A Tale of Swayal (by Mike Hillcoat)
For they are both Unclean and whores, who maketh pits of their mouths.
– THE TRACTATE
Autumn, 6 New Imperial Year, Nymbricani
When Haubonus Lissa was a child, her favorite place was the edge of a small promontory where she used to sit overlooking the seething Meneanor. She would sit and watch the waves crash and break against the rough bluffs meeting at the River Wutmouth. She would watch the water as it spilled in rushed torrents from the great river and imagine it traveling like her Mother had taught her… first from the Lake Huösi beneath Oswenta, the neighboring capital of Galeoth, by way of the River Vandauga, all the way from the passes of the Hethanta Mountains, which cropped the faraway horizon.
Sometimes when Lissa sat, whole chunks of shale would fall from the bluffs, creating great splashing arcs in the water that seemed to radiate out from her, across the sea, out towards the edge of the World. Slowly it seemed, year after year, the sea would eat at the World’s edge and the land of her forefathers would grow ever smaller.
And braced by her Mother’s knowledge of mountain rivers feeding seas, Lissa would stare across the foaming waters and watch while the Meneanor swallowed the very World she knew.
The evening was young, yet the Nail of Heaven shone brightly above, and Lissa, having finished her chores early, walked blissfully from her home to the promontory. She found herself watching and marveling, in small child thoughts, at the way the sea dwarfed her, the raw, rushing power of the Wutmouth as it fed the illuminated and insatiable Meneanor beyond.
It reminded Lissa of Mother and her inexhaustible strength, and her Father, who continued to fight in the distant wars.
It wasn’t until she grew that Lissa would realize that the sea, her World-eating Meneanor, was but a small part of the much greater Meneanor, itself a part of seas joining the very World with the Ocean.
But it was then for one small moment that she knew. Gripped by uncharacteristic certainty – brushed broadly with ignorance for she questioned everything – she just knew that her radiant perspective was bound by the horizons of her youth.
It was but a passing revelation.
She didn’t learn how the hands of Men groped at the world; she didn’t learn of the avarice of sorcerer and kijneta. Her family was simple. Tending earth, tending soil. They worshipped the old over the new, especially when her Father and Brothers made war their God. And she and her mother would keep faith with the earth, tending, making soft earth deeply plowed.
It was a revelation that would sting in the quiet moments nonetheless, to know that she, at the edge of her Meneanor, waters to the horizon, was not the hub about which the very World turned.
And it returned to Lissa again that bright starry evening. Came to her in her Mother’s form.
They were going to the Clearing-of-the-Great-Tree.
She at once balked and celebrated in her soul’s eye. Lissa had never been to the Clearing before, the name by which it was whispered among those of a certain age in her family. It was a never-ending source of frustration to be denied this secret knowledge, yet Lissa could not help but rebel at this prematurity, this lack of ceremony.
The Nail shone with the senseless malice of bad omens.
There were places of great power in the World, Lissa knew. Her whole life was preparation, mediating the untamable wild against the cultivated earth. And more, she had been marked from a young age as different from her Brothers, when she’d been given her favorite doll. She had been playing with Wathi before her Mother had called her for dinner.
But Lissa was only five and she wasn’t supposed to go to the Clearing yet.
“Shouldn’t we wait, Mother?” Lissa asked, bravely walking hand and hand with her Mother down dark forest paths.
Her Mother smiled down at her, joyous smile beneath glossy eyes. A tear ran down the corner of her Mother’s face, which cracked any further refusal Lissa might have had within her. She frowned back at her Mother’s smile, not understanding.
“We cannot, Lissa,” her Mother said, still smiling. She breathed heavily around the possibility of words but simply repeated herself. “We cannot…”
Lissa continued looking at her Mother as they walked, her calm face forward, leading them by memory. Though Lissa held endless questions in her soul, she proudly remained silent.
When they happened upon the flickering torchlight through the tree dark wood, she held in a small scream, biting her lip and gripping her Mother’s hand more tightly in her own.
And Lissa had just known.
