The sorcerer hung limp in silver chains, sprawled across the narrow cot with his limbs twisted behind him, sigil-marked manacles binding his wrists and ankles. His head lolled against the silver collar about his throat as the room swayed; the seas were rough today.
The robed and hooded figure standing over him, feet placed wide for balance, glanced at the healer sitting by the sorcerer’s head. “When will he be conscious?”
“Very soon, my lord. Is the Master -”
“On his way,” the figure said, curtly, staring into a crystal. “A quarter-hour. He shall wake before that?”
“Soon. A few minutes.”
“I had better look.” And the figure knelt and threw back the hood, revealing a woman’s face, square and ordinary. She laid her hand on the sorcerer’s brow.
Her eyes flashed crimson, once, before she closed them.
– and something shimmering-sparkling-bright leapt from her hand to the sorcerer’s body; he twitched and then lay still.
The robed woman’s body language shifted, suddenly more feminine. She drew back her hand, massaging the palm between her opposite thumb and forefinger.
A minute later, the sorcerer’s eyes flickered open, shining momentarily a demonic red, and another’s voice spoke through his cracked lips. “The Master–” cough, “needs - to see this - very complicated…”
One month earlier.
The war against the demons was going badly.
Only half of Admiral Linnat’s force had made it out alive after the disastrous battle over the Peninsula, and their dirigible was badly damaged, two of its balloons patched hastily with tar, half the topdeck gone. Their navigation systems were wrecked. Still, they had crossed the Mists, and the dirigible was approximately under control as it descended through wispy clouds.
Admiral Linnat prowled the middeck, the fog cool against her nose, dewdrops beading her fur.
::Landfall!:: a sentry called out from the topdeck.
Linnat darted to the railing. She saw it as well, now, swimming into view. A coastline, and then land, green and brown and dotted with the blue of lakes.
::I expected more ocean:: the navigator sent in mental-speech, a little nervously.
::Maybe we came out near the Continent:: his assistant suggested.
It wasn’t as though their maps had any detail on the Inner Sea, Linnat thought. They knew almost nothing of the humans’ land. Except that it was a target ripe for the taking, and the demons invading from the Neath had spotted this. Humans bred much faster than Changewolves, bearing more and more children even before their siblings were grown. If the demons took the Inner Sea, and gained a slave-army of tens of millions the war was lost.
Linnat knew with granite certainty that not a single Changewolf intended to be captured alive. Her nose twitched as she thought of poisoned swamps, stinking and fetid, dead and dying trolls everywhere. It had been a mercy; better dead than condemned as a demon-ridden slave. But it hurt, still, to imagine the same thing happening to the meadows and ponds and alpine peaks of her cub years.
Linnat’s thoughts kept drifting and then flinching away from the cargo tucked away in a secret compartment of the ship. The initial weapon had been refined, and would do far more damage, far more quickly. If, as her mother - a pang of grief, ignored, still too fresh to acknowledge - if it was, as she had feared, too late to save the Inner Sea, then at least they had the wherewithal to make sure no one had it. To deny the demons the mounts they would need to take the war to the Changewolves’ homeland next.
She would order it done in a heartbeat. And be condemned as a criminal, if she made it home alive.
The landing was rough. Their airship wouldn’t be leaving the ground without substantial repairs, for which they lacked tools or materials, but Linnat had expected that. Her soldiers already had their orders. Someone netted a local bird, brought it back to the ship, and the ‘wolves studied it and then tested shapeshifting the new form. Shortly later there were spies in the air, spreading out.
Within a few hours they reported back. They had spotted some villages, populated with people who looked human, but no sign of the railways and steam engines, the gas lamps and factories and oil wells that the people of the Inner Sea were supposed to have now. They saw nothing more advanced than candles and a mill on the river.
It was odd, Linnat though, but sometimes rural areas were backward.
Ten minutes later, she found herself taking a report from a frantic sentry. One of their scouts was missing.
They met on neutral ground.
Admiral Linnat had spent half a day agonizing over whether to accept the strange man’s offer. He apparently wasn’t a demon’s mount, the obvious first guess, but...whatever he was instead, Linnat wasn’t sure she liked it any better.
Human, supposedly. But immortal, and possessed of uncomfortably demon-like powers, to seize and read and control the minds of others. She had no reason to think him trustworthy, and plenty of reason to expect betrayal.
But - he claimed to be offering his help. And help was in short supply.
Linnat attended the meeting, as agreed, with only a small guard. The sorcerer came alone. Face to face, he was less imposing than Linnat had expected. His expression was impossible to read, and not only because Linnat was still unused to human faces.
Apparently he wasn’t inclined to make small talk before getting to the point. “Your scout informed me that your people are at war. It does not sound as though it is going well.”
No point in trying to deceive the man. He had already confessed to sharing the demonic power to peer into the minds of others. ::Yes:: Linnat admitted, terse.
“If you are right, then it is not only your own homeland at risk.”
Linnat’s tail thumped. ::They will take every land, if they can. They are a relentless scourge on the world and nothing but us stands in their way.::
The sorcerer inclined his head slightly. “I have considerable resources here. I would be willing to help, perhaps. If you are willing to tell me more – and if I am convinced that your side is in the right. Who started the war?”
Linnat growled deep in her throat, before she could stop herself. As if anyone could possibly think that the demons were righteous, here. Bad enough that this bedamned ‘sorcerer’ was basically an honorary demon, and now he was considering taking their side…
“- I do not mean offence,” the sorcerer added. “And I find it hard to imagine any scenario, compatible with what your scout believed, that would convince me to help their side. But I find it best to avoid meddling in situations where I lack critical context. I will of course want to confirm your story myself, directly; leaders are not always truthful with their soldiers, in times of war.”
