Fettered

“Good and Evil are a false dichotomy, each claiming to perfect while the other is imperfect. Neither holds any meaning: imperfection was seeded at the heart of Creation before its first breath. The sole lucid decision that can be made understanding this is to overcome that imperfection, to transgress beyond the confines of mortality.”

– Translation of the Kabbalis Book of Darkness, widely attributed to the young Dead King

The sparrow flew up, startled by their approach. Neshamah stared at it as it fled into the blue sky, at its brown wings and hasty flight. His mother laid a gentle hand against his neck.

“It is only a sparrow,” she told him. “Why such a stare?”

He hesitated. He was seven now, and the Conclave had found magic in him. It would have felt too much like whining to speak. As if she could read his mind, his mother tugged at his ear warningly.

“Peleg says I am a sparrow,” Neshamah confessed. “That all of father’s children are as great beasts, but I am the least of birds.”

Also because he was drab and common, but he would not tell her this. His mother’s face turned guilty as she freed his ear as he had feared it would. It was not her fault. Mother was a princess, but her kin had been devoured by the Rats not long after Neshamah was born. It had made them the least of the wives and children of King Iakim, for even those of lesser birth had the strength of a family to call on. The two of them had nothing, for rule of the city had passed to another family.

“Even the least of birds is a great thing, Neshamah,” she told him. “Have I ever told you the story fetters?”

He shook his head and she smiled. She loved telling stories.

“In the days before Sephirah was thirteen, far before it was made whole again, the entire world was as one,” his mother said. “Men and animals spoke the same tongue and the Gods were not hidden away Above and Below but instead where we might see them. Atop the tallest mountain of Creation they made their home and from there ruled us wisely.”

It was a beautiful day. The sun was warm but the shade of the oak at their side lessened the sing. The breeze was warm and the whole world looked to be a paradise of green. The gardens of Keter were like none other. His mother gently stroked his hair.

“But one day a king rose among men,” she said. “And he was burning with ambition. He sought to be the equal of the Gods, to rule among them from atop the mountain. And so he went among the world, speaking whispers, and turned men and beasts to his belief. All would rule as gods, he promised, if they built stairs that could reach atop the mountain.”

Neshamah was young but he already knew what happened to those who thought to equal the Gods.

“The king turned all men and beasts to his purpose,” his mother said, “save one for the one. Sipo he was named, the Father of Birds, and the king mocked him. Cursed him a coward and to have hollow bones for lack of bravery. But Sipo did not change his mind, and he alone refrained when the tower began to rise. For a year and a day did they stack the stones, until there was only one stone left for the mountain to be reached.”

“The Gods cast it down,” Neshamah said, tone certain.

“They did,” his mother agreed. “And all who had cast as stone were cursed with fetters, forever binding them to the ground. The king, who had deceived the others, was twice cursed: he was condemned to dwell into the water, beneath even the ground, and fathered all the beasts who dwell there. Only Sipo was spared, for her alone had been faithful to his creators.”

He stirred uneasily.

“What does it mean, the fetters?” Neshamah asked.

“It means, my sweet, that of all the living things of Creation only birds are free,” his mother smiled. “That is why they alone can fly, for they are the children of Sipo. When Peleg things he insults you, Neshamah, in truth he does you great honour.”

The small prince nodded, but his eyes were fixed on the blue sky.

One day, Neshamah thought, he too would be free.

Sage Dimka’s dream hall was the work of decades.

The Twilight Sages were not an order allowed to hold wealth or power, the same strict oaths that had made them the trusted advisors of every king in Temen Doyov forbidding it, but here in Tvarigu there were ways around the words. The Sages had been born among the great stalactites and the city was the seat of their power – it was only in name that they did not rule the seven tribes settled here. Yet it had still taken many years for Sage Dimka to receive enough gifts to shape the dream hall to his tastes. Neshamah disliked the pillars of vividly painted wood jutting up the walls like ribs – garish – but the mosaics in white and red tiles covering every surface were striking.

