A Photograph, a Ghost, and Some Goats

Shout out to Lellis and the imaginary goats that scream at her while she sleeps.

Disclaimer: This is a work of fiction. Any resemblance to real people and/or goats is purely coincidental.

 

One day, when minding my own business, I heard a knock on the door. I reluctantly got up and answered, but there was no one in sight – just a photograph dropped to the ground. It showed the silhouette of a woman in a dress, or perhaps a witch’s robe, against the backdrop of a forest.

I stared at it for a while. I could feel something not quite right about it – as if it shouldn’t be here. Logically, my first assumption was that it was a cryptic message from the future. It was exactly the kind of thing I’d leave if I wanted to send a cryptic message. I thought long and hard, and came to some conclusions: The silhouette must symbolise a question of identity – I could see the shape of a person, but not the person herself. The forest must symbolise growth. I thought perhaps I was being warned not to let my personal growth erase my identity. Or maybe, the fact that the silhouette was standing in front of the forest portrayed the idea that rejecting the concept of a distinct identity can unlock new growth for a person. Quite conflicting ideas? Both equally justifiable? Maybe that’s what my messenger wanted me to think: “cryptic messages are terrible, so when you get to the future and send your past self a message, be sure to make it clear.”

In fact, when I turned it over, those exact words were written on the other side, signed with my own name.

Fast forward a couple of years, and I’ve built a time machine, but other than that, life is roughly the same, until one day, when minding my own business, I heard a knock at the door. I reluctantly got up and answered, but there was no one in sight – just a photograph dropped to the ground. Sounds familiar? Yeah, it was the same photograph, but no message on the back. I spent hours trying to guess meaning from it until I angrily scribbled on the back “cryptic messages are terrible, so when you get to the future and send your past self a message, be sure to make it clear.”

I signed it, sent myself back in time, placed it on my doorstep, knocked, and left. I realise now that I could have just put that note on the fridge for present-me and there was no advantage of sending it to past me… but in my defence, I was too annoyed to think clearly at the time.

Another year or so later, I met a woman in a bar and bragged about my time machine. She came back to see it, but it turns out she was only in the country on holiday. We took one trip in the machine, going back a few years, where she wrote and posted a letter. I thought little of it, until we got home, and she wasn’t there anymore. She was gone, but I had vague memories of her from my past.

You don’t play around with a time machine without experiencing the weird feeling of arriving back in your time to find new altered memories of the past. This time it was different though. Usually the memories settle within a few minutes as you readjust to the new timeline. Usually, any paradox is somehow inexplicably resolved by the universe and filtered out of your memory – but seemingly arbitrarily, some paradoxes cause a big mess.

I found out later than the letter she sent was one she had written to herself saying something along the lines of “You should spend a year in this country and befriend the time-travel guy so you can steal his machine.”

Clearly, it didn’t work as I still had the time machine, despite my new memories of her having been around and being uncomfortably nosy around it. I waited a few days, hoping the memories would settle but eventually I cracked, and set out on a mission. Not knowing how I knew, I followed a hidden trail. Almost subconsciously, I booked trains and flights and cars until I found myself trekking nervously into a dark forest in Sweden, armed with only a camera. A shadowy form slipped past the corner of my eye. I spun to look – and saw nothing. Turning back around, a figure was there – nothing more than a silhouette against the trees. I remembered the photograph, and took it.

The next thing I knew, I was slowly regaining consciousness in an unknown location.

The first sense to return was my hearing, as diabolical screams filled my ears.

A few seconds later, I became visually aware of my surroundings. There were goats everywhere – unexpected, but it relieved my fear that I had died and gone to hell and the screams were demons.

It was only after several minutes of looking around at these screaming goats that I realised I was a tree –but not even the good kind of tree. No. Not even a real one. I was a tacky pantomime prop tree.

And then I saw that she was there. Not a silhouette, though still barely physical in form, but unmistakeably, it was her – the woman from the bar – the ghost from the forest.

“It’s you…” I began, struggling to be heard over the screaming goats, stopping when I realised I no longer knew her name.

Nor did she. “I am the Swedish Forest Ghost now, that is all I know…”

“Why am I a tree?”

