by Matthew Reed
A broken man with an illusion in an empty city.
|The city belonged to the dead. Some surviving sense of irony or humor told him he belonged there. The crystal spires rang out in a ceaseless eulogy as the wind blew through the quartz streets.
Alvah slept alone on those streets beneath the moon and stars with a small stone over his chest. The dimly glowing pictograph of a moon etched on its surface remained hidden as it was kept turned towards his heart. He knew from when he emptied the place that each room of each building belonged to someone else. Though the place was on a mountain, the temperature was moderate, a lingering effect of its magic. His own garb held no such enchantments, merely a tunic that had endured the same as him, a patchwork of mismatched cloth as mended and replaced threads with each year.
The sweet fragrance of phlox tickled his senses. It might have been a pleasant scent if not for the fact he planted he was not near the garden. His mind went wild at the fever pace of a dream as he considered every possibility.
He awoke to a pair of blue eyes staring into his soul. He would have thought he was looking to the sky if not for his own reflection gazing back at him. A woman with regel features sculpted from marble skin and platinum hair crouched over him. Her hair moved with a life all its own as the greatest evidence of her inhumanity. It rebelled against the wind and the laws of nature itself.
A small, smooth stone rested over his heart. She smiled gently as their eyes met. He recognized the visage of his mother, the lunar goddess, Nanna.
He lacked his mother’s features. Both his eyes and hair were dark and his skin was bronzed from his time beneath the sun.
Her smile struggled to survive as he silently took the stone from his chest and placed it in his satchel. Her expression transformed into a confused frown as he got onto his feet and walked away.
Decades had been spent ridding the streets of the stench of rot and death from its former inhabitants. Untold more would be needed to repair the structural damage. The scale of damage was minor but one human could only work so swiftly with only his bare hands in a city meant for thousands. Still, if he lived for centuries more, he could hope to see it restored even as he combated the elements.
“Is that all my appearance is worth?” she shouted to his back as she still sat. “Not a drop of joy or a grain of surprise?”
“Perhaps I should feel anger?” he inquired aloud to himself without giving her a second glance. “It is my dead mother’s face you are wearing."
“Are you so certain I am dead?” she asked as she caught pace to walk beside him
“Yes, I watched it happen,” he proclaimed as he avoided meeting her gaze.
“How unfortunate,” she replied as she stepped ahead of him to block his path. “But that explains why this is the person you most wanted to see.” She ran her fingers over her face, feeling every feature.
He gave her a sideward glance. “You are an allu, aren’t you?”
Her mouth stretched to her ears, baring sharp, jagged teeth lining her gums. “So, what if I am?” she chimed quizzically.
Reality as he knew it consisted of three components or perhaps reality itself existed in three states the way water in a lake, glaciers, and clouds were one and the same. The first component was the apparent, the material. Next was malleable thought, the means by which the world was both observed and transformed. The last was the realm of spirit, the source of life and motion.
Allus were nothing new. They were minor entities conjured by the desires of people. They existed since the moment words were born. In hindsight, they and other lesser aberrations like them were likely symptoms of the greater illness growing beneath.
“It does not matter. Though I would prefer you cease wearing my mother’s face if seduction or terror be your goal,” he called on memories of when he felt something more than duty to put a facade of irritation in his voice. Even if he could not feel anymore, he remembered what it meant to have emotions and when such displays would be necessary. He could not abide the disrespect any longer.
Her frown returned. Her body took on the qualities of mist as she selected a new shape. “You are not scared, either? Are you even human? Your form is the same as any other but the presence of your heart is less than it should be.”
“I am completely human,” he stated. “Though I used to not be.”
“Completely incomplete then,” she commented with her newly formed blood red lips that matched her now free flowing hair. She kept her sky-blue eyes but her skin claimed a more natural tone. She was still faintly pale as if rarely greeted by the sun but not enough to be mistaken for a corpse.
He pondered that statement for a moment. “If that is what it means to be human, I suppose.”
“You are not the first human who made me take on the appearance of a family member but you are the first to not react. You are a strange one, even those that do not have the will to live feel something, even if it is just despair. You are broken, even compared to the other remnants of your kind.”
“And you are a strange allu to still be troubling me after discovering there’s little nutrition to be found in me. I am a morsel that is not worth the effort.”