In which stood what she knew as the Great Tree, named in another tongue, Fount-of-the-World. Hoary and ancient, wrapped and cloaked in darkened shadows and thickened green vines.
Many of those gathered Lissa knew from the neighboring farms. Many wore riding gear and she noticed for the first time the bray of horses tied among the Clearing’s edged trees.
A collective hush fell, voices lowering to silence as she and her Mother walked from among the darkened woods. Lissa stared back at the assembled women as they watched Lissa and her Mother as if they were princes or priests.
She noticed little girls and boys hugging against their mother’s thighs, elder sisters holding small and bundled siblings in their arms. A small group of men, old and frail or cripples returned from war, stood at the Clearing’s edge, dumbstruck.
Only the most elderly women stood and sat in the gathering’s center, forming a broken circle joined at the base of the Great Tree.
Reverence, Lissa would later learn. They stood in awe of the woman who had always simply been Mother to her.
Her Mother looked across those assembled, smiling the same tearful smile, letting her call ring out to silence those already silenced.
“You know why we have gathered this night.
“The call has gone out to the World… Not to us, no.
“This we have heard from our own husbands, our brothers, our sons. They have been made the messengers of our destruction.”
Her Mother let the words stand.
“Deceiver!” one elder cried out, so wrinkled by life’s sum as to scare Lissa with thoughts of imaginary wicked hags from the bedtime stories she’d been told. “It is a ploy, Milandrea. Lies to expose us, to draw us out.”
The elder weathered her Mother’s fierce gaze.
“I do not choose my words, idly, Elnora,” her Mother said. “Our ways are dying… even as we speak now. Haste… submission is the only path left to us.”
“We’ve all had word, Milandrea… for it seems He need only beckon and our men will bark,” the wrinkled elder her Mother had called Elnora said. With the words spoken, Lissa looked through scissoring limbs at those few Fathers gathered, but none called out in protest. “He knows not our slumbering power… the World itself our ally!”
Several of the women gasped such was Elnora’s vehemence.
“None can stop the slow-burning wick of empire, Elnora,” another woman called out. The elder ignored her, eyes only for Lissa’s Mother.
“All things at a cost, Nora,” Her Mother said, her voice trailing to a whisper. “You know this, Sister.”
Her words cracked around a beseeching edge.
“We are hunted by those with whom we have no quarrel,” she called out. “We are denied the practice that is our birthright by the prejudice of men.”
Lissa watched the Sisters nod, their heads bobbing in eerie tandem, their eyes glazed for wonder.
“Our lives our forfeit.”
Lissa’s Mother looked down at her.
“But all need not share our fate.”
Moments of silence. What did her Mother mean?
“And pray tell, Milandrea, how is it that we can better serve Him?” Elnora said as spittle flecked her chin, which she mopped up with a piece of fabric clutched in a knobbed fist. “I’ve not the age to haggle… what is our price?”
Haubonus Lissa looked up her Mother expectantly. For the first time in her young life, Lissa saw grim fear, in a woman, her Mother who had always been the stalwart Empress of her home.
“The Holy Aspect-Emperor asks us only for our daughters…” her Mother’s voice said, looking down again to meet the rising chill Lissa felt within.
“In exchange for our souls.”
Scribe a scroll, save ten men.
– SAREOTIC PROVERB
Summer, 7 New Imperial Year, Iothiah
They travelled desert warrens. Ancient capitol of Shigeki God-Kings.
For Haubonus Lissa, it would forever be the place to which she was taken.
Taken from her home.
Taken from her Mother.
As war tore across the Three Seas, a fire consuming the map entire from the spark of Shimeh’s liberation, the Aspect-Emperor consolidated his gains within the former Kian and the Nansur Empire.
Iothiah. Caraskand. Shimeh. These cities were transformed. Lissa had heard many tales of the Holy War, in which her Father and brothers fought still, though it had quickly come to be called the Unification Wars, such were the martial intentions of the Aspect-Emperor, the Warrior-Prophet.
