably so we wouldn't be able to remember our way back if we decided to escape.

This would have been a good idea-if I had trouble remembering the way, most people would have veen helpless-if we had been mundane humans. However, Ib could have easily bulled its way straight through the ship itself, I doubt they'd have been able to stop Three, and I was sure Mharra had a trick or twelve for getting out of situations like this. The man was far too annoyingly cheerful not to have gotten jailed at least a few times.

"You still need to remember your death and find peace." I continued, looking back at the ghost. "I, for one, know exactly how I'll die: either at my people's hands, if they're still hunting me, or of old age, convinced they could appear any moment, if not." I tried to smile self-deprecatingly, but given the pitying looks I got from Three and Mharra, and the hand Ib put on my back, it didn't work.

"I won't let you do it, Three." I said, face serious once more. "Ib can't, either: even if it worked, I wouldn't risk the experiment destroying or damaging it, physically or...otherwise." Ib, obviously, didn't remembers its lapses into unconsciousness, only that they had happened. Even so, I didn't want to mention them and hurt it, or worse, trigger one.

"And the captain is the soul of the troupe. All of you...are valuable to the crew. Let me."

There was some fatalism at play, I would say. The idea of finally being free of living in fear and simultaneously helping a friend live the best way it could appealed to a certain part of me.

The part that shirked responsibility, I suppose.

Mharra swept his gaze across us, shaking his head at Ib when the giant hesitantly lifted and opened a hand, looking like it wanted to say something.

"This is like that 'no, you first' joke," The captain murmured to himself, sitting down in one corner of the whitewashed room, then drawing his knees to his chest and crossing his arms over them. "Except it's not funny. No going to laugh at this, save whoever wishes us ill."

To my surprise, he did not look at me when he said this, but at Three, whose selves pursed their lips. Finally, the one in the middle smiled shakily. "Come on now, love. I'm sure  some people would get a kick seeing how courteous we are in the face of uncertain death."

Mharra didn't laugh. He didn't smile back, either, so I looked at the giant.

"Ib." I said, causing it to tilt its head at me. Even though it wasn't mimicking a face, I could feel its weariness, permeating the hatred for its former home and the hope for finally becoming all it could be, a hope balanced by the fear of losing a friend. "Do you think they'll kill us once the experiment is over, whether it succeeds or not?"

They'd obviously try to kill us if we refused, whether we tried to escape or negotiate another way for Ib to regain its memories.

The giant's chin rippled, before becoming solid once more, now gleaming. "I will not let them."

So, it believed they would. Just as well...

"Shall you choose one of us, captain?" I asked, turning back to Mharra, knowing he'd refuse as soon as he stood up.

"I had to ask." I said at his look, hands raised placatingly. A few months ago, I'd have probably thought he was just pretending to care about his subordinates to prevent future mutinies, but...I knew better now. Even if he just didn't want me on his conscience, I knew he loved Three and liked Ib, just as I knew any of us dying would have shaken the whole crew.

So, instead, we voted, and began making plans for our next destination after departing the Free Fleet, however the experiment ended.
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Stories I'm co-writing over on Spacebattles: Halloween Knights;Tales from the Halloween Knights (Anthology) ;Memories from the Halloween Knights (Anthology) ; ... s.1039239/
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Strigoi Grey
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Re: The Scholar's Tale(Original Fantasy)

Post by Strigoi Grey »

Book III, Chapter 2

As we came out of the room, none of us looked nearly as sullen as we felt. In my and Mharra's case, that was because we were both experienced, and, more importantly, skilled liars. Why was skill more important? Because I had a feeling Three had been lying for longer than I'd been alive, but was worse at it than I'd be on my worst day.

There is a certain breed of dissemblers, mostly represented by card players, in my experience, who have a tendency to express the opposite of what they feel through their faces and gestures. You might think there is no problem with that-after all, it's not like you're being honest, right?-but there is. Coming back to playing cards, nobody who grins like a moron the whole match is actually experiencing good hand after good hand. They're either horrendously unlucky at both playing and lying, or, somehow, as lucky as their faces suggest, in which case you should be very, very worried, and very, very far away. Midworld does not abide such quantities of luck concentrated within a single culture, never mind a single person, which likely means your island or ship is going to be torn apart in a particularly spectacular manner.

How, then, should you mislead others? Certainly not as Three was trying to do. Seeing his faces, you'd have thought he was going to marry Mharra, rather than help try out whatever insane contraption the Free Fleet had built. If even they would rather use a stranger to try it out first, rather than resort to their usual callousness...well. Either they suddenly cared about the Freed, or believed Three was worth less than them.

And if anyone even looked ready to suggest the latter, I'd remember the worst deaths I'd ever witnessed, in quick enough succession they'd get to experience all of them.

No, to mislead, one should show nothing, nothing at all. Don't show you're happy, don't show you're sad, don't show you're confident or scared. Appear as neutral as possible. This method is beloved by fence-sitters, opportunists and politicians everywhere, but I repeat myself.

As for Ib...Libertas...usually, my friend was more expressive than most humans, for all it was faceless. Even when not actively changing its shape, its body responded to its mood, resulting in smiles, frowns and the like., if anything, it seemed like it was following my advice without knowing it was. Like it was actively trying not to change its shape or reveal what it had on its mind.

It was...unsettling. Was this how people felt when I played things close to my chest?

Our escorts intercepted us as soon as we left the impromptu meeting room, and led the way back to the Council without even a word or gesture. Not that I knew if they could even speak.

The Councilors turned to us, stone-faced, as we entered. It was only Raymond who betrayed any kind of emotion, and even then, only with his eyes. I could see the expectation, though I would have been hard-pressed to tell if he was excited, bored, or dreading the experiment's failure. Perhaps a mix of two, or all three. He definitely did not seem like he expected us to refuse.

"Right." Three snickered with the fakest smiles I had ever seen on their faces. "How do we start?"

"And...there." The androgynous engineer Ib said had created it rose from their crouch before the glass sphere Three had been placed into. It was thicker and darker than any glass I had ever seen, almost opaque, and I wondered if it was actually a kind of metal, whether natural or created in the Fleet's laboratories. "Now, just be sure to, float...still. Hover?" They gave Three a sheepish smile as they walked to the edge of the testing area, where they were teleported hundreds of metres above. Save for the glass sphere, which didn't appear to be connected to any machine, the circular testing area was a flat, featureless metal floor, ending in thick, steep metal walls that moved to cover it. Around and above it rose a series of rings filled with seats, like a tiered theatre gallery. Through the use of certain devices-a pair of opaque glass spheres mounted on a metal band, which covered the eyes, like some sort of nightmarish glasses-we could see inside the covered testing area.

So useful, these 'glasses', if they could let you see through wall. Even my magic wouldn't have allowed me to do that, for, while I could enhance my senses, I only had mine to work with, and no matter-piercing vision or the like. If the Free Fleet had been open to sharing their technology with the rest of Midworld, these could have saved countless lives, letting people see through fog, or even underwater, thus avoiding sea monsters, sea geysers, and the like. They would have been just as useful on land, not only while exploring unknown or newly-created islands covered in forests or other obstructions, but on populated ones, too, letting people find things with more ease, letting law enforcement catch thieves or protect rulers from assassins...

Tch. Perhaps that was why they didn't share them. Bein rivalled when it came to exploration was hardly in the Fleet's interests, but making small powers stronger, more stable? What if they banded together to the point they could match or surpass the Fleet?

My musing was cut off by a sharp sound, something between water boiling in a kettle and that time during my lonely travels when, at a festival on a long-gone island, I had seen an octopus-like seafolk spin eight crystals on the tips of knives.

Ah, nostalgia...just when I was about to decide whether I had the mindset to be a Fleet member or not.

Instead of dredging up more memories or thinking about switching my allegiance like an arsehole(something I had an extensive history of, though I'd never had better reasons to stay loyal than I did at the moment), I focused my arcane sense on Three. I could feel him burning under the cold metal and glass, like a candle with three ends. Without flesh to trammel his spirit and pollute the flow of mana, I could see him, shining brightly enough to be visible through the layers of metal.

And then...


Bindings. Chains. Shackles. Cages. All beings, alive, dead and otherwise, have them. As do objects. As do places. Thought itself is not unbound, despite what some philosophies may suggest.

(Those philosophers are more and less than dead now. This is not coincidence)

People are bound to each other by thoughts, by oaths, by obligations. Places are bound to their past and future, and, physically, to locations, and so on.

Ghosts are exempt to many things, and barred from many more. But unbound, they are not.

Three was shackled by his past, by his loyalty to and friendship with his crew. By his love for his captain. His selves were bound to each other by thought, spell and death.

Exposed to freedom itself, in its rawest form, is it a surprise that this threefold soul, already wanting to liberate himself from so many things, the truth of his death first among them, would come apart?

It is not a surprise at all.

Or, rather, it would not be, if it happened.

But the truth, as it always is, is that-

-couldn't perceive Three anymore. Not only was his metaphysical imprint gone, the place where he had been felt more devoid of life and mana than anything I had ever witnessed. A shudder, born of wrongness as much as my friend's disappearance, ran through my body, any I gripped the railing as my knees buckled. I had not sat down, both because I had been too stressed for that and to be as close to Three to help as possible, but...

Useless. Useless. Can never protect anything you love, can you Ryzhan? So much good you did, being ready to help, but-

Before I could pull myself together to demand answers, or search for Three if none were forthcoming, a roar that shook my bones filled the chamber, nearly making me fall down again.

To my surprise, it did not come from Ib, however inhuman it had sounded.

...It was a sign of what a great friend I was, I supposed, that, upon seeing Mharra's devastated face, my first thought was that I'd never really seen him angry, and was almost as grateful for that as I wanted to never see it again.
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Stories I'm co-writing over on Spacebattles: Halloween Knights;Tales from the Halloween Knights (Anthology) ;Memories from the Halloween Knights (Anthology) ; ... s.1039239/
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Strigoi Grey
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Re: The Scholar's Tale(Original Fantasy)

Post by Strigoi Grey »

Book III, Chapter 3

While I might have left the impression that the Scholar's Tale was on hiatus, it was not. I was caught up in my other projects, namely finishing the main plotline of my urban fantasy series (which ended up over six times longer than I had expected it would be, when I set out to write it, but, paradoxically, also took less time to write than I expected; which is to say, less than an year).

That said, I do apologise to everyone who waited for this story to be updated for three months, and I will try to keep a reasonable rate of updates from now on, potential writer's block or real life issues notwithstanding. I am also going to keep working on my other series, though they're all smaller scale than my UF, so I'm not sure when each work will be updated. But, again, I'll try not to be absent for so long again.

The Scholar's Tale's plot has always been the hardest to put on page for me, out of all my stories'; the ideas for the other ones have always been easier to articulate. I'm not sure why, but it's just how it is.
That aside, let's return to the story.

"An interruption is good for the soul, do you not agree? Breaking up the...routine." Xharkhin Vhei, butcher-mechanic of the Clockwork Court, to an automaton, before beginning to work.


There were some people who, when they got angry, appeared calm at first, or showed a calm face throughout it, while actually boiling with anger.

Mharra, my captain, however? He was the opposite. He looked ready to rip someone in half, then his expression...smoothed over, as if it had been washed away by a tide. I saw him look around a few times, lips pursed, before removing his glasses, tossing them down, and leaving the observation area, all without saying a word.

It felt...unreal. Not unsettling-I had seen worse and stranger, sometimes at once-, but so unusual as to be almost surreal. Mharra was like his clothes, loud and colourful, and, as I followed him and Ib, the giant having moved after him faster than I could see, I realised something I'd never paid much attention to: Mharra was never quiet.

Never for long. Not like this, when his blood was running hot. He was always humming, or muttering, or tapping his fingers on something, or his foot. Whistling, laughing, chuckling. Always alive. Never quiet.

I guess the old saying was right. You never really appreciated something-or noticed it-until you lost it.

Mharra's silence, which continued even as I caught up with him an Ib, dashing away from the shouting Fleet members with a burst of remembered speed, scratched at the back of my mind, like a missing tooth, or the phantom pain of a missing limb.

I could only imagine how he felt.


I quickly, and painfully, learned two things following our departure from the Free Fleet.

Well. Both sides had departed, really. Us three on the sea, the Fleet on stranger tides; possibility itself, if Ib was to be believed. But I couldn't shake off the sensation of the Fleet letting us go, or telling us to leave, rather than us doing so of our own volition.

My mouth would've probably tasted like ash, if it hadn't been full of seawater.

I spat a salty mouthful as I stood up, shaking. I hadn't lost my sea legs, the damn ship was just swaying like a leaf in a storm-on the calmest waters I'd ever seen in my life, too!

Had it not been bucking like a frenzied horse, I might have wistfully pondered the cruelty of creation, how it had gifted us such a beautiful day after depriving us of a friend.

As things were, however, the Rainbow Burst's mood swings just compounded my foul mood.

I had mentioned two things, yes? They were related, both to each other, because a disaster never came alone, and to the sensation Mharra's silence, which had occasionally been broken by sharp, curt commands, but continued in spirit, had caused.

You never appreciated, or noticed, something until you lost it. And damn if Three hadn't kept things running smoothly and quietly as an engineer, because they'd gotten really rough and loud now that he was gone.

With Ib's memories returned and its shapeshifting reaching greater and greater heights with seemingly every moment, the grey giant could, effectively, run the ship by itself without moving at all. Which left Mharra with nothing to do except decide on our course, plans and future destinations, and me with even less.

To prevent myself from going mad (der), I occasionally took up Three's old post in the engine room, sometimes accompanied by one of Ib's extensions. My friend was always in the engine room when I wasn't, and didn't always leave when I was.

Its presence wasn't unpleasant, Vhaarn knew I'd cried myself to sleep after it had regained its memories, but the air around Ib was always heavy with tension. Not aggression, more of a feeling of obsession, and I couldn't spend too long in its presence, lest I be crushed.

The first thing I had noticed was that, without Three to take care of it, the steamer's random bouts of apparent sentience stopped being random, brief, or in any way unclear. The ship was alive and aware, every moment, and crazy.

Or just angry. But after a certain point, "mad" could mean many things.

The second thing was that the Burst couldn't just think and move of its own accord, it could shapeshift too, the bastard. Most sailors affectionately referred to their ships as female, but the steamer acted like the sort of once-bedridden, cantankerous old man who revealed previously unseen physical prowess just to annoy his caretakers.

The engine room was a mess of machinery I'd never once seen, heard or read about before, much less handled. Gears that spun endlessly in midair, connected to nothing; floating, meaningless counterweights; furnaces and spherical protrusions that alternated between turning the room into a stove or a freezer appeared at random intervals, bursting out of the walls to fire steam and flames or blasts of frost and chilling air.

Luckily, at least if you wanted to see things that way, necessity was the mother of invention. And, to prevent the ship from directly attempting to kill us (something Mharra had failed miserably at; I think it blamed him for Three's disappearance), Ib and I took turns or worked together to try and keep it under relative control.

But, while Ib seemed impervious to sudden charges in temperature, flying projectiles, lightning bolts and assorted traps, I was physically human. Or I had been, before I'd started remembering.

Repeatedly thinking about my toughness-for examples, times I'd walked off punches-increased it in reality. Permanently. Magic moving alongside emotion, I'd undergone a significant growth spurt as our crew became smaller.

So it was that, when a tide of white-hot fire washed over me, I was merely annoyed, rather than vapourised. It didn't even singe my hair. Then, when the heat was replaced by a sudden, howling blizzard, I just shook my head to get rid of the frost, instead of being frozen solid.

I was naked, but that was mortifying rather than dangerous. I'd quickly realised I'd literally burn through all my clothes if I spent time dressed in this madhouse.

I suddenly felt a slight pressure against my left eye, and noticed a huge blade, tons and tons of steel glowing white from the speed it had been launched at, pressing against the eyeball. It was harmless, of course, but it reminded me that I'd better remember speed, too, lest I be caught by surprise by something I couldn't shrug off.

Frowning, I flicked the blade, my remembered strength turning it into dust, which I swept aside with one hand. Dammit, what did the steamer even want?

I'd stopped trying to make sense of its inner workings; the ship only had insides when it felt like it. The rest of the time? It was a solid mass of metals and things I couldn't quite classify, rooms notwithstanding. When it wasn't randomly trying to crush us.

I'd suggested selling or scrapping it, and getting a new one, but Mharra had refused, claiming that no one sane would want such a ship, and anyone we tricked would want revenge, if they survived, but I thought he just didn't want to lose more familiar things.

'I could do it, boss,' Ib had said quietly. 'Turn into a ship, or whatever you want to travel in. I'm fast. I can change shape. Accommodate you.'

Mharra had turned to it, surprised. 'You want to get rid of her, too?'

The giant had said nothing.

The point was, there clearly wasn't some mechanical problem. It was all-for lack of a better word-mental.

I tensed, then relaxed as Ib, or a fraction of it, slithered into the engine room. The little grey blob had been more quiet than a heartbeat, but to my enhanced ears, it might as well have emitted thunderclaps with every move.

'No luck, friend?' the sliver of Ib asked softly, before growing into a full-sized replica of the giant's original body, creating matter from nothing.

'As always,' I replied, only glancing at the transformation from the corner of my eye. Ib had changed, but at least its changes were, while unknown to me in full, nowhere near as bad as what the ship was going through. 'But I think I might have an idea.'

'I could always lobotomise it,' Ib said, sounding regretful, like someone talking about putting down a sick pet. Could it...? Never mind.

'We'll keep that in mind,' I said, turning to it. My friend looked the same: a four-armed, faceless being, twice my height and nearly as broad, with a body made of miraculous grey false matter. 'But my idea is more...delicate.'

'Is it, now?' it asked doubtfully. I frowned slightly, feeling somewhat offended. Did it think I always resorted to violence first?

Had its creator messed with it, in some way?

The thought made my blood boil, something Ib definitely noticed, given how it cleared its nonexistent throat. 'Ryz? Your idea?'

If anything had been done to Ib, I'd run on water until I found the Fleet, ripped their ships apart, then... 'Yes, it is,' I answered its previous question. 'We'll get nothing by prodding at the steamer, except injured.'

'That would be bad.'

'I'm glad you're worried about me, Ib,' I half-joked. 'The Rainbow Burst started going crazy when we lost Three, because we lost him. Or at least I think so.'

'No, I agree.' Its face shifted to form the outline of a thoughtful moue. 'Its frustration is plain as day. It wants the void filled, and is angry at us for not doing that.'

