Part 1 - The Enlightened
It was not yet mid-morning, but the Enlightened city was already beginning to suffocate in the dry summer heat. Bleached marble temples sulked next to flaking mudbrick tenements, baking under the pall of dun-coloured smoke raised by dozens of furnaces and tanneries, and by hundreds of street stalls hawking food to rushed workers.
The lifeblood of the city chugged relentlessly on, but it was a strained and furtive pulse. The tenements were marred with discontented graffiti. The workers were cagey and spoke little to each other. And the quality of the meat in the street food was even worse than usual, as the effects of siege rationing began to bite.
As the sun glared down at the smoke-shrouded city, it was greeted by another dusty plume drifting in from the north, following the twisting ribbon of the river. The plume rose from a marching army, slowly grinding its way towards the Enlightened city. Supply wagons kicked up dust from the cracked roads, while leather-clad spearmen tramped across cotton fields and splashed through rice paddies that had been abandoned by the fleeing Lightmen. Despite the heat, the soldiers were singing as they marched - a deep, sonorous chant, syncopated by the stamp of footfalls and the pounding of oxhide drums. They wanted the Lightmen to know that they were coming.
The threatening chant carried down to the city harbour, causing dockworkers to stop and listen fearfully until their overseers roared at them to get on. There was still work to be done, even though only the bravest or most reckless captains were now taking their ships up the river or out into the estuary. Ash longships were prowling down the coast in the wake of their army, and boarding or sinking every Lightman boat they came across. One lucky shipmistress had just dodged the Ash blockade to return with a haul of netted fish. No doubt she had hoped to sell them at a high price in the threatened city. Instead, she found herself arguing bitterly with a customs officer and his escort, who began confiscating half her catch at swordpoint for siege rations.
The only other ship not moored was now rowing its way up the river estuary, having sailed all the way round the coast via the Flint Isle to avoid the encroaching Ashmen. The ship drew in its oars as it bumped up against the pillared wharf, and a deckhand skillfully lassoed a rope around the tying post. The shipmaster - a bearded, big-bellied man who could curse fluently in all the Valley’s main languages - stepped up to the prow and took a great sniff of the stagnant city air.
“Now I remember why I ’ate this fuckin’ city.” he grumbled. He wrinkled his nose and looked back at the eclectic group standing behind him on the deck. “A’right you lot! If yer mad enough to want to run towards the war ’stead of away from it, then here you go. Hop off!”
A deckhand thumped a gangplank down into place, allowing the group to shoulder their belongings and file down onto solid ground once more.
A man who had been standing in the shade of a shop-front awning unfolded his arms and stepped out to meet them. He moved with economical grace in his armour of bronze and leather, and his skin was smooth and tawny-brown. He carried a T-visored helmet in the crook of one muscular arm, and his other hand rested on the pommel of a thick-bladed shortsword. His body was hard, compact - perfectly designed for the efficient application of violence.
“More valiant defenders for the City of the Enlightened, eh?” The man spoke the Light language in a deep baritone, softened by a musical local accent. “You might be the last. Leveler’s army has cut off all the boats further upriver.”
The shipmaster hawked and spat over the gunwhale. “Damn snake-eaters ain’t gettin’ my boat. I’ll moor up down by the cove an’ get the Sun Maid to cast a cloak over it.”
“You do that.” the soldier nodded, turning to the group. He eyed them appraisingly: there was a red-headed man in loose travelling clothes, a scruffy archer, a truculent-looking woman carrying a pickaxe, and a long-haired man with raking scars down his cheek. Perhaps strangest of all was the giant of a man with the iron mask covering his face, like some nightmare rendition of a Lightmen snake-priest.
“Right, lovely boys.” the soldier proclaimed, clapping his hands together. “And girls.” he added, glancing at the taciturn woman. “You can call me Davin, and you can call yourselves late for the muster at the plaza. I know the way, I’ll take you there. All mercenaries together, eh?”
The shipmaster paused to snort as he poled his boat away from the wharf, and pointed at the red-headed man. “That one ain’t a mercenary. He’s a messenger boy. I rowed ’im up an’ down the river to Rise an’ Ash a few times.”
