By Shana Krisiloff
There is a place, where Time is an old man and Seasons his mistress, that lies beyond the sea. This place, Landanium they call it, is unknown to mere mortals of your world, dear reader.
They say that one can reach the far banks of the sandy-pink coast of Landanium, if one were so inclined, by hitching an army of seahorses to a raft made of fennel leaves stuck together with caramel. This has never actually occurred, although the Old Wife Sentil attempted the journey, building a fennel and caramel raft big enough for her to sit upon. She then traveled to the Cove of Flint to find an army of seahorses, and was never heard from again.
Landanium is a large land. Some parts are made of glass and shadows, some from honey and the breath of the Fey. Other parts are dark – darker than night or the eye of the raven. Others are light – yellows and whites shimmer together to create a blinding mass of life. Then there are the parts familiar to common men – mountains made of purple and grey stone, rolling hills of grass so sweet it hurts your teeth to look upon it, towns in sunken groves, smoke billowing from chimneys and fires – though more often than not the smoke is unlike any a common man would ever see.
It is in this land of shifting shadows and shimmering reflections that our story takes place.
It is in this land that our heroes and heroins live peacefully and simply; their futures of adventure unknown, hovering just over the far horizon.
Donomin yawned. It was late and he wished to wrap himself in his student cloak and be gone from the class halls, but he knew this wouldn’t be. Too many species to makes notes of. Dr Spellitactus was the foremost expert on the species residing in the lands of Landanium, having cataloged most of them himself, and Donomin knew he should count himself lucky for learning from the best. But still. Another hour or so and then he would be able to sit down with a glass of Grek and listen to what mischief his housemates had been up to.
Scratching his dark stubble that was rising from his unshaven cheek, he remembered he hadn’t bathed in the last day. When he remembered why he hadn’t bathed, a slow grin spread across his face and the hair on his arms stiffened. Sarafin Lightred. Even her name made his head spin. He was so preoccupied with thoughts of her dark skin against his pale hands that he didn’t notice the headmaster of his college enter the cavernous room and speak to Dr. Spellitactus quietly. As the two men began to whisper urgently back and forth, Donomin’s attention was brought to the now as his peers began to whisper to each other.
“It’s been a right while since the headmaster’s come in here.” Murmured Andus, a third year in Astronomical Elemental and Compound Studies.
“He’s been before?” Donomin asked him.
Andus leaned in so that only Donomin and Rud, a first year Particle Engineer on Donomin’s left, could hear him.
“Last time I remember – I was taking Science of Aura’s at the time with Professor Mitzy.
Probably never heard of him but never mind that – Headmaster came in to announce Lord Highroyd was poisoned. Then we got back to work.”
Donomin looked back down at the adults and noticed that they were both looking at him.
“What did you do?” Rud whispered, as the Headmaster himself beckoned for Donomin to come down to him. Picking up his books, Donomin walked down the stairs of the stone bleachers quickly, feeling uncomfortable as all eyes followed his every step. He reached the Headmaster and bowed quickly in respect. The old man nodded, his eyes worried and his beard shorter than usual. They left the hall out of the main doors.
They turned left out of the lecture hall and followed one of the torch-lit halls into the depths of Consence College.
“Listen closely boy.” The Headmaster said quietly, looking all about him as if someone were listening. He slowed his pace as he began to speak once again. “There is a woman asking for you. A powerful woman that I dare not trifle with. What she wants from you I do not know –but be warned. She is a dangerous one to cross, and an even more dangerous one to abide, so chose your path carefully. Your father has been alerted and he has sent word for you to stay put. However, I can only do so much when presented with such great power and she is…” the Headmaster trailed off and sighed, his right hand tracing a mark on his left; an open wound, still oozing blood.
“She is eager to see you.” He said simply.
Donomin’s heart began to beat faster. Who this woman could be he had not the slightest idea. He’d never bothered with a greater power or had his fortune told or gallivanted in the Eastern quarters of the city, asking for trouble like his housemates did. He was a model student, earning a modest degree in Economic Principles of Forest Dynamics, and he planned on living an uneventful life. He had kept out of trouble at his fathers wishes and his mother’s worries – and had succeeded. Except when that gnome convinced him to drink that cup of tea and he ended up getting a tattoo on his back and a hangover that lasted several days. But they never talked about that.
