A Fell Omen 4.9 (Marginalia & Apocrypha)

They all know what’s happening, but so long as the can insist that it isn’t they think that they can stave it off. It was Vilina on the work crew who started to shake first, shake even when he wasn’t cold, shake even in his sleep. And when on the job, so close to that mass of silvery liquid metal, he suddenly seizes up, falling onto the cold stone and nearly bashing his own head in, and they carried him away and told the overseer he was too exhausted, that he had collapsed, that he only needed a day more to come back to work.

He does, and he keeps on shaking, and he talks less and less, and they kept calling it cold. They all know he’s sick. They know what the cinnabar can do to a man. Mitsha prays over him like his father would have. He calls on the spirits of animals; on One-Eyed Vityak, who heals men, and Mother Gyuta, who protects them. And still in the morning they return to the darkened halls, to pick away at the raw and unnatural stone of the temple, to make a canal to carry the mercury down to the divet where it could be easily captured and hauled away. 

The temple is unnatural in its scope and size, and all of them speculate as to who or what could have built it. The stone is not soft, indeed it is quite resistant to most blows, but it fractures with more ease than any of them expected. This means less effort in digging, but more in clearing the path of rubble and dust. The steps are so great that they must have been built for a race of giants. One fearfully suggests the elves as a culprit; the rest dismiss him as foolish and superstitious. Another suggests the Mnar, or the Three Immortals, but such a monument is beyond the grim practicality of the Mnar and the brutal simplicity of the Immortals who ruled over a thousand years ago. Its cyclopean columns bore no decoration or text, only the carvings of time and vicious whorls that were so smooth that they could not have been created by chisel and hammer. 

Indeed, they had been told it was a temple, but none of them see a single sign of god. It had no statues of gods, no place for a sacrifice – only a darkened staircase which led to a river of mercury. 

And still, through the shaking, through the skin that has started to peel away from them in patches, through the awful labor, they make good progress on the canal. They manage to get some of the gunpowder just dry enough to make a charge with it, and they shatter the stonework like glass in the cool air,  leaving them to clear up the rubble and make the path clean under the watchful eyes of the men with matchlock guns. The path grows in time with the divet outside, and they meet, leaving only the last and most dangerous part of the whole operation. 

What little dam they have has to be breached open, to release the fluid into the canal and to the divet. First, they bring the canal as close as they can to the edge of where they suspect the mercury begins. The overseers push it further, but the men are unwilling to kill themselves in a flood of the stuff. The crew to make the breach becomes smaller and smaller until there is a breaking point. Too dangerous, they say, to go any further with picks. The meager dry powder they can spare will have to do, and if that doesn’t work they say they will have to come up with a different solution.

The moment arrives. Half the guns belonging to the guards are emptied, much to their anger and dismay, the powder carefully shielded from the cool wet air. They set it in a pocket, take the longest match-string they can manage, and Mitsha goes down and lights it ablaze, crackling in the halls of the temple, and he scrambles away, through the canal to the hand-hold where he can climb up, blistering where his skin has worn away in scales. 

He rises up just as the blast comes. The stone creaks as it breaks under the weight of the metal and at once it comes rushing out thunderously. A silvery river emerges from the rock, out into the darkened divet in the earth. For a moment, the work crew looks from eye to eye, and some even begin to smile at their handiwork, watching as it finally leveled out. There was more work to be done, of course, but it would be so much easier now than before. They felt, for the first time in a long time, that there was a chance for all of them to go home. 

The victory is short-lived. The shakes get to Mitsha for a moment as he stands at the lip of the canal where the silver river flows and teetering one of the other men tries to catch him. He has already slipped, and then calamitously he falls.

It happens so quickly that the men cannot do anything but stand back and watch as it happens. They expect him to sink, to simply fall into the depths of the quicksilver, but instead he floats surreally on its surface, borne along by latent currents as he flails. The silver stuff is in his eyes, his mouth, all over him, and only by a miracle does he find another handhold and emerge from the river dripping silver onto the ground. And all of them look at him, and his shaking, and they cannot deny it any longer. 

And Mitsha cannot deny it any longer either. And they say that he went mad from the mercury, and that is true. At first he looks furious, his face red with peeling skin and cold, and then he is calm. An overseer with a gun comes over to investigate the commotion, and they try to stop him as he picks up his gear, they try to stop him as he walks towards his true enemy, they scream his name, they beg of him not to throw away what he knows to already be gone. 