“That is how it is. To sustain my existence I must separate souls from their forms. Don’t ask me how that works, you’re the time travel expert… But I don’t like to leave the souls abandoned – that would be cruel!”

“But why put the souls into these horrible props?”

“They’re the only ones I can afford… This is a charitable venture after all!”

“Okay, but why props at all and why here? Wait, what charity?”

“I have to put the souls where I can ensure they’re safe, and this is the only place I can do that – my Opera School for Disadvantaged Deaf Goats. I feel like being charitable helps redeem me for what I have to do to people’s physical forms… at least a tiny bit…”

“I’d rather be a hopeless disembodied soul!” yelled another tree from across the room.

The ghost looked apologetically at it, and carried on, “These poor deaf goats just want to sing, and I can grant that wish. There’s nothing more I can do for the tree-people…”

“Wait!” I exclaimed, “Maybe there is! The last photograph on my camera! Take it to my time machine and deliver a message to past-me not to let the Swedish woman use the time machine! We can undo all this!”

“That might work!” she said, grabbing my camera from a nearby table and running out of the room.

I shouted after her, “Wait! I didn’t tell you what to say! Don’t just leave the photograph, that would be too ambiguous!”

Unfortunately, just as I began to say that, the goats reached the dramatic climax of their rehearsal, and my voice was drowned out in the noise. I have to say though, she’d done a good job training them to sing when you consider they were all deaf and all they could do was yell.

Obviously, sending the photograph back with no message did nothing but start this whole mess – but my fate was not to be a tree forever. When she finally returned, the Swedish Forest Ghost had brought my time machine back to the opera school with her, and told me about a plan she had thought of.

She dragged the time machine and my tree-form all the way to the forest, and warped us back to the moment of disembodiment. Before I realised the time had already come, I felt my soul leap from the tree into the lifeless body that my past-soul had just been sucked out of. As I fell to the ground and scrambled to my feet, I watched my own disembodied soul get crammed into a tree prop and carried away.

Beside me, the Swedish Forest Ghost stood and put a hand on my shoulder.

“You are free,” she said with a smile.

I thanked her and told her she could keep the time machine to try to free the other souls – I didn’t want it any more after all the trouble it had caused. We went our separate ways with the promise of staying in touch. I said I’d try my best to make her human again, but she told me she had grown to love being a spooky forest ghost and didn’t want to go back.

The next time I saw her was at the first performance of the opera goats. They were awful – but it was still fairly impressive when you considered that they were deaf goats.

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The Fisherman’s Sock

In the upper dock district of Ossoria, a lone figure walks down the street. She is carrying a can of paint. She stops outside a tavern – The Fisherman’s Sock – and paints one word on the wall:  Glymmph.

She waves a hand around the word, and the paint dries in seconds. She then takes up her paintbrush once more, and draws a circle round the word, and a line across it. In the next moment, she is a cat, and in the moment after that, she is halfway down the street.

At the sound of the paint can rattling to the ground, a man storms out of the tavern. He looks at the graffiti and laughs. “Hah!” he shouts down the street in case the culprit is still in earshot. “You vandals wrote what I was already thinking! If it keeps those shapeshifting creeps away then it’s a bloody good thing!”

He walks back into his bar and tells the customers what was written, which gets a big cheer.

 

Meanwhile, the cat becomes a wolf and howls. She then becomes human again, and saunters up the road and into the tavern. She goes up to the bar and says, “Your finest ale, sir! I like the sign. ‘bout time someone made a stand against those awful creatures!”

After enough time as to not seem suspicious, a man walks in and says something similar. He adds, “Did you read the Nightly Bulletin yesterday? Apparently those glymmph freaks have detachable genitals that they store in buckets of water overnight!”

“Yeah, I did read that!” says the tavernkeeper with loud passionate rage. “And when they’re done with the bucket, they toss the water back in the reservoir! Disgusting!”

The evening goes on, and business is surprisingly good tonight. Several new faces are seen and then by the end of the night, the money doesn’t quite add up to the amount of beer sold, but the tavernkeeper puts it down to his inability to keep up.

