This here's a bit of fiction I wrote to help explain what the Orbidium of Zaan, that satirical setting I posted about yesterday, was like. It contains some strangeness and may not be suitable for all audiences, but if you can play D&D you can read this.
|Habernath the Scutling|
Olomeryn was always uncomfortable in Nibenlibe’s house. That he was her archrival was known all throughout Ugram, but elves do not take umbrage at dining with their foes. Nibenlibe was handsome enough in his way. He was lissome and languid, his flesh a pale blue-white that was aswirl with prickly tattoos. He was smiling, which Olomeryn found irksome. His lithe body was draped across a mound of pillows and his tunic was a silvery sheer. His fingers glimmered with rings. Olomeryn knew that each one was the symbol of a long-lasting pact with ancient powers and she bridled at the way they flashed when he moved his hands, each more obscenely arcane than the last.
“My dear,” Nibenlibe said casually, “it is inevitable that he will eventually lose interest in you.” They were speaking, of course, of Argonal, Olomeryn’s lover. “After all, no human can truly comprehend the intricacies of elvish courtship. For example, does he know that just last century you had a penis?”
Olomeryn bared her teeth in a parody of a smile. “Even the dullest human knows that we may change genders, when the mood takes us. After all, what else is magic for?” She twirled her own rings, reminding Nibenlibe with that subtle gesture that she too had many fiends at her command.
“Indeed, but the knowledge that our people as a whole sometimes change their shapes is much different from imagining your woman’s vulva inverti—” Olomeryn choked on her wine, and Nibenlibe smiled broadly. That was a point in his favor, for she had publicly shown her displeasure. She fought to control her anger.
She regained her composure and smoothed down her sandsilk gown. Her fingers curled around her goblet, but she made certain to hold it lightly, so that Nibenlibe would not claim victory from the tension in her knuckles. She leaned forward and conspiratorially said, “You know, he is a wizard. He is more used to dealing with things that men might find strange.”
“Ah yes, he certainly might find something unpleasant joyful,” Nibenlibe remarked triumphantly. “After all, they deal with such unpleasant things! It is our finest triumph that we no longer need to strain to achieve our mastery over magic.” Olomeryn silently cursed herself for giving him the opening. “And we have no need of such things as the Infinat.” Olomeryn started.
“The Infinat?” asked Olomeryn with a sly grin. Nibenlibe had made a terrible mistake. She could barely contain her venomous glee. Such names, names of ancient artifacts, devils, and demons alike were kept as highly guarded secrets. The fool had tipped his hand!
“Ah,” he said nervously, and she silently crowed again, for his nerves showed on his face. “I thought you knew of it,” he mumbled. To see him uncomposed was such bliss! He twitched to find a more comfortable position on his pile of cushions, the light of the crystalline lamps playing over his face.. Olomeryn could not have been more happy if he had been squirming. “Well, no matter,” he said, trying to dismiss the foul-up.
But Olomeryn would not allow him that pleasure. “No, no,” she said, feigning deep interest. “I am rapt. Tell me of this Infinat.”
For a moment, Nibenlibe stared at her. Olomeryn first thought he would lie, but then she became assured that he would not; he would tell the truth, hoping that she suspected it was a lie and thus would be led astray. She leaned imperceptibly forward as he went on. “It is an archway,” he grumbled. His voice was heavy with defeat and he needed to take a deep sip of wine from his cup before he went on. “A huge iron archway in the Desert of Horx. It’s location is known only to a few—not me!” he said, intercepting her question.
“Where does this Infinat lead?” she asked.
He could have said anything, or claimed ignorance. But she knew he wouldn’t, for she had read his face for centuries and she could tell when he was going to lie. He knew as well, and she nodded as this knowing passed between them. “Important,” he said, “It leads to a library. A library on Flux.”
Flux, the Golden Moon! “A hidden library?” she asked.