The young man stepped on the cool ceramic tiles barefooted, as it would be a grave insult to enter a Sage’s dream hall otherwise. Kings and queens of the Firstborn owned the lands, ruling over tribes and cities, but in their own hall every Twilight Sage stood above even crowns. Dimka was seated across the floor, atop the dais of worn stone he had taken from a rival sage in a riddle-war, and from the rents in the floor around the dais thick white smoke wafted up. To Neshamah, bound as he was by the limitations of his humanity, the smoke reeked of sickly-sweet rot. It was finer than the finest of incenses to the Sage, however, and burnt dedesu was known to his kind into the state between life and death where they glimpsed truths.

Neshamah approached the dais and bowed low. Dimka opened sleepy blue eyes and seemed startled, as if he had forgot granting the audience. He might well have. Neshamah’s teacher among the Sages was not known as skilled speaker or guide of men. His long black robes were rumpled and stained, his grey hair ragged and his face hollow-cheeked even for a drow. He looked more a vagrant that a wise man. Neshamah cared little. He had already made a study of men, glimpsed the levers that moved them. It had been another tutelage he sought from Dimka Deep-Sleep, and he his hopes had not been disappointed.

“Neshamah,” Dimka said, sounding vaguely pleased. “Come, sit. This is a good day.”

Smoothly, the youngest prince of Sephirah obeyed: knees on the ground, feet folded behind him.

“I am pleased to hear this,” Neshamah said.

The old drow frowned, grey brow creasing.

“This is not teaching day,” Dimka recalled. “There are no lessons. Have you come, son of Keter, to spend one of your questions?”

“I have,” he replied.

His years under Dimka had not come without limits or a price. Many a secret of his people Neshamah had given over, what had been whispered in the Hall of Thirteen and the arcane teachings of the Conclave, and he had even given an oath never to lead Sephirah to war against Temen Doyov should he become king. In exchange he had been granted five years of tutelage and the right to ask for three secrets. He had already asked for two. One spent to learn that the Garden was older than Creation, that the fae had come before, and another to learn how to partake of death. This would be his last, and soon his five years would come at an end.

Neshamah had learned from the Twilight Sages nearly all he had sought.

“You will wait before asking,” Dimka said. “I was given the right to become one with the shade of Sage Nadezhda and my preparations are complete. We will discuss when I have lessened death.”

Neshamah lowered his head in agreement, though his consent meant nothing in this hall. Dimka smiled, pleased, and breathed in deep of the dedesu smoke. When he breathed out, sorcery flared. Beneath the dais would lay the bones of Sage Nadezhda, hidden but close, and as the necromancy took hold of them the very air shivered. The warmth turned to icy cold. Dimka gasped and rocked back, his eyes turning silver as he smiled in ecstasy and consumed the memories of the dead Sage. It was a great honour to be given leave to consume anyone at all instead of simply calling them, much consume one who had been of their order while she lived.

After long moments of Dimka convulsing, the Sage finally stilled and the air slowly began to turn warm again. The Twilight Sage breathed in and out slowly, resting, but his eyes were open and awake.

“How should this one referring to the Sage?” Neshamah asked.

Dimka shivered.

“I have not yet renounced gender,” the old drow said. “She died too young. I am not yet more.”

The oldest Sages, those who had eaten the memories of dozens – some even as much as a ninety-nine, which they held a sacred number – of deceased, turned strange. Abandoned gender and sometimes even their names, seeing themselves as far removed from the drow as drow were from gloom-lizards.

“Soon,” Dimka smiled. “Soon. I straddle the border now, Neshamah. Ask your question.”

“What are the boundaries of what the Gods have created?”

A question had had laboured months to craft. Not merely the boundaries of Creation, which he might find himself in time, but of all that the Gods had created. The Twilight Sage leaned back, pulling his robes tightly against his frame.

“This is not known to us,” Dimka said.

Neshamah bore the disappointment stoically. He had always known it might be the answer. The Sages made children of the wizards of Sephirah, but they were not as gods. They too were still plumbing the depths of the dark for answers.

“Through the passing of life into death we have glimpsed the borders of Creation,” the Sage said. “What separates now from after. Yet our learning is not without its shallows.”

“Someone must know,” Neshamah said. “Someone must have looked.”

Dimka slowly nodded.