She should either depart or turn violent on him. Malevolence seemed to come naturally to most aberrations. If anything, self-preservation came second as the prolific hunting of humans would bring their own eradication yet the Great Ones existed seemingly only to torment humans. They derived nothing from animals and often left such creatures untargeted though they spared nothing in their path the way a tsunami made no discrimination once set on its path.
He rested his fingers on the hilt of the knife at his side, ready for the moment she attacked. If he attacked her, there would be no hope of her leaving peacefully. She regarded the gesture with both curiosity and trepidation.
The glass knife had seven separate bands of color, each connected to a concept. The bands were of similar nature to the glyphs he carried. White represented lightning and the heavens. Fire was connected to warmth and fire. Water was blue while wind was violet. Wood and life were seen in green. Yellow meant earth and orange conveyed the unseen force of gravity. He avoided black as he associated it with the cold, death, and the underworld.
He always carried with him a set of fourteen. Two copies of each in case he came across the same type of problem twice. He restocked and created new ones based on which ones were depleted.
“You are the only food I have encountered in a long while. If you haven’t noticed, there are not many humans left, at least in this area.”
“Why then did you come here?”
She hummed a discordant tune. “I heard the music and thought there might be more of you here.”
That had been the work of Cuh’rana the Unholy. Alvah had followed in the titan’s wake, the Great Ones gravitated towards population centers but Cuh’rana stripped everything in its path bare of life. Not even the plants in the gardens were spared, or any of the surrounding wildlife. The safest place one could be was where it had already visited.
“I am the only one here,” he informed her, hoping that might make her leave.
Her smile only grew. He could not be certain why. “I can see that.”
He made his way to the garden. The flora flourished there regardless of seasons or conditions, the result of his own work compiled upon the foundation left by the previous architects. He only needed to keep an eye out for pests.
A bird’s eye view would have revealed the trail he blazed was shaped in a caricature of a five petaled flower, breaking the symmetry left by his predecessors. The lead petal pointed and opened to the east to invite vitality from the rising sun. Water poured from the nearby channel from south to north.
He took a ripe green apple from a branch and partook of it as he sat at the waterway. An analysis of the current proved the water to still be as pure as the virgin snow it melted from.
She pressed her back against his as if to remind him she was still there. “How did your mother die?”
He struggled to understand why she was still with him. Perhaps she acted to live longer so she might bring harm to more people. If that was the case, she indeed would be desperate to squeeze what she could from him or maybe she thought this was an act of cruelty in itself.
“She was crushed,” he answered as he held the apple’s core out and crushed it in his fist in an imitation of the scene. “By Amirit.”
Amirit was the first of the great ones to emerge and by far the most human in appearance. He remembered thinking there was a beauty to it. It appeared as a woman roughly shaped from marble. If it possessed any of the uncanny features that would define its later kindred, all he remembered was its subtly disproportionately long limbs, equal length fingers, and moss green eyes that reflected nothing.
Even as it destroyed the gods, even as it pursued him, even as it heralded the greater nightmares to come, he could not help but believe humanity wished for its existence. After witnessing the ruin brought about by the wars between gods, Alvah himself wondered if one day the people would be judged for their creations or if they would be slaves to the gods. Amirit brought that dreaded judgement to pass and freed humanity in the same motion.
“I am sorry to hear that.” She spoke soothingly yet in a forlorn manner as if she actually knew what it meant to lose someone.
“No you are not,” he corrected as he departed.
"How are you so sure? You never met me. Perhaps I do care."
"I am certain," he began clearly before spitting his next words out venomously. "Because you do not have a soul."
Most aberrations lacked souls. He knew this from his familiarity with deities, the only difference was that gods were purposefully crafted. They thought and felt no more than a storm. They merely existed and if humans ceased to observe them, they would vanish as quickly as they sprung forth.
There were ones like this one that lasted longer, sustaining themselves on the emotions they stole from their victims and the Great Ones. The Great Ones were universally known and feared. For them to cease to exist would require the extinction of sentience. Their continued rampage gave him hope there were other survivors else he was the only one feeding this grand nightmare.
“It is difficult to handle prey that already knows what I am." She gave a kind smile, the deadly smile one would give before stabbing another in the back. He reminded himself her every expression was just mimicry. "It feels like you know more about me than I do.”
He barely put any thought into his reply as he started meticulously planting each seed in their proper place. “Maybe I do.”