“Yes,” he said. Olomeryn was disappointed. The victory felt hollow, for it was so easy. The scathing hedge of rivalry had fallen by the wayside and Nibenlibe was telling her simple truths now. She was on the verge of telling him to stop, of dismissing the entire track of conversation, but then she remembered Argonal. She felt a strange empathy for him, and knew that he would want to know of this hidden library. There was a stirring in her breast that she had not felt for longer than she could remember; she cared to help Argonal, for he was bold and young and brash. So she let Nibenlibe go on.
“Long ago some sorcerous creatures constructed a library on Flux to keep it safe from prying eyes. They knew that traveling there would be painful, for when was going to any of our five horrific moons easy? So, they made a key for the Infinat, an artifact which predate even them. The library contains endless knowledge; some say the Index of Fiends, which names every fiendish creature in creation.” Nibenlibe sighed. “What’s more, it is of interest to men, who love to learn things from demons and devils. For you see, this library, which was called Ratha, now lies close to the Cosmic Devoid.”
Olomeryn refused to display ignorance in front of her rival. She knew the Cosmic Devoid of course, that horrific black sun that stood like a harbinger of the end days of Zaan. Someday, within the next century perhaps, the Cosmic Devoid would yawn wide and the Orbidium would shatter. The realms of Zaan were already stretched thin like taffy. Nibenlibe must have seen that she did not understand the implication. “One millennium in the library of Ratha is one day on Zaan. For you see, its proximity to the Devoid makes it so. Time stretches infinitely thin.”
Olomeryn shivered gently. Argonal could go to Ratha, she thought, and when he returned he would be the most powerful archmage in our generation. She felt warm and joyful at that thought. And he will be happy, she added. The fact that this pleased her confused her ancient and jaded sensibilities, but she embraced it. She actually cared for the human boy.
Habernath was a minor devil. The learned arcanologists of faded Zaan had classified his kind as a ‘scutling,’ a being fit only for the most menial of tasks. Argonal shooed the little winged devil away as it tried repeatedly to shit onto his dinner. He sat on a terrace in Ugram, the sleek purple marble jutting from Olomeryn’s mansion to look out over the vast fields ruled by the elves. Overhead, the sky was a deep blue-black, the tiny little indigo ball of the sun puffing across it, alone in the yawning void. Every few seconds, Habernath would scoot his tiny bulging stomach back across the table towards Argonal’s food and the wizard would absently brush the creature to the far side of the glistening marble.
“Habernath,” he said warningly. The creature bore some resemblance to a homunculus, though its flesh was livid red instead of pale gray. It had a distended stomach and declined to wear any clothes to cover its miniature devilish member. A thicket of purplish hair grew to cover its crotch and armpits, but its head was completely bald. It giggled obscenely and rubbed its stomach.
“But master,” it pleaded. “I feel such feculence!”
Argonal gave his devil a withering look. “You have no need to expel anything,” he said angrily. “You never eat. It is not in your nature.”
The wizard felt listless. The elves were fond of lethargic and byzantine games of wordplay that were beginning to tire Argonal. Each night when the dying sun set and the darkness of the Cosmic Devoid danced across the sky, garlanded in the Five Moons, the elves would issue forth from their palatial manors. Magical palanquins followed by crystal lamps hovered above the streets bringing pools of light through the dim and uninhabited lanes. Living with the elves was a lonely business. Argonal was used to the thronging livelihood of the Magician’s City where every streetcorner concealed beggars, thieves, and murderers.
Ugram was three or four times the size of Albor but while the Magician’s City was alive with hundreds of thousands of people, there were no more than one thousand elves in all the marble tombs of Ugram. Argonal was deathly tired of schemes and plots and the passive aggression of the elves. They faced daily life with a sleepy lugubriousness; they stared into the Cosmic Devoid and knew that the Orbidium would come to a violent end within their own lifetimes, and they simply did not care.