“You mean he’ll deliver anything, to anybody, so long as they pay?” Davin shot back. “Sounds pretty mercenary to me.”
He laughed heartily.
“You’ve come to the right place, lovelies; the Enlightened are pretty keen to share the wealth right now. Course, if they’d shared the wealth earlier and not hogged all the runestones to themselves, they might have some battle mages worth a damn to fight off the Leveler. I hear they even whistled up the Mer for help, can you believe it?”
They struck out into the city, past the irate shipmistress and the customs officers who were confiscating part of her catch.
“You suck.” the shipmistress was sulking, as she plopped herself down on a tying post with her arms and legs tightly crossed.
“Yeah, and you swallow.” the harbour official retorted wearily. “The holy Enlightened make the rules, I just follow them. Now piss off and you might be able to sell the rest of those fish before they rot in this stinking heat.”
As the new arrivals continued into the winding streets beyond the harbour, they could begin to see the logic behind the harsh new policies. The streets were packed to bursting, as local workers shoved and cursed their way through newcomers who had fled to the city in the hope of protection against the approaching army. Every step of the way they were harassed by beggars calling out to them in broken Light, and once Davin had to unsheathe his sword to frighten off a young urchin who tried to dip her hand into his coin purse.
They passed shops that were shuttered closed, building sites where piles of brick and timber stood unworked, and shrines that were crammed back to the approaching streets with fearful, clamouring supplicants. Priests and priestesses in gold facemasks shouted to make themselves heard, urging the crowds to trust in the holy Enlightened.
Eventually the twisting roads opened up into a vast plaza, set below a stepped marble pyramid. Atop the pyramid was an elaborate temple villa, made of gleaming stone - which must have been washed regularly to keep away the greasy brown smoke of the city. No movement was in evidence atop the pyramid, but the plaza was thronged with men and women carrying spears, bows and other more exotic weapons. Their armour was similarly eclectic, and they chattered to each other in a hubbub of different Valley languages. Here and there the group could pick out figures wearing bandoliers and bracelets of smooth stones, etched with swirling symbols, and the air was fizzing with the unmistakable ozone smell of magic potential.
Unlike the streets with their tall buildings and tented awnings, there was no shade from the beating sun in the plaza. Davin pointedly avoided the open space and withdrew beneath another shop front, motioning for the others to join him.
A trumpet blast echoed across the plaza.
“You’re about to be graced with the wisdom of the Enlightened.” Davin said, leaning up against a crumbling mudbrick wall and folding his arms. “Very fond of the sound of their own voices, are the Enlightened.”
* * * * * *
A tall woman clad in flowing blue silks stalked along the marble floor of the temple, her soft shoes masking her footsteps. She was copper-skinned and round-faced, with glossy black hair that had been carefully braided and piled atop her head, resembling the snakes that ringed the golden masks of the city priests. She pushed through the door in front of her without breaking stride, glancing sharply towards the two armed men who flanked it.
“No-one else comes through this door without my say-so, understood?”
“Yes, Blue Lady.” the guards replied hurriedly, and pulled the door shut behind her.
Exhaling, the Blue Lady snatched a clay cup from a tray being held by a nearby servant, and took a drink. The water in the cup was lukewarm. She grimaced, and reached up to flick the cup with her right forefinger. There was a dull crackling sound, and the cup was instantly frosted over with a rime of ice. The Blue Lady felt a warning twinge fizzle up her arm, and reflected that after twenty years of runecasting she should probably not be so flippant with the gods’ gifts. Mortal humans were not born to channel magic after all, and the human body always reached its limit sooner rather than later.
Flexing her hand to dissipate the tingling, she looked around the marble hall. Ahead of her, two spearmen flanked the colonnade leading out to the front steps of the pyramid. A group of masked snake-priests were spaced around the walls - some chanting quiet prayers, others making warding signs towards the recessed bathing pool in the centre of the room. Traditionally, the pool was used to anoint new mages, on the rare occasion that one of the Enlightened deigned to take an apprentice. Now the water was a murky pink, coloured by the bags of mountain salt that the temple servants were busily pouring into the pool.