With one swift motion he brings his pick through the overseer’s skull, bone shattering just as readily as stone. Men on the work crew gasp but come no closer to Mitsha, afraid that any attempt to restrain him would be seen as an attempt to help him or that he would kill them as well. Mitsha picked up the man’s gun. 

And Mitsha ran, down and out of the temple into the frozen air, into the gleaming midnight sun, the gun clattering about his waist. The people he sees are blurs of water and man and tooth, they who have brought him here from his warm home promising riches and safety, promising a good position after the job was done, and threatening him with death at every turn and now he knew that he had nothing, nothing to go back to. 

It was a bloody freedom, spearing another overseer through the gut with the sharp end of a pick as he ran far from the temple towards the interminable northern plains. That vista seemed to spread out forever, and as he passed over the little shelf he saw it in its full glory. Forested taiga eventually gave way to a vast low plain of gray and white snow before rising in a great wave to a wall of mountains in the interminable sky. The snow was so bright that it nearly blinded him, electric silvery streams of light reflecting off of it and back into the sky – a second set of stars as replacement for the endless twilight-time of the tundra. It was a land that made the temple behind him seem even more impossible. It was so untamed and uncontrolled that it seemed to emerge less out of earth and snow, and more out of a strange dream-time where the logic of sensible geometry and geology were long abandoned to the eons without the eyes of men to apply those logical sciences; a hyperborean land where giants and gods and stranger beasts could come to roam. This is not the land of men. It is the forbidden land of monsters and snow, and it is monstrous in and of itself. 

And he ran into it, accepting it into himself as it even enshrouded him. The thin air seemed to take him further, his stride going longer, himself becoming a giant as he stretched his arms endlessly into the sky. It occurred to him in the back of his mind that what he had done had been a heinous thing – that everyone would be punished for his impudence, that he would die out here, that he had killed for little reason at all. It also occurred to him that he was no giant at all. Indeed, that reality came crashing back to him as he felt his limbs tire and his eyes wear on the distant plain. He came to a forlorn and leafless stump in a little bower, and breathed hard. The cold air was already getting to him. 

And then the rest of reality came crashing back in with the sound of feet behind him. He ran for what felt like hours, launching himself from the stump to the edge of the bower, but in his logical mind he knew that it could only be moments before a strong hand batted him aside and dragged him to the earth, facing up at the gray-blue sky. He stared for a long while in total denial of reality, hoping that he would simply rise up to meet the heavens before it ended. Voices swirled around him, filled with contempt and hatred.

“A dog,” one says.

“Worse,” says another, “A dog would be loyal. This one – this one is a peasant who cannot be relied upon.”

“Shall we make instruction of it? Tyena?”

“Yes. Its mind is addled by mercury. It will do.”

Somewhere in the corner of his vision, he saw a man wind a length of twine about a poppet, and his vision went black. He tried to scream, and found no breath for it.

֎֎֎

“Among vampires, due to their condition, there are few natural diseases that long survive their unique physiology. However, there are two conditions which are highly specific to the vampire: the Gyul, and Dampirism. The progression of the Gyul is initially identical to that of syphilis, and is acquired in the same fashion, wherein a person who lives a rakish or promiscuous lifestyle becomes ill with rashes and sores about the genitals, which eventually go dormant for a great length of time. After this period of dormancy, the disease recurs in greater severity, infecting the face with gangrene and leprosy and causing illness of the mind. 

However, within the specific case of a vampire, this may progress further, to the Gyul. Incapable of dying of the disease, it instead progresses apace, rotting much of the flesh and causing maddening pain alongside a total loss of all sensible thought. Those fully afflicted with it take the appearance of a lich or a corpse, and can only be repaired with great doses of mercury or another strong poison that can remove the disease. 

The other prime illness, Dampirism, is of a most foul and rare variety. Before the ritual in which a vampire is inducted into the nobility, they are to take up a ritual purity and celibacy, particularly among the women. This is a ward against Dampirism, which is caused when a pregnant woman is given the blood of a vampire to drink, and may become a vampire herself.

