• Member Since 28th Aug, 2011
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Cold in Gardez

Stories about ponies are stories about people.

More Blog Posts181

  • 17 weeks
    Against Literalism

    “I think I see it,” Rainbow Dash whispered. She squeezed as low to the rocks as she could and crawled forward over the tumbled-down ruins of the jungle temple. “It’s just up ahead, in the nave.”

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    18 comments · 836 views
  • 20 weeks
    Who loves Sci-Fi (Spoiler: It's this guy)

    So, in the ten years I've been writing pony fan-fiction, I have had a persistent dilemma: I love sci-fi, but the MLP universe is intrinsically a fantasy setting. Many noble stories have bridged that gap, including some of my personal favorites (Kkat's Fallout, Iceman's Friendship is Optimal, and Arad's Stardust, as a small sampling). But except for a few scraps in my

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    17 comments · 536 views
  • 23 weeks
    Some original fantasy writing

    Normally when I write original fiction, it is strictly fiction – that is to say, not 'genre' fiction (i.e. science fiction, fantasy, etc). But I do love me some fantasy, so when the opportunity came to produce an original piece accompanying a favorite old game world of mine, I could barely pass up the chance. So if fantasy is your jam, you may enjoy this.

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    12 comments · 582 views
  • 25 weeks
    Romance Novels

    “What if,” Spike said, “Ginger Gypsy hadn’t been afraid to confess her love? Would you still hate her so much?”

    I frowned. “Hate is a strong word. I never said I hated her.”

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    24 comments · 760 views
  • 27 weeks
    Back to a more normal posting schedule

    Hey folks,

    I just published a pretty huge chapter in my favorite story, The World is Filled with Monsters. I have a good plan for the rest of the current act, and the rest of the story to follow.

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    27 comments · 613 views

Some original fantasy writing · 4:59am Dec 11th, 2021

Normally when I write original fiction, it is strictly fiction – that is to say, not 'genre' fiction (i.e. science fiction, fantasy, etc). But I do love me some fantasy, so when the opportunity came to produce an original piece accompanying a favorite old game world of mine, I could barely pass up the chance. So if fantasy is your jam, you may enjoy this.

More pony stories to follow, I promise.

Meditation on Fire

Part 1: The Mage

The mind of Ilseval Senin Iarwynn floated through the cosmos. Below her, distant enough that it occupied a space no larger than her clenched fist, the blue orb of Elanthia crossed the empty vault of heaven, its sunlit face wreathed in clouds and the dimly felt green of verdant continents. Ilseval considered her homeworld for a time, long enough for the planet to rotate modestly around its axis, and then she turned her attention outward.

Other minds swam through the void. Greater minds than hers – sharks to her minnow. The gods were not used to mortals flying so high, and her passage drew their attention. If she stayed long enough she might draw their ire as well, or their hunger, and she was not ready for that sort of confrontation. So with a breathless sigh she bid them farewell and dived toward the world below. The stars smeared into streaks of light, and with the speed of thought she pierced Elanthia’s atmosphere, crashed through its great ocean, and bored into its crust, only slowing when warm currents of molten stone embraced her. She coasted to a stop and let the hellish sea bear her along.

Even here, a thousand miles below the surface, she could not find solitude. Vast, alien forms twisted and twined in the depths with her. She considered hunting one as a form of study and reluctantly demurred. She had no way to recover its carcass.

Down she went instead, toward the heart of the world. Her disembodied form swept into the core like an eagle arriving at its nest, her thoughts scattering vast tides of nickel-iron in waves that extended for leagues. At the center of the planet, finally alone, she rested. She closed her eyes and let the impossible heat and pressure flow through her bones, burning away everything impure, leaving only her perfect mind.

Strains of a quiet melody haunted her. A single note, repeated endlessly, rising and ebbing in pitch. She let the planet’s song lull her to sleep.

Ilseval Senin Iarwynn, the woman, the elf, the brilliant magical prodigy, and the youngest mage ever to hold a chair at the Academy of Sharath, woke in her warded arcanium, clothed in filthy flesh. She gagged on the pure mountain air flowing through the high windows. Sordid light washed the world in oil. Everything stank of rotting meat – she stank of rotting meat, for that’s what she was, and only a rigid, iron will honed by centuries of merciless discipline stopped her from ending the source of the stench with a flesh-to-ashes spell. Instead she squeezed her eyes shut and curled over, waiting for the shock of transition to pass; for her mind to once again tolerate this putrid, mortal prison.

When the worst of the sickness had faded, she opened her eyes and pondered the floor beneath her bare feet. The marble was blackened, bubbled and broken. The meter-thick stones were riven with cracks all radiating out from where she stood. She kicked at the fragments curiously, then turned to consider the rest of her arcanium.

It hadn’t fared any better. The windows weren’t so much open as simply gone, along with their frames and a significant portion of the stone walls in which they were anchored. Nothing remained of her elegant lotus silk drapes but memories and a black shadow outlining the partially melted curtain rods. Bookshelves and tables lay in flinders strewn across the room, some still smoking. An acrid, bluish haze filled the high room above her head like a lost cloud. Even her precious altar was scarred. The massive basalt block, so wide she could not reach its corners with her outstretched arms, was like a child to her in many respects, except of course that she had never given even a passing thought to having children and could not conceive of a world in which she didn’t possess this altar. For thousands of years it had served as a foundation stone for the greatest magical experiments in the world. 