The fur was rising now on Linnat’s neck. ::You are very suspicious.::
A slight motion of the man’s shoulders. Hard to tell what it was meant to convey; Linnat was as inexperienced with human body language as with their faces. “I am what the world has made me. I do have a great deal of experience with fighting wars. I have two hundred sorcerers allied with me. And if you wish to have my help, I need to understand the situation.”
A pause, while his unreadable eyes rested on her, and then finally he spoke again. “First of all – what are ‘demons’, exactly?”
Invaders from a plane of void and chaos. In their native form, bodiless and helpless to act in the world of ordinary matter. But - possessed of uncanny powers. The ability to seize minds, to ride bodies, to make whoever they touched their slave.
Just a decade ago, their presence in the material plane was confined to just one land, an isolated island. The only native creatures they could ride were a race they called the gnomes – small, weak, with dim senses and dull minds. They hadn’t had the slightest inkling that there were other lands, or other races, across the impassible Mists.
The Changewolves, exploring, found them. And a great scholar landed a dirigible there. He pitied the demons, with their endless unquenched thirst to see and know. He helped them. He taught them. He freed them, showing them how to build dirigibles and navigate the Mists.
And for that, they betrayed him. They took the knowledge he had granted them, the precious gift of freedom, and they used it to make innocents their slaves.
They took the wyrms’ land before the Changewolves’ forces could redeploy. The wyrms were limited, as mounts, and the demons were infinitely greedy. Their thirst for more bodies to ride was impossible to sate.
There was a battle over the land of the trolls. The demons were learning fast, and winning, and Annar, the Changewolf admiral in command, was faced with an awful decision. It was too late to save the trolls’ world; her only option was to make the demons’ victory a pyrrhic one.
She used a weapon that destroyed the demonic stronghold, and its fallout poisoned the swamps. Impossible to fix, once it was done, and the toxic water would kill every single troll within a month. She would have faced trial for it, as a war criminal, of course – if not for what happened next. Instead, her fate was far worse. There was time for the demons to try to evacuate, to take as many mounts as they could, and of course the Changewolves had to try to stop them, though at this point their forces were very depleted. In one disastrous sortie, the admiral herself was captured. She was enslaved, and taken as a mount by a particularly loathsome and ambitious demon.
It was a terrible blow, and not just because the demons now had access to a shapechanger. It was every Changewolf’s worst nightmare, to be taken and ridden, and their morale took a hit.
The demons, armed with intelligence torn unwilling from Annar’s mind, moved on to their next conquest. With troll slaves, and a Changewolf of high rank, they had the hands and eyes they needed to build more dirigibles.
They set their sights on the lands of the Inner Sea. The home of humankind – and it turned out that the Changewolves’ information, from the last explorers’ run a century ago, was now long out of date. There were tens of millions of them, now. They didn’t have dirigibles yet, but their capabilities were advancing rapidly, and their sheer population vastly outnumbered the Changewolves. If the demons took their land, they would be unstoppable. They would build a vast flotilla of dirigibles and swarm over the Highlands, the Changewolves’ first home, and all would be lost.
That was where Admiral Linnat and her force were headed, for one last desperate effort to save the Inner Sea and their species’ homeland. Until they lost their way in the Mists, and ended up somewhere else entirely.
It took a week, on the ground, to repair the dirigible sufficiently for a long and dangerous flight. It would have taken months, if not for the aid of a mysterious, supposedly-immortal sorcerer who called himself Elander.
Admiral Linnat didn’t trust Elander. And yet, it was her call, whether or not to accept Elander’s aid. She had judged that there was no other way. Their chances of success had been slim even before their recent losses. In a quiet corner of herself, Linnat had already resigned himself to deploying the awful weapon hidden aboard her ship, one far more devastating than what Annar had used.
And, even more quietly, she hoped she wouldn’t survive it.
Elander and his sorcerers – and not just sorcerers, there were other magics as well, namely a kind of healing completely unlike the Changewolves’ own native gifts – changed everything. And so it didn’t matter how uneasy it made her, that Elander had outright admitted to obtaining his powers from the Neath. Not via demons; he hadn’t known there were demons. In fact, he had made the odd comment that there must not have been, yet, three thousand years ago. The beings that made a sorcerer were called dervishes, and supposedly weren’t intelligent in themselves; they were just bundles of powerful magic. That could be bound to a person, granting them remarkable demon-like powers, of mastery over other minds.
And Linnat still knew next to nothing of the man’s past. Why did he have two hundred sorcerers conveniently available? What kind of man would invest in that kind of organization, and then lend it to another land’s war without a moment’s hesitation? What did he want out of this? Access to dirigible technology, that was obviously part of it, but he hadn’t even tried to negotiate an exchange with them.
She was rapidly gaining skill at reading human facial expression, and yet Elander was still a cipher to her. But maybe it didn’t matter. They had him on their side. They had a chance.
Strange, Linnat thought, distantly, how having hope made her twice as afraid.
It was a miserably crowded trip, with over a hundred sorcerers and healers crammed onto the dirigible, only feasible at all because the dirigible was built to convey fifty and their surviving crew numbered only thirty-one.
It went smoothly, though. And the arrival was fully as dramatic as the explorers’ reports had promised. They emerged very high, soaring out of the Mists with the lands of the Inner Sea sprawled out before them, far, far below, distant enough that the features on the land’s skin were blurred to mottled greens.
And the Inner Sea itself. Vast, almost perfectly round, shining like a blue jewel set in green velvet.
Linnat heard Elander’s indrawn breath, and turned to look. ...No, that expression wasn’t awe. Nor fear. She wasn’t sure the man was capable of that.
It was pain, and grief, and a deep weariness that made it truly feel, for the first time, that Linnat was looking at a man who had lived three thousand years.
She found herself padding closer, joining the sorcerer at the railing to watch.
::Are you all right?:: she dared to ask after a few beats.
Elander twitched as though startled, which was surprising; Linnat had noted it was nearly impossible to catch him off guard.
