WAR OVER DISEASED BLOOD (cover inset)
Blue Lysis carved into their ranks with Ferrus Eviscamir, its blade slicing only their bones, invisible to metal and flesh and incapable of being parried or blocked. He tilled them as he had tilled the Land!
Dozens of bodies writhed.
Yet more Augurs advanced.
They pressed Lysis back by virtue of their sheer numbers!
Performing the theurgic rites of the elders, he danced with his blade and spoke aloud in arcane, insectan languages.
And the minions of Haemarr responded. Burrowing into the fallen Augurs, they animated the dead.
Thus Lysis commanded over thirty crippled corpses. As Haemarr’s magic animated the dead, his avatar fully grasped the power of possession and reanimation. His victims rose. Empty eyed. Arms contorted. Spines twisted, bones piercing their husks. And Lysis set them upon their friends.
“Feed!” he demanded.
Terror rendered the remaining ranks of the Carver Guild useless. Many ran hysterical off the battlefield. Others fainted. The dead fed upon themselves, some dumbly eating truncated limbs, others gnawing into the warm flesh of the living...
Diary, I tallied the Dissection Theater’s subjects again. Three and ninety female corpses. One and eighty pregnant. Forty embryos not quite human—plagued with dyscrasia. Doctor Grave has brought the fresh batch, magically collecting the victims from afar, and now his minion barbers labor to render the flesh, blood, and bone.
Dyscrasia has affected the Land for decades. All clans contribute victims: Clan Qual, the tailors and dyers of the central gorge; Clan Tonn, the metal workers, jewelers, and stone cutters of the northeastern ridge; and Clan Lysis, the painters and craftsmen of the western highlands. Even the godless folk of the Cromlechon cave colony, under which this Theater rests, donate lives. The scene before me represents the Land’s dire health. Dead mothers piled in heaps. Their orphaned, lost children seeking refuge here. Victims of dyscrasia: a disease of blood and spirit.
The lifeless embryos exhibit the disease explicitly. The stillborn mutants present eldritch traits, all unique and terrible. Beaks and downy feathers adorn the avian ones. Translucent, soft-shell exoskeletons wrap the invertebrate insectan type, which are always infected with worms. They are actually larvae, as Doctor Grave often corrects me. Larvalwyrmen, he calls them. They get much larger as they age, as testified by a mummified example suspended in the Theater by five iron rods—it is nigh a fathom long. When he sees these embryonic larvae Grave becomes emotional, stroking their skins as if to comfort them. He would nurse them to maturity if he could. I know not the extent of his necromantic powers, but it is clear he is motivated by some fascination for the insects.
Doctor Grave is an ageless figure who reeks of smoke and is armored with distressed leather made of human flesh. I have never seen his face owing to the fact it is forever concealed behind his hood of oiled skin. The cloaked barbers of his guild dissect and prepare the bodies. It has never been clear where the bodies are eventually buried. Before they leave the Theater, I sketch as many as I can. For example, consider the sketch of the woman before me now. Inside this dead mother’s womb, I discovered three eggs. Two of them were cracked, filled with misshapen embryos. These specimens had transmuted to stone, petrified into fossils. One intact egg, more fragile and not yet calcified, concealed a developed, tusked nymph, itself infected with larvalwyrmen.
I see my mother’s reflection in this lady. Perhaps I will see her again, brought here to the Theater as one dead. That possibility terrifies me. It would be fitting, however, for her to find me here to judge me for leaving her to battle my drunken father alone. I ran away from him, not her. She probably has been searching for me for years. But I cannot go back. My fear of him is more than my love for her. This dissection theater within the Cromlechon colony is my home now. Doctor Grave had welcomed me here years ago, and there seems no better place for me in this desolate Land. I am safe here. I seem to be immune for I have often contacted contagious fluids without consequence. Grave says there must be something in my blood that protects me. For some reason, he laughs when he says that.