And now it was damaged. Discolored by some unfathomable heat. She scowled at the imperfections marring it and resolved to care less about such things in the future.

She was close. This latest voyage beyond the confines of her body had brought her so near to the cusp of ascension. Even now, imprisoned as she was in this mewling animal body, she could see the contours of the final algorithm like shapes in fog. Only a few pieces eluded her. She held out a slender arm for her robe and lost herself in contemplations of the glory to come.

An hour later, she realized she was still naked, her arm still outstretched for the robe. She turned, fire dripping from her lips, ready to incinerate the slave who kept her waiting.

“Ah!” She stopped. Where her faithful slave should have stood, attentive to her every need, there was only a smear of ashes and scattering of charred bones. Her robe lay amidst them, stained by his remains. The catastrophe that reduced him to cinders had not touched its enchanted threads, at least. She stared at the pile and let a little moan escape her, drawn out by pity and loss and other unfamiliar, weak emotions.

Pointless. Begone. She cut the thoughts away like a gangrenous limb and turned back to the altar, her mind already returning to her great work. Behind her, the charred bones flowed together, climbing up each other like ants ascending a tree, until they came to rest in a loosely complete skeleton mortared with ashes. The construct reached down, plucked her robe from the floor, and draped it on her waiting arm.

She pulled it over her thin shoulders, not minding the stench of smoke. The whole room stank of it anyway. The skeleton, its last service to her finished, crumbled back into fragments and calcium dust.

The altar was fine, she decided. Merely discolored, like her robe. It would still serve her. Perhaps it would even survive her final act of creation, the last link of the unbroken chain of progress that extended back through her centuries of study and toil, from the earliest days as her master’s apprentice. And even, she marveled, long before – her incipient triumph was the product of her master’s teachings, and of her master’s masters, back to the earliest days of the Dhe’nar. In a very real sense, she was the culmination of her entire culture, the purpose to which millions had lived and died over the millenia. All of it, unfathomable in its vastness, so she could finish the spell.

This was truly the Way, the path her people trod. Though Ilseval was not a religious woman by nature, in that moment she felt something akin to spiritual euphoria, an enlightenment above and beyond the ecstasy of mere magic. Destiny was at last arriving for her people, and she was its herald.

Ilseval left the altar and went to the shattered windows. Beyond them, the Sharath mountain tipped away, falling steeply down toward the ashen plains that surrounded its foothills. Ta’Sharath, the city, went about its morning, untroubled by the cataclysm in her arcanium. Doubtless she would receive a letter from the Academy, admonishing her to be more careful, and it would join a pile of its neglected kin in her dusty office. Stepping on broken, melted glass, she pondered the busy city and the world beyond, and wondered how many more sunrises they would see.

The destruction in her arcanium did not bode well for them, she decided. If a mere projection of her mind had caused such damage, what would the complete translation of her body do? Nothing good, nothing good. She filed the thought away in the back of her head with the other pointless errata and dicta of her studies.

Eggs never outlasted hatching. And newborn dragons cared nothing for their fragments.

Part 2: The Priestess

“Ilseval’s experiments are growing reckless,” Tiovri na Dharli said to her companion. The priestess stalked through the dim, obsidian-panelled halls of the High Temple of the Dhe’nar, uncaring if he kept pace. Acolytes and servants tucked themselves into cringing obeisence as she passed, their eyes fixed solidly on the floor, barely daring to breathe. Although well-founded, their fear was unnecessary today – Tiovri already had a target for her ire, and she was nothing if not inflexible.

“She is careless,” the priestess drove on, gesturing now. Twisted hands, curled like talons, grasped at the air. A wide-eyed q’hala, so young she still wore her hair unbraided, gawked at the pair as they crossed her path. Ahead, at the end of the corridor, a passel of servants rushed to make the ritual chambers ready for their master.

“She is obsessed.” Tiovri had a full head of steam. “This spell is all she thinks about. She never leaves her accursed chambers, no matter how damaged they are. The only servants she sees are custodians and draftsmen, and do you know how many of those she has carelessly injured? They say she doesn’t even sleep anymore, or speak. That she goes months without touching food or wine. She’s more ghost than woman, except she won’t do us the favor of being dead!”

Her companion, a tall elf, young by the standards of their ageless people, simply nodded at each point. He wore his pointless metal breastplate, as though enemies of the people might ambush them here, in the heart of Ta’Sharath. As though they would dare step foot in her temple. His crude boots ground on the obsidian tiles, leaving prints that would take her q’halae hours to polish out. Were it not for the dire circumstances, the priestess would never have invited him to this sanctum.

And yet, such was her desperation. She stopped at the threshold of the ritual chamber and turned toward him. 

“She is a danger to us all, and I don’t know how to stop her,” Tiovri finished in quiet tones, all her heat dissipated. “She’s almost done. Whenever I scry the future, it comes back empty. The spirits are in a fury – not even they can see what lies around the corner anymore. What she has planned will shake the world whether it succeeds or fails.”

The warlord nodded again, his face a study in equanimity. At times the stoicism of her people’s warriors could grind on Tiovri’s sensibilities, as they sought to hide their ignorance and dimness behind a mask of restraint. But she knew this warrior held a sharp mind. It was why she engineered his promotion to the caste’s highest rank. 

His answer was curt, as always. “Is this not her Way?”

