Chapter One: Roots of Splendour
On the morning of Warim’s wedding Pari Azar decided to take the long disturbing path down to the Roots of Splendour, there to weep. She did not want to see Warim marry that woman, not that she – a fifteen year old girl – would be a suitable alternative. She was yet to pass into adulthood. Nevertheless, she did not want to be in Shushtar during that wretched ceremony. The Roots of Splendour were the best refuge.
Pari’s people, the Gnossians, rarely travelled below their Grove Caverns. Down there the ancient halls held memories of menace. The Magi among them scoffed at this, but then Magi were accustomed to the haunted landscape of Out Beyond. For everyone else the atmosphere down there was uncomfortable. The memories assured her that she would not be disturbed.
‘I am not a slut,’ Pari screamed, hands clenched, once the Grove Caverns were several minutes behind her. That last word echoed down the gallery and she felt hot shame again. Such a horrible word so unjustly thrown at her.
Tears pricked. Yesterday the beautiful Abrisham had confronted Pari in front of all of her friends. Well, most.
‘Keep your filthy hands off Warim!’ Abrisham had shrieked. Yes, shrieked! Right in front of everyone. Such shame.
‘I…’ Pari had stammered. Where had this come from? Yes, Warim was an exciting man and she felt a tightness in her chest at the sight of him. But what of it? She had never told anyone. Never shared.
Perhaps she had been too gushy, but that was easier than uncomfortable silences. Did she seek him out too much? Not that she had. No. It just happened that she ran into him frequently. Accidentally. Perhaps lingered after magic classes. Should she not have asked him for stories of Out Beyond? But she just loved listening to him. Had he really seen a huge Jigorath lumber across the horizon during his last expedition?
And he had always smiled and greeted her warmly. He had never told her to go away.
‘Slut!’ Abrisham cried, a manicured finger pointed accusingly at her. Everyone around them stared and Pari felt her cheeks reddening.
‘Slut!’ the woman had yelled over her objections.
Pari shook her head hard, trying to banish the raw memories. Yesterday had been horrible. Humiliating.
The underlying truth hurt more. She wanted Warim’s smile, to bathe in his laughing eyes, to feel his hand stroke her shoulders and play with her hair. But Abrisham would have all that. Damn Abrisham!
‘I am not a slut,’ she growled again as she strode towards the place the memories called the Turquoise Well.
But I want to be, something deep within her whispered. But only for Warim.
Why had he not come to her? Apologised. Or at least said something comforting. He must have known that Abrisham had said these cruel words because, well, everyone must know by now. Did he hate her? Was that bitch stopping him? Yes, that must be it.
The memories led her further and further, down dim corridors and halls. Her Wyrd told her that magic lingered in the walls, but the lack of dust was plainer evidence of that.
Now the Cataclysm Gallery opened up before her, so named for the stone and metal figures melted into the floors and walls. She had never actually seen them before, though the memories gave a false familiarity. These had once been real people from a time before the Gnossians – a very long time before the Gnossians. Magi had investigated and analysed the chamber several times over the centuries and always the conclusions had been the same. Real people, but not human as we now know them. Something different, more powerful, more dangerous. Furthermore, the magic in the fabric of the walls here had been subverted because the bodies should have dissolved and the walls repaired. Most Magi thought that whatever caused this had been a localised event, but some thought otherwise. Perhaps at one time the entire complex had been littered with bodies, her father had mused once in front of her.
Beyond Cataclysm Gallery she walked for the best part of an hour. Nothing was as disturbing as the bodies, but the magic here held an odd resonance. Discord, like a melody played in the worst key possible. It grated. She gritted her teeth and mentally swore at Abrisham.
‘I hope the wedding is a disaster,’ she muttered. Most particularly the wedding night.
And then there it was.
The Turquoise Well matched its name. It was a large blue-green hole in the floor of a stark white chamber. Here the walls glowed. Pari stepped up to the lip and peered down. The turquoise faded to a clogging darkness.
She paused, balanced and thoughtful. For a moment yesterday was forgotten. Problems absorbed her. She conjured more memories, those from other community ancestors. They were insistent: that was the way down.
‘Perception is not always reality,’ Pari muttered, repeating her father’s oft-stated heresy. The memories approved, urged her forward.
‘A Magi’s instinct is their worth,’ her father had often told her. He should know, he was considered the greatest Magi born to the Gnossians.
She knew what her instincts expected of her. And what did she have to lose now that Warim was married and she had been publicly humiliated? It was sheer stupidity. Insanity. But…
Pari stepped into nothingness.
And slowly fell. Well, it was not really falling. There was downwards motion but no terrifying plunge. If was as if she was a feather softly floating.