“I’m Ymaramaia,” says the graffiti woman, to the man who arrived after her.

“Arraframafra,” he replies.

“Yeah I know who you are. It was a pretty bold move to namedrop your own fake newspaper. I like that.”

“Thanks. I like your graffiti. Same time tomorrow?”

She nods. He turns into an owl and flies away. She turns into a cat – her favourite shape – and slinks off into the darkness.

The next night, the tavern is even busier. The rumours are even wilder. And each subsequent night, the trend continues. Within a month, the customer population at the famous “No-Glymmph” tavern is more than two-thirds glymmph. And there’s even a glymmph working the bar, making sure that when drinks are bought, the glymmph underpay and the humans overpay, and poor old Merrid the tavernkeeper ends up with less money than he thought he was going to.

But jokes grow old, so all of the glymmph meet in secret. Ymaramaia conveys the plan – it was her prank so she gets to decide the big finish.

They know it’s going to be good, so even more glymmph than usual come along to The Fisherman’s Sock tonight. Merrid is overjoyed at the best night of business he can remember, when suddenly, the music stops. When he looks round, the musicians are monkeys. The humans turn to them in shock and anger, and the glymmph do the same, but with subtle winks to the monkeys. Then, as everyone surges forward toward the monkeys as a raging mob, all but five of the crowd turn into all manner of animals and swarm out the door. The five guests and poor old Merrid the tavernkeeper are left standing watching the scene at a loss for words (and money). None of the animals even look back.

 

 

 

 

The Gap in the Lore

Note: This sort of follows on from Unnb. Reading that first would provide useful context to some things in this story.

 

Looking quietly over Lok-Fen from dry land, Sann Varin scrawls observations in a tiny notebook. It is a resilient little thing, battered but not defeated by years of water damage. Similar things could be said of old Sann himself, for life in Dralkwood is not easy, but he is a druid and would not choose any other life. Amongst themselves, druids pass on knowledge through song and story, but they understand the power of the written word, and so Sann Varin writes and writes and does so meticulously. The scribbled contents of his notebook, should anyone manage to read his shaky handwriting, are the most direct and detailed source of information humankind has on the fenfolk. In the druidic circles, there are three fields of expertise: fauna, flora, and fae. The fenfolk either fit into none of these categories or all three. It is not clear, even to the likes of Sann. The inherent connection between everything alive and the world itself is core to the druidic belief system, but the ancient Lore never mentioned creatures as ambiguous as the fenfolk. This is why Sann must study them and write everything down. The gap in the Lore must be filled.

Until recently, Sann had never seen a fen creature leave the boundaries of Lok-fen. It was simply the way of things, he gathered. Most people, even druids, could not tell one from another, but Sann knew this individual, at least. It was the same fenling leaving every time, and every time they looked around as if afraid when passing the boundary. Many times Sann had silently stalked them, but this time is different.  The fenling sees him, and lumbers quickly back home. Sann writes this down.

The next day, to his surprise, Sann sees the creature again. He used to wait many days between sightings, but their ventures beyond the fen are getting more frequent. Apparently seeing a human has not put them off. Sann hums a gentle melody, normally used to calm restless fae. He hopes it will mean something to the fenling, and that they will understand he is not a threat. The plan works and the creature does not back off as he approaches. He stops three paces away, and looks up into their dark green eyes. The fenling would have towered above any human. Sann was around average height in his youth, but the slight hunch age has given him makes the size difference even more dramatic.

He has used his skills to listen every day from afar, and has tried to make sense of their language, but with only a little success. He attempts to introduce himself. “Hu Gnn buk Sann Varin.”

“Saannvvrinbk’bnu Kuumm…” The words seem to bubble up from within the fenling over a deep bass undertone. Sann doesn’t know whether the reply means “Sann Varin who is unknown” or “Sann Varin who does not know”, but at least the fenling seems to understand that he had said his name.

“Huugnnbk Unnb,” says Unnb. That was what Sann had meant, but he could never manage the pronunciation of those five consonants in a row.

“I am glad to speak with you, Unnb,” says Sann. He then tries to say it in the fen language, to a bemused stare from Unnb.

