Shadows & Sorcery #79
Here we are, in this place where destiny is made, also, coincidentally, the seventy-ninth edition of Shadows & Sorcery!
So what’s going on this week? Nothing less than three flashy microfic stories and a chunky two-in-one tale that used to be two, but ended up merged—and all the better for it, I think!
The TENTH chapter of The Path of Poison cometh soon, and things are gonna start getting weird for our boy Sepp as Viner’s Night approaches…
So onwards with the microfiction damn it, and hey, if you enjoyed what you read here, give that little heart icon a quick tap and tell the stories you liked them! You can even tell me if you liked them with a little comment! Or if you absolutely reviled them.
This week, we learn how to call up spirits from one of the Conjurors of the Dead, we journey out to the Spires of the Stars, we delve deep to seek the Chasm Chamber, and we learn astral arts and secrets behind the Stars of Sanctuary & Moons of the Sorcerers…
Conjurors of the Dead
The underworld is a mire, a sodden, dark, numb swamp, a black soup where souls stew in chill slumber. Why is it thus? No one knows. Especially not the solemn wandering priests, those grim folk who trudge about making sure everyone passes nice and easy, by shackling their spirits down until they give up and sink into the mire. That's the best you can hope for in this world, a quick quiet passing into a cold sleep with even colder eyes looking down on you as you take your last breath. Well, there's other kinds of folk dealing in spirits, too, but they don't call them priests. They live out in marshes and on riverbanks, deep in the swamps or in caves, and on cold, desolate wetlands. In other words, places that they say lay close to the underworld.
See, when a person dies, their soul doesn't leave immediately. If a priest doesn't get to you, first the soul works its way out of the body over a couple days, then it wanders about, having the trauma of dying clinging to it, not knowing where to go or what to do, trying to cry for their family and hanging around houses, looking in windows, listening at doors, peering over sleepers. And all the while it feels itself getting dragged down, further and further, the weight of death hanging on it.
The idea is spirits begin looking for high and dry places to dwell in. The dead hate the rain, something about water makes it easier to sink into the underworld, so even the moist loam of the forests is bad for them. They say there's lands far out in the world, arid, dusty places, deserts that have been haunted for centuries. Maybe longer. Probably much longer. The winds that rush there aren't winds.
Other than staying in dry places, there's one other way ghosts can keep themselves in the living world. But it takes a lot to keep a spirit up and around. They must feed constantly, and by leeching off living or recently dead flesh, they can become just a little bit solid. But the more they feed, the hungrier they get, always trying to get some sliver of their physical selves back, to get some foothold back in the world, and so most end up in the mire, deep down below.
But even then, the dead are stirred quite easily.
Imagine treading a half-hidden dirt path through a dark wood. The canopy overhead is thick and none of the faltering dusk light makes its way through. You can't carry a lantern--you mustn't be seen here. Straining your eyes, you ignore the the flittering shadows in the corners of your eyes which melt in and out of the shifting dark around you, and focus on kicking past the ferns and vines which overgrow the forest floor. There's a dampness to the air, and dank stench wafts from somewhere deeper within.
Eventually, the chittering of insects and lonely calls of night beasts bleed from the murk, and the treetops thin out enough for the sallow moon to show a rotten shack crouching atop low stilts amidst the unclean pools and mulch which surrounds you. All that keeps you from sinking in is the shaky wooden path which creaks with every step, and, you swear, shapes in the dark move in answer to it.
A voice calls you in before you can knock. A small fire throws a sickly glow upon an aged figure which does not move as it speaks to you. All around it, upon stools, tables, the floor, are jars, bowls, cups and more, all of them full of salt. They love salt, says the figure. It preserves them. Keeps the wet away. Did you bring something sympathetic, you are asked. You hesitantly answer yes, and draw something from your pocket. The figure rises and searches with milky eyes around the room. From a long, covered box does the conjuror drag something large, and lead you outside.