So why it was that a mysterious and - by the sound of it – dangerous woman was asking for him he could not say. As the two neared the headmaster’s office, Donomin found himself fighting the urge to run back to his classroom and take notes about the Four-Thousandth-Nine-Hundredth-Forty-Second species of Landanium. Instead, he squared his shoulders and followed the headmaster into the large, overly-warm office.
“She’s there!” Jackren yelled, bursting from the parlor into the kitchen where his wife was taking a bath.
“For the love of Anthel and Mea, don’t startle me Jack!” Maggie yelled, standing up in what was left of her bath water and wrapping herself in a robe. “I’m not cleaning this mess up,” she hissed, gesturing to the puddle spreading across the stone floor.
Jackren wasn’t listening, his hands swirling around each other and his feet sliding dangerously across the wet floor. “She’s asking for him. I’ve told the Headmaster to tell him to stay put but he’s only one man. And an old man at that.”
“Calm down.” Maggie said firmly, coming around the copper tube to shake her husband.
“Calm down and think a minute. Why is she there now?”
“I don’t know.’ Jackren’s hands flew to his temples. ‘I don’t know why she would come now… it’s only been nineteen years, I thought she’d wait until he was older, more experienced, more of an asset…”
Maggie snorted. “I told you not to make that agreement.”
“Maggie, please, there’s no going back now…”
“I still cannot believe you didn’t haggle with her…”
“–I seem to remember you didn’t try to either –”
“–we’d come from the pub! You know how ale goes to my head – you were in a much more responsible state -”
“OY!” another voice rang over their angry ones and both adults looked into the parlor. A tall, lanky man, with a pointed nose, big ears and wild forest-green hair was standing in the doorway.
“How’d you get in?” Jackren asked.
“Front door was open.” Polleck said, crossing his arms across his chest and nodding behind him.
Jackren walked past his brother and poured a glass of brandy for himself and for his wife, who made her way to the flower-covered couch, her hair still wet.
“Aren’t you gonna pour me one?”
Jackren gave his brother a look, but relented and poured a third glass.
“Thanks,” Polleck said, taking it with one hand and using the other to salute his brother playfully.
“What are you here for?” Jackren asked, leaning against the mantle piece in no mood for jokes.
Polleck winked at him. “Come on – you’re not mad about Mother’s robe are you?”
“I told our dearest brother that I was going to get her a robe for her birthday.” Jackson’s hands flew into the air. “But did he listen? Oh no. He has to be the favourite, getting the best present, getting into the best universities, working for the government -”
“It’s ridiculous that you refuse to talk to him over a robe, brother. I mean to think — ”
“That was Geat Wool, the finest I could find.’ Jackren interrupted, pushing his own missgreen hair back with his free hand. “I told Rupert –”
“- you did no such thing – ”
“ - is that what he told you – ”
“- he’d ordered it a year ago, after Mother said she wanted one at her birthday before – ”
“ - does he have proof of it –” “- need proof, it’s a robe – ”
Both men stopped talking, Maggie’s sharp voice ringing against the modest chandelier of half-melted candles hanging from the living room ceiling. Her outburst surprised them both into embarrassed silence. Maggie turned her gaze upon her brother-in-law.
“Polleck, you are welcome in this house as always, but please tell us the cause of your surprise visit.”
Polleck drained the last of his brandy and twirled the glass in both hands. “Rupert asked me to come.”
Maggie held up her hand to her husband behind her, feeling his retort mounting before it could be uttered. He stayed quiet.
“The Darometer has been active. It is time. Rupert read it while a girl visited his inn.” He stopped to look at him brother, who was looking down at his feet. “A Mortal girl. A Purebred, Jackren.”
Jackren looked up quickly, dropping his glass in surprise. It shattered against the hearthstone, spreading only a few inches before the mess froze in midair. Maggie held out her hand, palm towards the glass and fingers splayed, then made a swift grabbing motion, causing the glass to gather into a ball on the floor and roll into the firewood in the center of the hearth. Jackren made sure he hadn’t stepped in any of the glass, then turned his attention away from the accident and his witch-wife and back to his younger brother.
“A Purebred Mortal?”
“That’s what he says – and Rupert’s not one to be fooled, you know that.” Polleck traced the pattern of the wood floor with his toe, “so… she’s alone. And you know hundreds of… things… are going to be going after her. And she’s frightened and inexperienced – ”
“And?” Jackren asked, knowing what was coming.