The great bloodshed of Zaudunyani and Orthodox, the estranged sons of the Latter Prophet. It seemed to Lissa nothing could be more holy.
Everywhere clothed in the pageantry of a dozen nations. The sons and daughters of far-flung capitols, come to spill gold for the New Empire. Lissa was too shocked, to numb from the spectacle, to be truly afraid. Those who collected the female Few from across the Three Seas, the Pederisk-Judges of the Aspect-Emperor’s newfound Ministrate kept them shielded from wandering eyes and questioning lips. What’s more, as the Few were now faithful, they were Luthymae. Granted the power of life and death over the faithful, they were given the World’s third greatest accumulation of the blessed Chorae, Tears of God, both to shelter their children-wards and quell the dissent of the heretical Few.
The obscene absences pocked existence around the girls.
There were many grudges among the Schools of the Three Seas, flames fanned by those who could not tolerate the changes wrought by Anasûrimbor Kellhus. The status quo maintained by the Schools had once been the rule. The Mandate with their Godlike Gnosis, but cursed with the specter of their founder’s life, remained absent from the Benjuka Plate. The Anagogic Schools vied with each other for supremacy and power. But the Aspect-Emperor was upending this balance to its foundations. Like any community of peers, Schoolmen had unspoken ways, conduct hedged to lines of the mutual understanding of their craft. For what carpenter explains the hammer to his brother carpenter?
They were the Few. Schools were for men. Schoolmen killed Witches.
Many hunted them still.
Among their caravan was a scholar who traveled from Sumna to Iothiah, a man who called himself a Sareot – a long-diminished College of the Thousand Temples, he said. He told the girls of the famed Sareotic Library, which had stood in Iothiah since the last Aspect-Emperors of the antique Ceneian Empire. It was ruined, destroyed in a battle between the Holy Tutor of Anasûrimbor Kellhus, Drusas Achamian, and the Scarlet Spires, a School almost destroyed in their genocidal quest against the Sorcerer-Priests of the heathen Fanim.
In Iothiah, Lissa saw none of the destruction the Sareot spoke of. Only pomp and glory. In the years since the city’s recapture by the Holy War, the Aspect-Emperor had ordered the antique Library rebuilt. The Cults had rejoiced. And, apparently, in modeling all things Ceneian, He had even reinstituted a number of their antiquarian Indentures, including the Script Law, which demanded all books entering the ancient city be surrendered to the Sareots to be copied and the Compactorium, which bound all Schools to the Imperial Mantle as they had been in antiquity, whether they honoured it or not.
Lissa had felt sick, such was the Sareot’s fervour.
But the true purpose of the Library wasn’t simply to safeguard the knowledge of the ages. For the Aspect-Emperor was devious without peer. It was here where He raised the New Empire’s jewel.
The Swayal Compact. First School of Witches.
From across the expanding realm, Anasûrimbor Kellhus called out to the persecuted Witches, who for centuries had practiced their arcane arts in secret seclusion. As a way to both goad the Schools and fulfill Seswatha’s ancient bid to share the Gnostic arsenal come Apocalypse, the Aspect-Emperor collected the daughter Few from the matrilineal Witch-Lines of the Three-Seas.
He gave them the Gnosis. Bade them use it to hunt those secular Few who rebelled against His Holy Schools.
And in doing so, the Sareot told the traveling Witches-to-be, their Holy Aspect-Emperor had doubled the sorcerous power to bear in their war against the Unholy Consult.
For all the Sareot’s wordy glory, the long weeks to follow would be remembered only for the tears she would cry in the Library Dorms with her Triune Sisters.
What sorcery could be worth the cost of her Mother’s life?
What daughter was worth her Mother’s soul?
Fanatics have the courtesy to simply kill arguments that offend them. But the Schoolmen of the Mandate are compelled to convince you that you’re wrong. So does the sword become mercy while mere words send Men running for the knife.
– ONTILLAS, ON THE FOLLY OF MEN
Winter, 11 New Imperial Year, Iothiah
Study. This is how her life was measured in the Library. Endless tutors, exercises, drills, tutors, exercises, drills.