Unnb hands him an algae-covered stone, then turns and hurries away.

The stone would seem meaningless to most people, but Sann can sense subtle magic within. It’s not the active and vibrant magic of sorcerers, nor the mystical forces of the fae, but a passive essence of natural power not unlike that which druidic lore is based on. Sann is sure it wasn’t a meaningless gesture. Unnb must have known or guessed that it’s something Sann can work with. He stays up late into the night, trying to get a feel for it. After some hours, he has a sense of it. He can make his power flow to the same pattern as that of the stone. He goes to sleep, pleased with his progress.

The next day, he takes the stone with him and waits. Sure enough, Unnb comes to him. Sann lets his power match that within the stone and speaks his own language. Through the magic stone, Unnb understands. He tells them about the druidic circle, and his efforts to understand the fenfolk. Unnb tells Sann about life in the fen and their unique yearning to see beyond, and the impossibility of that dream. They ask each other question after question until Unnb can no longer comfortably stay out of the fen. Sann promises to help Unnb find a way to last longer on dry land and says goodbye.

In one short conversation, Sann has learned more about the fenfolk than in years of observation. As Unnb lumbers away, Sann comes as close to jumping for joy as his old bones can handle, and then heads back to camp to tell the other druids what he’s learned.

Meanwhile, Unnb’s usually slow consideration of things reaches new paces as they consider the possibilities of what Sann might have to show… and what might happen if the Druumm knew about any of this. The fear of getting caught makes it all the more exciting, an emotion generally unfamiliar in fenfolk communities.

 

Jack Scrap

Jack Scrap was primarily comprised of scrap metal and wood. To say it looked as if he had been thrown crudely together in a hurry would be generous. Little attention had been paid to proportion – most notably his arms were different lengths. You would not notice his legs were also unevenly sized if he was standing still, but the subtle difference was enough to turn his walk into an unsteady hobble. For a head he had a battered old football with a sad face and crosses for eyes slopped on in white paint. A dented bucket had been forced onto this football as a helmet with the handle hanging down like a chinstrap. The only part of his body that seemed to feature any semblance of his creator’s forethought for Jack’s wellbeing was a blackboard affixed to his chest with twine. Beside this, he had a miniature third arm, at the end of which was not a hand but a stick of chalk. It had taken some time to learn to write with his strange new body, but it was easier than teaching a football to talk.

Jack’s creator was not an incredible genius who created life from inanimate objects. His name was Alvaro Shaw, and he was part incredible genius for certain, but another larger part terrible fool. In one tragic experiment, Alvaro had accidentally disembodied the soul of his assistant, Jack. Jack’s body was disintegrated into a horrific odorous cloud, and a football was the only object nearby that Alvaro could grab in time to bind Jack’s soul to. Then, with Jack’s soul safe in the ball, Alvaro rushed around and built a body out of whatever he could find. Justifiably, Jack had no interest remaining under the employment of Alvaro after that.

For months he had hobbled from city to city, searching for a place to call home, but nowhere had been welcoming. Eventually, he had come to his last resort, a city where misfits fit in well, provided they did not mind the constant odour of death and decay. Despite having features painted on, Jack somehow still processed sight and sound – but luckily not smell. He looked now upon the city ahead. Behind him lay a treacherous journey through dark misty deadwoods, and ahead towered the many spires and towers of Kazzanhof. Its official name in legal documents was “The City That Was Once Known as the Unconquerable City of Kazzanhof But Look At It Now”, but to outsiders it was most commonly known as The Fallen City or The City of the Dead. In the defence of the humans of the old age who had heralded Kazzanhof as unconquerable, they had yet to be proven wrong – the undead who had previously been human citizens before the fall would not let anyone forget that. It had not been conquered as such, but had rather fallen apart from within due to vampiric corruption. In the early days after the fall, it was a hotspot for violent hedonistic rampage, but traditions change, and modern vampires rarely engage in such delights. The city in Jack’s era was a giant multicultural hub for undead of all kinds, and he too was undead in a way. He was soon to learn whether he could find home here. This is where he imagined he would take a deep breath and stride forth, if he could do either of those things. Instead, he jiggled with a noisy rattling sound and limped toward the gates.