Tiovri let out a quiet breath. “It is her Way, but it is a damaged Way. The Way is about power, yes, but also unity. Ilseval has lost sight of that unity, for she has drawn the circle of her universe so tightly around her that she is its only inhabitant. Everyone else – you, me, her caste, every Dhe’nar in Sharath – we are just noise to her now. She cares more about the books on her shelves than any other elf.”

“It seems like a suitable matter for the Council to address.”

She shook her head. “The Council will not act. You know Estelar. Can you imagine his response if we asked to restrain one of his mages?”

The warlord tipped his head. “He would object.”

Object. That was one word for it. The Warlord’s chair in the council was still stained with the ashes of its previous occupant, who had spoken out of turn toward Estelar regarding a member of the mage caste. The Highlord was a jealous guardian of his domain, and his objections were typically the last word on a subject.

“Estelar is a mage,” Tiovri said. “He sees what is in front of him, which is a fellow mage on the cusp of a new and wonderful invention. He cannot – or will not – see beyond the immediacy of this event to its consequences. Everything our people have accomplished over thousands of years could be undone in a day by Ilseval and her spell. She cannot stop, and he will not stop her. So, it falls to us. What should we do?”

“Perhaps we should not have bred such a monomaniacal mind? She is your product, after all.”

Tiovri scowled. She jabbed a finger at his chest, her sharpened nail scoring an ugly line in his mithril breastplate. “You court blasphemy, warlord. The Temple manages bloodlines, and we do not entertain commentary on our work from amateurs.”

“Apologies, high priestess.” The warlord reached up and gently removed her hand from his chest. His grip, though light and effortless, was iron. “But commentary is all I can offer in this case, without the Council’s blessing. What would you have me do?” 

“You are the warlord, aren’t you? Sworn to protect our people? So, protect us!”

His turn to sigh. “Of course. As easy as that.”

“Oh, don’t whine.” Few Dhe’nar could have accused the warlord of such a thing. For Tiovri it barely warranted a thought. “Attend me.”

She strode into the chamber, scattering servants and q’halae to the margins like leaves in an autumn breeze. He hesitated on the threshold, but only for a moment, and then he stepped in behind her, stopping at the beaten copper circle laid into the stone floor. Although it held no magic, the circle was as firm a barrier to one of his caste as an iron wall. Not even an order from her would coax him across it. But that was fine – he could see the ritual from there, and perhaps it would spur him to action.

The priestess reached up to her throat and unlatched the delicate clasp binding her silk robe shut. Unmoored, it slithered off her shoulders and landed in a gossamer puddle at her feet. Clothed now only in her skin, she approached the copper altar. A lesser mortal might have been mortified by their nakedness, but Tiovri na Dharli was Dhe’nar – her body was, by definition, perfect. There was no shame in being seen this way, and besides, to commune with the spirits demanded it.

There was a bowl on the altar, already filled by her servants with blood. Whose blood she didn’t know or care; so long as it was elven it would serve. Perhaps there was a slave somewhere in the depths of the temple, his wrists bandaged with cotton. For a moment she envied that slave – to have such a simple purpose in life, so easily fulfilled. But then, was this not her Way? To shoulder the heaviest burdens of her people and lead them toward enlightenment? A sudden resolve filled her soul, and she dipped her fingers into the bowl, wetting them with blood. All along the altar she traced sigils and marks, questions for the spirits and offers for their favor. She drew her fingers across her chest, her cheeks and forehead, and when the iron scent was everywhere, she grasped the bowl and raised it to her lips. Only a spoonful remained, for her servants had measured carefully, and without any hesitation she swallowed the thick fluid. It flowed down her throat like honey.

“For weeks I have felt like a climber at the base of a mountain, watching an avalanche crash toward me,” she mumbled. The blood rounded her sibilants, muffling the words. Behind her, she heard the warlord stir, the buckles in his armor creaking quietly. “No matter what I do I cannot escape it – the avalanche is fate itself.”

She set the bowl down at her feet. The room tilted as she stood, her vision going gray about the margins. Though she was cold, sweat began to bead on her bare skin. The spirits were coming quickly.

They came through the blood. The symbols painted on the altar began to peel away from the copper and rise into the air, like cherry blossoms falling in reverse. They gathered together, swimming in patterns and forms too rapid for her to read. A cruel heat built in the air, blackening the blood, boiling it, reducing it to flakes of ash. And in the flurry of ashes Tiovri saw the mountain Sharath standing proud in the center of the world. Within its embrace the great city of the Dhe’nar turned like a clock, all its pieces perfectly machined and operating in harmony. Images of her people flashed before her – rows of soldiers practicing drill, scholars studying in the libraries, laborers at work in the forges, khanshael digging through the mines, and priests overseeing it all. But the perfection could not last. Within the clock, one little piece rattled, coming loose from its sisters. Faster and faster it spun, no longer bound to the machinery of the city, and the whole mountain vibrated in sympathy with the rogue gear. Great fissures opened in the mountain’s side, and still the piece spun faster. A low hum filled Tiovri’s ears, rising higher and higher, and the room around her began to shake. The noise became a piercing whistle, and then a deafening howl, a scream from all the spirits in heaven directed at her simple mortal mind.

And then they stopped. The mountain froze, shaking no longer. All was still, but for a tiny dot of light blossoming on the side of the mountain. It grew brighter, and larger, until it swallowed all of Sharath, and still it grew, consuming the altar, and the floor, and the room, and finally her, and all was still and silent and white.

