Story time

Blog-age will probably be light today, as unfortunately work is calling again. To be precise, it’s a poster for the conference I’m going to next week. This is also why I haven’t been able to get much (any?) work done on The Misfits for the last few days, and probably won’t until September now. So, by way of apology, here’s a little cherry.

Below the cut is ‘The Fall of Glesai’. It’s an original short story I wrote in 2004, and I’m actually still fairly happy with it now. It’s not very long, about 3000 words. I keep meaning to re-visit this setting … one day, maybe. (Although if I did re-visit this piece now, the grammar would need some tweaking and also I’d need to have a very careful think about gender roles and the depictions thereof … at the time I wrote this, that sort of thing was completely lost on me, though.)

Anyway, here it is.


The chant carried in the smoke-heavy sky. It wound its way up from the vast army encamped beyond the walls. It floated up through the air, past the battlements and up to the towers beyond. It was a testament to the size of the force gathered beyond the city that it could be heard so high and so far. It was also a testament to the strength of the besiegers’ hate.

The remaining High Magister of the Covenant leaned his old, tired hands on the balustrade. He could hear the chant, dimly, and smell the smoke from their torches. He gazed out over the balcony, away from the city. He did not look at the standards and fires of the army below. Instead he looked to the horizon. To the sunset. It was a deep, bloody crimson. Appropriate – bloody slaughter seemed likely.

With the Magister stood another man. Unlike the Magister’s elaborate robes, his clothes were plain. His appearance did not suggest his former status as a Councillor of the Guilds. Reden Uto had long affected to dress simply as an ordinary mage. When in office, it had been whispered the pretence amused his vanity – and following his disgrace, it had been a necessity. Uto stood back from the edge of the balcony, arms folded across his chest. He was staring flatly at the back of the Magister’s head.

“What do you want?” Respect had never come naturally to Uto. “Why am I here?”

The Magister sighed, tiredly. “Still bitter, Reden? Even now? I only did what I had to.”

“You called out my daughter’s sin before the entire Council. Of course I’m bitter. Unless you forgot, they expelled me.”

“I did what I had to.”

“You could have talked to me in private.”

“And what would that have accomplished? Asmaea would still have been pregnant. Sooner or later the Council would have found out anyway and I’d have been stripped of my Magistracy for playing favourites.”

“So I’m supposed to forgive you for sacrificing me for your power?” Sarcasm bit in Uto’s voice.

The Magister’s face flooded with anger for a moment. Then it abruptly ebbed. Weary resignation flowed in behind it. “What does it matter now? We’ll all be dead by morning.”

Uto frowned. He glanced toward the besieging army. “What rot is this? They haven’t even breached the walls yet. The Guardians-”

“The Guardians number barely two thousand. They-” the Magister meant the besiegers “-more then half a million. It’s a matter of time, and less then you think. Even if we use the Fount on them, it won’t buy us more then a few days. The Farseers tell us there’s another half million men marching toward us. The largest army since the War of the Fount. Here to kill us.”

Uto regarded him with a neutral expression. With careful lack of emotion, he said, “The Council of Guilds was called into session today. In private.”

The High Magister nodded. “Yes.”

“Was it do with … ?” He tilted his head briefly to the outside.

“Of course. Listen. Listen to what they’re chanting.”

The two men stood silent for a minute. The sound of the distant army’s chant was a low buzz in the quiet of evening: “Death to evil! Death to sorcery! Death to mages!” Those lines, repeated over and over again. A simple message and a clear one.

Uto cleared his throat. “What of it?”

“As you say, the Council of Guilds met today. We realised we have only one option.”

“Oh?”

“We’re dead men walking. All of us, all of this city. Some of the Farseers went to the Pool of Foretelling to call forth a vision of the future. You know how hazy and indistinct they usually are. This one was sharp. As day.”

Uto frowned. “No uncertainty. That’s … unheard of.”

“Well, it’s heard of now. I guess it means the events of the next week have been building too long, are just too deep-rooted to be stopped in the time we have left.”