Why are you here, the figure asks as you are led from the shack and around it, the spider-web fabric of the conjuror whispering over the wood, and the half of a beast carcass thudding on the earth. What are you looking for? A lost will? Treasure? A last goodbye? Or the secret of an enemy? Doesn't matter, the figure laughs. Folk'll pay all the same.
There's something like a continuous coming and going, all around you, nothing shifts, nothing makes a sound save for what lives far off in the woods, yet there's something all around, all the time, movement without sound. They're hungry, says the conjuror. But they won't get nothing, not right now. They'll have to share later, or I'll send them back down, the figure laughs again.
The meat is cast into a patch of thoroughly sodden earth from which there rises an exhalation. And then a hand is stretched out to you--the figure takes what you brought, and also casts it in. Over several minutes, the conjuror sprinkles salt into the water. And then, a slick black shape slides around the floating meat and grasps onto it. You can see eyes--human eyes peering from the sloshing water, wide and bleared and terrified. The conjuror chuckles darkly, denying the salt the raw soul eyes with desperation.
You sit in the cabin, shaking. How could you have known it would be like that? The difference between us isn't some magic, says the conjuror. The difference is I want to know things once taken to the grave, or lost in the wilderness. But things which still lay down below. And there's so so much of it. If you've the stones for it, maybe one day, you'll want to know, too.
Spires of the Stars
At the intersection of an ancient crossroads on a rugged plateau had they met, and nearly came to blows. Each had stood their ground and proclaimed the right to take the north road.
Khuth, clad in white robes proudly dirtied with travel, said he was most worthy, for he was Master of the Procurement of Relics from the opalescent temple domes and singing aureate fountains of the Most High Ath-Hemud, where in a ritual ecstasy he had been bade procure a star from the end of the world.
But then Aosa spoke, painted from head to foot in intricate azure tattoos and black beast furs, and said that within grim Kernudon's deep dark glades, through which there slithered silver mist, the horned god had growled between drum beats and bade his wild daughter hunt for a star at the end of the world.
But then Sidu made the sign of Urgoth and spoke from within the depths of a shapeless pile of sandy red robes and veils, and said it was during esoteric rites of divination in a dusty shrine older than mankind, did he receive the cryptic missive of the crimson god Yothuragg to take for his spells a star from the end of the world.
After a night spent in fierce debate at the intersection, did they agree the gods had conspired their meeting, and so at first light, did these emissaries of the High, the Low, and the Hidden go three abreast down the north road, to seek the end of the world.
Through the stinking jungles of Sumind did they cut their path, with a million red eyes looking out over slavering jaws and mandibles, where Aosa's obsidian dagger made short work of the skittering horrors that descended from the dark canopy above. Across the moon-frosted crags of Thurea were they forced to climb, and there did Sidu chant the Black Words of Mung to ward off the ghosts of forgotten gods, whose cursed breath was the biting chill. And then they passed into the mouldering streets of Symerion, the First City, and if the words of a dreadful prophecy were to be believed, what shall be the Final City, and in those aeon-weighed streets of sagging brick and sunken cobblestone, did Khuth's words buy them passage through the territories of ancient thief cults and guildsmen's hired mercenaries.
Out of civilization, out of natural country, and out of a world shaped by known myth did the three pass. A cold, desolate plain of uneven form, a silent expanse of dim day and unsure night. They spoke little here, and each of the wanderers looked to the small idols of their far-off homelands for comfort.
Khuth sat before the meagre campfire and gazed down upon the pallid, milky white marble, polished, and smooth with years of use. The gilded details of the triumphant sun god Ath-Hemud still shone in the firelight. While scouting the land which rose higher and higher, Aosa sometimes brought out the idol of the fearsome wild-god Kernudon, a primal rune carved into black slate flecked with silver and filled in with the same woad she wore as armour, for Kernudon had no form that mortals could spy. Only on the road did the Sidu gaze upon the symbol-form of Yothuragg, a series of twisting coils that gathered to a sphere at the top, all hewn from a single chunk of red crystal, in whose murky depths layer a deeper red.
