Under the Sickening
The beast is coming, thought Ezra. The words had been whispered directly into her mind by the magic of the icor. She had always had a special relationship with icor, even fifteen hundred years ago when she had been an un-augmented male. Perhaps, it was because she had helped create icor. Maybe, it was how she had tried to protect it, when the world of the ancients rebelled and used technology in vain to try to destroy it. The world that emerged, after the fall of the ancients, viewed icor as magic, but she knew better.
She had chosen to belong to the ‘committee’ to commune with the icor to harness it for the benefit of mankind. Over the years she had refined the process of communing by augmenting her body to capture filter and communicate with it.
Occasionally the icor had sent her visions, but never had they been so clear and alarming as her recent ones. Her mind was presented with visions of hordes of monsters: dragons, demons, trolls, … all the augmented ancients charging through a narrow valley, full of bloodlust and driven by envy. Waiting defenseless and unaware she saw the tribes of man with their weak un-augmented bodies and simple minds. The shock of the visions and the clarity of the voice whispering in her mind broke her contact with the icor.
The members of the committee sat hooded, cross legged on the floor of their chamber, forming a circle. The only light came from their augmented eyes; it was an unnatural electric blue light. The committee had been humming in a monotone and then abruptly stopped. Ezra knew she had caused yet another breakdown of their communion with the icor.
Amzadi, the committee leader took a very deep cleansing breath, released it, and addressed the committee with her usual ritual. “The universe is an experience engine,” she said. She paused and moved her hands into a praying position. “The singularity informs us that not everything that can happen, does happen,” she added. She moved her hands up above her head. “To deny suffering, is to deny life,” she said, returning her hands to her lap. “Life without pain has no meaning.”
Amzadi paused and took three deep breaths. “Let us say the words, to remind us why we are here.”
“The sleepers are alive,” said all robed figures together. They joined hands together and chanted. “All things are one, in all timelines, in all realities, in all the universes. All things are one. Individuality is an illusion. Time is an illusion. Life is an illusion. The sleepers are dead.”
Amzadi pulled her hood off her head. Her face was partly human, partly artificial. Her eyes shone blue and then flickered. Her gaze remained fixed on the floor. “Bestich is heading east back to Merconia. The radiation from the Merconian Sickening will make him strong again.”
Bestich had tried and failed to conquer the Ceniac island all to obtain the encryption keys necessary to have absolute command of the icor and its godlike power.
Ezra raised both her hands. A red mist formed in her right hand, and a blue mist formed in her left. The two forms of icor then moved towards each other to form a white mist. She knew this irritated Amzadi, but there were times when the committee needed to be reminded that icor was not uniform. “The division of the icor cannot be ignored,” she said. “Icor vacuums will cause problems, even in the Ceniac Island.”
Amzadi looked at Ezra and tilted her head a little like a dog listening to a whistle. “The Merconian forces, fresh from their victories in Alafay, are headed for the Ceniac Islands. The icor here is enough to make Ceniac wizards so powerful that the Merconians will not stand a chance. Bestich knows this and will turn back.”
Ezra returned her hands to her lap. “I sense something I have not sensed since the fall of the ancients. A presence not manifested since …”
The light from Amzadi’s eyes strengthened to be so bright that Ezra brought her hood around her eyes. “Perhaps you need a new body. We can send for one from the hall if you wish,” Amzadi said firmly.
“I sense what I sense,” said Ezra. “You’d be wise not to dismiss me so readily.”
“If Bestich comes, we are up to the challenge,” said Amzadi. “He cannot enter the sickening anymore, let alone descend here. The icor has even granted the creator a prime icor chamber placed in an augmented staff. It is a great power not invested in any for generations.”
“I suspect the creator will not realize its significance for at least a year,” said Ezra. “In the meantime, Bestich’s plans will most certainly change. I am telling you, there will be a manifestation today, and the war we have seen coming for fifteen hundred years, will begin today. Bestich will come here, and we will not survive. I have seen the augmented fall upon the weak tribes of man.”
Amzadi put her hood back on. “Your days of prophesizing are behind you old one. Let us commune with icor and defend the sleepers who are alive and are dead.”
The committee hummed.
North of the Splintered Isles
The beast is coming, thought Yurkin. He could hear the heavy shuffling footsteps. He could see the sudden cowed looks on the crew and he could sense their complete abasement. He stood on the foredeck as far from the beast’s quarters as he could get, shivering from the cold and the fear. The beast had reached the main deck.
Yurkin remembered a time when he had been free, when he had been overjoyed to be called upon by the beast. I was a fool, and it cost my brother his life. He was haunted by the memory of his brother, Aravand, trying to rescue him and being murdered by the beast.
His fingers ran over the stones on his necklace; there were seven of them now. He wanted to rip the necklace off and cast it in the ocean, but just like every other time he had tried, it would not come off. He could not pry even one stone away from his skin.
There will be pain, thought Yurkin. Now would be the time to jump into the sea, beyond the reach of the beast. I may never get the chance again. I would sink into the frigid depths and never feel pain again.