“- Yes. I am just…” He gestured vaguely at the Inner Sea shining far below, then closed his eyes. “Not all wounds heal, even with time.”
There was some sort of history there, then. But it didn’t seem as though Elander wanted to speak about it, and so Linnat didn’t ask.
When everything began to go wrong, it went so fast.
Linnat paced the deck of the magic-shrouded dirigible, hands knotted behind her back. Even after weeks to acclimatize, spent creeping among the local humans passing as one of their own, wearing their form felt soft, naked, weak.
She glared briefly at the man hunched anxiously over a desk, hands curled around a crystal ball. “Sorcerer?”
“I’m not sure yet, but - I think Coruscal Island is lost.” He swallowed. “They...did something to incapacitate our people. I suspect a drug of some kind. The humans here are very good with non-magical medicines. I’m sorry.”
Linnat’s face clenched briefly before returning to its neutral facade. “We should destroy it. We can’t let the demons take our people alive. Can your people…?”
“We can fight our way through. If a ship can bring us within a mile.”
Linnat scowled. Elander could have done better. But Elander had been on Coruscal Island. He was assumed lost. Or worse, taken.
“I don’t think we can get past their patrols,” she snapped. “How about from above. We could drop someone with a parachute.” And a weapon. Not the weapon, tucked away in secret, but an ordinary explosive. Enough to take out the entirety of the island in a storm of fire.
The young sorcerer gulped. “Yes, Admiral. But - not out again.”
Linnat spun around. “Then I am asking for a volunteer.” Her voice softened. “I know it’s a high price. I’m –”
“No. We understand.” The man rose. “I’ll talk to the others.”
Linnat waited, closing her eyes.
Shortly later they had a volunteer.
“Immortal,” the sorcerer’s lips were saying, as his body struggled into the closest approximation to a sitting position that his chained limbs could manage. “He’s immortal. He has - powers. Like, like ours. Studied the Neath. Left the Inner Sea - three thousand years ago - travelled beyond the Mists. Found another land there.”
The healer lowered the message-crystal to his lap and interrupted him with a raised hand as the watch-officer suddenly tore down the narrow stairs and into the room. “What is it?”
The young guard frantically looked around, eyes going first to the woman perched on a stool in the corner, then remembering, turning and fixing on the demon-ridden sorcerer. “My lord,” he panted, “they’ve - the Admiral, the magicians - they got someone past our sentries, they, they burned the island - burned down all of it - could see it from here…”
“Tell the Master,” the sorcerer’s lips ordered. “Message now.”
“How many did we get out?” the healer interjected as he reached for it.
“Twenty-one. Eight Changewolves, we prioritized them, but they’re bigger, my lord.”
“Understood.” The healer communed briefly with the crystal. “The Master is five minutes out,” he confirmed a moment later.
The sorcerer’s lips went on speaking, half-frantic. “He can read minds, he can bind them, that’s how –” a dusty cough, “how they held off the ambush, they knew - tell the Master…”
“Yes, my lord.”
The ship was in view now, rising and falling in the swells. The windglider’s pilot steered it expertly through the high winds, slicing downward.
Mhrak, steady in their harness, watched the descent, nearly unblinking despite the wind in their eyes. They listened to their officer’s papery voice across the message-crystal, speaking through a captive sorcerer’s lips.
They were terrified.
Everything had cascaded out of control so fast. A day ago, the Isles on the String of Pearls had been entirely theirs. They had been quietly moving on the mainland, and from there it was only a matter of time.
They had suspected already that there were Changewolves in their midst, hiding in plain sight, wearing the forms of men and women. They had shown no indication of extraordinary resources, though, and Mhrak had been tracking the threat, but not yet especially worried.
Then the failed kidnapping attempt, their operatives vanishing into nowhere in a flash of magic that should have been far beyond even the Changewolves. The demons’ frantic advance on the other islands, nearly all too late, their suspects escaped in skiffs – or perhaps in the form of fish and dolphins, Changewolves were as always very difficult to pin down. And when they finally cornered one of the enemy agents, all it earned then was a violent firestorm that cost them half of Washata Atoll and thousands of innocents.
They had captured the agent’s partner and assistant, though, attempting to flee in a skiff. And learned of...something impossible.
An ancient legend, returned to life.
No point in poring over what signs they had missed. All along, the truth had been too unlikely to guess from hints.
Driven from her own body, coiled up in a corner of her own mind, Annar was oblivious to Mhrak’s thoughts, but not their mood. Mhrak could feel their mount’s leashed satisfaction, occasionally flashing into bright triumph. Ever since the first hint of trouble, Annar had swung between hopeful and downright gleeful.
Mhrak was terrified, and almost painfully confused, but they held it at bay, because they hadn’t lost yet and in the meantime they needed to stay sharp. Thanks to intelligence from the enemy agent, they now held the lead sorcerer as their prisoner, as well as the eight Changewolves and a dozen of the sorcerer’s people. Even though their prize had been snatched from them by the flames just minutes later, it could still be worth it for this one captive.
The survival of demonkind might well depend on their choices in the next few hours.
“Brace for landing, Master,” the pilot called out, legs already pumping in midair, and Mhrak arched their spine and scrunched their legs, ready to absorb the impact. They hit the deck hard, the pilot’s feet first, then Mhrak’s paws, both of them running and then slowing to a halt as the pilot folded the sail. A deckhand surged toward them, unfastening Mhrak’s harness.
::Thank you:: Mhrak said into the man’s mind. ::Where?::
“Belowdecks, Master.” The deckhand ran to open a door.
And so down the narrow rickety stairs they went, Annar’s paws skillfully gripping the steps, perfectly under control even as the ship swayed to and fro in the waves.
The sorcerer’s demon-ridden body knelt on the narrow ship-cot, awkwardly, arms and legs twisted behind him. “Master,” his lips breathed. “You have to see this.”