Doctor Grave says the tribal Picti are responsible for the disease. He promises to take me to one of their mysterious rites soon. I can hardly wait to see a ritual. A ritual promised to demonstrate the intangible link between the humans and elders, and perhaps reveal mysteries like how their worshipping propagated the disease. Now the avian and insectan elders are nearly extinct. Those living are mutated. And their symbiotic Picti die with them. These humans persist only in pockets, primarily within the Lysis clan.
Grave says that the insectan elders were once large enough that people could ride them like horses. Now only the miniature variety survives, and these appear as common insects. Grave pats me on the back, laughs, and says, “Be wary of the ones that glow in the night. The fireflies. The lightning bugs. They bite!” I never understood if he was warning me or ridiculing me.
The avian type is all but extinct. There is at least one survivor, a female harpy who haunts the Land preying solely on men. Sometimes Grave gathers the few victims she leaves to decompose in nature. Their injuries suggest having fallen in a battle before being raped and eaten. She is a vampire, a succubus, and a predator. Grave has been tracking her for a long time, but she evades him. He is not skilled enough as a hunter. I hesitate to predict the outcome of their confrontation if ever he caught her.
The emotional force of a hundred corpses suffocates me now. My only home—my very life as an artist of anatomy—cannot be sustained. It is all I have, but it is rotten. In order to have some protection from the elements, the orphaned children don themselves in the bloody aprons of the barbers. Whereas once I was saddened by such desperate measures, now I find them strangely familiar.
I am not the only one in need of salvation. The entire Land needs a healer. I am no healer. Nor does Doctor Grave seem to be a candidate. He claims to want to cure the disease, but seems more concerned about resurrecting dead insects than saving humans. Grave seems to welcome the loss of life, as if he needs to harvest blood for his own mysterious rite. He is a bit like the raven that feeds on carrion, tending to death but not preventing it.
One day I will leave the Theater. I will look for a savior that will resurrect the vitality of the Land.
Anyone who could conquer this disease, which is rooted in the fabric of the Land, must be likewise terrible. Perhaps there will be a hero, a warrior who will vanquish dyscrasia, only to usher unforeseen horrors into this world—horrors that will make us all suffer so much we will wish dyscrasia to return…
Endenken Lysis pushed his mother away.
“Enough about Lyhhana!” the stooping Endenken snapped. “You distract me from preparing father’s body.”
Lady Iriana retreated half a step. Her hair was a voluminous bouquet of thick strands resembling extruded wire. So streaked it was with silver and black, many retainers of Gravenstyne Fortress whispered that the mass was a wig of wrought iron and served as a nest for vultures. She approached her son again and adjusted his hair, exposing her milk-white arm. A train of arabesque tattoos of cinnabar and crimson ink blended with the bundle of veins wrapped beneath her pallid flesh.
“You must accept her along with your future, Endenken,” she whispered, braiding the loose locks of his mane. His hair, though finer than hers, was no more beauteous. His hairline was receding, and the grotesque, lustrous curls that poured from over his ears were waxed and braided so as to appear a mane of flaccid, knotted worms. His skin had less color than his mother’s.
“Enough!” He slapped her hand away. “I am overwhelmed about performing the Rite and leading the Picts. I’ll not listen about Lyhhana again. Tonight we will begin the Inheritance Rite, but I do not feel like the leader you expect me to be. I am a hunter and protector, Mother. Not an artist like you others.”
Endenken’s quill dripped black ink onto the stone bed as would a scalpel blood. Lord Issynmerz stared blankly from the altar at his wife and son. Issynmerz’s body was a still, dead audience. His soul had something to say, but could not be seen or heard by the living.
“You decorate his skin well enough, so you are an artist despite your determination to be different. Strangely, this legacy weighs heavy on your heart. Perhaps your grief for your father’s death confuses you, but you will realize your duties soon. You will carry on our bloodline. You have no choice. You are the only successor.”
She moved to clasp his forearm to comfort him, but Endenken stepped away. “My heart simply is not dedicated to the Picti…”
“Nonsense. Although you do not specialize, you are an artisan at heart. You are as fine a Pict as your father was. And after the Rite, you are arranged to marry your cousin, Lyhhana—”
“I would sooner marry one of the servants of the Fortress who do not worship.” Endenken held his quill before him like a dagger, the tip shedding dark, indigo drops.