'Not for tinkering with her?' I asked, slightly surprised, but choosing to err on the side of caution. I didn't know whether the ship would feel dehumanised and get offended at being called "it". With my luck, it would feel offended at getting humanised.

'That, too,' Ib nodded, becoming faceless once more. 'But it is a small annoyance, compared to its rage at being...ah...' its face rippled. 'I don't think I can translate that. "Orphaned" would be the closest equivalent, but it knows Three is not its creator, nor does it see him as a father figure.'

'Well, we're all in the same...' I almost said "boat", before realising that would have probably been insensitive. Or maybe the ship would have thought I was coming onto it. Nothing would have surprised me at that point. 'Situation. We all miss him, but Ib...' I gave my friend a questioning look, brow furrowed. 'What do you mean, its frustration is clear as day? I've gathered that, but you sounded like you could...see it, or...'

'You cannot, because you only have human senses and magic to fall upon,' the giant's voice was gentle, but I still felt like it was talking down to me. I knew it wasn't, of course, but no one in the crew was in a good mood.

In the month since we'd left the Free Fleet behind, we hadn't come across one island, or ship, or even a little boat. Pit, we hadn't even been attacked by a sea monster, or passed through a storm, or airquake. It was as if Midworld was trying to, clumsily, or perhaps mockingly, make up for the loss of our friend.

'I, however,' Ib placed a large hand over its chest, where a human's heart would have been, drawing my attention away from my brooding and back to it. 'Have always had a clearer view of creation. And my recent awakening has only broadened my horizons.' It smiled. 'Your righteous anger is flattering, Ryzhan, as well as your desire to avenge me. But rest assured, my maker did nothing except keep their promise.'

'Self-preservation,' I grunted, eyes tracking a series of chrome spheres, each moving many times faster than sound, the grey metal begininning to glow white with heat in slow motion as I remembered speed and my eyes adjusted.

'Quite,' Ib agreed. 'But in this case, the motive does not matter so much when the desired result is achieved.' I felt it shift its footing, and it would be long, long seconds, before the sound reached my ears. As such, I was surprised when I heard Ib's voice again, mere subjective moments after it had adjusted its balance. 'But, if it will put your mind to rest, I will allow you to see mine.'

As perplexed by the offer as the impossibly-fast sound, I turned to stare up at my friend. 'Ib?' I said, and the word took an eternity to fill the air, from my perspective, but the giant waited patiently. 'How did you speak so fast?'

'The aether, Ryzhan.'

'The aether...?'

It nodded. 'It can carry many things. Spells, people, messages...mana has few limits, in truth. One of the few constant things about it is thatit is created by the harmony of mind, body and soul. And so is the aether, which spans Midworld and beyond.'

I laughed. 'Spawned by the harmony of...what? A god?'

It sounded like a beautiful fantasy, but Ib sounded serious at it replied. 'If you wish. Now...' it placed a heavy finger on my forehead. 'Open you eyes, Ryzhan.'


There was a sense of disconnection, from everything. Of falling in all directions at once, but not moving. Then, of distance and location itself falling away, leaving only the knowledge that everything was a cage when it wasn't an obstacle, and a distaste for such things.

The distaste brought alarm, because it-I-remembered it did not believe that. Its friends were not obstacles, and our comradeship no shackle. This was only its primal essence, the rawest face of myself, and I wouldn't be subsumed or overcome by it.

I-Libertas-would emerge into the world once again, as myself, not some alien monster obsessed with freedom in its most chaotic form.

Its creator looked on patiently as I ascended, leaving its physical form and Midworld, below. The infinite seascape shone like a coin beneath it as I ascended, and learned.

My body wasn't separate from it; an invisible thread, thin as a metaphor, bound it to its counterparts in the higher layers of creation, with the one in the fourth's shadow being my body in the third layer, and the one in the fourth layer being the shadow of the one in the fifth...

This continued unto infinity, I saw, but what separated it from other beings was that my bodies moved in unison-so to speak. Time ceased being a thing past the fourth layer.

I saw, too, that each layer contained not only Midworld, but an endless number of universes like it, stacked side by side but infinitely distant, separated by the aether flowing through creation water under ice.

And, though each layer contained an infinity of cosmoses like mine, each possibility spawned a new one, just as vast, at dazzling speed.

As I saw the worlds become small under me, looking like a sphere would have, had it possessed an infinity of dimensions, rather than three, I noticed something like a gate.

It parted easily at my touch, and now I walked through lands of dreams, where the worlds would have been like a dream, like a drawing of paper. Just like each layer transcended the previous one, so did these lands transcend mundane reality.

So did the void the lands were located in surpass them, surpassed in turn by another, and endless procession of voids, another gate...

Voids within voids, again, endless-more?-until I reached the ultimate one, and felt creation grow thin as I reached for the edge of thee dream it was in its maker's mind...

And stopped, as much as I could do anything in this realm of ideas, with no place or moment. No need for that. I was home.

I was, once again, one with all of myself. The Idea of Freedom, of Liberty. And I was crippled no more.


I drew back with a gasp, like I'd just emerged to the surface after a deep dive. At first, delving into Ib's memories-and wasn't that strange? I'd only shared mine, until now-after its creator had removed the shackles that weakened it whenever it was far from the Free Fleet, had been a...chilling experience.

At first, my perspective had shifted constantly, so that I was myself one moment, and Ib the other. Guest, then host, but...towards the end, surrounded by sights that would have blasted my mind to nothing without the protection of Ib's mind, I had been overwhelmed.

I didn't know if it had been the intensity of the memories, or whether Ib had taken over for my sake, but I hadn't liked it. My not so old paranoia resurfaced, muttering querulously about the giant trying to crush my mind and leave me dead or a puppet, but I pushed it down.

'I believe you,' I told Ib, fighting to keep my voice steady. 'And you...believe me.' I blinked, shaking my head to try and clear it. Why was I talking sso awkwardly? 'So you agree. But do you have a solution?'

'My power removes restrictions. For example, were I trapped in metal, it would give me the ability to melt or pass through it.'

'Something that will leave the ship as it is?' I asked, not liking the hesitation in its voice. 'Besides you turning into a boat and towing this one along.' Because we had both grown fond of the damned scrapheap, dammit, even if I wanted to sink it half of the time.

'Perhaps.' It matched my sarcastic smile with a thin one. 'But I think we should talk to the captain first.'

'Isn't one of your slivers always standing guard over him?' I asked the giant as we left the engine room, and I locked the door behind us, for all the good it would do, before remembering my clothes, causing them to materialise: a sturdy pair of brown pants and a tailcoat, along with a pair of thick, knee-high boots and a band of leather to tie my green hair into a ponytail.

I'd let it grow, alongside my beard, because I was, in a way, mourning Three, even though I still wanted to...believed he was somewhere out there, and that we would find him, if he didn't find us first. It was a way of showing the time you would otherwise spend on grooming went towards remembering a fallen friend.

'I am, yes,' Ib replied. 'You know I appreciate redundancy, Ryzhan. The captain hardly needs protection.'

'Does the captain know about your new powers?' At its silence, I continued. 'You don't ahve to tell me if he does, but at least tell him about them. You shouldn't hide such things from your crewmates, Ib.'

The giant stopped in its tracks, shaping eyes for itself just to fix me with a dry stare. 'Ryzhan...' it deadpanned.

'I know, I know,' I waved it off. 'But all of you already know my secrets! I'm not being hypocritical, Ib. I'm just...concerned.' I lowered my voice as we walked up to the deck. 'And you've all made me a better man than I was before I joined the crew, so I don't think it's wrong to expect better of people I know are better than me.'

The grey giant sighed, turning around and dropping onto one knee, wrapping me up into a hug in the same motion. 'Thank you, Ryz,' it whispered. 'But we only brought out what was already there.'


'Where's my engineer?'

'We do not know. We cannot even find a trace of-'

He cut them off with a chop of his hand. The scientist looked dismayed. 'But will you look for him? Send word if you find Three, or his whereabouts?'

They pursed their lips. 'Should the Fleet's upper echelons determine such an endeavour to be necessary...'

Mharra tuned them out at that point. He was familiar with polite, but overly-long refusals. They wouldn't, unless they could gain something from it, and definitely after they did.

It might have been a boon in disguise, though, he mused to himself as his crew entered his cabin, Ryzhan looking thoughtful, Ib nodding at the incarnation it had assigned as his bodyguard. At least, now that his lover had disappeared, perhaps the Fleet would be discouraged from attempting to recreate the probability experiment, and their troops wouldn't gain the ability to manifest wherever and whenever they wanted. It was cold comfort, but, in a way, Midworld was safer.

For the time being, at least.

'We're going to the Clockwork Court,' he announced before Ryzhan could open his mouth. 'The King might be able to repair our ship, or give us something else in exchange. I'm sure it might interest him.'

Mharra smiled slightly as Ryzhan's eyebrows went on to visit his hairline. 'That was actually what we wanted to ask about, sir.'

'It's my duty to know my crew,' he replied.

'Well, part of what we wanted,' Ib chimed in. 'Sir, what about the shows? And Three?'

Mharra shrugged, looking far more relaxed than he felt. 'We haven't held performances because we haven't found audiences, not because we didn't want to. We'll keep our eyes peeled for those, as well as any signs of Three along the way. It's all we can do. And, on that note...I've heard the Weaver Queen can do many things with death, not just life. She might at least know something about him.'

'...Do you even know where the King and Queen are, sir?'

'Dammit, Ryzhan!' Mharra cursed good-naturedly, trying to smile and force some of his characteristic bluster into his voice. 'Always with the doom and gloom, aren't you?'


The quote at the beginning of the chapter, something that has been missing for a few ones, references exactly that. The break from the routine of quotes, the type you'd expect to find in an explorer's journal, full of notes detailing a tumultuous, but essentially beautiful journey, was caused by the stay at the Fleet, which was filled with tension.
My original stories:viewtopic.php?f=9&t=171108&sid=d8a62d5d ... d23db4c4c8
viewtopic.php?f=9&t=171110&sid=d8a62d5d ... d23db4c4c8
Stories I'm co-writing over on Spacebattles: Halloween Knights;Tales from the Halloween Knights (Anthology) ;Memories from the Halloween Knights (Anthology) ; ... s.1039239/
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Strigoi Grey
Padawan Learner
Posts: 167
Joined: 2023-03-12 11:55am
Location: Romania

Re: The Scholar's Tale(Original Fantasy)

Post by Strigoi Grey »

AN: Longer break than I'd intended, but, between writer's block, my other projects and stuff irl, I just haven't been able to pick up ST again. I can't promise this won't happen again, but I hope it won't.

* * *

I'd gotten so used to the hustle and bustle of the ship-as Mharra, Three and Ib bickered with and called after each other-that now, the sound of the waves crashing against the steamer seemed almost...lonely. Such a small, sad thing; like my captain, in a way.

I'd always been a withdrawn sort, even before leaving Copper's Cradle behind without a backwards glance. It hadn't spared me for beatings as a child, but it had brought some peace of mind. When I'd first met them, Mharra's unrelenting cheer and Ib and Three's boisterous attempts at camaraderie had-I won't mince words-annoyed me. I'd never really been comfortable around cheerful people, on the brief occasions I'd met any. There had always been expectations, if not actual requests, of leaving my quiet corner and metaphorical shell, and joining in. Nagging that had only fed into my resentfulness.

Not just at anyone being so carefree in Midworld. But at being happy when I wasn't. At being able to let their guard now, without the memory or threat of danger looming over them, at laughing about life's worries, rather than brooding over or taking dry, bitter jabs at them.

Just another thing I'd taken for granted, and not even appreciated properly. Just like my first and last love...

We might've lost a crewmate, and our engineer at that, but, if anything, Three's absence didn't feel as...crushing, as I'd expected.

'It's because he had three selves,' Ib had started to joke one night. 'So it's really like one void, spread thin.'

'Oh?' I'd arched an eyebrow, just to be contrary. 'Isn't it closer to three voids?'

'Three's selves were rarely apart, friend.''

Mharra had joined in, a rather unexpected situation, these days.

We had been leaning on the railing, me with my elbows on it, Ib with its back to it, lower arms slung over the edge, the middle and upper pairs crossed. Talking, just so we wouldn't be quiet.

The captain had started alternating between sitting in his cabin, brooding and occasionally shouting or coming out to tell us about possible things of interest ahead as he checked his instruments, and sitting or standing quietly in a corner when Ib and I got together.

There were, however, more unsettling episodes. Having started to remember being fully-rested, I'd mostly stopped sleeping, so I could always be available and, more importantly, alert. Between my perpetual wakefulness and magically-enhanced senses, I had started...seeing things.

No, I wasn't going mad (der). I meant actual things, events happening in the real world. Mostly, at night, when I sat in bed, watching the exterior and surrounding of the Burst through my cabin's sightscreen, I saw thick, heavy mists surround the ship, leaving only enough visibility at the port, starboard and prow to taunt the watcher. Despite the weather being far too dry for fog this dense. The mists, which varied from white-grey and black to eerie green and other, unnatural colours I could not describe, much less name, were filled with lights. They moved through them, flickering, winking on and off, as if taunting.

A handful of years ago, while trekking through a marshy island during a monsoon, a group of local guides I'd half-bribed, half-threatened to guide me to the safest place available (so I could wait out the weather, then look for a way to get off the waterlogged mess) had warned me about will-o'-wisps, unnatural lights that lured foolish or just weary travellers to their miserable deaths in the depths of swamps.

My instincts, both magical and mundane, told me the lights in the mists were less intended to be lures, althought they could undoubtedly accomplish that function as well, and more meant as psychological warfare. Wearing the mind down, making it think of questions and see patterns were there were none.

To what purpose? I knew not. There were many unexplained, unexplainable dangers, in Midworld.

But the lights were not the worst things in the mists. Not by far. On some nights, I saw and heard things that made them seem quaint.

Formless silhouettes, darting in and out of the fog, dark and featureless even under the moonlight. Illusionary ships, like mirages in a desert, that sailed straight at the steamer, but passed through it without even denting the hull.

Mostly, they were sailships. Made of wood, yellowed by age or blackened by rot. They looked as if they'd spent years underwater, if not longer. They came at us, using torn sails that needed no wind, dark sludge dripping from them like sludge from an old corpse. The ships' timbers creaked, sounding like the wails of the dead that crewed them.

Not all of the ghoulish vessels were wooden. Some were steamers like ours, contraptions of once-gleaming metals or magical constructs of crystal and dreams.

Nightmares, now.

The crews consisted of revenants, though not all were flaking flesh and cracked bone. The ones on the sailships looked like a child's idea of pirates, all piercings and knives between teeth and death's head grins. Some were freshly deaded, bloated with saltwater. Others could've been dead for longer than I'd lived, except, instead of falling apart into dust, they'd become fouler and fouler, skin sticking tightly to skulls whose eye sockets blazed with green fire.

There were dead men with two peg legs or hooks for hands, steering wells stuck in cracked heads and cutlasses piercing unbeating hearts and useless lungs. Grotesque mockeries of parrots and monkeys scampered across, in and out of the captains' hole-riddled bodies.

The dead on the other ships were stranger still. Revenants that stalked or crawled on endless mechanical legs, like spiders or caterpillars; or flew using boxy, metallic contraptions fused with their torsos, which pulsed sickly. There were cadavers made almost entirely of rocks or gemstones, with so little flesh left, they looked more like golems that had dismembered and flayed people to wear their remains.

The thought seemed to please them. Their endless, droning chuckle grew louder at every such comparison that entered my mind.

The hardest part was always when the false ghost ships passed through the steamer. My arcane sense told me there was nothing there, as did my instincts, but it was hard to listen to the small, rational part of my mind while the rest of it was torn between fight or flight.

I struggled not to stand up and strike or run when decks full of corpses filled my sight, and though they passed through me without leaving any sensation-even the mists were more substantial, for, at least, they existed-, my soul still reeled in disgust at their approach. Monstrous limbs and bloodless, gaping mouths stretched forward and spread wider, as if their owners sough to embrace or kiss me.

'It's good you can keep your nerve, Ryzhan,' Ib grimly told me one night. 'I've seen the like before. The more you believe in them, the more real they are.' It had smiled almost shily. 'So they should have no power over you, but still...want me to sleep with you?'

Years ago, anyone would've received a deadpan look or slap for asking me that, depending on my mood. As it were...

'I wouldn't mind sharing my room with you,' I had replied. 'We are all in a dark mood now. It would not help anyone to remain alone, with the monsters.'

And that was how I'd ended up leaning against Ib's torso or sitting in its lap, its strong arms wrapped around me in a reassuring embrace that was only slightly crushing.

I'd have objected to Ib leaving Mharra on his own, but my friend's fragments were all over the ship, and any could become it-like a fist opening into a hand, it had told me; a blunt tool becoming more versatile-in a moment, if it was necessary.

Of course, while I was grateful for its presence, I was also a grown man, and a mage to boot. It felt...just slightly degrading, having someone hold mr as I tried to sleep.

'Do not think it's childish, Ryz,' Ib said. 'I'd be more worried if you weren't scared of such things. We are talking about real dangers here...well, unreal dangers. But they could become painful fact in a moment.' It patted my head, only rattling my brain slightly. 'Besides, it's not like only children comfort each other like this. Soldiers do it too, as do lovers...and we are comrades, at least, aren't we?'

Such things didn't need to be confirmed anymore. As such, I didn't answer.

I would hold on to my remaining crewmates for as long as possible, in any way I could...



And why not? Why not, when there seemed to be no end to how much I could enhance myself with my magic? The additions stacked, with no limit in sight. I felt like I could do anything. Like I could...

Well. Not bring Three back, at least. So, not anything.

And I'd tried, so, so many times. Hoped to make a surprise of it, for the captain. Show him the runaway he'd picked up for his magic was good for more than parlour tricks during the shows that now seemed vague, distant memories.

But I'd failed. It had felt like pressing my hand (or ramming my head, with how frustrating it got) against an unyielding wall, or tugging on a rope someone was pulling in the other direction.

That damned analogy was so bloody fitting, I actually got rope burns during one of the attempts. Found myself staring down at my bloody hands in irritated bemusement, ears filled by distant, empty laughter.

It seemed that whatever force the Free Fleet had unleashed or tapped into during their experiment was intelligent, though I used that term loosely, given its apparent sense of humour.

It was strange, though. I was trying to reach out to Three, wherever he might've been, not it. The larger, more cynical part of me though that another menace had been allowed to prowl the seas because of human ambition, a menace that was now hindering me because it found my efforts amusing.