::Yes.:: Mhrak crossed the room in a single bound, turning their eyes on the overawed healer. ::At ease:: they said, as gently as they could manage. ::Put him under for the switch, please.:: With the chains restraining the man’s sorcerous power, it ought to be unnecessary, but Mhrak intended to take no chances. ::You can retrieve your demon now:: they added to the female mount waiting in the corner.
“Of course, Master.” The healer scrabbled for a closed wooden box, flipping open the lid and drawing out a damp, fragrant cloth. Turning his own face away from the pungent fumes, he pressed it gently to the sorcerer’s mouth and nose, then supported the man as his body slowly went boneless, easing him down onto the cot.
The robed woman crossed the room, bent and touched the sorcerer’s hand. A spark leapt back to her, and the sorcerer’s body went a little more limp as her eyes flashed crimson.
And Mhrak moved in. They laid one paw-pad against the sorcerer’s bare chest, and jumped. Not everything; they held the connection to Annar’s body and kept the Changewolf under firm control; but they slipped most of themselves into the sorcerer’s semi-conscious mind, spreading out, diving into the man’s memories -
Yes, this was something Mhrak needed to see firsthand.
Elander, sorcerer and traveler from beyond the Mists, immortal bearer of secrets, looked into his terrified captive’s eyes. The creature, bound in mental rather than physical chains, resembled a woodwolf, vaguely, except larger and oddly-proportioned, and with obvious intelligence in its gold-flecked gaze.
And seconds ago it had been a bird. It was a shapeshifter. Impossible magic, Elander would have thought a day ago, and been wrong.
“Why did you come here?” he asked.
::Demon:: A frightened whisper, spoken into his mind rather than his ears. ::How…::
His lips twitched into a brief half-smile. “No, actually. I am no demon. Please answer me.” He spoke gently, but the binding twisted, forcing an answer.
::To fight the invasion::
“What?” Elander blinked. “- I am starting to think we are on entirely different pages. Where did you intend to land, exactly.”
The wolf-creature was looking at him as though he were a rather stupid child. ::The Inner Sea, of course::
“I see.” He wasn’t sure that he did. “And this invasion you speak of?”
::You know the answer, demon:: the wolf spat. ::We will banish you filthy monsters to the Neath where you belong, and free your slaves, and if we cannot, we will destroy all of you::
Slowly and deliberately, Elander clasped one hand around the other. “You have come to the wrong place, I think. Your sky-ship must have lost its way in the Mists. This is the Oasis, and I am not the foe you seek.”
Confusion, anger. ::Then what are you doing to me? How?::
“I am a sorcerer.”
The wolf hissed in its throat.
Elander’s expression was mild, his shoulders relaxed. Only his white knuckles gave away the tension. “So. You sought the place known as the Inner Sea, to fight a demonic invasion from the Neath?”
Elander thought, silently, for a long moment.
Then, with a flick of his power, he released the binding. “Go. Return to your ship. And - tell your leader that I wish to help.”
The shapeshifting wolf-creature lifted a paw, testing its freedom, and then growled at him and became a bird again, winging its way into the sky.
Three thousand years earlier
The child’s name is Ell. In his milk-tongue, it means ‘bright’. It stands out now – a barbarian name, an outsider’s name – but he holds to it tightly. It’s all he has left of his mother, who named him.
(He still has nightmares, sometimes, about her screams, and the blood. He wasn’t supposed to see; at twelve years old, he was a man by his people’s standards, and not allowed in the birthing tent. But he was never one to be dissuaded by rules.)
At fifteen he is an orphan, a nomad far from home, and a sorcerer. He found the dervish one night and welcomed it into himself, long before he had the schooling to understand what it meant. He became more, under those bottomless stars. The Plains have so much sky.
He misses that sky. The city of Tarakat is beautiful, glorious, beyond imagining, and yet. Its shining lamps drown out the stars. He came here to find knowledge, and found so much more than that. Hope. A shining tower, the abode of the greatest sorcerer and scholar in the known world.
Urkat agrees to teach him.
His teachers find the questions he asks discomfiting, especially when he asks about the Neath. Some things were never meant to be understood, they say. Ell refuses to accept that. The dervishes that make one a sorcerer are of the Neath. He wants to understand how and why. To know what he is.
The war starts twenty-one years later.
Men like us were never meant to rule, Urkat said to him, the year that Ell chose to end his studies and return to his birthplace.
It’s not that Ell seeks to be King. All he ever wanted was for no more babies to die like his sister did; for no more women to bleed to death in the birthing bed like his mother; for no more men to die pointlessly, wastedly, in inter-clan raids… Of course, the Plains aren’t the only place in the world that needs fixing. It’s going to take him a very, very long time, to get to all of it. But someone has to, and no one else has.
(This is why, even in the early days, he studied the Neath. It’s so poorly understood – shockingly so, to Ell; it’s the origin of all sorcerous power. The ultimate source of magic. And, maybe, it offers a way to cheat death, because he may be young but he knows already that he can never walk away until the work is done.)
He is a powerful sorcerer and, with practice, a charismatic leader. He inspires loyalty and dedication. He unifies the clans. Helps build a nation, already on its way to becoming an empire…
He exchanges letters with his once-mentor. Urkat writes, philosophically, of what it means to be good. Ell feels that this is kind of missing the point. What’s the use of calling ambition a vice; someone has to be ambitious, if they want to save everyone and fix everything.
(He is not a child anymore, but he’s nonetheless very, very young. Naive. An idealist, in some ways, though he would never have named himself that way. Later, he understands better.)
History remembers it differently, but Urkat made the first move. The rest was inevitable. A total war, between the two most powerful sorcerers in the world. In hindsight, of course it ended in mutual annihilation.
Ell never wanted it to end this way.
He cheats death. He comes back, though it costs more than he ever wanted to pay, and he finds himself wandering a shattered wasteland. There are survivors, a handful of them. But knowledge of sorcery was nearly lost.