“Endenken, you have always known that loving others would trigger disease. We are blessed to carry the Muse of our ancestors, as only we Lysis can. You must eventually have a child.”
“She is barren! We all know that.”
“Doctor Grave claims there are ways. There may be eldritch spells that can restore her womb.”
Endenken was silent. His head swelled with fever and desperation. Defeated, he asked, “Is there not some counselor who can guide me?”
Lady Iriana shook her head. “You are the one to guide others now. Endenken, accept your role. You are leader of the Picti, and your cult is gathering now above ground. Shortly they will come for you.”
Endenken’s head swam. Leader of a dying culture I care not to progress. Let the Picti faith die with Issynmerz. Let him be the last to carry the burden. He wrestled with the notion of denying the Muse the others worshipped. He had always known this day would come, but he never prepared for it. Now the time of the Inheritance Rite was upon him, and he felt desperately cornered. It was his turn to carry the Muse, the god of the Picti.
“You don’t seem to be listening to your heart,” Lady Iriana said, “since it pumps the blood that houses our god. Obey it. And take heed, your choices as leader will affect your and Lyhhana’s children, as mine and Issynmerz’s have affected yours.”
Lyhhana’s children? Revolted, Endenken regained his senses. “I’ll finish preparing Lord Issynmerz’s body, but only if you leave me alone. Grant me some space.”
So beneath the stone fortress, deep within the catacombs under the conical hill of Gravenstyne, Lady Iriana crawled away like a spider, leaving her son alone so he could finish tattooing her dead husband, former Lord over the Picti, Issynmerz Lysis.
Endenken could turn his mother away, but he could not turn away the four dozen Picti congregating in the Gravenstyne courtyard. They amassed to escort him to a sacred ceremonial site. The momentum of tradition, and the lack of alternatives, pushed him toward a future he did not want. He would have desperately looked to his courters for help had they been available, but they hid away from the mysterious, masked entourage infiltrating the Fortress. They knew their place, and they were not part of the mystery cult. Endenken may not have felt part of the Picti either, but he was embedded amongst them.
An hour passed and then the funeral masquerade began. Iriana and Lyhhana led the Picts through the subterranean tunnels of Gravenstyne. The women wore colossal skulls of the ancient, avian elders as masks, their feathered headdresses adorned with pheasant quill plumes. The male Picti donned the hollow heads of extinct, eldritch insects. Many of these Picti came from beyond the Clanhold’s reach. They were shaman and alchemists from adjacent tribes and recluse clans.
The elder birds and insects had once coexisted with the Picti tribes who worshipped them. Originally the insectan elders were purely mammoth ants, but as they grew diseased they took on avian and human aspects, such as wings and fingered appendages. The ancient Picti had sacrificed hundreds of people to their living gods and were rewarded with enhanced creativity. The more the Picti humans worshipped and crafted art, the more the elders got sick, took human form, and died. The human sacrifices became insufficient to sustain them. In fact, human contact and offerings seemed to poison them; the sharing of blood between man and eldritch god spawned the dyscrasia. The more diseased man and elder became, the more they birthed hybrid creatures—humans gave birth to babies with six limbs and fragile wings; the elder ants hatched from their eggs with human torsos and feathered wings; the elder birds hatched from their eggs with human legs. These diseased young had high mortality rates. Those few that survived were infertile or could not survive the act of mating, which was complicated by the disease. Genuine elder creatures had not been seen in decades because of dyscrasia. Over time, all the colonies and nests fell to ruin.
So now you dress yourselves up in the bones of the dead. You do not honor the elders! Instead, you parody those stricken with dyscrasia! Endenken declared to himself, struggling to contain his anger.