The smaller, newer, more optimistic part of me thought that maybe, just maybe, Three was still out there, somewhere, maybe trapped or imprisoned by the Fleet's experiment-or the Fleet itself. Or maybe he was gone, but the thing striking back against my magic knew of a way to bring him back.

Thoughts for another day. I hadn't told Mharra, or Ib, but I wouldn't have been surprised to learn they both knew. I'd have been more surprised if they didn't, really. Ib had eyes and ears everywhere, almost literally, and Mharra...knew people.

And so went our days. The stretch of ocean we'd reached was incredibly peaceful, disturbingly so, in fact. I'd seen fiercer inland seas on larger islands. There were no tides on the expanse stretching out before us, no wind and no clouds above it. It was as still as a sapphire mirror.

I didn't spend much time on the deck, not because the weather was bad, but because it was better than I'd ever seen or read about, and that unsettled me. Still, one day, I looked down into the water,on a whim, and realised it was as clear as crystal. The only thing stopping me from seeing the seafloor was the fact there was none, for Midworld's waters stretched infinitely beneath and around us. Looking into the endless, azure depths, my mind rebelled at the sight, and I stepped back, lest I get dizzy.

And so, an year passed. We saw no other ships, no islands-not just already formed ones; Midworlders often saw masses of steaming rock rise from the waters and cool down before their eyes-, not even any animals. It was as if Midworld was trying to tell us our journey was pointless.

That, as long as we travelled in search of Three, rather than just out of necessity, like everyone else, we would never achieve anything, never go anywhere.

"Haven't others lost friends, too?"

I knew it was absurd, of course. The frustration and paranoia, scratching at my patience. I'd heard stories about sailors who'd only seen water their entire lives. But it didn't help with that nagging feeling, nor make it disappear. Nor did the nights, which got worse and worse as time dragged on.

While at first the phantasms had been mere illusions and tricks, the dangers became very much real, over months.

One night, while Ib and I were in my cabin, I was watching it shapeshift, my eyes sometimes drifting to the sifhtscreen for brief moments. The mists were rising, as always. The nights were almost as gloomy as the days were bright, like Midworld was punishing us for not taking the hint and forgetting Three, or not appreciating the beauty of the still waters it paraded before us.

I looked back as Ib began turning into an impressively realistic rendition of the Free Fleet's mangled command in miniature, then saw something jump out of the fog and land on the deck, an instant before I felt it.

The ship shook like a leaf in a hurricane, the deck shattering for several metres around as the steamer's hull almost rippled, before resuming its prior shape. The tortured shriek of metal was replaced by an actual shriek, as the  Burst let its hatred of the intruder be known.

The attacker looked like Mharra, except with sickly-grey skin and stringy black hair, as dark as his sunken eyes. At first, I'd thought the sockets were empty, but then I saw a dark joy gleam in the ebony orbs.

In contrast with my captain's colourful outfits, the creature wore a drab, dark green coat, brown pants and black boats, frayed and falling apart, rotten and dripping saltwater. The dripping never stop, as if the monster had an ocean trapped inside itself.

Its mouth was fanged, its nose hooked, and its limbs broken. They twised at impossible angles, stretched out of true, bones shining in the moonlight as they poked through flesh the colour of ash.

The joints were raw wounds, black ooze gathering on the edges. Elbows, knees, ankles, all were barely held together by threads of meat, as were the neck and crotch. I could see behind the thing by looking through it.

Ib's face rippled into a determined expression as it met my questioning look. 'Captain's in his cabin,' it said. 'I'm going to throw that impostor overboard.'

Not waiting for a reply, it dashed out of my cabin, dozens of times faster than sound, the metal of the corridor glowing white from its passing. I followed, almost as fast, and saw the steamer had already repaired the damage as we ran to the deck. I didn't know if I could do anything to help against whatever this was, but I didn't want Ib to face it alone. I couldn't afford to lose it, too, not after we'd saved it.

But if it lost you, a voice said in my mind, because of your recklessness, do you think it could forgive itself?

I didn't answer it. I had nothing to say.

By the time I arrived on the deck, Ib had already tackled the fake Mharra, forcing it onto its back. It laughed, even as its ribs cracked like seeds thrown into a fire. I stood back, trying to keep my footing, but the ship was swaying, and not from their struggle.

It felt more like it was shivering.

The mists were closing in, and I was staggering across the deck like a child who'd never stepped onto a boat, all because the damn stramer was twitchy.

I didn't realise, at the moment, that it was trying to save me. To keep me away, for my own safety.

With a mouthed curse, I dashed forward, and the fog rushed over the deck from all sides, obscuring Ib and the boarder from more than my sight. I could no longer see or smell them, feel them displacing air or shaking the deck with their movements. I couldn't even feel them with my arcane sense anymore. Ib's power, wild and free as a coursing river, was gone, as was the creature's sinister aura, like the moon hidden by a dark cloud.

As I strode through the mists, ignoring the way my senses insisted they were infinite, but that I was still on our decidedly finite ship, I began remembering traits. Strength, speed, durability, senses, increasing faster the more I enhanced them.

I kept my fists clenched at my sides after realising that, no matter how hard or fast I struck the air, the fog didn't move. Of course, it was beyond obvious, by now, that this wasn't natural weather.

My boot finally hit something other than the deck. Usually warm, it was now cold and wet, with patches of heat appearing and dissppearing across it at irregular intervals. Like the ship was sick, or scared.

I knew it was petty, but I still thought it had been far more tolerable when it hadn't been so... expressive.

Quashing the irritation, which had only reminded me of how much Three had done for the crew, I focused once more on my suroundings.

Specifically, the ugly mess I'd stepped on.

Mharra's nightmarish doppelganger grinned up at me, all needle teeth, as it clamped its clammy hands on my knee, trying to rip my leg off. I responded by remembering more strength, forcing my boot through its shattering ribcage and into the deck, keeping it still as surely as if it'd been impaled with a sword.

Its ugly grimave actually widened at this, so, glad I'd stomped a mudhole through it, I brought my other foot down onto its mouth, leaving a gory crater through its skull and into the deck. I then stomped on its neck, flattening it like a piece of parchment.

It was still struggling, through. And talking. Despite its punctured lungs, caved-in mouth and flattened throat.

Its voice only made it more grotesque, if only because it was completely mundane, even pleasant. My captain's voice, flowing from a monster's maw.

So to speak...

'So quick to violence, "Dhalgo",' it leered up at me. 'Unsurprising, but disappointing. I smelled the assassin in you when we first met, but I hoped you'd be kinder, in this world.'

I raised an eyebrow. If not for the recent revelation I'd received from Ib's memories, I might've been skeptical of the implication. As it were, though...'You're from a different universe? Another Midworld?'

It seemed confused at the second question, but answered me nonetheless. 'If that's what you want to call it.' The creature struggled, trying to rip itself free, more frustrated at being pinned than at the damage. Though, given that it had appeared bearing death wounds, maybe I shouldn't have been surprised. 'Let me go!'

'Why? So you can try to kill me, like you did Ib?' Where was it, anyway? I doubted this fool had killed or escaped it, if only because I'd crushed it so easily. How much of that had to do with satisfying my inner cynic, better not to dwell on it.

It let out an ugly, cawing chuckle. Unsurprisingly (at this point, I'd have guessed it was some sort of undead even without my arcane sense, or the wet corpse smell), its voice didn't seem to be affected by its body's condition at all. It just sounded like a jackass, and something told me it also laughed like a donkey.

'Like you killed mine? You might as well have!' it said accusingly, eyes narrowing as I fiught to keep my face blank. 'Handed it over to the Free Fleet, in exchange for them hunting down anyone chasing you!'

It tried to crawl up my legs, so I snapped its arms in half at the elbows, pulling each off with one hand, then throwing them overboard.

At least, I thought so. The weather was playing tricks on my sense of scale, and the rotting maggot tryint to thrash itself free wasn't helping with concentration.

'Where's my Three?! I want my Three!' it shrieked, like a spoiled child, and I remembered more and more strength. By now, the ship was shivering like a man dying of frostbite.

' Our Three,' I began in a clipped done. I wasn't sure if it was reality an alternate Mharra from another reality, or simply some monster spat out by Midworld's waters, but I thought the phrasing would help get its attention. 'Is missing-'

'Killed! Dead once more, and by your hand!'

'No!' I snapped, resisting the urge to rip its head off. I didn't know if it could survive that, or still talk, if it did, and I might yet drag something useful out of it, even if literally. 'The Free Fleet saved our Ib, but in exchange for their help, they wanted a subject for an experiment. Three went. And...' I trailed off, but didn't look away from it, much as I wanted to.

In that I thought about it, I badly, deeply wanted to look away. Why? Disgust, at my captain's image being disfigured like this? Wistfulness? Guilt?

It didn't matter. I had a duty to defend the ship and help my crewmates, by removing this danger, and maybe gaining something useful for our search.

They'd accepted me. How could I do any less?

'We lost him,' I continued, more firmly. 'And if you think I wouldn't have gone in his place, that brain is more mouldy than it looks.' I was glad I'd gotten rid of its mouth. Smirking was more satisfying when the butt off the joke couldn't sneer back. My parents had taught me that. 'That's what we're trying to do. Find him.' I narrowed my eyes. 'What happened to your Three? Did you lose him, too?'

It stared at me in incomprehension, then its chest began rattling as it laughed pityingly. The bones in my legs were shaking, too, but I stood firm.

' My Three is where he belongs. Next to my heart~' When I scowled at its hooded, lewd look, it giggled. 'Peel back the flesh, and see for yourself. What, don't believe me? I'd ask if those miraculous magical senses can't show you the truth, but...' it slowly shook its head. 'They never have.'

'Do you think condescension will make me throw you overboard in fewer pieces?'

It scoffed. 'Nothing new under the sun. Three was horrified at your treachery, which you compounded by joining the Fleet. Although,' it looked at me slyly. 'Maybe that's the wrong word. You must believe in something at first, in order to betray it. What would you suggest instead? Infiltration?' It wiggled like a worm on a hook. 'You've always had such a way with words...far more so than stupid, naïve captain Mharra.'

I didn't know whether my counterpart had been a traitor, and cared even less. I had no responsibility for his actions, and the way it was calling me arrogant did nothing more than stoke my temper.

But what if that was what it wanted? To make me prove I was no better than the Ryzhan it had known? Or just distract me in order to achieve whatever it wanted?

'You're wasting my time,' I told it. 'Answer my questions.'

'Three never wanted to lose anyone again. He knew we could protect each other.'

'Really? I wonder why he isn't talking to me, too. Is he this quiet in your mind as well?' I whispered the next words. 'Is anyone else there, besides the voices?' I wasn't taken aback by its fat, oily tears. It had proven it was emotional already. 'Ib. What'd you do to my friend?'

'I don't know,' it said tiredly, looking past me, at the misty night sky. 'I lost it during the grapple. Threw it off me, and it never came back.'

Better finish this quickly, then, so I could look for it.

'Interesting. Now, why don't you tell me why you came here cackling like a villain out of a bedtime story? What were you hoping to find? Besides this beating.'

I smiled its withering glare off, quietly praising myself for leaving its eyes intact. It made things better.

'I came here for Three,' it said, suddenly calm, all traces of agitation or mockery gone. 'I told you. I recognised your acent, even if we were never...sailors, in our world. I want him.'

'So do we,' I said, bemused at its almost plaintive tone. 'But you turned your Three into, what, a source of power? Is that what you want to do to ours?'

'I want him,' it said with an ugly scowl. As much of one as it could make without a mouth. 'I need my love. I will take him and kill you, and things will be as they should have been.' It tried to sit up, even after I stomped its legs to pieces. 'You won't be the last.'

As if I'd let it put its inane plan into practice. Travel between worlds, killing my counterparts, because his Ryzhan had hurt him? I had no doubt some of my alternates were utter bastards, most likely were, but this-


I jumped away on reflex at the aetheric voice, a tenth of a thousand of a second before Ib landed on Mharra's doppelganger, shattering it.

'I'd heard enough,' the grey giant said, not looking at me. 'I got lost, but your voices guided me. The more you talked, the closer I came, until I finally found you.' It stood up, the undead's remains sliding off its body like water off glass. 'Thank you, Ryzhan,' its voice became sheepish. 'I should've finished the job. You shouldn't have to worry about protecting the ship, friend.'

'Of bloody course I shouldn't,' I snapped. 'What do we even keep you around for?'

My ire only rose when it bowed its head wordlessly. Honestly...we'd made it whole again, and it couldn't even do its damn duty, for all its power? What if I'd died?

I turned on my heel, not waiting to see if it was following me, though its heavy tread soon shook the deck beneath me. And so, we headed back not stopping until we reached the captain's cabin.

Mharra was happy to see us, though he didn't show it, lips turned down in his customary frown.

'Don't worry, Ryzhan,' the captain said, not looking at me. The table in fron of him was covered in leatherbound journals and parchments, detailing the travels of long-gone Midworlders. In the hope if finding anything that could help our quest, doubtlessly; strange events, how to find the trail of the Clockwork Court. 'You got everything you could have from that wretch.'

I stood up straighter in the chair Ib had become, and almost harrumphed. And what had he done? Sat there, poring over books like some withered librarian? 'I told Ib the truth,' I kicked the chair, drawing an apologetic murmur. 'But you're even worse. At least it has powers. Why the Pit are you captain?'

Mharra held up his hands. 'Forgive me, Ryz. I know you're angry. We've never understood your struggle.'

'I'm yet to get what I deserve,' I added, glad he finally understood.

Mharra nodded. 'Why don't you tell us more about your pursuers? I can chart a course, and we'll track them down instead.'

My last thought, before we began planning, was that sailing had been far smoother when Three had been with us.

Bloody getting lost, the only time we needed him.
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Strigoi Grey
Padawan Learner
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Re: The Scholar's Tale(Original Fantasy)

Post by Strigoi Grey »

AN: Forgot to title the last post as Book III, Chapter 4.

* * *

Book III, Chapter 5

* * *

Ib was ill at ease.

Contrary to what some believed - it faking good cheer because it always felt awkward, marginalised - it was genuinely happy most of the time. Even now, after the revelation and the loss.

It understood Midworld's myriad facets and more numerous possibilities, as well as those of creation beyond. The sensation of freedom that had always appealed to it; its true self, speaking to its corporeal one.

Even if it had only recently become able to hear the call, much less understand it.

Now, however, Ib felt like it was about to lose another crewmate, another member of the family it had found, the only one it had ever had.

If Ryzhan wasn't gone already.

Contrary to what it had expected, the thought didn't unsettle it, though it make it angry. Some part of it knew the mage was still somewhere out there, lost in the endless fog. The part that was most in tune with its power, to overcome anything it viewed as an obstacle.

Passively. Ib couldn't help but think it would've gone faster if it could direct the...process? Was it even a process, or something already finished, which it had only to reach out and take?

Well. Necessity was always a good, if demanding, teacher. Ib only regretted that it was being pushed to discover its abilities while Ryzhan's wellbeing, if not life, hung in the balance.

It cursed the fact they hadn't encountered anything dangerous in the past year, any threat or obstacle demanding enough to push it, make it evolve. The thought drew a dark chuckle from it, despite itself.

Wishing to be in danger for the sake of more power suited the Free Fleet, if anyone, but it was no longer what they had built it to be, if it had ever been.

Striding purposefully seemed to yield no result, so Ib stopped walking, to gather its thoughts and catch its breath - so to speak.

Maybe, if it planned enough, its power would see its inability to reach Ryzhan as an obstacle, and kick it. Ib viewed the idea with sullen disdain, lip curling just as it formed on its face, then chastised itself at the ridiculous gripe.

Its power was part of it, no different from a limb. Just because it had only possessed access to a fraction of it until last year, it didn't mean it was...betraying itself, or failing, or disappointing anyone.

Maybe the last part was a lie, but Ib would wrestle with that later. Its power was not foreign to it. Using it was what breathing was to humans. Natural. Necessary, even. Maybe, if it used it enough, such worries would disappear.

For had to think.

What was the fog? It had never seen or heard of anything like it, but then, that wasn't too surprising. Midworld's very nature meant sailors could encounter dangers they would never get to tell others about, even if they survived them, merely because of distance.

At the same time, two crews could encounter identical menaces, but never know it, their lives and experiences separated by trillions of leagues...ah.

A smile dawned on Ib's face. It had thought about the fog enough its power had awakened, filling in the blanks that had prevented it from learning the truth and reaching a conclusion.

So; the fog was a natural phenomenon, inasmuch as Midworld's navigational hazards could be called natural. It was produced by the environment rather than engineered by any thinking being.

The damages wrought by such being the fog brought to the steamer notwithstanding.

As far as Ib could tell, the fog did not think for itself, nor was it even evil on instinct. If anything, it acted like an exagerrated version of the fog that always seemed to be present in ghost stories, or tales about disaster at sea.

Ib searched for a proper term and, sensing it was floundering, its power reached out, far beyond the boundaries of Midworld and the ocean of magic that surrounded it, and into a finite universe, into a small, blue world spinning around a sun. A strange concept, to be sure, but Ib persevered. And in this world of caged lightning and immaterial books, was the term Ib desired, even if it did not know until it had it.

Meme. A living story, or concept, much Not at all like itself, now that it thought more about it. An idea, but not an Idea. There was nothing of the Void Beyond Voids within it.

Ib tried to sense Ryzhan through the piece of itself it had left on him, and failed. Oh, the piece was still out there, as easy to feel as its main self's fingers. It hadn't been destroyed. Ib highly doubted any of it could be permanently damaged now, much less ended.

But it was no longer on Ryzhan. Either he had thrown it off, when his mind had come under the fog's influence, or it had simply been lost in the agitation, sent flying by his movements.

Ib frowned to itself. That's what it got for trying to be unobtrusive. Yes, the piece of itself had easy stuck to the inside of Ryz's collar, what with being the size of a grain of sand, but that only meant it also lacked stability.

It should have shapeshifted it into something heavier, since it hadn't done the job itself, but it had been too busy fighting that undead facsimile of the captain. It had thought breaking its joints and ripping off its manhood would at least give it pause, if only out of shock, but it hadn't.

Then again, it had only removed a shrivelled, rotten thing. It wouldn't have felt overly dismayed in the undead's place. Not like it needed it for anything.

Ib took cold comfort in having damaged the revenant enough for Ryzhan to overpower it, before finishing the job.

But then its friend had wandered off, lost in delusion, and it was up to it to bring him back to reality.