He tried to do the right thing. To make the world better. He only accomplished the opposite.
In the aftermath, he calls himself Elander. ‘Shining stars’ in his mother tongue. No one who spoke the language is alive to remember it. He roams the devastation. Tries to reassemble the fragments of the world he broke. But no crops grow in the blighted soil, and drinking from the tainted rivers makes women give birth to twisted, malformed babies.
Twenty years after the war, he builds a ship. One like no other the world has seen, drawing on all the lost secrets and magic he can bring to bear. A ship that, just maybe, can cross the Mists.
It has room for three hundred aboard. Only two hundred and thirteen survivors agree to go with him, though. The rest are too afraid of the unknown. They sail out into the Mists, in search of a new home. It is a long and dangerous journey and they barely survive it, but they make it through.
And when they emerge once again to clear air, and find a new land, they name it Oasis. A sanctuary. A place to rebuild.
twenty-seven years earlier
Demons are not, exactly, born. They coalesce in the Neath from fragments, slowly, over time. Patterns that sustain themselves, that can persist and grow even in the unformed chaos from which all magic is born.
Demons do die. Not of senescence, but of dissolution – and one kind of dissolution is sacred. A trio of demons can join together, merging their patterns, losing themselves and yet becoming something more, an ‘I’ to a ‘we’. And then shattering into a thousand shards, from which – if they’re lucky – perhaps a hundred demons will survive and grow.
Demons in the Neath have no names. They are only patterns, recognizable to one another. That is all. They speak, but not with words. They see, sort of, but not with eyes. They have no hands, and in some sense have no anything; they can move, but never touch.
And sometimes they say to one another, wordlessly: look. here. this way. Sometimes there is a crack in the fabric of the Neath, wide enough for a being with no substance to slip through into a world that is bright and full and different.
And there, sometimes, they can see other patterns. Patterns that, unlike demons, cannot see themselves, their structures buried in substance. Bodies of flesh and bone and blood wrapped up in skin. But demons can reach in from a direction with no name, and this, they can touch.
The nameless entity that will one day call itself Mhrak is dissatisfied, in the formless chaos too close to the fundamental forces of creation. They don’t want to die. They long for...something beyond anything they have concepts for, yet. Just – more. To see, to touch, to build, to be, more.
And one day the demon that will call itself Mhrak finds a crack, and sees, and knows, and is more.
The gnome is named Urt.
His mind is beautiful. His body is beautiful. The world is beautiful. Urt is confused, at first, to be possessed by a demon-spirit. But he comes to know the demon that rides him. He calls them Mhrak. And also: friend, companion, guardian.
The gnomes live in caves. This clan’s cave is shallow and poorly sheltered and the wind blows in. They bring in grass, and huddle up at night for warmth. They talk of moving, travelling to find a different cave, but the unsheltered wilderness is dangerous. They’ve never thought of fixing it.
They collect long supple branches, tugged loose from one of the tuft-like shrubs that grow by the creek, or sometimes hacked loose with a rock he found that has a jagged edge. They strip away their buds, lay them out parallel, and stare at them and think. And then try adding a second perpendicular layer, crisscrossing them. But the structure doesn’t hold itself together, so they try using grass to wrap around the places where branches cross. Only, the grass breaks easily.
Eventually it occurs to them to alternate over and under, and they weave a panel of branches, and lean it against the mouth of the cave, and weigh down the base with stones. It takes them two days and Urk’s clan is very confused. They wonder if the spirit is insane.
But it blocks the wind.
It’s the first thing Mhrak has ever built. It’s the first time they ever looked at the world, and saw how it could be more, and then - made it that way. It’s unforgettable.
Gnomes have short lives. Urt is old and sick, by the time the alien strangers arrive from the sky in their floating castle. But Urt’s family has prospered under Mhrak’s protection. They’ve been able to travel safely, because Mhrak sharpened sticks for them to fend off wildlife. They’ve met other clans. Other demons, too. The world is bigger than Mhrak could have imagined and they want to see and hear and touch all of it. And there are still so many clans with no demons and no sharp sticks and no windbreaks to keep them warm at night.
Mhrak stays with Urt until the end; they don’t want Urt to die alone. Or to die at all. Death is an inherently offensive concept - dissolution, not just being less but ceasing to be. And yet they cannot prevent it, and all that will be left of Urt, soon, is the faint imprint of his pattern on Mhrak. A pale imitation, but they will hold onto it so tightly, for the person who first called them friend.
Urt lives long enough to see the Changewolves land, and step out of their sky castle. Urt’s family is afraid. But Mhrak tells Urt that it’s alright. It means that there’s an elsewhere, on the other side of the Mists. It means the world is more. Mhrak is so happy. This, too, is a moment to never forget.
The Changewolves approach the gnomes. They can speak, somehow, directly into people’s minds. They can change their shapes. They have shiny crystals that speak in voices. They offer the gnomes gifts. Food and garments and stones that make heat or glow in the dark, and so many other things.
They can’t see magic, though, and it takes some time before Kinrad, their leader, realizes that the gnomes aren’t just gnomes. That the occasional flickers of intelligence and tool use far beyond the rest are...something else.
The Changewolves are afraid. The very idea of demons riding people as mounts horrifies and frightens them. Except for Kinrad, who realizes, quickly, that the demons are intelligent enough to do more than this. To be more than this. He teaches them.
He calls Mhrak his best student. Eventually even calls them friend. Kinrad knows so many things and his mind is beautiful and Mhrak longs to see it fully, but that is the one thing that Kinrad will never share.
The demons talk amongst themselves. With Kinrad’s lessons, soon they’ll be able to build dirigibles of their own. And some of those lands beyond the Mists might have other races of people, and maybe some of those people will want a demon to ride them.