“He wants Donomin with her.”
Polleck snorted. “Well, if she is The Prophesy, it’d be nice to ensure our survival.”
Jackren crossed to an armchair close to the hearth, across from his wife. Maggie watched him, her eyes widening with every step he took.
“This is why she’s there.” She said quietly and hugged herself tightly.
Jackren looked at her, a cold chill suddenly settling over him
Polleck walked to the table and refilled his brandy. “This is why who’s where?”
“My second cousin twice removed - or whatever she is - is at Donrall now, trying to get to Donomin.”
“Why would – “ Polleck stopped, realization dawning on him. “Oh. Your second cousin or whatever she is –”
“Morgolsa. Yes.” Maggie shuddered at her name.
“That was powerful magic you two dealt with.”
“Desperate times called for desperate measures.” Jackren murmured, remembering the fateful meeting by the light of the full moon nineteen years before.
“Do not call your son a desperate measure!” Maggie snapped. “She gave me the ability to bare him – be sure you remember that!”
Jackren pushed his hand through his hair again, causing most of it to stand on end. “And her price was his aid when she called for him – you remember that!”
“You agreed to it- ”
“- As did you -”
“ - Did we have a choice?”
Jackren sighed. Maggie always won these arguments. “No, I suppose not.”
Maggie let out her breath in a short puff of triumph as she sunk back into the pillows of the couch.
“I’m sorry,” Polleck said after a pause, his voice coated with the honeyed taste of sarcasm and confusion, “what does this have to do with anything I’ve said?”
“She’s come for him now…” Maggie thought aloud, twisting her hands in her lap, “ And you’re saying that a Mortal - a Purebred, no less - has triggered the Darometer? She must know about The Prophesy. Morgosa wants to use him, Polleck. She wants to use him in her scheme to stop The Prophesy from coming true.”
“But we want to use him to be sure The Prophesy comes true.” Polleck reminded her.
“Yes I know that.” She snapped, her eyes darting to his in a worried glance. “We have to get him out.”
Polleck swirled the brandy in his glass, creating a small whirlpool. “Or get him to See.” Jackren looked up at his brother. Polleck leaned forward, his mouth still open, “we can show her to him… make him understand. I know my nephew. He is a man of research – he will not be convinced unless he sees for himself the reason behind her wishes. Or the reason behind ours.”
Donomin had never been in the headmaster’s office. This, of course, was a good thing – as no one entered the headmaster’s office unless they had some explaining to do or some warrant to sign.
The room was smaller than he’d imagined, with a grand, pyramid-shaped window in the back wall, framing the heavy and prominent oak desk placed in front of it. There were fireplaces on both sides of the room, identical to each other, with a few scattered armchairs and sofas here and there. The walls were lined with strange instruments, books and scrolls, and a few birds chirped from the shelves hidden in the darkness by the high ceiling.
There were three chairs placed in front of the headmaster’s desk, all of which stood on a stage a few feet above the floor. The backs of the chairs were tall, reaching six feet in height, and they were carved through intricately so that the design looked more like webbing rather than a fairy’s forest, which is in fact what the great artist Guisspe de Vweek had intended. In the center chair, Donomin could see the outline of a dark figure through the net of wood. He felt the hairs on the back of his neck prick at the sight of the black shape, and he had to will himself to move closer. The headmaster cleared his throat as they stopped a foot or two away from the line of chairs. The figure stood up and slowly turned around, taking a step to one side so she could be seen around the back of the chair.
“Donomin. How nice of you to join us.” Her air was regal – her skin pale as the face of the moon, her hair blacker than the darkness surrounding her, and her lips a bright, fiery red – as if a ripe strawberry had flown into her mouth moments before. Her eyes were so bright they struck fear into Donomin’s heart – an icy blue that could crack glass. She stood, her dress glinting in the dim light. It sprawled away from her feet, as if the fabric wanted to get as far from her as it could, giving the impression that she and the power associated with her went on for miles.
She was a striking figure.
Donomin followed the headmaster up the few stairs that lead to the desk and found himself seated on the left side of the strange and terrifying woman. He tried to angle himself away from her, but found himself drawn in her direction with some gentle but firm force he found unfamiliar.