HELLO I AM JACK SCRAP, CAN I ENTER? he scrawled onto his blackboard. The guard, a ghoul, scowled at him – not out of anger, but simply because that was the only expression his warped face could make.

“Follow,” he groaned, and lumbered through the gate.

The main street was impressive, despite the ruin of many of the buildings on it. The wide cobblestone road curved uphill leading promptly to a giant flat square, with a defiled statue in the centre. The crumbling and headless form of King Arran Kazzan IV was now coated in ivy and moss. Around the square, little stalls displayed produce that made Jack glad he no longer had to eat. He stopped to take in the scene, but the ghoul tugged his arm and he stumbled onwards. He was led down a smaller road into a smaller square, then to the building at the back. The sign above the door read “Department of Immigration”. The ghoul nudged Jack toward the entrance, and then left him to figure the rest out for himself.

Paperwork among mortals is quite often viewed as an unnecessary waste of what little time they have on this world. In a city where most beings are more-or-less immortal and those who require sleep are in the minority, this time limitation does not apply.  Bureaucracy in Kazzanhof is therefore a convoluted time-consuming mess of a process. The zombie at the desk groaned in confusion when Jack explained who he was. There was no form for Jack. He was one-of-a-kind. One-of-a-kind beings were not all that uncommon in Kazzanhof, but still uncommon enough that they required a meeting with a state official rather than a simple pile of paperwork.

Luckily it was not a busy day, and Jack was in a meeting with the head of immigration just half an hour later. The head of immigration was a lich named Nikola Karsingen. Her greyed skin drooped down, clinging to her face in a way that emphasised the shape of her skull. An icy blue glow shone unnervingly from her wide eye-sockets.

“You’re something entirely new, Mr. Scrap. Could you tell me how you became undead?” asked Nikola, who had a quill ready to take notes.

SORCEROR’S ASSISTANT

DISEMBODIED SOUL

BOUND TO FOOTBALL

“I see. And why do you wish to live in Kazzanhof?”

I TRIED

EVERYWHERE ELSE

With a chuckle that sounded more like the death rattle of a large reptile, Nikola replied, “If you talk to residents, you will find that that is quite a common reason. Those who were abandoned and rejected by the living often find acceptance here. May I ask which sorcerer you were the assistant of?”

ALVARO SHAW

MAY HE ROT

“There is little love for that man in this city, but watch your phrasing. “May he rot” is rather culturally insensitive.”

SORRY

“You’re new. You will learn these things in time.”

SO DOES THAT MEAN

I CAN LIVE HERE?

“You have nowhere else to go. This city was built for people who had nowhere else to go.”

I THOUGHT IT WAS

BUILT FOR A KING

“I meant figuratively. We brought down the kingdom then we brought down the evil vampires. Now it is home to good vampires, liches, zombies, ghouls, banshees – any type of undead you can name.”

THANK YOU

WHERE DO I GO NOW?

“Try Levarre Real Estate on Bloodmist Street. There is always something on the market”

I HAVE NO MONEY

“Well homelessness for the undead is barely a burden, so many do not bother owning a house and instead just roam the city as they please. It is a pain for getting mail to them though, as Glurg, Head Ghoul of Postal Services could tell you for hours at a time. I will finish your paperwork and you will receive confirmation of citizenship once that is processed. Until then, stay out of trouble and good luck.”

THANK YOU

GOODBYE

“First, sign here. Then you can go.”

 

Outside again, Jack had mixed feelings. He was very glad to be accepted so quickly and easily, but nothing seemed homely about it yet. He returned to the main town square. He stood and looked around in awe. Even the buildings that were a crumbled shadow of their former glory radiated a sense of elaborate majesty and architectural extravagance. The decorative sculptures and gargoyles on the walls displayed a lot of history. Some of the beautiful original Kazzan era statues still stood, while others had been replaced by horrific monuments to vampire lords during the fall. More recent sculptures tried to convey a sense of optimism, but given that it was optimism from the perspective of undead, to the untrained eye it instead conveyed a sense of grim mortality.  Jack left the square down a street chosen at random, and then another street chosen at random, and another. The odd combination of architecture seemed to be present everywhere, though further from the main street and square, a lot of newer less spectacular buildings had been hastily crammed in between the old ones.