If it was not for Olomeryn, he would have left long ago. She had taught him many magical secrets, and that had been the basis of their bond, but it had grown into something more. He felt something in her, something not as alien and dead as what he saw in the rest of her kind. Still, he could not stay in Ugram forever. Habernath was a constant reminder of what his true mission was: to learn. To learn enough magic, to understand the great pylons of the dwarves, maybe to help this dying plane from dying, and barring that to escape. To escape the death of Zaan!
He heard the telltale tinkling that announced Olomeryn’s return. He snorted a derisive laugh. Elves were so inundated with magic, so wealthy with its wonder that they could afford to enchant everything around them. Their fields tended themselves, their homes were kept tidy by retinues of invisible spirits, their lights burned with a strange crystalline glow that told of the enchantments kept within. There were magicians in Albor that would kill without hesitation to learn the mastery of any single one of these powers.
Olomeryn emerged onto the balcony, all smiles. Argonal wondered what she could be hiding, for the elves seldom smiled unless they had committed some treachery. She stood beneath a pair of fluted columns, her fleshy pale form hidden beneath her sandsilk gown. Her hair was silver and her eyes purple, and her hands worked behind her back. “What do you have there?” Argonal asked wearily. Undoubtedly something with which she could seek the upper hand in her eternal war against the magician Nibenlibe.
“Something for you,” Olomeryn said coyly. Argonal waited for her to continue for he was irritated with her games. She took a few eager steps forward and whispered, “Have you ever heard of the Library of Ratha?”
Argonal hated the way she whispered these secrets, as though there were intruders listening. They both knew that Olomeryn’s house was surrounded by threefold magical charms and a host of protective spirits that would never allow a word said on balcony or terrace, in hall or chamber, to be overheard by a spy. But his anger faded as he realized that she was talking about Ratha. He surged to his feet and clasped her by the arms. “Ratha?” he hissed, his own voice low. “Races have been exterminated in its pursuit! What did you find?”
She smiled demurely and produced an iron-link chain of finely wrought metal. Dangling from it there was a green pendant of emerald upon which the word Ratha had been etched. “I found this in Nibenlibe’s manor,” she said in a whispery giggle. “I would never have noticed it, but he had just this afternoon let slip the secret of journeying there. The necklace was left in full display! I had only to dispel his poisonous cantrips and pluck it for myself on my way out!”
Argonal drew her close and kissed her. The Library of Ratha! He could learn the secrets of the archmages, study deep and potent magics; unlike the ancients, he would not leave Zaan for some other plane, he would return from the hidden library and set everything right. He could save Zaan! He kissed Olomeryn again, deeper this time, and when they drew apart her pale flesh was flushed. She murmured, “Let me tell you of the Infinat.”
The Desert of Horx was many miles south of Ugram, but Olomeryn had provided her lover with a magical bracelet inscribed with the names of three princely demons, each one lending his might to an aspect of its power. Though Argonal still had to travel for days beyond the city, the bracelet ensured that he never wanted for food or drink; he never felt thirsty, never hungry, for the magic in the armband was such that it would sustain his body indefinitely. Habernath hated this and had taken to perching on Argonal’s shoulder and chirruping unpleasantly in his ear.
They had been in the desert for two days, wandering through the sands, passing great stains of rust red along their way. Argonal supposed they were the remains of the massive iron idols the serpent men were said to have raised long ago, before they became stupid and slow in Zaan’s dying hour. He closed his ears to Habernath’s confounding noises and stopped for a moment to look at the sky.
The indigo sun was setting. The Devoid was huge on the horizon, the Five Moons dancing about it in their entropic circle. There was Mara, the Red Moon, who’s influence governed the tides of passion and thus bloodshed. Below her was Ephrais, the Blue Moon, which controlled the tidal forces of magic. Next to Ephrais was Ceren the Green Moon, which commanded the growth of plants and animals. Above Ceren hovered Hurn, the Purple Moon, which drew veils and made secrets. Lastly, at the apex of the pentagon of dying moons, was Flux the Golden Moon, which had mastery over luck and fortune. And it is to Flux I go, Argonal thought.