If Ib had been in a poetic mood, it would have, perhaps, been moved. As things were, its mood was sardonic at best. At least retrieving Ryzhan would be a simpler affair than the meeting with the Free Fleet, and it had been waiting for a chance to truly pay its friend back.

The fog, though not artificial, was decidedly bizarre, compared to any weather hazard Ib had ever encountered before. Its mundane senses were, at first, baffled by the apparent endlessness of the mist. Even before its awakening, Ib's sight had been able to cover any distance, unless an obstacle happened to be in the way; which, in hindsight, should have made it think more than it had, on the days its mind had allowed it to.

Its hearing and smell had been similarly sharp. Unless obstructed by an unusually powerful noise or stench, they had reached out over endless leagues.

Now that it knew what it was, Ib had grown in all aspects. Its power sensed the immensity of the fog, saw it as a barrier, and furiously set to work, in search of a way to overcome it.

The first step consisted of broadening its senses. An instant after this came the realisation that the fog actually was infinite, which irritated Ib more than it surprised or shocked it. It wondered whether it was becoming jaded, or simply short-tempered, and if that had to do with its old, newfound power.

Perhaps the Free Fleet had been right, in its fears. Perhaps, one day, it would grow tired of indulging the petty needs of insufferable mortals, and crown itself god and king of Midworld. It liked to think it would do a better job than any past or present pretenders.

Of course, Ib thought to itself, I must be in a bloody foul mood if I'm entertaining the idea of godhood as a cure for boredom.

With a shake of its head, the grey giant pushed the thought aside. Later. It had all of eternity ahead of itself.

Ryzhan was easy enough to find, with its improved senses and reflexes: in order to search across an endless expanse in a finite amount of time, its perception, cognition and reflexes had to be infinite. And, since its body standing still from its own perspective would've been an obstacle to its peace of mind, that had, as well, been enhanced.

Which had brought some interesting, but appreciated, and not entirely unexpected side effects. After all, boundless strength to generate limitless speed, and durability to withstand it, were only logical.

Ib snorted in amusement. Very little about its creation or nature was logical. Its power was just spoiling it, really, not that it minded.

In Midworld, you cherished every true gift with the same passion with which you loathed the poisonous ones.

His mage friend was walking the deck with surety that would've been surprising, had Ib not known he was being made to live his fantasies. It was not hard to accept that Ryzhan saw himself as being in control, at least of himself, even in his nightmares.

Ib wished it could do something, anything, to make him forget such dark things once and forever, but, alas, it was nowhere near that wise.

And altering Ryzhan's mind, while the easy way out, was not something it wanted to do. Like many easy options, it would stain its conscience forever, even if the mage would probably be grateful, after a few millennia, or eons,

Creation had always had a perverse sense of humour.

The least it could do for him would be to end this sad farce, then bring him back to safety.

Surely tinkering with the mage's mind to save it from the outside force that had already twisted it was forgivable? Even heroic, in a certain light?

You would not be having such qualms, a voice hissed into Ib's mind, if you were not so shaken by your origin. And it is only by the dint of the power you've had since birth that you've had time to ponder all this, before he could be harmed.

Ib held back a groan - was it really this annoying? It must've been insufferable, if it couldn't stand its own voice whispering into its head - and began to move towards Ryzhan. At the same time, it sought a different fraction of itself, thankfully still attached and watching over its charge.

* * *

'Sorry, boss,' the blob of grey substance told Mharra, who glared at it shrewdly. 'But I cannot let you out into the fog. I've found Ryzhan, but I shouldn't have lost him in the first place. I can't bear the thought of endangering another friend.'

Mharra's eyes softened, and he stood up from his chair, clasping his hands behind his back as he walked around his captain's desk. 'That's very kind of you, Ib,' he said honestly. 'If you have judged this mist to be too dangerous for me, I am inclined to believe you. After all, you couldn't lie or mislead me to save your life, and the possibility of you being wrong, despite your marvelous power, scared me far too much to contemplate it.'

The blob reared up, like an upset cobra, before becoming an identical copy of Ib's main self. Mharra pretended to miss the way it casually leaned against the wall next to his cabin's door.

Not like he was insane enough to think he could force his way past it, nor suicidal enough to want to.

'However,' Mharra continued, testing the waters. 'I cannot help but be curious.'

'A dangerous habit, captain,' Ib quipped. 'Might I suggest being keelhauled instead?'

Mharra smiled into his beard. 'What if I were to order you to stand aside, and let me pass? Go out to face the danger.'

'With me at your side?' the giant asked.


Ib tilted its head to one side, which Mharra knew was solely for his benefit. Its thoughts were so fast, and its face so impassive, that Ib had to indicate when it was having them. 'I would have to disobey, sir. For your own safety.'

Mharra breathed a sigh of exaggerrated relief. 'Oh, goodness. For a moment there, I was worried you would simply countermand because you wanted. And could.'

Ib shifted its footing, crossing its middle and upper arms. Its lower ones extended, hands spread in a questioning gesture. 'What brought this on, Mharra? You've always been the weakest member of our crew, in terms of power. And you've never complained about it, it's...never bothered you.' It seemed to give him its equivalent of a considering look, but Ib refused to permanently have a humanlike face. Mharra sometimes wondered whether it was out of habit, or because it didn't like looking like one.

Mharra shrugged, reaching behind him without looking and grabbing his tricorn hat. 'I guess it's just the mood...we've sailed for so long, without seeing anything new. I've never been this unlucky, in decades of sailing.'

Ib nodded in agreement. 'Are you sure it's just that, though?' it asked softly, with what sounded like real worry in its voice. 'You've never brought this up before, sir. I mean, I always noticed the flashes of jealousy, but that's only human. Forgive me if I seem startled.' It tried for a conciliatory smile. 'The cabin fever is getting to me too, I think.'

Mharra arched an eyebrow at the phrasing, but did not comment. 'Quite possibly.' "Only" human, Ib? Are you calling me - us - limited, or flawed, specifically? Jealous, unlike whatever miraculous creature you are?

Mharra returned the smile. Are you even wrong, if I'm thinking like this? 'Don't let me hold you up, though!' he made himself laugh, raising a hand. 'I'm sure I'll stop brooding as soon as we find an island, or at least a ship.' If only because I'll have something to busy myself with. If I start feeling more like a figurehead, you could mount me on the steamer.

Ib now folded all its arms. 'You don't have to worry, boss. You're not distracting me. My power gave me the means to find Ryzhan while being here with you.'

* * *

I gave my chair a cold, piercing look, and Ib cringed, as if grovelling would erase its incompetence. It was swaying as if the ship was in a storm, but I knew for a damn fact the sea around as couldn't have been more still if it had been frozen.

Fhaalqi...if it couldn't even be good at the things it chose to do, why the Pit had we even helped it?

I jumped to my feet, because the chair was a hair's breadth away from leaving me flat on my arse, and gave it a good kick, toppling it. Ib whimpered, more hurt than harmed, but it was its own bloody fault.

I whirled around, ready to give Mharra an earful for allowing such incompetence on his watch, but he was still.

He hadn't merely stopped moving. Even then, he'd have continued blinking, breathing. All the little, involuntary actions that made humans human. Not even people who never fidgeted were ever completely still. Mharra, though? He looked more like a mannequin, like a character from the pages of some picture book, than a living person.

I reached out to touch him, uneasily, gently poking his forehead. Maybe he'd fallen asleep at his desk? Such slothfulness was enough to drive me up a wall, but he had been quite stressed since his lover's disappearance.

I couldn't help but sneer. Stressed. Like he had anything to do on he ship. I'd survived Midworld by myself, with no one to love and be loved by, and I'd never been a burden.

As if fretting over something he couldn't affect would help anyone, much less himself or his precious ghost. Why did the powerless always wave their weakness around like a flag? "Look at me! See how little I can do! What choice do I have, except to give up and drag down those better than me?"

I swear...

While I was ruminating, Mharaa leaned backwards from my touch, which slightly surprised me. He was a small man, but stout, and I hadn't put much strength behind that. Had he moved by himself? Why?

Just as I thought Mharra's skin had felt wrong to my touch - like wax, or leather, or wood - his chair groaned hideously under his weight, making me grit my teeth.

Then, as if he had been balancing on the chair, Mharra leaned forwards, placing both hands flat against the desk. His eyes were dark pits that seemed to draw light into themselves, which widened with every moment, and his grin was fanged. I was instantly reminded of the dead man I'd crushed, and whether this was him returned or another alternate, I neither knew nor wanted to learn.

A heavy grey hand wrapped around my wrist before my fist could smash through the freak's skull, and I almost thought Ib had stopped being useless just to be actively detrimental, but the chair was gone, smashed into a shapeless mess by the giant's foot. Faster than I could see, another of its hands had caved the ugly bastard's head in, reducing him to a headless torso, cracked in two like rotten fruit, black blood spurting from the stump of its neck.

I looked around the room, then up at Ib, demanding an answer.

Its face formed a smile for my sake. 'It's the weather, Ryz. It's bringing out the worst in you.'

I struggled in its grip. 'What's that supposed to mean? What happened to Mharra? Is...was that even him?'

'It was the worst of the mental images of Mharra you had built up: feckless, spineless, good for nothing but complaining. Yet all the while, a monster hiding in plain sight. Luring you in with false sympathy or weakness, perhaps, then striking you down while you were at your most vulnerable, Working with your pursuers, or maybe just angered by your secrecy when you joined the crew.'

It let me go, and I rubbed my wrist, looking for bruises, even though its grasp hadn't hurt. 'How do you know all of that? What's this?'

Ib raised a clenched fist, and something like a sourceless grey light washed over and through the cabin, which rippled like oil on water, before being washed away like blood by a wave. Or burned like rotten flesh in a fire.

We were now standing in a, a tunnel. There were bookshelves behind me, seemingly endless, but I knew where they began, and why they had. In front of me, a swirling vortex of light and meaningless vistas that made me wish for darkness.

I huffed upon noticing the chains linking me to each bookshelf full of sealed volumes. Very subtle, my mind. Held back by closed-off memories, and scared of an unsure future.

Ib stood at my side, the light now radiating from it. 'I am sorry, Ryz.'

'Don't be,' I snapped, not wanting to appear vulnerable after my earlier thoughts. 'It's the life I've made for myself. So...' I stuck my hands in my coat's pockets, but I still had to ball them into fists to stop them from trembling. 'The...fog, right? I really need to work more on my mind's defences.' I looked at the dismal place with weary contempt. Nothing I hadn't been disgusted yet already. 'Take me out of here.'

'I cannot, Ryz,' Ib replied, making me round on it.

'You mean you won't!' It was unmoved by the venom in my voice. 'Didn't you tell me your power removes whatever keeps you down? You made it sound like you're on the path to being all-powerful!'

'That is, by definition, a never-ending journey, friend,' it said, posture dripping dismay. At its alleged limitations? Or me? 'Were I to do everything for you, I would rob you of agency. And that would be a worthless existence, which you'd hate me for trapping you in, unless I forced you to think otherwise.'

I didn't press the point. 'So...the fog trapped me in a cage made of my worst expectations.' Or, I should've said, most of them. 'But you broke that, right? This is me, thinking naturally.' Ib nodded. 'Then why are we in my mindscape?'

'It seems you have been upset for quite a while, Ryzhan,' the giant answered. 'About things you never voiced, maybe even to yourself. This...resentment...' It sounded less ignorant of the concept, and more heartbroken I could feel such things about our crew. 'Has clearly been festering for a while. The mist just made you confront them, though in a rather dramatic, not to mention unhealthy, manner.'

I considered this. 'What would've happened if you hadn't saved me, Ib?'

Its silence was enough of an answer. I swallowed drily. 'Alright, then. What must I do to return to the real world?'

Ib pointed behind me, and I turned, seeing a chain that, unlike the others, was not made of heavy black iron. But, unlike the one reading to the memories of my parents, which was dripping with still-fresh blood, this one was as silver as the moon it descended from.

I took in my mind, and noticed that the tunnel's ceiling was still there. Yet, at the same time, I was under the open sky. Or was it just a part of my mind? "Part" was definitely the wrong word. The sky, the moon, they felt more like a gap than anything, and the chain like a rope dangling over an abyss. I almost entertained the thought that, maybe, the moon represented something I'd forgotten, but such things did not appear in my mindscape. They weren't tears in its fabric, just...absent.

This nonexistent sky, though, dominated by a full moon I had never seen like this, was, however, very much here.
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Strigoi Grey
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Re: The Scholar's Tale(Original Fantasy)

Post by Strigoi Grey »

'Ib?' I breathed softly, then felt stupid for it. There was no air in my mindscape, because why would I have needed to breathe here? There was no need for silence, either, unless I was missing something. Alright, I did have a tendency to annoy myself when thinking about certain things, but it wasn't like my subconscious would evict me if it got upset. If it could have, it'd have happened already.

I scoffed. That point in life when assuming the worst is comforting...

'Yes, Ryz?'

'Do you think...' I gestured at the moon, and the silver chain leading to it. 'Do you have any idea what these could represent?'

'I daresay one of you memories might be related to the moon, friend.'

I turned, giving it my most deadpan look, and a blank face stared serenely back. I could still practically hear it chuckling, the big lug. 'A bold assumption,' I said dryly. 'In lieu of better alternatives, I say we take it.'

Ib nodded, becoming more serious. It seemed...pleased with me, for some reason, or - no. Relieved? My eyes narrowed as I realised my arcane sense was either becoming sharper in general, or here, in the palace of my mind. It had to be good for something, nothing as draughty as this ugly hovel had any right to be useless.

But then, I'd been let down by enough people who'd been just what they'd seemed, or even worse. Thankfully, few had fallen in the second category. When you had no expectations, it was hard to be disappointed, but some did their best.

'Ib?' I asked carefully, warier of some hidden danger than the giant's temper. After all, I didn't know how close I was to being jumped by some repressed memory, forgotten nightmare or mental predator. 'Why did you relax when I agreed with you?'

'Am I not allowed to enjoy unity between friends, when this fog conspires to drive us apart?' it asked, five arms folded. One was raised, palm up, almost like a lumpen caricature of a reasonable philosopher.

It must've been goading me. Using visual cues to make me realise something. Because it would've been dangerous to tell me directly? Or because it was so concerned with my free will, with not stunting my growth?

Was there even a difference, as far as it was concerned?

I smiled darkly. How was Ib becoming harder to understand now that we - and it - knew the truth about it? Maybe I was just more comfortable with lies. Or ignorance. Ironic, with how my magic was to remember, but that was Midworld for you. If it so rarely gave people what they needed or deserved, why should it have given them powers that suited their temperaments?

'Of course you are,' I replied smoothly. 'Apologies. I am...still on edge.'

'Don't worry,' it said patiently. Reassurance, or veiled advice? Don't think about upsetting it, focus on the memory? Don't think about it, so it could do whatever it wanted?

A small part of me hoped I was still being influenced by the fog, absurd as it might've sounded. I liked to think I'd gotten over being that paranoid, at least when it came to my crewmates.

Nodding, I turned my attention back to the moon, and the chain leading to it. I gingerly tapped a link with one fingertip, and the whole chain swayed, making a faint whistling sound, as if there was air moving through the links.

Just more confirmation this place worked nothing like Midworld. In reality, the moon floated infinitely high above the waters, only visible by dint of its nature, which cared nothing for the laws of science. If the moon had been just as far away here, and the chain long enough to reach it, it would've been endless, and I couldn't have moved it at all, let alone with such a light touch.

Either I imagined myself far stronger than I was, or the moon and its chain as much less of a challenge. There was an obvious metaphor there, I was sure, just as I was sure I was missing something.

'Ib?' I traced the chain with one hand, not looking at my friend. 'I know you've already saved me - and I'm thankful for that, don't misunderstand - but I fear I might have to ask something of you again.'

Ib harrumphed. 'We're friends, Ryzhan. Why are you acting like I've got some reservoir of kindness you're afraid to use up? I'll always help you, and I don't want to hear any nonsense about debts.'

I smiled guardedly. 'Good to hear.' The chain swayed gently as I pulled my hand away from it. 'But that wasn't really what I was cagey about. I've been trying to access this memory, or whatever the moon is or leads to, as we've been speaking, but I can't. It's like it's slipping between my fingers, always moving out of reach. I was wondering if you'd mind giving me a boost.'

It hesitated, shifting on its heavy feet. 'I could do that.'

'Yes, I know you could,' I said, unsurprised by its halting voice. 'That's why I asked if you'd mind. I know I was a pushy bastard in the hallucination, but you know I'm not really like that.' Anymore. At least, not to everyone.

'Ryz, if I minded doing as I'm told, I wouldn't be working for Mharra,' it said, forcing a chuckle. 'But I'm not sure it would be for the best, if I solved your problems by myself.'

'Can't your power free you from the indecision? It's clearly holding you back.'

My tone hadn't been sharp, but it still sighed. 'You're jealous.'

Not even a question? Either Ib was better at reading people than I thought, or I'd got rusty at maintaining my mask. 'Of bloody course I am,' I muttered. 'A power that automatically lets you overcome your obstacles? You could bring peace to Midworld, Ib. Stop the deaths caused by nature, or other people. Lift them up.'

'And then what?' it retorted. 'Repeat the process across all creation? Rule over it because I think I know best?'

'I don't know,' I admitted. 'But it's not like anyone could tell you now.'

Its chuckle was more sincere now, though just as joyless. 'You are mistaken, Ryz. There are many beings across and beyond creation who could, at the least, stalemate me. Two of them even gave abilities centred around freedom. I have even less interest in an eternal deadlock than in ruling.'

So, there was some interest. Or maybe not. I wondered if Ib knew about negative numbers, and almost asked, but mathematics never brightened my day. Shelving the idea, I addressed it again. 'I think you're labouring under a misconception, Ib. I asked you for a boost, not a solution.' I tugged the chain. 'I clearly need to brush up on my mental magic, but, for the sake of my laziness, I'd sooner look for a shortcut.' I dropped it a heavy wink, which suited my flat expression perfectly. 'Don't worry. I'll train more once things are back to normal.'

Ib came forward, taking a knee so it could press its forehead to mine. It still took some shapeshifting to bridge the gap, but in the end, we managed.

Ib's body was usually cool, so smooth to the touch your hands would've slipped right off it. More like steel-coloured glass than metal or stone, like its appearance suggested. Now, I winced at the touch. Its forehead was as cold as those bleak islands caught in permanent winter, then instantly heated up until it felt like my skin was boiling, a sensation made worse for the sudden, contrasting change. Ib's forehead became to bubble, becoming sticky, like grey tar, and my reddening face was being inadvertently drawn into it.