The walls of the well lit up as she descended, showing doorways to other places. None of these, the memories whispered.
Something tiny, golden and fast pelted past and around her. For a moment she was startled, but whatever it was disappeared quickly back down the well from whence it had come. The Wyrd offered up no insight and the memories no explanation. A puzzling occurrence. The brief glimpse of it suggested a metallic insect, like a wasp. The thought was not comforting.
A gasp, she was startled as she gently struck the floor of the well. Her mind had been elsewhere. Magi should always be aware of their surroundings, her father liked to say as she grew up. She was a daydreamer, and while her father understood this he nevertheless fought this inclination in her. Out Beyond is a dangerous place, he always concluded practically every piece of advice he gave her.
But she was not Out Beyond, she said to herself. She was in the Roots of Splendour.
On every side a massive emptiness. The place was a huge man-made cavern. Or had the gods wrought it?
There was an unconvincing light that did not quite reveal the place, yet neither did it conceal. Typical of the ancients. A place of secrets in plain view.
Had Warim ever stepped these tiles? She could imagine him now, ever the quick smile, patiently explaining how each of these lumps of ancient machinery worked – or at the very least the conjecture as to their workings. Even the Magi stumbled at the mechanisms of the gods.
Damn him! Why had he not contacted her? Did Abrisham truly have that much of a hold over him?
Deep in thought she approached the nearest behemoth. It was a thing of steel and majesty and intrinsically her Wyrd knew it for some sort of flying device. Pari questioned the memories but none that she possessed had the age to remember back far enough. Before Shushtar.
A cold draft startled her. Until now the place had seemed dead. But the temperature drop warned her of a summoning. Instantly her Wyrd responded, throwing up a shield. This lowered the temperature further. Heartbeats passed and the danger departed as swiftly as it had come. Pari did not lower the shield.
She turned slowly on the spot. Nothing moved in the dimness. Nothing at all.
… the quietest of whirrings. A subdued buzz.
The golden wasp trembled upon the flying machine not far from her. Had this been the cause of the disturbance?
Shadows coalesced into green solidity. A strange imp of a thing. It flashed a cold smile not reflected in its eyes.
The sending was powerful. Indeed somewhat overwhelming.
Pari was floating up towards the lip of the Turquoise Well when the menacing black figure in black armour and black swirling robes exploded into existence. The thunderous expression on its face was pretty black too. Pari would have stumbled back in surprise had she been standing on solid ground. As it was her sudden body movement threw her off balance into a gentle spin. The apparition pounced upon her, its eyes lightning.
‘You have no business being here.’ The voice rumbled like the storms that frequently wrestled above Shade’s jagged cliff tops.
‘I have every right!’ Pari shouted back, a mixture of fear and anger.
‘You have no rights! You are a child.’
Pari struggled to right herself as she continued upwards. She knew that she must look comical and this only fuelled her temper further.
‘I’m a person and have every right to do as I wish!’
‘Stop being a damned fool.’
‘I’m not,’ she spat, though the petulance was quite evident.
The apparition lowered its voice, a warning tone evident in its next words. ‘This is a dangerous place. Evil lurks here.’
Pari snorted. ‘The Magi say this place is safe. That the rumours are just that. I’ve heard you say the same.’
The black figure retreated, though was no less threatening. Its voice was stern yet elusive.
‘Convenient lies that serve a purpose.’
This was a surprise.
‘Lies? Why would the Magi lie?’
Pari watched the sides of the Turquoise Well drift past in silence. There would be no answer.
‘Why would you lie?’ she pursued, her arms tense. ‘You aren’t like the others. You don’t believe.’
‘This is not some religious foolery,’ the black figure replied. ‘Do as I say. I should not have to repeat myself to you.’
‘Mother!’ Anger. Frustration.
‘You used to call me Mum, and before that Mummy.’ Unexpected genuine sadness haunted those words.
‘I’m sorry,’ Pari said. ‘Mum.’
The top of the Turquoise Well appeared and whatever magic it was that enabled the place chose to settle Pari gently onto the shite tiles several steps from the edge.
The sending of Negan Azar hovered not far away, a dense blight upon the white.
‘I presume that Warim and his vain bride are the cause of this foolishness?’
‘No…’ she began to protest, but then stopped. Everyone must know. Again her cheeks reddened. ‘It is none of your business.’
‘Daughter, you are my business.’
The air sizzled somewhat around the young woman. Unintentionally she had called upon the Wyrd and she could feel it writhing below her skin. Could her mother sense this? Probably. She tried to calm herself down.
‘I love Warim,’ she blurted, surprising herself with the statement. It was true… perhaps.
