Untitled (by Mike Hillcoat)
Hold fast all revelation. Each is but another flavor of ignorance. – Anonymous, Cynics of Sauglish
Early Winter, 3817th Year-of-the-Tusk, Atrithau
The High-Hall of Ara-Etrith seemed to drag on, pillared recess upon pillared recess upon pillared recess into a deep, foreboding gloom. So it seemed to Treyus Mathas, Mandate Schoolman. Grand words rang out, echoing into the darkness, reminding him so much of ancient council.
Nothingness pulled at his gaze.
He was… Seswatha. But the oratory of the High-Hall was no longer his own.
“My Lords. My Ladies. I give you… Morghund Athullara, first of his name! Last of the Thousand Sons. Protector of the North. Steward to the High Kings of Kûniüri. King of Atrithau.”
Thunderous applause and Mathas felt the world shake beneath the heaving masses of Sranc and Bashrag. Jubilant screams and he heard only the shriek of the Whirlwind. Yet the fleeting vision of the Now persisted and Mathas saw only the pomp of theatrics.
A new King is crowned this day.
Morghund held out his arms, clothed in the finery of his station, and motioned for quiet.
The gallery seemed to breathe as one.
Finally, they must think. A King who might return them to their past. Reclaim the glory of their fallen nation.
Like a lover’s lost whisper.
“A moment… a moment.”
Silence for the new King. Mathas shook from himself the reverie of Seswatha’s memories. The Quorum would want a clear account of the Atrithi Coronation.
“Let us remember those who have fallen to Apocalypse.”
Morghund Athullara sought to bind the present to by-gone deeds of the past but there was nothing glorious in the fallen King’s passing. Simply another of Atrithau’s Kings lost to the gluttony of the Sranc.
A very old story, indeed.
King Morghund spoke of the Summoning of the Horns and the enduring duty of Atrithau’s men. He spoke at length concerning the tilling of Atrithau’s final crops and the Winter Holds. He omitted the slanted distribution of wealth among the Atrithi. And the warning of Seswatha’s life rose like fury within Mathas’ breast.
Though you lose your soul, you shall gain the world…
But he did not speak. He was here to stand as Council to the court of Ara-Etrith, Mandate Liaison to the Stewards of the Ancient North. It was Mathas’ choice to embarrass the traditions of yore and he proudly withheld Seswatha’s voice from the proceedings.
I am more.
More than the herd.
Following the Coronation, in the vaunted chambers of the King however, Mathas raged at the Liege Lord.
“What of the Consult, my King?”
A question that darkened the very sky.
Morghund Athullara simply stared at him, incredulous.
“What of them, Schoolman? They are like snakes in our City. To my People, they may exist. They may terrorize us. They may even abduct our own from within these very walls. You simply mark the Mandate’s inability to uphold its bargain to defend Atrithau from your enemies. All while the Three-Seas rightly tells its children nursery rhymes of our woe.”
“But for the Mandate…” Mathas fairly shouted before slowing his speech to a pause. This King must be reminded gently. “The Three-Seas would lie ruined, my King. You know this. Even now Mangaecca,” Mathas fairly spat the name, “scream this truth in your dungeons.”
“Let it so then lie,” the King said with force of edict. “We need not sacrifice alone, Treyus Mathas. You suffer to protect their sons, their daughters and wives, their ignorance.
I see no Southerners on Atrithau’s walls…”
The King looked at Mathas, indifference shouting from his face. Yet Mathas knew that Seswatha wore his own, that a sorcerer almost two thousand years dead returned the King’s detached expression.
“This I cannot do, my King.”
“We invite your School into our city, Treyus Mathas. Despite the betrayal at the hands of your ancient founder. Your Schoolmen would do well to remember this courtesy extended the Mandate by every Atrithi King.”
Including Mathas himself.
Visions of yesterday flashed before Mathas’ eyes. Seswatha’s yesterday. All Mandate Schoolmen dreamed the stakes of Seswatha’s decision to abandon the Eämnori. Guilt washed in overwhelming purpose. Rallying all Men against the No-God at any cost.
Even Eämnor itself, dying so that Seswatha might purchase precious moments of respite for the world.
“The Anarcane Ground cannot protect Atrithau forever, Morghund. We Schoolman, the Mandate alone, keep Apocalypse at bay. If…” Mathas’ breath caught, the walls of the King’s chambers seeming to catch the light of another, older torch. He felt doom, inexplicable across the horizon. His Dreams.