As he stared, he realized that Habernath had stopped making noises. There was a haunting melody drifting across the dunes which set the wizard’s teeth on edge. He scanned the horizon, trying to pinpoint it, but one of the desert’s effects was to confuse all sound, sending it careening off distant sand and back again. At last he saw a smudge of stone against the dark sky. “There,” he muttered to his devil. “Those rocks. What could be making that noise?” he asked.
“Skeletons keening, master,” Habernath said, making a horrific sniffling and sucking sound in his nose.
“I think you’re right, Habernath,” Argonal agreed. He shifted his course towards the source of the sound and began to speed up. “And wild skeletons sing when they’ve found meat.” Habernath burbled some kind of agreement, but Argonal didn’t hear it. He was already reaching deep into his gut to prepare a spell. As the devil stretched to find a comfortable position to lounge in atop Argonal’s shoulder, the wizard released the first syllables of his magic. They thundered from his stomach like mystic vomit, and suddenly his feet were skidding across the sand and the wind was whipping through his hair. Margon’s Fleet Foot had taken hold of his boots, and his legs pumped at unseemly speeds.
He arrived in time to see the soulfully moaning skeletons circling a figure against an upthrust red stone. From his dress and mannerisms, Argonal deduced he was a desert hermit. There were a few of those strange men dwelling out in Horx for reasons no one could discern. Some of them worshipped Gargonath the Grudgingly Good, but most were simply too mad to dwell in the semi-civilized towns of men.
The skeletons had made a semi-circle around him. Their haunting music echoed through the empty desert. Argonal said quietly to Habernath, “You will distract them!”
Habernath took wing, fluttering above Argonal’s head. “I will not, master!” he piped. “They will rip me to shreds and feast upon me!”
The wizard’s blunt features darkened. “Habernath,” he said with an angry note in his voice, “You will do as I say or I will dismiss you from my service. You will be thrust out of Zaan in a most unpleasant manner and barred from all mortal realms. Do you want to spend the next thousand years as some devil-prince’s butler?” The little creature’s face fell.
“I will do as you say, master,” Habernath whined. Argonal nodded and the devil struck off towards the skeletons.
While Habernath flew towards them, Argonal prepared Thyren’s Shocking Shattering, forcing the words into being in his gullet. His bile began to rise as it was displaced by the whirling forces contained within him. He advanced a few more meters, the Fleet Foot having faded into the desert night. The skeletons had turned upon Habernath, as the hermit was no challenge to them. The little devil was doing his best to tear at their limbs, but so far had only managed to anger them.
Argonal moved into range of the killing spell, his stomach boiling with force. Explosive words rang from his lips and the spell spattered into being; Habernath clasped his ears and fell to the ground as the skeletons shrieked a death cry. Dust and sand were urged into frantic eddying whirlpools. The force of the spell rent the bones of the gathered skeletons to flinders, osseous chips flying in all directions. Habernath covered his head with his hands and screamed in fear. Argonal could feel his belly emptying, the burning fires of magic pouring out of his lips and into the world. When the spell had been cast he felt as though he had poured out something vital.
He staggered over to the hermit and held out a hand to help him stand. “You were lucky, old man,” he sighed. But when he looked upon the old man he saw that it was a pockmarked and goblin-faced woman, who’s huge bulbous nose and beady eyes at once peered up at him from beneath the hood of ragged cloth she wore.
“You may call me Oka,” she said in a voice like glass being drawn across slate. “Oka of the Red Spires. Thank you, traveler.”
“As for me,” said the magician, somewhat troubled by her appearance, “I am Argonal of Albor.”
The old woman cooed in delight and clapped her hands with glee. “A wizard!” she said, “A sorcerer! And look, your familiar comes.” She referred, of course, to Habernath, who was ambling over the dark sands towards them. His tone was low and his voice mumbled a bevy of curses, most of them directed at the sense of his master. His face had been bruised by his hurried flight to earth when Argonal spoke his shattering spell.