Tiovri woke at the base of the altar. Not much time had passed, she assumed, for the smears of blood on her chest were still wet. 

She was not lying on the floor, at least. The warlord had caught her, and held her with surprising gentleness. Tiovri shoved him away with a grunt and stood.

“Did you see it?” she asked. The room still swam unevenly, and she reached down carefully to retrieve her robe. Her hands weren’t steady enough to work the clasp, so she clenched it shut in her fists.

“I did,” he said. A bit of blood stained his breastplate, the only spot of color on his gray uniform. He ignored it, staring only at the altar.

Tiovri followed his gaze and bit back a gasp. In the center of the altar, where the image of Sharath had stood, a perfect hemisphere of copper was missing, as though carved out by a mathematician. The edges of the excavation glowed a dim yellow, and the air above shimmered with heat. Her image stared back from the polished, bare copper left behind, a flawless curved mirror reflecting every detail of the room. Slowly, the oxygen in the air reacted with the exposed metal, and her reflection grew dark and dim, overcome by the creeping verdigris, until nothing remained but a complex and limitless pattern of decay.

Part 3: The Warlord

The Deliberation Chamber of the Supreme High Council of the Chosen of the Gods was, in Reluran Inaphine’s inexpert opinion, rather more lavish than necessary for a glorified meeting room. Three enormous gilded thrones, each carved from a solid, flawless block of obsidian, rested at the corners of an equilateral triangle inscribed on the marble floor. A table lay between the thrones, if such a monstrosity could be called a table – dusky marble shot through with crimson veins of jasper was carved all around with a thousand reliefs portraying the triumphs of the Dhe’nar. Epic poems exalting their people flowed down the table’s sides, inscribed with needle-thin chisels and inlaid with gold. It was rumored that the center of the table contained a hollow space, into which the still-living architects who designed the chamber had been consigned, not for any particular spiritual purpose, but simply to imbue the room with an extra sense of grandeur. While Reluran had never checked the table to see if the rumors were true, centuries of experience with his people had not given him any reason to doubt it.

The point of all the gilt and treasure was twofold – first, of course, to awe the people, the laborers and lesser priests and mages and soldiers, so that they might properly exalt the occupants of the three thrones. The second, more subtle purpose, was to awe the occupants of the chairs themselves, to remind them of the enormous power and responsibility invested by the people in their decisions. To never let them forget that they had ceased to be mere elves, and were instead the Warlord, the High Priestess, and the Highlord, the three great beings who shepherded their people into the divine future.

It was also Reluran’s opinion that this second purpose had fallen somewhat out of favor over the millenia. The other two elves seated at the table didn’t seem to have any trouble remembering their greatness.

Tiovri na Dharli, High Priestess of the Dhe’nar, Exalted Custodian of the Divine Bloodlines, Celestial Intercessor of the Spirit World, and a dozen other lesser titles that evaded Reluran’s recollection, sat in the throne to his left. It was slightly higher than his, a subtle reminder of their relative station whose value was somewhat reduced given that he was so much taller than her. Still, if Tiovri was short for an elf, she made up for it with hunger.

Tiovri had the floor at the moment. Tiovri had the floor most of the time during Council meetings.

“I have shared my concerns regarding Ilseval and her experiments with this Council on several occasions,” Tiovri said. She spoke directly to the third throne, ignoring Reluran completely. “And I note with concern that we have done nothing yet about these experiments. We are, perhaps, only days from witnessing whatever catastrophe she intends to unleash upon the world. The future of our people is at stake, yet we dither and delay. For how long, Highlord Estelar? How long shall we wait?”

The Highlord regarded Tiovri with half-lidded disdain. He propped his head up with one arm, while the fingers of the other drummed a steady beat on the table. Little licks of flame sprouted into being at each touch of his fingertips against the marble. Like most greater mages, his power sometimes leaked out in ways beyond his control. He sat silent through her speech, and when she was done, he flicked his fingers as though brushing away a fly.

“Ilseval is one of our greatest mages,” he said. His voice rang throughout the hall. It shook the table and the thrones. “Her Way is clear. The path to limitless power is never without its obstacles. If she succeeds she will glow like the sun, and we will all bask in her radiance. If she fails, then another generation of mages will take her place. So it has always been for our people, exactly as the prophet desired. If we stop Ilseval, we are no better than our foolish, blind kin. She is not to be feared, Tiovri, she is to be emulated. Perhaps you could learn from her example.”

If any other Dhe’nar had suggested such a thing to Tiovri, one of them would have died. For the Highlord, it was simply another Council meeting. Tiovri swallowed the insult, and only Reluran saw the faint twitch in her fingers. There was a long pause before Tiovri continued.

“I have attempted to scry Ilseval’s future several times,” she said. She spoke as if she were delivering a weather report. “Each time I have failed. Yesterday, with the warlord at my side, I scried the future of our people, and I saw a great catastrophe that broke this mountain into pieces. If you will not heed my warnings, at least heed the spirits.”

“Mm.” The Highlord’s eyes shifted toward Reluran, seeing him for the first time. A physical weight pressed against Reluran’s skin, shoving him against the hard stone back of the throne. “Reluran, is this true?”

Reluran nodded, his chin dipping just a hair.

“Mm.” The Highlord glanced between them, his gaze finally returning to Reluran. “And what do you think of all this?”