As he stared distractedly at the buildings, Jack bumped into a cloaked stranger. The figure spun round, and Jack stumbled backward and fell to the ground. A pale white face stared down at him with pupil-less red eyes.

“What are you?” hissed the vampire.

WAS HUMAN

“And now… Football? Bucket?”

LONG STORY

“I am intrigued,” said the vampire, helping Jack to his feet. “I am Oliver Gelt. Tell me this long story, and I shall decide whether you are welcome in this district.”

Jack told, or rather wrote, a summary of his story. Oliver’s gaze turned harsh the moment Alvaro Shaw’s name was mentioned, and relaxed again when Jack spared no details about how much he loathed him. Baring one’s fangs is considered bad manners among vampires, so when they wish to grin they smile with their lips tightly pressed together. By the end of Jack’s tale, Oliver’s face was twisted into a vampire-grin – the sight of which made Jack jiggle in amusement. Oliver laughed too.

“Jack, Jack, Jack. That is quite a story. Of course you are welcome here. I was messing with you before. Everyone who respects the dead is welcome in Kazzanhof! This district is called Sarvayn. Most of us here are vampires. I’m something of a community leader, you might say.”

Another vampire suddenly emerged from the shadows, laughing at Oliver.

“Ignore him, he is a rebellious young prankster, and not a community leader at all”

Oliver opened his mouth to protest, but the new figure said, “No, Oliver, hosting the book-club that one time does not count and in vampire years 132 is quite young. Greetings, Jack, I am Maximillian Davidov, our district’s voice on the city council. Make yourself at home here, and if you so wish, sign my petition against the swimming baths the council is proposing to dig up half of our community garden for.”

WOW, YOU ARE

QUITE AN ACTIVE

COMMUNITY

I AM HONOURED

TO BE SO

QUICKLY WELCOMED

Maximillian gave a vampire-grin and said, “Jack, please. This is no high honour; it is our basic vampiric decency. Come to the garden in two hours’ time, I know you can’t eat with a football for a head, but you can meet lots more of us at the barbeque we’re hosting tonight!”

At this moment, Jack’s painted-on sad face was unusually inaccurate. Any preconceptions he might have had about the undead were being dispelled quite rapidly, and he was so relieved to feel warmly accepted for the first time since becoming a scrap construct.

THANK YOU

I SHALL

TAKE A WALK

AND SEE YOU

AT THE BBQ

“Oooh!” said Oliver, “B. B. Q. We could use that! That’s a clever shortening of a word that often doesn’t fit in the tiny boxes we have to fill on our paperwork.”

“Yes,” agreed Maximillian, “Jack, my friend, I am excited to see what other clever abbreviations you may invent. See you tonight, we must prepare!”

The two vampires bid farewell and leapt dramatically into the shadows, leaving Jack to explore the district alone, but happily.

Sacred Fires – Part 3

“Who are you? How long have you been there?!” demanded Ennaya.

Her heart was pounding, but the man appeared to be unarmed and she thought he had a kind face. The man raised open palms, which Ennaya recognised as a gesture to indicate no threat was intended.

“I offer my apologies for my sudden appearance, traveller. My name is Deywan. I have not been stalking you, worry not. I merely like to walk in these woods and gather mushrooms. We get so few visitors around these parts that my curiosity got the better of me and I came to get a closer look.”

Ennaya eyed the man cautiously, but relaxed her guard, and introduced herself.

“Ennaya. I’m not sure you’d believe me if I told the story of my travels, but I’m looking for someone called Farrda.”

“Ah, are you a Flametender?”

“Not as such…” replied Ennaya, grasping the vial around her neck – partly for comfort and partly to hide the flame.

“Well I don’t know what that means, but I shall not invade the privacy of the sect’s affairs. Brother Farrda is well-respected in our village, Tanai, and I would be glad to introduce you to each other.”

Ennaya gave thanks and smiled at Deywan.