Standing around the pool were her fellow Enlightened, looking at her with expressions that ranged from curious to guarded. The Rose was studying her with her thin, monolidded eyes, one gull-wing eyebrow raised in silent question. The old, gnarled Hunchback kept glancing down into the pool and biting at his yellowed nails. The umber-skinned Scorpion just stood with arms folded, glaring suspiciously at her.
None of them knew the others’ real names - and even after ten years of nominal alliance, they all still schemed to uncover them when they thought the others weren’t looking. One didn’t become a powerful mage in the Valley without a certain amount of ruthlessness, and those that did never retained their position for long without an almost unhealthy degree of paranoia. The Blue Lady had cast a memory rune upon her own family some years ago, and sent them away to live in one of the coastal villages near the City of the Risen God. Forcing them to mingle with those Risemen heretics was a harsh fate, but still kinder than some of her fellow Enlightened. The Scorpion, for example, was rumoured to have killed his family - although that might have just been a rumour he himself had started, to intimidate his foes.
The Blue Lady was not scared of her fellow Enlightened. The knowledge of thirty eight runes surged through her mind - thirty eight pieces of the Shattered Gods. She knew more of the gods’ dreams than almost anyone in the Valley.
But even she was scared of the Leveler.
And so we are brought to this. She drained her cup and padded softly across the floor to the bathing pool, watching the servants pour salt into the murky water, and watching the shadow that was gliding back and forth beneath the surface.
Suddenly there was a commotion beyond the closed doors behind her.
“I’m sorry m’lady,” the muffled voice of one of the guards sounded, “We’ve orders to…”
There was a moderately loud bang, and a smell of ozone wafted in through the doors as they were flung violently open.
“Out of my way, you fannies!” growled a tiny, wizened old woman as she stormed into the room, past the two singed and rapidly retreating guards.
The Blue Lady flinched. “Will you stop saying that, Crone? This is a temple.”
“Why?” the old woman challenged, adopting a scowl that deepened the lines of her craggy face. “We both have one.”
“I don’t.” said the Hunchback.
“No, but you are one.” the Crone retorted irritably. “Who put guards on the door?”
The Blue Lady shuffled her feet. “That was me.”
“And did you tell them to let no-one in?”
“Obviously I didn’t mean you.” the Blue Lady said, with an exasperated sigh. “If they were a bit literal I apologise. But secrecy is important right now!”
“Oh?” said the Crone, folding her arms and hunching her stooped shoulders. Her eyes were shrewd and searching - young eyes in an old face. The Blue Lady had no idea how old the Crone really was. She might have seen eighty summers, or she might have been only slightly older than the Blue Lady herself, prematurely aged by the rigours of runecraft.
“Yes.” the Blue Lady confirmed. She raised an elegant finger and pointed towards the murky salt-water pool that dominated the room. “And that’s why.”
The water hissed, swirling around the desired location that was marked by the Blue Lady, taking the form of a circle. Foam gathered in response to the increased pace of the water, and the sensation of a new presence was felt by all standing near, as if heralding the coming of new meeting.
And so it was.
The voices were weak at first. Mumbles that stirred as if through a filter, but still detectable. A clicking sound, similar to that made by a dolphin or a whale, but not exactly alike. And when the sound stopped, images poured forth. To each one it was given individually, spilled right into their minds. All experienced something, but each of them saw something else; a different memory, but a welcoming one.
The Rose stepped backwards, frowning, and the Scorpion hissed through his teeth.
“What runecraft is this, Blue?” he shot at his blue-clad counterpart.
“Not mine.” the Blue Lady replied. She thought she knew what was happening. The Mer wanted them at ease.