The arms of Reluran’s throne were dusted with gray powder. By his order, no servants cleaned away the ashes of his predecessor – they served as a fine reminder to him of the Warlord’s precarious position on the Council. Tiovri might rant and rave at the Highlord, secure in her own power, but he had no such shield. Warriors were a cheap commodity in Sharath, and another could always be promoted to replace him. The fear of death had no particular hold over Reluran, but to be effective in his role required surviving these meetings.

“I defer to the wisdom of the Council,” he said. It was by far the most common phrase he used in Council meetings.

The Highlord smiled. “See, Tiovri? Reluran is not concerned.”

A scowl lit Tiovri’s expression. “That’s not what he said.”

“And yet, it is what he meant.” The Highlord stood and straightened his lotus silk robes. Reluran stood instantly, followed begrudgingly by Tiovri. “If you two will excuse me, I have important matters to attend to. Kris har’esh.”

“Kris har’esh,” Tiovri and Reluran mumbled in unison. But it was to an empty room – the Highlord had already vanished in a flash of light, leaving an empty throne.

Tiovri rounded on him. She carried a small ritual dagger in her sash, and for a moment Reluran wondered if she would come across the table at him with it. Her expression suggested yes.

Instead she snarled at him: “Coward.” She turned and stalked down the dais stairs. A pair of temple q’halae met her at the chamber doors and hurried along in her wake.

Coward? He considered the accusation, turning it over in his mind, examining it from all possible angles. Was it fear that motivated him, or simply a resigned acceptance of the limits of his position? Perhaps in the days following the prophet the Warlord had been a coequal leader of their people, but millenia of isolation at Sharath had eroded the Warrior Caste’s power to almost nothing. The only true contest in these late days was between the priesthood and the mages, and lately the mages were supreme. No matter what High Priestess Tiovri desired, he could not stand against the Highlord.

But his Way was not entirely closed. He turned his back on the thrones and marched down the stairs to the chamber’s exit.

Reluran stood on the battlement walls at the base of Ta’Sharath. Beneath him, arrayed on the ashen plains surrounding the city, a battalion of infantry maneuvered into their positions. Eight hundred Dhe’nar warriors ran like the wind, carrying shields and spears as they sped across the rocky, scarred soil. They assembled into serried ranks, shields locked together, spears out like the bristles of a hedgehog. The ground shook as a full regiment of cavalry thundered by on their flanks, sweeping forward to envelop an imaginary enemy. Faintly, he heard the shout of officers, calling out new orders to the troops.

Not long ago, that would have been him out there on the plains, leading his troops through endless drills. He could still taste the dust when he slept. At times, he wished for nothing more than to be out there again. A quiet sigh escaped his lips.

The soldier beside him turned. “Problem, sir?”

Keep it together. He shook his head. “No, lieutenant. The troops are performing admirably. Please continue.”

“Very good, sir.” The lieutenant nodded to the messenger beside him, who took off running down the battlements toward the signal corps. A flurry of flags signaled a new drill down to the officers on the field, and the vast formations wheeled into new positions. Like clockwork.

Reluran observed the drills for a while longer, until the sun had moved well across the sky toward evening. He mulled over the terrifying images that swirled in the air above the altar during Tiovri’s ritual. He imagined what the Highlord would do if he learned of this plan, and decided he didn’t care.

“I would like to stage a new exercise,” he said.

“Of course, sir.” The lieutenant opened his ledger and scanned down the pages. “We can establish a new planning team this summer. There is a gap in the training schedule in nine year’s time. If you like, we can draft a proposal—”

“I would like to hold it tomorrow,” Reluran said. He turned away from the plains, and stared up at the mountain behind them. A thousand towers covered its face – one of them, toward the peak, obscured at the moment by a layer of low clouds, was Ilseval’s. 

The lieutenant was silent for a time. He stared down at his ledger as though he had not heard the warlord, and then he turned to follow Reluran’s gaze. He had, no doubt, felt the mountain shake during Ilseval’s experiments.

“An evacuation exercise,” Reluran continued. “Of the whole mountain. All the workers, at least. And as many mages and priests as we can convince to participate.” 

“That will be difficult,” the lieutenant said. It was an understatement. The other castes did not often take orders from warriors.

“Oh, I’ve no doubt.” The warlord smiled. “But nothing worthwhile is ever easy.”

For the first time in decades, the warlord saw his Way, lying clear before him.

Part 4: The Highlord

Most every Dhe’nar in Sharath assumed that Estelar Ianvyre na Silvyr, having attained the position of Highlord, would remain there for the rest of time. That the chaotic history of their people, spackled as it was with wars and exiles and disasters, had somehow come to an end in recent centuries. They had finally reached, after so much struggle, a state of equilibrium – as things were now, so would they always be. And Estelar would be Highlord forever more.

Estelar did his best to encourage this mindset. In many ways, he even believed it himself.

The Highlord’s court was vast enough to grow crops in. Acres of polished obsidian clad both the ceiling and the floor, so that supplicants who came before him saw their ghostly reflection extending above and below them into the far distance. A full platoon of the Warlord’s elite guard stood at constant attention along the walls, slender whip-blades held at their sides in salute. Fantastic murals a dozen feet high stretched across the court walls, portraying heroic Dhe’nar battling against gods and demons and triumphing over both. Airy music flowed in a constant stream from a small orchestra hidden in the wings of the court, their songs modulated to reflect the Highlord’s temper. There was even a little silver tray laid out with coffee by his throne, enchanted to always remain warm.