I'd sometimes seen exaggerated paintings of people known to be foolish in contemplative pictures, smoke rising from their ears as they struggled to think. My mind clearly needed some adjusting if it'd turned the jokes into reality.

Of course, it could've been Ib's doing, but that would've robbed me of one more excuse to blame myself, and there where would I be?

I felt Ib's power bond with my magic, like metals being alloyed together, even if only briefly. When it pulled back, rising to its feet, I stumbled, the disappearance of the heat as startling as its sudden arrival.

Ib rubbed its chin. 'Do you feel any different, Ryzhan?'

'Stronger.' I shrugged. 'Watch my back, would you?'

'I can do better than that.' Before I could ask what it meant, the giant fell apart into a shapeless mass, which then flowed through the air faster than I could see, slamming into my chest hard enough to almost knock me off my feet. I gasped, more surprised than hurt, as Ib covered me like armour. I somehow knew I could've breathed through my faceplate, had I needed air here.

I glared down at myself, for lack of a better target, when I felt small appendages trying to slip through my skin. 'Watch it.'

'Apologies,' it said sheepishly. 'I just want to protect you, Ryz. I've already failed once.'

My eyes softened. 'I understand. I don't blame you, Ib. You never do less than your best. I'm sure the captain agrees.'

It didn't comment. My optimism, briefly managing to resurface, suggested that maybe, there just wasn't anything to add.

I awkwardly cleared my throat, gesturing upwards. 'I still don't remember anything, but I'll keep trying.'

'You've never had any experience with the moon?' It sounded surprise, and I knew what it meant. No nightmares, no visions or fits upon glancing at it by mistake, or when heeding the call of the void.

'No. I've always been careful. And lucky, I suppose,' I added after some consideration. In this aspect, if no other, I'd been spared. Maybe my nightmares of being caught and tortured by the people I'd left behind left no place for any others. How much horror could one mind break before it broke?

'You're wrong, Ryzhan,' it said firmly. 'You're right that this does not represent a gap in your memories. You did not forget anything about the moon, because people forget by mistake. something you chose not to remember.'

I looked sharply at my hands, wishing Ib hadn't chosen such an awkward way to protect me. 'Are you reading my mind?'

'Ryzhan, we're inside it,' it answered patiently. 'There's nothing to read in the representation of your body.' The armour rippled. 'Perhaps I sounded too sure of myself. Let me rephrase: I think it's a memory you repressed, rather than forgot. The alternative is some implanted order, or other long-term, foreign influence. And I'd recognise that.'

Ah...of course. From experience. 'The most likely option, then?'

'Quite. I'm sure we'll learn more as we go.'

A brief surge of force flowed through my legs, and I took the hint, making my way to the chain. It was as responsive as before - barely, and not at all helpful.

'Try to climb it,' Ib suggested. 'Maybe you must reach the moon.'

Leave it to my mind to put me to work through visual metaphors. Grumbling, I tried to jump onto the chain and walk it as if it were a tightrope, but I just kept slipping and falling off it. Ib had the grace not to comment, and even provide various grips for my feet, but none took.

'Not a word,' I muttered, jumping onto the chain and landing on my belly, limbs wrapped around it. I crawled this way up as if the chain were a rope, like I'd used in my youth to strengthen my body, when my magic was rudimentary. With each movement, the moon seemed closer, for all the endless gap there would've been between us in reality, and I smiled under my helmet. Then, the incomprehensible visage it was rumoured to have appeared, its silver-white surface wrinkling, then splitting. My bond with Ib shielded my sanity, but I still couldn't make sense of what I was seeing. There were jagged maws and leering eyes and all manner of appendages: arms, legs, wings, tendrils, wings, pincers. Often, these features overlapped or combined as they flashed in and out of existence. The moon's laughter rang in my ears, a deep, hollow sound radiating sarcastic amusement.

'Do you think,' I began, more to take my mind off it than to try and drown out the laugh. I doubted all the clamour in Midworld would've sufficed. 'That this is what I think about the moon? Or is the real moon somehow reaching here, influencing me?'

'What difference does it make?' Ib asked. 'We must reach it, friend. As for the real world, don't fret. I've moved your body so it's facing away from the sky, and covered your eyes.'

Just as well...

The moon's surface was even less welcoming up close than it had been from a distance, if that was possible. The pale matter that made it up, if matter it was, boiled and seethed, and I remained on the chain rather than attempt to land on it. I was reminded of the cauldrons that so often featured in tales about witches, where the mangled parts of various creatures were broken down to create even worse abominations.

Somehow, the thought that, maybe, Midworld's monstrous moon was a breeding ground for worse creatures in the making did not cheer me up. My inner cynic would've been appalled, I was sure. Maybe I'd find him on the way down.

Holding onto the chain with both legs, one arm and a myriad small, grasping limbs emerging from my armour, I reached out with my right hand, fingertips barely brushing against the moon. A darting tongue flashed out of a mouth that hadn't been there a moment ago, wrapping around my arm all the way to the shoulder, trying to pull me in. I pulled back, and the chain began cracking as we struggled.

The moon grunted, half confused, half irritated. I got the feeling it hadn't ever been challenged before. It'd never needed to struggle to get something it wanted.

How nice that must've been, I thought to myself, grimacing under my faceplate. And, in that instant when it was distracted, I reached out for its mind, my own intertwined with Ib's, and...


Oh, Vhaarn, no...

* * *

I sat on the deck, face pressed into one hand. I tried to fool myself into thinking I wasn't brooding: it was just the fog, which had turned poisonous, attacking my body after it had failed to break my mind. I failed.

Ib, limbless, coiled around me like a protective snake. I'd declined to return to Mharra's cabin, and my rasping voice and unfocused eyes must've alarmed it. I couldn't find it in me to apologise yet, though. I wasn't trying to worry it, just...tired.

Few reacted well to learning most of their life was a lie, plagued and defined by pointless fears. Most of those who did were former prisoners of their own minds, caught in unending nightmares caused by twisted magic or darker sciences. For them, the truth was liberating.

Learning I'd never been pursued, and would never be, unless I made new enemies, should have had the same effect on me. And it would've had, if it hadn't been only half of the memory I'd remembered.

Aina had become monstrous, because of me. Oh, she'd looked at the moon out of a fatalistic impulse, but I'd saved her, only to make things worse with my selfishness. She'd been so devastated by my departure, she'd slaughtered our people and destroyed the islands we'd been living on when I'd left.

My people had never set out after me, if only because they'd never got the chance. Aina had killed them, in a child's mad, unthinking grief. Would they have hunted me if I'd stayed? Perhaps. They'd have exiled me, almost certainly. Pushed me away, until I was a stranger in all but name. My people had been fiercely practical, and I...had been a wounded boy, spitefully lashing out at my parents, who'd been respected for their work and contributions to the community, if not for their manner.

But maybe I should've faced them. I could have, with Aina by my side. Had I not left her, she'd have been a powerful friend; even a lover, one day. Strange, yes, but not mad. And I was hardly the most usual person, either.

Instead, I'd ran, and for what? To save my own skin, out of fears that might or might have not been justified. Not that I'd ever learn, now. I'd chosen cowardice over love, and never found happiness until I'd met my crew.

I'd hurt so many people...cut them off when they needed me most, because I'd got a bad feeling. Led them to their deaths, in ambushes or spots of ocean inescapable to any but me.

Out of fear. Out of fear?

I'd never been chased. All those people I'd tricked and driven off and killed had suffered for nothing. Died for the sake of my paranoia.

I had to make amends.
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Strigoi Grey
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Re: The Scholar's Tale(Original Fantasy)

Post by Strigoi Grey »

Book III, Chapter 7

* * *
My brooding ended with a growl, not with a whimper - something that hadn't changed from my fugitive days.

For all my cowardice in using every imaginable avenue to escape from my imaginary pursuers, I had never been able to feel sorry for myself. Not in the sense most people I had met did.

Whenever I contemplated my life, which had actually been fairly rosy for a Midworlder, I ended up gnashing my teeth in rage, not fear or despair.

Usually, that was a sign of being a sheltered idiot, but I was too busy fuming over daily inconveniences, or being hunted for what I saw as a wholly justified deed, to be scared.

As such, when I rose from the deck, I looked more like I was about to hit something than cry. Obviously, tears were not out of the question, depending what I chose.

'Amends, friend?' Ib rumbled musically from behind me. 'With...?'

For a moment, I almost thought it had forgotten Aina's name, or that it was loath to use it, for whatever reason. Being disgusted at her, perhaps, or not wanting to set me off.

A small part of me scoffed at the idea - I wasn't  that volatile, especially around my crewmates -, but a larger part was offended on Aina's behalf. If Ib had blamed her for her madness, I'd have challenged it to a duel, and damn its power and our friendship.

Tch. Maybe I  was easy to set off, as long as my old friend was the one being brought up. It felt...strange, I decided, to still think of her as someone I loved. It wasn't that I was opposed to the idea, far from it, but...

I had crushed on her, yes, as children were wont to on close friends. At that age, it had been far too early to understand love, much less know if I actually loved her. A relationship? Out of the question.

But many years had passed, and we'd both changed beyond recognition - me more than her, ironically. Yes, she might have become physically inhuman, but appearance was the shallowest of things. It wasn't even the fact I knew Ib that made me say that; it was the fact I had, hilariously, been told I look honest. More than once.

Mostly by people I had later ditched when they had become too inquisitive or confrontational about my secretiveness.

And if a snake like me could look honest, why couldn't she remain the same kind soul, no matter her mortal coil?

If it was still mortal...

I had to keep believing Aina was the same selfless girl (well, woman, now) I had known as a boy. If only because reuniting with her was one of the few things I was looking forward to, alongside finding Three, if I could, or at least some closure.

I, on the other hand, had changed considerably. I had always been a selfish rat, otherwise I wouldn't have left her, but my selfishness had blossomed on the sea, to the point I wasn't sure she would still see me the same way, or accept me if she did.

'Ryz,' Ib prompted gently. 'If you're going to drift off this badly, I might as well put you on a raft.'

I half-turned to glare at the wordplay, only to see one of the giant's hands become a blocky-looking boat. When it made a grabbing motion with another, I jumped backwards, grumbling.

'I asked you a question,' it pointed out reasonably, not that reason has ever been particularly effective on me. It got in the way of paranoia, you see.

I bit back a retort about just letting its power give me the answer, beginning to wonder whether Ib's power was fully passive, or rather, out of its control. Could it be directed not to remove certain restrictions? I imagined that would've been useful, if Ib wanted challenges in life. It had amused itself with feats of power for as long as I had known it. I imagined being able to do anything would've made such endeavours boring.

And, maybe, Ib had asked for my benefit. Altruism was no longer such a distant thing, mused upon in rare moments of rest or only witnessed from a distance. I had both acted upon and been affected by it, as strange as the first fact still felt.

Maybe Ib had asked to get me thinking, not because it hadn't already known the answer. Gods, spirits and other such beings often did that, in stories.

Not wanting to start comparing my friend to any god, I decided that maybe it just wanted some conversation. That also served to assuage my pride: look, mother! People want to talk to me!

Not that you'd know what that's like, you rotten bitch...

'Indeed.' I cleared my throat, eyes on the grey being in case it tried to put me on a raft again. 'And it's understandable that you are confused. I am not that sure myself, to be honest...' I scratched my beard, which had become a duller green from all the recent awful weather. I'd have to clean myself, and not just physically.

'Most of the people I've wronged over the years are dead.' I'd killed more indirectly than directly, It was easier to rack up the count that way, for me, with my admittedly weak magic at the time. 'Of the few who have survived, even fewer would be willing to meet with me, much less talk, let alone forgive me.'

'You don't seem overly-concerned with their forgiveness,' Ib remarked.

'Are you concerned with being forgiven by any innocent Free Fleet sailors?' I asked, looking up at it with a hard smirk.

Its face didn't morph, but its voice was sour when it spoke. 'Well, no,' it admitted. 'Though you'd be hard-pressed to prove any of them are innocent.' I could already hear its arguments: they knowingly support a nightmarish regime, instead of striking out of their own. Even if they might die, or worse, it is better to fall fighting than live in chains.

What Ib failed to see, I'd gathered during our discussions about the Fleet, was that the average human would've been far more frightened in that situation than it. Less confident, definitely.

And people were willing to give up many things for survival. Enlightened self-interested had never really been something Ib believed in.

I nodded. 'Make no mistake: the people I want to be forgiven by, the kind ones? I merely left them behind, leaving as harmlessly as I could.' Whether they had suffered from my absence or not...I could not claim it wasn't my fault. I'd known full well my departure would leave them less well-defended. All I could say was that I didn't know what had actually happened to them after I'd left. If they'd survived.

'I don't actually want to be forgiven by the bastards I cut off.' I chuckled. 'I don't care about them, if they're still alive. But,' I drew myself up, back straightnening. 'I need to prove, to myself, at least, if not the world, that I can be more than a selfish traitor.'

It was a matter of principle, I decided. I didn't necessarily want to redeem myself in the eyes of whatever gods and mortals might know me. But I had done wicked things out of fear, and needed to do good, to make Midworld better, even if I couldn't erase the past.

I knew I was not a good man. Were I to be pushed far enough, separated from (or, Vhaarn forbid, abandoned by) my crew, I would do almost anything to save my own skin. But I would no longer compromise or end alliances or friendships because I was scared of my past catching up to me.

I told Ib as much, and it formed a square jaw to rub. 'I see, friend,' it muttered. 'But have you considered that maybe, in doing so much to remain unknown and alone - safe -, you actually put yourself in the danger as you feared your own people would pose?'

'What, are you asking if I've never wondered if I was making enemies by being a turncoat?' I snorted. 'Be serious, Ib. I'm too paranoid not to. But I'm also practical enough to nip any potential threats in the bud.' I glanced at the horizon. 'Trust me. Anyone who would have come after me is feeding the fishes, or so lost they won't find their own head anytime soon.'

I licked my dry lips, only to realise they were actually covered in some sort of cracking film, from the fog, and frowned. The noxious mist was already vile enough a normal human would've been dissolved into sludge in a hundredth of a heartbeat. The fact I hadn't noticed anything, much less been sickened, was proof of how much stronger I was becoming thanks to my magic.

Ib must've noticed as much, because it pointed at my mouth as it spoke, while I was wiping it. 'See, I always meant to ask, Ryzhan: even before your magic evolved, you could enhance your body indefinitely. Why did you never stop running, to take a stand against the pursuers you feared?'

Ah, there was that fearless logic again... 'Because, Ib,' I began patiently. 'I was always gutless when it came to them. I believed there were many mages on my trail, all versatile and powerful, each able to end me with a thought before I even saw them.'

'But you were never scared of setting foot or stowing away on any convenient ship?' it asked, sounding confused. 'Even if there were mages, or worse, among the crew?'

I rolled my eyes, then began rubbing them as I turned around, starting towards Mharra's cabin. 'I'm not an idiot, Ib. I never stuck around anyone I couldn't kill or outrun.' For long, anyway. 'I only kept running because I believed I was outmatched. It had little to do with my undying love of vagrancy, trust me.'

Ib began following me, covering more with a step than I did with several. In their default state, its feet resembled bulky, armoured boots, but it didn't make a sound as it walked. Its power at work, I thought, or maybe sheer skill. Midworld's sailors sometimes had to learn the damnedest things.

'If you say so,' it replied diplomatically. I could tell it still disagreed with me. But Ib had never had nightmares, or childhood fears. The closest thing it had ever had to my imaginary pursuers had been the Free Fleet, and I was fairly sure they were more scared of Ib than the reverse.

So, maybe my fear of my people's vengeance had been...unreasoning. Perhaps I had exagerrated the danger in my mind. But I could hardly be blamed. After all, there had been too many unhappy coincidences for me to believe I wasn't being pursued at the time, wrong as I had been.

And not by recent enemies. Sometimes, at noon or midnight, I could spot ships lined with or covered in copper, just on the horizon. That alone wouldn't have interested me, as many cultures used copper to build their ships. But I had felt the hatred, the contempt whenever I sat up, thinking of ways to hide, by magical or mundane means, until I could make my escape.

I had lost them every time,! There had never been anyone after me, so why had I been seeing, feeling?

Had I really been so damned scared I'd hallycitaned to a degree that could fool my arcane sense?

'A thought struck me...' Ib said, trailing off as the door to the captain's cabin came into view.

'Did it hurt?' I deadpanned, unwilling to show how much the one that had struck  me irked. Luckily, I was always such a miserable soul, it was hard to spot anything different. Even for friends.

Or so I chose to tell myself. I highly doubted there was anything I could deny Ib now, in any way. It would find out, or not. The choice was not mine.

'Fret not. I would not ask for you to heal me, my callous friend.' A grey tear rolled from an empty eye socket, just as the orifice disappeared.

I clutched my chest with one hand. 'Thank Vhaarn...I can't stand people asking for help. It's  unnatural,' I hissed.

'Very pesky, those people. Aren't they?'

'Oh, don't get me started.' I flicked a hand, sneering. 'They're only good for raw materials and menial work, not that they stand still for that when I emerge from my lair.'

'The  gall!' Ib gasped.

'I know!' I shook my head. 'Oh, but I'll show them. I'll show them all!'

Mharra opened the door before either of us could knock, cutting off our banter, and my cackle.

It had been a good one, too, I thought, glaring at him.

Our captain was smiling tiredly, however, and, for once, it even reached his eyes. Relieved, I straightened up from my hunched warlock posture, thought I kept my hands together. Rubbing them helped remove the slime resulting from the fog, if nothing else.

'It's good to see you happy,' Mharra said softly, and, at a closer glance, I saw there was some sort of rounded, transparent shape over his face. The mask - helmet? - resembled the one Ib had fashioned for me in my mindscape, though it seemed thinner, and was clear as glass.

The layer extended over the rest of his body and clothes, too, and I snorted, smiling. Ib could've made him as many clothes as he wanted, even if he had chosen not to armour them, but, of course, the captain had his pride. He would rather not ask Ib to play tailor too often, even if the giant neither minded nor needed resources; he had himself.

I kind of wanted to needle Mharra about how he could balance his ego and his miserly tendencies, likely from when he'd been a poor sailor.

Maybe he'd tell me once he chose to open up more about his past.

' Someone must be,' Ib said jokingly, but I didn't miss the chiding behind its humour. I silently agreed. It did the crew no good when the captain was being gloomy, not that many could be happy with us on their ship.