The wizard nodded. “Some might call me that,” he said mildly, “though I am but a humble student of the art.”
“Yes,” the crone agreed, “your creature is rather puny and noisome, I see.” Habernath was spitting gobs of phlegmy substance as he walked, leaving miniature pools of snotty filth simmering on the sand. “But come, we must eat. Night is almost upon us and the unblinking eye of the Devoid rises.”
The crone Oka lived in a crook between two massive spires of red rock that stretched from the desert floor like the fingers of a maimed hand. She burned a fire beneath a huge iron cauldron within which desert mammals were stewing, meat on bone. Argonal had taken a seat opposite her, perched some ways up a slope of tumbled rock, while Habernath was warming himself perilously near to the blaze. He smiled lasciviously at his master, licking his thick worm-like lips.
“What brings you so deep into the desert?” Oka asked, stirring the thickening stew.
“Rumor,” said the mage vaguely. He was hesitant to reveal his quest. Wizards are ever stingy with knowledge, for it is their one advantage against the world. Argonal was no different in that, and if life amongst the elves had taught him anything it was to be even more tight-lipped.
“Rumor?” asked Oka, repeating the word. She made chewing motions, as if tasting the concept in her cavernous mouth. “Rumor of what, master wizard?” she asked. “I have lived long here, and it may be that I know of what you seek.”
“You would not know,” Argonal responded haughtily, and he turned to look at the distant pinpricks of the stars. The motion shifted his tunic and caused the iron necklace he wore beneath it to become momentarily visible.
Oka let out a knowing breath. “Ah-h-h-h,” she said, “A key necklace!”
Argonal started as though the crone had seen him nude. He clasped the necklace in one hand, covering the pendant that read Ratha. He narrowed his eyes and stared at her. “What do you know of my necklace?” he asked warily.
“Only that it is the key to a door,” she replied with a wink. “And that if you are searching for it, all you must do is tell me and I will divulge more.”
“Very well,” Argonal admitted. “I am searching for the archway that the elves of Ugram call the Infinat.”
“Ha!” she crowed. “Infinat indeed! A corruption of an old name, a name that came before men or elves ever walked Zaan. But that great iron arch is as ancient as the sun, old as the Orbidium itself. You can be certain old Oka knows where it lies.”
“So?” asked Argonal. “Where does it lie?”
“That would be telling!” Oka said with a gap-toothed smile. “And I cannot do that without a prize or a price.”
“A price!” Argonal said angrily. “I should have known! I saved your life!”
“You did, but the archway is worth far more than any single life alone,” she responded. “It is a thing of great magic, and so I will need a great magic in return.”
Argonal glared at her and then unhooked the vambrace from his left arm. He threw the inscribed armlet down at her feet and said, “There! When you wear this bracelet you shall never know hunger or thirst. It is written with the name of three princely demons, who are bound to do your command. It has many other powers, beyond that, but I shall only describe them to you once we reach the arch!”
Oka grinned and rubbed her hands. “We will leave tomorrow, for it is not far. But without me, you shall never find it.”
“Dinner was... pleasant,” Olomeryn admitted. The splashing of the fountain echoed through the high-ceilinged chamber. Nibenlibe inclined his head, giving the appearance of a seated bow.
“Thank you, my dear,” he said. “I marvel that you had such free time. Surely you would normally have spent an evening such as this, all the moons in full, with your human lover?”
Olomeryn despised Nibenlibe and it was only the slow catatonia of her race that prevented her from taking more deliberate action. But the social dance was integral to living in great Ugram, so she was silent for a moment. She needed to collect herself before admitting the truth to foul Nibenlibe. “He has not returned,” she said. To her credit her voice did not waver at all.