Dyscrasia was transmitted by blood, intercourse, or consumption. Doctor Grave and his Guild of Barbers at the Cromlechon determined that the Lysis clan carried a strain of the disease but were not contagious unless they mated outside the family. The fact the Lysis family could bear living children with the disease was a testament to their sacred lineage. They were specially designed, it seemed, to carry the eldritch powers. If Endenken started a family with one of the non-Picti, as he wished, his offspring would undoubtedly exhibit the disease. Be misshapen. Have crustaceous skin like a roach. Die. His ancestors had tested this time and again, giving birth to mutant humans that resembled insectan larvae. It was why Issynmerz mated with his sister Iriana. It was why Iriana knew Endenken had to mate with his cousin Lyhhana, last female of the Clan aside from herself. The Picti had isolated dyscrasia, their faith, in the Lysis clan. Their blood was sacred. They had few left to carry it. And it was Endenken’s turn to inherit the burden.
So why must I accept it? I do not want this! I care not for my cousin. I do not want to carry on Issynmerz’s duties, to be burdened with yesterday’s promises and beliefs.
But Endenken had nowhere else to go.
And the masked grotesqueries swarmed him now, their human frames transfigured by ornate markings and hollow eldritch skeletons.
He could hardly deny the press of his masked visitors. All greeted him in silence, one by one, and bound themselves to him with hooked lines of fine wire and silk cords. It took several hours to tether each member to Endenken to make tangible the ethereal connections among the cult members. Flocks of birds and colonies of ants seemed to share single spirits, and so did the Picti, who honored the avian and insectan elders. Endenken had thought bitterly, and with apathy, as needles were sown through his skin for hours on end: You pretend to be social insects married to some grand monarch via spiritual bonds. I am not your monarch for if I was, and you could read my thoughts, you would know I would abandon you. I just need to know where to go. I need a cause.
Light-headed from dozens of bleeding wounds, Endenken was pulled along like a chained prisoner by the masked parade through the catacombs following the borne corpse of his father. Like ants in procession they scampered through the subterranean tunnels, Lady Iriana leading the way.
On the stone slab before him lay Issynmerz’s flesh and bone, now reduced to liquids, wax, fine powders, and scrolls of rendered skin. Notably absent from these offerings was Issynmerz’s skull, which had been removed earlier along with his heart and blood for special preparation.
Endenken and the sundered remains of Issynmerz were now exposed atop an earth mound north of the Lysis clanhold. The red glow of an autumn moon illuminated them before an audience of nearly fifty Picts. Endenken could not have felt more confined. For three days, he and the Picti cult occupied this sacred dolmen, performing the Inheritance Rite. The heir of leadership was chained to the altar with braided wire, consuming only fortified cider to sustain himself as the body of his father, Issynmerz Lysis, was meticulously dissected into its elements so that Endenken could work them into a portrait of the new leader: himself. The time to complete the portrait was nearly at hand.
Hooks tugged at the scabs in his nipples, brow, and hamstrings. He was ensnared by the network of silk cords and fine iron wire connecting him to the scores of Picti members. Many of them were similarly immobilized, chained to one another and to the megalithic stones, some held aloft by iron links dangling from on high, mimicking flight. The shoulders of the females were winged with shawls wove of eagle and crow feathers. Several death-masked ladies were free from the tethers and tended the braziers filled with smoldering white sage leaves; they also mended wire and hooks when flesh yielded to tension. Endenken could not identify all of them, especially since some of the members came from outside the Lysis territory from the northwest regions of the Land where the Picti roamed as nomads.
All but Endenken Lysis wore a mask. Endenken thought to himself: You honor the elders. But they are extinct. Your gods are dead. Their time is done. We are done. Then he stopped thinking, his eyes shut, stinging from smoke.
Lady Iriana was easily detected being that she helped orchestrate the ceremony and her wiry hair escaped the confines of her bird skull helmet. She approached from beside a cauldron that had been used to boil the fat from Issynmerz’s bones. The bones and fat had already been collected. The fat had been skimmed from the surface of the boiling water and rendered so that it could be used as an oil binder for paint; afterward, the bone, having been cleansed of sinew, was collected from the sediment, sintered, and crushed to produce a brilliant white pigment. Iriana began opening the urns on the altar before Endenken. Wisps of fine powder took flight from earthenware vials.