The Mer arose by splitting the water apart, as effortlessly as if she had been touched by all the runes of the river titan. At first only her head and shoulders were visible, her hair cascading down and thrown over her by the ethereal wind. If her hair had not had such a fiery bright shade, it could have easy passed as water dripping down her blue-tinged skin. Her eyes reflected the deep depths, but they glittered in the torchlight of the temple, appearing alien azure - a shade much more beautiful and bright than that of the Blue’s Lady’ attire.
The Crone inhaled sharply, and most of the priests standing around the hall drew back, making warding signs with their hands. The Mer swam closer to the edge of the pool, but not close enough to touch, as if still testing their reaction.
“You brought…” the Hunchback began, staring at the ethereal creature.
The Scorpion talked over him, rounding on his fellow Enlightened. “You brought a fucking Mer into our temple, Blue? Have you gone soft in the head!?”
“This is heresy.” the Rose agreed, uneasily.
“Their kind were banished.” the Scorpion rejoined. “Did our grandfathers fight the War of Faith for nothing?”
“Oh shut your faces.” the Crone growled. “I assume Blue has a good reason for all this.” She narrowed her eyes at the Blue Lady. “You do have a good reason for all this, I trust?”
“Desperate times.” the Blue Lady said, stepping out of her slippers and striding down into the salty pool. The water lapped at the hem of her gown, staining the material a darker blue.
“Not this desperate.” the Scorpion hissed. “Are we not the will of the gods?”
“Not for much longer if the Leveler gets here.” the Blue Lady countered. She took a deep breath. “This...is the Ambassador.”
The Mer nodded without a word. She seemed to understand, but was not yet willing to communicate by manner of words. As the silence lengthened, the Blue Lady’s fellow Enlightened were clearly wondering if she was capable at all.
“An impressive entrance.” the Crone observed dryly, and put her hands on her narrow hips. “But for an ambassador she doesn’t say much, does she?”
For another long moment there was silence, broken only by the uncomfortable shuffling of feet as the humans and the alien Mer stared at each other.
“Are we supposed to talk first?” the Hunchback ventured.
The Blue Lady chewed the inside of her cheek. She looked into the Mer’s azure eyes, which gazed back placidly. “Umm...so, like I said down at the seafront, we need your help.”
“We don’t need anybody’s help.” the Scorpion scoffed. “We require service.”
“Service is a strong word…” the Hunchback said hesitantly. “How about assistance?”
“Collaboration?” offered the Rose.
“Shut up.” suggested the Crone, rolling her eyes. She leaned over the edge of the pool towards the silent Mer.
“There’s a bad...witch...coming.” she enunciated with condescending slowness.
The Blue Lady gripped the bridge of her nose.
“She wants to burn...down...our...city. Can you help us out with that or not?”
The Mer nodded again, but then pushed her shoulders and arms out of the water and waved her hands together, spreading them apart and then slowly turning to move them over her face, hiding it from view.
All five Enlightened stared at her blankly.
When the Mer realised the meaning was lost to them, she swam much closer, and soon reached the edge of pool, and just like that she began to crawl and climb onto the dry land, water dripping from her naked body and her monstrous fishtail, her blue-tinged skin glowing. The Blue Lady understood that the Ambassador was taking a great risk by moving outside the water, but it seemed like she either was naive to believe that none of them would harm her, or she thought that their minds were in such disarray that she decided to risk approaching them directly.
Soon the Ambassador’s tail vanished, and instead she sprouted legs, mottled with the same scaly texture. The metamorphosis drew yet another gasp from the priests - even with runes, no human could change their gods-given form. It was against the will of the shattered pantheon.
Or at least, the Blue Lady reflected, it had been until a few weeks ago.
The Mer crouched and used her hands to push herself up, and then she started to stand, but it took her some effort until she fully gained her balance.
“Umm…” said the Rose, averting her eyes.
It seemed that the idea of modesty was lost to their guest. The Hunchback tilted his head, and turned to the Scorpion to nod appreciatively, but received only a slap in response.
“Abomination.” the Scorpion scowled.
“Oh for gods’ sake,” muttered the Crone, and snapped her fingers at the nearest priest.
The man crept forwards, his golden snake-mask failing to hide his apprehension. “Yes, holiness?”