“Ah,” said Nibenlibe, feigning sadness. “That is a shame.” He looked even more putridly handsome in the light of the black candles burning on the table, she thought, than he normally did beneath the amber glow of the crystal lamps. Behind him the thin curtains rustled, barely concealing the brilliant display of the equinox. “Perhaps he grew tired of you. Humans can be unpredictable, changeable things.”
She could feel tears, real tears, behind her eyes. She had not cried since she was a child, innumerable centuries ago. “I doubt that is the reason,” she said, and she kept the emotion from her voice. She was sure Nibenlibe could see the strain in her eyelids and would already think himself courting victory. “He is most likely dead.” There! Her voice had remained steady as iron.
“Oh?” asked Nibenlibe. Amusement played across his face. She had the sudden inkling that he was lying, or at least not being wholly truthful. He was concealing something. She had known him, hated him, for far too long not to recognize that. “What would make you think that? Had he gone somewhere... dangerous?”
She narrowed her eyes instinctively, unable to control it. She cursed herself without words for revealing her suspicions so openly. An unforgivable lapse! “He went to find the Library of Ratha,” she said. There was no use dissembling when he asked her a question so baldly. Just as she could read the lines of a lie in his face, he could read hers.
He stood up, pushing back his onyx chair. He turned away from her, and she detected a hint of a smile in his voice. “Oh? Is that where my necklace had gone? You stole it from me that night? I have been wondering these past years.”
“Yes,” she said, and suddenly the tears could no longer be held at bay. A few outrunners trickled down her face, which she quickly wiped away on her sleeve. His back was turned, she thought, he did not see. “The night you told me of the Infinat.”
“Ah,” he said, and his voice was rich with knowing. “Yes, of course. He went through the Infinat with my necklace.” He turned back around and she saw that his face was transported with rapture. He reached down to scoop his silver goblet from the table. There was a silence as they faced each other and then he took a sip of wine and asked, “Did it never occur to you why it was so easy to get the necklace? Or to get the location of the Infinat from me?” he asked.
“Never,” she said hoarsely. She could feel her body betraying her, and for an instant she didn’t even want it to obey. She dabbed at her eyes, and she didn’t care that Nibenlibe saw her doing it. “I never questioned it.”
“Nor were you meant to,” Nibenlibe agreed. “And I told you so many truths. Indeed, I think perhaps your lover is still there on Flux to this day, in that library.”
“What do you mean?” she asked, and milky tears streamed now without abandon down her cheeks.
“Surely you stopped to think,” he said with a wry grin, “That so close to the Devoid no space-bending magics could function?” He shook his head. “Ah dear, Olomeryn. You did not even stop to consider it? I suppose your lover did not either. To be sure, there is said to be another gate on Flux like the one in the desert, but I fear that using it would spell certain doom! The lines of force would become all twisted, and anyone who passed from the tunnel that way would almost assuredly be flensed and pulped like a rat in a meat grinder.”
Olomeryn wept. Long ragged breaths escaped from her throat and she began to make a low moaning noise. For a moment, just a moment, she thought of unleashing her sorcerous fury on him. She could call upon every pact ever made by her ancestors, summon up the allegiance of every fiend of hell, pour forth a torrent of spellfire and hatred onto him and obliterate him utterly. But it was only for a moment, for Olomeryn knew that Nibenlibe also had a storehouse of magical knowledge surrounding him. Were she to bring it to physical combat, who could say if she would win? And though the thought of personal annihilation no longer frightened her, she could not bear the thought that she would die and he would not. So she did nothing but weep and moan.
“Ah, my dear Olomeryn,” Nibenlibe said sadly. “I remember how this all began, so long ago. Now, perhaps, you shall finally admit that the vintage made from my grapes—the vintage of which you have partaken every time you have been a guest in my house!—is actually quite good, and not foul at all.”
Olomeryn dutifully raised her goblet to her mouth and took a sip of Nibenlibe’s wine—the cursed wine, which she had once been so haughty as to declare slightly acidic—and nodded. “It is not bitter at all,” she said in a small voice. “It is not bitter at all.”