“Madame Verdun,” the headmaster started, sliding up against the back of his chair as if to get as far away from the woman as possible. “if you would like to inform Donomin –”
“I am here because I have heard of you,” Madame Verdun cut in. The headmaster shrank further into the dark chair. “And I have a proposition.”
“How have you heard of me?” Donomin asked without thinking.
Madame Verdun smiled, showing perfect white teeth framed by bright lips. “Your papers on the extraction of magical properties for Mortal and Immortal alike are most intriguing. My colleagues and I find your research… illuminating, one could say. We have followed your studies for some time now.”
Donomin raised his eyebrows but made no further inquiry about her specific interest. The area of study mentioned was not his focus in his doctorate, but rather a hobby he’d been nurturing from a young age. However, though he was interested in the topic, he was never keen on discussing it. The practice of Extraction Magic was a dark one – his interest was one of his greatest fears.
“My proposition,” Madame Verdun continued, stroking the skirt of her dress with a long, pale hand, “is quite simple. There is a girl – not fully Mortal, not fully Immortal, but somewhere between the two – they call her a Purebred – but this is not so. She has a magic in her. A magic that has been unknown to this world for hundreds of years. A magic that, if gone un-noticed, could destroy its carrier.” Her eyes began to grow bright as she went on, and Donomin saw a small bubble of spit in the corner of her mouth – as if the idea of such magical power were causing her to salivate with hunger. “You can imagine how devastating it would be if this magic – unknown to the poor girl – was her downfall.”
“What can I do about it?” Donomin asked, a small, dark thought stirring in the back of his mind; he knew why.
Madame Verdun smiled and put a hand on Donomin’s knee. The headmaster hid his face in his hands. “We must extract it - use if for the greater good.”
Without thinking, Donomin swept her hand off of his leg. “No,” he said simply. Madame Verdun’s bright eyes flashed in the dim light. She seemed to compose herself, although her smile was obviously forced.
“You don’t seem to understand,” she said in a low, honeyed tone, “you must do this.”
“Because it is why I allowed you to come into this world,” Madame Verdun responded in a light, disinterested tone.
“Enough questions.” The woman snapped, standing from her chair so that the full force of her presence became a shadow over the room. She looked down on Donomin, watching him with her bright, hollow eyes.
He looked the woman up and down – not sure if her should feel frightened or if he should laugh aloud, “you want me to help you – to follow some girl – and extract her soul?”
“Now now,’ she purred, smiling gently. ’Don’t ask questions.’
“Now now,” she said again, her tone even softer this time, and Donomin felt his feet begin to prickle as if he were standing on a bed of hot needles. “You’ll be helping your fellow students, your family, you friends. Miss. Lightred. Why question that?”
Donomin looked at her quickly. How had she known about Serafin?
“I’m a student,” he interjected, “I question things.” His feet began to sting more strongly, the pain shooting up his calf and encircling his kneecap.
“Do not question me,” the woman said quietly. Donomin felt the pain reach his hips. He tried to stand up but found that he couldn’t move. “Do not question my authority, Donomin.” She said in an even more hushed tone.
“Let me go,” he commanded through gritted teeth.
“No.” she said simply, her eyes beginning to grow even brighter with the excitement of his pain.
“This has gone on long enough!” the headmaster bellowed, standing up from his chair in a surprising burst of courage.
“No,” the woman said calmly, flicking a palm in the headmaster’s direction. In a blink of an eye, his figure was replaced by a similar shape made of dark stone. She turned back to her primary victim.
“You are still asking questions” she said with a small smile, “I can see them in you mind.” She waved a hand slowly in his direction and Donomin felt the pins crawl up his neck.
He struggled against invisible ropes and his ears began to burn.
A dark curtain fell over his eyes and disrupted his attempts to break free. Before he left consciousness however, he saw a glowing form of a woman towering before him –her body made of shimmering, snickering heads.
It was at night the great man fell,
and sang a song of woe.
He dropped on down into the well
to battle out his foe.
‘Haha’ it said, the slimy thing,
all dank and made of rot.
‘You’re the one she said they’d bring
you’ll do nicely in my pot.’
And so the man was boiled and stewed
Until his bones were dry.
The slimy thing, it ate its food
and then began to cry:
‘Boo hoo boo hoo’ the slick one said
and wiped away his tears,
‘if only I had died in bed
my soul’ed have lasted years.’