'If only we could all do what we must, eh?' Mharra smiled up at it, dry voice cracking, before something strange entered it. 'You two...I've been a poor captain.' He leaned against the doorframe. 'I won't pretend I could've navigated us out of this...death trap. I'm not that arrogant. Even if we'd turned around, who knows if the sea would've been as we'd left it? Midworld's face can change in a blink.'

'Sir,' I said. 'It's good to see you're not blaming itself, but I'd rather talk inside.'

Mharra gave me a look that, to most outside observers, would've probably looked genuinely dirty. 'No stomach for dramatics, Yldii.' He sniffed. 'It's a wonder to me that you're part of my troupe.'

'It is a wonder to me too, sir,' I said with a small smile, which the captain soon returned.

I managed to duck into the cabin before a gushing Ib could sweep us up in its arms, to show how moved it was by our friendship.

The fraction of Ib that had been clinging to Mharra separated without leaving a trace or making any sound, before disappearing from my senses. Maybe it had simply returned to its progenitor faster than I could track, though it could've, just as easily, made itself imperceivable, to hide in some corner until it was necessary.

Mharra's cabin was dominated by paintings, most of seascapes, though there were a handful of islands represented, with maps framed under them. Mharra was at good at drawing as he was as painting, but lazy. Since most islands disappeared in a handful of years, maybe over a decade, drawing detailed maps of them was a waste of time, ink and paper, or whatever you used. Unless you were hoping to sell them to some collector of curios, there was really no point, the captain said, in immortalising soon-to-be-gone landscapes.

As such, most of the maps were what could generously be called abstract, but more honestly crude. I looked at one depicting Middle Mountain at the centre of the Inner Sea, and decided that the names had been the result of Mharra being in a hurry, rather than said island's people being as imaginative as I was optimistic.

Mharra sat down behind his desk, in the chair he had recently modified, allowing him to slide across the room on small, metallic wheels. Maybe he had just been looking for something to do while unable to help with our voyage or the weather, but if this was what the captain did while bored...well. Anyone creative enough to make this in order to walk less could not be called lazy, even if they tinkered so they could be.

Once again, I wondered how many skillsets, exactly, Mharra had picked up during the lonely travels of his youth.

And what he was. I'd seen him do things that would've required magic, or technology so advanced it might as well have been unnatural. Making substances float in midair with no visible means of suspension, throwing his voice in nonsensical ways, and...

Heh. Getting a grim cockroach like me to open up, and stop looking over his shoulder, for once. It warmed my heart to think one could do such things while remaining entirely human, which my senses assured me Mharra was. Curious...

Mharra put his boots up on his desk, which he almost never did while sober - he said it worsened our already abysmal manners, by force of example. He held up a finger, not for our attention, which he knew he had (respect aside, one could hardly focus on the artistic marvels on the walls, too pure to sully with our unappreciative gaze), but because it helped him focus.

'We need to escape this rut,' the captain began. 'Neither I nor the ship can see a way out of this, so suggestions are welcome.' He grinned into his beard. 'Barring suicide. I used to know several people I'd rather not meet too soon, if possible.'

'Don't we all?' I said, to small chuckles. Was Ib amused by the idea of every dying? If I understood even half of its nature, it and death were probably siblings. 'Well, since no one here wants Ib to emasculate us...' I lowered my shoulders, as if deigning to perform some distasteful chore. 'I suppose I could remember sunnier seas.'

As I spoke, I cast out my arcane sense, like a fisherman throwing a net. I perceived little, as the few inner lights of whatever sea creatures swam below us were almost smothered by the mindless malevolence of the fog.

It couldn't think, as such. Or, at least, not any more than the Fleet's trained lobotomites. It could only follow its nature, and that was to corrode, to break down anything different from itself that entered its grasp. Physical, mental, spiritual...conceptual. It was even trying to eat at the edges of Ib's essence, though, thankfully, unsuccessfully.

The mist noticed the buildup to my magic, and tried to smother it, only for me to remember a sunlit stretch of sea, salty air as clean as the crystalline waters beneath.

Unfortunately, the human mind, even broadened by magic, can only picture so much. My magic could do much, but I could not imagine infinity. Not truly. And, just like there were endless numbers between one and two, two and three, and so on, stretching into what most people thought of as infinity, so did Midworld's endlessness hold smaller, but still boundless things. Such as the fog, which, my arcane sense dimly, redundantly tried to warn me, had no beginning or end.

So, the instant I cleared out the ocean around us, the fog rushed back in, with a sound like a hammer falling.

I blinked, almost startled. Not by the sound, though it would've pulverised me, had my body not been enhanced by remembered fortitude, but by how rotten our luck was. Had the fog been endless before I had tried to remove it? Somehow, the possiblity of me making things literally infinitely-wrose by trying to help did not surprise me, although it certainly pleased the jaded part of my mind.

Some people are just happy to be proven right, even about things detrimental to them. I hoped that, if I ever became like that, it would be as an old man, Most likely, I would die before then, but not of old age or sickness. After all, if I could remember strength or speed, why not youth?

'It didn't work?' Mharra asked, drawing my eyes to him. His hands were laced over his stomach as he watched me patiently, with an expression that said not to be too hard on myself. Not that I had shown any dismay, rather the opposite: my blank expression and stiff posture must've told the captain something hadn't gone as planned, otherwise I'd have at least smiled.

'Only briefly,' I replied. 'I think the fog hates us, and not metaphorically.'

I turned to Ib as I spoke. The giant gave an impression of tenseness, and, for all that it had no muscles to swell, it reminded me of those people who tried to jump gaps after a running start, in the moment their feet reached the edge.

'Waiting for me to get rid of this,' it stated rather than asked.

'Don't tell me it's beyond your power?' I arched both eyebrows, but it waved me off irritably.

'I wasn't talking to you, Ryzhan.' Before I could ask, it continued. 'But, no, there are few things I would describe as beyond me, even at this very moment. Certainly not this fetid cloud.'

'Who were you talking to, Ib?' Mharra asked amiably, only for the giant's torso to spin around, so it could face the captain.

'I was being talked at, rather than with, boss. You caught me thinking out loud there at the end.' I highly doubted Ib's mind was slow or dull enough not to catch such mistakes. 'Yes...I can remove this, and I will. Just as you intended.' At this, it snorted contemptuously. 'So clever...don't mistake malice for bad luck, Ryzhan.'

I felt the fog's poisonous nature fade away like morning dew, releasing a breath I hadn't realised I'd been holding as the lingering miasma disappeared.

'Speak plainly, Ib,' I demanded, rubbing at my chest, which felt as if an anvil had been taken off it. Not the mist's aftereffects, for I had been immune to the phenomenon itself. It had been a different kind of pressure, which was now switching from crushing, but dull enough to ignore by focusing on other things, to light, but sharp, as if I'd swallowed a glass shard.

Have you ever been taken before an assembly while just knowing you are going to make a fool of yourself? With every llok and smile sent your way feeling like flensing knives?

I hadn't been, yet. I'd had nightmares that had started like that, and between them and the secondhand embarrassment from watching such gatherings, I recognised the feeling, though it was now stronger than it had ever been.

'Your magic would've been enough, Ryz,' Ib told me softly, as I felt a small piece of it detach and flow over me. 'Had the deck not been stacked. Clearly, my crew relying on me is too good a sight to pass up.'

And, just when I was thinking we could finally meet other people and put on a show before we went madder, the applause began.
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Re: The Scholar's Tale(Original Fantasy)

Post by Strigoi Grey »

Book III, Chapter 8

* * *

It was so quiet, at first. More felt than heard. As if someone was clapping so lightly, only their fingers were touching, and barely even then. It felt like the breeze resulting from that, wafting over my skin and mind and spirit.

With every passing instant, however, it became louder, until my eardrums burst - quite a feat, considering sounds that would've reduced humans to mush were barely enough to make me notice. Even as my ears constantly tried to regenerate, though, I could still perceive the applause deep in my bones, the vibrations shaking me down to the marrow, like the passing of a great sea beast.

Dimly, I noticed the piece of itself Ib had given me - to act as armour, I'd presumed - wasn't doing much to protect me. If anything, I felt like I wasn't wearing armour at all, and I knew my friend could protect me from something as simple as sound, if it wanted.

Which suggested that the grey giant was either letting me be hurt to toughen me up - ahem, preserve my free will - or, far more unsettling, that it couldn't shield me from...whatever this was.

Never having liked fear, I settled for annoyance. It let me complain better.

Although, given the way it was shaking my thoughts and spirit as well as my flesh, and still growing harsher, maybe the applause was the prelude or build-up to an attack, which was what Ib was preparing for.

Who'd have been hurt if it had lent a hand from the beginning, though? Not me, certainly.

Gritting my teeth, I remembered bearing worse pain, and being hurt less. The aches began to fade as I felt my body become tougher.

I'd have remembered silence, but this resembled noise the way the sun resembled fire, so I gave up on the idea.

Glancing at Mharra showed me the captain was right as rain, smiling in curious expectation of our unseen visitors.

You care more about Mharra's body than my feelings, Ib? I'm sleeping with my back to you next time we share a cabin.

I could guess what Mharra was thinking, easily enough: no one who acted this theatrical before even introducing themselves could hold back from a dramatic reveal.

What Mharra didn't know, though, was who had stopped us like this, and why. Ib's words implied the unseen being, or beings, sought amusement, specifically through seeing it rescue us from this predicament.

I'd have laughed along with our unseen audience, if I'd thought it would make this end faster. Seeing Ib solve problems was always good for the soul, especially when those problems were annoying people.

'I wonder...' I began, thinking out loud to draw my crewmates' attention. To my mild surprise, it worked: they had clearly heard me, despite me not screaming myself hoarse. It seemed the applause was selective, allowing us to communicate, doubtlessly because that made us more...entertaining.

A sneer curled my lips at the thought. I had never had a taste for mockery, and performers couldn't stand being laughed at, rather than with.

Between my cheerful past and healthy mind, I was a perfect fit for such a life.

'Go on, Ryz,' Mharra urged, keeping an eye on me and one on the horizon. His armour formed pockets for him to stick his gauntleted hands into. A little proof of Ib's indulgence that would've normally made me smile.

At my sullen glare, Ib waved a careless hand, keeping most of its arms crossed. 'You're stronger than the boss in this regard, Ryzhan,' it said, giving no sign of focusing on me.

It would've been easy to mistake its explanation and body language as flippant, but I knew better. Ib knew I disliked being managed, having my life charted out by others. It was just trying to remind me of that.

Easy to mistake...tch. Maybe after the time spent drowning in mirages, and realising how stupid my fear had made me. How frayed did my nerves have to be that a friend had to help me remember - twice in a row?

'I wonder,' I repeated, licking my suddenly dry lips. There was something in the air that left them tingling, like mana, like a lightning strike too close for comfort. 'What are they applauding for?'

My first thought had been that the whole spectacle was intended to demoralise, through irony and the shattering of our bodies. But, while such pettiness was easily believable with power like this backing it up, I couldn't help but think that, maybe, the sentiment was genuine.

I told my crew as much, and they nodded their agreement. If there was one thing Midworld was never short of, it was arseholes with more power than sense. I mean, look at us. I actually felt bad for anyone whose life was so miserable meeting us in the open ocean could make them happy.

Finally, I got an answer to my question. Several follow-ups, too.

'Ah, see? See? He still has his wits about him. Enough to look for a method behind the madness, at least...' a voice, dripping with pitying approval, came out of nowhere, quickly filling the void left by the applause's disappearance. Unlike a normal sound, it hadn't faded over time, leaving echoes. Instead, it had been cut short, the way I intended to do with the life of whoever thought they could break my body just to announce their presence.

'With Freedom's help,' a second, snootier voice countered, sounding like it was coming from the other direction - or maybe that was just my bounded mind trying to make sense of these things, labelling them as opposites due to their differing opinions. 'Without the giant?' Though the voice didn't change, I got the feeling of someone adjusting in a chair, maybe crossing their legs, or a public speaker shuffling in place at the podium. A throat being cleared followed. 'Not to say we're humble, but he would still have been feeling sorry for himself and nursing his ego if he hadn't been distracted.'

'Well, quite,' a third, tired-sounding voice grouched. 'He is still a bit player, but you two are expecting the deeds of a hero.' Its tone became lighter, as if it had noticed something funny. Or maybe it was just trying to soothe its fellows before the argument could escalate. 'Besides - this is shaping up to become exactly what you hoping for, isn't it?' The third voice became inquiring, and my mind was filled with the image of an inhuman silhouette cupping something along its middle - its chin, or an equivalent?. 'Freedom, centre stage.'

The first two voices muttered darkly, before they deepened even further, drowning the third in what I could only assume was a series of angry exclamations and rhetorical question. They were speaking, if that was what they were doing, in a language I had never come across.

And, while I could sense the tension and irritated expectation around us, blanketing the sea from the steamer to the horizon, I was the one actually growing tired.

Why was it that so few could wield power with gravitas? These three, whatever they were, had shown up, mutilated me as a sort of stupid greeting, then descended into a childish argument about how they wanted us to act. The immaturity stung worse than the presumptuousness, somehow.

A new sound cut through the deep, bone-shaking chatter. It resembled the applause in intensity, although it didn't hurt at all.

'Enough, now.' It was the third voice again, gruff once more. 'I despise the "river" of time as much as the next connoisseur, but, if you so desire the Scholar, you can skip ahead.'

There were grumbles again, of disagreement rather than insult. It seemed they had settled down.

As I was about to step forward and demand an explanation, pain speared through me, parting my armour and the flesh under it with the ease it sundered my mind and split my soul.

The last thing I saw before the white spots dancing across my vision were swallowed by darkness as I fell to my knees was Ib, who had move to catch me, too fast to be seen by even by my mana-filled sight.

* * *

Ib knew that infinity, like kindness, or cruelty, was relative. Also like them, it could be deceitful, more often than not. Finite minds couldn't grasp the infinite, only abstractions of it. For, according to the laws of nature, the information needed to actually describe the endless was also endless.

Ib's mind, which, unlike in the case of most beings, was no different from the power that animated its physical form, was not so limited. In fact, it was so broad and deep, so intertwined with the workings of timeless, changeless eternity, that, without the power of freedom it represented, the grey being suspected it would've had a hard time focusing on the here and now of Midworld, where events were separated by time, even as they stood still in its gaze.

Much like these overgrown children who had hurt its crew, it suspected. Their attention turned easily enough to torment and arguments, but otherwise wandered. Ib's humour curdled.

When one's reflexes had no limits, time stopped being linear; instead, it more closely resembled a lake, moments arrayed around an observer in rows and rows, equidistant, all easy to access.

Ib would be damned if it ever thanked the Free Fleet for anything, but it could hardly pretend to regret the easy with which its mind grasped the boundless.

The creatures remained unseen to its Midworldly incarnation, but that just meant it had to step back, as it were, and focus its senses on the bigger picture.

An infinity of realities unfurled beneath Ib's gaze, some limited in size, unlike Midworld, others just as large, some even stranger than the world of unending tides. As the giant's vision pulled back into the whole of its true self's senses, they became faded and dull, nonexistent compared to those standing above them on the next layer of existence.

Just like dreams are nothing to the sleeper, and can be unmade by a stary thought, so, too, could have any inhabitant of that layer destroyed everything under it with but a pulse of will. So it went, upwards and upwards, layers after layers, an infinity of them. This sphere of realities was itself surrounded and dwarfed, several times over by the bluish-green aether, which was itself transcended by the land of dreams that one stepped into upon leaving mundane reality behind.

The land of dreams made what many thought of as substance and reality look like shadows cast on cave walls by dancing flames, yet it was swallowed and transcended in turn by the first of many, many vacua.

Some of Midworld's mathematicians, in rare moments of respite and fancy, had argued about the existence of an infinity of numbers between each pair of those that made up traditional infinity. One point one, one point two...ninety point seven. This infinity of infinities would've been a good way to count the chain of voids, linked like unseen particles that made up matter.

And, beyond these Voids of Twilight and Ebony, there loomed an Ultimate, Outer Void. Should a traveller reach it - and not be unmade by the merest glimpse of this unchanging realm - they could turn back, gazing over creation in its entirely.

Ib, the truest. deepest incarnation of itself, was always there.

The Idea of Freedom stood up and walked, noting its brethren in passing. Other Ideas, of elements, emotions and people, all the concepts that made up creation, for everything below them was a shadow of their flame, filled this World Of Forms.

Here, Ib could see the interlopers in their entirely. Here, it could stand up to them as an equal, without the risk of fragile space and time being shattered in a clash.

They were numberless, as many of the Ultimate Void's inhabitants were. The Archetypes, for one, The Voidmaws - beings of hungry nothingness that, if they were to be likened to anything in the world of length, width and height, would have resembled nothing more than one of those pale dweller of the deep ocean, who, having never need eyes in the darkness, hunted by other means.

Each Voidmaw could have erased the multiverse with its mere presence, and everything below the Outer Void with a fleeting instant of directed power. A swarm of them, as many as there were Voids, surrounded Ib, mindlessly gnawing on the edges of its being, as if they could affect it.

A glare unmade the Voidmaws as Ib made its way to the latest challenge to its crew. They must have known, for they clearly knew much else, how much it disliked making its friends feel useless, as if the joy they had filled its life with counted for naught.

The Idea of Freedom came to a halt in front of the Archetypal Amphitheatre, where an unending audience stood in circular rows. It was, it realised, at the centre of the stage.

Subtle. At least they kept their promises.

Though there was nothing to differentiate them from the others, in nature or power, Ib quickly picked out the three who had reached down into Midworld. They leaned on the edges of their seats, great black shapes like carrion crows with unfolded wings. Their faces - heads- centres - were dominated by swirling patches of colour, shrinking and growing like living, leering masks over nothing.

Ib saw straight through them, and its contempt grew. They were, when all was said and done, beings of hunger. Aspects of Hunger and other, greater Archetypes, they craved anything, everything that could fill their hollow cores.

Entertainment was their favourite meal.

Ib could understand, in a way. Boredom and listlessness, whether born out of a shattered existence or an unfulfilling one, could drive a person mad. What it could not was accept.

Amusing themselves with the pain of those too weak to do anything, like addults beating children. Like children pulling wings off flies.

'Mantlemakers,' it said tersely, not bothering with greetings. 'Your reach exceeds your grasp.'

One of them, its mask sporting a wide, toothless grin, cocked its head like a curious bird. 'Oh?' Its neck would've snapped in half, with how it was folded, had it existed in tridimensional space. 'Because we looked beyond the realm whose borders we set?'

'Because, fool,' the second countered, 'we are threatening what it sees as its own. It is...marking its territory.'