Negan Azar paid the comment no attention but floated back towards Shushtar, away from the well. Pari followed.
‘And that bitch has him. She must have forced him to marry her somehow. It’s not fair.’
Negan said nothing. Then finally, ‘You are too young to understand love.’
Her voice was cold, the words demeaning and hurtful.
‘You think I’m just a child.’
Negan’s shoulders shrugged. Pari stopped, once more the tide of her anger waxing.
‘You will have to accept that I am an adult after my tempting,’ she shouted at her mother’s translucent back.
‘Stop sulking. Keep moving. I want to see you back up here as quickly as possible.’
Pari heard herself spit in protest when something squirmed under her arm. The latter woke her from the sullen feelings threatening to overwhelm her. She tensed and turned slightly to see whether her mother had noticed anything. No. Thank goodness!
‘Come!’ Negan’s voice once more demanded.
She continued the long walk home.
‘Good,’ Negan muttered.
Pari hated being treated like this, treated like a little girl. Soon she would be a woman and Negan would have to accept that and treat her properly. And once she had dealt with Abrisham…
‘Pari!’ Negan exclaimed. ‘He is back! Your father has returned!’
Negan’s projection vanished as the entrance to the Grove Cavern came into view. There was no goodbye, just orders to return to her apartment on the Krak. Pari bit her lip, wanting to feel the pain because physical pain is real and she needed real.
‘I did not know that your mother is Negan Azar,’ said the faint voice within her head.
‘You know her?’
‘Our paths have crossed,’ it replied evasively. Pari was not stupid. There was more to the story. She would pursue that. Not now. Later.
‘She’s a bitch,’ Pari said bitterly.
‘She is powerful,’ came the reply.
‘Still a bitch.’
‘Perhaps. But we must be careful in her presence. She might sense me.’
Pari laughed humourlessly. ‘Don’t worry. She doesn’t pay me that much attention.’
‘You know, you’ve never told me what you get out of helping me.’
‘Don’t annoy me,’ she warned as her temper sought release. Suddenly her Wyrd was active, its tendrils wrapping around the tiny golden bug clinging to the coils beneath her skin. The bug squirmed. She sensed it trying to bring power to bear and immediately started syphoning it – a trick learnt as she trained to become a Magi.
‘Stop! Stop!’ it shrieked inside her mind.
She released her grip on it.
‘You are not what I expected,’ whispered the voice. ‘Your mother’s daughter.’
‘My father’s too.’
Pari was proud of her father, the only person who truly understood her.
‘So why are you helping me?’
‘Trade advantage,’ the voice replied as if nothing had happened.
It made sense. The folk of Shushtar were the most powerful trading block in Shade, being the only source of Magi on the planet. She doubted that this being could learn anything useful, but she was happy to let it piggy-back off her so long as it helped her get revenge. She needed revenge.
Chapter Two: The Return
Negan Azar’s concern for her only child inevitably led to frustration manifest as anger. It was a pattern established when Pari was little more than a laughing but naughty toddler. The memories of Pari’s early childhood always made her pause and smile, an expression that sat uncomfortably upon the fierce face. Such a happy child, Negan thought. Everyone had loved Pari almost as much as they feared her mother. Negan shook her head sadly. She needed to repair their relationship, but somehow that never seemed to happen. And it only got worse as the girl grew older.
This latest fiasco with Warim and his bride would make things worse. She just knew it.
Now that Razin had returned he must speak with their daughter. He had a better relationship with her. This last admission hurt, but it was what it was. Everyone liked and admired Razin and their daughter positively worshipped him.
Head high, pace determined, Negan strode down the Krak’s various stairways towards the Flourishing Gates. Razin had sent her a brief sending when he entered the valley. By now his company would have navigated the streets of the city below and be ascending the Golden Stairs. She would be at the gates to receive him. Already she anticipated his cheeky grin and wink, followed by that great bear hug that nearly always squeezed the breath from her. He was the only person in this damned place that was not scared of her. Well, perhaps Pari too. Difference was that Razin actually enjoyed her company, whereas Pari could not wait to escape it.
Activity at the Flourishing Gates was slightly more than normally the case when a company returned. It was because of Razin, Lion of Shushtar and most powerful Magi on the planet. People liked to court his favours and he happily indulged them with a smile or a greeting. Such was his way. So here they were, the clingers-on and sycophants. She despised them. They knew it and remained away from her. Mutual loathing was hidden only because it made Razin angry. No one wanted Razin angry.
Negan positioned herself near one of the massive granite pillars just beyond the huge arch of the gates. It placed her foremost in his sight when he entered. Self-consciously she adjusted her hair and cape. Her armour was its normal shiny black. He liked that. “My warrior maiden,” he always called her. Well, she had not been a maiden for a long time now, but a warrior she remained. So here she would be. Waiting for him.