“Are you a mage? That would explain matters.”
He still had some remnants of dignity, mannerisms hard won from being part of a society. “Indeed I am,” he answered with all Pride appropriate for his station. An artist lived to be acknowledged for their mastery of a craft, the years of refining a talent and developing the skills to employ it.
“I have fed on my share of mages, those that spend so much time studying are either entirely dedicated to their craft or more than willing to take a rest with me.”
“You think me to be the former?”
He felt nothing, not even a shadow of some half-forgotten memory. “I just want something to do.” Even if his heart was empty, his body continued to move, he might as well put it to use,
“I can see that. It is rare to find a human that still gardens.”
“What are the others doing?” he asked with genuine interest.
She bared her teeth as her expression twisted into an entirely inhuman smile. “Dying.”
No more words escaped from his lips. There was no reason for him to waste his breath on an illusion. She continued to trouble him for the day but the next morning she was gone.
For several days, he had peace until thunder rang out in the distance. There was not a cloud to be seen. On the horizon, a shadow drew closer like a black sun traveling from south to north.
He took shelter in the tunnels of the waterway. There he waited. Thunder eventually boomed overhead.
This was an evil all survivors had to be familiar with, Nerish the Judge.
If Nerish saw him he would die. He might find himself spontaneously immolated, flayed alive, impaled, crushed, torn limb from limb, or other manner of punishment. He only knew what fate decided for him would be agonizing. He had to wait until it passed and a safe distance away.
If he had a pair of mirrors, he could risk catching a glimpse of the thing. Instead he had to listen for its incomprehensible decrees.
Normally he was resistant to such terror but this was instinctual. Some part of him sensed what the Great Ones themselves were made from. Maybe it was his own hollow nature eager to be filled once more or he was so numb to himself that he had nothing to distract him from their nature.
These things were beings from the realm of thought, usurpers of the gods. Humans created gods as tools and the heavens raged as they were turned to weapons. From the chaos emerged the great aberrations.
Humans feared imagined evils more than they feared the true dangers of the world. The gods had tamed the elements, the only threat humanity had was itself.
He did not know exactly how much time passed. He relied on the light at the entranceway to tell him when the day might end and a new one would begin. He was more than willing to wait several days he had to. Impatience was not a good enough reason to cut his life short.
It was after nightfall when a familiar voice drifted down to him. “You can come out now,” the allu from earlier coaxed him from afar, her voice echoing against the walls.
He did not bother doubting her. If she only wanted him dead, she could do so herself. Him dying to Nerish would steal away her prize.
After some searching, he found her in the garden. She sat on a tree branch, watching him approach. Her features were serpentine, with green scaly skin yet with the eyes of a hawk or eagle while humanoid in shape.
“Why did you help me?” he asked.
She leapt down from her perch so they were level with each other. “Would it be strange to believe, it was to earn your gratitude?” She carried with her the scent of apples now.
It would not be difficult to believe, to have him show weakness. He reached into his satchel. “Here,” he said as he threw a stone to her.
She caught it and examined the glowing blue sigil of a human heart carved onto its surface. “What is it?”
“My design for a glyph stone. It should have a trace of the emotions you crave mixed in with it.”
His glyphs were pictographs of his own making. So long as the imagery held some significance to him, it was enough.
Casting spells directly drew the attention of the aberrations but his methods seemed indirect enough to no longer carry the scent of his soul. He bled out arcane energy and collected it inside carvings like water in a ditch. Still, it was a time consuming process, it took about a day to fill one with what leaked from his existence. He spent a majority of them on maintaining the garden and making repairs beyond his level of skill.
Estimates for how long enchantments lasted were usually unprecise, for it is an art not a science, subjective rather than constrained by objective laws even if he had reduced his own craft to simple measurements.
She licked stone and recoiled in disgust. “It is stale and delivered on cold stone.”
“Give it back to me then.”
“No, I am starving!” she exclaimed. She backed away, clutching it, literally shrinking. “I can make do.”
He drew his knife, walked to her and outstretched his free hand to her. “Give it back.”
She wordlessly growled and glared at his weapon. Begrudgingly, she returned it to him.
He hooked the glyph stone under his thumb before drawing a new one from his satchel with his middle and forefinger. He dropped the stone etched to portray yellow bones on the ground where it turned to clay and shaped itself into a goblet. He then placed the blue glyph stone into the cup.