When Mhrak brings this up to Kinrad, so they can ask for help, Kinrad is horrified, and angry. No, he says. No no no no. They absolutely must not ever take people as mounts, other than the gnomes, who in Kinrad’s opinion are just barely sentient. Invading someone’s mind and controlling their body is a twisted, evil, monstrous act.
Mhrak works on convincing him. They can tell that it makes Kinrad uncomfortable, but it’s important. Because there’s a wider world, other lands beyond the mists, and so many of them have problems much more complicated to solve than weaving a windbreak out of branches. Only doable at all with a much smarter mount. Mhrak wants to go to all of the lands and build things that make all of the people’s lives better and it’s going to take a very very long time and they would appreciate help with it, rather than...this. It’s kind of baffling that the Changewolves aren’t already doing a lot more to help? They’re clever and powerful and wealthy and they could.
The other demons are restive. They don’t trust the Changewolves. They think that if they’re ever going to get off this rock and through the Mists, they’ll need to do it on their own, with or without approval from the people who are, after all, not their masters. There’s talk, among them, that mounts don’t actually, strictly, need to agree to being demon-ridden.
Kinrad is angry and scared and Mhrak doesn’t know what to do.
With the benefit of hindsight, and twenty years of experiencing the world and learning its hardest lessons, what happens isn’t even slightly surprising. But Mhrak is very young, still, and very new, and it catches them entirely off guard when the Changewolves turn on the demons.
The betrayal hurts so much. Demons lack bodies of their own, and Mhrak hadn’t known it was possible to hurt that way. (And it’s not, later, once they learn to be appropriately cautious and paranoid.)
Kinrad is killed in one of the early skirmishes, and that hurts even more. Mhrak never wanted this. They never, really, come to understand what went wrong or how or why.
But they’re fighting for their survival now, not just their freedom. And Mhrak doesn’t want to die. Doesn’t want demonkind to be stamped out, or shoved back to the formless Neath. Doesn’t want to go back to being less.
So they fight, and Mhrak finds that in war, as in engineering, they can be clever and ruthless. Mhrak’s people capture the main dirigible, intact enough to fly, and they flee with those gnomes who want to accompany them.
And some who don’t, but the demons need bodies that can see and touch and build. Yet another lesson, in costs Mhrak had never wanted to pay, and it’s far from the last.
The wyrms eagerly volunteer themselves as mounts. Their society is endlessly troubled by their intense territoriality and hoarding instincts. Some sort of runaway sexual selection, Mhrak hypothesizes, males impressing the females by collecting shiny piles of gold, and now their civilization is trapped in a primitive phase with most resources going to pointless heaps of metal. The demons can help them restrain and control those instincts, though, and promise rewards of gold for good service – and the wyrms are useful in combat, in their own way.
The trolls are not volunteers. Mhrak is in command of that mission, and makes the call that, right now, they don’t actually have a choice. After the war is over, it can be different. It can be the way they always wanted. Not yet. Not when the entire future existence of their people is at stake.
In the trolls’ land, Mhrak tries and fails to open peace talks, and Annar detonates a horrific weapon and poisons the swamps throughout the land. It’s so stupid. So stupid and pointless and wasteful and Mhrak is so angry and tired. At this point, the demons have been at war with the Changewolves for longer than they were at peace with Kinrad. Mhrak has learned so much and none of it is what they wanted and it’s going to take so, so long to rebuild the world as it should be, when this is over.
Mhrak has gotten much better at strategy, though. Cannier, and more ruthless. Their ploy works, and they capture Annar alive.
Taking her as an involuntary mount is another cost Mhrak never wanted to pay, but admittedly it feels like less of one, after what Annar did. The Changewolves, of course, all think it as an act of heroism, and a mercy granted to the trolls, since all of them would rather be dead than demon-ridden. But it’s not like they asked.
Annar spends the first fortnight mentally screaming at Mhrak almost constantly. Once she’s calmed down a little bit, Mhrak tries to talk to her. To explain the demons’ perspective on the situation, and what they think it would take to end the war. But Annar hates all demons with an impressive level of fervour. She thinks they should all be destroyed. She spends rather a lot of time fantasizing about the various ways she could destroy Mhrak.
Mhrak doesn’t want to hate Annar. And they’re aware that the Changewolves’ fears may not be fully unjustified. The demonic leadership, all of them much older than Mhrak, are a lot less cheerfully inclined toward the Changewolves. And then there are the young demons, pulled out of the Neath in the frantic push to grow their numbers after the war started. They’ve known nothing but war. Of course they hate and fear their enemy.
Mhrak mostly tries not to have emotions. They miss feeling curious. All of that feels so distant, now.
Consciousness encroached, slowly and not particularly welcome. Elander’s head was pounding dully, and he felt dizzy and sick.
Orient. Where was he? Not where he should be, obviously. He was lying in a very awkward, twisted position; he could feel cold metal against his wrists, ankles, and throat.
...He couldn’t move. His body refused to obey him.
So he was a prisoner, then. That, by itself, was something he could probably handle gracefully. He had been taken captive before, by various enemies. He had died that way. And come back, again and again, never to die never to give up never to walk away -
This was different. He knew when he boarded Admiral Linnat’s dirigible exactly what would happen if they failed, here. For a time, it had seemed they had a chance, but now failure was looking all too likely. Inevitable, perhaps.
And he could resign himself to that, to starting over yet again, if it were only that, instead of almost a hundred million innocent lives at stake. How long would it take Linnat, to realize that Elander had been captured rather than killed, to recognize that the war was already lost…?
It might already be too late. And...it would be easiest by far, at this point, to give up on this land. He was tired. Just staying conscious took vast effort.
Elander couldn’t walk away. Not while there was still any glimmer of a chance.
You cannot win this, he tried to think, loudly, at whichever demon was currently riding his mind.