“What did you see?”

“The towers of Glesai, blackened and broken. The Guild Halls pulled down. The city torched. The final death of the Covenant. No more Guilds, knowledge of the Fount largely gone from the world. Books burned, the old learning lost. Destruction and change. That part of it can’t be averted.”

“ ‘That part’?”

“We saw…” The Magister’s voice caught at the memory. He swallowed and carried on. “We saw two possibilities. If we hang on, make them pay in blood for every step they take inside Glesai’s walls, we can hurt them. A lot. But if we do, they’ll still take those steps. They’ll drive us back, all the way down to the crypts. Right down to the Cavern itself. There we’ll be butchered. Like farmyard animals. The invaders’ bloodlust will merely be piqued, not sated. They’ll rampage through the city above and the crypts below and … and there’s a real chance they might damage the seals.”

Uto blinked, then stared, incredulity written on his face. “What? How?”

The Magister shrugged. “I don’t know, but it’s what the Farseers saw. A Councillor for the Scholars suggested all the violence, magical and physical, might be enough to pollute the flow of the Fount around here. That poisoned flow could weaken the seals enough that mere physical force could touch them.”

“A dubious theory.”

“Maybe. But the fact remains, that was one of the possibilities we saw.”

“And the other?”

“In the other, when they break through we don’t resist. The city dies. They loot the surface. However, they torch it and leave as soon as they can. They look around and see too much they can’t understand. Glesai frightens them, you see.”

“As well it should. But what of the seals?”

“Deep down in the crypts, they survive it all unharmed. Without weakness. Inviolate.” He released a pensive breath. “The Council of Guilds accepted this choice.”

“So we’re all just to roll over and bare our bellies for their blades?”

The Magister spoke gravely and slowly. “For millennia, we have ruled humanity. For centuries, we have misruled humanity. Now humanity, the Council feels, is passing its judgement on our arrogance and cruelty. It seems, if we refuse to accept our sentence, then we imperil the world. This must not be so. Humanity must have its way.”

Uto’s voice was twisted with loathing. “What right have they? Those powerless scum?”

The Magister’s smile was humourless. “Clearly your daughter didn’t think they were all scum.”

The taunt lit rage in Uto’s eyes. Rage and a touch of shame. His voice grated. “That was just lust. Animal lust. Beasts rutting in the dirt. Nothing else.”

“That wasn’t what she cried out when the young man was hung. Indeed, I believe she screamed out her love for him, before she was taken away.”

“Let us speak of her transgression no further.” Uto’s voice had frost in it and his fists were balled. His face was lined with anger.

The Magister nodded. “Okay. Well, whether the people be scum or not, the Council and I agree that the seals must not be harmed. We have decided that the cityfolk must gather to the Cavern. There we will all take a draught from the Well of Death and so leave this world painlessly.”

“Everyone?”

The Magister nodded. “Everyone in Glesai who can drink from the Fount, yes. The Foretelling was clear about that. There must be no mages alive by morning.”

“You think all ten thousand of us are going to go to our deaths that meekly?”

“Twelve thousand, actually. And mages know their duty. When the options are made clear to them, I’m sure they’ll know it’s for the best.”

“Really.”

“Think of it this way. It’s a choice, as you put it, between a blade to the belly and a calm, quiet, painless passing at the moment of your choosing.”

“You still haven’t told me why you sent for me.”

“Your daughter.”

“I said we weren’t to speak of her again.”

“I know, but we must.”

“Why?”

“She may have been blinded to the Fount, but Asmaea still has the spark of talent in her blood. She is soiled and can’t come amongst us. She can’t go to the Cavern, but she must drink of the Well too. Someone must take some of its water to her.”

“You want me to kill my own daughter?”

“No, I don’t want anyone killed. But one way or the other, she must receive a draught from the Well. You can do it yourself, or I can send someone else. I thought you deserved the choice.”

Desires warred on Uto’s face. Finally, it seemed to cave in. He sighed. “I’ll do it myself.”