As usual, Estelar was not in his court. It was impossible to get any work done in that place. Instead he was in his office, a much more modest room filled with bookshelves and files and extra desks for the secretaries who transcribed his meetings. Tasteful abstract paintings decorated the walls, along with a bit of ancient elven calligraphy, one of his hobbies.

He held in his hands a report from the khanshael. While the Dhe’nar were perfect in every respect, they had reluctantly concluded some millenia ago that dwarves were even more perfect when it came to mining and forging and other hard labor, so they made space in their society for the particular dwarven tribe that inhabited the depths of Sharath. Everyone benefited, though sometimes Estelar wondered if it was love or fear that kept the khanshael in their gentle, loose chains. Certainly he never asked.

He flipped through the report with interest. Ore production was up slightly, but the khanshael noted that the water table beneath the mountain had fallen nearly an inch over the past century. In a thousand years or so, they would need to bore new wells. Estelar made a little note for the future and passed it to an orderly, who scurried off with it to his schedulers.

A tremor shook the office. Little quakes were not uncommon – Sharath was, after all, an extinct volcano, and sometimes the khanshael uncovered pockets of still-cooling magma. He ignored it and continued reading.

Five minutes later, another tremor shook the mountain. A painting on his wall tilted askew. Faint veils of obsidian dust drifted down from the ceiling.

Estelar sighed. He put down the report and rose to visit his wayward mage.

Ilseval Senin Iarwynn’s tower had seen better days. When first constructed, it rose from an escarpment high on Sharath’s northern face, such that it spent much of the day in the mountain’s shadow. A graceful arched stone bridge connected the tower’s base to the rest of the city. Pennants had once flown from the bridge’s ramparts, little fluttering birds that danced in the wind and gave color to the oppressing slate gray face of the mountain.

The pennants were gone now. Only scraps of fabric remained. The highlord paused in the center of the bridge and frowned at the signs of decay all around. 

A slave greeted him at the broken door with a bow. The highlord ignored it and ascended the tower’s stairs. Within, a few workers paused in their labor as he passed to press themselves against the stone floor. Signs of fresh damage abounded. The workers, dedicated though they were, could no more keep up with Ilseval’s destruction than a sailor might keep a sinking ship afloat by bailing water with a teacup. He silently wished them well and went higher.

Ilseval’s arcanium was open to the sky. One entire wall was gone, and beyond it lay a vast, windy void, a thousand feet of air above the rocky cliffs of Sharath. Pieces of the wall the size of boulders lay strewn about. The entire place stank of smoke. And in the center, floating serenely above the scarred floor, was what remained of the mage. The dim silhouette of a woman, limned in stars, her arms and legs curled as though adrift at sea. The highlord stepped toward her, curiosity outweighing a faint sense of dread.

“Ilseval?” he whispered. 

The mage was silent. But a chorus of ghosts echoed back his question. “Ilseval? Ilseval. Ilseval…”

An invisible line passed across Estelar’s vision, and the silhouette changed, its arms bent in new positions. He stepped carefully around her, and saw a dozen new images, as though this were Ilseval reflected in a broken mirror. She had started the process of ascending to higher dimensions.

Good for her. Estelar knew something of higher dimensions himself, and he reached out toward the empty air and brushed it aside, turning the pages of an unseen book. Eventually, he found an image of Ilseval that looked promising.

“Can you hear me?” he asked.

“Of course, Highlord. Welcome to my tower,” Ilseval said back. Her silhouette turned incrementally to gaze at him, rather than the heavens.

“Allow me to congratulate you on your success.”

“This?” The silhouette rotated about its axis. “This is the beginning. There are many more steps yet to come.”

“Yes. The Way is long.” He glanced around at the destruction. “The High Priestess, though, is concerned. She is worried about the danger your spell poses to the rest of the city. If it were up to her, you would be stopped.”

“It is well that it is not up to her, then.”

“Well indeed.” He swallowed. His mouth was suddenly dry. “Is there danger? What are you risking?”

The silhouette took its time answering. Nearly an hour passed before it spoke. “Nothing. If I fail, this elf will die, and nothing else will matter. If I succeed, this elf will become a god, and nothing else will matter. It is perfectly balanced.”

He tried again. “What will become of us?”

“Ah.” Another long silence. “A great honor. A god will remember you fondly.”

Estelar had not pondered his own Way in many centuries. The Way, the philosophy of the Dhe’nar, was their path to power, and his had reached its pinnacle when he became Highlord. Now his path simply circled the peak, forever treading the same ground. But standing before Ilseval, he saw his Way end at the edge of a cliff. All his power and ambition and cunning led here, to this broken tower, speaking to the mad elf who would kill them.

And yet, it was the Way all the same. Ilseval was entitled, as all Dhe’nar were, to pursue power to the utmost. It was the first, last and final command of their beloved prophet. And having brought them so far, they could barely abandon the prophet’s philosophy now. They must let it bear them along to its end. Perhaps this woman was the culmination of the prophet’s dream.

He nodded to the silhouette. “Kris har’esh, Ilseval.”

“Kris har’esh, highlord. Rejoice, for our moment of greatness draws near.”

The highlord took his time walking back to his palace. He savored every step, knowing how few remained.

Part 5: The Slave

The world returned to Bur in bits and pieces.

Sound came first. A constant basso drone shook his chest. The long bones in his arms and legs vibrated in sympathy. He groaned, and his breath emerged as a song.