He felt a tingling sensation, he was on the precipice, his body could sense the honed edge of the tipping point. Yes. He had made his decision. He would embrace cold death, rather than face the beast again. Just then, the beast spoke.
“I know what you’re thinking,” Bestich said with a hint of a chuckle. “Go on then. Show me how brave you are boy.”
He just sees me as nothing but a fourteen-year-old boy. He doesn’t think I have the courage, but I know this is the right choice. Forgive me Ma for not returning like I promised you I would.
Yurkin closed his eyes and jumped. For the first time in months, he felt all the burdens on his soul lifted. It was a strange feeling; it was as if he were being lifted into clouds rather than falling into the abyss. He braced for the impact of the water, but it never came. Opening his eyes, he could see the familiar white mist of icor wrapped around him lifting him up in the air and bringing him down to the main deck. Bestich’s magic won’t let me die. Bestich grunted and turned his back and walked towards his cabin. The icor carried Yurkin behind him. The cold sea breeze bit the skin beneath Yurkin’s loose white shirt. He shivered again.
I cannot even die to escape him.
Bestich entered the cabin and sat at his table. The icor placed Yurkin at the only other seat at the table. The sea mist had soddened his shirt and brown wool trousers. He shook his head to move the wisps of his wet red brown hair out of his eyes and look at the figure of his oppressor.
Since losing his campaign against the Southern Ceniacs, Bestich had become even fatter, he had grown an unkempt beard and he had taken to drinking alcohol in excess. He smelled of red wine, pork, and something dire… something dead. Before he lost his war with the Southern Ceniacs, Bestich had always looked neat, confident, and playful. He had applied perfumes every day and bathed within his tent every evening. Even when he was committing atrocities, he wore a smile and a red velvet cummerbund. But his great cause had been dealt a serious blow. Now he wore a scowl, and his atrocities had no purpose. He would mutter to himself and on occasion his internal anger would be released in a stream of fire directed at some innocent bystander. He had killed a cook, a boatswain, a powder monkey, and the chief gunner.
Yurkin had once asked the first mate how Bestich held such a tight grip on power over them and their nation of Merconia, and the man had looked around furtively. “Homo deus,” he had whispered and never spoke of it again. Yurkin did not understand what he had meant.
“Well, it is understandable that you wish to escape your plight boy,” said Bestich in a slurred patronizing tone. “I know life’s been hard for you. I know you call me the beast…” Bestich paused, as if unsure what he had planned to say next. “I’m really not that bad you know. I’m an absolute delight, in the right circumstances.” His eyes lost focus for a moment and he made a slight snarl. “Life does not always go to plan. Things happen that are not supposed to happen. I was supposed to have destroyed the South and proven to the icor that I was the only suitable leader for mankind. I was supposed to be a god by now, and I would have been if it hadn’t been for one silly girl. The icor shield should have stopped her, but it didn’t. Somehow the way she thrust the sword into my champion, Unmind, was just slow enough to get past the icor and just fast enough to penetrate his body. I made one mistake. One!”
Am I supposed to say something? Am I supposed to sympathize with this beast that killed my brother? I don’t think I’ve ever seen him so drunk.
“Unmind was my little power monkey…” continued Bestich with slurred speech. “… wearing my power stones and doing my bidding but his death could have been the end of me. Fortunately, I had the foresight to have a backup plan and make a duplicate, that would be you my little necklace wearing stritzball. Now listen Yurkin,” Bestich leant his forehead against Yurkin’s. “I am going to give you some advice from me, the greatest creature in existence, to you, a peasant peon puberty plagued pest…” he burped. “Always make a duplicate. Always have a backup.”
Bestich straightened up. A look of confusion crossed his face. “Why did I bring you here… oh yes! I need to send a message to my wizards,” Bestich said.
Suddenly Yurkin’s fear intensified, because when Bestich draws power from the stones around Yurkin’s neck, they begin to burn, and the more power he uses, the more they burn. Bestich had done this remote communication magic on a few occasions and each time had needed to draw so much power from Yurkin that it made him feel like he had been thrown in a fire.
He felt tears welling up. His lower lip began to quiver, despite his efforts to suppress it.
“Am I supposed to sympathize with you?” sneered Bestich. “You should be thankful. You get to live in luxury. You can have any comfort you desire…” He cocked his head at Yurkin. “Girls… you should have girls in your cabin. You’re a teenage boy, obviously you want girls, right?”
Yurkin gave Bestich a look of befuddlement. You’ve killed my brother, you torture me daily, and you think forcing a girl into my cabin will make it all good? Like I am the sort of creature to inflict myself on some unwilling victim like that?
“No?” said Bestich confused. “Perhaps boys?”
Yurkin’s mouth dropped open.
“No?” Bestich chuckled. “Sheep? Ha ha! I know you Northmen love your livestock. Ha ha ha!”