In such cases, the ritual partially fails. The pregnancy proceeds apace, and the woman becomes a vampire, but they acquire no method of feeding unique to them. Instead, their babe becomes the method of feeding – a dampir. Such a creature is universally foul and unnatural in nature. I have seen two such cases in my time serving the nobility. The first case saw the woman as a disgraced black sheep of her family, who had given birth not to babes but a knotted mass of black leeches in the shape of a babe, and would find herself fully pregnant only months after giving birth to such an abomination, being forced to feed on them. I arranged for a permanent slit to be made on her belly, so that she could release the leeches at will. In such cases where they find themselves in a state of perpetual pregnancy, this is the general course of treatment that I advise, alongside any aids to make nausea and the swelling of the feet more bearable.

In other cases, no such permanent pregnancy occurs. The other case I had come across saw such a woman who found herself pregnant with deformed dampir who was more similar to a normal child. However, the child was born with too much water in the brain, and grew at a rate unnatural to that of a normal child, with elongated canines to boot. Instead of being able to feed upon blood normally, the blood first had to be fed to the dampir, before being regurgitated into the mother’s mouth. However, the boy was also wholly dead to the world, requiring them to be fed blood by a worm. 

It should also be noted that such a birth renders a woman wholly barren. There is no remedy to this.”

– Myertan’s Physiology

֎֎֎

Alone, thinks Nonya, Alone again.

Before, it had been that she was only alone in a room. They had made her give birth mostly alone, only an anonymous maid to help her. That was the only appropriate punishment for her failure to keep celibacy. It had been so difficult that after nine hours she could bear it no longer and she slit her own belly with a knife. It was the longest, loneliest day of her life, and she thought she heard her children all crying, wailing for their mother’s milk. 

When she woke, they had already burrowed through her breast and swarmed about the maid and killed her too. And she had been so alone that it became a gift to her – a gift that made her laugh unto the lonely dark sky, to the candlelight, to the countless babes that spilled forth from her. She laughed and shrieked into the night.

Now, she laughs again as she staggers through the woods to the riverside. Her mother had said that she was delusional, mad for thinking of her babies as such – a failure of a woman incapable of producing an heir some hundred or so years down the line when it came necessary in the course of history for them to produce a new member to their family. Now her mother, her cousin and husband, the whole of her family had been disposed of. She feels as if she should mourn them all, but all she can manage is a laugh, shrill and distant and seemingly not even of her own body.

She thought of Bena. A century of marriage did strange things to the mind. She had hated him; she had loved him; she had done all manner of evil and good unto him, and everything inbetween. She reaches into the hollow of her belly and produces her little babe. They are not of his seed, not of his progeny, and for this reason he always hated them. Now he is dead and gone. The little tick squealed and chittered in her hand, its crude little legs scratching against her hand. 

Nonya touched her hand to her face, smearing what blood there is there, mixing with her dark war-paint. 

She holds the babe high up above the river before she baptizes him in the water, cleaning him of the gore of her blasted body. 

“Little heir,” she says, “They have taken so much from me. Thou know this more than anyone, having grown in me.”

She washes his beady eyes.

“You will be the founder of my dynasty,” she says quietly, “To raze this land, and set these fools free of the burden of life. My dearest, my-”

And she whispers a name into his ear, and laughs with delight once more as he chitters back.

֎֎֎

“Antecedent to the vampires in our history were the Horned Lords, of Dar and Sur and Kolet, who all bore the pagan ways of old. These forefathers of ours were of pagan breeding, and of brutish disposition as the vampires that followed them; indeed, it is the practice of human sacrifice that was established by them that allowed the vampires to take such a strong hold in the first place. Nonetheless, looking back upon their history may invite us to imagine new creations and traditions for our fledgling nation, making their history more essential than ever…”

– Foreward to A History of the Horned Lords by Itya Shkyoenina

֎֎֎

There is a stony shrine in the hinterlands, where once sheep roamed freely. None pass that way for superstition – the misery house lies not far away, a place built to hold all the misfortune of the town. Lonely among the mountains, the remains of a shepherding family rest there forevermore, peaceful beneath the earth. 

֎֎֎

“The first corollary of the truths is this: so long as there live tyrants, it is the duty of men to overthrow them.

The second corollary of the truths is this: the gods, being tyrants in and of themselves, must be overthrown.