They spoke only a little on the walk to the village, as Ennaya had decided to keep the stupid questions like “Where in the world am I?” for Farrda. Their small conversation intrigued Deywan, who seemed very jealous that she had been to the Sa’Ellai Library, but he sensed her reluctance to share much information and did not push for details.

The village of Tanai was surrounded by a wooden fence, which Ennaya though was so low that it must be for decoration, not security. Inside the fence, it was not significantly different to villages on Lahana. Everything was made from wood with the exception of two stone buildings in the centre – a church and some kind of public hall. The familiarity offered Ennaya a little comfort, though her apprehensiveness about meeting Farrda was growing second by second as Deywan led her towards the church.

“Go ahead,” reassured Deywan. “Farrda is inside – probably studying some boring old scrolls and wishing for a distraction like this!”

“Thank you, Deywan,” said Ennaya.

She entered the church and nervously called out, “hello?”

She inched further inside. It was very similar to churches on Lahana. The architecture was fairly simplistic, a theme broken only by two carved sculptures on either side of a stone altar at the front. The familiarity calmed her racing heart for a moment, and then the rattle of a door to a side-room made it skip a beat. The next sound was that of a kindly voice.

“Hello? Do you seek my counsel, friend?”

As the man saw Ennaya, he added, “Oh, you are from out of town, yes? I love to meet a traveller.”

His presence somehow made Ennaya feel at ease, as if the man radiated calm.

“Are you Brother Farrda?”

“Yes, I am. What is your name?”

Ennaya had no second thoughts about talking to him – it just felt right to tell him everything. So she did. She spoke for several minutes while Farrda watched and listened closely. When she was done, Farrda sat silent for several seconds then laughed and said, “Well, although I didn’t expect you to appear in Tanai, I’m very pleased to find you safe and strong, Ennaya. Don’t worry, Brother Lukani is not dead, you weren’t divinely chosen at the random whim of a god. The Deep Circle passed your name to the Flamesingers.”

“Slow down!” interrupted Ennaya. “I have so many questions and you’re just adding to the list with this talk of some deep circle and flamesingers as if I wasn’t already confused enough! Why do these people know me?”

“Sorry, I shall take it back a step. What do you know of the Sa’Ellai Sect?”

“Well I know of the library… and that it has – had? – the fire of wisdom…”

“Has. It still burns. Wisdom is just one of many human names for it. Sa’Ellai is its true name. The library is named after that, Sa’Ellai is not some word from a forgotten old language as many think.”

“What is it then, if not just a magical fire?”

“It is one of the Sacred Fires, the Drayr-Sa – they are a physical manifestation of magic – not just the simple regular magic of wizards and sorcerers. I mean the most fundamental and ancient wild-magic of the world. Did Pallelan not tell you any of this?”

“You know my father?”

“I do not know him personally, but he is known to the sect. He is of the Deep Circle. We are not just a religion. We are the protectors of the Drayr-Sa. The Sa’Ellai Sect is just one branch of a worldwide organisation. While many of us bear the robes and symbols of the sect, the Deep Circle remains secret. They are a council of the most trusted and knowledgeable flametenders, and must keep that identity hidden. Though I do find it a little uncomfortable that he kept it hidden from you despite convincing the Deep Circle to pass your name to the flamesingers… I was under the impression that they had consent to do so, but I suppose not…”

“So I’m the chosen one of my father, not of the gods? That doesn’t reassure me very much! Sa’Ellai told me to reignite the other fires! How many are there? Where are they? Why me? How does one even reignite a magic fire? Why do they need reigniting if there’s a whole worldwide group protecting them? What…”

“Ennaya,” said Farrda firmly, but not angrily. More gently, he continued, “There are five Drayr-Sa dotted around the world. There is a division in our sect, those loyal to the protection, and those who follow Ansakari’s vision of dominance and control rather than protection. Similar groups exist at the others. Some have been successful. Three have already been extinguished and the fourth may fall soon, but the essence that let them burn still remains – they are far from dead. As they are all connected, a spark from one can reignite another. You were chosen because we knew you would be trustworthy and strong enough. The flamesingers sang your name into Sa’Ellai, and now that it has given you a piece of itself the essence of Drayr-Sa is intertwined with your soul. The library may have fallen to Ansakari, but as long as you carry a piece of Sa’Ellai, it cannot be fully corrupted while your soul remains pure. Each fire, once reignited, will grant you a piece of its flame. They trust you, Ennaya. Once you carry all of them, we will have a secret temple ready in which to keep them secure and incorruptible.”