The Magister nodded acceptance.

*

The Cavern was a vast hollow in the rock deep below Glesai. Formed in some unimaginable upheaval of the earth, it had remained wide and empty for eons before Man first learned of it. When the Covenant was founded, four thousand years before, it had seen the greatest work of magery of all time: the Sealing of the Drain. The two wells, of Life and Death, didn’t quite compare, for all that they too were great works. However, they shared the Cavern with the nine crystal columns of the seals.

As he entered the vast cave, Uto took a moment to pause and gaze upon them in simple wonder. They were as tall and broad as a man, arranged in a loose but regular circle around the Cavern’s centre. They were translucent, filled with a bluish haze. No cracks marred their planes, nor their surfaces. They were immune to any physical force a man could throw at them. He knew it would take a vast work of magic to so much as scratch them. For a moment he wanted to scoff at the Magister’s tale. Then he remembered: Foretellings never lie. Impossible as it seemed, something could harm them. If the seals were damaged, they’d weaken. If they weakened too much, the Drain might open. Again.

He shuddered. It didn’t bear thinking about.

Inside the circle of columns were two wells. One was built of a clean white stone, the other a shiny ebony. There was already a queue of people leading up to the latter. Presumably the Council had made its order public while he had been talking with the Magister. Others were here too. There were some benches around the sides of the Cavern. A few people were already sat on them, with empty drinking vessels.

Uto ignored them all, pushing his way through the queuers. An elderly woman stepped away from the edge of the well with a full cup, just in time for him to sink a canteen into it. The water of the Well of Death felt cold against the skin of his hand, but he knew it would do him no harm until he drank it. The canteen bubbled as it filled. Once the gurgling slowed, he lifted it out and capped it.

He turned away from the well and stalked out between the crystal columns. He left the Cavern without a backward glance. There was nothing to see. He knew what must be happening.

Already, behind him, the first of the drinkers from the well were quietly passing away.

*

The dungeon was buried deep under Glesai. It was a part of the city few of the mages ever went to. The idea of a mage of the Covenant committing a crime was effectively an oxymoron. The fact his own daughter had been the first in two centuries to be locked up down there gave Uto no joy.

When he got there he pounded on the heavy, studded oak door of the complex. When no-one answered after the fifth thump of his fist, he gave it a firm push. It was unlocked. His face warped at the laxity. He decided he would give the guards a piece of his mind.

When he entered, it seemed they had already gone. The small guardhouse was empty and the iron grille door to the cells hung open. It was dark in there. The only torches were in the guardhouse. Uto drew a calming breath, then reached out to the Fount. Its flow swirled all around him, just beyond sight and touch but somehow more profound then any mundane sense. For a moment he just stood there, enjoying it, letting its power wash through him. Then he drank from it, drew a portion of the flow to himself. He raised a hand and made it swirl around in the air above his palm, a little whirlpool of energy. A ball of light, an inch or so wide, blossomed into light. Its size was small but its bright white glare made up for it. He sent it on into the corridor, then followed.

Asmaea’s cell was right at the far end. The walk to it actually took several minutes. On the rare occasion when anyone visited the cells, they often asked why the founders of the city had felt so many necessary. The dungeon could have held hundreds. The place had a musty smell, the scent of a long neglect.

Finally, he was standing before her cell. Another little swirl of the Fount opened the gate for him, gently pushing the tumblers in the lock. He stepped through.

Asmaea looked up at her father. She was sat, huddled in the corner of the small stone chamber. She had been a beautiful girl once – some echoes of it still lingered in her face, in her deep green eyes. They were blinking at the unaccustomed light. She had been in the cell for some time. Seven months. Her hair was greasy and matted. Her nails were chipped and broken. Her skin was dirty and the plain grey prisoner’s dress did nothing for her figure.

Nor did the enormous lump that marred her chest.