Ib shrugged. 'No one has ever accused me of being moral.' Its arms folded as it tensed. 'But know this: if you even think about taking my crew, I will - '

'There's no need to be possessive,' the last member of the trio purred. 'Or feel threatened. You know we are here to help, Libertas.'

Help yourselves get some cheap laughs, it thought. 'It is not Ryzhan's time yet, as his kind counts such things. You gain nothing from antagonising him, except my ire.'

The audience laughed thunderously at that, a din of caws, croaks and applause. 'So flamboyant! So righteous~'

'Maybe not,' the third Manmade God agreed. 'But this shall set him on the path to his destiny, more sooner and more firmly than your coddling would have. Rejoice!' It gave Ib an ironic smile through its blank-eyed mask. 'You are always fretting over whether you are doing too much for them , or too little. We have -'

'Freed me from the burden of choosing?' Ib scoffed. 'Had you done me a favour, I'd have ended you quickly. But you couldn't miss a chance to get a jab in, could you?'

'We have soothed your mind, by giving Yldii a chance to grow now,' the Listener said smoothly, its hooded eyes dark with reproach. 'Really, LIbertas. The way you look for offence in anything is just why you were made a cripple.'

'As quick to insult as you are to hurt? No wonder you love Ghyrria so,' Ib scoffed. They, all Archetypes, were, to an extent, caricatures, their personalities shaped by their portfolios, and vice versa. But the fact these blowhards thought they could treat Midworld, its crew, like their circus of a realm... 'I will not indulge you. You are here for me? I am happy to disappoint you. I will not steal the chance to grow from under my captain's nose, nor stunt Ryzhan's development.' It raised a clenched fist, hoping they would protest. The fact it hadn't destroyed them just for the intrusion would've been beyond merciful to most, but given how self-centred the Mantlemakers were, they likely thought it was ungrateful for the chance to act as a prop in the show they desired.'

'As you wish,' the trio replied. 'We shall take what we can. More stories can be spun from this dreary tale! Why, it feels like you never actually put ton a show! For travelling artists, you sure are quick to gloss over spectacle, and focus on the latest drudgery...'

Ib was done listening to them. Its attention turned back to creation, and its Midworldly incarnation. Ryzhan...and Mharra.

It would've been even more unfair to shield them from what was to come than to let them weather it. Ib, grudgingly, chose the lesser evil.
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Strigoi Grey
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Re: The Scholar's Tale(Original Fantasy)

Post by Strigoi Grey »

Book III, Chapter 9

* * *
AN: This chapter, like multiple previous ones, contains references to my original urban fantasy series, Strigoi Soul, the link to which you can see in my signature. As can be guessed from the chapter sections detailing the structure of creation, the stories take place in the same cosmology.

It also contains the introduction of Mendax, a character who was referenced before, and who readers of SS will almost certainly recognise, despite the different name.

* * *

The last thing I remembered before being knocked out was staring up at Ib's flat visage, featureless yet concerned: I'd learned to read its body language, to discern its mood from the tilting of its head. Even without my arcane sense, I'd have been more than able to notice its worry.

Two of its arms had wrapped around me. Cool but not cold, harder and more flexible than any material I knew of, the appendages had stopped my fall. And yet...

And yet.

I was flat on my back, which ached almost half as much as my head did, even though I - as far as I could tell - was neither concussed nor bleeding.

Get up. Need to get up, I thought, my not-so-old survival instincts resurfacing.

Lying supine was akin to surrendering: there was no position more vulnerable except for, arguably, lying prone, which I'd never do while I was alive.

Placing my hands against the deck, which felt oddly uneven - must've been damaged by whatever had knocked me out. The steamer hadn't acted up in a while, at least not in a way that involved shapeshifting -, I managed to get to one knee.

Blinking sweat out of my eyes, I glared around dimly. I couldn't make out anything, so either something was wrong with me - as I'd been told since birth - or with my surroundings.

For one, I could see nothing on the horizon, even in the parts not covered by fog. This was not the hateful mist that had harried me, but a mundane, grey-white haze. The horizon was a shapeless, blank expanse, which registered as darkness to my eyes.

Part of me wondered why it wasn't white, then (maybe because the fog wouldn't have been visible then?). I would've wondered why I was making such leaps at all, but they were hardly the strangest thing in this place.

A glance downwards revealed I was on a raft, little more than a bunch of logs bound with crude ropes. I could see no sail or oars, nothing I could use to travel the water that stretched around me until it met the darkness. A dark blue that revealed nothing, it resembled ink more than anything, and was as still as a mirror - not that wind would've helped much, with the ramshackle raft I was on.

I decided I would have an easier time running on water, if that was what it was. Why had my first thought been about how to sail? Habit? But I had hardly ever taken the more difficult option.

Grunting, I tried to rise to my feet, and failed as miserably as the attempt left me feeling.

Breathing harshly, I supported myself on trembling knees and elbows, looking at the raft in incomprehension. I had never been this weak, even as a child. My parents would've dashed my head against a rock. And I was a sailor, in my prime, not some old goat who couldn't take a step without wheezing for breath.

My magic wasn't being weakened or suppressed, not that I needed it to stand. Sure enough, I could feel mana flowing through my sinews.

Supine again, I slowly looked upwards, or tried to. There was nothing above me. To avoid sounding arrongant, let me explain: above a certain point on the horizon, my gaze was stopped cold, leaving me dazed, as if I'd lost a headbutting contest Ib. It also made everything blurry, which didn't help, given I felt like I'd been looking at a painting made by a blind child (and one with more enthusiasm than talent) to begin with.

Feeling hair plastered to my forehead, I tried to move it aside. My fingers came away green.

I balked at the sight, holding my hand above me. I'd dyed my hair in the past, often enough, but only to replace my natural colour with a bland one, brown had helped throw people off...

What in the Pit was wrong with me?!

And why was I sweating so much?

I ran a hand over my face, my throat. Both were burning, which made no sense. It was neither hot nor cold wherever I was, merely stuffy, for lack of a better term. Like a slight pressure upon my skin and senses. Nothing like the awful force that had forced my eyes downwards, thought it wouldn't have surprised me if they were linked, or even one and the same.

I'd have chalked it up to exhaustion, or shock, but the fact I could still use my magic made both impossible: I should've been able to remember being rested, not trembling and soaked in sweat. In fact, I did remember, but the feeling of being drained never left.

Alright. Something was messing with my magic. More importantly, with my mind. Forcing me to act in certain ways. Preventing me from using my Gift would've been infuriating enough, but letting me use it while somehow making it useless was worse.

Fine. So, no way to cast, or strengthen myself. Can't look up unless I want a headache. Can't get anywhere on this sorry excuse of a boat, because there's no way to direct it. Even if there was, I was felt too weak and tired to row, much less run on water, which would've been much faster.

And, had I been able to use my magic, I wouldn't have been able to see anything, much less sail anywhere, not that I had a destination - except, of course, the Rainbow Burst, but I had no idea how to return. Something told me this was not the kind of gloom human eyes could pierce, aided by mana or not.

I stopped pacing on the raft, only partly because I didn't trust the rickety pile of driftwood. My hunches had somehow become bleaker and less useful than usual. Lovely.

After concluding that trying to glare at myself was unlikely to yield results, I sat down, tapping my fingers on the log that looked the sturdiest.

So. Our uninvited guests had knocked me out, and probably kicked me while I'd been down, given the headache I'd woken up with, despite Ib catching me. Then, they had separated me from my crew and put me on this raft in the middle of nowhere.

I'd have said this didn't feel like a natural space, but how much did I know about Midworld? How much did anyone? The Clockwork King and his Weaver Queen and wife acted like they knew all, from what I'd heard. There were stories of a being who was many, called Mendax, who sometimes appeared to test and mould people to its unknowable purposes.

And friend's mind had grown immensely. I had to believe it would do its best to find me, not because it was powerful, but because we were brothers in all but the blood it lacked. And if it failed, if I never saw it and Mharra again...

Well. I hadn't lived well, certainly. I wanted to live more. Find Aina, clear the air. Make it up to her, if possible. Maybe even...

Ah, I thought, laying back on the raft with an arm slung over my eyes. Love. Of course it'd take this insanity to make me reconsider...

I couldn't just stay curled down on the raft, though. I'd die, or whatever happened to people in this strange place. Sometimes, the will to live was what made the difference between near death and the real thing.

At least that had saved me from frostbite in my youth, when my magic had been cruder. This was nothing like the dry cold I'd faced on that trackless snowy island, though, rather the opposite. It felt almost like a jungle, hot and humid. With my magic scrambled, I needed to find a way to cool down, stop sweating, if only to concentrate better, maybe find a way out of here.

I grinned humourlessly to myself. That island had been borne above the wave by an eternal blizzard. Maybe I could've survived there, if I'd chosen, feeding on beasts, but I'd wanted more.

I needed something more than caves to sleep in and meat to roast in order to live properly, damn my spoiled tastes. Even if I had remained there, there would've been a real chance of me going madder than I was, and who knew what a mage with a shattered mind could've pulled from his nightmares?

I could've avoided my imaginary pursuers if I'd stayed on the frozen island, yes; if I remained sane. And I don't think I would've found a way to keep myself together. Now, looking back, I would've either died a hermit, or given Midworld a new monster to prowl its waves.

Wiping my forehead was doing nothing. My arms were trembling, tired, my coat sleeves stained, the sweat drenching them mixing with the perspiration on my skin. I was going to rub my brow raw at this rate, unless my arms fell off first.

Sitting up with a huff, I looked around again, supporting myself with one hand on the raft. Something was approaching. There were lights on the horizon, and they did not glow with the shine of burning wood or oil, or caged lightning.

Mana. I could see it, the power born from the equilibrium between body, thought and spirit, like human silhouettes made of warm light. My vision shifted, or focused, and now they looked more like living cave paintings, a bright core surrounded by dark outlines.

I mentally shrugged, unwilling to risk literally doing it and maybe falling down again. One's arcane sense was shaped as much by fact as it was by perspective. With the state I was in, it was hardly surprising for my perception to shift.

I tried to slow down my breathing, tensing and relaxing my numb legs in preparation of trying to stand up, in case I needed to fight, or run.

Or, being more realistic, attempt to.

As the shapes came closer, I could see their boats. Not that large, with broad bands of copper over wood at regular intervals, each bore a handful of sullen-looking people.


A short time ago - so, so very short - I'd have descended into rage at the sight, or fear. Rage, because they had let my parents get away with everything, because they had pursued me for enacting justice, and fear, not because I wasn't sure whether I could defeat or escape them, but because I didn't know whether I had it in me to face my past.

Ha. Of course I didn't. Hadn't. Otherwise, why would I have run? I would've faced them, if presented with no other alternative, defended my attack on my parents' minds until the very end.

I would have done all this, and more, if the lie I had lost countless nights of sleep over had been true.

But I knew better now. My people had never set off to pursue anything, except the endless depths of the sea, in the case of their remains. If Aina had left any...

So, who were these wraiths? My old nightmares, made real by whatever this place was? Constructs of some sort, inspired by my memories and sent after me? I wouldn't have put it past the Free Fleet to do so. If anyone could read a mage's mind without them knowing, and craft such things, all with mundane science, it was them, or the Clockwork King.

And, unless I was forgetting something, I had never given the King a reason to torment me. Except being fiendishly handsome, of course, but I could hardly lift that curse.

The beautiful will always be hated, and envied. I could only hope I hadn't drawn the King's jealousy.

Since rambling in my head took far less than doing it out loud, I decided I'd likely manage to rise to my feet by the time the boats drew close enough for my people to embrace me as the dearest son of Copper's Cradle.

For once, my optimism wasn't misplaced: when the boats were a few dozen yards away, I stood up, without even swaying. Oh, my limbs still felt numb, and I was still soaking wet, like I'd swam a handful of leagues, but I could stand.

You never really appreciated the little things until you lost them. Or got them. Maybe I would be able to sleep easy from now on. Maybe, one day, I would even stop looking over my shoulder...

Hmm. Let's not get crazy, just now.

Instead of contemplating the future, I faced the fleet. Ships, sails fluttering in a wind I couldn't feel, joined the boats. This was not a gradual process: one moment, I glimpsed vague shapes in the distance, the next, the ships towered over me, masts rising into the darkness like weathered trees.

It was as if the horizon had moved closer, dragging them along with it, then assumed its previous position faster than I could notice.

Or...perhaps the distance was an optical illusion? Was it hot enough for me to see mirages, hallucinate? I didn't think so, but then, that was the point, wasn't it?

Not that I put much trust in my sight here. I didn't have any eye problems, but I could somehow see clearly, despite there being no sun in the sky, no stars.

The Copper's Cradlers stopped a few metres away from me, floating in neat rows, boats not even bumping into each other when they stopped. The ships were farther back, and I could see cradlers leaning on the railings, hanging off the rigging, or just standing on the decks, to get a good lock at me. I almost checked if there was someone in a crow's nest using a telescope to see me, but I didn't want to look at the sky and knock myself down again.

Danger aside, it would've been embarrasingly stupid, now that I knew how some things worked here, and I didn't want to die looking like a fool, if I could help it.

The Cradlers could've been any fleet in Midworld: their clothes, brown and bronze and, of course, copper, had seen better days. Shirt sleeves were frayed, and trousers were held up by ragged leather belts or rough ropes. The belts' state suggested food was a luxury rather than a given. That, or enough impromptu amputations were performed that people had no choice but to grab the closest thing to bite.

That seemed unlikely, though. I couldn't spot one missing limb; all of them were fine. That could've been chalked up to the fleet's mages, but, looking closer at these people, something was wrong.

Why were they so pale? Human sailors were tanned by sun and wind. Had the Cradlers only sailed through Midworld's dark, windless regions?

Even that didn't make much sense, on second thought. Seamanship wasn't a gentle trade, but I could see no calluses. Every Cradler with a sleeveless shirt had arms as smooth as their hands. Unless they'd somehow convinced their mages to do everything instead of focusing on scrying for danger, there was no way they could've avoided the usual work on a ship.

I smiled shakily, as if unsure why I was being surrounded. The feeling wasn't hard to fake, nor was the smile.

Someone was trying to trick me, I was sure of it. And they were going at it in a pretty clumsy way, at that. Maybe if I'd been a boy who'd never left his island or visited its port, I would've been fooled into thinking there was nothing suspicious here.

But there were no children here, on the raft or among the fleet. Funny, that. The people of Copper's Cradle had never shied away from exposing their children to life in Midworld, which suggested whoever had conjured this farce of a fleet didn't know much about my home.

I would've been almost sure of that just from how unfamiliar the sailors looked; we hadn't been a large fleet, so everyone had known everyone, by face if not by name. However, it had been the bronze bands on the boats and ships that had tipped me off, along with the colour of these people's clothes.

If that was what they were...

'Hello,' I broke the silence. 'I see you came from the other side? I would be grateful if you showed me the way. You see, I woke up here,' I gestured at the raft and our strange surroundings, 'and I can't quite remember how. I think I was caught in a storm and hit my head,' as I spoke, I scratched it, wincing like I was in pain, 'on my raft. Oh!' I closed my eyes, grinning sheepishly. 'My name's Ovhyn, by the way.'

The Cradlers looked at me for a few moments, then some began laughing. It wasn't the synchronised, grating laughter I'd have expected from these creatures. It sounded human enough, actually, soft, coming from a handful of sailors. The other looked at each other as if they were in on a joke at my expense.

'Not to worry, Ryzhan.' One Cradler, a barrel-chested, middle-aged man with sideburns, waved at me, smiling. Between his girth, paleness and small eyes, he looked like a deep ocean fish someone had stuffed in a burlap sack. He was the only sailor I could see who didn't look lean, so maybe he had decided that, being the biggest, he might as well eat the others. 'We know. No need to fib.'

I bristled, but managed to keep myself from frowning. Being called a liar aleays set me off. My not-inconsiderable pride in my dissembling skills took it poorly, as did the tattered remnant of my integrity, which ocassionally resurfaced when it forgot I lived in Midworld.

'I think you're confusing me,' I replied. 'I can't recall us ever meeting, sir, and I sail alone.' I raised an eyebrow. 'Unremarkably enough for people not to know me by name, much less a wrong one.'

Girthy put his meaty hands on his hips, shaking his fat head. It was fascinating to watch it moving with no neck visible beneath it. I was dismayed at how much effort it'd take to wrap my hands around his throat after I ripped hus grubby mitts off.

'Dammit, boy,' he saif softly, almost mouthing the words. 'Don't you recognise your father?'

I gave him a deadpan look, but the alleged Gharzov met my eyes without difficulty, or saying anything. I looked past him, to see if there wasn't someone eager to step forward and pretend she was Frelzha.

'Who do you believe you are talking to, exactly?' I asked, looking at him but addressing the fleet, in the same tone of voice he was using, hands clasped behind my back. That would've made me seem harmless to most people - how fast could I pull a weapon from behind myself? -, but, if they knew I was a mage, any halfway suspicious gesture would put them on edge.

Though making a calming gesture and speaking in a friendly manner on the surface, I was very much goading them. No one reacted to my movement, though they tripped over each other to answer my question.

Except not really.

'What do you mean, Ryzhan?'

'Forget you in a couple decades? What in the Pit?!' Brief but loud laughter followed this.

'We never stopped lookin' fer ya, lad!' Several grizzled heads nodded earnestly at each other. I wondered if they were trying to reassure me or themselves. Or remind themselves to stay in character.

I continued looking at "Gharzov", but he just crossed his fleshy arms at my questioning expression. Shaking my head, I looked at the fleet, taking in everyone.

'You can drop the façade,' I told them. They should, if they knew what was good for them. I wasn't amused by taunts made at the expense of my lost home. 'Whoever you are, I know you cannot be the people I knew growing up. They're all dead.'

Gharzov nodded. 'At the hands of that monster girl - I can see why you'd think that.'

'Aina,' I snapped, 'didn't do anything out of malice. She had become a lunatic.'

'And who made her look at the moon?' Gharzov retorted. 'Even the lowest lackwit knows to avoid its gaze.'

'The reason doesn't matter anymore. What happened, happened. Besides, she had no reason to believe she'd turn into some island-shattering monster. All our legends only spoke of lunacy causing people to act erratically - at worst, harm themselves and others.'

'And that's better?' The fat man harrumphed. 'That girl, stupid stripling that she was, knew one more pair of hands, with a healthy mind behind them, would always be helpful. By maddening herself, she stole from us all.' Well. If nothing else, this thing was just as annoying as my actual father, though only a fraction as ugly. I suppose even illusions had limits. 'And, one day, her womb could've enriched our fleet.'