It is hard to know when this nursery rhyme came into being. For hundreds of years, it has been sung to Mortal children as they slept softly in their beds, dreaming of the light and innocence of their youth. And yet this nursery rhyme – or ‘Prophesy’ as it is called in these territories – is a strange and dangerous thing to utter in the wilderness. One must be careful when humming it to oneself as he or she collects the day’s timber or hunts the day’s meat. Some say that the nursery rhyme came from the first King of the Seff as a way for his men to remember that their enemies lay in darkness. Others claim that the Giants sang it as they thundered into battle, reminding each other that even the proud are food for someone else.
But then there is one man, one old man who lives deep in the Glades of Ruin, who believes something quite different.
Something quite different indeed.
This old man – who has seen Ages pass by his window wearily and without much interest – believes that this rhyme describes the end of Men.
This old man – a crooked fellow with wide eyes – is a Keeper. One of the last of his kind, he collects the memories and objects of those that pass his way. Hundreds and hundreds of scrolls and boxes, cups and bottles, beads and bugs, animal hides and golden orbs fill his small house making it impossible to live in. Instead, the old man sleeps and eats in a small gardening shed at the side of his house. There is a small swinging bench hanging from a tree in the front yard where he spends most of his days.
And it was here, all those years ago, when his hair was still the color of rich silver and only the tips of his eyebrows hinted pure white, that a small, strange creature approached him. The creature was no more than two feet tall, a muddy brown color with long arms and legs that he seemed unable to control. He contorted himself in strange moments as he walked, one side twitching while the other side shivered in response. The old man watched as this creature came nearer and nearer to where he was sitting in the bench-swing, remarking to himself that his breakfast had not been hot enough.
The creature reached the man and stopped, staring at him with bloody eyes. The old man could see that its eyes had been torn out. Most of its teeth were missing and the hair on its head was scarce. The old man jumped to attention as the creature fell to the ground, breathing heavily and whimpering.
“Sir – Master –” the old man began, but with one look at the monstrous thing convulsing on the ground, he knew that it was dying. The old man sat next to it, trying to think of a way to ease its pain. He was about to put a hand out to calm the poor thing when it began to murmur in a soft, crazed voice:
“It was at night the great man fell,
and sang a song of woe.
He dropped on down into the well
to battle out his foe.”
The old man froze. The things eyes had suddenly gone bright, as if there were small fires burning inside of each one.
“‘Haha’ it said, the slimy thing,
all dank and made of rot.
‘You’re the one She said they’d bring
you’ll do nicely in my pot.’”
The old man scanned the small creature and saw that it was clutching a small velvet bag, a nine-pointed silver star stitched clumsily to the cloth. The creature continued, a little louder, its voice rattling for want of air:
“And so the man was boiled and stewed
Until his bones were dry.
The slimy thing, it ate its food
and then began to cry:”
The creature began to shriek the words, its thin voice echoing against the trees and hurtling towards the sky:
“‘Boo hoo boo hoo’ the slick one said
and wiped away his tears,
‘if only I had died in bed
my soul’ed have lasted years.’”
The old man reached out to take the bag, but the creature’s thin hand darted out and caught his wrist tightly. With surprising force, the old man was brought down to the ugly face, the blood-jelly of the eyes boring into his skull.
“He wanted life, you see.” It said hoarsely, gasping for air, “they are the same you see – it is the fall you see – it is the end. The darkness –”
The creature was silent.
The old man wrenched his wrist from the now-limp hand and sat back, breathing heavily. Sweat beaded on his brow and trickled down his back, staining his shirt.
The velvet bag caught his eye. He freed it from the dead thing’s grasp, emptying the contents into his curious hand. It was a stone, smooth as still water and pale as bone. It fit perfectly into the old man’s palm and he held it a moment, wondering.
A noise from the wood startled him out of his trance and he hurriedly put the stone back into the bag and placed the bag in his trousers. Taking the creature by the hands, he dragged it to the side of the house, sure that a dead thing lying in his front garden– especially one so grotesque – was sure to raise unwanted questions.
The old man waited for some time before he decided it had been a false alarm. He went inside and scribbled the rhyme he’d heard quickly on a scrap of parchment, and then proceeded to burn the creature in the large pyre he used to burn animal remains. As the fire began to die down, he went inside to make his supper, putting the small velvet bag on a shelf and forgetting about it for a long while.