Ennaya took deep breaths as she processed the information. Hearing Farrda’s answers had lifted some of the burden of confusion. This burden being lifted offered little relief in the face of the huge weight of the quest that lay ahead, but she was determined to not be afraid.

“So where must I go first?” she said with well-feigned confidence.

“If you know of it, you may not like the answer, but I can tell you it not as bad as it sounds. Both the journey and the destination should be safe – the Deep Circle is as yet unsure if the same can be said of the flame temple. Ennaya, you must head to Kazzanhof.”

 

 

<click here for a story that introduces the city of Kazzanhof. It is not linked with Ennaya’s story, but could provide some useful context if read before she goes there!>

 

Unnb

Toxic mist rises and swirls creating a grey-green haze above Lok-Fen. An observer would likely assign the word “ominous” to the hulking silhouettes that moved within, but they would be worrying over nothing. The fenfolk are gentle creatures who show little interest in the world or people beyond their home. A traveller might nervously pass through under the curious and unblinking gaze of many eyes, but they would never be attacked without provocation. Aside from carefully observing any strangers in their lands, the fenfolk are happy to ignore everything but themselves and their fen.

Genetically speaking, fenfolk are more closely related to algae and fungus than they are to humans. Despite this, they are, in a lenient sense of the word, humanoid in form. They are six feet tall even though their backs are so hunched that their monstrous hands almost touch the ground. Aside from some moss and algae growing upon their bodies they are naked, but as genderless beings there is no embarrassing display of genitalia to worry about. Reproduction occurs through a complex system of spores and slime, in one of the least pretty displays in nature. All that is necessary to know is that some swamp-based activities occur and fourteen months later a fifty kilogram child rises up from the depths of the fen. Within two years of rising, a young fenling reaches full size and is full of genetically programmed incuriosity.

Usually.

Unnb was different. They were afflicted with a condition rare among the fenfolk – wanderlust. Many in Lok-Fen called them “Unnbk’bnu fa ma hnn” which translates approximately as “Unnb who is unwise and ungrateful for our bountiful home”, but in a playful manner. Unnb was every bit as loved and respected as any other fenling, but the Druumm worried. The Druumm were the three eldest fenfolk, responsible for guiding the youth in life. Their guidance did not get through to Unnb who still gazed longingly from the edges of Lok-Fen. One day, they looked around cautiously, and then stepped beyond the boundary of their homeland.

Things suddenly seemed all too quiet, but Unnb carried on, even as the feeling grew. The intermittent bubbling and squelching of Lok-Fen had never once crossed their mind, but the lack of those sounds was a huge shock. The disturbing silence soon gave way to equally disturbing noise. The birds that used to call out barely audibly in the distance, never comfortable to enter the fen, were now up close. Their innocent calls felt like murderous screams, but Unnb carried on.

Unnb thought that on their return, they would like to known as “Unnbk’mo oaa” which is the closest phrase in the fenfolk language to “Unnb Who Carried On”. An exact translation does not exist as carrying on is not something that must be done in Lok-Fen. The thought lasted only briefly, and then Unnb realised it was a foolish thought. Noone would respect their choice to carry on with a journey unthinkable to fenfolk, and even if they would have done, Unnb could carry on no more.

Now an hour’s walk from home (perhaps more like twenty minutes for a human) Unnb felt exhausted. They looked around, and saw no mud hole or pond to rest in. One of their giant hands moved to touch their arm, and Unnb felt how dry their skin had already become. With a sad sigh, Unnb turned around and headed home.

The feeling of being enclosed once more by the Lok-Fen mist and sinking gently into its water gave Unnb great relief and great sadness. No fenfolk could last very long outside their natural habitat, but Unnb was determined to find a way. Their first venture beyond the fen was scary and brief, but it would not be their last, regardless of whatever the Druumm might have to say when they find out.