“There are old tales,” the Sage said. “From a time where our people were mere children. After the dark there was a war, and in that war the Ancients fought the Wrath. It is said that the drow fled that great struggle, and for that cowardice were marked – for we were once pale as milk, as some of your kind are.”

“The Titans and the Drakoi,” Neshamah murmured.

The old drow’s face hardened and the smoke stilled around him, as if frozen.

“Do not speak those names, ignorant child,” Dimka hissed. “They are powers best left unstirred. Even the shadow of their shadow casts wide enough for a world to drown in.”

Feigning being chastened, the prince bowed his head. He waited until the Sage’s mood had settled before speaking again.

“And these great powers left behind answers?” he asked.

“It is said that the Ancients mapped out not only Creation but all that lies beyond it, for their strength came not only from this earth but the stars in the sky,” Dimka said. “They made wonders that show the lay of all that exists.”

Hunger gnawed at his stomach.

“And where might I find such a wonder, Sage Dimka?” Neshamah asked.

The old drow wryly smiled.

“At the heart of horror,” Dimka said. “Deep in the Cursed Lands, where the rats feast on one another, there was once a city of the Ancients. Look there, and answers might remain to be found.”

The prince of Sephirah smiled. He knew where he would journey, when his five years ended.

Was there a thing as accursed in all of Creation as the Chain of Hunger?

There were many stories in Sephirah of how the land how come to be, but the simplest and oldest remained the best known: a god had died here, and his malice seeped into the land. The curse spread to all who dwelled here, making them devour each other, until one beast rose above all others. So a rat became a Rat, and the malice of the dead god lived on. Neshamah had not believed the tale, trusting instead the learned extrapolation of the Conclave, but now that he had journeyed through the rustling plains he was not so certain. There was something here, in the air and the earth, and it was becoming stronger the deeper he went into the sea of tall grass.

A year he had spent finding the lost city of the Ancients, for not even the Twilight Sages had known the way, and though Neshamah had grown exhausted iron will commanded his body to continue. The Rats prowled these lands in packs and horse, devouring each other and all living things save the tall grass of the plains – it was poisonous to them – but the prince had learned to hide himself beneath sorcery. He would not be smelled or seen, so long as he was careful, and he was. As the months passed and the last of his food went he had learned to suffer the taste of Rat flesh, but no journey was without sacrifice. Nothing could be earned when nothing was given.

And he had found the end of his path, at last. The ruins jutted up from the ground like spires of silver and stone, the wind passing through them and leaving behind a song of mournful sighs. The sight that had him shivering was the mirrors that still spun around the spires, hundreds of them and none smaller than a man. They moved in arcane patterns, the magic that moved them undaunted even when the kingdom that had given them life had long been ground to dust. His stride long, Neshamah approached the ruins. The Rats avoided them, afraid or otherwise moved, but it was with great care he ventured through the spires.

Whatever had given the Rats pause was still there.

To grasp the purpose of this place was beyond Neshamah, but he had studied the works of the Titans. Learned some of the meanings in their strange letters. It was enough to guide him through the silent maze as a hundred reflections glared back at him, deeper and deeper until he found a stele of stone. Excitement thrummed in his veins. It was why he had come for, what the scarce tales and records he had found called a ‘Seeing of Phoebe’. He hurried through the dust and laid reverent fingers against the stele, which stood half as high as the spires and almost as broad, and felt the stone was warm. Still living.

Ten days it took him to wake the stele, and even so it was not fully woken. His understanding was too shallow. Yet Neshamah found what he had come for: a map. The Titans had felt out the boundaries of what the Gods had created and set their secrets to stone, which the prince now had laid out before his eyes. A sphere, the lay of Creation, enveloped by a circle. The Garden, the realm of the fae. To the sides were two great realms, the Heavens and the Hells, one deep beyond sight but unmoving while the other was shallow but ever-shifting. All these were put to stone, writhing in light before his eyes, but the prince was not satisfied.

“Are you incomplete?” he asked the stone.