Pain was next. Sharp, piercing agony that stabbed through his torso with every exhalation. Several ribs were broken, at least. He tasted blood. Hopefully that was just from shattered teeth and not punctured lungs. He pressed his palms against the trembling floor and tried to open his eyes.

It was dark in the tower. Wan traces of light wafted through the smoke, offering a grey window on the world. He coughed on the dust, then spent a long minute mewling in pain, his arms pressing against his wounded side. His lungs seized, refusing to breathe again lest he trigger another spasm of coughing, and he passed out from lack of air.

When he woke again, the dust had settled somewhat, but the shaking of the tower had grown more intense. Occasionally he heard tremendous crashes from higher in the structure as stones fell from great heights. He spat out a bit of blood and carefully stood.

The servants quarters were empty except for him. All the magelights were extinguished, their crystal globes shattered on the floor. Dim indigo sparks danced among the pieces and sizzled and popped. The beds and lockers lay overthrown, broken to pieces, their contents strewn messily about like a ghorka’s half-finished meal. No one else seemed to be in the room, though, unless they were crushed beneath the rubble. He gave the ruins a final quick glance before stumbling out into the tower’s hall.

In better days, the foyer of Ilseval Senin Iarwynn’s tower was lavishly decorated with the accouterments of her trade – enormous mechanical models of the constellations; an array of lenses and mirrors suspended by invisible glass threads; an ever-burning lantern whose light shone only on pure elemental substances; a miniscule golden cage, its bars no thicker than threads, holding prisoner a floating, beating heart. All these and a thousand others with no discernable purpose, instruments and texts and scrolls and enough alchemical reagents to convert a pile of lead the size of Sharath into gold. And now they all lay in pieces, crushed by falling stones, toppled and spilled, evaporated and burned.

We are all undone. Bur shook his head at the debris and turned toward the stairs, but stopped when a new sound caught his ear. Soft, filled with pain, and barely audible above the crumbling of the tower. He stumbled over to a fallen bookshelf.

“Hello?” He crouched down and tried to peer beneath the bookshelf and its books. “Lemma? Is that you?”

A moan replied, and the pile of books shifted. Bur pulled them away, flinging priceless tomes onto the floor, until he saw a twisted, bloody hand. He grasped it and pulled with all his strength. His broken ribs screamed in protest, but he had enough leverage now, and the rest of the books tumbled away as Lemma emerged from beneath the pile.

They crouched together, both panting. Blood covered her face and stained her silver hair crimson. She cradled her left arm against her chest.

Bur swallowed. His mouth tasted of iron. “Can you walk?”

“I think so.” Her voice shook, but she managed to stand with his aid. “Where—”

“Just go. Anywhere.” He aimed her toward the tower door. Beyond it, the stone bridge leading to the city swayed in time with the rumbling of the tower. He didn’t think either would remain standing for long.

She grasped his sleeve with her good hand. “You’re coming, aren’t you? This whole place is falling apart.”

He pried her fingers loose. “There are others, still. Go. I’ll catch up.”

For a moment she stood still. They had known each other for most of a century – somewhere, back in the ruined servants quarters, there was a nacre comb in her belongings, his long-ago gift for her naming day. When all else in the tower seemed dark, there was always Lemma for him.

“Go,” he whispered. “Please.”

She went.

Bur found other servants higher in the tower, all of them dead, crushed by debris or fallen from the higher floors. He pressed their eyes closed as he passed.

The arcanium was on the highest floor. It was now the tower’s roof, for all practical purposes – the walls had all blown away, and the ceiling above was gone. The stairs now opened out onto a plain of marble flagstones, exposed to the wind and the sky. The world lay spread out before him; the mountain rose at his back.

A point of light glowed in the center of the floor. It shifted in hue as he watched, from fiery red to brilliant yellow, then to a green like emeralds, a blue so intense it hurt his eyes, and finally its light vanished entirely, shifted up to some wavelength he could not perceive. But it warmed his skin, still; little sparks danced on the stone floor beneath it. Dust, igniting. A faint hum began to build above the rumble of stones.

A piece of charred debris shifted, and he realized with a shock that it was an elf. He rushed over and knelt beside the remains of Ilseval Senin Iarwynn.

“Don’t move,” he said. He reached down to try and roll her onto her back, then jerked his fingers away. Her skin still burned.

Clouded, scorched eyes sought out his face. A clear, yellowish fluid leaked down her lips. Impossibly, she spoke. “Why are you still here? You should flee.” 

“You are still here.”

Her body started to shake. A thin, barking sound emerged from her ruined mouth. She was laughing, he realized. 

“Not for long,” she said. “Not for very long at all.”

The point of light reemerged. It extended, growing into a burning line, dripping with sparks and thin ropes of fire. A hot wind blew outward from the light, clearing away the dust and debris. Those bits too large to blow away began to ignite.

Ilseval’s eyes shifted toward the light. “Turn me? I need to see it.”

Moving her didn’t seem like a good idea. It might even kill her. But Bur carefully slid his hands beneath her shoulders and levered her body up. Flakes of ash stained his arms. Together, they stared at the growing fire.

“What is it?” he asked.

“Failure. My punishment.” She tried to raise an arm. Blood seeped onto the marble. “It is an opening, one that I had hoped to use myself, but… Now, it will spill out its fire until this mountain and then the continent and the whole world burn. It will never stop. It will grow forever.”

He swallowed. Escaping from the tower suddenly seemed less urgent.

“It is good that you stayed. Help me stand?”