She tilted her head. “What are you doing?”
He cut into his palm. “Flavoring it for you,” he answered as he filled the cup with blood. It provided her no nutrition as it were but it was symbolic for life so it had value to most imaginary beings. He offered the goblet and its contents to her. “Better than lifeless stone. Enjoy it while it is still fresh.”
She drank greedily. “Why?” she asked between gulps. “Why go through this trouble for a simple thanks?”
It was not as much a sacrifice as she might have thought. If he hoarded a glyph for every ten that he ever made, he would have hundreds to spare. Indeed, he had well over a hundred to spend as he pleased, hidden away beneath the city’s old altar. He had grown accustomed to the place and that many might be enough to ward away dangers such as her.
“I am all you have and you are the only other intelligent being I have encountered. We can benefit from each other,” he reasoned.
She finished her drink. “This measly offering is not enough to make me tame.”
“I never imagined it would be. That is why I have a proposal.”
He gestured with an open hand. It took him a few awkward moments to communicate he wanted her to pass the cup back. Years of isolation were showing. She licked it clean before returning it to him.
He walked to the waterway and dipped the vessel into the stream until it was full. He held it out to her and moved to sip from it in a demonstration before remembering what it had so recently contained. “Normally, you would drink your fill directly from your victims, harming if not killing them in the process. But…” He split the cup vertically in two, spark and flames danced where his knife cut through it and the liquid poured out. “As you phrased it, I am incomplete. No matter what I should feel, it spills out of my soul.”
His mother was a deity. His own nature as a demigod drew the aberrations to him like flies to rotting meat. The only way he found he could escape their attention was to kill the divine part of himself. However, he was in no position to be precise and he would be the first to admit he cut away a part of his humanity in the process as well. Maybe it had been on purpose. The great enemy no longer viewed him as worthy of their attention.
He placed a hand beneath the base to let the few lingering drops trickle into his palm. “No one benefits from my condition, but if those contents are to drain away anyway. I might as well let you catch it in your hands.”
“Let me have another taste and I will consider.”
“Fine,” he agreed before pointing his knife where her heart should have been if she had one. “But no blood this time.”
Her lips twitched as she let out an unhappy groan. She approached him with outstretched hands. She placed her palms over his ears and twined her fingers behind the back of his head as she gently pulled him towards her. There was no warmth to her touch, it might as well have been the empty air brushing against him.
“I do not know your particular palette but I imagine it will not be as satisfying as drinking it all at once,” he warned her as he pressed his knife to her stomach in turn. “However, you are welcome to what I might discard.”
She said nothing and closed her eyes as their foreheads brushed against each other. Her siphoning was so subtle that he felt no sensation. If he had been an ordinary person, he would have noticed a loss of vigor. Whatever he was to be experiencing at the time would have dwindled, usually causing the victim to seek greater pleasures if his joy was being stolen or plunge into darker depths if it was sadness. The victim would either become a husk or destroy themselves in a pursuit of greater extremes.
However, he developed his magic based on the discovery of his unique state. Her feeding would interfere with the creation of his glyphs. He would need to work more efficiently or have her share in the labor if this exchange was to have any merit.
She opened her eyes. “This is not good enough,” she concluded. “I need further motivation to keep from simply tearing out your heart. Surely, even you would feel fear in your final moments. I am not a prisoner here. Would anyone be satisfied with the taste of stale bread forever?”
“You wish for me to be more flavorful?” he asked for clarification, he sounded almost incredulous to her request.
She nodded. “Certainly.”
He would rather remain as unappetizing to her as possible. That way she might still exercise what might pass for temperance. Still, he needed to offer her something.
“If you can make me something more to your tastes, you can devour me,” he offered. “Until then, you can have a cup of my blood every full moon.”
Aberrations such as her had predatory essence. Even if they gained nothing from eating human flesh, they were still known for doing so. Humans feared falling prey to beasts and so the creatures summoned by such thoughts were liable to comply.
He doubted there was anything she could do about his condition. Even if she could, he could ward her away. She would either continue feeding on him as he was or leave once she realized the task was impossible.
“I accept. Sadness is an abundant spice in these times. If I can make you cry, you are mine.”
“You are welcome to try,” he said earnestly.