Endenken coughed, and cried out in pain again. He had broken the rhythm of the swaying men, and suffered. As one swayed, they all swayed. The hooks tugged on those who failed to synchronize. It took all his will to maintain breathing. He became nauseous and focused on the physical pain to keep him alert.
The swaying Picti men chanted as they rocked in their net of wire and inhaled the smoke of incense. Those men on the ground began to bellow and strike empty kettles with iron ladles. They drummed a hypnotic beat, each note allowed to fade before another tremor was issued.
The vibrating hum resonated in the wires harmoniously with the chanting. The booming choir sedated Endenken. Humming. Drumming. Foreboding.
The ancient Rite was a testament of eldritch powers for it instantly summoned swarms of flies, wasps, and carrion birds from the neighboring wetlands. The buzzing matched the frequency of the resonating drums. Pounding. Repeating. Throbbing. Endenken absorbed the sonic pulses from the vibrating chain and through his ears.
All became dark as the storm of insects suffocated the moon. Only the kindling fires from the braziers provided any light… until Endenken discovered the glowing wasps.
Wasps with fiery blue eyes crawled on his forearms and nibbled at his wounds. Some tried to burrow under his flesh where the hooks opened up holes. Endenken looked close and could hardly believe his eyes. The wasps had miniature hands capping their appendages! And the rear legs had five talons each! Are these the elders? Have our gods evolved into miniature gargoyles? What manner of sorcery is this?
And there came more glowing man-wasps. They were drawn to the bleeding wounds on his legs, torso, and neck. And they were also drawn to the urns containing the corporeal elements of Issynmerz.
The hooks and wire prohibited him from crushing them.
Before Endenken could examine the insects further, Lady Iriana approached carrying Issynmerz’s rendered skull. Her hands were gloved with mammoth pincers, the hollow, fossilized hands of an elder ant. These chitin gauntlets protected her hands from the human-like wasps, which grew excited at this procession and flew at Iriana. But rather than attempting to bite her, they escorted her to the altar.
Kerning. Pounding. Compounding.
Endenken wanted to warn her that something was not right with these wasps. But she seemed unalarmed with their presence. Yes, she was familiar with them. They recognize the power in the skull. And they recognize her. She expects them to be here.
He wanted to call for help. But he had no one to call to.
Iriana deposited the skull containing Issynmerz’s blood beside the containers housing the purified pigments.
He tried to focus on the offering before him but could not, for he swayed in accordance with the vibrating tethers, and the smoke stung his eyes and blurred his vision…
“Time to begin your portrait,” she commanded. She leaned back Issynmerz’s head to expose the heart cradled in its mouth.
Then it was as if the sun had abruptly risen!
Red, boiling blood!
So brilliant was Issynmerz’s bloody heart, it made Endenken squint. The radiance pulsed as if it were still alive.
Winged insects rushed forth to drink Issynmerz’s blood. But as the aura of blood contacted the wasps, they dropped like rocks and shattered on the stone. Puffs of powder were all that remained. Endenken did not have time to clarify all these observations. He knew only that he did not feel a part of this ritual. He did not want to lead others in this dyscrasia-riddled faith. He wanted out. He did not want the poison that was in Issynmerz’s skull.
Iriana flapped behind him and with her insectan pincers cut the dozen cords restraining Endenken’s hands and arms. This signaled an end to the swaying, though the chanting continued and the smoke remained thick.
“Now, accept your lineage. Sculpt an image of yourself from your father’s remains! Drink his blood!”
I did not ask for this burden. I seek my own path.
Endenken clutched his hands to regain feeling. Then he stared directly at the infernal Muse. He could not deny that the Picti’s faith had substance. The mutated, eldritch wasps had been called to it. He could feel its presence, for it gave off an eerie heat as if it really were on fire. Their Muse was real. It was terrifying.
Invisible tongues of flame lashed from the mouth and licked Endenken. It was hungry. The heart wanted him.
In desperation Endenken redirected his gaze beyond the confines of the ceremonial earth mound.
Cannot move. Breathe. They are not honoring me. They are sacrificing me. They are going to kill me! But I cannot move. Trapped.
Confused by the weight of expectation and the intoxicating smoke, he could not break free on his own accord.