It must be. Else where in the lay of it all would be the provenance of the great abominations, the creatures men called demons. He wandered away and back to his camp, lost in thought and the deep silences of his place. Fear had come to him. Creation, he had discerned, was as small garden in an ocean of nothingness. Created by the power of the Gods, it was their work and its boundaries had been set bound them. All the creatures they had made obeyed these laws – men and fae, devils and hallowed. Yet there must be something more, for the Twilight Sages had followed the thread of death and found that souls went somewhere beyond their reach. The embrace of the Gods, priests said, but what did that mean? It was neither the Heavens nor the Hells, it was not a place of Creation or the Garden, so where did they go?

Neshamah had hoped the Titans would know, but what they handed him instead was a troubling thing. Demons were believed to come from the Hells, the very deepest of them, but the prince had long doubted this. The Hells were ever-shifting, while what records existed of the demons spoke of creatures fundamental and unchanging. Neshamah had thought there might be another realm, one hidden but close to the Hells, where sorcerers had learned to reach by accident. Only the Ancients did not agree, for in their map of existence they wrote nothing at all of demons. Not even among the Hells. As if they were from another existence entirely.

Neshamah returned to the stone the following day, hoping to wake up more of its secrets, but when he laid a hand against the warm stone he went still.

Eyes were on him.

The sting of the blow that came through the stone broke his jaw, his arm and both his legs. He fell to the ground, bleeding and swallowing blood, as the contempt of something greater than he whipped at his very soul. The stele cracked, the sight ripping a scream out of him where pain had not, and before he could even try to crawl towards it fell to pieces. A wonder of the world, shattered in an instant because one of its makers had judged him unfit to sift through the ashes of their people. Covered in dust and stone, slowly bleeding out, Neshamah laid there and looked up at the sky. Blue and bright, the same as that morning so long ago where the flame had been lit in him.

“I will find out,” he swore. “Deny me all you like, Titan, but I will find out if Creation is finite.”

Three years.

He had lied and betrayed and begged and bargained, but none of it mattered. Three years had passed since the evening where he lay in the dust at the heart of the city of mirrors and at last Neshamah had what he sought: answers. In the hidden place below the fortress he had murdered a man for, the cells had revealed truths to him. All things of Creation and the Garden were moved by the presence of demons. So were devils and objects blessed with Light, though the ways of it were different. Limited, he had discovered, as if in the very fabric of the Heavens and Hells limits had been inscribed.

And only one manner of hands could have written those words.

On the last day of the third year, the last question was answered. Neshamah had not learned where souls went after death, only that they went, but the question beneath it he had followed to the end. If the Gods were infinite, omnipotent, why was the world fettered? Why did death exist – and its existence was a choice, had to be, because fae did not die – and why was entropy was allowed to devour all of existence one instant at a time? Priests gave answers to these, but none that had ever satisfied the prince of Sephirah. To worship a riddle was to live a house without candles. And at dawn that morning, Neshamah had established that there was nothing that the presence could not affect given long enough. Not even a shard from the corpse of an angel.

The truth that followed was a horror, but he did not deny it.

He torched the fortress, all trace of the works he had wrought. He made certain nothing would crawl out of the ashes, and when he was satisfied nothing would he left the smoking ruin behind. Neshamah walked out into the wilds until he found a grassy hill with a pair of trees atop it, birds singing in the branches as the sun and wind caressed the land. The prince of Sephirah laid in the grass beneath the tree, looking up at the blue sky through the leaves. He raised up a hand, as it to reach it, and left it there. A long while passed, until to his startlement a bird came to land on the outstretched fingers. A small, drab brown thing.

A sparrow.

“A demon can affect everything,” Neshamah murmured to the sparrow, “because it is not of this existence. Not of Creation or any other place. And yet, undeniably, it exists.”

The sparrow gripped his fingers, trilled up at its fellows.

“There was another Creation,” Neshamah smiled. “Before ours. And it no longer exists, save what the Gods saw fit to take from it.”

The demons themselves. What had been their wager, he wondered? Above against Below was the writ of this Creation, the answer that would be found, but the older existence must have had a different purpose. Essence against form, perhaps? There could be no purer essence than that of a demon, which affected all it beheld simply by existing. He had moved a little, and the sparrow shuffled around on his hand.

“There was one before us,” the prince of Sephirah calmly said, “and I believe there will be one after. We are finite. It will all end.”