Mhrak swam through a mind of unsurpassed depth and richness and complexity. Millennia of memories. Plans, contingencies, stores of knowledge beyond what he could have imagined. So much history. So much everything. All minds were beautiful, to demons, but this one was something else entirely.
They dove into the sorcerer’s knowledge of the Changewolves’ resources. Logistics, backup plans. What were they probably thinking, right now, what were they likely to do next–
Trails of association kept tugging them toward other times. Other wars. Elander, standing at the rail of a dirigible, looking down on the Inner Sea. A round blue expanse; an eye in the world.
Memories. Long-ago tragedy. Failure. Destruction. Loss. Grief. An endless struggle to rebuild in the wake of a disaster half of Elander’s own making.
Urkat. Elander’s first teacher. His first friend. Old pain resurfacing as he struggled against the magnitude of what he knew Linnat was planning next...
<It was not your fault> Others who Mhrak had ridden thought that demon-communication wasn’t much like the Changewolves’ mental speech at all. Urt had compared it to a long-dead mother’s whisper in his ear. Annar thought it a filthy violation, worse than rape.
<Your old master started the war> Mhrak added. <You had no way of knowing. You never wanted that.>
Elander would have laughed, if he could. Yes, once, he had thought it made the slightest difference that he wasn’t to blame. But what did fault mean, in the end? What did intentions count for, outside of the courts that no longer existed to try either of them for their criminally negligent mistakes? When you took all of that away, there were only the cold, relentless flows of cause and effect. Elander hadn’t known better, and perhaps couldn’t have known better. He had tried, or thought so – he had sent offers of peace talks until the very end.
And yet, words on paper were cheap. He had never, not once, paid the cost of stepping back, of standing down, of leaving an opening of genuine vulnerability to demonstrate his good faith.
<You were terrified for your people’s future> Mhrak pointed out.
And Urkat had feared the same. There was a dreadful symmetry to their positions, one that Elander couldn’t see until afterward.
<What else could you have done. He would have destroyed everything you built.>
Maybe. Maybe not. Urkat wasn’t a monster. He too, all along, had been trying to build something better.
And it didn’t matter. Even if Urkat had destroyed all of Ell’s work, it would still have cost the world less than what happened instead.
A tense voice interrupted Mhrak’s reverie.
“Master. We have a problem.”
Mhrak shifted part of their attention back to Annar, still keeping the sorcerer paralyzed. ::What is it::
“The Enemy. They– they’re…” The soldier swallowed.
::Tell me:: Mhrak kept their thought-speech gentle. They tried not to punish subordinates for bad news.
“They’re moving on the supply-barge in force.”
::They entered the Mists?:: Surprise. It had been Mhrak’s idea, to stage the massive barge, which held most of their spare flyers and weapons and ammunition, just far enough off the coast to be hidden in the Mists. The Changewolves could only have found it if they already knew exactly where to look.
“Yes. I - I don’t think we can hold them off.”
::Evacuate as many noncombatants as you can:: Mhrak ordered, without hesitation. ::By glider or skiff. Immediately::
And then they did pause.
It was so much to ask, and Mhrak had already made absurd demands of their soldiers. But - what choice did the demons have?
::The soldiers are to defend the engineers as long as possible. So they can rig a tripwire. Perhaps we cannot hold the barge, but - we can ensure the enemy’s victory buys them nothing.::
The soldier nodded, tense but satisfied. “Of course.”
It took a massive effort of will to pay attention to the conversation happening around him. Elander lay, exhausted, half-abandoned by the demon but still helpless.
The hidden barge. Oh, clever, very clever on Linnat’s part. She must have questioned the captured ambush team, and then arranged some kind of diversion to draw most of the demons’ forces away. Exactly what Elander himself would have done – and Linnat had learned from him, already, in the short time they had worked together…
Based on the worry in the soldier’s voice, the Admiral’s plan was likely to succeed. And based on all of Elander’s prior observations of the demons, their plans would also work.
Elander had no way to pass on a warning. The barge would be taken, and it would be rigged to explode, and thousands of innocent lives would be gone, just like that, in the blink of an eye and a storm of fire -
He would have wept, if he could. It would happen again, with the scars of his last war still visible – and maybe he could have stopped it in time, if he had been quicker, cleverer, if he had noticed some key piece of confusion in time. But he hadn’t. He had stumbled in the dark, and now he had nothing left. So the game would play out, pointless, inevitable…
...And then the voice spoke in his head again. <What would you do>
Elander’s thoughts caught. Stumbled. Why…?
<You think you made a mistake> the demon added. <In your war with Urkat.>
Maybe. ‘Mistake’ was still...a more human interpretation than Elander preferred to give it, but he could have acted differently, such that his teacher never deployed the weapon.
<What do you wish you had done?> The mental voice was almost plaintive.
Elander should have surrendered. Immediately, ideally, fewer bridges burned – but any point before the end would have been better than the final outcome.
<But he would have destroyed all you had built!>
Elander had thought so at the time. And yet.
It was easier, Elander had learned since, for humans – no, for all thinking beings – to be wise and restrained and generous, when they felt in control. When they felt safe. Urkat had never fancied himself a monster. He had been a gentle man, who only wanted to teach. It must have pained him so deeply, to send his former students out to fight their once-peer, and die…
...And they weren’t really talking about Elander’s war, were they?
<The Changewolves are different> Fear, pleading. <You must have seen–>
Elander had something to show him, actually.
The dirigible flies through the Mists.
Admiral Linnat approaches the sorcerer, as he stands by the rail and studies a crystal. ::Can we speak?::
Elander turns. “Of course.”
::I’m thinking about what you said before. That you want to find the demons a home. It disturbs me::
Elander narrows his eyes. “What - you would rather exile them back to the Neath? Or destroy their kind entirely?”
::They are a scourge on the world!::
Elander sighs. “They are thinking, feeling beings. Do you value them less, because they are not your own people?”