No longer was Lissa ignorant of the greater Meneanor.
They said it took years to master the Gnostic tongues; the Swayali learned the holy Gilcûnya in two years. They said it took decades to wear the Mark of rank; the Swayali looked as blasted as the most ancient Mandati in only half of one.
In writing the Novum Arcanum, most holy of Anasûrimbor Kellhus’ texts, the Aspect-Emperor forever altered the practice of sorcery. After freeing several of the most senior brethren of the Mandate, the Quorum, from the binding yoke of council and instructing the Schoolmen in His personal revisions of their antique craft, they were sent to Iothiah to train the new generation of Witches, among them the Aspect-Emperor’s own daughter, Anasûrimbor Serwa.
By promising the redemption of sorcerers, the Aspect-Emperor had also ushered in a new age for the faithful and the Few. And though the consequences of his declarations were both immediate and irrevocable in dividing all men, nowhere was the rift more perilous than between those with the ability to work sorcery and so mark the blood of the onta, a crime for which they had always been Damned and reviled by scripture.
This was the one enduring lesson of the Unification Wars.
All who oppose the Aspect-Emperor fail.
It was one of these instructors, the Mandate Siqu, an ancient and wrinkled sorcerer of great height named Nautzera, whose duty it was to prepare and conduct the Swayali through the Grasping rituals. His skin hung like clothes from the rack of his bones. It was he who first told them of the curse of Seswatha’s life.
Nightmares drawn from the sheath.
Nautzera made no secret of his contempt.
“You may know it not, young Witches,” he had said, “but you are truly an apocalypse yourselves, a revelation. You are the last of the Few who will ever know the walls of a School, if you do share the greater Library with the World.”
He surveyed them as Lissa’s Father looked upon horses he might purchase for rearing. Nautzera wore his Mark fiercely, acknowledging it with them as only a Schoolman could before the sight of the Few.
Lissa had fairly trembled with anticipation.
“In time you will come to know our plight as no others. We Mandate had become School of mummers, the only School deserving of the distinction, playing a Father’s game in children’s clothes. Hundreds of years did we wage our war while the World treated us like deranged kings – too much power to deny, too little sanity to excuse.
“Then, though we knew it not, the advent of the wretched skin-spies, and for entire generations Mandate lived and died, with only whispers of the World’s foe. Where we had closed with the Enemy for millennia, we had naught but our nocturnal war to wage.
“Forever fighting and losing, reliving our founder’s ancient doom.
“That is… until the coming of Maithanet, the Holy Shriah, who revealed the creature in our own house!
“Until the coming of the Holy Aspect-Emperor, who revealed the Consult in all our houses!”
He smiled, looking down on the collective Triunes, as if they could never bridge the gap between them and so fathom his thoughts. And he seemed, to Lissa, a sad man suddenly, his sorcerous frame a rind where others are whole, clinging to vehemence as proof of the way things were.
All that mattered to her then was that she would share his power.
“We celebrate His coming as no others can, we Mandate. We were raised from paupers to prophets, vindicated by the Aspect-Emperor’s proof of the Consult’s infiltration of the Great Factions. But we are men. We bear grudges still.
“And we would not share lightly.
“There are those who seek to deny the World our Lord has borne. Those Few and faithful who cannot abide the changes He has wrought.
“Heretics. Witches. Wizards.
For a moment, Nautzera paused. In remembering, he became what Lissa thought of as uncharacteristically solemn for the harsh Siqu of later years.
“What is the price of power, Witches-to-be? What more, than being taken from your very homes on pain of Damnation, shall you pay to become as Gods to the huddled masses? Gods of the God, as the Gnosis has become to our Lord’s Metagnostic recitations.
“Seswatha knew the conflict with his vanquished foe was not yet finished. And he worked to reincarnate the warning of his life, passing not from the World but into his followers, into their Dreams.
“You too will dream the Dreams. You too will come to know Apocalyspse!