The Crone gestured at the naked Mer. “Your toga, if you’d be so kind.”
“My…?” The priest faltered. “For the unbeliever, holiness?”
“Yes,” the Crone affirmed impatiently, “Or you’d best believe I’ll fire you over the city walls. I can’t be bothered watching Rose and Hunchback gawp like a pair of schoolkids.”
Reluctantly, the priest stripped down to his under-tunic and handed his toga to the Blue Lady. The Enlightened mage took the garment and gently wrapped it round the uncomplaining Mer, who seemed slightly bemused by the whole exchange.
Once it was done, the Ambassador started to walk in their direction, looking from one Enlightened to another and reaching one of her hands forward. Scorpion stepped backward, grimacing as if he feared a plague. Rose and Hunchback hesitated. In the end it was the Blue Lady that moved for her.
Once their fingers touched, the Blue Lady felt a tingle of pain, similar to the casting of a rune. Not so sharp a pain though - something very subtle, a sensation of a light pinch or needle sting. She twitched, shaking her head.
Several of the priests stepped forward, eager to leap at the two as they sensed a threat, but the Blue Lady halted them in place, trying to learn more of this strange behaviour and what the Mer was trying to accomplish.
“Words…” the Mer said in perfect Light, opening her eyes, “Words changed.”
Her voice lilted in the strange Mer accent, rising and falling like the gentle crashing of surf. She let go of the Blue Lady’s hands.
“So much has changed…landwalker are a cause of a change…” The Mer looked at the Blue Lady, “This…new change…one of you, is it now?”
“Yes.” The Blue Lady said, while her fellow Enlightened watched suspiciously. “She calls herself the Leveler. She has an army and she’s bringing it to destroy us.”
“Landwalkers… always quarrel. Not a change. Destroy others. Kill mer. Fight for more land. Not a change at all.”
Her delivery was monotone, yet still the Blue Lady could see her fellow Enlightened seething. “Not like this.” she argued. “The Leveler has a new power...power that we thought only you Mer could have.”
Around her she could see the priests making their warding gestures again, and the Rose joined them.
“People fleeing before her have said they saw her change her form.”
“The art was not a Mer’s gift alone. But it was shunned. Forsaken. Killed. Like the Mer.” The Ambassador’s eyes averted away from all those present. “But… As I glanced through the memories to learn of the words you landwalkers use now… I noticed... a feeling. Fear. Something which is unlike you, lady in sea clothing. Why?”
The Blue Lady tried hard to conceal her shock and discomfort. It had been claimed that some Mer could read minds by touch, but she had never seen it done, and she had not realised that that was what the Ambassador had been doing when they joined hands.
“The Enlightened fear nothing.” the Rose interrupted, warningly.
The Mer throw her gaze at the woman, as if stabbing her with her eyes alone, “No fire in sight. Wander forever without a sight. But what if they come from out of there? In a place where you have no control.”
The Blue Lady had no idea what she was talking about, but the Rose evidently did, because she went very still and swallowed hard.
The Ambassador then looked at the Scorpion. “They will come, crawl over you, around your body, into your clothes, hiss with gentle wave of wings, gentle sound… but not so gentle on the skin. Scorpion is a poor name for one with such fear.”
The Scorpion’s neck muscles twitched, as if words he wanted to speak were congealing in his throat. Even the Crone seemed lost for words.
The Mer looked at the Blue Lady. “Fear is part of everyone. It will be a mistake not to acknowledge it.”
The Blue Lady took in a deep breath and let it out, raggedly. “Yes. We’re afraid. We’re all afraid! The Leveler is coming with magic that shouldn’t be possible!”
“Why aren’t you preparing for war, then? Surely landwalkers proved more than once, that they are capable to silence any threat, be it real or imaginary... Or maybe, this change...will prove to be a needed one instead?”
“Preparing for…?” the Hunchback spluttered, and waved a gnarled hand in the vague direction of the colonnade leading out onto the plaza. “Didn’t you see…?”