The third corollary of the truths is this: it is the moral duty of every man to raise a great host by which to overthrow the Kingdom of Heaven and defenestrate the gods from their seat.”

– Fundament of the School of Divine Defenestration, Unknown Author

֎֎֎

Judge Tyeli feels bored. He hasn’t had a single interesting case in months.

֎֎֎

“The watchers, as they are known, also called servitors, homunculi, stone-slaves, sorcerous marionettes, or simply marionettes, or a bevy of other names, are perhaps some of the most difficult and complicated foci that can be created by a sorcerer. Their core, though, is quite simple. They are a statue of some sort made with the capacity to carry mana in them, and then use that mana to achieve movement and life of their own through instruction.

Typically, they can be broken down into three primary components, in ascending order of importance: the body, the instruction and the mana storage. The body is the simplest of the components – though even then, an incorrectly applied refinement can do great harm here. A failure to properly account for what kind of mana is being used to animate the servitor may cause the whole focus to fall apart when introduced to the wrong kind by accident or intentional sabotage.

The second component is more a matter of rarity than anything else. While a simple contained-shaped subfocus can serve such a purpose, it gives an operational time that can be measured in minutes at the most. Mercury or human remains give a far longer capacity for this. This distinction is strongly made by Sondi sorcerers – the bowl-headed servitor versus the skull-headed servitor. Compare the distinction between “horned” wards and “free” wards made by some Darean sorcerers.  

The final component is the instruction, which is the most common point of failure. These are typically instilled through the use of a scroll or carefully-inscribed words put upon the servitor. An apocryphal legend tells of the Gyetyean Immortal, the Lich – supposedly a powerful sorceress, as all the immortals were – who created a great servitor of wicker and fire, who bore a whole book upon its brow and crushed her enemies in a great burnt sacrifice.

This instruction must be carefully arranged. Even the most straightforward and literal of words may grow corrupted by the intent of the hand that drew them into life. Consider all the perils of the word “protect” – is it within a protector’s purview to harm others? To kill? How proactive may a protector be in any given case? And so on and so forth. The worst case scenario is a servitor that has been made without any instruction to stop and a great capacity for destruction, whereupon it will continue to destroy thing until it is stopped or runs out of mana.”

– Berali Semtya, A Comprehensive Manual on The Matter of Sorcery

֎֎֎

Dzhate slowly marks her way through an old book on sorcery, procured for her by a very expensive fence. Somehow, it had gone unnoticed in the back of a naturalist’s library uptown, a hand-me-down from a relative interested in the true art. It doesn’t have exactly what she’s looking for, but there’s a footnote.

She traces it to the back of the book, the bibliography. 

That’s it.

A book banned by the Church a long time ago, its contents too heretical to be seen by prying and inquisitive eyes. If there were any copies in Koletya, they’d belong to them.

She marks it down, snuffs the candle, and smiles. The purchase was worth it after all.

֎֎֎

“Among the many monsters and myths of history, few are more incomplete in their picture, or more captivating, than the story of the Empire of the Three Immortals. It is the fundament of countless religions; the imperative force between all the nations that followed their empires; the persecutor of countless peoples, the scourge of the elves, the breakers of nations. There is no single source to their immortality – the Gyetyeans list them as vampires; the Sondi, powerful sorcerers and witches; the Sepulcherite sources, witches again, but a family of them, posing as immortal through a sort of reincarnation. This is only worsened by the acts of those that immediately followed them. In the clamor after their mysterious disappearance, so many records were destroyed that even their family names were lost to time. We are left only with their epithets…” 

A History of the Three Immortals and Their Holdings, by Itya Shkyoenina

֎֎֎

Abandoned, there in the desert over the mountains, there is a great obelisk, half-sunk into the dunes. 

“To commemorate our victory over death,” it says.

No other words are legible. Three figures stand inscribed into the three faces, women all, so tall as to dwarf any human being, gigantic in their visage, their faces shorn away by some anonymous chisel or the sheer force of the fine-grained sand and wind. A single cold eye gazes to the east, to command an army long forgot to plunder riches from a people long dead for an empire buried beneath the years. 

֎֎֎

“…what ardor it brings to this blasted body – it is a small joy.”

– Diary entry, undated.

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