Just as disgusting, too. It was exactly this obsession with petty fleets and communities that stopped people from banding together to create a balance to the Great Powers, maybe even form new ones.

But no. We needed this resource, or they could stab our backs when we turned them, or their beliefs clashed with ours, harmless as they were, or a thousand other empty justifications. The worst part was, I understood the reasoning.

As hypocritical as it felt to condemn others for selfishness and paranoia, I had spent enough time alone to understand how self-centred some people were, how prideful some cultures could become, if they endured enough.

'I'll be sure to tell her she has to become a broodmare after we meet,' I said brightly, smile sharp. 'Anything else? Should I slit my throat now, or are you still pretending to be friendly?'

'Pretending...? Son, what in Midworld are you even on about?' Gharzov sputtered. Then, his eyes narrowed. 'And what do you mean, after you meet? With that...?'

'Whoever I want to meet is my business,' I replied. 'And, please, let us end this charade, shall we? You might know who I am, but I only know who you aren't.'

Gharzov's face became more serious, his eyes sharper. 'Look, boy: I understand why you're suspicious. You think your...friend, killed us all when she destroyed our then-home. And she very well might have,' his chest puffed out a little, 'if it hadn't been for me.'

I held his gaze for what felt like forever, waiting for a sign that he knew how ridiculous that sounded. When none appeared, I couldn't help but burst out into laughter.

'Y-You...' I rubbed my forehead, but never closed my eyes, never took them off him. 'You...what did you do, you old fool? Convince her not to choke on someone as bitter as you?'

He briefly turned his head to spit. 'You think she eats people but still want to go to her?'

'Don't mistake my humour for joy,' I warned him, glaring. If he thought my attempt at staving off brooding meant I was feeling forgiving, he had another thing coming. 'And don't you ever speak that way about my friend again. She's mad, not monstrous.'

'Not mon-dammit, Ryzhan! She slaughtered almost everyone you knew!'

'You'll forgive me,' I sneered at him, eyes hooded, 'if I can't bring myself to care about people who held you up as a pillar of the community.' I looked around. 'Speaking of that...where's your cow of a wife? Still around?'

'Your mother,' he spat, 'is resting. Her knowledge of healing is always needed, so she takes every chance to rest she can.' Gharzov took a deep breath, maybe to calm down. A shame. I'd have liked an excuse to put a hole through his skull.
'Forget that. You wouldn't have cared if she'd killed us all, you say? Not even the children?'

I scoffed, to hide my hesitation. 'Since when have you ever called about children except as tools and future walking wombs? You're barking up the wrong tree, "father". I've watched entire islands sink, newborns and elders together, because that was their choice.'

And it would be a cold day in the Pit before I gave half a damn about the opinion of a man who beat his son like a mule. Unclasping my hands, I lowered them to my sides. Just in case. 'But never mind that. You were just about to lie to me about how you saved the legacy of Copper's Cradle from certain destruction.'

'No lies, Ryz.' It sounded bloody twisted coming from his mouth, even if my parents had called me that long before I had set off to sea, let alone met my crew. 'Although...' He cupped his jowly chin. 'In a way, I suppose you saved us.'

'Explain,' I demanded, just short of growling.

Gharzov raised his hands, but I could've told there was nothing up his sleeves from the fact he had none. 'Magic, Ryzhan. It can awaken when you least expect it. That scare you gave me and your mother? It saved our lives, in the end, when it could have very easily brought our deaths.'

I opened my mouth, but quickly closed it. Could that have happened? Could my father have awakened some sort of magic to protect himself and the Cradlers from Aina's rampage, or maybe escape her?

Yes, in theory. In practice...magic on a scale that large, a spell so precise, performed by someone whose mana had only been awake for minutes at most? Who had, before he had become a mage, been almost braindead?

Had my memories been wrong, altered by Ib, maybe? Had that been some convoluted attempt on the grey giant's part to make me think the way it wanted me to? To what purpose?

Ib, I thought. I know you can hear this. I want this - them - to be a lie. I...

I couldn't bear to be betrayed. Not by it. People had turned on me in the past, when it had seemed the most profitable or moral course of action - there were mage sellers and buyers all across Midworld, and hunters, too -, but none of them had been like a brother to me.

Refusing to show how shaken I was, I steeled myself, and thought, If you can, Ib, I need your help. Make an opening into this nightmare. Give me a sign. Anything.

* * *

Ib looked down at its friend. Just as its tridimensional incarnation cradled Ryzhan's - and Mharra's - twitching bodies, its true self observed them from the depths of the Last Sphere of creation that was the Realm of Forms.

Then, the Mantlemakers crowded around it, and its dismay turned to distaste.

'Yes?' it groused, stifling a sigh.

None of the Mandmade Gods looked at it. Instead, they gestured at the half-phantasmal realm Ryzhan believed he was stuck in.

But Ryz is a mage, Ib thought bleakly. There is little difference between reality and imagination to him.

The worst part was that Mharra was in a similar predicament, despite not being a mage. Wherever their thoughts took them, they could remain there.

Moving the Mantlemakers aside, Ib looked past them, and at the being it had always known - the one, in a way, it had only just met.

'I understand you think this is the only way,' it told the one Midworlders called Mendax when they stopped cursing it. 'But Ryz is not your pawn to move.'

The being, which would've appeared as a vaguely humanoid, colourless silhouette in reality, did not stop watching the proceedings as it answered. 'Who said he is? Whipping the boy into shape is necessary, yes, but that's no reason to be callous.'

Ib scowled. Was this what the Mendax considered being kind?

Walking closer, it put a hand on one of Mendax's appendages. The creature turned to it with an air of exasperation.


'I know your purpose,' the Idea of Freedom stated. 'You keep the wheels of creation turning, so everything does not fall into nothing.' It leaned closer. 'You believe my crew's pain will sustain creation.'

It was a statement, not a question. Mendax appeared nonplussed. Chuckling, it slipped out of Ib's grasp. 'Absolutely not.' It didn't blink at the sight of Ib's raised, clenched fists. Blowing a raspberry, the creature wrapped two extremities around itself. 'Oh, don't act so outraged, Ib. We both know the value of free will, else one of us would've uplifted everyone there is, or tried to.' A shrewd glint entered its gaze. 'But we are not so free, exactly, are we?'

Ib grunted in agreement. 'Creation is the Dream of some unfathomable being, yes. What of it? If you say you can fight against that, isn't it only because you are dreamed to do so?'

Mendax sniggered. 'You'd be surprised. Well, you wouldn't be if you stopped underestimating yourself. I doubt there's anything unfathomable for you, if you view ignorance as an obstacle.'

'Explain,' Ib ground out.

Getting what it meant, Mendax nodded. 'This has nothing to do with my duty, but certain people are very interested in freeing themselves, and everyone else - and not just among us. I am...' It steepled its fingers. 'Facilitating that.'

'Because you're bored?'

Mendax rolled its eyes. 'Because it's the right thing to do, you lump. I do have a heart, you know. I just use my head most of the time.'

Ib lowered its fists, but did not unclench them. 'Thank you, then, Remaker.'

'You're welcome. We're all in this together...'

As Mendax trailed off, its gaze drifting to its dark opposite, and the antlered, decaying monster that fought for as much as against it, Ib walked to stand besides it.

'We'll take care of 'em,' Mendax said easily. 'Don't you worry. You have your part to play here.' Some reproach entered its voice. 'And you can get off my friggin' back, while you're at it. You wanted to put your mates through the wringer whether I stuck my nose in this or not.'

Mendax's silhouette changed, shifting like heat haze. For a moment, a bearded man, dark of skin and grey of hair, stood in the shapeless being's place. He was as scarred and grizzled as his dark green uniform - the patch that had once borne the flag of a nation replaced by those of the worldwide coalition it was part of - was ragged.

'True,' Ib agreed. 'But only because it is necessary for their growth.'

'Oh, don't I know all about that,' Mendax muttered, fingering a small, easy-to-miss ring on his right hand. Then, its formless appearance returned, images of a black-eyed, fanged corpse, with grey skin and hair, flashing within its body.

'The dead man will hate you for it,' Ib pointed out.

'So will the Scholar,' Mendax agreed. 'But if we survive enough for morality to become a matter of concern, that means my duty is done.'

* * *

I looked at Gharzov, searching for any tells of dishonesty. How much could I trust myself, though? This place was like poison to my senses.

'Your...magic,' I began haltingly. 'What did you do?'

Gharzov smiled modestly, like he was worried about being called a braggart, were he to describe his escape in detail. Nothing like the man who'd beaten me half to death so many times growing up, but if this was indeed my father, if he had indeed much had changed?

Enough that the Cradlers wouldn't try to take revenge on me? It seemed unlikely, but my magic kept slipping out of my grasp, so, if this was a ploy to make me lower my guard, I doubted I could either defend myself or escape.

'That agonised trance you left me and your mother in? I was awoken from it by fear,' Gharzov said. 'I felt the monster appear, heard it roar, and that scared all the pain away.' He stepped out of his boat and onto my raft, trying to put his hands on my shoulders, but I walked backwards, and he lowered them, quietly disappointed.

That was new. Usually, my father's disappointment in me was announced by screams and fists flying.

'I thought about how we - all of us - needed to get away, and the world warped around us, like fabric around pebbles,' he continued. 'We found ourselves on a stretch of sea, with no islands in sight, not even any rocks.'

At this, there were some huffs and mumbling about the bad old days.

'At first...I admit, I was angry at you, Ryzhan. I thought you were a selfish little bastard, who, instead of using his newly-awakened magic to help his people, used it to throw a tantrum.' Tears filled the corners of Gharzov's eyes, and we wipped them with a hand. 'But, while we continued our journey for new islands, and looked for you at the same time, wanting to take revenge...we remembered the thing your friend had become.'

Were those shudders among the Cradlers theatrical? Humourous?

'We were terrified. That it would find us, somehow, and finish what it had started. We didn't know how, but we'd never even heard about a moon-touched this monstrous, either. We weren't willing to take risks.'

At this, his eyes became a little distant, but warm, like his small smile. 'It was your mother who came up with the idea. She suggested that I should use my magic to make us escape the monster's notice. In addition to that, we stuck to Midworld's darkest areas. We sailed through storms and fog, any patch of gloom that could hide us from its mundane senses while my magic diverted its arcane perception.'

That would've explained why they looked so pale and harried - or, in Gharzov's case, as such an useful mage, he would've been guaranteed preferential treatment, hence the plumpness.

'Well,' I said dryly, just to avoid staying silent (a habit that had started more than a few tavern brawls), 'it seems you succeeded.' Then, more seriously, 'Don't worry. I believe Aina is still in there, somewhere. I doubt she will want to harm you once she comes to her senses.' And if she was a monster, if she couldn't, or wouldn't, be changed...I would give her peace.

But that would come later. For now...

'If you say so,' Gharzov replied, sounding as uncertain as I felt. Then, looking around, his shoulders shook with silent mirth. 'Look at us, talking to each other on boats, like strangers.' He turned around. 'I'll have to tell your mother all about this, Ryz. You should come, talk before we celebrate.'

'Celebrate?' I repeated, taking half a step in his direction as he stepped back into his boat. 'What?'

He looked over his shoulder, expression bemused. 'You, coming back to us...? You are coming back, right, son?'

Of course not, I thought immediately. I must find Aina, and Three...Mharra does not deserve losing his lover forever. And Ib...

I had to speak with the grey giant. But, since it wasn't answering me, that meant I had to get out of wherever I was first.

A part of me wanted this to be real. The stupid, childish part that also wished Aina had never become...whatever she was; it wanted to live in a world where my parents didn't hate me while everyone was indifferent to their cruelty. It wanted the life it never had, as was the wont of mankind. Living in the midst of a loving community, with Aina safe and sane by my side.

But another part of me, the one that had been born during the first beating I'd received for no reason, and grown during my lonely years, knew this was wishful thinking. Not just because this story was so farfetched; not even because Aina was not human anymore, no matter what I wanted.

Because they had made me doubt Ib. This bloated, dead-eyed bastard had made me think the gentle soul I'd prayed daily would remember its past and find peace was manipulating me.

I didn't care. I didn't give a damn whether Ib was pushing me towards some obscure goal. I'd joined its crew lying through my teeth, hiding behind their protection for the sake of survival alone.

And I knew my friend, who'd stood by me during my waking nightmares and saved me from that maddening fog, would never do anything to hurt me, its love of freedom be damned.

And, despite that ridiculous "explanation", I could still see these freaks' skin was as smooth as marble, or wax.

They weren't sailors. They weren't my people, or people at all. They were monsters, some misbegotten creation of this Vhaarn-forsaken place. Moving, talking props, maybe, in a play put together by those smug, cackling bastards who'd nearly shattered my body with their bickering.

And they weren't even the most unnatural thing about this place. The ramshackle raft that could go nowhere, the water that reflected nothing, the darkness too thick to pierce, the sky I couldn't look at...

Subtle. As subtle as a knife to the gut. What else was missing? Me, running in place, held down by my memories, struggling to really look at myself, to see beyond pessimism and find a purpose hugher than unhappy, fearful survival...

'You are not my father,' I told the creature, which froze, inhumanly stiff. 'You're a sad joke, played on the weakest part of my mind. And I am not laughing.'

And, would you look at that? The moment I'd stopped feeling sorry for myself and started thinking about things that mattered, the sweating, the weakness, had stopped. If it had been blunter, I'd have been concussed.

Well. If not being a snivelling cynic was what took to accomplish anything here, I knew exactly what to do.

I had more than enough rage to slaughter these worthless ghosts.

'Ryzhan...' the creature said reproachfully. 'You will come to us.'

Forget it, I thought, dashing at it and putting a mana-enhanced fist through its skull. It felt like I was parting hard but wet clay rather than punching through flesh...and there was no blood.

Then, it turned its head to stare at me, like an owl, with my fist still inside it. Too fast for me to perceive, it freed itself, snapping my arm like a twig before leaping at me, kneeing my crotch hard enough to split my flesh to my navel.

Before I could shriek in pain, it unhinged its jaw and bit down on mine, twisting its head on its neck to rip it off. A backhand knocked my remaining teeth out, before the rest of the ghoulish fleet joined in, tearing me to shreds.

This is it, I thought through the mind-splitting pain, my consciousness somehow holding itself together. This is...the revenge...I...


But that wasn't the end. I came to, back crooked and knees bent. A look in a dirty puddle revealed I had been patched together from the parts of my body that hadn't been eaten. The hunchbacked grotesque that looked back at me with tearful eyes was chained to the wall behind him, a pickaxe in his hands.

I was in a copper mine. Back on my home island.

A slender, twisted figure, shrouded so I could only make out its long, dirty hair, was talking to the Gharzov-thing in sharp whispers. It pointed a needle-clawed finger at me, and Gharzov nodded.

'Go on, boy!' he barked. 'Thank your mother for treating you!'

I opened a wired-together, misshapen jaw to insult them, but only a whimper came out. The Frelzha creature moved closer to me, half crawling, half walking on her fingertips, reminding me of an ape dragging its knuckles.

I caught a glimpse of a circular mouth, filled with layers of thick, short fangs, before it latched its maw over my face, forcing my mouth open. My jaw hung by a thread.

Gharzov joined her, forcing me to the ground with a hand on my shoulder. 'You want to talk about rage? What do you know about that? You're just a child, who thought he could run away and escape responsibility. Rage? Oh, I'll show you rage...'

His throat bulged, and a river of thick blood, filled with chunks of gore, streamed out of it, seeping down my burning throat. Immediately, the pain and confused rage of everyone I'd ever abadoned, tricked and hurt lanced through my mind, and I fell to the ground, trembling until I felt my bones would shake apart.

'This is rage, son,' the creature leered. 'You'll have time to learn all about it. Once you forget all about your circus freaks and your monster bitch, you'll only have room in your heart for rage. Believe me...' it leaned down. 'Soon, you'll no longer remember them. You'll forget where all this betrayed anger is coming from. But you'll always remember you betrayed your family, and failed to run away from your people.'

The rest of the freakish fleet filled the mine, filling my sight with ugly, hateful faces. They tore my body apart just as the memories ripped my mind in half, leaving me trapped, too hurt too move, but never able to die, to go mad: the needle-clawed monster kept healing me.

'Welcome home, Ryzhan. You'll love us once you remember your place~'

* * *

Ib's face swirled with hatred as it peered into the future. A myriad myriad paths began and ended with Ryzhan giving in to his anger, and becoming an even more wretched monster than he believed he was.

In one, overcome by his memories, he broke, and remade himself. The resulting walking cadaver stalked Midworld, two half-formed monstrosities in the shape of his parents fused to his spine, directing him, while smaller ones, with the faces of his people, eternally gnawed on his insides.

This monstrous amalgam would seek out every Midworlder who dared to have lived a life less painful than his, and trap them in a hell forged of their worst memories, until all of Midworld was a single, eternal scream of tortured remembrance.

And, in the midst of it all, Ryzhan's remains would stand and laugh, and weep, face torn by a manic grin.

It would not allow this. Damn Ryz's chance to choose. Damn the Mantlemakers and their twisted games, and damn Mendax and its labyrinthine plots. Ib would not allow its friend to suffer anymore, and Ryzhan would never become that thing as long as it lived.

Ryzhan, it thought, sending its aetheric voice to him even as it spoke to his trembling body on the deck. Metres away, Mharra burst into tortured laughter, bloody tears streaming down his face as the corners of his mouth began to bleed. He had his own battle to fight, but Ib would not let him do it alone. This is Ib. I-

Ib! I-I-Ib! Ryzhan thought back. Please! Please! I can't die now! We've lost Three, the captain is alone...Ryzhan's mouth parted in a silent scream. Aina...I l-love her. She must know. I beg you...she must me...

Ib smiled, its broken laugh filling the air, drowning out the disappointment of the Manmade Gods. Perhaps they had hoped for a sadder ending.

Foolish. Even now, in the middle of his worst nightmare, Ryzhan wanted nothing more than to help those he loved.

'Yes,' Ib said, 'brother.'
My original stories:viewtopic.php?f=9&t=171108&sid=d8a62d5d ... d23db4c4c8
viewtopic.php?f=9&t=171110&sid=d8a62d5d ... d23db4c4c8
Stories I'm co-writing over on Spacebattles: Halloween Knights;Tales from the Halloween Knights (Anthology) ;Memories from the Halloween Knights (Anthology) ; ... s.1039239/
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