“This is asinine.” the Crone growled. “We’re talking about a wizard who can reshape the whole Valley, and trample over all of us to do it! Is that a change that you think is needed!?”
“You think only with your eyes.” The Ambassador covered her face with her hands; the same gesture she had made in the pool. “What about the others, those that you don’t give the time of your day to. Can you honestly say even, that all under you are thinking as you do? What this Leveler hopes to accomplish… from what I saw… was very noble and justified, was it not?”
The Mer stared at the Blue Lady. The copper-skinned witch sighed, knowing that she understood - and if not agreeing with the Ambassador’s words, then still seeing the reason in them. To the Mer, there was not a single truth. The Ambassador would deem the way that they humans behaved and acted - or even the way they thought - as meaningless.
“I assume you’re referring to the Leveler overturning the old order in the city of Ash.” the Blue Lady said quietly. “Yes, she freed the slaves, but do you know what happened when she did? Thousands died. If she comes here to overthrow us, then thousands more will die. If she’s so noble, then why is she sending her army here, when last year we had peace with the Ashmen?”
The Blue Lady folded her hands over her stomach and exhaled.
“I can see you don’t believe me. Well see for yourself at least.” She pointed out towards the sunlight beyond the stuffy temple. “Look at the army the Leveler is bringing to kill us all. And if you see the Leveler herself, pray to whatever gods you mer believe in that she kills you quickly.”
The Mer moved slowly and started to walk around the woman in blue, “No. You don’t believe in that. You may think you do, you may convince yourself that is the truth, but you doubt…”
The Ambassador stopped and closed her eyes. She appeared to be mesmerised as she recited the words - words which, the Blue Lady now realised, she saw engraved within her own mind.
“The one you call Leveler won’t stop there. No she won’t. And she will call to the Mer… they will flock to her like hungry birds and she will deliver, just to spite the rest of us a little more. And the Mer are simple, they will not rebel. Not unless given a reason to. And she won’t give them a reason to. And in her hands she will hold the Book, a gift from her new allies, and around her an army growing ever stronger. No. We Enlightened must be first to get to them. We must convince them to give us the Book first.”
The Mer opened her eyes and stared at the silent mages.
“The Book?” the Hunchback asked, “What Book?”
“The book of true names.” the Rose answered him, folding her arms. “A few generations ago, a mage from the City of Ash managed to create a spell that would write down the true names of everyone who had ever been born or ever would be. As soon as he realised what he’d created he threw it into the sea, because he thought that only the Mer could be trusted not to use that kind of power.”
“Well that was smart.” the Crone said, acidly. “The Leveler’s true name would be very useful right now, since seemingly no-one can take her in a straight fight. The refugees coming down from the mountains were claiming that they saw her kill the Immortal, and he was pretty much the most dangerous wizard out there until she showed up.”
The Blue Lady chewed the inside of her cheek and looked at the Mer Ambassador. “She’s right. No-one has ever had power like the Leveler’s before. She could become anything, recover from any wound...if the legends are true she could even make herself live forever! And if you Mer know everything you claim to know, you must see that she could overturn the whole world with a power like that. She might promise your people peace but she’s a liar.” The Blue Lady balled her fists, vehement. “She’s a liar. No-one with the power of a god uses it only for the good of others.”
The Ambassador blinked her cerulean eyes. “So much noise from all of you. You speak of such danger that requires the knowledge of names. A power that should never be given to any of you landwalkers. You are too young. Unworthy… But,” The Mer moved a little further away from the Enlightened, even as they bristled at her words. “There is such a sensation of wounded pride. Coming here. Hearing me speak. This all upset you greatly, and you would have rather avoided it if possible… So you must be sincere...”
The Mer closed her eyes.
“Very well, I will see this danger with my own eyes. I will form a temporary pact with you. I must consider the will of my people if they are to be hurt, but if no harm is to befall them… perhaps it won’t be you that shall be given our support. It is a risk. A double edged sword. Are you willing to accept the conditions?”
“Do we have any other choice?” the Crone asked, arching her eyebrows. Next to the pool, the Scorpion clenched his fists, but said nothing.