If only this moment would pass. I could awake tomorrow elsewhere. Safe. Away. Not bound. Not dead. I need more time. Or, I need time to pass. Let the night pass and bring day...bring me the sun…Let the day come…
Then the cries of a woman pierced his thoughts.
Oh, let day come…
He heard the despairing voice scream, “Day!”
The mysterious maiden called out as she stumbled. It was as if she were reading his mind. Was she real? A hallucination?
“Day! Day?” she begged the Picti on the dolmen, but they simply ignored her incoherent plea. Their god was exposed and ready to embody a new custodian, and she dared to interrupt the climax of their Inheritance Rite with her plaint. She demanded attention. It did not occur to Endenken that she had not strayed here by chance, that she may have been called here like the insects were drawn to the scent of Issynmerz’s blood. Nor did it occur to him that the path of her journey might have been orchestrated by evil beings that hunted her and steered her here.
The maiden pressed forward insisting on a response. Delirious and weak, she fell to her knees and crawled, reaching into the air as if to grab a hand. No hand was offered, so she collapsed.
“I need to save her!” Endenken cried out. I need to save me!
“I reject Lyhhana. I reject Issynmerz’s blood!” Endenken flexed his grip on the wire tethers and started pulling, loosing flesh from his own body and that of the Picti anchoring the opposite ends.
Lady Iriana approached, but Endenken twisted the beak of her death mask and then pulled it downward to send her rolling aside.
Chanting turned to wailing as hooked chains were torn out of those who sang. Picti dangled haphazardly, swaying like ensnared animals with wrists, necks, and ankles caught in nets. In an instant, a score of men hung from the stone scaffolds.
Endenken went berserk.
“Never!” he cried as he chewed through osier strands. He was deliberate with his rage, injuring only those who restrained him.
The skin of his chest was torn free, from the nipples outward. Endenken took no heed of this.
Wires he could not snap he tugged at fiercely to injure those attached. This broke many Picti bones and hailed a storm of blood from countless wounds.
Several feathered females tried to restrain him. One he swiftly kicked into a cauldron. Another went down as he manipulated a chain rope to twirl around her neck, coiling it like a whip to snap her skull mask and split it asunder. In a span of seconds Endenken disabled four more.
Then the vibrations ceased. The air grew suddenly still. He was completely disconnected. He was free. Liberated. Focused. Unstoppable.
Endenken departed in a flash to rescue the unknown maiden. Physical wounds could not deter him. In moments he would lift her off her feet and bear her to the protection of Gravenstyne Fortress. He would leave his vulnerable cult behind to recover without his guidance.
Lady Iriana arose wounded and contemplated protecting Issynmerz’s blood versus running after Endenken. The Rite was left incomplete. Both her husband and the cult’s Muse had been forsaken.
Cousin Lyhhana crawled out from the cauldron, her ceremonial costume ruined, looking for support from the Lady.
Iriana silently closed Issynmerz’s mouth and looked up to witness the arrival of an immediate threat. Two shadowy figures stalked toward them. One prepared a bow with an arrow. The other hefted an ax.
The mysterious maiden had been chased here by these malicious beings that now breached the perimeter of the sacred mound. They had come to prey on her but found better game.
“You trespass,” shouted a Picti male. But he said no more as one of the trespassers clove the man’s insectan mask in two.
The bewildered and injured Picti were simply not prepared to defend themselves. Doom was certain.
Iriana caught a glimpse of the ax wielder’s face and her heart sank. She recognized the outcast. These visitors had not come here by chance. She did not recognize the maiden, but understood the supernatural attraction of those with special blood toward the ceremony.
“Husband, our outcasts have come to claim an inheritance they do not deserve. Surely they come for you, as your Muse speaks to them. They follow invisible tethers to your power, but they shall not have it. They are not the proper heirs—“
In an instant, she ran away with Issynmerz’s skull. She would protect the Muse at all costs, and for now that meant hiding it. Her only hope was to reach the Picti underground tunnels that connected to Gravenstyne’s catacombs. As she retreated, her ears absorbed the horrible sounds of slaughter.