The prospect of feeling something was tempting. The thought of warding her off slipped towards the back of his mind. If he could feel something enough to shed tears, his life would be a fair price.
“Do you have a name?”
This conversation had been plaguing Alvah for months. Every time he thought it had been forgotten, she would remind him they were still strangers.
He found it sufficient to merely remain nameless with each other. If she knew his name, it would make her bolder when he already had to spend so much time with her. She had to either be in his shadow or attach herself to him like a leech to acquire her fill. Also, names had power.
She could make a dwelling place of his mind. However, that was one of the ways she killed her victims. Once she was inside, she could ransack his mind as she pleased. Alvah was curious as to just how much she could damage him even if she made it in but he kept his defenses firm and had yet to notice any attempts to sneak in. Her best opportunity would be while he was asleep and creep in as a dream but she never did that even as he awoke to find she had the chance to.
It would have been less exhausting for her to merely dwell in his mindscape. As an aberration, that was where she belonged. However, it was not worth the risk. She would discover all there was to him, know secrets about himself even he was unaware of.
As troublesome as she was, he was not eager to see her gone. She did not prove herself worthless. She maintained the gardens so he could dedicate more time to the outer zones.
The infrastructure was simple yet complex for its symmetry. Everything was contained within a single ring and divided into nine triangular districts with equally triangular buildings with rounded corners. The closer a building was to center, the taller it was so the winds could reach them. The city was built as one instrument. The buildings, the waterways, they all contributed to a single song.
The music would be directed from the temple in the epicenter. Alvah came to understand how the place functioned but he could not call on the same range of sounds as it once could. The city was incomplete without its inhabitants.
Nature was slow to reclaim the city, plants struggled to take root outside the garden. The land beyond the city limits were once barren but life returned to it quickly enough though at a gradual pace as plant life crept inwards from the surrounding areas to close the wound. Unlike a forest fire, Cuh’rana killed even the seeds in the ground. What beasts that came gravitated to the garden or waterway only to be chased away by the allu. The birds that chose to roost in the spires were safe except the occasional day the aberration decided to have wings.
“One does not name their livestock,” he reminded her. “It will be more difficult for you to devour me if you know my name.”
“No, it will not. Quite the contrary. People react better when called out by name.”
“Of course, it would not disturb you…” he chided himself. He thought for a moment some human principle might apply to her.
She was still fixated on making him into a feast. She was probing for weaknesses and he offered her none. He told her nothing of his past now that he knew of her objective.
She already knew he was a mage so he was willing to explain his arts to her but little more. She needed to understand how his magic worked so she would at least not accidentally interfere in it.
She targeted his family, knowing his mother was crushed. Giving her his own name might give her a clue to exploit. She could easily guess he was a demigod from his mention of Amirit, his name would make his identity obvious.
“I will not give you my name,” he repeated the same phrase he had said many times before.
“Can you at least give me a name, then,” she compromised.
“It is not necessary,” he replied without giving it much thought.
He imagined a scenario where another aberration came to the city. He would not be able to call out to her or differentiate her from the intruder. This was a very real possibility. He had already mistook her for a new predator once before when he awoke to her coiled around him.
When she was not human or some amalgamation of human and beast, her second favorite guise was a giant serpent, capable of swallowing him whole. She could slither through the city’s structure with impunity in that shape.
While humanoid she could conjure any choice of clothing she wished from a noble’s finery to a pauper’s rags. However, she never manifested jewelry of any kind.
“Fine, your name will be…” He pondered. He could not think of any name with any positive ties to give to that creature. “Desdomena.”
She repeated the name quietly to herself to discern some significance within it. “Why Desdomena?”
He shrugged. “It seemed right.” It sounded both ominous and beautiful, a constant reminder of what she was. Every time he said it, he would remember to beware.
“I finally acquired a name from you,” she began as she brought her hands close to herself as if to hold onto her new identity. She stepped forward and looked up into his eyes like a cobra ready to strike. “But will I ever learn your name?”
“I will tell you if we ever meet another human,” he relented.
She smiled hungrily. “I look forward to the day you are reunited with your kind, then.”
If he met another human, he would not need the company of a mirage anymore. He envisioned her slaughtering whatever humans they came across to distress him but she would do it in a moment that left the greatest possible impact. He needed to be ready to part with her.