The No-God walks!
“Schoolman?” The King asked, the very image of solemn concern.
“When…” Mathas said, speaking to the world of Seswatha’s life. He breathed deep, gathered himself. “When the Consult come, Morghund, when they truly war again… They will not need sorcery to overcome you. They will wash over your city as the sea-tide does the sand.”
The King seemed unmoved. He looked simply bemused by Mathas’ entreaties.
“It is my duty to implore you, Morghund… Reach out to the kingdoms of the Three-Seas before our struggle descends finally into myth. With or without you, the Mandate will continue our war for Men against the Consult.”
Morghund Athullara stared at him with brown doe eyes. A twitch of a smile.
“Continue your war, Schoolman. I will wait to review the conditions of the School of Mandate’s Lease within our city. Atrithau needs its King now, more than ever. You may continue to enjoy the comforts of Atrithau and access at the gate for your sorties beyond the Anarcane Ground.” The King paused.
“I know how it bothers the Few.”
Beyond the King’s chambers, Mathas mused over Athullara’s words. How little the King understood of Mathas’ plight and that of his brother Schoolmen.
Mathas often wondered if all the Mandate of Atrithau’s Mission wrestled with his sense of unease in the King’s ancient walls. The experience of Seswatha’s life was something all the Mandate shared. But rarely the places of their nightmares. To walk through, to touch the same stone that had seen the great sorcerer’s life. It made their two lives one as few other places in the Three Seas.
This was the Ancient North. The place of all celebration and horror.
Mathas often woke greased in sweat.
We can yet prevail, Seswatha-within screamed.
He walked the halls of Ara-Etrith, the cold stone draped in massive furs, ornamented with the heads of all of nature’s animal and primeval beasts. Braziers and torches provided a modicum of warmth and light but did little to touch the chill, which gripped Mathas.
Clutching his robes around him, Mathas walked without thinking, down the various passages within the fortress. Soon he found himself at a transept in the halls, just past which he knew he’d find a small shrine lit with hundreds of ritual candles. Mathas knew the room well, having visited it many times with his brothers.
In which a shadow rocked…
Praying in a foul tongue.
The inscription hanging above the portal read Honour for King Ghumath Lamorthula, trophies slain by His own hand. The Prize Room of an Atrithi King.
Mathas moved cautiously. He leaned against the stone, peered into the darkened chamber. The Sranc skulls, which covered the whole interior of the Lamorthulan Shrine, seemed to leer from the flickering light. Mathas fought the urge to clutch wounds he didn’t have, fought the impulse to search the torch light passages for shrieking Sranc.
His heart beat in his chest, provided rhythm for the unholy muttering within.
Ghumath Lamorthula was a Hero of Old, Mathas and his brother Schoolmen had decided, a man born out of legend. It was said that Lamorthula had little patience for the administrative aspects of rule. Instead, the King would be found on the walls or hunting, endlessly reaving the Sranc hordes, and always, obsessively, carving Ghumath into the dead like a bored child.
“So Ghumath can be the Sranc’s very name for Apocalypse,” The King had said.
This was why the Mandate Schoolmen continually found themselves visiting the Shrine. The dead Atrithi King had provided mementos of the past and, the Mandate knew, future.
The very world given to Sranc.
Though King Ghumath had killed enough of the Consult beasts for forty such grottos while defending Atrithau’s walls and though all the skulls that hung within were choice kills, celebrated within the King’s Annals, the true trophy of the King was the great monstrosity hanging before the far wall, held in epic pose.
Three massive arms and legs wed together, grotesque bones with multiple joints. Fused spines and yawning ribcage.
Mathas fairly trembled with the memories of two men.
Beneath which shuddered a rocking shape.
The Mandate Schoolmen who came to Atrithau inevitable wandered into Lomarthula’s hearth. The remains of the Old Science, the Tekne, the skulls of the Sranc and the Skeleton Bashrag enabled them to counsel in the shadow of truth. It helped to close the gap between their experiences, their lives and Seswatha’s, to scratch at the afflictions of another’s memories. Beneath the dead gaze of the unholy Consult’s foul creations, the Schoolmen would sometimes suffer strings of Seswatha’s memories, unearthed at random by their conversations beneath the historic bones. Their senses became aflame with another’s memories.