The uneasy daylight slowly left as they ascended the scrag and slabs of stone. This was an unfashioned realm of chaos, the limit of creation, the end of the world they were sure, untouched by sun, storm, or the minds of gods, and far from the reach of the beings who bade them journey to it. Had deities themselves descended in to this spot aeons ago, or had they never made it this far? Regardless, one thing remained constant, and had throughout their quest: the great band of stars that encircled the sky shone brighter than ever here, while the crown of the sky was a deeper black than any could have conceived. As they rose into a thin-aired height, what should have been day left entirely, and they were left in a stark, infinite night.
And yet, this nigh-formless land wasn't without sight, for though no sun or moon lent its rays to the earth, the sky was bright with celestial luminosity--the stars were like diamonds of the first water and white radiance burst from within, giving a soft definition to the timeless realm around them.
The stars hung not from the void, but sat atop a vast array of spires which reached into the pitch dark, encircling the entirety of the earth. Some were tall, others quite squat, and the height of each one was what made the constellations of their far-off homelands. There were stars aplenty here, and each knew that their gods were to become the mightiest of the world, for good or ill it did not matter to them who saw before them an existence as legends.
In the silent depths of the night, a great roar rang out, and tremors were felt rippling across the earth for leagues around, unlike anything else the world had ever felt. All the next day, magistrates and lords convened in grave discussion, and decided to seek out the source. Whence it came was a matter of fierce debate, but finally scholars ascertained, thanks to a lengthy interview of the people of the regions, that the origin of these strange quakes could have come from nowhere else than the central province.
A dry, hard land was that place. Composed of arid plains and great rising spires of rock, the wind slithered and dust flew upon its trail. A place of, at times, terrible chill, and at other times, roasting heat, it was almost wholly uninhabited, used as a junction through which caravans laden with riches from abroad would pass lazily. But it was ancient beyond reckoning, and there was a time when people did live there amongst the rock, in the caves which wormed their way down into the earth.
It was here that trackers and scouts gathered to seek out what everyone knew must be an anomaly. This was a land that had gone silent long ago, and if it ever shifted, it was only to express the greatness of its mouldering antiquity. There were carvings and remains, faded flakes of primal markings, hints and mysteries of an elder age where things were seen, and done, and were known, that had been perhaps mercifully forgotten, left to sleep and fester in lightless deeps.
They found it, finally, in a remote stretch of vastland covered in pale dust and rock. A ragged, worn, and crumbling rent in the earth that ran down into some unfathomable gulf, and whose maw stretched like a corpse's grimace for a full mile in either direction. The sides of it fell uneven, and provided something like footholds and steps, and so the bravest of the scouts could set trembling feet down into this maw of the world.
Shafts of light gave the chasm deep a vague form, enough to make it traversable. It took over a full hour before the sides began to show signs of closing in, and when they did, it was rather sudden. The rugged rock came together to form a sort of floor of dust and debris the scouts could walk upon.
Every step brought with it the fear of collapse, and so they walked lightly along the one length of the chasm, not knowing what they sought or if they'd even be the ones to find something. Alas, they were. After some time of trepidation, the explorers stumbled upon it, in the a bare rock wall. An unmistakable hollow, a square, clearly shaped chamber in the rock itself. But what's more, it was surrounded by metal bars. Everyone there knew it in their minds, but none said it. Not least of all, because those metal bars had been bent and torn asunder...burst from within.
Spanning the chasm is now no less than a hundred bridges, like stitches trying to hold shut a wound, patrolled by well-paid soldiers who dwell in a brooding fortress not far away. To date, nothing has emerged from the chasm, but many secretly fear that there's nothing else to emerge. The prisoner of that call is already loose.
Stars of Sanctuary & Moons of the Sorcerers
There were three of them out that night. Perhaps at their poles, or maybe their cores, or even across their surfaces the sorcerers were working their spells. The many other moons were most likely further up, into the cosmos. Why they periodically descended was something only the magicians within them understood. Maybe they really were answering prayers like the vale folk often said...