With an eerie silence the great gates opened. No matter how long Negan had lived in this haunted place, it still seemed wrong that such gigantic pieces of metal could so quietly slide into gaps in the stone walls. Yet no one else seemed to question it. Well, this was their place from birth in most cases.
Shadows entered the antechamber before their owners. Negan held her breath like some foolish teenage girl. Razin did that to her.
She tensed, then started forward.
The man who led the company through the doors was Razin, but a limping somewhat diminished version of himself.
‘The vessel exploded while we were in it,’ Razin explained, goblet in hand seated upon a chair in their parlour. ‘Many died.’
‘How could that have happened? Did you not check it for life?’
Most people would have taken Negan’s tone and words as an insult, a criticism of their ability. They would have given some angry retort. Razin just gave a sad smile.
‘We all did. As leader I checked it thoroughly and could find so sign that the old magic still coursed through its veins. I must have been wrong.’
‘Obviously,’ Negan responded, moving behind her husband and kneading the muscles in his shoulders and upper back.
‘It’s my fault that forty-seven people died.’
Negan kept massaging his back, offering what she felt was soothing advice. ‘Don’t worry. They were only Flutters.’
When he tensed beneath her fingers she knew that she had said something wrong. It only took a moment to recognise her mistake, but she was not sorry for it.
‘Their lives are short. So they were shortened by a decade or so more, don’t let it concern you.’ Silence. She kept kneading. After a while she shifted weight from one leg to another and searched for more words. ‘At least no Magi were killed.’
Razin still said nothing. That was his way when he was angry with her, or perhaps disappointed. Most people would argue, but not Razin. It was not that he was scared of her or anything. He was the only magic wielder in Shushtar who might be able to overcome her, and one of only a few on this entire world. Negan knew that he just felt that conflict achieved nothing.
‘Was it the explosion that…?’
The words fell out of her mouth before she could stop them. This was something of which they rarely spoke.
‘Accelerated the corruption?’ he whispered.
Negan bent over and rubbed the side of her face against his. His skin was rough with bristles and he had a raw, masculine odour about him.
‘I caught the scent of magic moments before the fire would have erupted.’ He said this slowly, painfully. ‘It was so fast. I knew what it intended to do. I grabbed at it, wrestled with the streams.’
Negan pictured it. Some of this were her imaginings but Razin was leaking his thoughts into hers. Awful terrible scenes. Claustrophobic. Dark. The wreck a skeleton around them. She felt his panic and the terrible power he unleased to stem the inevitable. He had held nothing back, not even those tiny rivulets of sorcery that held back the old infection. No wonder he was diminished.
‘I understand,’ she said.
Razin nodded and silence returned to their apartment for another few minutes.
‘Pari is having problems.’
‘What type of problems?’
Negan grinned slightly to herself. Their daughter’s exploits, triumphs and failures would always rouse Razin to words. His shoulders lost a bit of their tension.
‘She’s been a bit doe-eyed over a certain young man.’
‘Wazim,’ Razin interrupted. ‘Pompous. Good-looking. Potential as a second-tier Magi if he doesn’t get himself killed over the next half-century.’
Negan raised her eye-brows. Razin’s knowledge of everything and everyone in Shushtar continued to astonish her after all these years. Especially as he spent so much time wandering Out Beyond.
‘He went and married some brainless bimbo today. For some reason Pari decided that a visit to the Roots of Splendour was the appropriate response.’
Negan expected thunder from her husband, but he only chuckled. ‘The fruit does not fall far from the tree.’
She pondered before asking. ‘You or me?’
‘I was a year younger than the girl when I first disobeyed the strictures and wandered down there. I recall it was because a girl called me fat.’
‘Who was this harpy? Let me rip her arms off and watch her bleed.’ Negan purred as she spoke, fingers now working up and down his back. She could feel him chuckling again.
‘And you,’ he continued. ‘I would not have met you had you not snuck from the Temple of Winds while I was on my Tempting.’
‘Boreas’ rules made no sense,’ she replied. ‘Anyway, I wanted to see a Gnossian Magi up close.’
‘You’ve certainly done that.’
‘Both of us were masters of sorceries even in our youth. We understood that. Pari is not like we were.’
Razin nodded. This was a repeated topic between husband and wife. Pari had yet to display anything close to her parent’s capabilities and it worried them.
‘She is what she is,’ he responded.
Before she could reply he reached up and gently pulled her around and down. His mouth sought hers, and fingers made her chest plate disperse so that he might tickle a breast. She breathed a deep sigh, knowing what was to come and welcoming it.