It helped bind them as brothers, those Schoolmen who found themselves in Atrithau, on the Anarcane Ground.
So far from home.
It was written that Lomarthula had survived the routing of his hunting party, all of whom had been killed by the insatiable lust of a Sranc tribe. He’d been chased north, away from the refuge of his city.
Where he’d stumbled upon the abomination, alone in the wilds.
The shadow abruptly stopped muttering, raised its head as though to sniff the air.
“Treyus… Come out, Mandati…” the thing turned and rose, resolving by trick of shadow into the shape of a man, so that it stood framed by the Skeleton Bashrag. “They told me I’d find you here… Chigra,” he said, hissing the ancient name with horrifying ambience.
Mathas stood shock still as if another owned his body, his soul.
He felt doused in cold water, like his robes clung to him as wet linen. He took a breath and stepped into the Lamorthulan Shrine.
It was said that Ghumath Lamorthula faced the Bashrag, killed it by his own hand.
The man regarded him as Mathas regarded the man. He was dressed in the robes of an Atrithau Knight but Mathas prided himself on knowing all of the Atrithi Wall-Guard.
This Knight was a stranger to Mathas.
“Chigra…” The Knight said in a low groan.
“Mangaecca!” Mathas cursed.
“No, Mandati,” the Knight said, shaking his head, laughing in animal roar.
Mathas felt himself grinning. Had the Consult so reduced themselves to their unholy tinkering and the ages? Sending mere men to the do work of the Few?
“Do you seek to challenge me then, slave? Here in the heart of Ara-Etrith?”
“It will be no challenge, Mandati… Chigra…” The Knight drew a knife from a sheath beneath his tunic and moved towards Mathas.
The Quorum had long debated the issue of the Anarcane Ground. Naturally their agents would seek to fence with the Mangaecca beyond the bounds of the Holy Mountains whenever possible. But the Ground itself presented other challenges. Schoolmen were simply men without sorcery and those who couldn’t act without the gift of the Few were useless to the Mandate Mission in Atrithau.
It had been decided that those who made the journey to the Ancient North must have only the best martial training. The Mandate utilized their contacts throughout the Three-Seas to facilitate their Initiative.
Yet still Mathas felt hard pressed as he battered the Knight’s blows aside with sweeping limbs, controlling the knife arm away from his own torso, while aiming his blows at the Knight’s gut and sides.
Mathas had personally sparred against and fought many Great Names of the Three-Seas. Conriya. Galeoth. Ce Tydonn. Even complicit Exiles from Nansur and High Ainon.
Mastered them at their own feats of war.
But fighting now, here beneath eyeless gaze of a thousand Sranc and the indomitable Bashrag, Mathas decided that this… man… was the pinnacle of human combat.
Mathas swept at the Knight’s legs and the Knight leapt high, flipping over Mathas’ arc. The Knight landing, turned, and stabbed with his knife. Mathas ducked beneath the arc of the Knight’s arm before rising to kick his face.
The Knight fell back, leering suddenly, granting Mathas a moment of respite. Breathing heavily he fought the impulse to look for the mark in this desolate, onta-less place – the utter disconnect so many of his brother Schoolmen had shared, suffering in Atrithau, enduring for their ancient mandate.
“My brothers will avenge me… This is Atrithau. You’ll never leave the city alive,” Mathas said, spitting into the gloom.
The Knight grinned. Mathas paused confused, noticing for the first time the arc at the bottom of the man’s tunic.
“Your brothers are dead.”
The words seemed to freeze Mathas.
Then as though two hands simply unfolded, like a spider faking its death, the Knight’s face unclenched and opened, twelve limbs crowned by wicked claws, revealing lipless teeth and lidless eyes.
“Abomination…” Mathas heard himself whisper through sharp breath.
“Sorcery?” He asked no one.
Then he realized…
“I am something old… Something new,” the thing said, a voice like slithering snakes, gesturing to the skulls with its knife. “These are my siblings… Children of the same Fathers.”
Mathas had to run, to survive to fight another day. The King needed to be warned. Atyersus needed to be warned.
Its limbs danced, reassembled into another’s features…
And Morghund Athullara stood before him.
“My King?” Mathas asked, horrified, all thought struck from him.
“Soon, Chigra… Woe comes…” The King said with the thing’s voice.
The thing that would be Morghund Athullara I, King of Atrithau, leapt at Mathas, knife raised high.
Though you lose your soul, you shall ga-