“Where had He asked, we would have denied, risked the World and denied our Lord in sharing the Gnosis with those who had rebuked us in the past.”
Nautzera laughed, as he couldn’t believe how the Whore, Anagke, had played him.
“Instead He asked only that all men, not just the Few, accept a School of Witches!”
“The price you will pay by sharing in the incomprehensible. You will wail, scream, and gnash your teeth for heartbreak, for glory, for the end of the World! You will cry out as one in your sleep. A bond – like a vice!
“And you will awake crying, not with despair as we did for hundreds of years, but with joy, joy and wonder! Because you wake in a world where an Anasûrimbor has returned and you alone will know how those words were once our only prayer.”
Nautzera’s voice faltered. Lissa watched him scowl, it seemed because such had been his fervour.
“You will Dream as we do,” he said. “And when you do, you will continue to earn your wages.
“You will help us hunt those who oppose our Lord still.
“Heretics. Wizards,” Nautzera fairly spat.
All the Few experience salvation in my name. All arcane arts, reasoned and wild. Man and woman. Schoolman and Witch.
– ANASÛRIMBOR KELLHUS, NOVUM ARCANUM
Spring, 15 New Imperial Year, Momemn
Haubonus Lissa, Swayali Witch, moved in the cramped quarters of the Kamposea Agora. She was shrouded and yet exposed, as only the Few can be.
She was hunted by the Luthymae, those College Priests of the Few, formerly dedicated to exorcising sorcerous spies from within the Thousand Temples.
And by those she would call her Sisters.
It had been weeks since Lissa had fled Iothiah. All the thoughts, the doubts, the endless obsessing. Planning, planning.
The love for her Mother.
It remained unthinkable to her that she had betrayed the Compact and the Grandmistress. Unthinkable that she might betray the Mandate.
Whenever Lissa’s thoughts strayed towards her betrayal, her high unholy treason, something within inevitable swayed. It was as if the love of the World she had come to know and the love of the World she had been torn from could not co-exist inside her.
And so each used half her soul to murder the other.
The Greater and lesser Meneanors of her heart.
But Dreams had come.
They were unlike those visitations of Seswatha’s life, her brother, who possessed her sleeping soul as she did her waking one. These were glimpsed in cataracts of detail, as if their message, and its portend, had been hidden in a broken mirror.
Skulking shadows. Forest wrath, crumbling cultivation, road and stele alike, with its roots.
A figure fixed upon a circumfix, strangled with vines.
Accompanied by a voice, soft as though spoken from the wind’s passage through trees.
It had been scant months since she’d learned that her Mother might yet still live. The flames of war guttered, the World burned on the pyre of the Aspect-Emperor’s making. Yet strong embers smoldered among the coals.
Heretics. Wizards. Witches.
And Dreams had come.
Her Mother fought for her still. Used the life granted by sacrificing Lissa to war against the Empire that had taken her daughter from her. A bargain struck for the redemption of her immortal soul.
He is Ciphrang…
Lissa prayed as she walked within the bustling market, ignoring the momurai who cast word of their wares like Cants of Compulsion, hoping to move those within earshot to consume. She prayed to the Gods, as she had not done in years since she taken from her home, since Iothiah and taking the Aspect-Emperor as her Lord and God.
She had to find her Mother.
And so she prayed it was not too late.
Lissa gripped her cloak tightly about her despite the high, hot sun. If she might only squeeze enough, it seemed she might transport herself back to her promontory of long ago, looking out across the white-caped waves of her Meneanor wondering at the horizon ends of the World.
Then, otherworldly muttering – feminine voices rising from the ground of being, cracking through earth and stone.
She was thrown sideways even as her Incipient Wards cackled to life around her. She whispered the words that saw ghostly orbs appear rippling around her, each bisected with further, shielding disks.
The Odaini Concussion Cant smashed her through a number of stalls, spilling ceramics and food, tents and poles, causing small fires. She came to rest at the foot of a wall, which crumbled the brick in the vague shape of her Wards’ indentation.