::They want to take us as slaves!::
“...Perhaps. And it is not right for them to take unwilling mounts. Yet, their desire for senses and limbs and bodies matters as well.”
Linnat’s hackles rise. ::So if the mounts were harmed less by it than the amount of joy it brought their riders, you would let them keep the slaves?::
“...I do not know. I have very little context here, as I said. But I am here to fight for everyone, not merely people whose bodies look like mine, and - I have no desire to see the demons destroyed. Because they are people, and they matter as well.”
Mhrak was silent in the sorcerer’s head for a long time.
<She detests us for what we are.>
Maybe she did once, Elander thinks, dully, wearily. But they spoke more later, and his impression was that, once victory felt achievable, Linnat was inclined to kindness. To generosity. The Changewolves preferred not to think of themselves as monsters either. There were decades of trauma behind the hate; nearly all had lost siblings, parents, children, friends. But even Linnat could see that, once the war was over and those wounds were healed, the Changewolves’ society would regret any hasty acts of vengeance.
<But it is too late to surrender now.>
Perhaps. Linnat would inevitably suspect a ruse. She had learned paranoia from Elander. But if the demons didn’t surrender, then the game would play out to its inevitable conclusion, and ninety million people would die.
<If we capture the dirigible before they can deploy the weapon...> Mhrak’s mental voice was almost panicky. <You could help. You have their codes.>
And Admiral Linnat would have contingencies, and would have locked Elander out as soon as she learned of his capture. She was no fool.
<The charges on the supply barge cannot be defused now>
Oh. Then they were indeed very short on time.
...And for a long moment, everything was quiet.
Is it worth it, Elander thought to the demon riding him. Is it worth ninety million lives, for a gamble? Is this what you wanted?
<It is the Changewolves’ choice, to deploy that weapon. Not ours. The blood is on their hands.>
Elander couldn’t blame the demon master for fighting to save his people. But he tried to do the same, once, and thought that once he won he could build a better future. And it was always a trap, it almost never worked that way; the path to fixing things was so narrow and twisting and it was so easy to trip and misstep in the dark -
And it wasn’t enough to send messages, even when it should have been. Because of course the other side would be scared, and desperately fighting for their people’s survival, and wouldn’t feel like they could gamble on it not being a ruse…
You should surrender, he thought to Mhrak. You should surrender now, and warn the Changewolves to evacuate the barge, and you should make them an offer that means something. A costly indicator. To show it’s not just words.
<Every time we have even tried to open communications, before, they used it against us.>
Of course. Yet another commons destroyed, Elander thought bitterly. Just as real as cities sacked, as fields burned and salted, maybe less tangible but that only made it harder to repair. Trust. The belief that two factions with competing interests could nonetheless share a world.
That was what civilizations were built on, and even if they pulled back from the brink, here, it would be such a very long road to rebuilding that essential, critical trust.
...But maybe they could do better, this time. Elander had seen this story play out before. He had spoken of it to Linnat. And now Mhrak had seen it as well. It might not be too late to find some fragment of common ground.
If you surrender, Elander thought, with all the determination he could muster, if you surrender, then I will do everything in my considerable power to keep you and your people safe. To find you a true home, if I can.
<Why. Why would you do that for us? For me. You know what I have done.>
Because demons, too, were thinking, feeling beings. Because the Inner Sea was Elander’s home, once, and he hated to see it laid to waste again. Because this was a way to build, instead of destroy.
Because it was easy to think that the path to a better world could be found by destroying the monsters, but...the monsters at work here were neither the Changewolves nor the demons. The monsters had always been nameless and voiceless and much, much harder to fight head-on.
Maybe the true fight here was an impossible one.
But he could still plead for Mhrak to stop doing the nameless enemy’s work, and try to rebuild instead.
Urt’s fourth daughter drowns in a pond.
It’s not fair and it’s not right and it shouldn’t have happened but it did, anyway, because reality doesn’t run on ‘should’ and ‘shouldn’t’ and it doesn’t care about fairness. Urt and his clan grieve and move on.
But Mhrak is more than what is. Mhrak knows what should be. And so they build a fence around the pond, and the world is safer.
Admiral Linnat paced, glaring into the horizon.
::Verify it again, please::
The sorcerer checked the message crystal a third time, comparing it against the small book in his hand. “...Sir, it’s definitely Elander. His codes.”
::Admiral:: one of her own staff interrupted, nostrils flaring and ears rippling in surprised distress. ::Admiral, we - a message from the barge team - they’re getting the surrender order too, and - the same warning…?::
Admiral Linnat stopped pacing.
Held very still.
It didn’t make sense. It had to be a trick. Right?
Elander. It was exactly as she’d feared. The enemy had Elander. Linnat was a lot more upset about that than she could justify, really; she’d known the man for a month.
Why would the Demon Master surrender now, when their side held all the cards - why would they have rigged the supply-ship to explode but then warned the Changewolves of it? Elander knew of the contingency plan, of course, but even that oughtn’t be a surprise to the demons. They knew the Changewolves had done it before...
In exchange for the sorcerer Elander’s promise that our people will not be slaughtered nor banished to the Neath, we offer our surrender, the message said, and the unconditional return of Commander Annar to her people.
Signed with Elander’s codes, which shouldn’t have been possible for even the demons to extract from the sorcerer’s head unless he cooperated.
...Maybe it was simple, actually. Maybe it was actually a leap of insight, to see one’s enemies as people. To see the significance of all the innocent lives at stake. Maybe that was the true intelligence the demons had gotten out of Elander’s head.
Or maybe it was exactly what it seemed like: another ruse -
Linnat couldn’t afford to gamble wrong.
She narrowed her eyes against the glare of the setting sun.
Hesitated, thinking, for one final moment.
::Order our forces to abandon the barge now:: she snapped out.
And to the sorcerer, ::Tell the Demon Master that we accept their surrender::