A sudden anger gripped Yurkin and it bypassed his fear and without a moment for his intellect to intercede he threw a punch at Bestich’s face. It bounced of an icor shield. A ball of flame appeared in Bestich’s right hand and he brought it forward to within a foot of Yurkin’s face.
“That’s what I get for trying to be nice,” Bestich snarled. “You are so ungrateful.”
The orange flame turned blue as he brought it closer to Yurkin’s face. Yurkin tried to flinch back but found himself unable to move. The heat burned his face, and he could feel his skin begin to bubble. From Bestich’s other hand some white icor snaked on to his face healing it as fast as the flame burned it.
Yurkin tried to scream but the icor flooded into his lungs silencing him.
Bestich’s smiled, and his eyes gleamed with blue light reflected from the flame. Yurkin had never seen the beast exhibit such sadistic pleasure. Usually, his acts of violence had been a means to an end or a sudden burst of anger, but Yurkin could tell that Bestich was enjoying seeing him suffer.
The white icor turned red.
Yurkin again tried pulling away as he saw the red icor flowing from his chest. Bestich’s expression changed from sadistic glee to curiosity.
The blue flame subsided, but the red mist grew and the pain from Yurkin’s chest remained. Yurkin gritted his teeth trying to bear the pain.
“Interesting,” said Bestich, looking at the red mist with fascination. “I have never seen it do this before.”
Yurkin felt the power stones heat more as Bestich drew more of the icor from it, but now the red mist was not being absorbed by Bestich, instead it formed a cloud. Bestich released the icor’s grip on Yurkin, who then fell to the floor in agony.
Goddess, stop this pain, thought Yurkin, and immediately the pain stopped. Bestich was no longer drawing power from him. Yurkin scuttled backwards towards the cabin wall as he watched a head manifest from the red mist. He recognized it. It was Unmind, the dead Northern warlord. Yurkin had seen Unmind die.
Bestich’s mouth opened in an expression of genuine surprise. “Unmind?” said Bestich. His tone was of mild surprise. “Is that you, my old friend?”
“He who knows himself, knows everything,” replied Unmind.
Bestich appeared confused. “What?” He shook his head. “Never mind. Unmind, my friend, how are you doing this?”
“The self is an illusion; we are all part of the one. All delineations are arbitrary,” said Unmind.
Bestich looked at Yurkin. “Well, I guess that explains everything,” he said sarcastically.
“We have work to do,” Unmind said. “You recently completed your campaign in Alafay and ordered your soldiers to join the remnants of your Ceniac forces to reinvade the South.”
“Yes,” said Bestich. “We will invade, and I will take the sickening, the council, the golden key…”
“No,” said Unmind. “The icor on the Ceniac island is too strong and has sided with the old woman and her boy.”
“So, it is true then, the icor has decided against me?” Bestich looked down in an expression of defeat.
“The icor has not decided, it has divided into camps of suffering, pleasure and karmic balance. The goddess Yuang and her daughter Siva are ready to war again like they did during the fall of the ancients. Life without pain has no meaning.”
Bestich smiled. “It is as I have always said. Humanity’s purpose is to be a slave race, to suffer… under me, it’s ruler, it’s god.”
Unmind’s hands became visible, and they brought up wisps of red icor. “The red icor you see is Siva,” he said. “It will grant you the status of god. The power you have experienced with Yuang’s white icor is insignificant compared with Siva’s red icor. I will teach you how to magnify your power by channeling suffering into Siva, then you reach out as you commune with your wizards and you will teach them. Then we will unleash an army of crimson wizards upon the world.”
Yurkin looked on this exchange with horror. They will bring even more suffering upon the world. Is there no end?
“What about my invasion forces?” asked Bestich.
“Send them against the Eastern Isles,” said Unmind.
Bestich looked confused. “To what purpose?”
Unmind’s image glimmered. “The more land you dominate, the more icor will become Siva, which will make you stronger.”
Bestich rubbed his chin. “There is no Sickening on the Eastern Isles for me to draw power from…”
Unmind raised his hand. “You will not be needed on the Eastern Isles. Yes, Yuang has no Sickening on the Eastern Isles which makes her icor weak there, so her Golden Wizard will not be an issue, but your crimson wizards will not need a Sickening, because they can power ambient Siva with suffering. Bring suffering to the Eastern Isles and then you will have the power you need to invade the Ceniac Island and I shall have my vengeance, not just upon the South, but also the North who have joined with their oppressors.”
Bestich’s wore an uneven smile. It looked like the grin of a mischievous child. “What of the icor’s rules? Do they not bind Siva?”
Unmind nodded. “Siva is bound, which is why I give you a quest.”
“Take a small force to the Ceniac Sickening. Siva will grant you access to the hall of the committee and to the hall of the ancients. From there you must wake the creator’s partner, Ethan, who can be persuaded to rid Siva of the rules constraining her.”
Yurkin looked from Unmind to Bestich. Bestich looked down at Yurkin with a big grin. “Oh Yurkin, we’re going home!”