Stars were the seats of gods, shining thrones in a sable ocean. From each star, a single beam of light, and they all came together below as one--as the world. All things, visible and invisible, material and abstract, the will of the heavens. Especially, it may perhaps be said, humanity.
By studying the stars which had awed them since the moment of their birth, humanity slowly came to realize that the sky wasn't merely a still, crystal image, it was alive and active. The stars shone and shifted almost imperceptibly--almost, but the keen eyed astrosophists of old saw changes in them when certain major events occurred on the earth. Time passed and a vast body of lore was compiled: maps of the sky of day and night, great chronicles of the world and the stars which shone over them, then seeing it all side by side and knowing that the motions of stars most certainly reflected the events of life. The sky may have looked like a mess of lights and streaks to the majority of mankind, but adepts could see the divisions and patterns, for them the heavens were a rich tapestry waiting to be unravelled, and unravelled it was.
The process was called alignment. The light which came from the stars into all things was active and constant, and so by the mixing of two vast beams, normally unseen to the naked eye, could the two things they created down in the world be joined, to an extent. It gave each thing an aspect of the other, diffusing independent existence for a mutual transcendent experience. But mostly, it was used to gain power. One could align themselves to something else in the world--a thing, a place, another person, and gain some measure of power or influence over it, or understanding of it.
Alignment required esoteric knowledge and the inducing of a trance-like mental state in or near the thing to be aligned with. As such, the budding practice found the grasp of the elders and lords of the old days closing slowly around it as it grew, and it was only then in the astrodomes and celestial pinnacles did kings and chieftains pay handsome rewards to learned astrosophists to align them with their lands, creating entire dynasties of semi-divine monarchs whose well-being was tied to the land's itself. In some places it led to a fondly remembered line of avatars of the kingdom, but in most it is recalled as an age of tyrannical greed.
It was this dark age that led to the secret rebellion of the first magicians, those astrosophists who surreptitiously performed incredible feats of alignment with the very light of the stars, and eventually fled their masters for the sky itself. The dynasties of god-kings who ransomed the health of the land eventually died out in the wake of the vanishing of the world's wisest sages. It was only in the aftermath of the messy dissolution of their regimes did the magicians return, centuries later, embodied as great pale moons aligned with the cosmos itself.
They had risen into the heavens and there studied the light, and had come back with the riches of their knowledge. The ultimate prize, however, was the stars of sanctuary. The universe revealed itself as one ascended, and far above the world had the magicians glimpsed new forms and constellations--namely, stars whose power was that of order and binding, vast celestial bodies whose power held many others in its grasp. To ingratiate themselves amongst the people who looked upon them with confusion and fear, they taught the alignment of the sanctuary stars.
Thus was their cult inadvertently born.
An age came and went, and the sorcerers passed over the world before vanishing into the heady darkness again and again, but all the while, the people performed the alignment first as an act of empowerment, but over time it became an act of devotion to the mages who passed it onto the ancestors generations ago. The stars provided safety and protection to those who aligned themselves, and it was a matter of course that folk performed the rite every day, for any occasion, to invoke the "blessing" of the star-gods, unaware that they themselves were slowly become more star than human.
A considerable body of lore surrounds the curious cult of the moon-magicians, and much of it is given over to their motives or goals. Perhaps, the learned old sages say, they sought to grant us control over our lives. Perhaps, the younger, more brash scholars say, they sought to imbue mankind with the stars of order to have us learn command of the world. Or perhaps, milder voices say, they sought to bless us with reassurance and guidance, and one day they will come back as they did then, and not merely pass over, and grant us new stars. They are always watching our progress and faith and temperance. Til then, watch for them on the hilltops, and light the flames which mimic the holy stars, prayers reach their astral heights through smoke, which is as night's sky.
But far above, in sightless spaces, the magicians align themselves to the stars of sanctuary at all times. To hold the power of binding in one's palm--to be that power, alive and aware, made their jaunts into the higher spaces all the easier. When the light of many stars were finally one through them would they travel that beam to the source, and there glimpse the gods on their thrones, and join them as new stars, to make new things down on the world, and realize themselves as the gods they were already worshipped as.