Uh. He glanced down at her legs. They were little more than charred twigs. “I don’t think—”

“Then carry me.”

He lifted her like a child. She was far lighter than any grown elf should ever be. Part of her rubbed off on his robes. He turned toward the stairs and took a careful step.

“No,” she said. “Toward it.”


“Take me to it. I need…” She ran out of breath after just a few words. Something fluid gurgled in her lungs. “I need to try and stop it.”

Bur faced the light again. The line had grown further and now stood as tall as him. Where it touched the stone floor, the marble glowed a bright yellow. A bulge appeared in the center of the line, as though its edges were a curtain beginning to part.

A hot wind pushed against him as he moved closer. He stopped when it began to burn his skin. His eyes stung, and he squinted them nearly shut.


He drew in a breath. The air seared his lungs. His robes smoked as he stepped forward. Flames danced around his slippers where they touched the glowing marble. Though he felt the pain, it was oddly distant, as if it were someone else beginning to burn, and not him.

They must have been close enough, for Ilseval reached out a blackened hand. Only two fingers remained, but she traced them in a simple pattern before the burning portal. Trails of light hung in the air. Something in his mind seemed to twist as he watched, and for a moment the whole world went still. “There,” she whispered.

They stumbled away, far enough that his skin no longer smouldered. A piece of rubble tripped him, and he fell to his knees, barely keeping a grasp on Ilseval’s body.

He dared a glance at the portal. Its edges seemed to writhe, like they were on fire themselves. “Should it be closing?”

The same weak, barking laugh emerged from Ilseval’s chest. “Oh, no. It contains far too much energy for that. It will explode. But it will not endanger the world, at least. That is something.”

Ah. Bur glanced over the side of the ruined tower. Somewhere, down there, Lemma ran through the crumbling city, down the mountain, toward the plains. “Should we…”

“No, we can’t get far enough away. I am sorry for that.”

Would she get far enough away? How long had it been since he sent her toward the exit? For all he knew, she might have stumbled out the door and tripped on a stone, and now sat, crippled, beneath this very tower. Or perhaps she had found a clear street and along it to the city wall. He would die not knowing.

He shook his head. “It is fine. It… doesn’t matter.”

“Ah, but it does.” Ilseval’s ruined mouth twisted in a smile. “It matters that you stayed. Perhaps this was your Way.”

“No. Not my Way.” Was there even such a thing? It seemed hard to believe, perched atop this windblow tower, waiting for death. “Just the right thing to do.”

Behind them, the portal bloomed again. It expanded with light that swallowed them and the tower and the city and the mountain.

And, at last, all was quiet.

Comments ( 12 )

I'm jealous.

I am amazed how you in such short order created 5 character, made them into 3 dimensional people and at the same time showed us, through them, the last days of their city.
I definitely would like to see more of your original fiction.

Gorgeous writing. You've painted so many fascinating images into this, the most important of which (to me) is the cascading catalogue of very human flaws that lead to a society's self-destruction, even as they watch themselves light the fire that destroys them.

an original piece accompanying a favorite old game world of mine

No doubt I've been living under a rock. I feel like I should recognize what you're referring to—what is it?

EDIT: Just wanted to elaborate a bit on my comment above: While the flaws I noticed are important – critical to the story, of course – the ability of others to act with sensibility and kindness in the course of this over-burdened river-flow of destruction that they are caught in are really (for me) far more important to the story. In any case, both aspects of the story seem to reflect opposite sides of human history and the human condition. Selfishness/greed, selflessness/sacrifice... Excellent work.

A fascinating story. A thriving civilization destroys itself through entirely preventable hubris, overreach and willful blindness, but even on the eve of disaster it's still possible to at least mitigate the worst and ensure that something can rebuilt in time. It's... hmm. Topical, for certain.


No doubt I've been living under a rock. I feel like I should recognize what you're referring to—what is it?

Same here -- I feel like I should know this, but I can't for the life of me think of what it's supposed to be referencing.



It's nothing either of you ought to recognize. Basically just your standard Tolkein-esque RPG setting.

With the depth of history and the various ways the situation could play out in that context, the ending you have here feels to me more than a little spare. Did the evacuation happen? Is the destruction of the tower's relics emblematic of the loss of the entire city and, if so, what does that mean for their heritage? How do these characters reassess their Way in the face of this catastrophe?

That said, I don't expect the narrative was the focus here -- rather is was the reason to show this culture and these multifaceted characters, and in that you have succeeded in the best traditions of speculative short fiction. Thank you for sharing! Surely you've considered submitting such works to any of several magazines for publication...?

This is probably one of the most dense narratives I've ever read. Dense with character, theme, worldbuilding... yeah. Excellent, excellent.

Exquisite demonstration of the folly of any philosophy taken to and past its logical extreme. Thank you for it.

A Cold in Gardez bonus story? Thank you, very cool.


I've been thinking about it? Several people have suggested it, but I've never submitted any fiction for publication. Not quite sure where to start.

I admit to knowing nothing about the publication game, either...

This being a fantasy piece, I immediately thought of Magazine of Science Fiction & Fantasy (because it's the one that isn't Asimov or Analog -- both SF-exclusive? -- that I have bought in the past; may I add, what a past-generation website they have), but a quick search result shows a strong set of options at least. I thought IDDP belonged in a literature magazine as well, given its timeliness (then and recently) and attention to detail as two of its strongest 'selling points'.

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