Lissa lay momentarily dazed, listening to the strange alien tones, deep and brooding, laced with the high counterpoints of her Sister Lady-Witches. A small eternity passed within her and her love, her hate, rose like fire within her, compelling her to her feet.
She raised a hand to the sun, singing more life-preserving Wards, and found her Triune Sisters walking the ground’s echo in the sky above, their yellow billows unfurled in twirling arcs.
Their faces masks, hiding lesser stars.
Lissa walked calmly towards them, through the screaming press of crowds running to escape the sorcerous destruction sure to follow. She could already sense the Luthymae, drawing the net closed, small absences encircling her. She came to a pause in a small square clearing among the stalls and looked up, wearing her torn confusion on her face.
“Enough, Lissa,” Fenistra called down to her. The Cant animating her Sister’s undone billows reminded Lissa of sea breezes and she felt herself wishing again for her Meneanor home. “What is done, is done. Come home, sweet Sister. End this madness.”
Tense moments passed between them and Lissa felt she might explode, that it might end, such was her inner turmoil of her incompatible loves.
“I cannot, Feni,” Lissa said, addressing Fenistra with her secret name. She used it to try and reach them, an attempt to breach the walls these strangers become sisters might throw up around the mortal fact of their duty.
Hunt all those Few who resist the Holy Aspect-Emperor.
“I cannot let my Mother be murdered!”
“Sister!” Ishteret shrieked. Small, shy Ishteret, who had kept crying at Iothiah long after Fenistra and Lissa had dried their cheeks. “You condemn yourself to death. To Damnation!”
By the trick and play of light, Lissa saw then the waters that streamed down Ishteret’s face, sunlit sparkling droplets. Something loosed within her and Lissa chocked back the tears that threatened to come.
“I will not let my Mother be murdered,” she said, her voice forced and hoarse.
Fenistra screamed at this, cursing aloud.
“Then you will murder your Sisters, Lissa, or worse, force murder upon us. Can you not see this?!” Fenistra called down to her. “The old World is dead…”
Yet despite their pleas, despite the great love Lissa bore her Sisters, she could not relinquish the thoughtless abiding love of a child for her Mother rooted deep within her.
And Lissa felt a curious sense of resolution. It was as if the bowl of the World had tipped her long ago and only now, in madness, could she find balance anew.
Striking the past from the scroll of the World.
Knowing she could not, would not bend to her Sisters pleas and seeing the trap that had been set for all the Witches, she felt outraged. Outraged for all the girls who had simply been traded from being slaves of all men to slaves of one man.
So Haubonus Lissa screamed and called out with World-slapping thunder. She struck with the Gnosis, the sorcery of the Ancient North, of Nonmen, refined by man, and revolutionized by the Aspect-Emperor.
A thousand lines of geometric light. A Weära Comb. The Scythe of Gotagga. Deepest of Cirroi Looms.
Glittering lines of abstraction, swung out from her, blinding parabolas, cackling and cracking as they sparked from her Sisters’ Wards.
And crying out in futile resignation, her Sisters responded in kind, circling above Lissa, raining down destruction upon her with threshers of knifing white.
Lissa felt as if crushed, striking out with her song, knowing she could not contend against her Sisters, knowing that she forced them to murder in their Lord’s name, seeing the cracks already appearing in her spheric Wards.
But she could not bear the contradiction she felt within.
Lissa sensed the Luthymae much too late, moving as vague shadows around her, as Lissa glared hate and love at her Sisters above.
One moment Haubonus Lissa stood tall and unrelenting, the World around her afire with sorcerous song, razor light threatening the end of all she had ever loved.
It seemed she could hear the roar of the Meneanor, river water crashing in the surf.
Then a flash, white ringed with black nacre of pearl.
Her Sisters ceased singing as one, descending the ghost of stairs from the Vault of the Sky to stand before her. Ishteret had ceased crying and Fenistra’s face was hard as stone.
Haubonus Lissa, Swayali Witch.
A frozen pillar of salt.