The sparrow trilled. He smiled and flicked his hand. The bird, startled, flew up into the sky. It was a lie, that endless blue. His mother’s story had lied. There was not a single creature born of Creation that had been spared fetters by the Gods.

But, one day, Neshamah would be free.

12 thoughts on “Fettered

  1. Awesome chapter. One of the best side stories yet!
    If you haven’t subscribed yet, now is the time to subscribe. This one fleshes out the Dead King’s backstory and motivation. His motive beyond the simplistic one of making all of Creation Undead.

    Also has lore-dump on demons/devils.

    This might change the final main bad of the Guide. (Might not as well but raises the possibility for it!)

    Highly recommend subscribing to Patreon for this. There are no tiers, it’s open for even as low as the minimum pledge of 1$.

    Liked by 4 people

    1. ohJohN

      Hard agree — some of the revelations are, uh, cosmologically significant. I suspect reading it now will have much more impact than waiting until the end of the book, and $1 is a godsdamn bargain!

      Liked by 4 people

      1. asazernik

        “To the sides were two great realms, the Heavens and the Hells, one deep beyond sight but unmoving while the other was shallow but ever-shifting.”

        Huh. So the Titans agree that the Hells are to the left of Creation, rather than below.

        Liked by 1 person

    2. Rynjin

      Quite frankly, this practice of actually locking chapters behind Patreon is what pushed me away from donating to PtGE and giving my money to serials with less hostile monetization.

      That one of these chapters is now, from the descriptions I’ve heard, plot critical doesn’t change my opinion on the matter. Love EE’s writing; they won’t see a dime from me before this changes.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. ninegardens

        I mean… you are getting a whole entire serial for free. This “they won’t see a dime from me because its only 95% free, not 100% free” seems a bit antagonistic.

        Also, having spent the dime, and read the chapter; the sidestory has implications, but much like the sidestories of the past, they are implications that are not crucial.
        They deepen a character, but to the extent that depth is needed, I trust that EE will present it in the main story. They foreshadow things, but then again, you are free to just read the main text, and you will discover those things along with our protagonist, and I trust EE to handle that in an appropriate manner.

        As a parallel; you don’t need to read the Peregrine chapters to know Tariq’s deal. Its presented pretty clearly who he is in the main text. Seeing how he got their is interesting, but not critical.
        Similarly, Kingfisher was always a good dude, and everyone knew it, but the kingfisher chapters in the sidestories are also pretty cool, and tell you things about kingfisher AND Hasenbach…. but mostly they just re-enforce things that were already established.

        Liked by 7 people

      2. Link Ness Monster

        Nine Gardens has the right of it, this isn’t plot critical bit it’s cool. It’s like a deleted scene from a movie. It makes the antagonist a bit deeper, we learn some stuff about the fundamental structure of existence, get some demon facts.

        None of that furthers the plot. Making Neshamah more sympathetic arguably detracts from the plot. It’s absolutely the kind of thing an editor would break out the red ink for to bring your book to a more manageable page count or improve flow.

        And not to put too fine a point on it, but you’re not entitled to everything EE writes. EE deserves to have food, and clothes, and a roof over his head. If you have those three things and money to spare maybe you should support him because he does good work, not just because you want something.

        Liked by 3 people

    1. caoimhinh

      This song is the perfect theme for this chapter’s essence, I think.
      The Escapist by Nightwish.

      “Who’s there knocking at my window?
      The owl and the Dead Boy.
      This night whispers my name,
      All the dying children.

      Virgin snow beneath my feet
      Painting the world in white.
      I tread the way
      And lose myself into a tale.
      Come hell or high water,
      My search will go on.
      Clayborn voyage without an end.

      A Nightingale in a golden cage,
      That’s me, locked inside Reality’s maze.
      Come someone, make my heavy heart light
      Come on, come, bring me back to life!

      A nightingale in a golden cage,
      That’s me locked inside Reality’s maze!
      Come someone, make my heavy heart light!
      It all starts with a lullaby.

      Journey, homeward bound
      The sound of a dolphin calling
      Tearing off the mask of man.
      The tower, my soulguide.
      This is who I am!
      An escapist, paradise seeker!
      Farewell, time to fly
      Out of sight, out of time, away from my life!”

      Like

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