Uto’s lip curled as he saw it. It was the only reason she was still alive. The penalty for a mage rutting with a normal was death for both. Asmaea would have shared her dirty lover’s death but for her pregnancy. The Covenant held that the child was not responsible for the sins of its parents – and besides, it might have talent itself. Her death would have had to wait until it was safely born, had circumstances been normal.

Uto threw the canteen down at her feet. “Drink this,” he barked.

“Why, Father?” Her voice was thin and tired, but a glint of defiance lurked in her eyes. Under the filth of neglect Asmaea was strong and her will had yet to break.

“Don’t you call me that! You are no daughter to me.”

Now tears shone at the edges of her eyes. Stubbornly, she held them back. When she spoke her voice was level. “Why? Why do you reject me?”

“You pretend not to know!”

“What was so wrong about it? We – we loved each other.” For a moment her composure shook but she held onto control. She refused to lose it. It was all she had left.

Uto’s words came out through grated teeth. “What you did. Better if you’d screwed an animal.” Fury glinted in his eyes.

She glanced at the canteen. “So is that it, then?”

“Is that what?”

“From the Well?”

Uto stepped back in surprise. “How did you know?”

“The guards. I heard them talking about it before they left.”

He nodded, sharply. “Look at it like this. At least you won’t hang now.”

“What if I don’t drink it, Father?” An impish light showed in her eyes.

His face twitched. “If you really know so little of your duty, then you are as bad as that gutter-scraping you pleasured that night.”

She picked up the canteen. “Get out, then. Leave me alone.”

“As you wish.” He nodded once and left. She listened as the light faded away with him. His footsteps receded into the distance. After a while, she heard the oak door slam. The only sound now was the dripping of water somewhere in the dark.

“You always were a cold man,” she said to the shadows.

Asmaea waited for a count of a hundred, then gingerly felt her way forward. She had goaded her father deliberately. She knew his weaknesses. She knew he tended to forget little things when he was tight-lipped with rage.

Like shutting the gate as he had left.

As she reached the doorway of the cell, she found it unblocked. In the dark a smile of pure triumph lit her lips. She stepped out of the cell. Free.

“I can hardly believe it,” she murmured joyously. She wanted to laugh.

She turned and opened the canteen. Careful not spill any on herself, she poured out its contents. The water tinkled as it spilt onto the flagstones of the cell floor. She turned and walked away, tossing the empty canteen over her shoulder as she did. Humming to herself happily, Asmaea followed her father out of the dungeons.

*

Uto, in his stiff-necked way, returned to the Cavern. Once there, he took his draught from the Well of Death. He swallowed it in one gulp, then went to sit on a bench at the edge of the Cavern. He waited patiently as the pleasant numbness spread through his body. Finally, the world went dark and Uto was no more.

Along with him that day, twelve thousand two hundred and fifteen other mages drank from the Well of Death. By the time the last of the sun’s rays had faded from the sky, the ancient city of Glesai was silent. The Covenant, which had endured and ruled for four millennia, was finally broken. The next day, as the vast army beyond entered the city, they found it barren of life. On finding the Cavern and its cargo of bodies, they withdrew, shaken. The city was burned and they left, muttering under their breath about a cursed place.

However, not all of Glesai’s former citizens lay dead in the Cavern. There was one who had not chosen suicide. While her father was drinking his cupful of death, Asmaea was carefully picking her way out through the mountains behind the city. They were commonly held impassable. As with many a commonly held notion, it was false. Before her sixteenth birthday she had used to go there to play, her and her brothers. They had stumbled across a tortuous pass out of the mountains. It was a knife-edge path, but with determination it could be navigated – and Asmaea was nothing if not determined.

By the time the first fires were licking the towers of Glesai, she was miles away. The power to sense the Fount and its flow had been stripped from her, on the day when her crime had come to light. She herself was now just an ordinary mortal. But within her she carried her unborn child. The Magister had been right when he had observed that the power was in her blood.

The Foretelling had been fulfilled; there were no living mages in Glesai and the Covenant was dead. Maybe, though, the magic was not done for quite yet.

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